(By Alexander King, LIFF Programme Manager) I might be wrong, but this year’s Berlin seemed to lack the big arthouse hits that emerged from its programme in 2015- the likes of 45 Years and Taxi Tehran. But it was a richly rewarding festival nonetheless, full of immersive dramas, fascinating docs and a few low key gems. I managed to catch six of the eight main competition prize-winners although I have to confess that I missed the latest slow cinema epic from Lav Diaz, the eight hour Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, which was awarded the Alfred Bauer prize.
However I’m happy to say that I did see this year’s Golden Bear winner, Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s superb documentary made on the island of Lampedusa, half way between Sicily and Tunisia. Focussing on the locals, especially a lively and mischievous twelve year old boy, Samuele and his family of fishermen, Rosi offers a warm and humanist vantage point for the refugee crisis, witnessing the traumatic arrival of thousands of African migrants.
The Grand Jury Prize was awarded to Danis Tanovic’s Death in Sarajevo, an ensemble drama and political farce set during one hectic day in a struggling hotel in the Bosnian capital. For me it was flawed but fascinating, never quite coalescing into the razor sharp satire it suggests in its best moments.
The Silver Bear for best director went to Mia Hansen-Love for the rich and accomplished character drama Things to Come with a typically nuanced performance from Isabelle Huppert as the philosophy teacher, Nathalie, whose life is thrown into disarray when her husband suddenly leaves her for another woman.
The best actress award went to Trine Dyrholm for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune. Sadly not the dream combination of Festen and Together I was hoping for, it was still a warm and funny character drama with great performances all round. The best actor award went to Majd Mastoura for the absorbing Tunisian film Hedi, the story of a reserved young man breaking out of claustrophobically restrictive family circumstances.
Elsewhere in the competition, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Zero Days presented a jaw dropping survey of the frightening new developments in techniques of cyber warfare and the discovery of the Stuxnet virus. Offering pretty incontrovertible evidence of US and Israeli government backed hackers directly causing physical meltdown in an Iranian nuclear plant, there are still no official sources prepared even to admit that such technology exists.
Outside the competition, I had fun with a couple of mainstream event movies in big venues including Chi-raq, Spike Lee’s notorious new hip hop musical version of the Greek tragedy Lysistrata. It may sound contrived and it’s certainly loud and lurid but it’s also hugely entertaining big screen entertainment, often very funny. It’s the first feature production by Amazon Studios so I’m not sure if it’s headed direct to streaming services in the UK but it deserves to be seen in the cinema with a lively audience. Even more lively was the European premiere of Michael Moore’s new doc Where to Invade Next. Heading to UK screens in late spring, the premiere had the singular distinction of a recorded introduction by the director in a bath robe, prevented from travelling to the festival due to a recent bout of pneumonia. Berlin audiences were hugely enthusiastic.
Best of all for me were a couple of hidden gems in the other sections. Apparently a strong year for the Generations sidebar, I only saw one film myself, but it was the terrific new film by Love is Strange director Ira Sachs, Little Men, a lovely, low key family drama set in the gentrifying suburbs of Brooklyn, pivoting on the friendship of two teenage boys, threatened by a commercial tenancy dispute between their parents. Avoiding dramatic clichés, sentiment and melodrama with wonderfully natural performances from the two young leads, it was the most refreshing and emotionally appealing feature in a programme full of good quality character dramas.
The experimental Forum section also included the fantastic minimalist cine-poem Homo Sapiens by Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread). Despite its title, entirely lacking in actual humans, the film consists of a series of beautifully composed tableaux shots of different areas of urban decay around the world. Abandoned office buildings, cinemas, ballrooms, amusement parks, cut together with gentle ambient sounds and no intrusive text or voiceover. The images speak for themselves.
The Forum also included a fascinating Japanese retrospective called Hachimiri Madness with new digital versions of a series of rarely seen 8mm punk underground films made in the 80s by some of the next generation’s most influential cult filmmakers like Shinya Tsukamoto, Sogo Ishii and Sion Sono. Anarchic, daft and flat out bonkers, the films also reveal a playful inventiveness that you can trace directly into hit movies like Tetsuo and Suicide Club. The prize for the craziest of all goes to the mindboggling debut I am Sion Sono, where the 22 year old director announces himself to an unsuspecting world.