By Sascha Krieger
Was there an alternative? Probably not. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fuocoammare is the winner of the 2016 Golden Bear. Not only does the film deal with what is probably the most pressing image in world politics today, the so-called refugee crisis, it does so in such a unique way, artistically and esthetically, that re-defines the documentary genre and opens new possibilities for story-telling that brings the documentary ever closer to feature formats. In this respect, the film is exemplary for what might have been the festival’s biggest trend: a growing refusal to see feature and documentary form as completely separate worlds. Fuocoammare or films such as the Forum entry Tempestad use a narrative freedom that only fictional work seemed to allow. So the decision to not only include Fuocoammare in the Competition but also give it the main award reflect a change in thinking on the side of the festival but that of the film makers, too: it’s about making good, unique, meaningful, challenging films. The main question is how far do they go in exploring what the art form film can do, what possibility it offers, not whether there’s a a script or scenes taken from „real“ life. So we’ve seen one of the most pervasive esthetic trends of the festival, the separation of image and sound, in documentaries (such as Tempestad or Havarie) but also in fictional work like the Portuguese Competition film Cartas da guerra.
Of course, Fuocoammare is, in a way, a typical Berlinale winner. The festival has always focus on what is going on in the world and it has always been much more political than Cannes and Venice. So the refugee topic was present in all of the festival’s sections and especially the Competition was full of films with some sort of political and social topic, from refugees to abortion, from war to immigration, from German history to that of the Balkan. At the same time, the artistic range was particularly large, from naturalism to abstraction, from poetry to historical drama, from science-fiction to surrealism. And that’s only the Competition. Not all worked out of course, the class of 16 in Competition was rather mediocre but it certainly wasn’t uniform. Especially the urge for poetical story-telling was strong with three Competition entries (among them an eight-hour-lomng effort) taking this direction.
Again, Berlin was a window to the world, past and present, with hardly a region not represented in some way. For example, we saw the first-ever film from Ghana at this festival. So is all good? Of course not. The Competition, for example, could do with some stricter curation. Too often, it seems, films are invited because they bring stars, because the director has a big name or a certain country needs to be included. Berlinale should have the confidence to go for pure quality without any self-imposed quota. A star vehicle such as the dreary Alone in Berlin doesn’t do any one any good.
On a wider note: the proliferation of the programme has gone to ridiculous extremes by now. Hardly anyone will be able to name all sections and sub-sections of the festival anymore. And it makes especially the smaller ones suffer. Take Perspective German Cinema: With most interesting German films going to Competition, Panorama, and Forum these days, the section has become a dumping ground for often minor efforts and films not good enough for the other sections. With ever more programme diversification, the sections haven an increasingly hard time to find their own profile and to distinguish themselves from the other. The result is a growing sense of vagueness and increasing confusion for the audience. Maybe it is time to try and find a leaner, clearer structure that helps guide the Berlinale guest better through the film jungle. The „old days“ with Competition, Panorama, Forum and what is now Generation didn’t exactly exclude a lot.