Experimental documentaries take centre stage at the 2019 Berlinale.

Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 23, 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.

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