BERLIN: Films from the Middle East and North Africa sometimes crop up at the competition of the Berlin International Film Festival, not infrequently directed by Iranian and Turkish filmmakers.
Audiences are most likely to find work by Arab artists in two of the Berlinale’s noncompetitive sections - the Forum and Forum Expanded.
The festival’s 69th edition, the swansong of veteran Director Dieter Kosslick, is no exception.
Noncompetitive festival programming need not imply inferior work. In the Kosslick era, Forum programmers made these sections enclaves for feature-length and short films, fiction and nonfiction, that straddle the line between art-house film and visual art - works that veer from highly aesthetic to politically engaged.
The Forum Expanded itself includes a contemporary art exhibition as well as projections and talks.
Titled “ANTIKINO (The Siren’s Echo Chamber),” this year’s group show is staged at silent green Betonhalle, a former crematorium newly renovated as an exhibition space, Galerie Ebensperger Rhomberg, and Luxoom Lab.
The show draws on work by 16 feted contemporary artists, several from the MENA region.
Among the titles in the projection program of Forum Expanded is “It’s a Long Way from Amphioxus,” by Berlin-based Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari.
The amphioxus is a species of fishlike creature that’s seen to bridge the world’s vertebrates (things with backbones, like us) and invertebrates (things that don’t, like slugs).
Fossils of the creatures are as old as 525 million years, inspiring some to remark that we all come from amphioxi thus the film’s title.
“Amphioxus” is a fiction set in a nonfiction location - a state-operated immigration center in Berlin, where migrants must report to learn whether or not they’ll be granted immigrant status. An LED-lit board is ignited with seemingly random numbers while aspiring Europeans sit in an array of benches waiting for their numbers to come up.
At first, the work looks very much like verite-style documentary.
The camera moves through the location’s spare landscape, casting its gaze upon the crowded room and the bodies in it. As voices murmur in the background, prospective Europeans chat in small groups or sit in that listless silence that suggests both anxiety and boredom.
At one point the camera settles upon a handwritten Arabic sign inviting parents to use the toys provided for their kids and reminding them to please return the toys afterward. Upon one bench the camera finds a lone young woman, twisted in her seat to peer over her shoulder, emanating restlessness.
A meter away, a man gives his little boy a mobile phone to play with and places him on the bench near her. She immediately stands and walks off frame.
Later on Faisal Bibi, the protagonist of the film’s slight drama, is found sitting alongside an elderly lady. In the midst of the stillness, the woman asks him in Arabic what’s being distributed.
“What are they handing out?” she repeats.
“Numbers? I thought they were distributing bread, sugar, flour ... I don’t know what’s going on.”
The exchange, which Aljafari says was completely unscripted, proves pivotal.
A short time after, the film’s LED numbers acquire the nature of characters and the film takes on a surreal air, one nicely reflecting the predicament of these humans.
The debut screening of “Amphioxus” provoked a lively discussion in its German-speaking audience. A couple expressed anxiety at the film’s association of humans with numbers, for instance.
Another Berlinale film that speaks directly to the German experience is “Warda” (“An Open Rose”), by Lebanon’s Ghassan Salhab, which premiered in the Forum.
Salhab is best-known for his feature films.
Running 72 minutes, “Warda” is among his cinematic essays - briefer, less-narrative works that tend to foreground visual lyricism, poetic voice-over, not infrequently historic footage and photography.
“Warda” is a tribute to Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), the Polish-born German political thinker best-known for her radical leftist thought. When the German Social Democratic Party backed the state’s decision to enter World War I, she was among the leftist intellectuals who formed the opposition Spartacus League and was thrown in prison. The Spartacists staged a rebellion in 1919. The uprising was crushed and Luxemburg was tortured and assassinated, her body thrown in the Landwehr Canal.
German audiences are more likely (if not guaranteed) to be aware of this history than those in Lebanon, say. Though he includes a few intertitles for orientation, Salhab is less interested in spelling out the details of Luxemburg’s life and thought than in exploring the quiet traces of humanity that linger in her letters and a few locations around Berlin.
The film’s language resembles that of historical documentary less than the late work of Jean-Luc Godard. Archival images of Berlin in this period - footage of trench warfare, revolutionary soldiers and sailors and German state troops, photos of Luxemburg and her comrades in life and death - mingle with snowy images from contemporary Berlin and summertime footage of woodland, through which moves a woman’s sometimes ghosted image.
At times the screen goes black for several seconds.
As the film nears its end, archival images of kuffiyeh-clad fighters from the Palestinian revolution fill the screen.
The final (silent) sequence finds Lebanese rock band Kinematic rehearsing or recording energetically.
“Warda” is further elaborated by spoken and written communication.
Voice-over in (subtitled) Arabic and German alternates with silent intertitles in which the authorial voice appears to address Luxemburg directly. A pair of German-speaking actors (perhaps Salhab’s collaborators Tatiana El Dahdah and Miriam Younes) appear to read from Luxemburg’s prison letters and to sing a Spartacist fight song.
The movement of this complex layering of image and text suggests that, revolutionary preoccupations aside, it is the person of Rosa Luxemburg, whose prison letters reflect upon her love of her garden, her collection of bird feathers and flowers, who deserves mourning.
The late interjection of ’70s-era fedayeen into the visual mix may suggest that partisans of all revolutions (failed ones included) be accorded the same consideration as Luxemburg.
Salhab’s intention in making the rockers’ silenced exertions his final scene is perplexing.
It may echo an earlier remark, attributed to Luxemburg, that “the revolutionary question has now become a musical one.” The visual leap is, in any case, abrupt.
For audiences without Arabic or German (or both), watching “Warda” is stimulating to the point of exhaustion. Like written poetry, it cries out for repeated viewings.
For viewers without some prior knowledge of these figures, or a stake in their ideals, a second viewing may not be so compelling.
For others, a humanist portrait of Luxemburg may be long overdue.
The Berlin International Film Festival runs through Feb. 17.