June 1, 2001

Ich Bin Ein Documentarian: The Berlin Film Festival

From Jonas Mekas' <em>As I Was  Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty</em>.

From the treasure of documentary riches at the Berlin Festival, celebrating its 52nd year this past February, six films merit special acknowledgement, in terms of originality, social commentary and the passionate self-expression of the film artist.

Those terms apply particularly to Jonas Mekas, the foremost proponent of the American cinema avant garde. At Berlin, Mekas screened his five-hour personal journal film, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. The film seems casual, but it is studied and controlled. "My film,” he maintains, “is a record of subtle feelings, emotions, daily joys of people as recorded in the voices, faces and small everyday activities of people I have met, or lived with, or observed—something that I have been recording for many years. This, as opposed to the spectacular, entertaining, sensational, dramatic activities which dominate much of the contemporary filmmaking."

The Sweetest Sound, by Alan Berliner, is another affectionate and ironic personal essay from the prolific New Yorker who specializes in family material, be it Family Album (1986), a vast tapestry of home movies of families he had never met, or Nobody's Business, (1996), a portrait of Berliner's irascible, fiercely independent father. The Sweetest Sound continues and refines his family quest, but this film is inhabited by many Alan Berliners from around the world. They come in various sizes and shapes and each complains that he is constantly being mistaken as a different Alan Berliner. It's something out of Kafka. Our Alan Berliner finally assembles these other Alan Berliners for a surreal supper and a confessional, in which they concede that they all are collectively victims of that mysterious Same Name Syndrome.

Pie In The Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, (2000) is the sad messy tale of a poor-little-rich- girl who sought love and validation, plus acceptance as an artist, but alas: she just ain't got the stuff. Born with all the advantages—her father was head of the Hearst Empire, her mother, a popular hostess and society figure—Brigid Berlin chose instead to reject the advantages of her class and become one of the untalented or semi-talented hangers-on within the Andy Warhol Factory. She appeared in three Warhol films, notably The Chelsea Girls, playing a lesbian pusher of joy pills. She seemed to drift along after Warhol's death, taking up and abandoning various hobbies, compulsively dieting or binging. Now 60, more than half her life has been in a spiral, seeming to want acceptance as an artist—but at what art?

The American Nightmare (US & UK, 2000) will bring back the nightmare horrors of your movie-going teen years that you so much enjoyed, even as you were scared senseless, up there in the balcony, clutching your date. Using scenes from the classic horror films of the 1970's, that Golden Age when undead catatonic zombies walked and stalked by night, The American Nightmare documents a period when the horror cinema underwent major changes in content and style and theme, when young professionals in the Roger Corman studio and elsewhere sensed that the public and the industry were ready for risky changes in the purposes and forms of movie entertainment. The rebels of the new horror genre—Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, George Romero—pushed the limits, and the public went along with them. The American Nightmare treats the viewer to excerpts from such classics as Night Of The Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. These films, a melange of horror and sexual thrills, were inspired in part by both huge all-youth events like Woodstock and by the Vietnam War, whose violence and explicit atrocities found a mirror in the new horror cinema. The low-budget Hollywood horror industry marches on, even today, always today, searching for and giving us new horror thrills.

The Optimists—The Story of The Rescue of The Jews of Bulgaria (US, 2000), by Jacky Comforty, documents an extraordinary non-event—the Holocaust atrocity that didn't occur. How is it possible? The Germans had ordered their satellite government in wartime Bulgaria to start the round-ups, and thousands of Jews were collected into deportation centers; the Comforty family of four was among the 8,500 Jews. On March 10, 1943, the Bulgarian police, and their captives, the 8500 Jews, waited for the trains. And the trains never came. That night, all the Jews simply went home. The Comforty experience was repeated throughout Bulgaria: 50,000 Bulgarian Jews survived because Bulgarian Christians and Muslims found methods to protect the Jews, even against their own Nazi-allied puppet regime.

"The purpose of our documentary has been to explore how these different ethnic and religious groups came to live together in peace in Bulgaria even during the Holocaust, and to learn how the lessons learned can be applied today," states Jacky Comforty. "Both organized efforts and individuals made the difference. The Bulgarian Parliament, the Church, intellectuals, trade unionists, professionals, guilds, and the Jewish community —all helped to defeat the Nazi plan for mass deportation."

Trembling Before G-D (US, France & Israel, 2001), by Sandi Simcha DuBowski, is about religion and its power over the minds of those who submit to its authority, or certain aspects of its authority. The film is a protest by individuals, a refusal to conform—because to yield would be a violation of the person's private morality and integrity.

At issue in Trembling Before G-D is the wish or need or demand of homosexual religious Jews to have both their deeply serious religious faith, which outlaws homosexuality, and also to have, simultaneously, their personal private sexual preferences. Indeed, "preference" sounds too shallow and transient, when describing the love and deep commitment that far surpass mere preference. A kind of religious martyrdom pertains, as some families are shattered by the strife and tension that accompany the revelations of homosexuality within their ranks.

Sandi Simcha DuBowski made this most original and courageous documentary over a five-year period. The film goes beyond the mere workaday social problems of the typical documentary into the realm of spiritual faith, religious intimidation and ostracism, forbidden love versus conformity to what may be obsolete scripture from Leviticus 10:13and from 16th century Jewish law.

Filmmaker DuBowski performs a valuable service for the enlargement of the rights of all citizens. The film asserts that devout believers are custodians of their own bodies and of their sexual appetites, as an expression of their private personal integrity. 

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