Here’s my pick of the Top 5 films of the just concluded Berlin Film Festival:
1. Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi (Italy-France): It won the Golden Bear for Best Film. A deeply affecting documentary on Europe’s refugee crisis. The film centres around Lampedusa, Italy, where lakhs of mostly illegal migrants, mainly from Syria and Africa, arrive, en route to Europe. Many are dead or dying from starvation or diesel burns. The film focuses on the rescue operations, as well as the private worlds of the island’s inhabitants, which barely touch each other.
A still from Reza Dormishian’s Lantouri (Gang, Iran), which is a powerful, shocking film on acid attacks on womenA still from Reza Dormishian’s Lantouri (Gang, Iran), which is a powerful, shocking film on acid attacks on women
2. Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives (Iran): an Iranian Western with three very hot guys in black suits and hats, cruising in a bright orange Impala in the desert? Oooh! An extraordinary film from Iran: it is a complicated yarn — part thriller, part folk tale, part mockumentary, apparently loaded with political metaphors. A prisoner has hung himself in an abandoned ship in the middle of a desert, whose walls are covered with his diary entries in Persian. This film is a fine example of cinema you can enjoy when you let go — a fascinating yarn, astounding images, incredibly good music and breathtaking desert landscapes — a hell of a lot of riches — without worrying too much about getting its meaning. Haghighi calls himself a surrealist: the viewer decides the meaning. An unforgettable film. Least of all, the hippie sound engineer who prefers floral, fur-lined jackets, and feeds an infant with a white balloon teat on a milk bottle.
3. Reza Dormishian’s Lantouri (Gang, Iran): A powerful, shocking film on acid attacks on women. Pasha, a thug from a gang, is in love with Maryam, a journalist-activist who is campaigning against the death penalty, pressing relatives of victims of violent crime to forgive the perpetrators, so they are not hanged. When she resists Pasha’s advances, he disfigures her horribly by throwing acid on her. By Iran’s Islamic law, the victim can demand that the accused is given the same punishment she received — i.e. disfiguring by acid. Will she still forgive him? An issue very relevant to India as well.
4. Mohamed ben Attia’s Hedi (Tunisia, in Arabic): It won Best First Feature Award and the Silver Bear for Best Actor Majd Mastoura. On the verge of an arranged marriage to a girl he has barely met, Hedi, a mild car salesman, has an affair with Rim (Rym Messaoud) an uninhibited, lively woman who dances for tourists. Torn between his dead-on-arrival marriage, and a new nomadic, uncertain life with the dancer, he explodes in a climactic scene, where he finally ticks off his mother, and she realises how oppressive her love — “all for his own good” — has been.
5. Spike Lee’s Chiraq: An explosive, ferociously creative, feminist, playful, rap film that opposes gun violence. The title is a fusion of Chicago and Iraq: thanks to gun violence, Chicago city has seen more Americans killed in the last 15 years, than in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined. Lee adapts Aristophanes’ classic Lysistrata, in which the Greek heroine led an anti-war sex strike, for the 21st century with rap lyrics and music, commenting on the war between the Spartans and Trojans in Chicago. Lysistrata encourages the women to gang up and deny their men sex, until they lay down their guns. Most of the dialogues, written as bawdy rap, give the film a raw energy. Produced by Amazon Studios.
It is somewhat arbitrary to draw up Top 5 film lists of disparate films, so I would like to include other remarkable films that were at Berlin:
Mia Hansen-Love’s L’Avenir (Things to Come): It won the Silver Bear for Best Director. About a woman’s mid-life crisis: her husband dumps her, her publishers dump her, her mother dies; yet its protagonist finds fulfillment in her own work, life and family, rather than the arms of a lover.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!: An absolutely sparkling film, with George Clooney playing an actor in the role of Julius Caesar who is kidnapped; a tribute to Hollywood’s golden age of the studios.
Anne Zohra Berrached’s 24 Weeks: on the dilemmas of a couple dithering over whether to terminate her pregnancy when they discover their child has Down’s syndrome.
Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next? Unlike his more politically-incisive documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, this one is not about America’s military ambitions, but on utopian ideas America should steal from other countries, such as two months’ paid vacations (Italy), sex education in schools (France), and more.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.