With over 1,000 refugees housed temporarily in Berlin's famed Tempelhof Airport standing as an unavoidable reminder of the scores who are staying in the city and elsewhere in the country and the untold numbers trying to get to Germany and other countries of the EU, the on-going migrant crisis of Europe and around the world has thankfully been reflected by a strong presence at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In the competition, for Fire at Sea Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi (El Sicario - Room 164) traveled to Lampedusa, Italy's southern most island, located between Sicily and Tunisia and a frequent landfall for migrants coming from the North African coast. There, the film splits its attention between the old island life of the residents—centered on a precocious young local boy, a fond hunter with a lazy eye—and the new rescue activities launched from Lampedusa and their interaction with the influx of refugees.
Meanwhile, the Forum section is featuring two far more astringent and challenging viewing experiences. In Ta'ang, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing patiently spends time with the eponymous people of the Myanmar-Chinese border, who in 2015 fled a mountain war in Myanmar by the hundreds of thousands. And in Havarie, German documentarian Philip Scheffner creates an elaborate audio collage of stories to surround an examination of amateur footage of a refugee boat disabled in the Mediterranean.
All have necessary images and stories, but all too are unbalanced perhaps by the very nature of the efforts to record and show what is rarely recorded and shown. Fire at Sea is stunning in its sequences of Italy's overwhelming techno-scientific force, for its images of giant oscillating antenna, the lonely glow of radar screens in dark rooms, shark-gray naval vessels and seamen-doctors dressed in hygienic white body suits and gas masks for their refugee contact like the boat people are an alien species. We see some of the step-by-step process of rescuing migrants, at once necessary and often compassionate but almost comprehensively humiliating and estranging, and a few stark images of the people, gesticulating and desperate or slack and corpse-like with dehydration, with faces drawn from weeping, and, in the film's most horrible but vital moment, as lifeless bodies piled in the cramped hold of a stranded vessel.
But on shore, away from the rescue efforts, Fire at Sea moves in different directions, sketching a few characters (the roving boy, an underwater diver, two mamas, a local DJ) whose relation to the the boats floating in the netherworld of the sea or the administrators-military-doctors who search, rescue and process those poor souls struck me as tangential at best and vaguely symbolic at worse. They could be a part of their own idiosyncratic, charming documentary on Lampedusa, but I'm not yet convinced they fit alongside or woven between the more vital story of searching, contacting and the clinically embracing those who are so desperately fleeing misery.
While Fire at Sea goes for a kind of documentary collage juxtaposing a seaborne migrant crisis with resident normalcy, Wang Bing's Ta'ang is in spirit and material wholly attached to its refugees. Stranded in a hilly, sparsely inhabited part of the Myanmar's Kokang border with China's Yunnan, its peoples are held precariously in static limbo, waiting for ominous and anonymous off-screen combat to conclude so that they may commit to one side or the other. Structured day-night-day in three parts, the first spends time in a valley watching men and women building haphazard lean-tos, day-jobbing for the Chinese by cutting sugar cane, cooking food and tending for numerous children. The second section is an extensive nighttime sequence, no doubt blending multiple nights of stasis lit by the flicker of fires, interspersed with rambling, trailing-off conversations of family, flight and confusion, and shadowed by guttering candles. The final part seems finally on a move, some of our protagonists traveling along a hill-side road...only to be stopped by frighteningly near sounds of artillery and machine gun fire. So they squat and wait—and wait.
Like William A. Wellman's Battleground and, to a lesser degree, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, Wang Bing portrays war as terrible purgatory of strained anticipation—and in this case, impoverished inactivity. While Ta'ang lacks some of the visual distinctiveness of the director's last feature, Til Madness Do Us Part, and likewise the forceful focus of his last masterpiece, Three Sisters, this quality lays not as a fault of the filmmaker but rather in the successful way the film channels the destitute yet hopeful no-man's (and woman's) existence of the refugee experience: The bereft inertia of a forced and potentially timeless homelessness.
If Ta'ang is fundamentally what Quentin Tarantino would call a "hang out movie" but of a radically different and most urgent kind, Philip Scheffner's Havarie is a kind of inverse of that experience. Rather than squatting with refugees as they await what fate has in store for them, Scheffner's film is from an observer's point of view: its 90 minutes of images are entirely culled from a three minute extract of video footage shot from a Mediterranean cruise ship that spotted a stranded refugee boat in the distance. Scheffner has slowed down this short extract until it pulses one digital frame every second, the indistinct and blurred blob of a boat, with a bare few silhouetted figures distinguishable, moving in a pixelated slurry of immense ocean, close yet utterly out of reach. The soundtrack to this stark and inevitably monotonous experience of barely-human observation and inability to intervene is a series of spoken stories and points of view ranging from survivors of similar crossings, legal migrants, ships captains, radio chatter, as in Fire at Sea, between rescue vessels and spotters, as well as thoughts from the man who took the footage himself.
The contrast between the varied perspectives we hear and the limited perspective we see is indeed forceful, as is the imaginative space Havarie constructs by requiring us to project these peoples and stories heard both onto the anonymous sufferers on the boat and the anonymous "watchers" from the cruise ship (and by implication, on land, in cities, in our cinema). Yet, inevitably the experience is tedious, for as dynamic as the aural histories are the images remain the same—except for a remarkable moment half way through when the camera finally pans from the sea back to the ship and we realize the footage, whose provenance was ambiguous, is taken from a huge, populous vessel halted to watch the stranded ship from afar—and I don't think that watching it for 15 minutes would be much different than viewing it for an hour or the entire run-time. Which may be the purpose, perhaps, as in Wang Bing's film: to immerse the moviegoer in the stranded frustration of both the refugee and of those who cannot intervene to help. But eventually this conceptual weight of Havarie felt more to me of a provocative aesthetic gimmick than, as with Wang's film, a deep gesture of solidarity for its subject or a pointed challenge for its viewers. Yet it's nature is not just that of inquiry but of self-inquiry. In other words, if there's a problem with the film, no doubt much of that problem lays with us.