Beuys, Casting JonBenet, I Am Not Your Negro, Devil's Liberty, Dream Boat among dozens competing for doc prize of € 50,000
Note: this piece has been updated to clarify that California Dreams is screening as part of Berlin Critics Week
The 67th Berlin Film Festival could bring glory to any number of documentary filmmakers, not to mention a major cash award.
For the first time a € 50,000 prize will be awarded to the top nonfiction film as voted on by a three-person jury -- Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras, filmmaker Samir, and Daniela Michel, a film critic and founding director of the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico.
Several dozen films are in the running, including Beuys, directed by Andres Veiel, a biographical documentary on the late German artist. That film is playing in the Competition section alongside more than a dozen narrative/fiction films.
Spread across the festival's other sections are dozens of documentaries, many celebrating their world premieres including Devil's Freedom [La Libertad del Diablo] by director Everardo González, an emotionally powerful exploration of the toll of violence from Mexico's drug war.
All the interviewees in the film -- victims and perpetrators of devastating crimes -- wear masks, lending the film an eerie, disquieting force. The director told Nonfictionfilm.com he photographed his subjects wearing masks not to conceal their identities, but paradoxically because it freed the interviewees to reveal more of themselves.
Among the films in the Panorama Dokumente section is Dream Boat by Tristan Ferland Milewski, which takes viewers aboard a gay cruise with three thousand men from dozens of countries around the world.
In his feature film debut director Ferland Milewski succeeds in providing a look behind the scenes of an ostensibly superficial world.
Amid the eye candy and the hedonism, the director finds a compelling human story of people -- some hailing from repressive countries -- for whom a gay cruise represents an unthinkable form of liberation. Among the characters is Ramzi, a Palestinian-born man now living in Belgium for whom being openly gay in his country of birth would present a difficult choice.
Dipankar, a young man originally from India who now lives in Dubai, struggles to live openly in either country. Yet at times on the week-long cruise he faces a different kind of struggle -- to feel accepted for who he is in the midst of a group of people for whom physical assets are highly prized.
"I had never felt lonely until this trip," Dipankar declares at one low point on the trip, before he forms bonds of friendship with fellow passengers and his spirits rally. [Note: Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with the director, Dipankar and Ramzi Sunday morning and will file a full report on the film]
Bones of Contention by Andrea Weiss explores Spain's repression of its LGBTIQ community during and after the Franco years, a campaign of violence that resulted in the killing of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca in 1936.
Spain is today one of the most progressive countries when it comes to homosexuality, and yet the nation still refuses to account comprehensively for its dark past before a court of law.
Weiss is not only a filmmaker, but holds a Ph.D in history. She teaches film at City College of New York.
One of the most entertaining and absorbing documentaries in Berlin is from director Mike Ott. His California Dreams, a film whose characters all harbor ambitions of working as actors. Ott renders irrelevant the traditional (and perhaps indefensible claim) that documentaries are purveyors of "truth." In California Dreams, a scene that may begin initially as a vérité-style sequence of captured "reality" may morph into a staged bit of cinema, a delightfully blurred line that raises philosophical questions about what is real and what is make believe -- both for the characters and us as viewers.
Ott says he is comfortable with the film being described as a comedy documentary, as press materials dubbed it. And it contains many hilarious scenes, including one with the film's main character, the unforgettable Cory Zacharia, on the phone trying to get a job at Taco Bell. California Dreams premiered as part of Berlin Critics Week, which runs concurrently with the festival. The
film holds its U.S. premiere next month at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Among other documentaries in Berlin, For Ahkeem by directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest takes a cinema vérité-like approach to telling the story of "Boonie," an African-American teenager from St. Louis who struggles to find hope and purpose in an environment of limited opportunity and abbreviated lifespans.
A European audience will get the opportunity to see several documentaries which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, including Casting JonBenet by Kitty Green, and Strong Island by Yance Ford.
Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary based on unpublished writings of James Baldwin, will hold its European premiere at the Berlinale. Peck also unveils a narrative film in Berlin on the life of Karl Marx.
The Berlinale, which features a lineup of about 400 films altogether, extends from February 9-19. Running concurrently with the festival is the European Film Market, where fiction and nonfiction films are bought and sold in a kind of bazaar at the elegant Martin Gropius Bau.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.