Berlinale 2020: Highlights from Forum and Forum Expanded

A number of features and shorts in Berlinale 2020 Forum / Forum Expanded experimental sections dealt with resistance and collective memory.
Ela Bittencourt

Above: Letter to a Friend

Two of most memorable features I’ve seen this year in the Berlinale Forum and Forum Expanded sidebars deal with the ongoing material devastation wrought by Israel during its occupation of Palestine. The first is Letter to a Friend, by the Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir; the second The Viewing Booth, by the Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. While varied in their approaches, I was struck by how both films feature irony, as either an analytical device or as subterfuge. In Jacir’s film, irony is intellect’s key defense against despair. Meanwhile in Alexandrowicz’s, it informs a different defense mechanism, against absorbing another person’s pain.

In the incredibly moving Letter to a Friend, Jacir creates a visual diary of her house in Bethlehem. It stands near a road that was closed off, when Israel raised the wall, in 2010. Jacir’s street is apparently featured in nearly all media footage that shows conflicts in the area. Jacir starts with this media fixation, and then takes her camera into the streets. Her seemingly mundane explorations (e.g. of a beloved bar frequented by local artists, or a butcher shop) show how the neighborhood was cut off from green areas, and local mom-and-pop shops were driven out of business.

Jacir’s film makes a striking point that it’s one thing to see the wall on the news, and to harbor an illusion that we know the reality of settlements, checkpoints, surveillance, or the Israeli military’s violent tactics, and yet another to actually live with the wall. In one scene, we see Jacir’s dog, terrified by the noise of bullets, squeeze itself between two doors. In another, Jacir films the checkpoint guards staring her down; in yet another, the street’s garbage bin doubles as a barricade during a demonstration. Meanwhile, tourist buses keep streaming into the area, headed for historical religious sites, and lavish and loud wedding fêtes continue to take place.

The richness of Jacir’s film comes from her voice. It is personal, angry, but also playful, and laced with acerbic humor. It rings through clearly thanks to the film’s epistolary form. Jacir addresses her film-letter to a friend in the United States, asking him to “investigate a crime before it is committed.” Before her house too is occupied, she wants to record it, and her family’s history, as much as possible. Her family’s roots reach back generations—her grandfather was Bethlehem’s registrar and a pearl carver, who amassed and then lost a huge fortune. Jacir’s irony is so potent perhaps because it’s a part of her neighbors’ survival kit. When the vines from which Jacir’s brother makes wine are destroyed, yet grow back amidst concrete slabs, he calls his new harvest, “The Grapes of Wrath.” A sign on the neighborhood hotel says, Walled Off Hotel (a play on “Waldorf,” I imagine). There is a sense that to document, but also to joke and ironize the wall, is to resist and survive. Survival isn’t always the case; Jacir mentions at least once losing a friend, and another is shot by a sniper when she tries to photograph the aggression. But the gaze back and collected evidence confirms Jacir’s right to remain.

Above: The Viewing Booth

The Viewing Booth’s self-reflexivity is also keenly felt. Alexandrowicz invites a young Israeli-American student, Maia, to participate in a visual experiment in his studio. Maia’s task is to watch a series of videos that document the incidents of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Alexandrowicz, whose documentary, The Law In These Parts (2012), explored how the Israeli legal system oppresses Palestinians, asks Maia to look carefully at the pre-selected videos—to pause, replay, and analyze them as she sees fit, but also to narrate aloud and comment critically on what she is seeing. In this setup, Alexandrowicz, who sits before a computer in a separate room while Maia’s in the booth, is a passive observer turned occasional polemicist, since Maia’s ambivalence clashes with his own moral stance. Visually, Alexandrowicz keeps the perimeters of his experiment simple: the booth enclosure, the camera closely focused on Maia’s face, and sometimes showing parts of a video, other times, shots of Alexandrowicz seeing Maia on the screen in the adjacent part of the studio. Such minimalism’s fit for a film that’s primarily about fleeting facial reactions, and the turn of words. 

Alexandrowicz takes as his reference Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Thoughts on Peace In an Air Raid,” written for The New Republic, in 1940, in which she pondered empathy, and asked what role gender played in one’s idea of and disposition for war. Would wars be waged as frequently had women been in charge? Woolf clearly didn’t think so. Alexandrowicz’s experiment, however, is far from such optimistic conclusions (though he doesn’t necessarily address the fact that he’s chosen a female subject). He asks Maia to distinguish the videos made by the Palestinians, as denunciations, from those made for Israeli-sympathizing channels. Maia walks into the studio fairly confident that she can tell these two conflicting contexts apart. But then a different narrative emerges: Without her reading the captions, the footage can be damning, even when it is destined for the official Israeli communication channels. And so Maia struggles to negotiate her initial revulsion at what she’s seeing with her pro-Israeli stance.

But this is not the main point of Alexandrowicz’s film. Intrigued by Maia’s responses, he prods further, seeking to learn why she so often backtracks on her gut reactions. Every time Maia sees an image that upsets her, she comments, “This is really bad,” but then just as frequently alters her phrase to say, “This looks really bad for Israel.” But then she questions the circumstances behind the image. How do we know that the whole thing isn’t staged, she asks over and over. The more Alexandrowicz pushes back the more she retracts, questioning the authenticity of even most disturbing episodes. One such sequence shows a Palestinian family awoken in the middle of the night by heavily armed, masked Israeli soldiers, who insist that small children be woken up. The camera captures fear on the children’s faces (one later appears to have a panic attack). In another, a small boy is dragged by a soldier, who jumps him, while another comes up and kicks the child. Maia condemns the brutality, but then distracts herself from the images’ devastating impact by asking questions about provenance instead. How come someone is there to film, in the first place? Were they just waiting around to do it? How did they know it was going to happen? Such questions aren’t always cynical on Maia’s part, but subconsciously, their result is always a subsequent dismantling of truth— relativizing the image, invalidating its traumatic effect by questioning its factual validity.

Maia’s concern with staging returns so many times it seems that, at least in her view, in our digital age, when pictures can be doctored with ease, no image is guaranteed to be authentic. And even if it is, it still doesn’t change an ingrained pre-existing ideological framework. In Maia’s case, Alexandrowicz has her return to the studio six months later. But Maia is as obdurate and laceratingly questioning as ever, and their exchange leads to a breakdown in communication. “We have to look [more] at how images are viewed,” Alexandrowicz commented on this dissonance in the festival Q & A. Indeed, his own film-experiment seems to follow the line of inquiry begun by Susan Sontag, who in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2004), expressed doubt that images can help inform, or particularly change viewers’ point of view. “The pain of others is more visible [than ever],” Alexandrowicz said after the screening. “But solidarity is rolling back.”

Above: Apiyemiyekî?

Solidarity, occupation, cultural and political wars, were also at the center of two striking shorts I saw in the Forum Expanded: Ana Vaz’s Apiyemiyekî? and Laura Huertas Millán’s Jíibie. And while the features by Jacir and Alexandrowicz end on a strong note of denunciation, Vaz and Huertas Millán’s films also add meaningful restorative gestures. Huertas Millán visits the Colombian Amazon community of Muina-Muruí, to document the physical process of grinding the coca leaf into powder, which the indigenous communities have long used in rituals. Such use is diametrically opposed to the western treatment of coca as processed cocaine and the main target in the war on drugs. But Huertas Millán’s work isn’t so much about the exposition or analysis of this cultural, economic and socio-political clash; it’s rather an immersion in the ritual process, in her subject’s physical presence. Or as she put it in the Q & A, it’s a conceptual “speculative documentary.”

Vaz works in a similar vein. Though her work doesn’t stress the physicality of a work process, it does feature drawings as material objects. The drawings were done by the Amazon community of Waimiri-Atroari and depict their first interactions with the whites, and the annihilation of their villages. Like Jacir’s film, which showed gas canisters—Jacir collects these as evidence and as artifacts—the drawings depict the dropping of Napalm on the indigenous populations in the 1970s, when the Brazilian government was aggressively exploiting the area, as part of its “economic miracle.” In the film, Vaz takes the Trans-Amazonian Highway, BR-147, whose creation was also responsible for the massacres and devastation. She takes this road to meet the researcher and activist Egydio Schwade, who gathered the drawings, which then became part of an official investigative report. In the film, Vaz includes clips of conversations with Schwade, but similarly to Huertas Millán, her aim isn’t purely expository. In the film’s most striking section, she superimposes some of the drawings over the approximate sites where the atrocities would have taken place. The result is a powerful, evocative collage that emphasizes, on one hand, the haunting beauty and anguish of the drawings themselves, and, on the other, the pervasive erasure of the indigenous communities’ collective memory. 

In all these films, the tension between that which is being erased and that which is installed in its place is intensely reconstructed and always situated in an individual experience, whose basis is the human body. It’s the body that conducts us into these finely executed stories—a body under attack, a body that speaks, that resists. A body that asserts its right to reclaim the truth, as an image that is not a mirage, but that authorizes a world. From this bodily presence comes a cry for solidarity, which aims to cross our immediate cultural contexts, and to challenge dominant narratives. 

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Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020Emily JacirRa’anan AlexandrowiczAna Vaz
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