From their origins in a bookshop, the Teddy awards celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2011 as part of the Berlinale. Matt Mueller explores how they became the most prestigious festival awards for gay, lesbian and transgender cinema

The year the Teddy awards were born, co-founder Wieland Speck walked into a department store on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, purchased two small stuffed bears, and posted them to inaugural winners Pedro Almodovar and Gus Van Sant as their prizes. Twenty-five years later, the Teddy awards have come a long way from those no-frills origins. Not only are they an established part of the Berlinale calendar and the most prestigious festival award for lesbian, gay and transgender film-makers, they have raised the profile of gay-themed films around the globe and given an international boost to several careers, including those of Tilda Swinton, Francois Ozon, Lukas Moodysson and Todd Haynes. On top of that the Teddygala — held February 18 this year — has a well-deserved reputation for being the best bash at the festival.

According to Speck, launching the Teddy awards came hand in hand with his own experiences winning prizes at gay film festivals for his 1985 feature debut Westler, and joining the programming team for what became the Berlinale’s Panorama section at a time when gay and lesbian film-making was acquiring a new agitprop significance in the wake of the 1980s Aids crisis, particularly in the US.

‘When you have jury members from Indonesia, from Korea, from the first festival to ever take place in Warsaw, it brings a lot of energy’

Wieland Speck, Teddy co-founder

It was a way to give validity to a burgeoning movement eventually dubbed New Queer Cinema, with gay and lesbian film-makers, the industry and activists from around the world convening annually in Berlin’s gay bookshop Prinz Eisenherz to watch and discuss films, including titles which had not made the Berlinale cut. In the early years, every attendee voted on the Teddy, until Speck introduced a nine-member international jury made up primarily of programmers from gay and lesbian film festivals. “When you have someone from Indonesia, from Korea, from the first [LGBT] festival to ever take place in Warsaw, it brings a lot of energy,” he notes. “Politically, it’s a very good thing.”

Though it co-existed alongside the Berlinale, the Teddy — which can go to films in any section of the festival, not just Panorama — was not officially recognised as a festival prize until 1992. “I always called it official but it took Moritz de Hadeln [director of the Berlinale from 1980-2001] 10 years to come to the first Teddy awards,” says Speck. “He was always supportive but in the background, out of view. At the 10th Teddy, I said, ‘Now you have to come’, and we pushed him through the crowd onto the stage at the Kreuzberger Club SO36. That was the start of really being part of the Berlinale.” It was only three years ago the festival began contributing to the annual budget of the Teddy awards; for most of its existence it has relied on donations from Berlin’s gay community, merchandising and commercial sponsorship to survive.

In recent years, the Teddy awards’ growth has reached into television, with Franco-German cultural channel ARTE broadcasting a 90-minute version of the show across Europe since 2006. More people watch the Teddy awards than the Golden Bears, according to Speck, even though they are generally being handed out to film-makers with little international profile. Swinton and Javier Bardem, however, have given out awards in years past, and the gala and its after-party are a hot ticket for festival attendees, gay and straight.

‘A little revenge’

Having previously taken over famous Berlin venues such as The Metropol and the Congress Center, the 25th anniversary gala and after-party will be held in the main hall of Tempelhof Airport, with German opera singer Jochen Kowalski and transgender star Romy Haag performing. South African HIV/Aids activist Pieter-Dirk Uys will receive a Special Teddy. “It’s a dream of mine for many years that we conquer that place,” declares Speck. “It’s this amazing space and Nazi structure and I always feel like one has to take over the leftovers of the Nazis, drive the spirits out and put other spirits in. Take a little revenge!”

Confirmed films vying for the $3,900 (€3,000) prize this year include Ashamed, from South Korea’s Kim Soo-hyun and The Mountain from Norway’s Ole Giaever, as well as a raft of documentaries (the focus of this year’s awards is homophobia and hate crimes). For previous winners, the Teddy holds huge significance, both in personal and industry terms. “The film got distribution, went to other festivals and made its money back thanks to the Teddy,” says Olaf de Fleur, writer-director of 2008 winner The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela. “The award gives me confidence that all the weird ideas I have in my head are perhaps not so weird.”

‘The film got distribution, went to other festivals and made its money back thanks to the Teddy’

Olaf de Fleur, director of 2008 Teddy winner The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

Auraeus Solito, who won the best feature Teddy in 2006 for The Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros, also says the award was a boost. “We got our British distributor, Peccadillo, after the awards,” Solita says. “I was also on the front page in the papers back home in the Philippines. It contributed to the focus and respect for the new wave of independent films in the Philippines.”

Wide exposure

In terms of gay-themed programming at the Berlinale, awards attendance and press coverage, the Teddy awards have expanded massively in 25 years. They are still the only LGBT award handed out by a major festival, with Speck’s original mission unchanged from 1987: to expose gay, lesbian and transgender cinema to the world, still an important goal when homosexuality remains taboo or a crime in many cultures. With LGBT film-makers now emerging in countries where previously none existed, there is a new shape to the landscape, and the Teddy awards are throwing their weight behind setting up gay and lesbian film festivals in cities such as St Petersburg, Sarajevo and Jakarta.

Four years ago, Speck programmed the first gay-themed title from South Korea — No Regret by Leesong Hee-il. “It was immediately acknowledged here in Berlin as something important, and they loved that back in Korea,” Speck says. “But before, they wouldn’t even talk about the fact this film exists. If a gay film gets acknowledged, all of a sudden people will say, ‘This also exists.’ You have to seduce people into taking part.”

Teddy jury 2011

Chairman Marcus Hu (US) Strand Releasing
Beth Sa Freire (Braz) Sao Paolo Short Film Festival
Istvan Szebesi (Hung) Magic Mirror, Sziget Festival
Jason Barker (UK) London BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
Jin Park (S Kor) Queer Film Festival Seoul
Victor Silakong (Thai) Bangkok World Film Festival
Andrejs Visockis (Lat) LGB Festival Riga
Sarah Neal (Aus) Brisbane Queer Film Festival
Mara Fortes (Mex) Morelia Film Festival

Teddy: best feature

2010The Kids Are All RightLisa Cholodenko
2009Raging Sun, Raging SkyJulian Hernandez
2008The Amazing Truth About Queen RaquelaOlaf de Fleur
2007Spider LiliesZero Chou
2006The Blossoming Of Maximo OliverosAuraeus Solito
2005A Year Without LoveAnahi Berneri
2004Wild SideSébastien Lifshitz
2003A Thousand Clouds Of PeaceJulian Hernandez
2002Walking On WaterTony Ayres
2001Hedwig And The Angry InchJohn Cameron Mitchell
2000Water Drops On Burning RocksFrancois Ozon
1999Fucking AmalLukas Moodysson
1998Hold You TightStanley Kwan
1997All Over MeAlex Sichel
1996The Watermelon WomanCheryl Dunye
1995The Last SupperCynthia Roberts
1994Go FishRose Troche
1993WittgensteinDerek Jarman
1992Together AlonePJ Castellaneta
1991PoisonTodd Haynes
1990Coming OutHeiner Carow
1989Fun Down There; Looking For LangstonRoger Stigliano; Isaac Julien
1988The Last Of EnglandDerek Jarman
1987Law Of DesirePedro Almodovar