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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.

Real Stories: Biopics at Berlinale 2016

A Quiet Passion

The term biopic doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. A poorly made narrative film of true events create a plastic non-reality that offers nothing of value from a perspective of aesthetics and storytelling. You end up with perhaps a Xerox of events. But there’s nothing to add and nothing to make the viewer think beyond that copy and then what’s the point?

milesA well-made fictional account of real historical events, on the other hand, can reveal history to a new audience. And a different take on the life of an artist can put a new spin on a life. Three films at the Berlinale focus on the lives of real people: a couple in the throes of war, and two artists who suffer for their craft within their own environment.

Screening in the the Berlinale special section is Miles Ahead. Directed by and starring Don Cheadle, it is a very jazzy film – and it should be, as it is about – you guessed it – the genius jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. In addition to acting and directing, Cheadle also co-wrote (with Steven Baigelman) the screenplay, which flips the biopic genre on its head.

Here’s where the genius of Don Cheadle meets that of Miles Davis: the story takes place during a period when Davis was dealing with drugs and not making new music. On top of that, the story is a fictional one, a “what could have been” tale of the legend dealing with mobsters, dirty music dealers and more. With Ewan McGregor as a fictional reporter along for the ride, it becomes a deep and rousing gangster flick. A brilliant move makes for a brilliant movie.

A Quiet Passion, is Terence Davies’ meditation on the life of American poet Emily Dickenson. Cynthia Nixon plays the poet with a quiet intensity and steeliness.  Here is a rare example of artist merging with artist merging with artist to create yet another work of art. The film’s placement in the Berlinale special section is a good fit. Dickenson doesn’t need to be in competition with anyone.

Little is known about the life of Dickenson, yet Davies has created a beautiful storyline for her. Nixon is the perfect Dickenson: there is a stillness about her, and also a wicked (for the time) sense of humor, yet her Emily feels the wounds and pricks of life very deeply. Davies films many scenes as if they were still life paintings, adding to the quiet yet vibrant intensity of the film.

alone in berlinAlone in Berlin, directed by Vincent Perez, stars Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as two German parents disillusioned with the Third Reich once their son dies in battle.  Otto and Elise Hampel were a real couple during WWII. They were ordinary people who took whatever extraordinary measures they could because they found themselves in a horrific situation. The film, while fairly ordinary in terms of style, is moving in its depiction of what people are capable of doing when events call for activism. Shown in the Competition, Thompson and Gleeson’s performances are stellar, as is Daniel Brühl’s, as the investigator hot on their trail.

But how good a selection for the Berlinale was this film? English actors, speaking English, in the country and city where these events took place – and, at public screenings for sure, screened in front of a German, and German speaking, audience. Putting it in the competition may have done a disservice to the film and the filmmakers.

The city of Berlin has an immensely deep history; a film like Alone in Berlin could be an important addition to the art that digs into that history. But the film veers very closely to that Xerox effect. A city that symbolizes so much needs a film with a more profound artistic touch.

Return to Berlin: Berlinale 2016


The last time I attended the Berlinale (aka Berlin International Film Festival) was in February of 1990, a mere three months after the Wall came down. It was also my first time in Berlin. As a child of the Cold War, it was a strange experience. Sirens made me feel as though I were in the middle of WWII. The eastern part of the city was cool, but dodgy.

This year I returned to Berlin and to the Berlinale for the first time in 26 years. And it was as if for the first time. It’s difficult to tell east from west, except for a long trail of small red bricks in the sidewalk that marks the original site of the Wall. But much of the city is totally universally commercial: all the same stores that you would see in any other city in the states and Western Europe. Excuse me: probably anywhere else in the world.

The festival has changed and grown as well. As with other international festivals, there are any number of sections that each focus on a particular kind of film, although the definitions at Berlin seem very flexible. I mean I really don’t see too much difference between the Panorama (“International auteur cinema for passionate audiences”) section and the Forum (official title, International Forum of New Cinema), wherein “young filmmakers test the boundaries of perception.”

Really, does James Schamus fall into the “auteur” category yet as a director? His film Indignation marks his feature film debut and plays in the Panorama section. Based on the Philip Roth novel and set in the middle of the last century, it recounts a young man’s experiences from his youth in Newark through his years at a strict rural college. Indignation is not so much a coming of age film and a growing up and growing away from home film.

les fils josephAs for young filmmakers testing boundaries, while Eugene Greene pushes boundaries in his films, I wouldn’t consider him young, either in age or filmography. Regardless, his latest film, Le fils de Joseph, with Mathieu Almaric, shows the lighter side of this auteur (yes, an auteur in the Forum section). Greene’s work is always very cerebral and while Le fils de Joseph is full of subtleties and thought-provoking moments, it also has a great amount of wit and charm to it, something that may bring the filmmaker more admirers, which he deserves.

the end


little menAnother not-new face in the Forum is Guillaume Nicloux. Nicloux’s last film The Valley played in Cannes’ competition and starred Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert as parents of a suicide who roam Death Valley at their son’s request beyond the grave. The End stars Depardieu (again) as a man wandering in the woods (at least) who loses his dog there and then loses his own way, in more ways than one.

But I digress. Sections have never been truly important except to steer filmgoers in general directions.  For instance, Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, 2014) latest film, Little Men, plays in the Generation section. Generation includes films about children and young people but not necessarily only for young audiences. While the film stars known adult actors such as Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Alfred Molina (who also gave a stunning performance in Love is Strange), it is the friendship between two preteen boys, played by Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz that is the centerpiece of the film and the performances by these young men – boys, really – is outstanding.

communeThe really big films are in the Competition. There has to be a competition; otherwise, there are no prizes to give out. Included in this year’s competition are some old hands. The Commune is directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, Submarino) and is loosely based on his own childhood. That is, growing up in the 70s he lived with his parents in  communal experiment which allowed much freedom but also exposed many dangers.

lavenirAlso in the competition, Mia Hansen Løve’s L’Avenir is a jewel of a film, and stands head above her last effort, Eden. Here, Isabelle Huppert plays a women dealing with everything life has to throw at her – not in a melodramatic way, but in an almost banal way. In a subtle but constantly forward-moving way, Huppert drags us along with her into the process of living. Huppert was robbed of the acting award, IMHO (it went to The Commune lead female actor Tryne Dyrholm). But director Hansen Løve was rewarded with the directing prize.

As it is with each section: living, breathing films that tell us new stories and old stories. And we hope that all filmmakers tell their stories in refreshing ways.

First Week at the 5th Annual First Look Festival

I Am the People

At the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios complex, where hundreds of silent and early sound era films were produced in my New York City home borough of Queens, the fifth annual First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave, New York, NY) is an adventurous showcase for cinéphiles of almost 50 contemporary and influential international shorts and features, with many filmmakers in attendance each weekend in January.

Opening with the U.S. premiere of Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's Venice Film Festival award-winner, Francofonia, a rumination on the survival of the Louvre’s art during war that Music Box Films will release theatrically this spring, the uniting theme of the array of documentaries, portraits, experimental explorations, new restorations, and visual essays was the loose theme of artists’ self-conscious look at film as a medium.

The First Weekend & New Films by Ken Jacobs

How thematically apropos that legendary avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs returned to MOMI to personally premiere new 3-D shorts and his meticulous restoration of his first film, Orchard Street, to the full 27 minute original version. Not seen since 1955, when what he described as an “arty intellectual” audience disparaged his cinema verité tour of the Lower East Side’s lively shopping district, he had been so discouraged that he had cut it down to a 12 minute short and never succeeded in reaching out to a musician for a score. Though it was silent, I was imagining the buzz of multi-lingual conversations and music by the Klezmatics, Steven Bernstein, or John Zorn to accompany this resonant look at crowded blocks on the cusp of change from a Jewish pedestrian space for selling a cornucopia of cheap goods to a car-destination for sentimental suburbanites seeking discounts.

ken jackobs orchard streetJacobs recalled filming over several months near his apartment, in rain and shine, with a heavy World War 2-era Bell & Howell camera – and stood up to demonstrate how he would make a movie of the Museum’s Astoria neighborhood, or in the theater itself: "There's films all around us!" His debut film captured one of the last push carts as relegated to rubbish removal and diverse walkers of all ages packed into sidewalks hemmed in by big cars. Just as much as he lovingly lingered on piled displays of colorful produce, clothes (“pants to order” says one sign), and tchotchkes, he also settled on faces -- of serious shoppers, of children, bemused watchers on the upper floors looking from on high over their laundry lines to the surging humanity– and lots of cats. Too often, commentators stereotype this view as just the old Jewish neighborhood, what with glimpses of knishes and the occasional Hassid, but this is a melting pot of bargain hunters. I did spot a couple of signs and stores still there today! Jacobs confessed to staging one repeated shot – of him kissing a young woman by a window. In a contemporary looking sequel, Jacobs last year went back to observe vestiges. He world premiered I’m Telling You, a 12 minute short of one old heckler crassly haranguing another in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery about his dissatisfaction with the changes that have happened around him.

The octogenarian Jacobs was enthusiastic to an appreciative audience (including his nonagenarian colleague Jonas Mekas) about returning to his love of painting by making new 3-D films DIY “with this little Fuji” camera he bought on sale. But the manipulated images by computer-generated special effects can now be easily achieved with off-the-shelf software (and his editor daughter Niri’s programming assistance), both on the street and in his 19 minute subway trip The Lackadaisical Speed of Light, so that despite his iconic reputation as an experimental filmmaker, the looks veered toward gimmicks.

In contrast to these very urban experiences, his new Hydroelectric Dam was a mesmerizing 25 minutes in its 3-D world premiere as an intense immersion into raw nature. With occasional split screens and reverse flows, water and waves are a roaring force. My mind kept playing Woody Guthrie lines, like "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn" saluting the Grand Coulee Dam, let alone associations to the threat of breaking free to flood. But when the camera pulled back to drive away, this fearsome beast turned out to be contained under a bridge in the middle of Quebec.

I Am the People (Je suis le peuple)

It seemed like the whole world’s cameras were watching Egypt as Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign was overthrown in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi was elected the next year, and then General Abd al-Fattah Al Sissi cemented a suppressive counter-revolution through 2014. But the media attention was on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reflected in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Even “Arab Spring” profiles included some rural folk, such as across six countries in The Trials of Spring [], the activists had left for the main protest cities. The voices of the one-third of Egyptians who work on farms, the fellahin who used to be the backbone of the country’s economy, were not heard.

Not only does director Anna Roussillon provide an outlet for these voices, but a unique longitudinal look because she was already embedded with hard-working Farraj and his family on their farm in the Nile Valley when the Egyptian revolution exploded in the city where she grew up, 435 miles to the north. Exchanging fond teases with them in the pastoral prologue, she was documenting their barely modernizing agricultural methods and social traditions slowly playing out against the backdrop of lush palm trees, flying ibises, and the ancient temples of Luxor in the distance. She would come to visit every few months and stay awhile, as he spent long days knee deep in mud in the hot sun and trying to repair an old irrigator, the female folk pound flour into bread, and his kids did their school homework. (Who is in the extended family or are neighbors is a bit confusing.) Though Farraj had returned from a university education back to the land, he hopes for better for them, including his daughter. At night, they relax watching soccer and music videos on TV, through the periodic electrical black-outs (The title comes from a song by his favorite actor/singer Oum Kalthoum).

Farraj cynically has no great expectations when the government first disparagingly reports on the demonstrations in Tunisia, and his kids, significantly, see no potential connection to their daily lives. Though Roussillon claims she was just capturing what played out around her, she has a profound influence on him when she hands him her laptop with uncensored news from Cairo. Taking over the TV, he eagerly gets more and more involved in watching the satellite channels and enthusiastically buys bigger and better configured equipment. His elderly neighbor still believes the propaganda on the only channel he sees, and Farraj is sympathetic that the political turmoil is hurting the tourist trade the people of Luxor need. But as happy as he is by the birth of another child, he looks more excited at the novelty of a village pre-election parade that proves the revolutionary fervor extended to rural areas. Confessing how discouraged the farmers were by years of sham democracy, backed by the U.S. and Europe he pointedly notes, when no one bothered to vote yet corrupt local leaders would declare huge victories, he supports whoever is the least associated with the past government, which is the Muslim Brotherhood.

It just takes the image on TV of the general taking over to reinforce that Farraj’s cynicism was unfortunately well-founded, even before the satellite channels were shut down in 2013. Roussillon successfully crowdfunded to finance Farraj’s first trip out of the country in January to accompany her at screenings around Paris. I’m sure he appreciated getting some good news in this sad year for Egyptian politics. But, to appropriate an Arab image, Roussillon intimately convinces us that the genie of revolution will not easily be put back in the bottle.

João Bénard da CostaOthers Will Love the Things I Have Loved (Outros amarão as coisas que eu amei)

others will loveThe genie for director Manuel Mozos is his friend and colleague João Bénard da Costa, the long time director of the Portuguese Cinémathèque, who died in 2009. Unlike fond tributes to influential champions of film in other countries – France’s Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque (2004) and Celluloid Man (2012) about P.K. Nair, the founder of the National Film Archive of India – there are no famous talking heads or relatives recalling anecdotes to beautifully trace the making of a great cinéphile. His son João Pedro Bénard sonorously reads his father’s autobiographical writings “to lead you through images and memories.” The camera follows his early influences, described as intimate connections with a large home filled with family photographs and a museum full of portraits. What an unusual little boy whose favorite gift was a beloved book of medieval and Renaissance art prints redolent with symbols of the lives of saints. (Marie Losier’s preceding 19 minute colorful drag fantasy L’Oiseau de la nuit is set in some of the same Lisbon locales he trod for a more carnivale effect.)

Setting up a cinema club while teaching high school, João Bénard da Costa delighted in the power of the silver screen’s figures to be ghosts who could achieve immortality. Threaded throughout the ruminative biography are his favorite clips which Mozos re-watches in the Cinémathèque’s archives to emphasize the magic of the movies to defy reality – time in William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948), faith in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), love in Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and words in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is held up as the epitome of perfection; the Museum included a showing of a 35mm print in the festival. There’s also visual references to filmmakers who were his contemporaries and sometime collaborators, the late Manoel de Oliveira and Raoul Ruiz.

Even as he is also seen living in the real world, with family snapshots from a long marriage and playful beach vacations with children and grandchildren, photos show him happily welcoming to Portugal the likes of Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, and Kirk Douglas. A montage of his monographs on auteurs and articles in such publications as the Cahiers du Cinéma, on Buñuel, Hitchcock, Ford, and Lang, places him alongside the most influential film critics of post-war Europe. Though his work is not easily available in English, this dreamy appreciation makes a wider circle of those similarly infected with cinéphilia aware of his influences, interpretations, and impact – just the sort of fans coming each weekend of the First Look Festival.

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