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    Panorama Documentaries – Berlinale 2009

    By Tanja Meding | April 14, 2009

    Documentaries are an important part of the Berlinale – and the track record of the last 10 Panorama Audience Awards further confirms this: André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Im toten Winkel – Hitlers Sekretärin (Blind Spot – Hitler’s Secretary) (Austria) won in 2002, Andres Veiel’s Die Spielwütigen (Addicted to Acting) (Germany) in 2004, Tomer Heymann’s Bubot Niyar (Paper Dolls) (Israel/Switzerland) in 2006, Lucy Walker’s Blindsight (UK) in 2007, and, this year, the Panorama Audience Award went to Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum and Kurt Engfehr’s The Yes Men Fix the World (USA).

    Last year, Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha was awarded the Golden Bear for his feature film Tropa de elite (The Elite Squad); and this year he returned to Berlin with a documentary titled Garapa (Brazil). Padilha’s film deals with hunger and is an attempt to show some first-hand experiences with this devastating condition. Padilha follows three Brazilian families as they struggle and mostly fail to feed their children and themselves. Whether living in the city, in a rural area, or in the middle of nowhere – the situation is the same: families lack the most basic food to grow and barely survive, suffering extreme undernourishment. And so the mothers resort to feeding their children a sugar mixture called Garapa. Cheap to buy, it’s a totally deficient supply of energy with devastating consequences: tooth decay, skin diseases, and many other secondary effects of malnourishment.

    Filmed in stark black-and-white images with no additional music or commentary and only minimal on-camera interviews, Garapa has a classic cinéma vérité style quality to it that renders it timeless, yet universally pressing. The few statistics at the opening and closing of the film are an urgent reminder that hunger is everywhere and, ironically, might be controllable if only everyone put their minds to it. As José Padilha explained after the screening, during the four weeks of production he and his crew would not stay with the families overnight, but lived in villages nearby. They would have breakfast in the morning before leaving to meet with the families, and then go without food for the day, to only eat again when they returned to their quarters at night. According to Padilha, the women in the families are usually better equipped at coping with the situation, whereas the men are mostly overwhelmed and far more likely to retreat into alcoholism or depression.

    Acknowledging some shortcomings of his film, José Padilha clarified in the Q&A session that he did not want to make a film about the reasons and politics of hunger – for that he suggested to go online and read all the comprehensive literature that is available – but rather give the audience a small glimpse into the daily struggles of families afflicted by it. Paradoxically, by choosing black-and-white film stock, Padilha adds a certain poetry to the cruel topic and therefore makes his harsh yet humane film a little bit easier to bear.

    Michael Winterbottom is another feature filmmaker who won the Golden Bear with his feature film In This World (UK) in 2003. Always in for a surprise, whether in subject matter, approach or format, Winterbottom, like José Padilha, also returned to this year’s Berlinale with a documentary. Codirected with Mat Whitecross, their work-in-progress titled The Shock Doctrine (UK) is based on Naomi Klein’s book with the same title, and investigates the effects of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman’s free market doctrines on the world.

    Moving in rapid succession from the violent military coup in Chile on 11 September 1973 to the massive privatization in the UK throughout the 1980s, all the way to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and today’s world market collapse – the film suggests that the current world crisis is a result of endless privatization and free market policies during the past 30 years. The Shock Doctrine is a whirlwind of contemporary socio-political world history and a reminder of how frighteningly close politics, the economy, and war are connected with each other.

    Compared to these two films, Endstation der Sehnsüchte (Home From Home) by South Korean filmmaker Sung Hyung Cho is a sweet sail across cultural relations. Some 30 years ago, a large number of South Korean nurses arrived in Germany to start a new life. Now, as they have reached retirement age, a few finally return home together with their German husbands. As a thank you for the support they had sent back home over the years, the South Korean government sponsored the building of a German village with original German bricks, doorknobs, and postboxes – a safe haven, and a home away from home for the German husbands. But also a true tourist attraction for the native South Koreans, who each weekend come from near and far to visit this small German village and its inhabitants, take pictures, and block the driveways with their cars. In Home from Home Sung Hyung Cho and her team capture intimate moments with the different couples during some tender but also troubled times – as husbands and wives navigate and negotiate their cross-cultural relationships in a new home.

    This year’s Berlinale special sidebar was a workshop retrospective of films from Eastern Europe titled Winter ade – Filmische Verboten der Wende (After Winter Comes Spring – Films Presaging The Fall of the Wall). The series commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Helke Misselwitz’s same-titled documentary Winter ade (GDR, 1988) was the opening film for this film series. Between 1987 and 1988, just prior to the fall of the wall, Misselwitz set out on a trip across East Germany to meet with women and talk to her about their lives, loves, losses and longings. Misselwitz’ interviewees are from all walks of life and of different ages. And so Misselwitz painted a populous picture of East German sensitivities – a country at the crossroads: towards the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. However, the topics her women cover are universal – whether searching for love, taking stock at the end of one’s life, dealing with single motherhood, or rebelling against parents and society. As much as After Winter Comes Spring is a kaleidoscope of female portraits, it is also a time capsule of a country and a highly personal travelogue of the filmmaker herself.

    – Tanja Meding

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