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Festival Focus: Berlinale 2007

By Gabriel Paletz

From Uli Gaulke's Comrades in Dreams. Courtesy of Berlinale 2007

Like a Las Vegas weekend extended into weeks, a film festival rides on the hopes of a movie jackpot, luring spectators from screening to screening, and blurring day to night. Unlike Venice and Cannes, Berlin has the public sense to feature documentaries in its different sections and special programs. The festival's fertile ground for nonfiction gold leads crowds to persevere through head colds and down alcohol against the February chill. Yet the majority of this year's films proved illuminating in their disappointment. Rather than uniting unique access, apt concepts and flexible styles, the movies of the 2007 Berlinale provoked thought by their imperfect fulfillment of the facets of documentary.

First of all, the documentaries showed that access does not guarantee cinematic insight. In Substitute, Super-8 filmmaker Fred Poulet teaches Vikash Dhorasoo, a substitute for the French National soccer team, how to operate a camera. But the resulting footage is confined to long traveling views of hotel corridors, and long takes of the player filming himself in hotel mirrors. He tells us interesting details, such as that the team enters hotels through the service entrance. But, he says, "I could never film that," a quote that embodies the obstacles in conveying his circumstances.

The opening titles of a.k.a. Nikki S. Lee explain that "I was making a documentary about her while she was making a documentary about Nikki S. Lee." The audience discovers that the "I," "she" and "Nikki S. Lee" are all the same person. But the self-portrait is marred by insufficient conceptualization--a pity for a conceptual artist. Lee's shifts of identity, from a Jewish bride to a Latin American dancer, stimulates her photography, but become flat in her film, an abyss rather than an illumination of her work.

Although only nine other journalists attended the press screening of Alexandra Lipsitz' Air Guitar Nation, the movie's climax at the International Air Guitar Championships in Finland brought some rejuvenation from the run of serious treatments. The film was refreshed by its access to the young men who, while dedicated to their sport, also took the mickey out of their art of strumming the air.

While access to people alone is not enough for a penetrating documentary; sometimes the concept for a nonfiction film may be unnecessary. Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture uses actors Tilda Swinton and Thomas J. Ryan to portray artists Hope and Steve Kurtz. The real Steve Kurtz lost his wife and came under police suspicion as a bio-terrorist, on the same day. Yet in direct interviews, the beleaguered artist, with his long hair and jutting teeth, puts the actors into the shade as he involves the audience in his dilemma. The nerdy Kurtz is as compelling as the urbane and confessedly superficial designer Karl Lagerfeld in Rodolpho Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential. The two films prove that a straight interview is still viable, and can even be preferable, to more complex concepts.

Perhaps the choice of documentary subject furnishes enough of a concept for a film. The special series "Magnum in Motion" made up an enlivening portrait of the eloquent and self-critical Magnum photographers. Within the program, Rainer Holzemer's 1999 film Magnum Photos: The Changing of a Myth brought out the tensions within the group at the turn of the century, as well as the continuing documentary fascination of their work, in finding the right frame.

For an enlivening documentary, a conception should be flexible to the phases of production, which filmmakers can come to understand in shooting and editing. Schindler's Houses, a beautifully shot film, unfortunately adheres too rigidly to its premise of presenting the architect's Los Angeles houses in the order in which they were built. One longed for a talking head or even a voiceover to break the wordless live sound with a snippet of context. In comparison, the elastic idea of Uli Gaulke's Comrades in Dreams--profiling four managers of film theaters in the US, India, Burkina Faso and North Korea--brought invigorating reflection on the risks and ordinary heroism in sustaining global film culture.

While viewers of documentaries may accept aesthetics that go beyond fiction films, experimentation in style may be one of the less important aspects in engaging documentary audiences. This year, the Berlin docs with the most conventional styles were often the most successful, such as the historical portraits I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal (Richard Trank, dir.) and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (Ric Burns, dir.). The first movie was marred by an insistent score, the second by an abundance of pundits. Yet through archival stills and films, original documents and interviews, each picture restored the distinction of a life's work.  Wiesenthal pursued Nazis unflaggingly, despite public ridicule and pressure from his family to let up his efforts. The end of the film leaves admiration for his unevangelical humility and humor. Burns' documentary produced a similarly strong appreciation of Warhol's career, making an artistic breakthrough out of the moment when the artist painted his Campbell's Soup cans. The films' stylistic conventionality did not subdue their recovery of personalities.

Yet one should ask for more from documentary these days--for example, in the form's ability to rewrite narrative expectations. Blindsight seems a set-up for a feel-good movie: US mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer and teacher Sabriye Tenberken, both blind, take five blind Tibetian children up the north side of Mount Everest. Yet, as the film's director Lucy Walker told me, making the movie gave her a revelation in its refusal of the "obvious narrative" that the children reach the height of the mountain. This refusal makes up one of the film's most moving scenes, where Weihenmayer comforts one of the children, and begins to weep in disappointment that he cannot lead the young man to the top. The film provides reassurance that the children have become empowered despite their stigmatized defect. But even a cute Chinese boy singing "Happy Together" over the credits does not smooth over the movie's mix of beautiful images and human limits. 

Chrigu, the winner of the festival's "Forum" section, has an emotional power based on a plain juxtaposition. The movie shows the film's co-director, Christian Ziörjen, dying from cancer at 25. The weakness of his body moving towards death contrasts with footage from his past parties, a birthday trip to India and the filming of a friend's hip-hop band. While his self-portrait feels too long, a viewer remembers all that Chrigu loses--the ability to walk, go out, travel and live outside of a hospital.

On his deathbed, Ziörjen tells his friend and co-director Jan Gassmann, "The film shouldn't be sad...the film shouldn't be moralizing...the film should be funny." His words make a criticism of, and tribute to, the documentaries at this year's Berlinale. To inspire their believers, nonfiction films should turn their access, concepts and styles to the recognitions of people and engagements with the world,  that redeem our time in the dark.


Gabriel M. Paletz is a professor of documentary and screenwriting at the PCFE Film School in Prague.