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Berlinale Highlights, Part Three: Hummingbirds, Concrete Valley, Afire

It’s only on the closing days of a new festival that things finally click into place, just in time to plan on heading home. It becomes significantly easier to navigate the vagaries of the city’s transport system, and you spend less time reading signs and more finding shortcuts that aren’t as obvious, especially in a place where everything is built on these intersecting angles (see Diary 1).

Like most festivals, Berlinale felt top-heavy, with many of the major premieres occupying the earlier slots in the fest. At Cannes, TIFF, and even Sundance, my usual ploy is to be there right until the last day, catching up on public screenings long after most journalists have headed back. Despite only being on the ground from Wednesday to Wednesday, I still managed my share of films, including a much-anticipated title I caught just before heading to the airport, while still finding some time to hang out with colleagues and grab some local delicacies.

In the latter days, I saw more and more public screenings, and visited some of the other venues spread out throughout the city. Some of these halls are truly astonishing, rivaling the main palace with their comfort and quality of presentation. For venues alone, Berlin seems to be the best on the circuit in terms of finding multiple locations to showcase the best of the world’s films in rooms worthy of such a prestigious event.

At one of those far-flung-yet-impressive venues, I caught “Hummingbirds,” Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras’ joyous indie hybrid. There’s room elsewhere to parse the popular trend of movies that blur the line between non-fiction and scripted, but whether it’s capturing moments in real-time or simply trafficking in verisimilitude, this warm and revealing portrait of two close friends was well received by the local crowd.

The charm of the film lies in its mix of brashness and serious introspection, mixing tone as much as it mixes its stylistic tendencies. The whole thing could collapse at any moment into something insular or even indulgent, yet the charms of these individuals, and the subtle pushes forward of its slight yet linear narrative, make for a truly enjoyable watch. It helps that the protagonists’ affection is authentic yet never cloying, and their ruminations on life in their local Laredo, Texas defies all sorts of stereotypes that litter such coming-of-age fare.

It’s almost what the film doesn’t do that makes it all work, allowing for quiet moments atop a car looking at stars, or reflecting upon the river that serves as a literal border between two very different potential lives, to feel appropriately poetic rather than obnoxious or trite. It’s simply fun to hang out with the two and their circle, warmed by their moments of grace and awkwardness. It’s a film of deep honesty that’s carefully crafted, and despite being dismissed by some American festivals it truly is one of the best films of this ilk I’ve seen. It's most certainly deserving of attention outside any documentary sidebar.

Another documentary hit even closer to home, as the events of “Concrete Valley” take place about ten minutes away from where I live in Toronto. The Thorncliffe Park neighborhood is home to many new immigrants to my city, many from war-torn areas around the world, and it’s the setting for Antoine Bourges’ experimental film about the challenges of coming to terms with the past while navigating a new place. The film stars Hussam Douhana as Rashid, formerly a doctor in his native Syria, unable to practice in Canada, who finds himself dolling out advice to those in the complex of high-rise apartments he now lives in. His wife Fahra (Amani Ibrahim), formerly an actress, is now finding a sense of community by helping to clean up some of the green spaces around her. The two are raising their son Ammar (Abdulla Nadaf) while trying to maintain links to the past yet moving forward in this new environment.

The film's script was crafted from interviews with the participants, drawing narrative threads from their own lives. Using these primarily non-professional actors results in a film that’s slightly staid at times but always feels deeply authentic, the scars of the past and frustrations with the present circumstances always at the fore of each moment for these characters.

When the film debuted at TIFF it played in the Wavelengths sidebar, and its subtle narrative drive and almost anthropological gaze may not be to everyone’s taste. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the heaviness of the circumstances documented here, but equally the sense of longing for new normalcy and the keen spark of resilience and compassion.

The most brashly brilliant documentary I caught was “Kokomo City,” winner of the NEXT award at Sundance and an unabashedly in-your-face look at a group of trans sex workers in the U.S. If one of the powers of a great documentary is to allow stories to be told that are too often ignored, this is an absolute talisman for that endeavor. Director D. Smith has assembled an amazingly rich group of charismatic subjects from New York and Georgia, each providing witness to their experiences that are in equal measure profound, heartbreaking, and downright hilarious.

Despite its fanciful flourishes and unabashed libidinous air, this is a deeply ruminative work, with each woman philosophizing with astonishing eloquence the moral and personal ambiguities of their life in the sex trade. Playful recreations of moments that span the silly to the deadly serious are interspersed with these fantastic conversations with individuals that have seen and done it all. These are war stories from a frontline that are as acerbic as any battle tale. And yet they have the added benefit of a deep and nuanced understanding of the contradictory reactions from those within the African-American community. Going well beyond any taboo, these are truth-tellers of the highest order, buttressed by comments from Black men also coming to terms with how their community traditionally responds to such affections.

There’s no fat in the film, given its brisk 73-minute running time, and it feels like you’re truly getting a sense of these remarkable individuals and the reflections they share about their life and lifestyle. On the one hand, "Kokomo City" is a wonderfully voyeuristic peek into the world that these women inhabit. On the other, it’s a deep, fascinating look at human experiences at the edge of what’s considered acceptable, illustrating the hypocrisies of those that would be judgmental. These are deeply charismatic subjects that leave nothing on the table, treating audiences to the gift of their gab while sharing their secrets.

Music documentaries are often mere advertisements for a given artist, especially when they are made with involvement with the family of the subject. I was thus all the more impressed with “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” co-directed by the Disco legend’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano along with esteemed filmmaker Roger Ross Williams.

Summer got her showbiz start in this country, first in the local cast of the musical Hair and then finding global superstardom thanks to her works with Giorgio Moroder and others in what was then West Germany. Rather than simply documenting her rise, the film dives deeply into some of the contradictions of her life, focusing on her engagements with friends and family and providing a nuanced, complex portrait of the legendary artist.

Credit to Williams and Sudano for refusing to shy away from the thornier aspects of Summer’s legacy; we’re treated to a well-rounded narrative that’s far too rare when it comes to such celebrities. It would have been easy to simply lean into hagiography, but that would have been unkind to Summer and her own desire to break out of simple boxes. The end result is an exceptional film worthy of the legacy of this most excellent of artists, one whose contributions resonate in just about every piece of pop music produced today.

Before heading out I snuck in Christian Petzold’s “Afire,” a quiet yet brilliantly effective character piece about a group sharing a cottage on the Baltic Sea shore. A story of four individuals—Leon (Thomas Schubert), Felix (Langston Uibel), David (Enno Trebs) and Nadja (Petzold’s frequent collaborator Paula Beer)—"Afire" is about shifting loyalties and differing levels of passive-aggression, with some kindness and affection thrown into the cauldron of human emotions. It’s a slow burn for a film that features the backdrop of a forest fire, yet one is wrapped up in the dynamics of these individuals in ways that at once feel shockingly intimate yet depressingly familiar.

Petzold has both fans and detractors, and for those that find his works a bit too pat they’re going to be treated to more of the same. But for those open to the film’s occasionally lugubrious tone, you’ll be treated to a truly stellar interrogation of friendship, affection, creative drive, and the vagaries of life in the countryside.

“Afire” went on to win the Silver Bear award, a runner-up prize by the festival jury. The winner of the Golden Bear top prize, Nicolas Philibert's “On the Adamant,” was a surprise win that was on few people’s radar. I look forward to catching it later on the festival circuit.

Over my week in Berlin, I ate well, saw dear friends I haven’t seen in many years and was treated to an opportunity to catch the premieres of some fantastic films. I fought with subway schedules, missed out on key events like the Steven Spielberg press conference in order to catch a film I’d otherwise miss, and other such calculations made throughout any festival experience. I did my best to avoid FOMO as one title or another bubbled up on social media, concentrating as best I could on seeing what I could see, when I could see it, and letting the chips fall where they may.

It’s clear that the nature of this festival is continuing to shift, with some of its programming choices shifting even more towards an arthouse crowd, given the number of staff that have migrated from the very art film-focused Locarno. Yet I was still able to see films that weren’t needlessly esoteric and proved genuinely engaging for both fans of more populist fare and the snobbish alike. The venues were comfortable and the presentation at times extraordinary, the ticketing system easy enough to navigate, and the volunteer and theatre staff members as courteous and helpful as they tend to be wherever I attend (save, of course, France).

Being in Berlin for the first time was a bit of a trip. It’s a city of great beauty and personally oppressive history, resulting in an acute level of ambivalence that took some time to settle into. I tried to get the most out of being there, to be open to its beautiful contradictions, and to not be too upset that the “TÁR” presentation took place the day after I left, or that I couldn’t squeeze in a screening of “Duel” having had to make up for missing the “Reality” screening due to my mix-up detailed in my last diary.

I’m not sure Berlin is a festival I’d rush to return to given the financial challenges of freelance work – Cannes remains a place I’d be willing to lose money at, but even Park City has become prohibitive to attend in person. Yet I could not have been happier to have had this rare opportunity to attend, and truly feel I got a sense of the festival and both its charms and its limitations. So while I have no idea if or when I will return, I will miss my time there. I'm happy I took time to munch on a weißwurst, pretzel, and sweet mustard, pleased with the slate of films I took in, and extremely appreciative of Chaz, Brian, and Nick here at RogerEbert.com who encouraged me to document my time spent at the 73rd iteration of this storied of festivals.

Tschuss, Berlinale, auf wiedersehen, bis zum nächsten Mal.

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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