The 63rd annual Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, opens this Thursday, February 7 and runs through Sunday, February 17. Nearly 300 feature length films will screen across more than a dozen different sections, with documentaries making up about a third of that impressive tally.
Despite the at times inhospitable winter weather, the Berlinale has consistently drawn the international film community to experience an expansive selection of world cinema in both the main festival and in its accompanying market, the European Film Market. The vibrant city of Berlin itself is arguably the festival’s greatest asset – but that may be my own bias, as I’ve been in love with the city and its people since I spent part of my junior year of college studying there. It pains me to once again miss the festival after attending regularly for over a decade, but if I were there, the following are among the docs I’d want to check out:
The festival’s premier section, the Competition, rarely, if ever, includes non-fiction, and this year is not much different. Coming closest of the two dozen offerings is Danis Tanovic’s Roma drama semi-hybrid, AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF AN IRON PICKER, which utilizes non-actors to re-enact a harrowing incident from their real lives.
More than half of the Berlinale Special section consists of documentaries. This non-competitive section presents a dozen works by and about established filmmakers as well as portraits of unique individuals. Among the notable new docs here are Raoul Peck’s FATAL ASSISTANCE (ASSISTANCE MORTELLE), an exploration of the shortcomings of earthquake relief in the filmmaker’s native Haiti; Ken Loach’s THE SPIRIT OF ’45, an elegy to the loss of Britain’s New Socialism in the wake of 1980s Thatcherism; Christian Rost and Claus Strigel’s REDEMPTION IMPOSSIBLE (UNTER MENSCHEN) (pictured), following the plight of chimpanzees after they’ve been used in illegal drug trials for fifteen years; and the world premieres of four new parts of Hans-Georg Ullrich and Detlef Gumm’s ongoing portrait of a Berlin neighborhood, BERLIN ECKE BUNDESPLATZ: A BAKER ON THE BREAD LINE, LIFE OF LEISURE, CHIMNEY SWEEPS, and HAPPY FAMILY.
Berlin’s Panorama has been a mainstay of the festival’s programming for decades. Long a home to LGBT and auteur cinema, the section has also been the site for some of the most exciting discoveries of new international filmmaking talent. Nearly half of the more than fifty Panorama selections are documentaries, including some recent titles from Sundance and Toronto. Among the most intriguing of the docs premiering here are Nicolas Philibert’s LA MAISON DE LA RADIO, a behind-the-scenes portrait of a radio station by the maker of TO BE AND TO HAVE; Sébastien Lifshitz’s portrait of 77-year-old Marie-Pierre, born Jean-Pierre, also known by the stage name BAMBI; Mahdi Fleifel’s A WORLD NOT OURS, on life in the Palestinian refugee camp where the filmmaker grew up; Mitra Farahani’s unusually titled FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS, in which the director tracks down a long-forgotten, censored pre-Revolution Iranian artist; Olivier Meyrou’s PARADE (pictured), a portrait of a quadriplegic acrobat; Simon Klose’s TPB AFK: THE PIRATE BAY AWAY FROM KEYBOARD, on the infamous Swedish file sharing platform and its legal woes; and Angela Christlieb’s NAKED OPERA, which follows a wealthy but sick man and his young male companions.
The most formally inventive section of the festival, the Forum typically presents experimental and avant garde films, film essays, and rarely-screened rediscoveries among its fifty selections. Over a dozen of these are non-fiction, including retrospective screenings of Shirley Clarke’s seminal PORTRAIT OF JASON and Deepa Dhanraj’s study of escalating racial and religious tensions in Hyderabad, WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS CITY?, among others. New documentaries capturing my attention include Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s POWERLESS, about the struggle between an Indian man who tries to secure electricity for the poor of his city and the woman who’s in charge of the local energy supplier; Sourav Sarangi’s CHAR… THE NO MAN’S ISLAND, about an environmentally displaced community on a makeshift island home between India and Bangladesh; Anja Salomonowitz’s THE 727 DAYS WITHOUT KARAMO (pictured), a stylized (and yellow-themed) consideration of the challenges of bi-national relationships; Kaoru Ikeya’s ROOTS, which follows a 79-year-old Japanese man’s efforts to rebuild his house in the wake of the 2011 tsunami; and Salomé Lamas’ NO MAN’S LAND (TERRA DE NINGUÉM), a minimalist yet complex interview with a mercenary hit man in the anti-Basque underground.
Berlin’s acclaimed Generation highlights films for youths of various ages. Among the more than two dozen features here are three documentaries: Priscia Padilla’s THE ETERNAL NIGHT OF TWELVE MOONS (pictured), in which an indigenous girl must spend a year in isolation upon the onset of menstruation; Anne Kodura’s WASTELAND – SO THAT NO ONE BECOMES AWARE OF IT, following the day-to-day lives of a group of refugee children from their own perspectives; and Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg’s TOUGH BOND, a portrait of four glue-sniffing Kenyan street kids.
The festival’s homegrown showcase, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, spotlights recent German productions. Among the four non-fiction features presented this year are Serban Oliver Tataru’s ANATOMY OF A DEPARTURE, following a Romanian family as they retrace the path they took to Germany to escape Ceauşescu’s regime; and Sebastian Mez’s METAMORPHOSEN (pictured), on a radioactively contaminated Russian region and those who still live there.
Additional German film is presented in the special German Cinema – Lola @Berlinale section, which offers viewers a chance to see pre-selected films eligible for the German Film Award. Sixteen of the more than forty titles are documentaries, including quite a few that have already appeared at international festivals. Among those that may be less familiar are David Sieveking’s FORGET ME NOT, on his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease; Irene Langemann’s THE SONG OF LIFE, exploring the connection the elderly have with music; and Marten Persiel’s THIS AIN’T CALIFORNIA (pictured), on skateboarding in East Germany – a film I’ve managed to miss at various other events.
For the past seven years, the festival has spotlighted films about food in the Culinary Cinema sidebar. This typically documentary-heavy section includes Warwick Ross and David Roach’s RED OBSESSION (pictured), on changes to Bordeaux wines in the face of escalating Chinese interest in the product; Jeremy Seifert’s GMO OMG, following a young father’s investigation of genetically modified food and its potential effects on his children; Jesús M Santos’ CUISINE AS AN AGENT OF SOCIAL CHANGE, exploring the upsurge in cooking within Peruvian society; and Stefano Sardo’s SLOW FOOD STORY, a profile of the man who began Slow Food, the worldwide movement in reaction to the popularity of unhealthy fast food.
A special series beginning this year focuses on indigenous cinema. NATIVe presents a dozen feature films as well as a number of shorts, retrospective and new, exploring work from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. Among the documentaries presented are Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 hybrid docu-drama THE EXILES (pictured), a stark day in the life of a group of young Native Americans who left the reservation for life in Los Angeles; Merata Mita’s SAVING GRACE, TE WHAKARAUORA TANGATA, in which Maori men are taken to task for domestic violence in their community; and Heather Rae’s TRUDELL, chronicling the life of the once militant American Indian Movement activist.
Finally, the Berlinale’s annual tribute section, Homage, recognizes the French master documentarian Claude Lanzmann with a retrospective of his work. In addition to his Holocaust masterpiece, SHOAH (pictured), the festival will present his 1973 exploration of Israeli society, ISRAEL, WHY; 1994’s TSAHAL, a consideration of Israel’s military; and 2001’s SOBIBOR, 14 OCTOBER 1943, 4PM, on the successful uprising at the titular death camp; as well as other work by Lanzmann.