Focus on Festivals

The 63rd Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale 2013

Unter Menschen (2013) / courtesy DENKmal-Film

The Berlin Film Festival, celebrating its 63rd edition from February 7 to 17, 2013, has become one of the most important events for the international film industry, with almost 20,000 professional visitors from 130 countries. But with no official documentary section, the Berlinale invites a diverse international selection of non-fiction films peppered across several of the festival’s 10 categories.

Whether it’s ‘foodie’ docs in the Culinary Cinema section, or mainstreamers from noted auteurs in the Berlinale Special, or even forays into the genre-blurring boundaries of the experimental Forum, choice documentaries can be caught at the Berlinale, but sometimes that means doing a little excavation beyond the glitzy patina of the red carpet.

Undoubtedly Panorama, the festival’s bridge between artistic vision and commercial interests, bears the largest offering of documentaries year after year, in the Panorama Dokumente section. And this February, three documentaries that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will arrive at Panorama having garnered much praise and anticipation.

Alam laysa lana (A World Not Ours), a U.K.-Lebanon-Denmark coproduction by writer-director-cinematographer Mahdi Fleifel, is a prize-winning first-person reportage that documents the Ain el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, a settlement less than a mile square and home to over 70,000 people. A debut from Fleiel, A World Not Ours earned the Best Documentary prize at Abu Dhabi.

From Participant Media, State 194 by Emmy- and Peabody award–winning director Dan Setton chronicles the mission—beyond the headlines and beneath the politics—to have Palestine recognized as a state by the United Nations. Though the plight of Palestine is no stranger to the documentary lens, State 194 may prove to be pivotal as it shares the state’s struggle from the perspective of the highest levels of leadership, including Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, executive-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, profiles the Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo, who, in 1965, participated in the mass murder of more than one million radicals, artists and ethnic Chinese. In The Act of Killing, Anwar and his cohorts agree to tell the filmmakers the story of the killings. But their idea is not to provide testimony for a documentary; they want to star in their own brand of cinema. Thus the filmmakers challenge them to re-enact some of their many murders in the genre of the American movies they adore: gangster, western, and musical.

Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You (2012) / photo by Lian Lunson, Horse Pictures

Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle brings Canadian content to the German screen. American director Lian Lunson showcases Rufus and Martha Wainwright leading an all-star music lineup in a tribute to their mother, the late great singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle. Filmed at New York’s Town Hall theatre, the film is part concert—with performances by the Wainwrights, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Antony Hegarty and others—and part intimate look at a family coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

Other Panorama Dokumente selections include the world premieres of Roland Klick: The Heart Is a Hungry Hunter, by Sandra Prechtel, about the life and times of polarizing German filmmaker Roland Klick, and the Germany-Luxembourg co-production Naked Opera, by Angela Christlieb, which follows a diseased Luxembourgish Don Giovanni on a personal joyride.

Perhaps the closest film to a horror-doc in this festival is Unter Menschen (Redemption Impossible), by German duo Christian Rost and Claus Strigel. Making its world premiere at the Berlinale Special, the film follows a rehabilitation project to get 40 highly aggressive HIV-infected chimpanzees from the former experimental laboratory of the pharmaceutical company Immuno out of isolation and into species-appropriate groups.

While the Berlinale is not devoted to documentary fare in one all-encompassing section, each year the legendary festival manages to muster up a meaty cut of docs that spans topics from across the globe, adding a critical balance to the showmanship of a star-studded affair.

Melanie Sevcenko currently lives in Berlin, Germany, where she works as a freelance journalist for international publications, in both radio and print. Her articles have been published by Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera, GlobalPost, The Washington Times, Miller-McCune, DOX Magazine and Realscreen, among others.

View all articles by Melanie Sevcenko »