A Pentecost of the Heart and Mind

Outsider Connections of the Berlinale. By Micah Bucey

The Ecumenical Jury of the Berlinale 2016 (© Ekko von Schwichow)

This past February, I joined a new kind of church.

By serving as one-sixth of the 25th Ecumenical Jury of the 66th Berlin International Film Festival (popularly known as the Berlinale), I learned anew how the power of simple connection makes way for the intersection of all three of my favourite things--faith, justice, and art--and how that connection doesn’t have to be called “church” to be something very much like it.

Though the backing organizations of the Ecumenical Jury are Christian, its members are not necessarily clergy people. In fact, my jury consisted of six eclectic folk: a German photographer, a French economist, a German journalist, an Australian film critic, a French film studies professor, and little U.S. minister me, all tasked with viewing dozens of entries in the Berlinale, judging them, and awarding prizes in three different categories to “films of directors who have shown genuine artistic talent and succeed in expressing actions of human experiences that comply with the Gospel, or in sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social questions and values.”

No big deal.

But the Berlinale isn’t a faith-based film festival. It’s a regular old, secular, big-time film festival (Meryl Streep was the International Jury president), and the films didn’t make it easy for our “Gospel-interested” jury to judge their value. Instead, we had to view the films and suss out their worth together, democratically, with some tension here and there, with some aesthetic differences apparent, and with a mutual agreement not to leave the table until we could convince ourselves and one another which films most expanded our understandings of our own cryptic criteria.

On top of this, another magical aspect of the Berlinale is that, unlike some more elite, insider film festivals, it is public and attended by thousands of regular folks, all clamouring to watch films and talk about them on every street corner. It’s a populist, democratic delight. You can’t escape an impromptu critical conversation with someone random, even if you try. One of my colleagues likened the festival to a modern-day Pentecost, with countless films descending on the city in countless different languages, telling stories from countless different cultures and being absorbed, discussed, and critiqued in countless languages. Because everyone is essentially an outsider looking in on films from all over, everyone becomes an insider, connecting through faith in the Berlinale’s explicit belief that art, and the discussing of art, can bring the world closer together.

Of all of the films in this year’s main competition, the winner of its top prize, the Golden Bear (and, interestingly, of our own Ecumenical Jury’s top prize) could not fit more perfectly into the festival’s commitment to outsider voices. Giving the award to Gianfranco Rosi’s subtly powerful Fire at Sea is a bold move, not only because the film is a documentary, but also because its subject is the island of Lampedusa, a tiny stretch of land in the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Libya and Sicily that serves as the unlikely meeting place of a quiet community of island dwellers and the African refugees who desperately want to reach European soil. The island is familiar to anyone who watches European news, as its location continually makes it a site where many refugees wash ashore, often tragically, but Rosi’s piece is much more than a news report and his keen directorial eye for juxtaposition and metaphor lifts Fire at Sea into the realm of high art.

© Berlinale

Yes, there was grumbling about how obvious a choice the film was for the top prize, as refugee-focused politics are so currently in vogue, but the film is a masterful mix of witness and craft, gently exploring two communities who share geographical location, but only sometimes directly engage. For its masterful command of uncommonly artful reflection over simple reportage, the film is not to be missed.

My other favourite films in this year’s main competition are as carefully crafted, and they all follow the theme of highlighting outsiders connecting in surprising ways. To describe any of the plots in detail would give away too many of the films’ delights and revelations, and there are many reviews on the Internet that gladly give away such spoilers, but all of them are worth approaching with fresh eyes and curious minds.

© Berlinale

First, a washed-out and muted melodrama from Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski, The United States of Love, uses its 1990s setting in a chilly, nondescript East European town emerging from the dissolution of the Soviet bloc to spin the stories of four lonely women caught in a repressive society that is just learning what pains might come with newly won freedoms. Next, from Iranian director Rafi Pitts, the Candide-like Soy Nero, a German-French-Mexico co-production, showcases the can-do attitude of a U.S. “Green Card soldier” who yearns to find his place in the United States and follows this yearning through several hopeless situations, even to war, fighting for a country that seeks to reject him at every turn. Then, from German director Anne Zohra, 24 Week explores an intimate tale of late-term abortion that could easily fall into movie-of-the-week territory, but, thanks to the raw performances of its lead actors and Zohra’s refusal to pass judgment on any of the diverse views within the film, serves as an honest reminder of the complicated joys of motherhood, particularly when the mother in question and her decisions are in the public eye. Finally, Jeff Nichols’s U.S. production, Midnight Special, which has already opened in the United States, offers an alternately thrilling and comforting throwback to classic Spielbergian explorations of the connection between strange children and the even stranger worlds that might lie beyond our wildest imaginings.

Two transcendent highlights from the other sections of the festival include the Belgian director-actor Bouli Lanner’s The First, The Last, a sad-then-hilarious-then-heartwarming road movie about seven outsiders searching for connection, one of who, named Jesus, wields both holes in his hands and a gun, and  Austrian filmmaker Handl Klaus’s Tomcat, an alternately gorgeous and brutal exploration of the demolition and rebuilding of the carefully preserved Eden a gay Viennese couple has created for itself, following a shocking and bizarre betrayal.

© Berlinale

Finally, my favorite film of this year’s competition also won the audience favorite award at the festival’s queer-specific “Teddy Award.” Paris 05:59 by French directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau was filmed over the course of 15 days, but unravels onscreen in real time over just about 90 minutes.  This quiet and quaintly celebratory film is making headlines for its depiction of frank, graphic gay sex, but the film’s lasting power lies in its gentle plumbing of the true exhilaration and true danger that accompany the birth of true love. Two outsiders, both damaged and both seeking acceptance in the arms of another, spend a wearying and wow-filled night together that simultaneously offers hope and fear. The fact that the attachment remains tenuous and tiring at the story’s end makes this relatively simple film a gorgeous distillation of the outsider-connection themes that seem so imperative to the unique spirit of the Berlinale.