The photographers went crazy in front of Sean Penn and Bob Geldoff during the press conference on Cinema for Peace in Berlin in February. Penn asked the photographers to calm down. If it was so important to get a shot every time he lit a smoke, he could do it especially for them after the session. Geldoff, with sunglasses on against the camera flashes, underlined the responsibility of the press to represent the facts about humanitarian action, instead of only reporting on misery.
The hotel room was comprised of around 90 percent photographers, who were mostly interested in facial gestures. I had to break through with a serious question – about Penn’s activities with his organization1 after the earthquake in Haiti: he must have learned a lot from dealing with such a complicated situation without experience? His project is supported by Cinema for Peace.
As I was in Haiti at the same time last year, I also commented on the rumours heard that he had moved thousands out of Portau-Prince to a “desert place”-camp where there were no opportunities for jobs or income? For eight minutes the film star Sean Penn looks me in the eye and explains the details of his operation in Haiti. His organization had treated 75 000 patients, removed 60 000 cubic meters of rubble from the ruins, distributed 12 000 tents, and continues to help out with schools, water purification and cholera prevention.
The removed thousands had given informed consent and had no chance of paid labour where they came from. But the negative rumour I had referred to actually stopped money transfers from the UN, resulting in a lot of deaths.
Penn emphasised the many hundreds of people they had saved by moving them away from dangerous and devastated areas.
The star-struck atmosphere of the conference changed.
The camera flashes tailed off. Penn, who had looked like he had come straight from last night’s party – slouching laid back in his chair – changed too; suddenly, he was deadly serious, stating emphatically to me that only 7000 of the needed 400 000 apartments had been rebuilt, how could normal life be restored? His organization is helping, spending more than a million dollars a month. And with a message from Berlin to his home country, the man who spends a lot of time with the refugees in the tents, says the financial equivalent of only six American bombs would have helped the whole Port-au-Prince out of devastation.
So what is this helping arm of cinema really? At the very least, a fund-raising organization addressing the world through film.
I am here, together with five hundred others at the gala dinner; stars and celebrities sitting at tables for 1500 Euro per table. And outside are parked twenty white electrical cars bearing the sign “VIP Shuttle”, helping the most famous getting there. Opel is a sponsor for Cinema for Peace with their environmental program called Project Earth. After the flash-fest around the red carpet, they all enter the main ballroom of the Hotel Regent Berlin.
I was sent up to the balcony on the third floor to witness the event, with strict instructions not to use a camera, not even my iPhone camera! Geldoff enters the stage, opening his arms and saying “I love you all. It’s Valentines day!” Irony I think, but with a warm heart. It’s part of the game, to stimulate the conscience of the audience, by being supporters of the humanitarian projects under the umbrella of Cinema for Peace. I have to say, I respect the efforts of people like Penn and Geldoff, who devote time to such fundraising events, full of upper-class characters and wannabes who use their pay checks to be there. From the third floor I could see them, people reading newspapers, looking at cell phones, but attentive people too. I ask myself, do most of them really care? At least Penn got one million Euro the night before for medicines for Haiti! And during the dinner, a big screen counted up to100 000 Euro for different charity activities before the dinner ended.
Cinema for Peace is about film, as the name says. Bianca Jagger and Nastassja Kinski handed out different awards to filmmakers: one for best fiction and one for documentary, an environmental award, a justice award and one for human rights. After presenting thefiction award to Of Gods and Men, the best documentary is Skateistan – Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul.
The film is about sport as a socially harmonizing factor in an exhausted country. The justice prize went to the Danish film Blood in the Mobile, which shows the consequences of greedy and violent mining in the war-torn Republic of Congo – a result of the demand for the special metals in our mobiles. Interestingly, the human rights prize went to The Devil Operation, a film on Peruvian Father Marco Aranas’ commitment to protect his people against exploitative international mining companies with little regard for workers’ rights and environmental issues. The international mining companies have infiltrated the local secret service in Peru and hired mercenary soldiers and security officers to protect their investments. There is a certain distance between that little Peruvian man standing humbly on the stage listening to the applause from the audience and that audience, which surely includes some of the same capitalists who earn money from similar projects in South America or elsewhere. Not everyone is clapping…
Later on, I manage to sit down with Father Marcos to try to understand how he can continue to fight for his country’s people when he and his family often get death threats. What if an innocent child gets killed? There have been several murders. Marco tells me he cannot do anything else; without the fight for justice, his life wouldn’t be worth living. Both his mother and brother have also told him to continue the fight – though they too have received death threats.
Let me mention other documentaries screened at the Berlinale to illustrate my point about films that matter, both negatively and positively: The film How are You? about the artist duo Michael Elmgren and Ingar Dragset is not that far removed from the audience at the abovementioned gala dinner. This Danish feelgood documentary made by director Jannik Splidsboel follows, without any critical distance, the artists’ life and activities up to the exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2009. The two artists live what looks like an unproblematic life. In Venice the installation expressed an apparent irony towards the rich and petty bourgeoisie. But the artists differ too little from the propertyowning class and consumers they criticise – for one thing, they live in a huge, expensive art residence in Copenhagen. Their art and curating of others’ art in the Venice exhibition looks to me like the old critical message directed at the superficial designed life. I am indifferent; it’s too similar to what has been presented so many times before.
The documentary about them offers too few interesting issues that matter to me, although I must confess that, on an aesthetic level, I was slightly impressed when I attended that exhibition back in 2009. In the film we see the artists smiling at the Norwegian Queen (we love you, you are special …) and the culture minister at the opening in 2009. Yes, you can again, so “nineties” ironically exaggerate. I prefer Geldoff’s irony, with his (and also Penn’s) life experiences – they are not so full of themselves anymore.
To counter this artist portrait with another one in Berlin, I had the pleasure of seeing Mondo Lux – the Visual Worlds of Werner Schroeter. In my opinion, this was a deeply human portrait of a filmmaker, theatre director and artist, with his wise reflections on death, human relations and his selfless ego. The man was older, and just died at 65, but that is not the reason this film mattered more to me. Schroeter, interestingly, came from the underground cinema of the 60s and was one of the leading lights of 70s-era New German Cinema and a pioneer of gay film-making. His films often showcased outsiders – gays, immigrants and other marginalised people.
However, his often stylized and fragmented plots never enjoyed commercial success – like his contemporaries Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders. And, to mention one fiction in Berlinale with a documentary language of form, let me state that The Turin Horse from director Bela Tarr, is a 146 minute-long blackand-white masterpiece that is very much to my taste. This Jury winner has extremely long takes of the father/daughter struggling for survival in meagre conditions amid the wind-wracked countryside in 1889. They all – the horse too – give up in this film, a film with references to Tarkovskij and Dreyer.
The film starts with a 22-minute take of the man riding with the striving horse, so physical and emotional, accompanied by organ music changing later into the sounds of the moving and dripping horse as it gallops in slow motion over a vast, wind-filled distance. Which documentary has done anything similar? – the camera track must have been kilometres long! The use of zoom on the father/daughter, and the use of light from the roof window above (holy aspect) combined with horizontal light.
The sole visitor’s monologue saying that the capitalists always take everything they get their hands on. All this amounts to a film that resembles reality and the unavoidable human condition we all face. Tarr is a master at conveying the harshness of life and nature – 144 out of the 146 minutes resound with a constant strong wind, both outside and heard from inside the old stone house. As Tarr tells us at the press conference, it will happen to us all sooner or later, we all disappear with time, we will all have to leave this world. A question comes up: “Can a director make a good film without feeling pain about life?” Tarr’s answer tells us that his inspiration doesn’t come from the lightness of being, but from an unbearable heaviness.
Back to Cinema for Peace. All the films on the nomination list reflect something that matter. Instead of mere entertainment, here the directors and their participants have dared to do something that addresses change.
The foundation Cinema for Peace is involved in production and distribution of not only peace oriented films, but films addressing humanitarian issues. The nominated films deal with topics like: women in Bosnia, judicial murder, the war in Iraq, forgiveness, tolerance, education, sex abuse within the peace corps, Israelis and Palestinians together against the Wall, male rape victims with HIV, Aung San Suu Kyi (and a video speech by her addressing Cinema for Peace), the war in Afghanistan, Georgia, nuclear arms, global warming, food safety, trafficking, financial crises, infant mortality and recycling. A lot of films addressing moral issues. A list of films that points at last year’s activity from the documentary scene.
Cinema for Peace has also been behind the distribution of mini cameras on the ground in Darfur to collect evidence against the atrocities that have been and are still being committed. Maybe it’s about time this important ten-yearold organization calls itself Cinema for Change.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).