2023 | Artistic Director's Blog

Berlinale 2023:
The Art of Shaping Reality

Carlo Chatrian was Artistic Director of the Berlinale from June 2019 to March 2024. In his texts, he takes a personal approach to the festival, to outstanding filmmakers and the programme.

Telling stories is the oldest way human kind has found to cope with chaos and overcome fears and conflicts. This is true for fiction – and probably even more for the documentary form. Capturing images is always a bit like taming them. When we see moving images, along with the inevitable feeling of being there, there’s always the awareness that these images come from the past. Furthermore, every film composes a story that selects images in order to provide a sense to the chaos of reality. The art of the real is also the art of shaping reality.

Shidniy front by Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko

Documentaries connect us with the real world - that’s a common saying. The immersive power of documentaries is undeniable, but what is the “real world” documentaries refer to? Usually the “real world” is that part of the planet we are not physically connected to, but feel close to, because we hear about it all the time. Over the past twelve months, the war of aggression against Ukraine has become the “real world” we want to hear about. The documentaries presented at the festival are a good sample of the way such a dramatic and complex subject can be represented and treated in films. It can unfold through its historical development, thanks to a broad work of research, like Iron Butterflies does. Or it can be the subject of a personal trajectory, as Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman convey in Superpower. An even more personal and unique immersive experience is the one offered in Shidniy Front. The film is based on the work of Yevhen Titarenko, who is a member of the group “Hospitallers”, providing first aid to injured people. While on duty, Titarenko filmed – either with simple and light tools, like a GoPro camera, or with more stable ones. The film is structured intertwining peaceful moments at home or with friends with intense sequences in the ambulance, which gives back the schizophrenic pace people have to endure in war.

Vergiss Meyn Nicht by Fabiana Fragale, Kilian Kuhlendahl and Jens Mühlhoff

It is easy to compare it with Vergiss Meyn Nicht, a film based on the material shot by a film student who put a camera in his helmet while filming the environmental protests in the Hambach forest. Because of its style Vergiss Meyn Nicht is highly immersive and takes the viewer right onto the trees, where climate activists were living and resisting the attempts of eviction by the police. The fact that since the beginning we are informed about the sad end of the cameraman adds an extra layer of emotional involvement to the picture. Less drastic in style but equally involving and more complex in its narrative is the film by Claire Simon, shot in hospitals – another place we usually are not connected with, unless forced by circumstances. Notre Corps is a 360 degrees investigation on how the body (of women) is perceived. Filmed with an observational style, the film develops a strong empathy for all women portrayed, to the point that eventually the filmmaker herself becomes one of the characters in the film.

Albeit being the result of long research and writing, documentaries deal with stories that at any point might take unexpected turns. Notre Corps is a great example of how a filmmaker needs to be open to include these unanticipated events into the storytelling – as these more than anything else bear the sense of reality.

El juicio by Ulises de la Orden

El juicio – another film screened in Forum – pushes documentary towards a very different direction. This film is based on the footage of the notorious trial against president Videla and his military cabinet in 1985, for having allowed and being responsible for the kidnapping, the torture and the death of thousands of citizens in Argentina. Picked up from the past, these images have the quality and the strength of forgotten memories. Originally taken for the purpose of recording the trial, they highlight the neutral quality of images produced by the “camera machine”, not shaped or diluted by a (subjective) human gaze. It is as if a big, relevant, chunk of reality has come to the surface 40 years later. Less spectacular than the feature-length film by Santiago Mitre (Argentina, 1985), El juicio replaces the rhetoric of cinema with something simpler and straightforward: the power of the real document.

Le mura di Bergamo by Stefano Savona

In whatever form or tale, the sense of presence provided by documentaries is invaluable – especially when it deals with epochal moments in history. This is the case of Le mura di Bergamo – shot during the spring of 2020 while the Covid-19 pandemic was ravaging the north of Italy. Along with a handful of young filmmakers, Stefano Savona recorded these terrible days – filming empty streets and overcrowded hospitals. It is not only through the images but also through the sound – especially the records of the 911 calls - that the sense of being there becomes palpable. The film goes beyond that particular tragic moment and tries to deal as well with the slow recovering after the peak of the pandemic, both on an individual level and a collective one.

Filming real people and their agitated life requires a strong moral standpoint – which is often translated with the notion of the “right distance”. Filming is always a matter of distance, but in the realm of the documentary, this concept follows different rules and often a step back is a better choice. But not always. In Tatiana Huezo’s El eco, which portrays a small community in a secluded mountain area in the north of Mexico, the filmmaker opts for a representation where the closeness to the people filmed – especially the kids – is a given. In such a film, the attention paid to landscapes, the misty beauty of the Mexican nature, mirrors the close-ups of the protagonists. The output is a sense of a world where there’s no gap between people and places. Quite different from other example of observational films, here the camera varies its distance frequently, making the presence of “cinema” more evident.

Sur l’Adamant by Nicolas Philibert

We cannot quit this quick travelogue without mentioning Sur l'Adamant, the documentary that runs in the Competition. The title refers to a boat, docked for good on the banks of La Seine, that has become a day-care centre for people suffering from mental illness. On the same subject, Nicolas Philibert did in 1996 La moindre des choses, probably his most beautiful and struggling film. That film was shot at La Borde - a clinic founded by Jean Oury, and frequented by Guattari and Deleuze, among others – and followed the production of a theatre piece by patients and caregivers. The principle of returning initiative and responsibility to the patients of the clinic by developing situations in which they can work and express their creativity is also what defines l’Adamant. What makes Philibert’s approach notable is the absence of any form of judgement by the camera. Watching the film it is almost impossible to distinguish between the caregivers and the people being cared for. The camera is present and visible, but it is never obstructive. The right distance is always preserved without any preconceived rule. For Philibert the art of documentary lies in building bridges: the gaze of people filmed asks for a reply, provokes a movement towards them – which in this case has a strong social and political meaning.

The same goes for films that opt for more hybrid styles like Orlando, ma biographie politique or Mon pire ennemi. These documentaries are the best recipe for a healthy society: a place where contradictions are not hidden, but shown as an opportunity to embrace diversity. We could call them exercises in democracy: as these films try to show a different society and, at the same time, include the viewer (each viewer) in their storytelling. Using the art of the real instead of playing with fiction makes their attempt only more meaningful and relevant for us all.

Carlo Chatrian