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Non Fiction in Berlin: Berlinale Documentaries 2016

Kate Plays Christine

Documentaries can be found in every section of the Berlinale. This is an encouraging sign: here, as with other festivals such as Cannes, non-fiction is not ghettoized in its own arena. Of course, this only works if there is a wide selection of films. This year there was; herewith a sampling.

Playing in the Forum section, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine uses actor Kate Lyn Sheil to portray Christine Chubbuck, a local Florida TV personality who committed suicide live on air. Sheil approaches Chubbuck as a role for which she prepares in depth. We not only get an insider glimpse at the acting process, but also view an examination of the real story that surrounds the 42-year old tragedy.

Greene’s interest in the acting process extends to his 2014 film Actress, following Brandy Burre’s attempts to jump-start her acting career after putting it on hold to start a family. As with the current film, Greene pulls back the curtain on more than an artist’s process, but on societal norms and conventions that hold us back from the truth.

fire at seaAward winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) was one of several documentarians who had films in competition. Zero Days is an exploration of malware and cyberwarfare. His findings are confusing, to say the least, but that speaks to the complexity of a situation whose dangers we are only beginning to see, let alone understand. But very clear is the corruption that exists in both technology and political power.

It’s not often that a documentary filmmaker wins the top competition prize at a festival, but Gianfranco Rossi seems to be making a career out of it: His documentary film Sacro Gra won the Golden Lion at the Locarno Film Festival in 2013.

Three years later he repeats himself, taking home the Golden Bear (Berlin’s top award) for his stunning Competition entry, Fire at Sea. It’s a compelling look at the Italian island of Lampedusa, which anyone who’s been paying attention knows is landfall for thousands of refugees trying to escape the horrors of war. Many are fished from the sea, dead, while many more who survive the trip are ill or injured.  The residents of the island do what needs to be done (particularly the local doctor), and witness the horror of the refugee situation up close.

Michael Moore was the first documentary filmmaker to win the Palme d’or at the 2004 Festival de Cannes, for his film Farenheit 9/11. This year he presented Where to Invade Next, a search for better ideas for American education, prison reform, health insurance and more that the U.S. could steal from European countries in the Berlinale Special section.

seasons in quincyThe Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is a “quadtych” of sorts, directed by four artists: Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Tilda Swinton and Bartek Dziadosz. Each director takes a different look at the British writer/painter/critic who lives in the French Alps. It's a dense film, but interesting in the shape it takes: four seasons, four directors.

Of particular interest is his relationship with Tilda Swinton - they go way back - what she's learned from him and how she sees and talks of art through his eyes is quite something, At one point Berger gives Swinton instructions on how to prepare and consume a tart or some such thing: it's a very personal seminar on the aesthetics of living! Not in any competitive section, the film is another special screening at the festival.

In Uncle Howard, director Aaron Brookner sets out to find a lost film on William S. Burroughs that was made by his late uncle, director Howard Brookner who died of AIDS in 1989 at age 35. That film, Burroughs: The Movie, was a critical success. He interviews other artists who worked with Howard, and in the process examines New York culture of a certain era, as well as the artistic mind of a life cut short. The film’s position in the Panorama section must be a tribute to the auteurism of Burroughs.

These films run the gamut in terms of subject and style. Without dedicating a section to the form, the Berlinale puts documentaries on equal footing with narrative features.

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