Berlinale 2020 Highlights Part 1 – Colonial Legacies

The Berlinale distinguishes itself through its openness – a large-scale competitive festival, widely open to the public, with screenings in multiple cinemas throughout the city.

It also champions what some might call the periphery: films that are a cry for social justice, that address the legacy of colonialism or the ongoing struggles for democracy across the world. And also, the Berlinale screens films that shine a light on inconvenient facts, that amplify the voice of the marginalised and the forgotten. 

All those themes were very much present in the films selected for the first few days of the Fest, particularly so in “Ouvertures” – a Haitian film, and the Brazilian film “Todos Os Mortos” (“All the Dead Ones)”. Both reflect on the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and otherness, through multiple voices.

“Ouvertures” follows “The Living and the Dead Ensemble”, a collective of poets, performers and artists, as they work their way around a play about the 18th Century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. It’s a meditative work, didactic, and strong on symbolism and language. It sheds more light about the legacy of slavery and colonialism than about the man.

“Todos Os Mortos” by contrast is a freewheeling work of the imagination, powerful and lyrical. It is both forgiving and unforgiving. Directed by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra, and set in 1899 just after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, it is a film free enough to liberate itself of time and place, existing as much in the present as in the past. In doing so, it heigthens that sense that for all we know and aspire to, old relationships of power still prevail.  Of special note, the cinematography – the DoP here is Hélène Louvart, who also shot a KinoSelect favourite, “Happy as Lazzaro“.

In both “Ouvertures” and “Todos Os Mortos”, the theme of the ‘other’ comes to the fore – the ‘other’ who then speaks up with their own perspective, braving an unequal balance of power. Yet, as Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary film “The Viewing Booth” reveals, it is not enough for that ‘other’ to speak their truth.  His film explains the limits of advocacy, however truthful and well-meaning.

Alexandrowicz quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, referring to photographs of the Spanish Civil War, “Let us see, whether when we look at the same photographs, we will feel the same things”. As the filmmaker discovers, it is not only that the same things are not felt, it is that the process of encountering and understanding new – and contrary – knowledge is so rapidly scuttled by people’s intolerance of cognitive dissonance. If new knowledge doesn’t fit, then it is tampered with until it does.

“The Viewing Booth” stands on its own.  It’s an unassuming documentary which becomes a depth charge, and is a catalyst for understanding our times in a new light. We will all have to learn to understand the world differently.

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