Nine for IX: 'The Diplomat'

Directed by Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi

Film summary
At the height of the Cold War, Katarina Witt became one of East Germany's most famous athletes. Trained in an ice rink that gave rise to socialist heroes, Witt dominated figure skating by winning six European titles (1983-88), four world championships (1984-85, 1987-88) and back-to-back Olympic gold medals (1984 and 1988), becoming arguably the world's best in the sport.

Known as "the most beautiful face of socialism," Witt's success gave her a unique status in East Germany. It also triggered constant surveillance by the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police force. "The Diplomat" chronicles how Witt fought for her future in socialist East Germany, faced the great changes that occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall and ended up both a beneficiary and victim of the East German regime.

Director's bio: Senain Kheshgi
Kheshgi is a Pakistani-American filmmaker who has produced, written and directed projects for numerous television networks.

The first documentary she co-produced, "The First Year" (with Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim), was awarded the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in 2002. She has worked on productions with many acclaimed filmmakers, including Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), Ross Kauffman ("Born Into Brothels"), Sophie Fiennes ("Hoover Street Revival"), Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor") and James Longley ("Iraq in Fragments").

Senain recently directed, produced and wrote "Project Kashmir," a feature documentary that aired on PBS' "Independent Lens" in May 2010. The film was awarded grants from ITVS/PBS, The Sundance Institute, Cinereach, the Hartley Film Foundation, the Fledgling Fund, the Center for Asian American Media, ITVS's Diversity Development Fund and the Reebok Foundation, among others. Senain was a Tribeca All Access Fellow in 2005 and was selected by the Sundance Institute to participate in the documentary editing, composing and producing labs.

The recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation's ReNew Media Fellowship for Emerging Film Artists, Senain also serves as a board member of both the International Documentary Association (IDA) and Cine, an art-house movie theater in her hometown of Athens, Ga.

Director's bio: Jennifer Arnold
Arnold is an Emmy-nominated writer, director and producer who works in narrative and documentary formats. After graduating from UCLA and University of Nairobi with a B.A. in African History, Arnold returned to UCLA for an M.F.A. in film. Her first project, "Maid of Honor," screened at SXSW and Sundance before airing on HBO/Cinemax. She returned to Sundance with her Internet series, "The Mullet Chronicles," which was developed into the documentary "American Mullet" (released by Palm Pictures and Lionsgate).

Arnold also co-directed the documentary "Where the Girls Are" for Ethan Coen and wrote a motorcross script, "Speedway," before returning to Sundance a third time with "A Small Act." In addition to being nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Best Documentary Emmy, "A Small Act" received the Adrienne Shelly Foundation's Excellence in Filmmaking Award, the NAMIC Vision Award and the Humanitas Prize for documentary film. "A Small Act" was broadcast on HBO in its 2010 summer series and was a top-10 documentary pick by Roger Ebert the same year.

Recently, Arnold completed the documentary portion of "Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie" (distributed by Fox) and "TableTop," starring Wil Wheaton (for Geek & Sundry). In addition to her contributions to the Nine for IX series, her upcoming projects include a narrative thriller titled "The Killing Frost," which is being developed with the support of Film Independent.

Arnold and Kheshgi: Personal statement
Growing up in 1980s America, we were inundated with images of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. News reports beamed stories of soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall and Eastern European politicians spouting rhetoric against the United States.

Though life appeared grey and bleak in the Communist East, instinctually we knew people abroad must have received similar types of skewed messages about daily life in America. Of course, things are never entirely what they seem.

As documentarians, we believe the key to crafting powerful projects is to always remember that every story has two sides. Our past films, "Project Kashmir" and "A Small Act," have worked to break clichés by stepping away from our own preconceived notions and allowing our subjects to reveal their personal perspectives. Similarly, as we began exploring the life of Katarina Witt, we were not surprised to learn that so many of our assumptions about her career and country were wrong.

Witt is one of the most legendary skaters in the history of figure skating. This two-time gold-medal-winning Olympian broke records and stereotypes. Though we were interested in the relationship between athletics and politics in the Cold War, ultimately we found a much more intimate story about Katarina's life in East Germany and her time spent in that nation's top ice rink.

Witt may have been perceived as a functionary of a "political machine," but in reality, she was an athlete chasing personal dreams. No story is more human. Politics may divide us, but up close, each of us shares common ground. It is from this place of commonality that we chose to explore East Germany and the rising career of Witt.

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