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Docs beyond the Wall: Berlinale Presents a Panorama of Nonfiction

By wanda bershen

Flying into Berlin under gray, wintry skies for the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, is still a thrill, even after many years of attending it. Leaving real life behind for a week of sitting in the dark watching film from all over the world is possibly one of the great guilty pleasures for a programmer and critic, and, apparently, for many Berlin inhabitants.

Founded in 1951 in what was then West Berlin, as a counterweight to the Communist era East Germany by which the city was surrounded for 50 years, the Berlinale has long been committed to showcasing work about social and political issues, often with provocative content and style. Originally comprised of the Competition and Panorama sections, the Forum was established in 1970 to ensure selection of films not only with artistic quality, but also originality of form. Another criterion was to show films from the Third World, which remains one of the focal points of the Forum. As with all the arts in Berlin, films engaging with the complex and difficult history of Germany in the 20th century are also an important part of the festival's heritage.

The Berlinale is a huge event, now headquartered at Potsdamer Platz--an island of high-rise steel and glass in the middle of the city, with thousands of press and industry attendees and one of the largest and most enthusiastic public audiences in the world. Every screening seems to be packed, no matter how arcane the film, or how unknown the director or actors. The work of Thai director Pen Ek Ratanaruang, for example, sells out along with films from Europe, Africa, and Latin America, while discussions after the screenings are animated and multilingual.

Always a welcoming host for documentaries, the festival programs many of them in the Forum and  Panorama section. The curatorial sensibility reflects an awesome range of both style and content, from abstract to personal to political.

This year's festival focused on fiction and nonfiction films about the Arab Spring. Panorama Documente included several fascinating docs, three of which were set in Cairo: In the Shadow of a Man (Hanan Abdalla; Egypt); La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi (The Virgin, the Copts and Me) (Namir Abdel Messeeh; France/Qatar/Egypt); and Words of Witness (Mai Iskander, USA). These films offer powerful insights into current events, constrating sharply with television reporting. In Words of Witness, a 22-year-old female journalist questions people about parliamentary elections and democracy on the streets, building up an image of a well-informed public whose concerns often turn into strong demands in this new era. In the Shadow of a Man takes a crucial look at the long years of pre-revolutionary times, which provide valuable context for the present-day uprisings. We hear women eloquently express their views; then as now, it's about equal distribution of power through gender empowerment. La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi takes an entirely different approach, centering the film around an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Coptic village. Using a personal style, the filmmaker shows his family, long settled in France, watching video of the apparition; he then returns to Egypt to investigate. Heading south to his maternal family, despite his mother's implacable opposition, Abdel Messeeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people. He decides to reenact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and the film gently evokes the parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and an Egyptian in France, where he is both outsider and insider in both worlds. 


From Mai Iskander's Words of Witness


Shifting from Egypt to Yemen, The Reluctant Revolutionary (Sean McAllister, Great Britain/Ireland) focuses on the story of Sana'a Kais, a tour operator who scrapes together a living from the few travelers daring to come to his country. Although initially skeptical about the protesters, once he begins working for filmmaker McAllister as a translator, Kais and his younger brother Abdulrahman both join in the uprising. The state of emergency puts a huge strain on the family's already difficult financial situation, while the Yemeni secret service considers the filmmaker an unwelcome foreign journalist.

A major focus of the Forum was Japan, with three films about the March 2011 tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power station highlighting the programming. In No Man's Zone (Mujin chitai), Fujiwara Toshi advances into the contaminated zone around the nuclear reactors,  evoking images of an invisible apocalypse. Iwai Shunji addresses the political, economic and social situation of a country in a state of dependence in friends after 3.11. And Funahashi Atsushi's Nuclear Nation profiles a mayor without a town, desperately trying to keep together a community scattered across different emergency shelters in the Tokyo suburbs. One of the most talked about films at the festival, Nuclear Nation focuses on Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa's ordeals; the Yokoyama family, who remain close despite their permanent uprooting; and the Nakais, a father and son not having had enough time to search for their missing wife and mother during the frantic retreat. Idogawa's  heartbreaking account traces how the town's rise and fall are inextricably linked with its exploitation by Tepco to become the country's cradle of nuclear power.


From Funahashi Atsushi's Nuclear Nation


A unique section in these days of market madness is the Forum Expanded, which creates a space annually for a variety of projects including documentaries, hybrid documentaries, and not easily categorized film, video and installation work. Forum Expanded sets itself the task of taking apart cinema, putting it back together or even rediscovering it by presenting a wide range of lengths and experimental formats. Some of the noteworthy projects in Forum Expanded included Canadian video artist Steve Reinke's bitingly ironic series of short films, Tiny Dinosaurs, in which he returns  again and again to his family roots in their exploration of queer and Canadian identity; My father is still a communist, intimate secrets to be published (Ahmad Gossein; Lebanon/United Arab Emirates), in which a mother writes audio letters to her absent husband; whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation), a film edited live in real time, in which a man lives under surveillance in a fictional East European city; Joshua Bonnetta's American Color, which traces a journey of a roll of the discontinued 16mm Kodachrome film stock, from its in Rochester, New York, to Kansas, where a small photolab developed the last rolls in early 2011; and Avi Mograb's At the Back/The Details, a blend of photo images and music in a live performance.

The Panorama Documentary Audience Award went to Matthew Akers' Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. Focused on Abramovic's 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the film is a fascinating and intimate portrait of both her personal life and long career, as well as the behind-the-scenes goings-on at MoMA. Akers follows Abramovic for a year as she prepares and presents the biggest show of her career. The exhibition encompasses key Abramovic pieces (some originally performed by her with German performance artist Ulay), as well as a new piece at MoMA, to which the film's second half is almost exclusively devoted. She describes her key motivation for participating in the film as the opportunity to bring performance art to the masses and hopefully make it accessible. Having seen the exhibition at MoMA, I was fascinated with the process of preparation in the film, as well as the toll taken on Abramovic during the three months in which she sat motionless and impassive for eight hours a day in the museum atrium.


From Matthew Akers' Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present


For most filmmakers, having a film accepted by the Berlinale is a coveted event, and the imprimatur of screening there pretty much assures that your film will get international notice. Additionally many films not in the festival, including documentaries, are screened in the European Film Market, which is also huge and attracts an international cadre of distributors, producers, agents, programmers and commissioning editors. Setting up a meeting and/or inviting someone to see your film is manageable despite the size of the festival, and the Market sees brisk sales activity every year.  

One of the most interesting aspects of seeing documentaries from all over the world is the variety of approaches and definitions encompassed within that terminology--poetic essays, archival films,  personal docs, as well as installation work and combinations of all the above. The programmers at Berlinale clearly have a broad interpretation of "documentary" and take a very inclusive view in their selection, generating lively discussions and considerable food for thought.


Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D, Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit