Witness Program

Tempered Optimism in Berlin

Given that the competition at the Berlin Film Festival is mostly filled with Hollywood megaflicks and undigestible Euro-puddings, viewers tend to go their own way, trolling the International Forum of Young Cinema, the Panorama, and the Market for art films and documentaries that might never get a release back home. The Forum had an exceptionally rewarding program this year. Founded in 1970 by Ericka and Ulrich Gregor, who retired from their leadership positions at the end of this year's festival, the Forum focuses on films that bear witness to history, originate in marginal cinemas worldwide, or push the boundaries of movie language.

All three categories come together in Jonas Mekas's five-hour epic diary of family life, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, as appropriate a title as ever there was, and not only because of its length. (One of Mekas's still photos—an enlargement of a three-frame strip from the film—adorned the Forum's catalog cover and poster.) Among Mekas's films are at least two of the greatest avant-garde works of all time—Lost, Lost, Lostand Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. As a work of art, As I Was Moving Aheadis not nearly the equal of either of those films. It's most interesting for sidestepping aesthetic issues entirely. In that sense it's more nakedly personal than the home-derived films of Stan Brakhage or Ken Jacobs. But in focusing exclusively on marriage and fatherhood, aspects of his life barely glimpsed in the more outgoing diary films, Mekas loses track of the dialectic between the public and private self that distinguishes his best work. The film was enthusiastically received, however, with many hailing it as a near masterpiece.

Bearing witness in another way was François L. Woukoache's documentary, We Aren't Dead Anymore, shot in Rwanda on video in 1998, four years after the genocide. Punctuating the film with images of the carefully piled skulls and bones that have been made into icons all over Rwanda, Woukoache searches for signs of hope amid the horror. He talks with four teenage girl students, a group of writers and intellectuals, and some young male drifters who seem oddly fearless, given their desultory existence. The most powerful film I saw in Berlin, it has a tempered optimism that, under the circumstances, takes great courage. Woukoache was born in Cameroon but currently travels between Belgium and Rwanda, where he is setting up film workshops.

Of the many Asian films that I saw in Berlin, Ning Ying's sad and funny I Love Beijingwas by far the most incisive. The filmmaker, whose lively On the Beatis showing at the Walter Reade on Sunday, uses a young cab driver's philandering sex life as a metaphor for the confusion of appetites in Beijing's rush toward a capitalist future. Ning shows us a city being rebuilt inch by inch with jaw-dropping speed. Amid the towering skyscrapers, billboards feature women in scanty lingerie; the primary topic of conversation is money. "I am the person who loves Beijing," said the director at her press conference, "but I am an abandoned lover, because Beijing no longer has use for me."

The Forum, which screened the American antiwar documentary The Winter Soldieras part of its first season, came full circle this year with a series of recent works from Vietnam. There, filmmakers are struggling to build an indigenous cinema, despite the indifference of the government and private financiers. I was particularly moved by Le Manh Thich's Return to Ngu Thuy, a short documentary update on the former members of a girls' artillery company famed for sinking five American warships. It played with Luu Trong Ninh's Ten Girls of Dong Loc, a fiction feature about a corps of teenagers responsible for dismantling unexploded bombs dropped from American planes. There hasn't been such tender female bonding on the screen since Thelma and Louise.

 
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