Over the course of its history, through its migration from West Berlin to the dividing line of Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin International Film Festival, or the Berlinale, has long been seen as a sparkling gem within the chain of international film festivals. This year marked the Berlinale’s 60th anniversary, and with a program of over 400 films from the farthest reaches of the globe, the festival once again proved to be a truly indispensable summit for art, film, industry and thousands of cinephiles – including a diverse collection of international docs.
Although the Berlinale has never been considered a doc-centric event, throughout its February 11-21 run, a varied assortment of new international documentaries was scattered between the fest’s Forum, Panorama and Culinary Cinema programs. The Panorama Dokumente, in particular, effectively delved into contemporary issues, balancing artistic vision with mainstream appeal. During Saturday evening’s awards ceremony, the Panorama Audience Award was granted to the incredibly moving documentary Waste Land, a Brazilian-UK co-production by directors Lucy Walker, João Jardim, and Karen Harley. Waste Land follows one of Brazil’s most renowned contemporary artists, Vik Muniz, to ‘Jardim Gramacho’ – one of the largest garbage dumps on the planet. Over the course of two years, Muniz recruits a team of charismatic ‘garbage pickers’ to collaborate on large-scale portraits of themselves, using the trash as the medium.
Panorama also presents a large selection of queer cinema – doc and fiction – that is eligible to compete for the world’s most important queer film award, the Teddy Award. This year, the Teddy went to the Italian documentary, The Mouth of the Wolf (La bocca del lupo) by Pietro Marcello, which tells the love story between an imprisoned man and the transsexual who became his partner.
A few doc highlights at Berlinale focused on New York pop-cultural icons from the ’60s to the ’80s, including Beautiful Darling: The Life And Times Of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (James Rasin, U.S.), a portrait of the notorious transgendered actor who dazzled in several of Warhol’s films that had its world premiere at the Berlinale, and Blank City (Céline Danhier, U.S.), which traced the evolution of ‘No Wave’ cinema or the ‘Cinema of Transgression’ inspired by punk and new wave.
Other key doc screenings at the fest included the world premiere of Spain’s Cuchillo de palo (Renate Costa, produced by Estudi Playtime) which, according to Costa, ‘reveals a part of the hidden and silenced history’ of her country Paraguay through the story of her uncle Rodolfo; and The Oath, in which American filmmaker Laura Poitras obtains extraordinary insights into militant Islamism through her portrait of Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s former bodyguard. A film that’s already generated much buzz on the festival circuit did so again in Berlin: Collapse by director Chris Smith (The Yes Men, American Movie) is an Errol Morris-esque feature-length interview with Michael Ruppert, former L.A.P.D. detective, investigative journalist and ‘prophet’ who tears through broad subjects like oil, food, and energy, with apocalyptic outcomes that lead straight to the collapse of industrial civilization.
Perhaps the most hyped documentary at the Berlinale was Exit Through The Gift Shop, by notoriously camera-shy UK street artist, Banksy. The reluctant graffiti legend has been quoted as saying the doc is ‘a film about a man who tried to make a film about me.’ That man would be Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, a supposed friend and filmmaker-turned-art star who may indeed be another one of Banksy’s creations. Still, with its reams of video footage, its presentation of street artists in action stands as witness and testimonial to the transgressive beauty of what’s called ‘illegal art.’
While the docs on hand pointed to the 60th anniversary edition being an artistic triumph, attendance numbers also offered cause for those behind the Berlinale to celebrate. While final numbers weren’t in at press time, organizers were saying by Saturday that 300,000 tickets were expected to be sold for the fest’s offerings, 25,000 tickets more than 2009′s fest.