Fire At Sea

Fire At Sea

How diversity and dissent played at the Berlin Film Festival.

U.S.  actor George Clooney  signs autographs  as he arrives for  a photo call for the film 'Hail Caesar' in Berlin, Germany Thursday Feb. 11, 2016. The Berlin Film Festival 'Berlinale' runs until Feb. 21, 2016.   (Bernd von Jutrczenka/ dpa via AP)
U.S. actor George Clooney signs autographs as he arrives for a photo call for the film ‘Hail Caesar’ in Berlin, Germany Thursday Feb. 11, 2016. The Berlin Film Festival ‘Berlinale’ runs until Feb. 21, 2016. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/ dpa via AP)

Two days into the 66th edition of the Berlinale, I am at the press screening of Gianfranco Rosi’s striking documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), and many of us streaming out of the massive theatre at the Palast are convinced we’ve just watched the film that will win the Golden Bear. The delight at having been proved right (Fire At Sea did take away the top prize at the latest edition of the Berlin Film Festival, which ended on Sunday) is topped by the feeling of exhilaration accompanying a win that feels just right.

We live in an age in which tolerance, freedom of expression and a sense of belonging are under grave threat. Fire at Sea brings up the refugee crisis in a gentle, humane and yet harrowing manner, and leaves us with a burning question: Are we not citizens of the world when we look for refuge in countries other than ours?

Films that can handle with sensitivity and compassion hot button issues are precious. And a film festival that reflects “diversity” and “dissent” in its programme is doubly so: Not everything in the Competition and Panorama sections that I manage to catch at the Berlinale is top-notch, but most of the selection ticks those two boxes; the points of views are unique to the filmmakers and their cultures, and not everything they address is comfortable.

The Cold War, and its far-reaching impact, as well as World War II with all its attendant problems, are very much part of contemporary German cinema. And when you see these films in Berlin, they assume a special resonance: In many ways, the character of the city seems to have seeped into the festival. Berlin was the city cleaved into two, where the Western world with all its capitalist glitter ended, and the unend-ing grey of the Soviet bloc started. After the Wall came down, it is still the city that seems like a gateway to all things exciting, all things possible.


Fittingly, the points I frequent look and feel pleasingly mutli-cultural, as is our group, whose visit has been facilitated by the Goethe-Institut. At a store counter, I get addressed in German, the girl behind it thinking it quite acceptable that a person with brown skin like mine could easily be a Berliner. The city is flooded with visitors like me from outside, all there to catch films.

The Berlinale is the city’s most awaited cultural event: Everyone, not just the delegates and the press, has access to the films, and the lines for the tickets are long. It is a film festival, one of the world’s largest, open to the people of its host city.

The other big winners included a best first feature for the remarkable Inhabbek Hedi, in which a young Tunisian man, wrestling with the chains that bind him to tradition and freedom, comes of age. Or does he?

Majd Mastoura, who plays Hedi, took away the best actor prize. The best actress was more of a no-contest, the winner, Trine Dyrholm, playing with great feeling a middle-aged woman grappling with the pain caused by a husband veering towards a girl half his (and her) age, and a workplace which has no space for her, in Thomas Vinterberg’s Kollektivet (The Commune).

The Competition jury headed by the most articulate Meryl Streep did the right thing by awarding the best director prize to Mia Hansen-Løve, who happens to be a woman, for Things To Come, a film that joins the study of philosophy and a way of looking at life, which is neither stoic nor resigned, just the way it is.

The Indian film quotient at the Berlinale is low, even as the press and delegate contingent swells with each passing year.

Jayaraj’s lovely Malayalam film Ottal wins a prize, and it has a full-to-bursting screening. But I’m reliably told that many hearts are broken because Berlinale favourite Shah Rukh Khan wasn’t there this year. Even George Clooney on the red carpet with the opening Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caeser!, doesn’t quite make up for the Indian superstar’s absence.

Well, there’s always hope. And the next Berlinale.