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The Berlin International Film Festival, Part One

By Gordon Hitchens

A white man looks up at the camera from 'Gendernauts'

"Berlin is changing," reflected Ulrich Gregor, Co-Director of Berlin 's Inter­nationale Filmfestspiele, also Director of the International Forum of New Cinema. After forty-nine years at the same location , the event in February 2000 will move to the much heralded new area Potsdamer Platz, for decades the locale of the infamous Berlin Wall. "Potsdamer Platz is the key to the new city," says Gregor. "Previously it marked the border between east and west; now it is neither east nor west, but the new center. So it's very important for our festival to have a presence there."

Amidst all the hoopla over the spectacular new facilities, the nostalgia from the past and the promise of the future, this review must likewise divert from a usual approach, by concentrating first on some of the noteworthy documentaries screened, in and out of competition. Next month in these pages, the review will continue, focusing on a major topic in recent documentaries, one so appropriate for Berlin: the memories of the Holocaust. With this two-part approach will come also some reflection on the documentary form itself, from its lengthy legacy of honest observation and well-intentioned social activism, to its introduction of the dramatic, the reenacted, the staged, all of these (supposedly) for equally lofty purpose. It's that perennial struggle between the objective and the subjective, the public and the personal, the observed and the remembered, perhaps the known and the unknown. And hardly a documentary gets made nowadays that doesn't bump smack up against these boundaries.

Of the German documentaries screened at Berlin, Buena Vista Social Club was immensely popular and a great surprise, since the Competition rarely acknowledges the documentary form, even within its non-competitive sidebar. The huge Zoo Palast was packed for this film by Wim Wenders (Germany/U.S., 1989-98, 101 min.). Turned on to Cuban music by friend Ry Cooder, who had scored Paris, Texas and The End of Violence for him, Wenders went to Havana and tracked down ancient musicians, the "Super Abuelos" ("Super Granddads") who had fallen into oblivion, after having recorded the hit "Buena Vista Social Club" ten years earlier. Thus, this becomes a performance film, a mighty pleasing one, laced with nostalgia, as Wenders and Cooder stimulated the resuscitation of the group. Wenders shot them in Havana, then in Amsterdam for two concerts; film ends in New York, a triumph in Carnegie Hall.

Life at Any Price by Stefan Jarl (Sweden, 1998, 89 min.) is a tribute to the late director, Bo Widerberg. Best known in the U.S. for his Elvira Madigan in 1967, which succeeded despite American aversion to subtitles, Widerberg died in 1997 at the age of 67. This memorial film was made by Jarl, a colleague of Widerberg's, and himself with a reputation for making good films. Jarl considers Widerberg his friend and mentor for years, and next to the redoubtable Ingmar Bergman probably the foremost director in Sweden: "For me, Widerberg was a hero. I belonged to a younger generation, growing up in a bourgeois society, where Ingmar Bergman was made the God of Art. Bo made films about reality. God did not even exist in his world, only ordinary people. He made a couple of the best films ever produced in Sweden." Widerberg specialized in films about ordinary folk, occasionally in a period film. In the U.S., Widerberg directed the politically radical Joe Hill, also at the Berlinale this year, concerning a Swedish immigrant, hobo and transient laborer in the mountain states who protests unsafe working conditions and slave wages for miners. Hill joins the popular labor movement of the time, the International Workers of the World, the "Wobblies," which sought solidarity with all oppressed working-classes internationally. Framed on a murder/robbery charge, Joe Hill is convicted and then executed by a firing-squad in Utah, 1915.

Another filmmaker honored in Berlin this year was Stan Brakhage, greatly respected for decades as the foremost figure of the American experimental avant-garde. Brakhage by Jim Shedden (Canada, 1998, 74 min.) is an homage to an untiring explorer of cinema's artistic possibilities. His 300 films range from several hours to... well, less than a minute. Other filmmakers pay tribute in brief interviews—George Kuchar, Willie Varela, Bruce Elder and the indestructible Jonas Mekas, long a champion of Brakhage's, and founder of Anthology Film Archives in the 1950s and publisher of Film Culture, both of these showcases for Brakhage. Now 66, Brakhage's career began at aged nineteen; his work is always challenging, both to audiences and to the forms and purposes of cinema.

Then there was Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory (Germany, 1998, 112 min.). Peter Sempel describes his film as "a playful documentary... [with] scenes and moments from her life... Her singing, ranging from classic to punk, pop, chanson... hardly any archival material, but a few flashbacks... Quite a roller coaster ride... alongside the well-known face of Nina, the shrill diva, we also get to see her from another side—quiet, loving, poetic."

From one culture to another, A Tokyo Fusebox by Susanna Salonen (Germany, 1998, 43 m in .) is her impressionistic personal record of three months in Japan, arriving with her Japanese/German dictionary, a video camera, but no local contacts. She shortly found work in an International Hostess Club where "you have to look pretty, talk, pour drinks, sing Karaoke and dance with your customers." Of course, she is told , "a hostess-club is a perfectly respectable place," except for the sexual undertone. She took her video camera into the club on Christmas, to record the merriment, and was fired.

Four Women of Egypt (Tahani Rached , Egypt/Canada, 1997, 90 min.) is heavy on dialogue, but always interesting. Reviewed here previously in connection with its screening at the 1998 Human Rights Watch festival in New York, the film gives us four educated and very articulate upper-class women, variously Muslim, Christian or non-religious, who debate the current problems of Egypt in an emphatic but reasonable manner. They agree on basics-human dignity and social justice. They bring to their friendly sparring a sense of humor and a vast body of knowledge, as does Amina Rachid, a literature professor at Cairo University, and Safynaz Kazem, who studied in the U.S. for five years, and is a theater critic and journalist. Shahenda Maklad is the leader of the agrarian reform movement for peasant rights, having succeeded her husband, who was assassinated. And Wedad Mitry is a retired teacher and trade-unionist, active in the fight to win the vote for women.

Maj Wechselmann' s Speak To Me, Sisters (Sweden, 1998, 85 min.) concerns twenty-five women of South Africa, black and white, discussing, even debating, the struggle against apartheid.

It's a forceful film with forceful women, "a film bursting with warmth and women power," wrote one critic. The women discuss their own experi­ence with apartheid, and the impact on their families, a historical overview from 1929 to the present, using rare archive footage. Director Wechselmann, for her 38 documentaries and dramatic documentaries, has won many awards, including the Swedish Peace Prize.

In an earlier review of Berlin (I.D., June 1997), a new film by Barbara and Winfried Junge prompted some commentary about this on-going chronicle, in the spirit of the Michael Apted corpus, 7 Up et al (I.D., Jan.-Feb. , 1999). Now there's another: Brigitte and Marcel—Lifelines from Golzow (The Junges, Germany, 1961-1998, 110 min.). The new film continues the series, now approaching four decades, about the children of Golzow, in the former German Democratic Republic, how they grew up, took careers, married, died, leaving offspring who do... ditto. The films (now thirteen of them) within this ongoing sociological/psychological saga collectively tell us much about life within a Communist police state-but more so, we see our own humanity, through these others, a human-ness that is too complex and contradictory for mere categories.

Dezember; 1-31 by Jan Peters (Germany, 1999, 97 min.) is an odd film with a curious purpose. Says the director: "The death of my best friend Grobi really knocked me for six. I think of death as something unimaginable. Thinking of nothingness is like this irritating repetitive dream I used to have as a kid when I was running a fever." In a feverishly, radically subjective approach, as a kind of self- or auto-documentary, the film was thus constructed: every day for a month (December having thirty-one days), Jan shot for three minutes, then spliced the 31 segments together chronologically, making a final film of 97 minutes. For sound , he variously had his own lip-synch, or he dubbed later. Each of the mini-films ends abruptly, an avalanche of images and speech—variously autobiographical ruminations, philosophical meanderings and banal anecdotes, such as we share with close friends, in this case the deceased Grobi. Thus Dezember; 1-31 is various­ly ironic, manic, humorous—an attempt to maintain contact with his dead pal, to work through his grief. He searches also for signs and signals and messages from Grobi by climbing the Alps, exploring the internet, attending seances and peering into space at a rad io telescope facility.

Beefcake (Thom Fitzgerald, Canada, 1998, 93 min.) documents the career of photographer Bob Mizer, creator in the 1950s of the Athletic Models Guild. In those long-ago pre-hardcore days of "athletic" photo-magazines, the Guild provided male models with some income, serving perhaps also as a clandestine dating service for meeting with rich poppas. Bob's business partner was his mother and watch-dog, Delia, always present. He occasionally provided employment for his young men, photo-modeling or appear­ances in short films. In the meantime, they lounged at the pool working on their tans. For the not-quite-nudie magazines—e.g., Adonis and Tomorrow's Men—attention was duly given to the use of health and fitness props like body-building machines, providing a cover when censors snooped around. Beefcake uses archival footage, some reenactments and interviews with former models and photographers. The film is a sociological and psychological document of a prurient Puritanical society.

Damenwahl—Ladies' Choice, Scenes from the Occident (Viola Stephan , Germany, 1999, 80 min.) centers on successful career women, attractive people, with their own incomes, independent. They indulge the demands of their children, enjoy personal luxuries, travel. Here's one critic's response: "The film is like a cartoon. It is light, its superficiality is meaningful. It doesn't admonish or advocate a change of ways, it doesn't conjure up apocalyptic visions, it doesn't defend moral values but portrays its protagonists with a few precise strokes in a relaxed and ironic manner. In short, it is fun." In this same spirit, advertising posters for Damenwahl around the festival halls featured a comic drawing of a pretty young woman in a sexy dressing-gown, waist up, her face troubled: "Oh my god! I think I'm becoming the man I wanted to marry!" These women manage their lives in a superior manner, they are responsible, although they sometimes appear to be ornamental: a Manhattan photographer, a professor in Paris, a lady in Berlin real estate, another is an art entrepreneur who visits the Hermitage on business. Men are invisible except in faded wedding photographs; and a few male domestic helpers. There are no big inferences in the film, only questions.

From Monika Treut comes Gendernauts (Germany, 1998, 87 min.), the latest annual work from one of Europe's foremost directors of so-called gender-bender films, often bending so much they almost snap—as in her Didn't Do It for Love at Berlin last year: that film concerns the career of Eva Norvind, her stage name, born Sakonskaya in Norway, variously a Paris showgirl, Mexicain movie star, later a domi­natrix in New York, with a very select clientele. For 1999, Ms. Treut treats us to an excursion among the various genders. Her basic premise is that femininity versus masculinity are arbitrary designations, and barriers, unreasonable labelings for those of us harboring a free­ floating sexuality and open-ended sensual appetites. Subjects in Gendernauts—the title suggests space—suited individuals exploring vast unknown territories­ include persons who have undergone regular estrogen or testosterone treatment, some as patients at the Transgender Clinic. Also considered: transgendered people, pre- and post-operative transsexuals, hermaphrodites, et al. Their experience makes them, Treut says, "travelers who go quite far along the spectrum of where you say 'this is female, this is male. 'They show us the way the journey goes. They provide us with the tremendous possibility of getting an insight into our own cocktail of possibilities for being female and male."

Factory/Life by Alfred Behrens (Germany, 1998, 60 min.) concerns a cigarette factory, British-American Tobacco Works, in Bayreuth. The machines are insatiable, don't make them wait: 11,000 cigarettes per minute-at the end of the shift, four million cigarettes. The night shift ends at six a.m., back to life, to bad or good relationships, happy or otherwise. Cigarettes in the mouths of Humphrey Bogart, Jean Paul Belmondo, other stars. Lucky Strikes dance in TV commercials to popular music. Then the mother of filmmaker Behrens: "I always had to fight my way in life," she says, of her tough job working in the factory. The focal point for the export of smoking and addiction-the factory uses women working silently, repetitive in their controlling movements, for hours and hours and hour.

Somehow translated as "Out of Time," Grenzganger (Pavel Schnabel , Germany, 1999, 98 min .) offers three men, three portraits, reflecting European post­ WW 11 history and the Cold War, a time when all verities, like "socialism is the only way to go," are either bankrupt or soon will be. To illustrate this era of pervasive uncertainty, Schnabel offers us a German rock musician, Thomas, formerly of the GDR, East Germany, who goes west but his career doesn't take off; then there's the Czech laborer, Ivan, who is now free but aimless after four years imprisonment, following twenty years of hassling by the government; finally Peter, a Viennese, who goes east and is now professor at Karl Marx University and a honcho of the German Socialist Party. Each man is seen as a victim of the times, trying to find meaning and security in post-this and post­ that Central Europe.

An Icelander at the Berlin Film and Television Academy, Olafur Sveinsson created Nonstop (Germany, 1998, 78 min.) as a portrait of the metropolis—"millions of people, millions of destinies, millions of dreams." His graduation thesis, this is a snapshot of Berlin at the end of the millennium. He concentrates on people who hang out at the all-night gas station near his student digs: cab-drivers, joking and cursing; Portuguese "guest workers," slaving at 65 hours weekly, sending money home, unable to make out with German women, except an occasional hooker; a young man taking female hor­ mones to change his gender, clamoring for attention; two elderly pensioners take roost at the station, one lonely since his wife 's death, the other suffering from a shrewish wife. Sveinsson takes his camera into a car with others, cruising for late­ night clubs or women. These are decent people, night people, found in every metropolis. Here is a portrait of marginal people, done with great tenderness.

Pripyat by Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria, 1999, 100 min.) is the sad story of desperate people, forced from their Ukrainian town of Pripyat, by the explo­sion of Chernobyl's nuclear power plant, a mere five kilometers away, and at the center of a vast radioactive zone that extends deep into surrounding territories. 50,000 townspeople—what can they do? The government declared an emergency, expelled residents, sealed off the area, creating a highly contaminated ghost town, surrounded by barbed wire, heavily guarded. That was in 1986. With time, residents began drifting back into Pripyat, to date 15,000. There is still partial employment for some at Chernobyl, well­ paid work. The area is now virtually unregulated, although health precautions are advised: nothing from within the area can be eaten or drunk. Care should be taken not to inhale dust when stirred by the wind. But Pripyat citizens over time have become fatalistic, and no one obeys the recommendations.

"A" by Mori Tatsuya (Japan, 1998, 136 min.) is an in-depth look at the Aum Shinrikyo cult, founded back in 1989, that figured in the brain-washing of converts, killings and subway poison-gas attacks, using Sarin, in the mid-1990s. Curiously, most of the cult members seen in the film are highly educated, soft-spoken and reasonable in manner, despite the horrors of the cult's crimes, which included kidnapping and murdering the family of a lawyer working to expose the cult as a fraudulent sham. Although "A" occurs in a distant nation with a culture so different from ours, there are obvious similarities to our American cults. Director Tatsuya and crew shot 150 hours of exclusive material over 30 months. Of special fascination is observing closely the mild-mannered young adherents of the cult, so likable yet rigid, deep in their conviction. Tatsuya, born in 1956, has worked on more than forty TV documentaries and news reports. He states: "It was imperative for me that the camera lens pursue questions, not about the past, but about the present: not 'why did the crime happen?' but rather 'How do the followers retain their faith after such crimes?' The central focus of the film was to capture the collective psyche of the Japanese, in relief, through the realities of the Aum followers." Indeed, this is a major document. Will PBS pick it up'?

Thug Life in D.C. by Marc Levin (U.S.. 1998. 70 min.) is an unsparing portrait of the Washington D.C. prison where tough young thugs, freshly incoming from sentencing, hunker down for the long stretch, seeming to gather together whatever fatalistic persona they still have, prepared to tough it out as men. Fully half the 18- through-35 year old African-American men of Washington, D.C., are behind bars, or on parole, on probation, or out on bond or on the run. That is 24,000 U.S. citizens. Automatic pistols are the weapons of choice. Emblematic of the other prisoners, Bruno at age 17 is central to Thug Life. He faces 115 years for murder of an 18-year-old boy, and other crimes. Intelligent, insightful, but resigned to fate, he sums up the Thug Life: "Our generation died when our lathers were born." A strong film, a must-see for all.

Finally, there's (Bettina Ellerkamp and Jorg Heittmann. Germany, 1999, 74 min.). As with some Berlin documentaries—too many, actually—"killer" blurs the distinctions between fiction and fact, with staged material, reenactments. performances. This practice can degrade the informational value of the documentary form, inviting the kind of filmic deceptions and propaganda manipulations leveled against Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. And yet, documentary is not a frozen form, unyielding, rigid, never adapting: documentary artists must challenge and enlarge their own processes. So, how do we reconcile the conflict, if indeed there is a conflict? Alas, you'll find no answer here: but the issue remains one worthy of pondering, a topic for I.D. panels and editorials.

"In the seventies the killer game was very popular with children," explains the promotional literature for this film. "Perhaps the game was useful for working through diffuse childhood anxieties." For berlin.doc, the game is now upgraded—if "up" is the right word—for adults, as explained by the producers: "In May 1998, ten people, wanting to talk about their lives in a changing city, decide to turn their lives in Berlin into fiction. They play 'killer,' a game in which no one knows the others and each person is perpetrator us well as victim. The task is to find a person, designated but unknown to the player, and to plan the perfect murder for the victim. Knowing that at the same time yet another person is searching for him or her, the player looks for the designated victim. The players create a web across the city; the paths they take, the places they visit and their encounters with people-all draw a subjective sketch of contemporary life in Berlin 'in the interim."'

More in the next issue.

Gordon Hitchens is Contributing Editor to International Documentary.