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Berlin Film Festival 2023 Compassionate and political: films to look out for

RITA DI SANTO samples an array of new international films and selects her favourites

THE Berlin Film Festival jury got it right this year bestowing the Golden Bear on French director Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant. A poignant documentary about a Parisian mental health facility on a boat anchored on the Seine. 

The 72-year-old film-maker spent months chronicling the work of the centre, which caters specifically to its patients’ creative needs. What emerges is not only a depiction of warm, enthusiastic psychiatric treatment, but a portrait of several individuals who, despite their noticeable disabilities, produce original artworks. 

This is a movie made relevant by its effort to reverse common preconceptions about mental illness, with candour and depth, but that also displays a distinctive, humane cinematic style.

The International Critics Jury (FIPRESCI) gave its award to Survival of Kindness by veteran Australian director Rolf de Heer. 

Set in a lawless dystopian landscape, this is a parable about racism. A woman, called simply Black Woman in the end credits, held prisoner by white-skinned men who wear gas masks, escapes her cage, but is recaptured by more masked white men hunting people of colour, putting them to work in chains. 

A mysterious, poetic film, perplexing and even exasperating, but fascinating and moving as well. 

Among the notable competition titles was Disco Boy, starring Franz Rogowski as a young Belarusian who joins the French Foreign Legion to gain French citizenship. Ending up in Africa, he faces off with a young activist. An intelligent and elegant film, subtly reflecting on immigration and post-colonialism. Utterly absorbing. 

Some of the best films of the festival were screened in the Forum section, several of which deserve considerable praise: James Benning’s Allensworth offers a powerful comment on racial politics in the U.S. 

In 1908, Allensworth became the first self-administered African American municipality in California. A visual meditation, building strong atmosphere and tension in lengthy shots, Benning analyses the buildings (school, church, library) of the now-abandoned town, searching for traces of a black cultural history.  

Also in the Forum, Myriam U Birara’s The Bride was an intriguing debut from Rwanda. 

With poignant minimalism, it considers a disturbing case of forced marriage and domestic rape, while also charting the birth of a unique, sisterly friendship between the young wife and a relative. A deeply affecting tale of quiet female resilience against the backdrop of post-genocide grief.
 
This year's festival had a piercing political message. Alongside themes, such as genocide and refugees, it reflected the influence of global tensions and the horror of the war in Ukraine. 

Among the most remarkable films about the war was Eastern Front, from Ukraine itself. A sober, urgent, profoundly troubling documentary by Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko, based substantially on the latter’s footage, shot on duty with a volunteer medical crew. 

Titarenko and his eight-person brigade encounter cows that are sinking in mud, dogs that have gone feral, and people in close proximity with death. At times upsettingly raw and direct, yet always enlightening, this film shows in close-up how ordinary people are fighting for their survival.

Finally, Do You Love Me? in which Ukrainian film-maker Tonia Noyabrova brings to the screen, with complete honesty and humour, her life growing up in Kiev, one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union in an era known in Ukrainian as “Perebudova” or “remodelling.”

Paying attention to details and the significance of objects, Noyabrova depicts the advent of self-reliance as a farewell to the illusions of childhood. Interweaving several episodes, her film chronicles the creeping but radical transformation that is taking place. The path to independence is uncertain and sometimes painful. 

A fluently made and brilliantly composed film. 

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