Travis Jeppesen on the 48th Berlin International Film Festival

James Benning, glory, 2019, color, sound, 120 minutes.

I SAW FEWER FILMS THAN USUAL at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, or “Berlinale,” for the simple reason that there was little in the program that interested me. I suspect I’m not alone. Especially among those of us coming to Berlin from Rotterdam, which—along with Locarno—is one of the continent’s second-tier festivals that increasingly manages to upstage Berlin’s first-tier status. One can only hope that the pronounced lapse in the quality of the programming that critics have been bemoaning in broken-record mode for years now will finally be allayed in 2020, when Carlo Chatrian will bring over his core programming team from Locarno to take over the Berlinale. I, for one, am beyond ready for a change of tune.

Strains of fabulism abounded, suggesting a new or revived cinematic interest in embedded realities and reality extensions. Auraeus Solito’s Busong (Palawan Fate), 2011, shot with an indigenous cast in the Palawan archipelago of the Philippines, is structured as a nonlinear compendium of interrelated tales from local mythology. Stories within stories within stories also form the weird fabric of Daniel Hui’s Demons, a hallucinatory, near-Lynchian evocation of contemporary Singaporean psychosis that centers on power dynamics in a theater troupe. Brief Story from the Green Planet, the Teddy Award winner from Santiago Loza, is about a trans woman’s journey with two of her friends across Argentina with a half-dead extraterrestrial in her suitcase.

The Berlinale has long had an interest in documentaries about artists. Through these portraits, we come to know places and spheres of experience that we might not otherwise have seen. “In Sicily, we say, ‘Power is better than fucking.’” So remarks Letizia Battaglia, the Palermo-based photographer who has spent much of the past forty years documenting the Cosa Nostra, in Shooting the Mafia, Kim Longinotto’s film about Battaglia’s life and work, through which we glean an understanding of Sicilian culture that transcends stereotypes and sensationalism.

Agnès Varda, Varda par Agnès, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

Is there anything in life more pleasurable than watching energetic nonagenarian Agnès Varda continue to churn out excellent movies? This year, with Varda par Agnès, Varda takes one of the drabbest forms—the lecture—and, in delving into her unparalleled oeuvre and inspirations, delivers a breathtaking self-portrait of an artist at the height of her powers. Another instance of this life force was embodied in the late Aretha Franklin. In 1972, at a point in her career when Franklin could have done anything she wanted, she made the decision to go back to her roots, recording, over the course of two nights, a live gospel album with the Southern California Community Choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. A documentary crew, helmed by a young Sydney Pollack, was on hand to film the proceedings, but the movie was never released—until now. Watching Amazing Grace at its European premiere blown up on the massive screen of the Berlinale Palast, with its great throbbing sound system, was one electrifying step away from experiencing the thing live.

Wang Xiaoshuai, So Long, My Son, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 185 minutes.

Two standouts at this year’s Berlinale focus on family life under communism. This includes one of the best documentaries: the quiet, masterfully understated La Arrancada (On the Starting Line) by Aldemar Matias. The film centers on Jenniffer, a Cuban athlete in her early twenties, and her relationship with her healthcare-worker mother, as well as on her brother, who, like Jenniffer and many other young Cubans, is planning on leaving the island one day. Wang Xiaoshuai, one of the acclaimed “Sixth Generation” Chinese filmmakers, also premiered his latest film, So Long, My Son. Set largely during the tumultuous years of the 1980s, the film explores, among other subjects, the devastating effects of the country’s one-child policy on a particular family. La Arrancada runs at just over an hour, and So Long, My Son runs more than three hours. Both are immensely transfixing from start to finish, ultimately reminding us that cinema’s immersive power is alive and well, if we are fortunate enough to find it.

It is no surprise that So Long, My Son’s two leads, Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, won Silver Bears for Best Actor and Actress, respectively. I can’t comment on Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, the film that won the Golden Bear, because I didn’t see it. If I could invent my own award category, it would isolate a single image in a film for its ability to arrest, to remain in your brain long after the festival effects of cine-narcosis wear off, and for its poetic summation of the zeitgeist. This year, that award would go to James Benning, whose glory consists wholly of one image stretched out over two hours: surveillance footage of a torn American flag flapping furiously in the wind at a decommissioned lighthouse on the afternoon of September 13, 2018, just twelve hours before Hurricane Florence hit the coast of North Carolina. Perhaps never before has the calm before the storm felt so unnerving.

The 48th Berlin International Film Festival ran February 7 through February 17.