Outside In

Jafar Panahi, Taxi, 2015, video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

SADLY IT HAS BECOME A TRUISM that any feature film with LGBT content, no matter how bad, will be accepted at the Berlin International Film Festival, and most likely featured in the art-house-friendly Panorama section. This was the case again this year with entries like Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby, awarded the Teddy for Best Feature, a spiteful celebration of New York City gentrification whose petty and charmless characters become increasingly unlikeable as the film wears on. Put them together with the types depicted on the HBO series Looking and you have solid evidence for John Waters’s argument that “coming in”—completely dropping out of gay culture—is the only option available for anyone with one-quarter of a functioning brain.

Where Panorama gets it right, more often than not, is in its selection of documentaries. This year, portrayals of artistic genius—Jack Walsh’s Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, Brett Morgan’s Cobain: Montage of Heck, Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands, and Walter Salles’s Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang—were mostly riveting and particularly necessary in light of the failed efforts by two auteurs, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, in the Competition section.

Should pedophiles be allowed—or even encouraged—to socialize with the children they have fallen in love with? This is the question posed by Daniel’s World, one of the more courageous documentaries in Panorama. Veronika Lisková’s sensitive portrait focuses on a twenty-five-year-old grad student and writer in the Czech capital fighting to have his sexual preference recognized and respected as an orientation rather than a sickness. Accepted by his friends and family—and even the parents of the young boy he is in love with and who he is permitted to see once a month—Daniel avers his commitment to never having sex with a child or watching child pornography, while publishing novels, giving speeches, and marching in the Prague Pride parade as an out-and-proud pedophile. That Daniel’s World was made by and for Czech television shows how far behind the United States is from the rest of the civilized West in engaging in serious discussions on the nature of sexuality and the place of sexual minorities in society.

Another moving instance of portraiture was to be found in El Hombre Nuevo, winner of the Festival’s Teddy Award for Best Documentary. Stefania is a middle-aged trans woman living as a homeless prostitute on the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay. A devoted Sandinista, she left her home in Nicaragua when she was a young boy named Roberto and continued the fight alongside the Tupamaros. Today her biggest struggle is reconciliation with her past; the film follows her journey back to Nicaragua to reconnect with her impoverished, religious family, from whom she has been estranged. Despite the harsh circumstances, Stefania retains an enduring empathetic outlook toward both strangers and loved ones; the film’s subtle investigation of ideology, with its titular evocation of the Soviet “new man,” is rooted in a rare life lived according to the dictates of truth and personal dignity.

The competition’s most prestigious prize, the Golden Bear, went to a film whose maker could not be present to accept the award. The Iranian government has banned Jafar Panahi from traveling abroad and making films, and with Taxi, Panahi transforms these limitations into an artistic triumph. With a camera placed on the dashboard of a borrowed taxi, the director, playing himself, drives around Tehran picking up strangers and friends, evincing an insider’s view of everyday life in the Iranian capital. The film charts Panahi’s attempt to attain a clear moral position in the face of the systematic injustices that he observes and personally experiences as an artist whose freedom has been taken away. Other films began to seem trite by comparison, and indeed, navigating the Berlinale’s daunting program of hundreds of films, one wishes for more rigorous standards of programming. Less can mean so much more.

The sixty-fifth Berlin International Film Festival ran February 5–15.