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Documentaries of Memory at Berlin Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A close-up of a child's face with a geometrical design on their face, from Silvio Back's 'Yndio do Brasil (Our Indios)'.

If a single word can summarize the theme of the major documentaries at the 47th annual Berlin International Film Festival, last February, that word must be "memory": memories as documents.

During thirty years of making documentaries, Johan Yan Der Keuken has shot in worldwide locations, but this is his first about his home town. Amsterdam, Global Village (The Netherlands, 4 hrs.) in effect is his return-to-roots film. He glides along the canals, searches down the side-street, seeking his boyhood neighborhood. And he is amazed that few of the faces he sees are white. "Our lives have global connections." Yan Der Keuken emphasizes ordinary activities in what is, in effect, a series of connecting mini-documentaries. The "global" of his title derives from his delight to find so many colorful nationalities now living in and contributing to Amsterdam , for centuries a maritime and trading center. He does not use didactic overkill , just his quiet camera observation (i.e., he shoots), searching for visual poetry in the unexpected. "There is a general misunderstanding in that people assume they have to understand everything. But in film you can think without having to make everything in the story fit verbally. I am absolutely not of the opinion that in order to see the film, the viewer must work hard. Instead, in the end, you want to seduce viewers with your film. As a viewer, you are offered to go on a journey: come and join us."

Calling the Ghosts—A Story about Rape, War and Women, a U.S./Croatia co-production (63 min.) is produced by Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Elincic. To "call a ghost" is to summon memories, to bring into consciousness what is forgotten or half-perceived. The film asks viewers to think again about what they already knew via Verriickr Bleiben their TV sets: the terrible agony of Bosnia. We must question our own role, for years, as passive TV witnesses of the war. What have we learned? What can we do? In Bosnia, thousands of girls and women were raped and murdered. Their ghosts cry out for justice. But what can be done? Two Bosnia women, Jadranka Cigelj and Nusreta Civac, have worked to create a momentous change in the laws of war. Both are lawyers, both were assaulted, tortured, raped. The film describes their ordeal, and their mission. Co-producer Jacobson recalls: "They found a way to start channeling their pain, their hatred, and their desire for revenge, change all that into work, transforming their pain into more profound issues of justice." Belatedly, for the first time in the history of warfare, rape is now included in the lexicon of war crimes. Rapists of the Bosnian War, those few who were caught, are now brought before the interna­tional war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

For his recent fiction feature, Kansas City, Robert Altman gathered two dozen young contemporary jazz musicians to perform the classic music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, and Bennie and Buster Moten, as part of the ambience and background of his story. Altman's new film, Robert Airman's Jazz '34 (U.S., 72 min.), is a documentary follow-up, shot with three cameras simultaneously in 35mm. A performance film shot in a three-week jam session, the film uses fifteen songs of the period. Harry Belafonte , star of the fiction film, narrates the documentary , with cutaways to stories by elderly musicians and Kansas City citizens who remember those wonderful old days, part of America's musical history.

Verruckt Bleiben, Verliebt Bleiben ("Mind the Gap", Germany, Elfi Mikesch, 88 min.) reconstructs the troubled life of Torsten Ricardo Engelholz, age 31, ex-mental patient, a sometime actor and theater handy-man. Tall and gaunt, with an odd manner, restless, he approaches young women in the subway who tum away uneasily, finding him creepy, perhaps dangerous. Raised by a weak mother and a cruel abusive father, Torsten progressed to a children's home and to mental hospitals. Nevertheless, he gained a certain wisdom, a heightened awareness and off-kilter humor. He states that normal people who scorn the handicapped are themselves handicapped. In Berlin, Torsten appeared on stage with a dozen other handicapped persons who participate in a theatrical company, variously acting, working with sets, being useful.

A video diary of three hours, transferred to 35mm—Africa: What About Your Pain? (France, 165 min)—is Raymond Depardon's filmed memory of everyday Africa, the non-tourist Africa, from his sojourn there, July 1993 to February 1996. Depardon arrived in Africa with prejudices and preconceptions, and depruted with respect and a lasting affection. His film helps him to articulate his impressions and feelings, to remember and reflect. "I believe that we have to rethink our understanding of Africa fundamentally. Africa is something that challenges and enriches me. The fundamental lyrical power of Africa is doubtlessly due to the fact that the continent is the cradle of humanity."

A collection of eleven films, The Children of Golzow series began in 1961, and extended to 1994, as a special project of DEFA Documentary, within the former Geiman Democratic Republic. The series was directed by Winfried Junge, in collaboration with his wife, Barbara, who edited. The series was authorized a few days after the Berlin Wall was built, when the dozen or so Golzow children in the series were quite young. The films follow them as they grow up, go to school, train for work, many, become parents. If the GDR govern­ment expected to express overt propaganda content for Marxism in the series, they were mistaken; but the films do express something else—how the GDR had pulled itself together after the war, became insular and self-sufficient, how German family values were kept intact, how working-class people got along despite austerity and shortages, while things got better inch by inch, conswner goods arriving in the shops, young apprentices learning skills, morals were under control, discontent manageable, workers could have holidays within the East Bloc, some even with cars. Weddings, babies, the normal stuff. Those are the inferences from the eleven films centering on Golzow's individual boys and qirls. The series is valuable as social history and the psychology of childhood. This lengthy chronicle spanning 34 years is the longest and oldest ongoing project of its kind in international film. (Similar projects were done in Britain, Sweden and elsewhere.)

Now, the Junges have made a twelfth film, There You Have My Life—MariaLuise (Germany, 1996, 141 min.). The Golzow woman of 1996 sees herself as a child in 1961, as the Wall went up. She compares her then with her now. Golzow, once agricultural, is now semi-industrialized, and in trouble. MarieLuise works now for a military-technical institute. Is it a stable job? What of the future of her two children? Her husband had been an officer of the GDR Anny, subject to discipline, constraints , secrecy. Now post-Wall, he is an officer of the United National Air Force. There are profes­sional and family uncertainties, perhaps typical of other ex-GDR families. The Junges have completed, with the addition of the new Marieluise, twelve individual portraits of Geiman citizens and their families, from 1961 to the present. It is part of Germany's history, a nation still in tension, waiting for a resolution.

"Our problem was choosing from the material after shooting," states Director Junge. 'The film is a real mix-and-match combination. Having filmed so many statements and footage from 34 years, you can imagine that it isn't easy to choose a narrative structure that works . It is bone-breaking work. We have 300,000 meters in the can, the rough-cuts of seven more stories are available. If we had the finances, each film could be more than two hours long. But it looks as if the financial situation might end the series."

Jenseits des Krieges ("East Of War", Austria, Ruth Beckerrnann, 117 min.) takes place at a single location—the salon in Vienna where an exhibition of unusual photographs was taking place, "War of Extermination, The Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-1944." Director Beckennann engaged 200 elderly war veterans in conversation, with the photographs on the walls in the background. She shot 46 hours, cut in this film to 2 hours. But she suppresses her judgments and reactions, to let these veterans speak for themselves, often quarreling among each other, disputing what is duty, what is obedience to an officer's orders, what is patriotism, what is explainable simply as the stress of war-exonerating themselves? Beckermann is deeply impressed by the power of old memories, and by the need for the suppression of realization. An old war widow speaks with regret about the nation's loss of "nobility of the heart". These veterans become emotional, confronting the photographs, but they seem to come away hardened.

Yndio Do Brasil ("Our Indians", Brazil, Silvio Back, 70 min.) attempts to demolish the many stereotypes regarding Brazil's beleaguered Indian population. Using footage from 1912, in documentaries, newsreels, fiction features, obtained from the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Cinematheques of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the Indian Museum of Brazil, the National Archive of Brazil and other sources, Yndio required four years of work. Back has directed eight fiction features and thirty-four TV documentaries.

Exit Shanghai (Germany, Ulrike Ottinger, 255 min.) is one of the director's shorter films, only 4 1/4 hours. This new work describes the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, as escaping Jews from Russia, Austria and Germany hunkered down in craniped quarters to survive the war. Packed into tiny rooms, without water, without toilets, somehow the refugees found the ingredients, sometimes, to approximate the European Jewish cuisine of their homelands. Many are tested by adversity and become radically changed. Japan was then occupying China , was the ally of Germany, but casual or indifferent about doing Hitler's anti-Semitic dirty work. Ottinger emphasizes six Jews, quite different, but alike in exile. Interviews, documents, photographs combine with scenes of Shanghai today. Many made their way to San Francisco after the war, and Exit Shanghai is their tale of hardship and survival.

"This is what I wanted to find out in my film: 'What is it about me that you don't like? Why do you want to kill me? Why do you want to call me names? You don't even know me. "' Producer Arthur Dong talked quietly with this writer in the Mark Hotel, during the Berlin festival, describing his decision to make Licensed To Kill (U.S., 80 min.) It had multiple screenings in several theaters and was a big hit, with lively audience discussions after the film.

"I need to understand these men as human beings, because they are human beings. They are not monsters. That would have been easy, to make my film where they are all monsters." These "men" are the killers of homosexuals, whom Dong interviewed in their prisons. He chose seven, of the many so incarcerated: there have been at least 200 gay murders within the last five years. Their talks with Dong are supported in the film by new spaper ph otos of the m urd er scene, police videos, transcripts of testimony, graphic evidence used in court.

"What I wanted to do was to embrace the enemy, to try to conquer the problem. I wanted to look at before the problem, at the causes motivating these men, as much as I could, at this time in my life."

Just prior to Berlin, Licensed To Kill had won both the Filmmakers Trophy and the Best Documentary Director awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Playing at the Film Forum in Manhattan, the film was highly praised by The New York Times, Variety and other periodicals. Dong's previous feature documentary, Coming Out Under Fire, concerning gays in the U.S. military during World War II, was similarly hailed by critics and won the Special Jury Award at Sundance in 1994 as well as an Oscar® nomination. These and other Dong films have earned collectively over eighty U.S. and foreign film awards and fellowships, with funding from the A.F.I., N.E.A., N.A.A.T.A . and I.T.V.S. Also, he won the Peabody Award.

As a young gay man, Dong experienced the assault of gaybashers in San Francisco years ago and barely escaped. His films and TV reports reflect his concern with U.S. violence in general and against gays in particular. But he felt he needed, for his interviews with these murderers of gays, to be cool and restrained. Indeed, Variety notes that Dong's interview style is "evenhanded" and "detached," he "lets the material speak for itself ." Dong declines to editorialize; he needn't, as his seeming neutrality is what draws candid revelations from the killers—they speak frankly. This strengthens the film and pennits the audience to find its own judgments.

Perhaps to concoct a collective profile for the killers would be misleading and oversimplified. But some tentative observations seem justified: the killers are from lower-class dysfunctional or abusive families, are poorly educated, seem untrained for gainful employment, seem often to have a history of petty crimes, and often exonerate themselves with vaguely political and religious rationale. More specifically, they excuse their murders in terms of society's condemnation of homosexuality, particularly religious condemnation. Some killers prey on gays specifically, for money and/or the thrill of brutalizing someone. None seems to have deep insight into himself and his reasons for killing. One says: "I was just angry at the world, I guess, at the time. I don't know. I was just taking out aggression and hatred on whoever was there."

What of the future? Will some of these young men be back on the streets soon to repeat their crimes? For example: Jeffrey Swinford, age 22, who met Chris Miller, age 23, in a park, and later murdered him. "I don't have any opinion whatsoever for homosexuals, except they oughta all be taken care of." Swinford was sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder and robbery. Often convicts can win parol e after one-third of their sentence. Will he?

Sick, The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (U.S., Kirby Dick, 90 min.) created a sensation in Berlin with its bold depiction of self-torture, for years, by a man afflicted since childhood with a terminal disease. Flanagan, versatile with the tools of masochism—chains, straps, hooks—is aided in his rituals by his devoted wife/nurse. Together, they describe a Flanagan's motivation variously as a protest against fate, a defiance of meaningless convention, a test of will and endurance, a sharing of suffering—mixed with eroticism. Flanagan's father, who had lost two daughters earlier to the same disease, cystic fibrosis, seems to explain his son's self-immolation as a form of existentialism, a realization that perhaps there is no god, no justice, no meaning, no morality, thus freeing the suffering man to create his own values, which include horrendous self-inflicted pain. The film's final scene shows Flanagan using a claw-hammer to drive a nail through his penis, in close-up, and then removing it, in a shower of blood.

East Side Story (Germany/U.S., Dana Ranga and Andrew Horn, 75 min.). For decades before the implosion of the U.S.S.R. and the German Democratic Republic, those citizens saw only grim, heavy films with anti-fascist theses, with heroism by anti-Nazi maityrs, about the social injustices of the decadent capitalist West, and so forth. But for a time, "socialist" musicals were made, starring attractive young people singing and dancing and enjoying the good life within the regulated, benign totalitarian state. Musicals were popular, to entertain the public and to relieve the monotony of heavily censored entertainments, shabby consumer goods, drab city-scapes, restrictive group-vacations, the propaganda press and the speed-up-production harangues at the factories. The production of musicals within the East Bloc was initiated, surprisingly, by the Party, and was opposed by the censors and the lock­ step critics. Recognizing in horror how Hollywood was polluting Amer­ican youth, they vowed never to allow those corrupt moral values, the brainless hedonism of those American musicals, to be imitated within the East. But the Pruty was smarter than the censors and critics, guessing that the musical format could be turned and reshaped to promote socialist ideals. And so it canie to pass. Now, East Side Story brings these films to us, musicals from the Soviet Union, G.D.R., Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania. This compila­tion of excerpts uses some newsreel scenes and commentary by the actual filmmakers and performers. We hear those songs, the words of which were known and sung by millions of East Bloc youngsters, also in the Middle East. Even Stalin had his favorite musicals, e.g., Volga Volga, a print of which he presented to President Roosevelt at their Yalta conference. East Side Story is entertaining social and cultural history at its best, a skillful editorial job, sometimes satirical, a fascinating insidelook at the musical styles, the mindset, the production techniques of the former East Bloc film studios.

Among the documentaries at Berlin, the clear champion was Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business (U.S., 60 min.), a serio-comic father/son reconciliation opus, which won major prizes: the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique award, commending the film "...for its exposure of serious, even tragic issues in an ironic way"; the Churches of the Ecumenical Jury, who noted that both father and son, after their conversational combat­—intercut playfully with sports footage of battling prizefighters—the two men are healed of ancient family grievances, were validated and revitalized, actually communicating via celluloid in a machine for perhaps the first time in their lives"; and the Caligari Film Prize of DM5000 from the Federal Association of Communal Cinemas. The FACC Jury's citation is so exact that we'll quote it in full:

"Nobody's Business is the story of a director who attempts to gain his elderly father's love and recognition by making a filmic portrait; it is also the story of a father who constantly tries to escape his son's intentions. Alan Berliner's attempts to reappraise his family history during conversations with his stubborn father prove as difficult as his ability to find images to reconstruct his identity and a shared history is effortless. Dancing playfully around its central protagonist and beautifully edited, the film opens up a space in which to discuss memory, seduction, intimacy and separation. This filmic portrait of a highly Business introverted man comprises Super 8 footage of the director's childhood, documents concerning his Jewish grandparents' emigration from eastern Europe, interviews with both close and distant relatives, recurring images of anonymous streets and archive footage of a boxing match. We would like to thank Alan Berliner for making films and for not having become an accountant."

The Berlin documentaries or iginated in memory, perhaps compelling us to realize anew the connections—if not the chains—that memories can play in our own bonds of loving recollections, bonds of pain . But the Berlin documentaries are modem in form, even as they evoke the past.

GORDON HITCHENS is founder of Film Comment and served as editor for the magazine's first seven years; he is also a stringer for Variety and has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper: A former faculty member at C.W Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world.