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  • Christian Hain

Berlinale 2019 – Leftovers, or: The Best of the Rest

(Berlin.) What We Left Unfinished is not only the title of a film, but also our motto of the day. Apart from all those films in and in-yet-out-of-competition, there’s more to see at Berlinale, much more, adding up to a total of 3547 films - no, not really, but it sure feels like that. It’s the one biggest complaint about those past eighteen Kosslick years: Where the leaving director himself is known for being a vegan health food fanatic, the festival has fattened ever more over the years. Both passions, film and (super-)food, meet in Berlinale’s Culinary Cinema series (this indeed exists), in films for the fastidious gourmet or tackling the evil food industry. Personally, I’ve eaten 200g of chocolate and washed it down with a bottle of cheap red while typing those little articles every night. Then slept for five hours before going to the movies again, equipped with a litre bottle of coke (classic, real sugar!), a chocolate bar, and a mug for the free-for-the-media coffee. Something's telling me, Mr Kosslick would disapprove.

Even before the festival began, there were preview screenings of films in the Forum and Forum Expanded categories. - Don’t ask for the difference, or yes: do, I think the “expanded” part is only the off-site art exhibition (but might be wrong here). It again took place in the northern Berlin ghetto of Wedding, this time in a former crematorium (built in 1909 and thoroughly oversized back then: half Berlin would have been required to die within months to render it profitable, as visitors were told in the opening night speech – indeed, there was one of those to endure, again. Cynics might have thought, “well, only a few years later, they did find a way”; 1930s/40s, Germany, cremation – unfortunate association chain.)

I don’t know much to say about this exhibition, some was good, some was bad, you could definitely smell that film money in the perfect scenography – the lighting! –; no petty midsize gallery could do the like. On top, there was free wine, and at some point a performance, which was not the standard contemporary art performance, as it did not involve any nudity. Which could only have improved it.

Two outstanding works came from Clarissa Thieme and Heike Baranowsky, respectively. The first one consists of a photograph, a video, and a light beam. Gradually, we’re led to understand the meaning, and the menace, behind the seemingly erratic installation: The light emulates the movements of a hand camera back in 1992, when a civilian in Sarajevo filmed approaching militiamen (we never learn, whose side they were fighting for).

Baranowsky’s is a double image, two films shown side to side, two recording of a Death Valley crater from different angles. The story behind deals with different systems of meaning, making/creating sense. In the eyes of science, it’s the result of a “hydro-vulcanic explosion happening 7000 years ago”, for the local Indians the place where a coyote carried some of the first men to. Who’s right, and does it really matter?

It’s all more the type of art that doesn’t tell much by itself, without reading all the background information on the walls; and if you did, maybe the installation itself did not matter that much anymore at all.

Now to those films in the Forum/Forum Expanded category, screening at the regular Berlinale venues. Again: some of it was good, and some of it was... exceptionally bad. Take an Australian collective‘s “experimental” film, The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland. Apparently, they want to give a voice to Aborigines, and put an age old myth to film. The result feels like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), but without a script. And no director, (trained, or only: talented,) actors, or cameramen either; just as if a film camera - no: an out-dated cell phone with a really bad lens -, fell from the skies to land in the outback. Now, I certainly don’t want to say: “Stick to your didgeridoos”, but... oh well, that is actually what I do want to say. Either defend “them” as being “them” and leave them be, as such, protect them from us and our technology, or include them – but in the latter case teach them how to use the alien medium. Your decision.

But we wanted to focus on the highlights. Thomas Heise‘s Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Home is a Place made of Time) is one of them. A filmic (auto-)biography, it traces the story of the director’s (partly Jewish) family through 20th Century (Eastern) Germany. Nothing special, nothing ground-breaking, but somehow captivating nonetheless. And he's a gifted photographer/capturer of images.

Also Mark Jenkin’s Bait, another story of indigenous communities threatened modern times, this one set in a Welsh fishing village. The fishermen don’t want to become friends with the new arrivals in their holiday and even permanent homes (rather don’t call them “migrants”); tragedy unfolds on the example of two families. It starts a little bit awkward, but as time passes, you’ll suspect, Bait might have been shot chronologically, with the actors following acting classes and making visible progress. There are some, failed, experiments too, grainy postcard images, overlapping dialogues, and in the end, Mark Jenkin could not decide how to finish his story, so he’s left it unfinished. But that’s excusable, the overall impression is really good; diolch yn fawr iawn (no, I did not fall asleep in the keyboard there, and thank you Google translate) for this little gem of a movie.

Leaving unfinished work has been a familiar experience of Afghan filmmakers throughout the past century.

Mariam Ghani is a contemporary video artist, who's recently finished her first feature-length documentary, What We Left Unfinished. Doing this, she’s visited, and interviewed, (mostly exiled) filmmakers from her home country.

Thinking of the rather uncommon composite “Afghan+Film”, few things spring to mind immediately. Osama’s “I’m still alive” clips perhaps (well, no more), and Rambo 3 (“Who do you think he is – God? No, God would have mercy, John Rambo won’t!”, one of my favourite movie quotes. ever). Also – ah, no: Amir Shervan was neither Afghan, nor Pakistani, but Iranian! This film might teach us a lot, indeed.

First thing to note: The images, the overall style, feel much more Holly- than Bollywood. It comes as a surprise, given the geographical background, but there could be political reasons - see: here it starts again, the need for education. Neighbouring Pakistan was Indian, and British India, once, and those two never quite got along with each other since their bad breakup, but what about either’s relations to Afghanistan? Muslim solidarity, or regional jealousy? We’ve probably all missed the same lessons in school.

What We Left Unfinished is a mix of film scenes, contemporary documents, and today’s interviews. Those filmmakers all have the same story to tell: They once started a film project that was endorsed by the then mighty - whom they (mostly) supported, too -, but before the shooting was finished, shots toppled that government and they found themselves on the wrong side of national history, persecuted for being collaborators of the deposed tyrant and not his replacement. Unlike comparable situations in other parts of the world, they’ve not been recruited by the next generation of oppressors and instead were forced into exile.

At its best, this turns into an implicit reflection on the medium of film. Being used for propaganda since its very beginnings, the medium has the power to create a world not simply of and on its own, but one that does “really” exist and that mirrors the “actual” one. In how far is it possible to reconstruct reality behind the images? And where lie the borders, exactly? This last question might appear even more urgent in the given context than usually: One time dictator Hafizullah Amin (no relation of Idi’s, and probably less bloodthirsty; definitely with lesser anthropophagic tastes) insisted to act in his own political commercial/movie. Actors travelling to film sets in military uniform found themselves forced to explain themselves to opposing – actual – combatants. The script to a film on the opium trade was written by a police officer who insisted on telling only the truth, and nothing but the truth. In lack of expensive gimmicks, actual guns were often used, leading to actual wounds and actual fatalities even – it can hardly get any more real than that. What We Left Unfinished offers fascinating insights into a lot of different spheres, filmmaking, politics - if nothing else, use it to finally finish those history lessons you’ve left a long time ago. It also makes you want to see more of Afghan cinema.

Some extra spice is added by the fact of Mariam Ghani being the daughter of current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani - a detail you won't find mentioned everywhere (for security reasons? but hey, if the Guggenheim won't keep it secret, then why should we?).

When elsewhere in the world, people were listening to Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, Germany was... well, different. Germany had Shayne, Ricky Shayne and Stephan Greene now made a film about his childhood hero. Lebanese by birth, Shayne started his career in Italy, singing and acting, before moving on to Germany in the late 1960s, where he still lives today.

As a mini (/micro) series, Shayne is a tad long, also quite confusing in the beginning. It takes time to figure out, that's Shayne himself preparing for a “A Night with...” show, or a musical on his life even, and those other two actors don’t look by chance and the art of make up like he does on posters from the Seventies, but they are his actual sons. Listening to the man himself, he’s had, and still has, a fine voice indeed, but there’s one memorable quote of his, best suited to describe his career: “What I’ve done, these songs, those films, was utter sh--. But I gave my best to make it a little bit better”.

We are served more disillusioning insights into the music business, and how corrupted it was already fifty years ago. The most annoying parts of Greene’s Shayne are whenever a certain woman (the director’s companion?) appears on stage to hold a discourse with awful theatrical pathos. She’s clearly in love with her own voice, and thinks of herself as an Oscar worthy actress, or better. She and that one interview – there are a lot of interviews -, when Greene deems it necessary to preach the singer a moral lesson. His views might not be any less self-contradictory and debatable than Shayne’s, who proves not at all up to the situation.

And yet, overall, it’s always nice to discover something new, an artwork, a film, on a topic you’d never thought you could be interested in, and yet you are. Great work, thus.

That quote is almost as good as the one from Rambo 3.



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