On The Scene: Refugee films take center stage at 2016 Berlinale International Film Festival

Berlin in February. It is cold, it is grey, it is dark, it is ugly. But for 10 days, something changes. There’s a sparkle, a shine, and a light in the dark that throws the most fantastic images against a screen.

When Potsdamer Platz is covered in red carpets and people creep out of their warm shelters and flock to cinemas all over town, you know it is that time of year, it’s Berlinale time. Every year, people from all over the world come to the German capital to celebrate cinema, this year for the 66th time. As one of the most important festivals and the biggest audience festival in the world, the Berlinale is tremendously popular with professionals and cine buffs alike. You only must look at the endless queues in front of the ticket counters and the people waiting for hours in the cold to get a ticket, knowing that a good amount of the available movies that day might be gone and you end up seeing something completely different than what you originally intended. It is so nice to see people dealing with all this to have a cinematic experience. It is living proof against the cultural pessimism and shows that people still crave the excitement that cinematic spark. Originally and historically, watching movies is a communal experience and people are still willing to pay money to see their dreams come true on the silver screen. The energy of this festival is incomparable. The whole city is a buzz and there is something happening on every corner.

International Jury 2

This year’s edition did not fall short on big names. President of the international jury is the one and only Meryl Streep. Together with actors Lars Eidinger, Clive Owen, Alva Rohrwacher, the French photographer Brigitte Lacombe, the critic Nick James and Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska, she awarded the best movie, the best script and actors and a number of other titles of the over 20 competing films. George Clooney and the Coen brothers were there, Spike Lee, Tilda Swinton, Don Cheadle, and this year’s honorary Bear recipient for lifetime achievement, Michael Ballhaus. His contribution to cinema over the last 50 years is not only visible in the works of his long time collaborator, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but also in some of the biggest Hollywood productions as he worked on with Martin Scorsese, Wolfgang Petersen and many more. His trademark, the Ballhaus Circle, a 360 degree move around the actors, is taught as a standard in every film school these days.

It seems almost ironic that Ballhaus, a German, is awarded with this trophy, when there seem to be little German movies in the overall program. 24 Weeks was the only national contribution in the competition (and a few co-productions) and overall, Germany participation has seen better days. This already had stirred some discussion before the festival. 2015 was a very successful year for German film in the national market. Bit hits like Fack ju, Göthe and Honig im Kopf grossed millions at the box office but at the same time, no German movie was in that year’s Cannes, Locarno or any other well respected film festival of that size. This phenomenon spurred a conference as a part of this year’s Critic’s Week. The Critic’s Week was held for the second time parallel to the Berlinale, like its role model Semaine de la Critique in Cannes, and showed its own selection of films for one week at the Hakesche Hoefe Kinos.

The conference was entitled Cinema is Made by Others – Why German Films Party on Their Own and had speakers from all different corners of the film world including film critic Richard Brody from New York, Sergio Fant from the film festival in Locarno and the notorious Lars Henrik Gass from the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, to name only a few. In different panels, they tried to find an answer to the predicament German film finds itself in, and has been doing so for quite some years now. A lot was said that night including conversations about structural differences in film, about German film being too obsessed with form and about its ceaseless depiction of its WWII history. The latter seems to be so well known in international markets that Brody could not help but share a joke that people tell to describe that phenomenon (“There’s no business like Shoa business”). At the same time, it’s those movies dealing with Nazi Germany that are the most successful outside of the Germany territory. Nevertheless, the discussion seemed to circle around itself.


Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery

Back at the Berlinale, it was hard to pick from the over 400 films shown this year and discover new, creative voices. Within the competition, the most outstanding film, when it comes to form, was surely Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery by Philippine director Lav Diaz. In no less than 485 minutes in beautifully shot black and white pictures it meditates on events during the Philippine revolution. It was awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives.

Denis Côté’s Boris Sans Beatrice works like a thriller in the tradition of David Lynch when a stranger forces Boris to overthink his life after his wife finds herself in a depressive, catatonic state that tests their relationship and especially Boris’ commitment to his wife. Simple in its techniques but very powerful, we follow Boris trying to make sense of the changes happening around him while all he loves slowly crumbles apart.

As usual, the most groundbreaking and innovative works can be found two of the side sections of the festival, Panorama and the Forum of New Cinema. There is where you find the red threat that goes through all of the sections and builds a bridge to the real world, not only for Berlin and Germany, but the globe. Right here, right now.

The refugee crisis was the dominant theme of the festival. Interestingly, the film makers must have worked on their projects long before it actually became the hot topic on the global agenda. It shows once more the sensitivity of a good film maker and the ability of cinema to reflect or even foreshadow what is going on in the world.

In Les Sauteurs, directors Estephan Wagner and Moritz Siebert give the camera to a man, Abou Bakar Sidibé, and let him film his daily life in North Africa. Like many others, he already has a journey behind him and the last obstacle is to climb the fence built around Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the African continent. In rough, hand-held pictures, it shows the men’s attempts to cross that fence and to cross that barrier in their hearts. It’s a dangerous attempt and some will return to their home country let down.

The film, A Man Returned, won the Silver Bear for Best Short Film and, just as Les Sauteurs, haunts the viewer with its direct pictures and putting the finger in the wound. Also returning to his home country after living in the streets of Athens, Greece is Reda, a Palestinian man who waited for asylum in Europe for years. A broken man, addicted to heroin, goes back to his refugee camp in Lebanon, where director Mahdi Felafel follows him in his everyday life, hustling the streets, preparing to get married.

Meteorstrasse 1


Even those refugees who arrive and try to build a life for themselves have not necessarily found a home. Often it is their environment that holds up a feeling of alienation and missing identity. Eighteen year old Mohammed (Hussein Eliraqui) in Aline Fischer’s Meteorstrasse struggles with exactly that. Living in Berlin, his parents were sent back to Lebanon. He lives with his older brother, Lakhdar (intensely portrayed by Oktay Inanç Özdemir), in a world of motor bikes, old war heroes and the question of what does it mean to be a man?

The questions of Mohammed in Meteorstrasse find their own answers in the Turkish film Young Wrestlers, that follows young boys whose biggest dream it is to become an oil wrestler, the traditional national sport of Turkey. It’s a committed movie that suits very well in the Generations section for young audiences.

Further east, in Aleppo, Syria, we witness people entrapped in a conflict that does not only claim lives but the souls of the living too. In Manazil bela abwab (House Without Doors), Avo Kaprealian films his home, mostly from his balcony, because the state security is everywhere and he must be careful. What we see is similarly direct as the footage in Les Saluters and shows a city entrapped in its own country.


Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)

The winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film was not really a surprise and emphasizes the festival’s reputation as the most political one. Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi is the perfect bridge between the origin of the refugees and their destination. It observes the daily lives on the little island of Lampedusa, which is part of Italy but only 70 miles from the North African coast. This makes it a highly popular destination for refuges trying to enter Europe. Every day, people are swept ashore in hope of a better life, usually in tiny, overcrowded boats. Parallel to the drama at sea, the film follows some of the residents, most notably the local doctor and twelve year old Samuele, a boy living on that island. This film is beautiful, honest and hard to digest as it shows what nobody actually wants to see. Its screening should be mandatory.

Barakah Meets Barakah

Barakah Meets Barakah

But even at the Berlinale it’s not all grim and there are just as many delightful movies to make you laugh. Argentinian feature El Rey del Once depicts life in a Jewish community in Buenos Aires, a microcosm of its own where even the protagonist, Ariel, needs some time to find his way after returning home. The Saudi Arabian romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah is a lovely, traditional boy-meets-girl film, but with the peculiarities of dating in Saudi Arabia. Hilarious and with a big heart, it was an instant favorite with critics and audiences alike and deals lovingly with the issue of using public space and the desires of a young, moderate Saudi society.

Strike A Pose

Strike a Pose

Everyone who wondered what happened to the dancers of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour found answers (Strike a Pose), just as much as people wondering about the impact of availability of porn in the times of the internet (Notre Heritage). That is the great thing about festivals; there is something for everyone.

Once more, the variety was huge, the parties were long and the red carpet was busy. With very little gossip material (Lars Eidinger was so excited to DJ at a party that he dropped his pants in front of the crowd), it was a fest not to miss! Records were broken and let’s not forget, the Berlinale is only the beginning of a long film festival season.

by Florian Hubertus
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