We are all refugees! | Berlin Film Festival 2016

This year’s 66th Berlinale was courageous and compassionate in content, conscientious and accurate in its awards, EMMA MATTEI finds 

Gianfranco Rosi accepting the Golden Bear Prize from actress Meryl Streep at the Berlinale for his Lampedusa migration documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)
Gianfranco Rosi accepting the Golden Bear Prize from actress Meryl Streep at the Berlinale for his Lampedusa migration documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)

by Emma Mattei

With 400 films to consider, and only four days of attendance, navigating through the program for the 66th Berlinale to select relevant, resonant films required a combination of clear strategy, quick calculation and instinct.

In truth, it wasn’t much different to making the right decision for a speedy lunch whilst standing in a pressed queue somewhere around Potsdamerplatz, during the world’s largest film festival that takes place over 11 days each year in February. Currywurst, krakauerwurst, weisswurst, bockwurst? Decisions, decisions… once you’re up at the würstchenbude you have little time to dawdle, you must quickly identify your wurst, then wolf down your sausage of choice and hope that you will soon feel satiated, yet not too full.

Upon arrival it’s best to leap into the festival, meet and talk with the other folks who have come to this vibrant, diverse city for the same reason, and carry out some intense investigation. What’s the buzz? Which films have been picked up? By whom? Then prepare your wish list, pick up your accreditation, rise early to get in line for tickets, fail in part, and then figure out that queuing is de rigueur at this festival – the only way to guarantee your attendance at a screening of choice is to get in line!

On the first night we walk past the main ticket booth inside the shopping mall and notice blankets and bags placed on the ground in front of the now-closed windows, the tellers gone home for the night – was this akin to placing your towel out on a sun-bed at night to guarantee your spot by the pool, a joke often made about the Germans on holiday? And in essence, is there anything wrong with this act of keenness? Dare we point out the xenophobia lurking beneath this age-old joke?

Indeed, we might. Migration took centre stage at the festival; a contentious topic, particularly in the way the west handles it thematically and philanthropically, it was open to much discourse, attention and criticism. This was the overarching theme this year, explored in a substantial number of lauded works. From Meryl Streep’s salient words in her opening speech, to the brilliantly executed Swedish fiction film The Yard by Måns Månsson, and ultimately the winner of the Golden Bear, Italian documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi, the issue burnt throughout Berlin. Furthermore, refugees currently residing in Germany were also provided with free tickets to screenings.

Gianfranco Rosi, 51, is an Italian filmmaker known for winning the first ever Golden Lion for a documentary at the Venice International Film Festival in 2013, with his film entitled Sacro Gra. Had this not happened many might have scoffed a little at this year’s coveted victory, and yet for those who did see the film set in Lampedusa that deals directly with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, there was nothing but praise. Critics believe it will appeal to a wider audience, and Italian Prime Minister Renzi has stated that he intends to give a copy of the film to all European heads of state, in the hope that we may begin to treat the migration crisis differently.

Danis Tanovic’s film Death in Sarajevo received the Grand Jury Prize and much praise for a film that could easily have failed where it triumphed. Described as a Balkan Gosford Park a la Altman, Tanovic’s film is based upon Bernard-Henri Levy’s tome Hotel Europe, and deals with the region’s stagnation, age-old resentments and resulting paralysis.

Less successful but thematic was Soy Nero directed by the Iranian Rafi Pitts, a film that points out that all war is good for is a green card – if you’re looking for citizenship in the US all you need to do is sign up and join the army!

At the fundraiser dinner with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, guests wore refugee blankets but were criticised by Berlin’s cultural secretary for doing so, not long after Ai Weiwei was slammed for the recreation of a photo of the drowned Syrian child for the magazine India Today.
George Clooney ticked off a journalist at the press conference for the Coen Brothers’ opening film Hail, Caesar! When asked ‘what he does for refugees’ he turned the question back to the journalist, asking her what she does for refugees, mumbling audibly under his breath that she should ‘knock herself out’.

In the short film category, winning films also dealt with migration and the notion of xenophobia, of being unwanted and nomadic. Golden Bear winner for Best Short Film Batrachian’s Ballad by the Portuguese director Leonor Teles, deals with the stigma of Romani gypsies in Portugal in an experimental, and humorous manner.

On a more humorous note British actress Emma Thompson, starring in Alone in Berlin, a film that deals with resistance to Nazi Germany in wartime Berlin, criticised the UK and called it “a cake-filled misery-laden, grey old island”, stating that she felt European and that the UK should stay in the EU. This did not go down too well with Britain’s popular rag The Sun, who sent a giant sponge cake to her home back in Blightly, which she subsequently scoffed with great mirth. Michael Moore’s much awaited Where to Invade Next? was, in a word, a flop, and the portly documentary maker failed to make an appearance at the festival due to poor health.

Other films of note included Letters From War a docudrama on war in Angola, directed by Ivo Ferreira, Life on the Border, a documentary compiled from footage gathered by eight children who were given cameras by the Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi and asked to capture their own lives, and The Road to Istanbul directed by Rachid Bouchareb which deals with a Belgian woman who finds out that her daughter has gone to Syria to join Islamic State.

Catch many of these films and more at the Valletta Film Festival (www.vallettafilmfestival.com), and the Kinemastik International Short Film Festival (www.kinemastik.org). Visit these websites for updates, ticket prices and programs

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