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Culture

Film About Thalidomide Victims Breaks Emotional Taboos

In a new documentary called "NoBody's Perfect," twelve 'thalidomiders' demonstrate that their disabilities are no obstacle to leading a fulfilling life and break a number of emotional taboos in the process.

A portrait of one of the film's protagonists

Nobody's perfect

Thalidomide was developed by German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal near Aachen, and sold from 1957 to 1961 in almost 50 countries to pregnant women to combat morning sickness.

Before its release, inadequate tests were performed to assess the drug's safety, with catastrophic results for the children of women who had taken thalidomide during their pregnancies.

Marketed as "as harmless as a sugar cube," the thalidomide drug caused around 10,000 babies around the world to be born with disabilities, 4000 of them in Germany.

Shame

Niko von Glasow

Niko von Glasow

Filmmaker Niko von Glasow was one of them. Born in Cologne in 1960, he spent years struggling to come to terms with his condition -- feeling too ashamed of his short arms even to wear a bathing suit.

But then the former production assistant to legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder decided to go on the offensive. He came up with the idea of publishing a volume of nude portraits of thalidomide-impaired people, and making a film about the process.

"NoBody's Perfect" hits German cinema screens on Sept. 11. It charts his search for eleven protagonists and his efforts to persuade them to pose naked for photographs.

As a thalidomide victim himself, von Glasow felt confident asking questions many other directors would have steered clear of, treating his characters with a refreshing candor and never patronizing them.

"I tried not to be voyeuristic," he said in an interview with Stern magazine. "It could have been a freak show, so it was important to ensure the protagonists kept their dignity."

Intriguing characters

Twins, one a thalidomide victim with short arms

Some 4000 thalidomide babies were born in Germany

As the title suggests, "NoBody's Perfect" is a film that sets out to celebrate difference.

"If people are going to stare, then I should at least give them something to stare at," the director has said.

It didn't take him too long to find his volunteers. Coming from diverse backgrounds such as politics, media, sport, astrophysics and acting, what links them is an acceptance of their condition and a refusal to let it stand in their way.

Nonetheless, the film does not shy away from depicting the difficulties faced by thalidomide victims, from bullying in the schoolyard to prejudice even from adults in their professional lives. von Glasow's trump card is that he can approach the subject with the sort of humor that might have been seen as inappropriate from any other director.

"(The audience) are finally given a chance to laugh at situations that they want to laugh at, but have never been allowed to," he told Stern.

The beauty of imperfection

The film also shows how their participation in the project proved to be a learning experience for the protagonists, not least due to von Glasow's probing questions about everything from sex to depression.

von Glasow has said that he hopes the portraits reveal the beauty of imperfection, and helped organize a public exhibition of the photographs in Cologne last month.

"The film brought me out of myself," he told Stern. "No therapy propels you straight into nirvana, but I feel one step closer."

Compensation claims

A scene from the film two women stare at a thalidomide victim in a station

Getting stared at is part of life

The documentary follows his attempts to confront the Wirtz family, the owners of the Gruenenthal company, with one of his photographs. They never return his calls.

Victims have long been campaigning for greater compensation from the German manufacturer. In 1972, Gruenenthal paid 110million Deutschmarks into a fund, held by the German Contergan Trust, which was matched by the government. There was no allowance for inflation and by the mid-1990s, the company's contribution had run out.

Sebastian Wirtz has said that the company has voluntarily offered to increase its contribution and supports the government in its promise to double the payouts.

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