Berlin Film Festival puts refugee crisis and provocative documentaries in the spotlight

Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea takes the Golden Bear, but Michael Moore and John Michael McDonagh disappoint with their offerings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 12:53pm

From day one of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the refugee crisis in Europe was a hot topic. George Clooney, star of the opening film, the Coen Brothers’ 1950s Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, told assembled media he would meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the plight of Syria.

Joel Coen pointed out in the same press conference that when he and his sibling Ethan co-chaired the jury at last year’s Cannes, the eventual Palme d’Or winner they championed was Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan – a story that deals with refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka.

So it felt inevitable that, nine days later, the jury for the 66th Berlinale, led by Meryl Streep, should follow suit. The winner, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea, was a front-runner in the critics’ polls and, for once, the jury agreed.

The film views the refugee crisis through the eyes of locals from Lampedusa, the small Sicilian island that has become a gateway for those clambering into the continent. After Rosi’s surprise win at the 2013 Venice Film Festival for his doc Sacro GRA, this Berlinale win positions him as a major European talent.

Rosi’s documentary was not the only provocative non-fiction film in competition. I enjoyed the prolific Alex Gibney’s latest Zero Days, a jargon-heavy tale about the highly sophisticated computer malware, Stuxnet.

Like a companion piece to his earlier WikiLeaks doc We Steal Secrets, this dense piece burrowed deep into a story that exposed an American-Israeli cyberwar operation designed to destabilise centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear plant. Played out with Gibney’s usual forensic attention to detail, it proved both intriguing and horrifying.

In contrast, his fellow countryman Michael Moore did little to save his floundering cachet with Where to Invade Next. Moore’s first film in over six years sees him “invade” various European countries to claim common sense ideas – paid holidays, shorter working hours etc. – and take them back to the good old US of A. Messy and ill-thought-out, this ramshackle doc is further evidence that Moore’s best work is far behind him.

Like this, the disappointments largely came with big names attached. Playing in the Panorama strand, John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone drew largely hostile responses. A black comedy from the director of The Guard about two corrupt Albuquerque cops (Michael Peña, Alexander Skarsgård), its tone veered more wildly than a car with a broken steering wheel, with sub-Tarantino dialogue and gratuitous bloodshed.

That McDonagh did not even turn up to his own premiere – sending a jokey message that he was on a beach in Australia – did not bode well.

Another was Maggie’s Plan – although the audience I saw it with seemed to find much funnier than I did. Directed by Rebecca Miller, it’s a quirky New York indie about an academic (Ethan Hawke) who leaves his wife (Julianne Moore, channelling a bizarre Danish accent). Needless to say, he chooses a much younger woman, played by Greta Gerwig, who is almost a self-parody here of far more substantial characters she played in films like Frances Ha and Mistress America.

There were, of course, some pleasures. Swiftly following last year’s Sunset Song, Britain’s Terence Davies returned with another erudite and immaculately crafted period piece, A Quiet Passion. Dealing with the American poet Emily Dickinson (a resolute Cynthia Nixon), it was a literary biopic in the truest sense, luxuriating in her words and wisdom.

Certainly, it put to shame Michael Grandage’s rather staid competition entry Genius, about Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth, catatonic), the literary editor behind Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Arriving late, my favourite competition entry was Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune – a semi-autobiographical tale inspired by his own childhood living in a Danish collective. Rightly, Trine Dyrholm won Best Actress for her turn as Anna, a mother and wife increasingly losing her grip living in this bohemian set-up.

The film reunites her with Ulrich Thomsen, her co-star from Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme movie Festen; The Commune isn’t as powerful as that masterful chamber piece, but it still packs an emotional, Elton John-scored punch in the finale.