As individual performances slide away from centre-screen, the jury of the 66th Berlin Film Festival awards Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare the Golden Bear, underscoring the importance of standing together.
La Terra Tremaby Mark Wilshin
With its culinary section serving up homemade hummus by refugee organisation Über den Tellerrand kochen and collection boxes urging Berlinale visitors to donate to charities supporting the victims of torture, the 66th Berlin Film Festival was all about refugees from the get-go. A theme that found a fitting climax in the Competition Jury (presided over by Meryl Streep) awarding the Golden Bear to Gianfranco Rosi’s semi-documentary Fire At Sea – a dual narrative set around the Italian island of Lampedusa, not far from the African coast and the first port of call for many refugees making their way across the Mediterranean. It was a somewhat predictable choice, not just because of its real-life depictions of migrants being rescued and processed by Italian authorities, but also as one of the few films in the Competition that found a consensus among critics; the director of Sacro GRA delivering a universally applauded, if not entirely unproblematic, documentary depiction of Europe’s refugee crisis.
Not that there was a huge amount of competition. And despite big films from big hitters such as Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, theatre great Michael Grandage’s debut Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, Alex Gibney’s Zero Days or Vincent Perez’s Alone In Berlin with Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, it was the non-English language productions that romped home with the prizes, from Majd Mastoura in Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi and Trine Dyrholm’s masterful (albeit too-short) performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune to Lav Diaz’s all-consuming, eight-hour epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery and Tomasz Wasilewski’s triptych tale of unloved women United States Of Love. And while some worthy winners failed to get a mention, most noticeably Anne Zohra Berrached’s provocative 24 Weeks, Ivo Ferreira’s quietly poetic Letters From War, Mani Haghighi’s visually explosive A Dragon Arrives! and Denis Côté’s boisterous Boris Without Béatrice, many of the strongest films in fact took place outside of the competition, with Spike Lee’s dazzling take on gun violence Chi-Raq, Lee Tamahori’s affecting tale of a Maori family moving with the times Mahana and the Coen Brothers’ funniest film in years Hail, Caesar!.
It was a bad year for comedy with both Dominik Moll’s News From Planet Mars and Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Saint Amour underwhelmingly below-par. But a good year for biopics, with Terence Davies’ masterly (and liturgical) tale of Emily Dickinson’s refusal to conform A Quiet Passion and Don Cheadle’s pet project Miles Ahead – a long-overdue portrait of the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and (much like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq) a disappointingly rare but refreshing chance to see an almost entirely black cast onscreen (only hampered by a hokey lost-reel, lost-mojo plot). The political end of the spectrum fared less well generally, with Rafi Pitts’ first foray into English-language filmmaking Soy Nero disappointingly erratic, Danis Tanovic’s Death In Sarajevo simplistic and reductive, and Alex Anwandter’s Chilean crisis of conscience You’ll Never Be Alone sadly unconvincing. The best was undoubtedly Oliver Schmitz’s capital punishment polemic Shepherds and Butchers, which despite some ropey South African accents, puts the death penalty, through the emotional traumatisation of a prison warden on Death Row, convincingly in the dock.
Outside of the main competition, Udi Aloni’s Junction 48 took home the Panorama Audience Award and Petr Vaclav’s We Are Never Alone won the Tagesspiegel Jury Prize, while Klaus Händl’s sensuous Kater saw off Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s erotic Parisian romance Théo Et Hugo Dans Le Même Bateau and André Téchiné’s delicate slowburn of teenage love Being 17 to take the Teddy Award. Although one of the most interesting no doubt was Sophia Luvara’s intimate documentary Inside The Chinese Closet, following out and proud gay and lesbian Shanghaiers, but who, in respect and obedience to their parents, agree to fake marriages and babies of convenience, pushing their parents in turn deeper and deeper inside the closet. Of course, special mention should go to Ira Sachs’ Little Men, which while not on the same scale as Keep The Lights On or Love Is Strange is a masterfully nostalgic and intimate account of a teenage friendship and the inescapable hold money can have over romance.
Unlike last year’s Berlinale that saw an abundance of female directors and female-centred stories, this year’s female-heavy jury was charged (apart from Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come and 24 Weeks) with a more male perspective, with Tomasz Wasilewski’s problematic United States Of Love winning a Silver Bear for Best Script despite its desperate characterisation of histrionic women. What’s perhaps strange is that among these many male-centred stories, there was no obvious choice for the Best Actor Silver Bear – with films such as The Commune, Death In Sarajevo or Hail, Caesar! capturing instead the zeitgeist of the collective, the weight of a film spread over multiple performances rather than living or dying by just one. It’s nothing new of course, stretching all the way from George Cukor’s The Women to Robert Altman’s Shortcuts and beyond, and perhaps no more than a sign of producers hedging their bets, or casting their net wider for ever-more stars to enable their indie-minded films to stand alongside superhero franchises on the multiplex red carpet. But in these times of economic, political and refugee crises, it’s nevertheless, thanks to another engaging and quietly challenging Berlinale, a welcome reminder of the power of standing together.
The 66th Berlin Film Festival took place between 11th and 21st February 2016