By Yun-Hua Chen.
November in Berlin is a busy month for film buffs in the capital, as there are three major independent film festivals: Afrikamera, Interfilm, and Around the World in 14 Films. Among these, Afrikamera is organised by the nonprofit cultural association, Toucouleur e.V. It brings rarely screened African movies to Berlin in an effort to initiate and engage in an active dialogue between the continent and Germany. By transporting the Berliner audience to the anti-stereotypical multifaceted images of the the everyday life in Africa, Afrikamera also does its best in raising awareness of the degree of diversity that characterizes the region. Running in the same week as Afrikamera, Interfilm 2013 (also known as The 29th International Short Film Festival Berlin) curates an impressive number of over 500 short films from 67 countries, organised into 58 programs and 7 competitions. A truly great platform, Interfilm facilitates various encounters between numerous filmmakers from all over the world. As for the third film festival which runs towards the end of November, Around the World in 14 Films enters its eighth year of taking its audience to a trip around 14 countries, each one represented by a film. It opens with Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé and closes with a surprise film by American indie cinema icon Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive, which was later followed by a music performance at the legendary club Tresor, starring the man himself.
Afrikamera opens with Licínio Azevedo’s Virgem Margarida, following 16-year-old Margarida’s trajectory in Mozambique in 1975, right after the country’s independence from Portugal. The subsequent film The Pardon, by Rwanda genocide survivor Joel Karekezi, caused a stir in town since it tries to deal with difficult issues such as coming to terms with historical trauma and universal human values. In The Pardon, as the civil war between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority broke out, the two friends Manzi and Karemera choose to be sided with their ethnic groups and consequently discard their friendship. Frenzied and blinded by the urge to be part of a group, Manzi went so far as to kill Karemera’s whole family. When Manzi comes out of the prison 15 years after the genocide, it is a time of both inner and outer struggle, reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness and understanding, an ongoing lesson even now. Another noteworthy film in Afrikamera is Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s animation film Aya de Yopougon, based on Abouet’s successful comic with the same title. It follows Aya’s daily routine with her best friends Djoua and Bintou in Yopougon, a working class neighbourhood of Abidjian. The film portrays, in an admittedly humorous way, the neighbourhood bar, the discrepancy between a humble household and that of a brewery owner, as well as the girls’ dream of marrying up and the adults’ hypocritical moral standards. All those elements come together and form a picture of marriage and love in Africa, a picture that is both easily accessible and enjoyable.
Running parallel to Afrikamera, InterFilm consists of a number of different competition categories (international, documentary, German and environmental), as well as a series of programs such as Confrontations, Focus and Special Programs. In Focus on Australia & New Zealand, Michael Latham’s graduation work Boxer (2008) skilfully constructs a short existentialist tale. Set in an anonymous giant warehouse, while the middle-aged manager Gary navigates his golf buggy as his daily routine, he discovers a mysteriously misplaced box, which leads to a series of identity crises among the employers and himself. In a world coldly segmented by goods’ shelf numbers, reminiscent of IKEA, Latham’s characters break through constraints by becoming inanimate and even more confined physically. Another noteworthy series is Stories from the Far East, which curates eight short films from China and Taiwan. Most of these films deal with the strained relationship between parents and their children. Yoyo Yao’s A Big Deal and Hang Li’s The Coin (2011) center around a child’s adventure in search of the absent mother or her substitute figure; Te-yu Liu’s The Carousel Family, Ji Ji’s Jili (2011) and Jack Shih’s The Solitary Pier portray variegated family forms and patterns. Song Liying’s Shifan Wedding (2011) delves into the marriage market in China and questions the true value of a family’s core. What is really special in Interfilm is the program called Eject XVI – The Long Night of Odd Films, hosted by Humpert Schnakenberger and accompanied by a live organ player between each section. This event focuses on absurd, odd, surreal, fanciful and/or politically incorrect short films and the audience has the absolute power to eject a certain film or to express their liking for it after each series. The experience is at the same time bizarre and fun. Upon entrance, the members of the audience are given voting devices which consist of red and green balloons with the signs “eject” and “play” respectively, along with a whistle with which they can participate in a barrage of collective noises between screenings. The short film graced by the highest number of green balloons wins the so-called Audience Award for the Weirdest & Most Wonderful Film. This series includes such fun-loving animations as Arnaud Crillon’s Sun of a Beach, which is based on his own comic and reveals a sharp sense of humour; Michael Frei’s allegory of sex and interpersonal relationship Plug & Play; and Ross Butter’s grotesque portrayal of destructive love, I Love You So Hard. Carlo Vogele’s Una Furtiva Lagrima and Nicolas Deveaux’s computer animation 5 Meters 80 were among Berliners’ favorites. The former is a humorous personification of a fish, which is sold from the fish market and is on its way to the frying pan. Under the form of a mock music video, the fish sings—with a tenor voice—to “Una Furtiva Lagrima” during its tragic-comical trajectory towards death. The latter starts in a suspenseful way as the camera follows a group of giraffes lining up to march upwards on a staircase. As it turns out later, they are actually queuing up for high-flying acrobatic dives.
In Around the World in 14 Films, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn gazes straight into the Iranian regime’s silencing machine. Based on true events and filmed clandestinely, it confronts the violent censorship system enforced by the secret police and provides the viewer with an insider look into its malevolence; Rasoulof himself was arrested in 2010. Against its breathtakingly beautiful cinematography with strong hues of blue and grey, it unnerves the audience by gradually intensifying the psychological and physical torture that the secret police imposes on the country’s journalists; it all starts with a writer keeping copies of his recounts among his friends, on the regime’s attempted assassination of all the country’s important intellectuals in a bus toward a conference. The dragging duration of torture soon becomes viscerally felt by the audience. What renders this horror even more vivid is the way that the two expatriate actors, physically present at the film festival, were completely silenced on stage out of fear of revenge from the regime. A parallel brave picture is Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin. The film interweaves four working-class characters’ revenge on egoistic money-craving individuals in contemporary China. These characters are a miner, a migrant worker, a receptionist at a spa and a young factory worker—in other words people who are usually nothing more than anonymous players in the economic success story, totally powerless against an unflinching machine that runs on sheer greed. In Jia’s world, these people take matters into their own hands and put a violent end to two relationships: one between the exploiter and the exploited and the other between indifferent government bureaucrats and the oppressed working class. A Touch of Sin is a poignantly undisguised criticism on the kind of society in which revenue grows faster than conscience. Another film, which moves into a slightly different direction, is the Japanese Like Father, Like Son. When the hospital realizes that the wrong babies were given to several parents six years ago, a father is forced to choose between his biological son and the son whom he has raised as his own for all that time. He is thus forced to face his own snobbery, his absence as a father and what it really means to have a son. Like Father, Like Son is a heart-warming film that reflects upon happiness in life, especially happiness that comes mainly from simple things, against the backdrop of a highly competitive society.
Yun-hua Chen completed her PhD in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, and is currently working on several academic articles.