Berlinale 2016: refugee crisis & family strife

We reflect on this year's Berlin International Film Festival where films emerged tackling themes of immigration, displacement and social unease

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 24 Feb 2016
  • Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come

The decision to open the 66th Berlin International Film Festival with Hail, Caesar!, a star-studded paean to Golden-era Hollywood, felt like an unorthodox choice for a festival that prides itself on its independent, progressive, and socially conscious programming. The Coen brothers’ latest comedy is an idiosyncratic riff on the film industry that places cinema on a razors edge between film as an artform and as ideologically driven entertainment. However, when the film’s star George Clooney was observed discussing the current migration crisis with the German Chancellor and photographed talking with Syrian refugees, the film’s status felt a little more justified.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, migration and the human cost of war were two key themes at this year’s festival. In competition there was Gianfranco Rosi’s unsentimental documentary (and eventual Golden Bear winner) Fire at Sea, set on the Italian isle of Lampedusa, the infamous European entry point for refugees travelling from Africa. Of the 400,000 migrants who have journeyed by sea to the island over the past 20 years, 15,000 are estimated to have died. Blending fact with fiction, the film centers upon twelve-year-old Samuele, whose mundane yet curiously watchable life on the island is juxtaposed with the thousands of refugees living there. One of the festival’s strongest competition entries, Fire at Sea is intelligent and thought-provoking film-making, and Rosi deservedly took first prize.

Myanmar is the setting of entries by both Chinese documentarian Wang Bing and former native director Midi Z’s in this year’s festival. Both films explore Myanmar as a complex and tumultuous nation scarred by a history of war and injustice. Wang’s Ta’ang focuses on the transient lives of the numerous women and children living along the Myanmar/China border, while the nation’s long, post-colonial civil war is the backdrop to Midi Z’s City of Jade, a harrowing account of the country’s treacherous jade mines. Midi Z's film presents a deeply personal perspective of the war’s effect, while there are very few directors who can match Wang’s ability to capture humanity in the most desperate of circumstances with an unhurried and tremendously sympathetic approach to his subjects.

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Another noteworthy perspective on displaced communities is Philip Scheffner's Havarie, an experimental documentary which takes a three-minute excerpt from a video of a refugee boat drifting off the coast of Spain, and slows it down to one frame per second, so it takes 90 minutes to play. The effect of this is to impose upon the audience the discomfort and frustration of such a journey with an emphasis on the passing of time and the magnitude of the experience.

Illegal immigrants in the US are the subject of Soy Nero from Iranian director Raffi Pitts. Pitts recently found himself displaced following his supporting role in Oscar-winner Argo – due to the negative portrayal of the Iranian State in that Ben Affleck film, Pitts found himself unable to find work in his homeland. Soy Nero premiered in competition at this year’s Berlinale and while it is commendable for highlighting the issue of ‘Green Card’ soldiers, the theme of migration at this year’s festival provides a pertintent reminder of not only the root causes of the contemporary refugee crisis but its reach far beyond European borders.

Another prevalent theme at this year’s festival was the evolution of the nuclear family, seen most noticeably in Jeff NicholsMidnight Special, which explores the parental anxieties of post-crash America. Nichols draws particular reference to Hollywood science fiction films of the early 1980s, such as ET: The Extraterrestrial, which reflected a contemporary need to reevaluate the traditional family unit.

Elsewhere, Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore find themselves in an unconventional love triangle in Rebecca Miller’s mildly amusing yet largely disposable Maggie’s Plan. Gerwig once again is cast as an anxious New Yorker whose fast-talking confidence conceals overwhelming self-doubt. She’s desperate to have a child, and goes to great lengths in order to fulfill this goal. It’s a perfectly enjoyable jaunt into an overly sanitised New York, but it's perhaps time for Gerwig to broaden her horizons.

Thomas Vinterberg’s 1970’s period drama The Commune reunites the Danish director with Ulrich Thomsen, the star of his breakthough film Festen. Much like that debut, the The Commune promised to be a gritty work of bed-hopping, strained relationships and the unsustainability of utopian living. Sadly Vinterberg’s film culminates in an indulgent and surprisingly banal drama with little, if any, conflict. Conversely, French Formalist Eugene Green’s latest, Le Fils de Joseph, is a revelation. A contemporary riff on the Biblical Nativity, Green’s rigid commitment to the conventions of Baroque theatre techniques, combined with his trademark wit, create an exquisitely beautiful rumination on life, love and misplaced paternity.

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A fascinating triptych emerged this year in Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. What these three films share is a focus on female characters whose lives have been stunted or controlled by an oppressive sense of patriarchy. Davies’s divisive biopic about the life of Emily Dickinson is full of fierce spirit and outrage, yet struggles to escape the trappings of the biopic genre to fully explore how her talent was restricted by the conventions of the time. Isabelle Huppert excels as a recently liberated philosophy teacher in Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come – on the surface a film about self-discovery, it ultimately suggests the fragility of ideas when exposed to the eroding force of time and is by far Hansen-Løve’s best work to date.

Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is a haunting study of the elusiveness of the truth and how gender inequality in the workplace can result in something more sinister. Greene fuses reality and meta-fiction to observe Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, the real-life news reporter who killed herself on national television in 1974 following suggested discrimination. Chubbuck’s story also touches on other pertinent topics including American gun control and society’s fascination with the macabre.

And finally, Ali Abbasi’s striking debut Shelley stands out as a film that encapsulates all of the above themes from this year’s Berlinale. Set in an isolated woodland retreat in Denmark, Abbasi’s compelling body horror uses the degeneration of the human form to suggest the exploitation of economic migrant workers. Elena, a young Romanian woman, played by Beyond the Hills star Cosmina Stratan, is hired to work for Danish couple Louise and Kasper as a housekeeper before accepting a lucrative deal to act as their surrogate.

As the pregnancy progresses, Elena’s body begins to reject the embryo, and it is here we see elements of Rosemary’s Baby and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein combined with some deft stylish flourishes (Abbasi switches both screen ratios and cinematographers at the moment Elena becomes pregnant). Charged with an electrifying sense of dread, this unique gothic horror slowly reveals itself as a fascinating commentary on the disruption on the lives of the privileged when encountered with reality of the poor.


Berlin International Film Festival 2016 ran 11-21 Feb