[Berlin] Berlin Film Festival Round-up: A Year in which Documentaries Had the Upper Hand
[Berlin] Berlin Film Festival Round-up: A Year in which Documentaries Had the Upper Hand
  • Nesrin Allam(Film critic)
  • 승인 2023.03.02 09:55
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Nicolas Philibert ©Richard Hübner Berlinale 2023

After the unprecedented restrictions seen in 2022 Berlin Film Festival, which took place while Germany was sill enforcing very strict Covid rules, and with the Festival enforcing very strict measure of social distancing and testing for those attending the festival and its screenings, the 73rd edition of the festival (16 to 26 February 2023) saw the festival going back to its normal form, with packed press and public screenings.

The Berlinale launched with Rebecca Miller’s new romantic comedy, She Came to Me, starring Peter Dinklage, as an opera composer as searching for inspiration for his new opera. This charming drama saw audiences laughing and gave the festival a light and bright opening.

Vying for the Golden Bear (the festival’s main award) were a collection of films, some of which were not as good as what should be expected of films participating in the competition for one of the top film festivals worldwide.

The Golden Bear went to French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert for his humanistic and compassionate documentary On the Adamant, about a floating day care centre on the Seine where adults suffering from mental disorders are treated. It’s a deserving winner with a very big heart, that highlights that documentaries are witnessing a moment of recognition, considering that it follows the Venice Festival, where Laura Poitras won the Golden Lion for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.


Past Lives ©Jon Pack

Surprisingly, one of the best loved and most enjoyed films in the competition, Celine Song’s Past Lives, went unnoticed in the awards night. This was the Korean-Canadian Song’s debut feature. Her thoughtful drama about friendship and unfulfilled enduring love has many layers.

The film sees school friends, Nora and Hae-Sung, form a strong bond as kids but life takes them in different directions. Nora’s family emigrates to North America. Years pass but the affection still lives on. Hae-Sung uses social media to track her down and they connect again, online. More years pass and Hae-Sung (played as an adult by Teo Yoo) travels to New York to meet Nora (Greta Lee), who, by now, has an American husband, Arthur (John Magaro). Past Lives is a beautifully and quietly observed story with a very big heart.

Some competition titles were far more darker. Australian director Rolf de Heer’s The Survival of Kindness is anallegory about racism and colonialism. Despite the attempt at allegory, the film treated the matter at hand with superficiality unbefitting of a Golden Bear contender. German director Margarethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert, a biopic of an Austrian poet, was lukewarmly received, even if critics admired Vicky Krieps’s performance as Bachmann.


Christian Petzold’s Afire, about a writer experiencing creative and existential angst while on a summer holiday won a Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

The other main awards were shared around between different countries – different generations of film makers and artists. Veteran French cinematographer Helene Louvart won a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for her work on Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s French Foreign Legion drama Disco Boy. German writer-director Angela Schanelec won a Silver Bear for her screenplay for her Oedipal drama, Music. German transgender actor Thea Ehre received the gender neutral Best Supporting Actor award for her performance as a trans woman working with undercover narcotics cops in German police drama Till the End of the Night.


Precocious child actor Sofia Otero won the award for Best Leading Performance for her role as an eight-year-old transgender kid in Basque director Estibaliz Urresola’s 20,000 Species of Bees. Venerable French auteur Philippe Garrel received Best Director for his film The Plough. Portuguese director Joao Canijo won the jury Silver Bear for his dark drama, Bad Living.

Much of the more interesting work was in other sections. Screening as a “Special Gala” and straddling the line between comedy and drama in intriguing fashion was Robert Schwentke’s stylised sword and sandal drama, Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes. John Malkovich stars as the Roman philosopher and mentor to the very violent, bloodthirsty and immature Emperor Nero(Tom Xander). The Emperor has a twisted sense for gore that leads him killing off those closest to him. Nero murders his own mother and eventually sends one of his more thuggish soldiers to order Seneca to take his own life.


A large part of the film is devoted to Seneca’s bungling attempts to ensure a good death. Malkovich is outstanding in his quirky portrayal of Seneca as he slits his wrists and poisons himself but remains stubbornly alive. He woos in a wildly eccentric and over-the-top performance as the Roman philosopher who is neither as brave nor as brilliant as he likes to think.

In a year in which the Golden Bear was awarded to a documentary, the festival had a very strong complement of high-profile documentaries. Sean Penn’s passionate new documentary Superpower, co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, about the war in Ukraine and the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, had a very strong presence.

Tennis star Boris Becker was in Berlin last weekend for the premiere of Alex Gibney’s Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker, a two-part documentary. Gibney covers the triumphs and disasters in Becker’s career. In a heartbreaking interview conducted two days before Becker was sent to prison after his bankruptcy, the six-time Grand Slam winning tennis star breaks down on camera. He is distraught at hitting rock bottom in his life. Becker, though, comes across as a resilient and likeable figure who always bounces back.


Another documentary which impressed critics and audiences alike was And, Towards Happy Alleys. Fascinated by Iran’s film culture and the poetic works of the feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad, Indian filmmaker Sreemoyee Singh sets out in search of the protagonists of Iranian cinema. The numerous interviews she conducts over a period of six years with filmmakers Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Shirvani and human rights activist Nasrin Sotudeh, among others, show the precarious situation in which critics of the regime find themselves, including the constant threat of imprisonment and being banned from practising their profession. With a keen eye for unusual situations, she documents the effect of the Islamic Republic’s strict and omnipresent censorship on the daily lives of Iranian women whose uncompromising struggle has put them at the forefront of the protests that are currently rocking the country. And, Towards Happy Alleys is a passionate declaration of love for the cinema and poetry of Iran which also provides a frank view of daily life, and bears witness to a fearless generation raising its voice and implacably demanding its civil liberties.


Another very strong documentary was Under The Sky of Damascus. The Syrian duo Talal Derki and Heba Khaled directed their film from the distance of their Berlin exile and together with Ali Wajeeh. Everyday life in Syria is not only marked by years of war but also by internalised misogyny and violence against women both within the family and in the workplace. It is not discussed, and harassment seems to be a commonplace expression of authority. Many women are deemed unfit for society and admitted to psychiatric wards if they dare to resist male authority, and even extreme abuse is rarely reported. In Damascus, a collective of young female actors comes together to research the topic. They plan to use the moving anonymous statements of countless women to create a stage play that will break taboos. Berlin


Nesrin Allam is a British Egyptian film journalist and critic based in London. She writes extensively about film in several Arab and international newspapers.

Photo Courtesy of 2023 Berlin International Film Festival


* 《Cultura》 2023 March (Vol. 105) *


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