Some species are more important than others

Some years ago I contributed, like so many others, to spreading a little nature documentary on social media. The film was called How Wolves Changes Rivers, and portrays the return of the wolves to Yellowstone national park in USA. Many people probably thought the story of the positive and pervasive effects of the wolves had in the park was too good to be true. Such a reserve is healthy, but in actual fact the idea of reintroducing one key species into an ecosystem was supported by rigorous science.

The documentary film The Serengeti Rules provides a fascinating introduction to the background of it all. We encounter five people who in the 1960s developed a passion for investigating and understanding life – in forests, rivers and oceans. They didn’t know each other, and apparently they were researching entirely separate topics.

The main voice of the movie belongs to Robert Paine, who relates from his death-bed how he ended up uniting these dissimilar scientists in a common project. His scientific gaze had a farther reach than most, as his fundamental ambition was to uncover the self-regulating mechanisms of nature. Science had long departed from the premise that the energy of the sun provides nutrition for the plant eaters who, in turn, are devoured by the carnivorous animals in a process that goes from bottom to top. But what if the relationships in nature were more complex? What if life trickled down just as much as it grew upwards?

Some species are more important than others

Robert Paine launched a simple experiment to examine such questions. In a stretch of the intertidal zone, where 15 different species lived symbiotically together, he removed the starfish. After a short time the ecosystem was completely taken over by mussels. The fact that the carnivore (in this case, the starfish) disappeared, made it possible for another species to dominate to such an extent that it suppressed all others, thereby creating a monoculture. If Paine removed any of the other species, nothing happened. The starfish stood out. It was a keystone species in the ecosystem, decisive for its biodiversity.

When the otter disappeared in the waters outside northeast America, the consequence was a blossoming of sea urchins.

As a consequence of this new-won insight we also learned more about how humans disrupts the balance of nature. When the otter disappeared in the waters outside north-east America, the consequence was a blossoming of sea urchins. Since they are plant-eaters, the rich marine life was rapidly changed into a desert. What caused the disappearance of the otter? The answer was to be found in the sperm whales who ate them, a change of eating habits that was caused by human  intervention. This shows that industrial harvesting of certain species can create disturbances which then spread through the ecosystem. The long term effect was that human activity caused the natural diversity to deteriorate to the detriment of the ocean’s capacities to sustain and regenerate life.

Human interference and the way onwards

Sadly, such stories abound, caused by human population growth, a dismantling of wild nature and changes in the landscape along with different kinds of pollution disrupting essential ecosystems that have evolved through millennia. Often, isolated encroachments trigger domino effects spreading unpredictably through several connections at the same time. A major challenge is that humans tend to make any change into a new norm, thereby losing our understanding of the ways our surrounding nature is damaged by human activity.

The Serengeti Rules. Director: Nicholas Brown Producer: David Allen

The degradation of ecosystems, as well as mass extinction and loss of biodiversity, is a reality we need to take much more seriously. A critical question that arises is whether nature can be restored at all. Here the Yellowstone wolves become important, since they demonstrate how the re-introduction of a lost species can revitalize the life of nature. Hence, in different contexts we would need to know which species are key to the mutual interactions of an ecosystem. In one place it was the wolf, in another, the starfish or the otter – and in the Serengeti national park, it turned out to be the gnu.

We would need to know which species are key to the mutual interactions of an ecosystem.

The relationship between nature and natural science creates an essential nexus here, where sociological concerns tie in. What does it take for our society to take care of our ecological knowledge in a responsible way? Is the solution to be found in absolute distinctions between what we can meddle with and what needs full protection, or do we have to resign to the notion that in the Anthropocene we protect, preserve and administer a world that we have always been changing?


Coming to terms with a collective trauma

The first time I saw Maryam Zaree was in the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. In the play Denial (dir. Yael Ronen), she addressed her mother from stage, asking why they never speak about her birth in the Evin Prison in Teheran – a prison housing political prisoners in Iran since 1972 and accused of serious human rights violations. Maryam cried on stage. So did I.

«I know I was born in this prison. And that is basically all I know» – Maryam Zaree

The second time I saw Maryam was in the emotionally charged Berlinale documentary Born in Evin that had its world premiered at the festival. This time the young actress and director questions not only her silent mother, but she also conducts a thorough investigation into the circumstances of her birth in one of Iran’s – and the world’s – most cruel prisons. Evin is notorious for its numerous executions and brutal tortures – even pregnant women and mothers in front of their children were seriously abused there in the 1980s. Until now the Iranian government remains silent about the human rights violations committed.

The revolutions that went wrong

Around 2010–2011 the Western World looked with hope at the East and the Arab Spring. However, the progress many of us wished for and expected did not happen. The region was instead plunged into political instability, Islamisation and a long war in Syria. Several decades earlier a revolution went wrong in another Middle Eastern (but not Arab) country – Iran.

Maryam Zaree speaking with Iranian women in exile at an international conference in Florence

In the late 1970s many Iranians were dissatisfied with the Shah’s oppressive and corrupted regime. They hoped for progressive changes, and Maryam Zaree’s parents were among them. But the revolution didn’t turn out as they had expected – the Shah’s monarchy was replaced by the Islamic regime lead by Ayatollah Khomeini, and those who opposed the new regime were hunted down. Maryam’s parents were arrested in 1983, and she was born in the Evin Prison the same year. The story starts more than 30 years later, when the Iranian–German actress lands with a parachute in a deserted area saying: «I know I was born in this prison. And that is basically all I know.»

Hidden pain

But it seems as if Maryam Zaree’s own body knows more about her past than she does.

Once she was travelling on a bus in Morocco, where Islamic music was playing. All of a sudden Maryam had a panic attack – she couldn’t stand the music, her body was sweating and shivering in pain. Maryam had to beg the bus driver to switch off the radio.

«Study the past if you would define the future» – Confucius

Later her father explained that musical torture was common in the Evin Prison. An endless loop of Quran Surahs would be played to the prisoners, and it is very likely that Maryam was exposed to this torture as a foetus in her mother’s belly, or even as a baby. Even though Maryam has no memory of it, her body reacted accordingly.

Outer wall of Evan Prison in Teheran

There are many traumatic black spots the director of the film feels the need to address. However, she is not alone, as there are many who were abused and killed in the political prisons in Iran. The former prisoners and their children share the same collective trauma, and – like other collective wounds – it lasts longer than one or even two generations.

A collective trauma

The theatre play Denial, where I first saw Maryam acting, is about a perfect story many people usually tell about themselves. The reason is simple – they want to be like everybody else. But Maryam chooses to uncover all the ugly parts. All the parts that are not fine. Her mother – a psychologist with a doctor’s degree and a local politician in Frankfurt – does not respond to her daughter’s challenge and keeps silent.

Maryam Zaree with her mother in a scene from the film

Maryam then starts approaching people with a similar past in order to find the missing pieces of her puzzle. Meeting psychotherapists, other ex-prisoners and their children, she is faced not only with the terrible details of torture, abuse and executions in Iran’s prisons, but also learns about the psychological mechanisms people develop to deal with traumatic events.

As an example, many children of the Iranian opposition members have become successful and responsible adults abroad. They didn’t win the fight in Iran, but they keep proving in their new life that their parents’ ideas were right.

Afraid of being arrested, Maryam didn’t risk entering Iran

Born in Evin is constructed like a political psychotherapy session. Towards the end of the documentary Maryam’s mother finally collapses and opens up about her psychological coping mechanisms. Coming to Germany as a single mother was a big challenge in itself. She wanted to start a new life, get a good education, a good job, and go on. In order to fulfil this task, she had to forget.

But traumas don’t just disappear. Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: «Study the past if you would define the future.» Maryam tried hard. She went through a complex study of her own and similar biographies in order to redefine the future.

Nevertheless, her story fits into the bigger picture. Her trauma is not personal, but collective. Afraid of being arrested, Maryam didn’t risk entering Iran, but we can assume that there are many open questions in the society that is still living in an oppressive country.


Cries from a wounded world

You can almost feel the tactile reality from the first powerful seconds of the documentary Grit. Dramatic footage of smoke, danger and flooded camps gives an almost mythological resonance to its end of the world narrative. The film takes us to Sidoarjo in East Java, Indonesia, the location of the catastrophic mudflow of 2006. A panorama view shows a continuously erupting flow of destruction. A long row of silhouettes gaze towards the horizon, their heads and bodies covered in a thick layer of clay. The tender face of a fourteen-year-old girl, Dian, is a welcome contrast to the smoking inferno. She was only six when her fertile world was turned to dust.

A present-day Pompeii

Dian is remarkably young to act as the voice of these victims. But her voice represents youthful innocence, as well as the younger generation’s growing dissatisfaction with, and resistance toward, the injustices and feeble attempts at limiting the mudflow continuing to plague the region. The young girl’s perspective gives the film its vibrant angle and offers a sense of hope in the midst of an otherwise grotesque and merciless tragedy. But the true protagonist of the film is nonetheless the force of nature.

Grit. Director(s): Sasha Friedlander, Cynthia Wade

The story of the mud tsunami that drowned everything on its course echoes the ancient story of Pompeii. But while Pompeii was a victim of the natural forces of the volcano Vesuvius, the real culprit in this story is the greed of capitalism. An irresponsible blowout of natural gas awoke a mud volcano deep within the earth: The first eruption obliterated 16 villages and killed almost as many people. Mosques, factories, rice fields, and houses have been replaced with a vast, cracked desert. A decade later the mudflow is still not under control, and the severity of the long-term effects is a fact.

Orchestrated re-traumatisation

This film could have been a bleak sci-fi and a successful piece of propaganda against evil corporations, but sadly Grit shows the brutal reality of powerless citizens in Indonesia. The villain is brilliantly personified in the slick owner and director of the Lapindo Brantas company responsible for the catastrophe, Aburizal Bakrie. Bakrie plays tennis with his ample belly held in place by a wide belt.

While Pompeii was a victim of the natural forces of the volcano Vesuvius, the real culprit in this story is the greed of capitalism

He proudly gloats of the thousands of victims who lost their homes and received no compensations for their losses, with a sadistic ingenuity reminiscent of a Bruegel painting or Kafka novel: The victims who could not provide their property deeds – documents devoured by the clay – could only have their loss acknowledged if they swore an oath with their hands and feet tied with clay to their necks. Nine out of ten victims could not bear the thought of this cruel and blatant form of re-traumatisation. And the few who agreed to perform the barbaric ritual, or were able to show intact deeds, were compensated with no more than a fifth of the value of the house.

Grit. Director(s): Sasha Friedlander, Cynthia Wade

The irony of survival

 The layers of suffering and hardship disclosed in the film are dense and unfathomable, and similarly, the narrative structure may be compared to a stinking, rotten onion. The justice given to the mighty and powerful has a bitter aftertaste: The court scientists were bribed into stating an earthquake caused the disaster. The Lapindo Group also owns parts of the media, and the film shows briefly the company’s cunning petition regarding the cause of the tragedy. Bakrie went unpunished for his sins – he has even been rewarded with a ministerial post.

The ability to adapt and survive is almost surreal

But the film does not dwell on this point – it focuses rather on the unity and defiance of the victims. Their life-affirming strength, their relentless spirit is moving. The ability to adapt and survive is almost surreal: many of them now make a living from giving guiding tours of their once fertile hometown.

Grit. Director(s): Sasha Friedlander, Cynthia Wade

After the apocalypse the region has become a favoured background for selfies on Instagram and Snapchat updates. Disaster tourism is a growing trend; there is a market for ecological destruction – especially when the damages are as aesthetically pleasing and fear inducing as here. Suffering and death have been converted into a sorely needed source of income – a tragedy is now a popular receiver of «likes» on social media. The dance around the golden calf has been frozen in perfect poses in a frightful, dried up wasteland.

A warning

Colourful images from the time preceding the disaster are shown in quick reverse succession, followed by people fleeing for their lives from water and mud. It seems unreal when the heroine of the film remembers how today’s barren desert, not long ago, was a green village filled with laughter.

Disaster tourism is a growing trend; there is a market for ecological

The trauma is now an integrated part of everyday life, tourists visit in great numbers and the story of the clay catastrophe is now taught in school. «What caused the mud tsunami?»the teacher asks rhetorically. A forest of human statues has been cast and sunk beneath the ocean near the bank of the mudflow; an army buried with its silent, defiant protest.

The court cleared Lapindo of all guilt, but Bakrie’s own mother demanded that he give the victims compensation for their losses. The story of the struggle between one of the most powerful men in Indonesia and the victims of his exploitation of nature is the story of a widespread and life-threatening destruction of nature with no chance of turning back.

Yet, the resistance from local voices is adamant – just like the sunken memorial for the deceased.


A female imam struggling for community

The Reformist – A Female Imam

Marie Skovgaard

Jesper Jack

Denmark, 2019. 58 min

«Do not burn bridges» is a challenging slogan to set up for yourself when your vision is to create a woman-led mosque. Probably this would be true any place in the world but not least in Denmark, as the Syrian-Finnish Dane Sherin Khankan set her mind to do in 2015.

That there would be resistance to a mosque with female imams was predictable.

With a small crowd of (more or less) like-minded Muslims, men and women, and the donation of an apartment from a fellow traveller in the art of controversy, the Mariam Mosque became a reality in 2016. In The Reformist, director Marie Skovgaard has followed Sherin Khankan closely throughout the process, with the last recordings being from December last year.

Resistance from within and without

That there would be resistance to a mosque with female imams was predictable. On one hand there are Muslims who object to the idea that women can lead the prayer. On the other hand there are non-Muslims who object to the idea that Islam can be many things. These later include the white Danish ladies in colourful clothes and coloured hair who besiege Sherin Khankan after a conference on «radicalisation» in the Danish Parliament. They inform Khankan that while it may be true that Christians once could pose a threat to world peace, today the threat is unilaterally from Muslims.

«I don’t agree,» says Khankan quietly, impressively calm while clearly affected by the siege.

And siege is something she comes under in many contexts. From right-wing Muslim men, after having said her piece during a debate at the University of Odense, bombarding her with questions and accusations of not having sufficient knowledge of the Quran. From journalists eager to pick up on any sensation that might emerge from the project even if it means inventing facts, such as when the daily paper Politiken states that the Mariam Mosque keeps their location a secret out of fear of retaliation. «Why would they write such a thing?» Khankan wonders.

The Reformist – A Female Imam. Marie Skovgaard

Within the group of people behind the Mariam Mosque, disagreements and misunderstandings regarding theology, tactics, strategies and personal style also lurk. This becomes clear in an early scene of The Reformist. The question of gay marriage comes up and just by the facial expressions of the three board members present in the camera angle, it is more than obvious that they do not see eye to eye – and are not equally invested in the issue.

The strength and liability of devotion

While the Mariam Mosque is a project of community and congregation, the project is, for better and for worse, tied particularly to Sherin Khankan and her vision, as the title of the film and the documentary’s plot also suggest. The strength that lies in Khankan’s devotion – to the cause and to her personal beliefs and integrity – is also a liability that several times is dangerously close to making everything fall apart.

The strength that lies in Khankan’s devotion is also a liability.

She wins, she fails, she learns, she cries, she embraces – herself and others alike. She pushes some away by insisting on following her own heart, and almost pushes others away by resisting following her own heart.

The Reformist – A Female Imam. Marie Skovgaard

The Reformist is a moving portrait of a committed and determined soul, subtly fearless, who is not immune to threats or attacks, or to the positive and negative reactions of her colleagues.

Elegantly weaving together the collective and the personal, the private and the public, Marie Skovgaard has created a unique documentary about a unique project. The camera is bold and insistent without ever being indiscrete or disrespectful, and as such captures what seems to be the core of Mariam Mosque in all its, as yet, unfulfilled promises and visions.


Is the EU «sleepwalking towards oblivion»?

Democracy Ltd

Robert Schabus

Allegro Film

Austria/France/UK, 2019. 87min

In his timely and taut examination of what is driving Europe’s headlong rush into the facile charms of right-wing ‘populist’ parties, Austrian filmmaker Robert Schabus provides an insight into the human stories behind today’s political and social upheavals.

In 2016 in his debut documentary feature, Bauer Unser (Our Farmer, 2016) Schabus examined the «faster, cheaper, more» mantra behind Austria’s industrialised food production system and the fraught connections between economic policy, industry and society.

With Democracy Ltd he widens the focus and roams across Europe’s deeply unsettled dividing lines, spending time with striking French workers in Amiens, where thousands of low-skilled factory jobs have disappeared in recent years. He’s also talking to the Polish people who are now doing those jobs for a fraction of a French wage after the multinationals shifted production east; and digging into the sense of abandonment in England’s depressed Northeast that was behind the shock ‘Leave’ result in the UK’s EU referendum in 2016.

«I have two kids, one is 18, the other 12. For me to find another job at 50, it is not easy.»

It’s not only about the gilets jaune – with which Schabus opens the film –  the ‘yellow jackets’ of the thousands of anti-austerity protestors who last autumn erupted onto the streets of Paris.

It is also about the ordinary Austrian grandmother, living in an Art Deco-inspired pre-war block of flats, who feels overwhelmed in a society where change has happened to her or the working class Greeks, whose emphatic Oxi! – ‘No’ – to humiliating and punishing economic austerity inflicted by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels when Grexit was threatened, long before Brexit hove onto the horizon.

He weaves these apparently disparate strands together at a time when the EU falters on the brink of disaster, with plummeting faith in political parties and Europe’s centre faltering as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor (a byword for stability) is due to step down in 2021.

Schabus also fields a handful of the ‘experts’ so blithely dismissed by the likes of Britain’s Brexiteers, and one ‘faceless’ EU bureaucrat: Günter Verheugen, the bloc’s commissioner for Enlargement and, later, Enterprise and Industry, between 1999-2010.

The commentators are intelligent and reasoned; Verheugen is a member of Germany’s SPD Social Democratic party, a key plank in Germany’s ‘grand coalition’ that has long supported stability over politicking in its support for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Replaced by low-skilled workers

But their careful analysis and intellectual arguments do little to ameliorate the raw pain and anger of those like the 50-year old French factory worker who takes Schabus on a tour of the shuttered and abandoned factories of Amien’s windswept industrial suburbs.

«I have two kids, one is 18, the other 12. For me to find another job at 50, it is not easy,» he says, as he drives around a weed-covered, empty industrial site where «once a thousands jobs» existed.

«Everyone wanted to show these politicians that we were sick to death of broken promises.»

Far from the Amiens, regional capital of the Somme – where a century ago working class British, French and German soldiers died when millions fighting in a war that arguably sprang from the same sources of capitalist overreach and uncaring exploitation threatening to overwhelm Europe today – in another old battleground in Lodz, Poland, his factory job that earns him 2,000 Euros a month plus social benefits is now being done for as little as 447 Euros a month by low-skilled Polish (and Ukrainian) workers.

The juxtaposition begs the question: what is free movement of people worth when free movement of goods and services takes their jobs away?

Schabus unpicks the main reasons why a narrow majority of those Britons that voted in the Brexit referendum of June, 2016, opted for Leave.

«Everyone wanted to show these politicians that we were sick to death of broken promises,» a tattoo studio owner in Sunderland says, adding that attempts to save factories from closing down via state aid were prevented by «EU rules».

It is an argument that the Brexit-supporting leader of Britain’s parliamentary Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour party, also uses, although there are some loopholes in the EU regulative that allows for state interventions.

Nevertheless, the lies peddled by the fabulously wealthy backers of Brexit (and of populist parties across Europe) tend to be believed by those ordinary people who will suffer most from the consequences of Brexit and other diabolical policies.

«The more things change, the more they stay the same», as French critic and writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote in January 1849 – at another time of historic convulsions across Europe.

Europe is «sleepwalking»

Belgian historian, David Van Reybrouck, one of the expert commentators, neatly summarises why ordinary Europeans are feeling so frustrated: «What we see now is a massive distrust between politicians and citizens,» – the result, he claims, of the shift since the 1980s in power towards capitalism, to the markets and away from politicians and the people.

«We have an expression in Dutch: if two dogs are fighting over a bone, a third one runs away with it… and that is exactly what we have now.»

«We have an expression in Dutch: if two dogs are fighting over a bone, a third one runs away with it… and that is exactly what we have now.»

According to Van Reybrouck, even in Norway – widely regarded as an arbiter for social (and economic) stability – 41 per cent of the people believe that political parties are totally corrupt. The figures in EU member states are even worse: 67 per cent in Belgium, 70 per cent in France, 80 per cent in France and over 90 per cent in Greece.

And as long as this persists, there is no way to bring Europe’s global capitalists to heel.

It is a theme that is becoming increasingly widespread: writing in mid-February for Project Syndicate – a liberal international media freedom initiative  ­– financier George Soros warned that the EU was «sleepwalking towards oblivion» and, could collapse as rapidly as the Soviet Union did in 1991, unless it awoke its «sleeping pro-European majority» before May’s European parliament elections, where populist Eurosceptic parties are predicted to make significant gains.

There’s an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Democracy Ltd is indeed a film for interesting times. It ends with an analogy for the democratic process, that it is preferable, though difficult, to repair a speeding car while in motion, than to do so when you have crashed.


A permission structure for mass murder

Half a year into the Philippines’ so-called war on drugs, I interviewed two elderly women near the airport in a Metro Manila suburb. Both had lost sons to unidentified shooters and, as they were sure it was the local police, feared for their own lives. Still, the women remained determined in seeking justice even if, almost as sure, they would never get it.

After spending the day in their (deeply impoverished) neighbourhood, I went to one of Metro Manila’s oldest and most expensive gated communities, Forbes Park, where I was invited to a reception of Danish diplomats and expats. That evening, I was told to stop being so preoccupied with the war on drugs and the extrajudicial killings. Instead, I should write about all the good things president Rodrigo Duterte has done.

Before regaining my posture after hearing diplomats of a country boasting to defend freedom of speech telling a journalist what to write about and what to not, another followed up, saying: «You know, the war on drugs doesn’t really affect our daily lives. »

Wow, no shit, Sherlock. How could it possibly affect daily lives in Forbes Park? For the two ladies mourning their sons in a poor squatter area just a few stations away, however, it affected daily life quite a lot.

Facts and focus

Sometimes though, it does feel like everything has been said about Duterte’s war on drugs. It targets poor drug users, not rich drug lords. It creates congestion in the prisons as well as the morgues. It has done little or nothing to the drug industry as such. It has created the perfect amnesty for the killing of anyone who someone else may not like, including political dissenters. And yes, the official numbers of police killings are only the tip of the iceberg – of the thousands of unresolved drive-by-shootings, police are behind many of them.

« Both had lost sons to unidentified shooters and, as they were sure it was the local police, feared for their own lives »

The only people who deny these facts are either so-called «DDS – Duterte Diehard Supporters» (of which many do not deny these facts, they just do not find them worrying) – or, simply, cynics who could not care less about the actual lives lost but who, for some reason, have vested interest in redirecting the focus.

Killings and killings

So why do we need another documentary on this subject? I am not sure we do. Action would be timelier, but if the award-winning French documentary director, Olivier Sarbil can get more people to realize what is, in fact, going on in the Philippines, On the President’s Orders (as his documentary is titled), then fine.

On the President’s Orders. Director(s): Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

The documentary – premiering at CPH:DOX – zooms in on Caloocan, a highly urbanized city in the northern part of Metro Manila. The reason behind this location is Duterte has changed its chief of police twice during his war on drugs first two years. It was one of the drug war’s most violent zones, where bodies piled up from the outset. In response to citizen protests, the chief of police was replaced. For a short while the killings almost stopped until resuming in a new form.

« the war on drugs doesn’t really affect our daily lives. »

As such, the location is well picked and the narrative smoothly structured. The documentary’s crew also managed to get valuable interviews and sources from amongst the police, as well as from local citizens, just as the recordings are neatly shot and edited.

Those who leave and those who stay

However, more than a French documentary crew (or Danish freelance journalist) who can arrive and leave, those who deserve credit for their tireless and fearless documentary efforts are the local Philippine journalists, who face a variety of repercussions for doing their jobs. From being assaulted and killed – Philippines has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, no less so under Duterte – to being constantly harassed with lawsuits, such as the editors of Rappler are being.

On the President’s Orders. Director(s): Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

Nonetheless, On the President’s Orders shows – with all (un)desired clarity – how the Philippine president has created a permission structure for mass murder, as a protester phrases it. Films such as this ought to contribute to making drug war apologetics think twice, though it probably will not.


MY NEIGHBOUR, MY BROTHER: Two shorts from Berlinale 2019

Blue Boy / In Between

Manuel AbramovichSamir Karahoda

Berlin does things differently. Last year the main competition jury at the hipster-metropolis’ venerable film festival the Berlinale caused considerable stir by awarding the Golden Bear to a wild-card documentary-fiction hybrid which few regarded as a major contender for awards: Adina Pintilie’s intimate essay on sexuality and body-image, Touch Me Not. Twelve months later, the triumvirate responsible for bestowing the festival’s short-film equivalent – also a Golden Bear – went even further. 

«Our formal ambition in all our films is to create an audiovisual experience that is very similar to wakeful or lucid dreams» – Florian Fischer and Johannes Krell

Koyo Kouoh (Senegal), Vanja Kaludjercic (Croatia) and Jeffrey Bowers (USA), in what was an unusually bold move for such a high-profile film festival, opted for a non-narrative, experimental contender. Umbra, by German duo Florian Fischer and Johannes Krell, is a semi-abstract, alluringly enigmatic 20-minute exploration of natural darkness, making especially striking use of the bizarre shadowy effects that can result from a solar eclipse. «Our formal ambition in all our films,» commented the directors, «is to create an audiovisual experience that is very similar to wakeful or lucid dreams and thus to question the boundaries of our own perception.»

Umbra a film by Johannes Krell, Florian Fischer

Swan song

While the piece itself is subduedly andante, the allocation of the short film Golden Bear to a picture like Umbra – remarkably, the first «home» win since Helke Sander won for West Germany in 1985 – was a somewhat sensational finale to the Berlinale career of Maike Mia Höhne, boss of the shorts section since 2007. In contrast to other departments of the Berlinale – a sprawling behemoth of an event which many reckon has steadily lost its way since the appointment of Dieter Kosslick as overall artistic director in 2001 – the shorts selection always shows evidence of intelligent and considered, disciplined, focused curation (only 26 films made the cut this year) with a particular emphasis on the cutting-edge and avant-garde.

Umbra a film by Johannes Krell, Florian Fischer

There’s some irony, then, that Höhne should be departing – to take over the Hamburg Short Film Festival – just as the genial, ever-beaming Kosslick (a delightful fellow, if no sane person’s idea of a cinephile) should also be finally heading out the door. Incoming artistic director Carlo Chatrian will take over for the 2020 edition, bringing with him a considerable reputation built up in the same position at Switzerland’s Locarno film festival. Locarno is also noted for its very fine shorts programme, and the odds are therefore encouraging that the Berlinale will manage to maintain its strong position in this area.

This year two particular standouts at the Berlinale dealt in rather different ways with Balkan masculinity: Manuel Abramovich’s Blue Boy, built around a series of interviews with young Romanian sex-workers in the eponymous and legendary Berlin gay-bar; and Samir Karahoda’s In Between (Në Mes), which chronicles an odd social phenomenon whereby many families in Kosovo construct identical houses for temporarily expatriate brothers to (supposedly) inhabit.

Male sex workers in Berlin

Blue Boy, which won the runner-up Silver Bear, is an 18-minute exercise in humanist sympathy-extension comprising seven discrete chapters. In each, a youthful denizen of the bar – located on Kleiststraße in the funky Schöneberg area and known as one of the friendliest gay-oriented establishments in the decidedly gay-friendly German capital – stares into the camera as he listens to a tape-recording of himself, audio presumably taped not long before. A couple of the participants struggle to keep a straight face (no pun intended) most notably «Razvan» in the second segment, as he listens to his own recreation of a typical deadpan, explicit bar exchange between an «escort» and his potential client.

Blue Boy by Manuel Abramovich

But otherwise the tone is somewhat sombre as the speakers discuss matters of sexual preference (most describe themselves as hetero, their sex-work more a matter of financial expediency than personal predilection), identity and, in the final bit, an incident sparking considerable emotional upheaval. Abramovich (who also produces) serves as his own cinematographer, presenting the lads in lush widescreen images with the twinkling lights of the bar, out of focus, behind.

Blue Boy has the compact leanness that often marks the best short films.

The fifth section, devoted to «Marius», captures its subject in a luridly romantic pink glow – he’s the most philosophical of the septet («our world is a stage, we are just puppets») – and the Dietrich-style glamorous ambience of his setting is only slightly undermined by the presence of a buzzing fly, who also cameos in some of the other episodes. Edited by the leading Romanian cutter Catalin Cristutiu (best known for his collaborations with outstanding, feature-oriented writer-director Radu Jude), Blue Boy has the compact leanness that often marks the best short films.

Abramovich, reportedly working on a feature-length expansion of the project, sensibly doesn’t attempt to deliver a comprehensive profile of the Berlin-escort phenomenon, instead crafting sensitive and acutely observational snapshots of particular individuals linked by particular circumstances. The director, who is from Argentina, is perhaps best known for directing Light Years (2017), in which he elliptically records the making of Lucrecia Martel’s arthouse success Zama (in a manner which is arguably more rewarding than the much-ballyhooed movie itself.)

He often tends to focus on people towards the younger end of the age spectrum: La Reina (The Queen) from 2013, one of the decade’s finest shorts, is a cumulatively heartbreaking nine-minute glimpse into the high-pressure world of kiddie beauty-pageants. He’s a prolific and adventurous director who, in his own words, loves the short-film format because they are «like games. I just like to invent the rules and, for a few minutes, invite the audience to play along.»

Rural life in Kosovo

At 31, prolific Abramovich has already carved a considerable directorial niche; Karahoda, by contrast, delivers his debut a full decade older. Until now he has been better known as a cinematographer – he has credits on that front dating back to 2007, and has been involved in several films from Kosovo (most of them shorts) since the country declared independence from Serbia in 2008. He’s also heavily involved in Dokufest, the widely respected film festival of his home city Prizren, which has consistently given due prominence to short films alongside more heralded works of «conventional» cinema length.

Transcending its somewhat bland title, In Between is a brisk immersion into rural life in today’s Kosovo, where many families rely heavily on remittances being sent back from offspring working away in wealthier countries like Germany and Switzerland (the latter country’s national football team has, for most of the current century, been famously reliant on Kosovar «imports»).

Whereas Abramovich playfully exploits the currently fashionable (and objectively weird) documentary-cinema technique of having his participants stare into the camera as if they’re having their photographs taken, Karahoda deploys it repeatedly and without irony. We hear from various paterfamiliases, explaining the way family wealth has been divided up to construct identical, neighbouring detached properties (normally at least of three storeys) – on the basis that, somewhat aptly given the history of Yugoslavia, the more identical they are, the less jealousy and strife may result – and we see these «fathers of the family» posing proudly for posterity.

In Between is a brisk immersion into rural life in today’s Kosovo.

As a showcase for Karahoda’s cinematography talents, In Between particularly dazzles when he uses the widescreen frame to show the houses in full – three, four, five, six, at one point nine identical dwellings, ranged evenly across the frame – presented in the context of an under-populated landscape of fields and meadows. Dark grey clouds hang overhead, a muezzin’s call to prayer echoes over the scene, the lights of the southern Balkan dusk twinkle dimly on the fringes of laborious agriculture.

In Between by Samir Karahoda

Proceedings conclude with a boisterous nuptial celebration, the first, jarring incursion of females into this old-school, all-male system; five brothers are then shown, all of them working far away, and seldom coming home. «Only weddings and funerals bring us together,» one remarks, at this eleventh hour raising the intriguing question of just how many among the dwellings we have seen will ever be used as intended.


From the frontlines of the war on refugees

The Rest

Ai Weiwei

China, Germany, 2019

A woman carrying no belongings but instead her cat, cuddled up in her arms. A man asking why no one cares that his children are under water, why no one has bothered to recover their bodies, six months after the smuggler’s boat sank. Why the smuggler’s sentence was only two months for the murder of thirteen women and children. An Italian priest seeking to provide first aid to the «broken dignity» of the fellow humans that appeared in his town, while most of his neighbours are trying to make these refugees flee again. A police force burning down a refugee camp while the inhabitants watch their few belongings disappear, asking themselves where they will sleep tonight – asking themselves because no one else is going to provide them with any answers.

Resources spent, resources denied

Chinese filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s new documentary The Rest is a reportage from the frontline of the war that is being waged against refugees in Europe and its borderlands.

The Rest is a reportage from the frontline of the war that is being waged against refugees in Europe and its borderlands

It is about local inhabitants outraged that their coastal resort, where they came to live the good life, is being spoiled by someone else’s misery, outraged that they can no longer eat the fish fresh from the sea because of the contamination of bodies in the ocean.

It is about an asylum system devoid of humanity, a system built on the logic that when someone has been forced to leave their home they certainly should have no say whatsoever as to where their new, temporary, home might be. It is about the resources spent on border enforcement, wall constructions, bombings of foreign countries, and the lack of resources spent on sheltering those who are faced with the impossible choice of staying under lethal conditions or risking their lives and the lives of their children to flee into the unknown.

«Is this Europe? It looks like a third world country,» a refugee comments about the conditions they are offered in the place they thought would be safe for them.

For the majority of the world inhabitants, human rights are an abstraction at best, and Ai Weiwei shows this depressing fact in a quietly observing, carefully listening way. While his conceptual art is often commercial and his brand person-centred – though not least due to the reception of him and his work – his documentary The Rest is, admirably, modestly composed, giving voice to those people to whom nobody wants to listen.

A step towards salvaging humanity

Through a neatly edited ensemble of footage and interview moments, the documentary carries a strong plot, and a strong accusation. To protect the comfort of the few, the many are deprived the most basic amenities. Food, water, hygiene, shelter, safe passage. Under a liberal world-order that boasts the celebration of individuality and choice, refugees and migrants are treated as masses, hordes, as an unwanted, unwelcomed, dangerous disturbance, whose bodies and lives count for nothing.

In search of a future many discover that they have none

Ai Weiwei’s latest documentary will be premiering in Copenhagen, the capital of a country that in the last years has managed to baffle an increasingly numb Western world with its demeaning treatment of refugees. «We offered you our humanity, and this is how you reward us?» a refugee says in despair to the camera. Indeed, Europe is sacrificing the humanity of both those who dare to cross borders and those who use any means to keep them out.

From the Calais Jungle to the coasts of Italy and Greece, war is waged on the people who fled it. A war so savage that some even opt to return to the place they had left in desperation, so shaken by the conditions they were met with that they start doubting if the impossible choice they made was wrong, while knowing that returning cannot be right either. Thus, in search of a future many discover that they have none.

Weiwei has made an important contribution towards salvaging the individuality and humanity of those who are treated as subhuman

With The Rest, Ai Weiwei has made an important contribution towards salvaging the individuality and humanity of those who are treated as subhuman; we see refugees playing a piano under a plastic cover in the rain, we see the woman who decided that what she would bring on the long road from Syria to Sweden was her cat.

May The Rest also contribute to salvaging the humanity of the people who are so scared of sharing their own comfort that they would rather be complicit in the literal and symbolic deaths of their fellow beings.


From riches to rags: Living the life among the Sierra Leonean elite to the American supermarket

As we go about our daily lives, we pass-by hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day –people we don’t know, complete strangers. We play formal roles in each other’s’ lives, under the cover of relative anonymity. We recognise the mailman, we have seen the woman selling train tickets many times, and every day there is a stranger sitting next to us on the bus. But what do we really get to know about these people? How much of their past that we are not acquainted with makes up who they are? And how many extraordinary stories do we miss every single day when we pass by the people who are not meant to really enter our lives?

Andreas Hadijpateras’ film A Forgotten Past, which screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this March, leaves you with all these questions after its main character – who looks like any middle-aged American – tells his story. Now a family father working in a supermarket in New York, but before this life, he had another. He lived in Sierra Leone. And his father was the ruler of the country.

Narrating his family’s forgotten past

The film combines archive footage and interviews with family members and people who knew the now deceased Andrew Juxon-Smith ­– a politician and military official who acted as Head of the State of Sierra Leone in the 1960s. But what truly ties everything together is the cursive and fascinating story of his son Solomon Juxton-Smith. The middle-aged American turns into the narrator of his family’s forgotten past.

«If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you’re coming from»

Their story is extraordinary, not only because it is so deeply rooted in West African history, but also because it is a story of exile, of going from riches to rags, from living the life of country’s elite to starting all over again in the United States.

The rare archive footage of Sierra Leone in the decade following its 1961 independence is magnetic for anyone interested in African history. The black and white images absorb the viewer into a past era with an unusual combination of features. The Sierra Leone portrayed in these images is an African country recently emerged from British colonial rule, a society of the 60s that is both local and Western, with a dress code that could probably be visible in the United Kingdom as well.

Juxon-Smith’s unpopular measures

A Forgotten Past. Director: Andreas Hadjipateras

During the 60s, the country – like the many other African countries recently emerged from colonial rule – struggled to find its own way and almost succeeded in electing a democratic government. In the 1967 elections in which the opposition clearly won, a military coup took place, and the army took over power. It was at this moment that Andrew Juxton-Smith was called back from London and installed as Head of State.

It is unclear why he was chosen and brought back from London. Many seem to remember him fondly, yet it is difficult to understand how things were truly perceived at the time. In a black and white interview, he speaks with a strong British accent and explains his position against tribalism and some of his views in general. Like any military person, he was a disciplinarian and is remembered for accepted no bribes and no favours.

After years in jail, for Juxon-Smith and his family, exile became the only option

His measures and thoroughness – and also his propensity for lecturing people on what it means to work hard – didn’t win him many friends. His junta closed down state plantations that were inefficient, raised taxes and import duties, fired venal politicians and put the economy in the hands of professional administrators, all of which brought significant unemployment. Eventually, a coup, which was welcomed by the common people, removed him from power and landed him in jail together with all his officers. To many, corruption seemed preferable to Juxon-Smith’s long-term measures and strictness. And after years in jail, for Juxon-Smith and his family, exile became the only option.

Solomon is one of the few pieces left of that family past

The most contrasting element of the film is that elite past they left behind and the reality of the more sober life Solomon now lives. It is striking how much one’s life can change.
«If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you’re coming from» is a saying in Krio language (Sierra Leonean Creole) that Solomon contemplates on in the very beginning of the film.
The long lost West African piece of history he narrates in front of the camera seems so completely removed from everything he has become. Yet Solomon is one of the few pieces left of that family past, a man who was a boy when they left Sierra Leone and who became an adult in the family’s anonymous life in the United States. With his father long gone and his mother passing away in the beginning of the film, A Forgotten Past makes the most of what is left: few people, the archive images, and this one son who is left to tell the story. The rest is history.


What future lies ahead for the human mind?

This year’s science section at the CPH:DOX festival kicks off with the world premiere of Danish director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s documentary Hunting for Hedonia. The uplifting and skilfully produced documentary is a collection of interviews with leading neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

And according to the interviewees’ statements in Grønkjær’s film, the future looks bright when it comes to curing many of the illnesses characterising our modern societies such as depression, Parkinson’s syndrome, obesity and addiction disorders.

The positive effects of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)

Hunting for Hedonia explores the effects of a revolutionary technique employed by leading neuroscientists called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). The technique involves the implementation of a medical device in the brain – a so-called «neurostimulator» – that sends out electric impulses in order to manipulate specific parts of the brain.

«Hedonia tells you what is good for you.»

Hedonia – the location where happiness resides in our brain (hence the title) – is of particular importance in treating patients that suffer from severe and suicidal depressive disorders. As one of the interviewees puts it: «Hedonia tells you what is good for you.»

In the documentary we meet a 54-year-old woman who has suffered from severe depression all her life. We follow her before and after her surgery and treatment with DBS, and, judging by the images, the difference in her appearance and outlook on life is astonishing. «I feel like I have been 54 years in coma,» she says after the operation.

Hunting for Hedonia. Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær

Next to the positive effects of treating depression, DBS has also proven to be effective in healing Parkinson’s syndrome. At the beginning of the film, a middle-aged man suffering from Parkinson’s is to receive a DBS operation by a number of neurosurgeons. His right hand is severely trembling at this point. The difference when we meet him later on in the film, now at home, is startling. His hands are completely calm, and he tells us how he feels like himself again.

Post-traumatic stress disorders are also on this film’s menu of all the various disorders that can be healed by DBS and brain modulation. Grønkjær’s voice, narrating in the background throughout the film, poses the question: «What if you could take away the pain of traumatic memories with an electrode?»

Psychiatric stigmas: It’s the politics, stupid!

Although Hunting for Hedonia is an examination of modern neuroscience practices and dilemmas, the film also takes us back to past neuroscience practices in the United States. We hear the testimonies of current psychiatrists and the students of one of the United States’ once leading, but also controversial, psychiatrists, Robert Heath. In fact, almost half of the film is dedicated to the experimental and pioneering psychiatrist, who, as early as the 1950s, experimented with DBS in his psychiatric practice. The documentary shows that the results were overly positive in many of the instances – both in treating depressive disorders and also schizophrenia.

Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) were part of a new social-political era that questioned current psychiatric practices.

The retrospective scenes serve as a parallel to contemporary debates on neuroscience. Due to the countercultural movements in the ’70s, which rallied against any kind of authorities and institutions, Heath and his equals got heavily criticised. Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) serve as an example of the new social-political era that came to question the psychiatric practices of the time. The political and popular opposition to psychiatry put a temporary end to Heath’s experimentation and progress within neuroscience.

Hunting for Hedonia. Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær

«People had the idea that he [Heath] stuck electrodes in everybody’s head,» says a neurosurgeon and former colleague of Heath. The acceptation of Heath and his experimental practices that later turned into disapproval is – as one doctor in biological psychology comments in the film – an example of how important socio-politics is: «Not just in the way societies are run, but the way science is done.»

The stigmas in the ’70s, when Ted Kennedy questioned whether neuroscience was in fact mind control, are applicable in contemporary debates. What are the implications of tampering with our brain and emotions?

Eternal sunshine in a spotless mind?

«Given that what we have is safe, available and is working – I’ll take it,» says a female professor in neuroscience.

Indeed, when watching Hunting for Hedonia you get the impression that neuroscience has a lot to offer people in need of efficient treatment of their disorders. With the psychiatric debate in the ’70s serving as a backdrop, it seems that the limitations to advancement rest more on human perception, values and norms than in the possibilities within the neuroscience discipline.

«Given that what we have is safe, available and is working – I’ll take it.» – Professor in neuroscience

But there are some ethical questions to consider. One of the neurosurgeons interviewed in the film reflects on the ethical issues regarding DBS, saying that it is not a question of if but when people without any serious health disorder will seek treatment for trivial conditions – similar to the popularisation of plastic surgery. Perhaps in the future removal of unpleasant memories or feelings will be practised, like the scenario in Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

But even though Hunting for Hedonia touches on some of the ethical considerations in relation to brain manipulation, the documentary’s outlook on DBS is by and large positive. There’s little discussion on the negative side effects of DBS. We’re also not introduced to any patients where the effects of this treatment have been unsuccessful or confronted with any strong voices against the practice. This is a bit unfortunate, as the viewer is left wondering whether it is all too good to be true. Hunting for Hedonia could have taken a firmer step into this debate.

On the other side, Grønkjær’s film is a professional and solid production that sheds light on a fundamentally important practice within modern medicine that leaves the viewer optimistic for the future. Her film stands as a testimony to modern science and gives voice to the many patients and dependants that are struggling due to mental disorders. And if we are to believe Hunting for Hedonia, there is a light in the end of the tunnel.