The 2019 festival season is already in full swing and the next major festival is about to start. The 69th Berlin International Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale, will begin February 7th in Berlin, Germany. This festival began in 1951 and is considered one of the “Big Three” festivals. Once again, we dug through every inch of the program and found all the Arab films featured in this year’s festival!

 

FEATURE FILMS

Film still from Of Fathers and Sons

Of Fathers and Sons by Talal Derki
Syria/Lebanon/Qatar/Germany – Documentary Feature
99 min
Program: Lola at Berlinale

After his Sundance award-winning documentary The Return to Homs, Talal Derki goes back to his homeland, gains the trust of a radical Islamist family and shares their daily life for over two years. His camera focuses mainly on the children, providing an extremely rare insight into what it means to grow up with a father whose only dream is to establish an Islamic Caliphate. Osama, 13, and his brother Ayman, 12, are at the centre of the story. They both love and admire their father and obey his words, but while Osama seems to be following the path of Jihad, Ayman wants to go back to school. The film captures the moment when the children have to let go of their youth and are finally turned into Jihadi fighters. No matter how close the war comes, one thing they have already learned: they must never cry.

Film still from Flesh Out

Flesh Out by Michela Occhipinti (with Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, Amal Saab Bouh Oumar, Aichetou Abdallahi Najim, Sidi Mohamed Chighaly)
Italy – Narrative Feature
94 min – World Premiere
Program: Panorama

Verida is due to marry in three months; the marriage has been arranged by her loving parents. According to a tradition still practiced in Mauritania that adheres to accepted standards of beauty, she has to gain weight to attain the kind of well-rounded, fuller figure that will appeal to her future husband. Three months before her marriage, her routine unfolds quietly and steadily as she sets about consuming no fewer than six meals per day and regularly weighing herself to assess her progress. An obedient daughter, she does not for one moment question the goal of twenty kilos her mother has set for her; nor does she put up much resistance to being woken up in the middle of the night to eat one more bowl of milk and another of couscous. But the process gets harder as it progresses and this puts an increasing strain on her, both physically and emotionally. Verida, who has in the meantime attracted the attentions of another man, begins to ask herself if this is what she really wants. Based on actual events, Michela Occhipinti’s feature debut is a meticulous and gentle observation of the polarising tensions that permeate the modern female experience in twenty-first century Mauritania.

Film still from About Some Meaningless Events

About Some Meaningless Events by Mostafa Derkaoui
Morocco – Documentary Feature
76 min
Program: Forum

Around the port’s streets and popular bars of Casablanca, a group of filmmakers conduct discussions with people about their expectations of, and aspirations for, the emerging Moroccan national cinema. When a disgruntled worker kills his superior accidentally, their inquest shifts focus, and they begin to probe the context and motives of the killing. At the heart of De quelques événements sans signification is an interrogation on the role of cinema (and art) in society, documentary and the Real, and what constitutes an urgency for a national cinema that is being born. This unique filmic experience was conceived as an independent and collective effort of militant filmmakers, actors, musicians, poets and journalists at a time of heightened repression on freedom of expression in Morocco and was funded by the sale of paintings by several contemporary painters. The film was first screened in Paris in 1975 but was immediately taxed with censorship and forbidden from exhibition and export. It was forgotten until a negative print was found in the archives of the Filmoteca de Catalunya in 2016 and restored there. 45 years after its completion, the film will finally be released.

Film still from Khartoum Offside

Khartoum Offside by Marwa Zein
Sudan/Norway/Denmark – Documentary Feature
75 min – World Premiere
Program: Forum

Among the protagonists of Marwa Zein’s documentary, Sara is the one depicted with a remarkable entrepreneurial mind. And the group of young sporty women she belongs to is very much in need of business models to make their dream come true: putting together a Sudanese team for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But besides lack of finances, there are quite a lot of other obstacles to overcome. Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum explores this feminist universe on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital, where jokes are cracked as versatile as the ball is kicked into the goal. The young women, with and without veil play football, take their smartphones to bed, they are bond by street smarts and staggering energy which have brought them together as a sports team that doubles up as a collective survival strategy. Demonstrating considerable intimacy with these women, Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum reveals their daily lives in a city full of contradictions, showing how family traditions, politics and religion dare to dictate their life plans. Marwa Zein’s debut is at once cinematic proof of the power of female friendship and a Sudanese filmmaker’s concerted effort to rectify stereotypical perceptions of her country.

Film still from Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know

Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know by Florian Kunert
Germany – Documentary Feature
68 min – World Premiere
Program: Forum

During the GDR era, the “Valley of the Clueless” in Saxony was too far from both Berlin and the former West Germany to receive TV broadcasts from there. Back then, life was simpler, recalls one resident in Florian Kunert’s film – in stark contrast to today, where the region has become the focus of much negative media attention for its widespread xenophobia. Born in 1989, Kunert grew up here. In his film, he conducts an experiment: Among the ruins of the former state-owned farming equipment factory “Fortschritt” (Progress), he stages cinematic recollection both in front of the camera and via editing. He has the young Syrian refugees living here today meet with former factory workers. Songs of the Free German Youth movement, East German Trabant cars and even a horse initiate reenactments whereby the protagonists become performers of their own stories. Archive material from when the friendship between Syria and the GDR was celebrated is contrasted with contemporary footage of gatherings of the far-right Pegida movement. Kunert’s work as a director resembles that of a therapist, one who seeks to understand a complicated present by engaging with a past that resists any simple retelling.

Film still from Shayne

Shayne by Stephan Geene (with Ricky Shayne, Tarek Shayne Tabet, Imran Shayne Tabet, Kerstin Cmelka, Claudia Basrawi)
Germany – Documentary Feature
120 min – World Premiere
Program: Forum Expanded

Ricky Shayne briefly streaked like a comet through West German popular culture from 1967 to 1972. Born in Cairo, raised in Beirut, he became a star in Rome in the booming Beat scene. He was then imported to Germany, where there was more money to be made. Shayne found himself in Berlin between BRAVO and ZDF Hit Parade, celebrated and exoticized. Stephan Geene, who was 10 years old at the time, was changed forever by this phenomenon, and now explores his fascination.

The encounter with the nervous, rough-edged Ricky Shayne, today 72, survivor of his own star and teen magazine history (the magazine BRAVO alone dedicated two of its celebrity puzzles to him), leads Geene down a variety of paths: including with Shayne’s sons Tarek and Imran, both now the same age as Ricky during his Berlin period and the spitting image of him (at the time).

A serial TV anti-portrait, framed by rehearsals for a gala, the attempt to give one last moment to an aborted career; an architect thinks out loud about photography and theatricality and the possibility of mounting a gala as a ruin, in order to do justice to the figure of Ricky Shayne, to his ruptures and contradictions.

Film still from Talking About Trees

Talking About Trees by Suhaib Gasmelbari
France/Sudan/Germany/Chad/Qatar – Documentary Feature
93 min – World Premiere
Program: Panorama Dokumente

Suliman and three further members of the ‘Sudanese Film Club’ have decided to revive an old cinema. They are united not only by their love of cinema and their passionate desire to restore old film stock and draw attention to Sudanese film history once more, but also by the fact that they have all enjoyed a film education in exile. Tirelessly, they try to get the cinema’s owners on their side and make the place operational again, but repeatedly find themselves up against considerable resistance. In the meantime, they sit together and talk about the past – including their experiences of persecution and even torture as oppositional artists. They also read out old letters written while in exile and dream of a Sudan in which art and intellectual thought can be free. ‘We are smarter than them, but not as strong,’ is how they unanimously summarise their situation. It is in laconic moments such as these that the viewer is able to perceive the friendship, as well as the bond and ideological solidarity that exists in the struggle for common ideals.

Suhaib Gasmelbari puts the history of Sudanese cinema at the centre of his film and at the same time sheds light on the current situation in a country shaken by ongoing crises.

Film still from Western Arabs

Western Arabs by Omar Shargawi with Muir Shargawi
Denmark/Netherlands – Documentary Feature
77 min – World Premiere
Program: Panorama Dokumente

Omar Shargawi wants to understand his father Munir better. In temperate Denmark, Palestinian Munir’s fiery, aggressive nature is frowned upon. Although Omar’s father has lived in Copenhagen for a long time and is married to a Danish woman, he has not really settled in this society. Moreover, he has passed on his trauma of war and expulsion to his sons. But Omar does not want to be like Munir and, as the father of a daughter, he is anxious to avoid replicating his dad’s pattern of behaviour.

Shot over a period of twelve years, this film is an unsparing examination by the filmmaker of both his fraught relationship with his father and the latter’s influence on his own identity as a man. In order to get closer to his father, Omar Shargawi has often cast him as an actor in his feature films. Raised in a family in which violence and aggression are seen as means of solving problems, Shargawi directs action films and thrillers. While working with his father, the film scripts dictate the dialogue that is repressed at home. Western Arabs closely intertwines documentary material and scenes from these feature films.

Film still from An Open Rose

An Open Rose by Ghassan Salhab with Tatiana El Dahdah, Miriam Younes
Lebanon – Documentary Feature
72 min – World Premiere
Program: Forum

“And in the darkness, I smile at life.” This sentence, written by Rosa Luxemburg in solitary confinement at the end of 1917, gets to the very heart of what characterises her letters from prison: a shining joie de vivre, regardless of the political situation. Her descriptions of birds, flowers, clouds and colours demonstrate an awareness of nature’s beauty experienced with all the senses. Numerous excerpts from the radical socialist’s lyrical letters in both German and Arabic form the threads running through this essayistic collage. They are joined by modern-day shots of wintry Berlin, a two-person reading in Beirut, archive material from the First World War, a battle song of the labour movement, traces of Nico, Gerhard Richter, Brecht, Breton, voices, sounds, music and the soundless comments of a self. Together, they form a polyphony of visually and acoustically overlapping layers. From this retrospective look at the 20th century, at Germany and the Middle East, at the militant struggles that took place both here and there, emerge personal conclusions as well as the acknowledgement that resistance and beauty can indeed co-exist, not least in dark times.

 

SHORT FILMS

Film still from An Un-Aired Interview

An Un-Aired Interview by Muhammed Salah
Egypt – Documentary Short
40 min – World Premiere
Program: Forum Expanded

Tune in to the life of Ibrahim, an Egyptian man who suffers from success syndrome like most Egyptians, yet does not have any power… and find out why this interview was not and never will be aired.

Ibrahim, a waiter in a local Egyptian coffee house, is interviewed for an obscure television show called ‘Struggle and Success’. Jumping off from outtakes of the interview, the film delves deep into Ibrahim’s life to see who he really is, his political views, how he deals with the women and children in his life, and what his take is on what he calls the conflict between men and woman in general.

Film still from Mosul 980

Mosul 980 by Ali Mohammed Saeed with Redhab Ahmad, Mohanad Hayal
Iraq/USA – Narrative Short
10 min – World Premiere
Program: Generation 14plus

Disguised as an ISIS fighter, a young woman emerges from the trunk of a car. She is one of 3000 Yazidi women kidnapped from Mosul by the Islamic State in 2014 and sold as sex slaves. Now she is on the run, trying to find her way between ruins and corpses. Major hostilities seem to be over, but the situation remains dangerous. Single shots can be heard, along with detonations and radioed instructions – her persecutors are still on her heels.

Sudanese Film Group Program (Program 14)

During the late seventies and early eighties, a group of filmmakers who were then the staff of the Cinema Section at the Department of Culture issued a periodical named CINEMA. This same group then founded the Sudanese Film Group (SFG) in April 1989 to give them more independence from the state. The purpose of the group was to be fully engaged in all aspects of film production, screening, and teaching, as well as maintaining the passion of the Sudanese for the cinema. But on June 30, 1989 the coup d’état, which brought with it a suspicion of all forms of art, terminated any cultural aspirations and banned all civic society organizations. Finally in 2005 the heavy hand of the state was loosened somewhat, and the SFG was able to re-register Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art digitally restored seven works by these Sudanese filmmakers in 2018. These short films are screening as a group in Program 14 at this year’s Berlinale. 

Film still from The Tomb

The Tomb (Al Dhareeh) by Eltayeb Mahdi with Abu Bakr John, A-Sir Qudur, Ismail Satti, Tharwat Aloub, Abdel Da’em Omer
Egypt – Documentary Short
17 min

Al Dhareeh (1977) by Eltayeb Mahdi, one of the founders of the SFG, tells the story of a man who claims to be able to heal people.

Film still from The Station

The Station (Al Mahatta) by Eltayeb Mahidi
Sudan – Documentary Short
16 min

Sudan, in the late 1980s. People cross the desert on foot or cover long distances by car and truck. In Al Mahatta, Eltayeb Mahdi shows encounters at one of the large crossroads between the capital Khartoum in the centre of the country and Bur Sudan on the Red Sea.

The filmmaker studied in Cairo and became part of the Sudanese Film Group (SFG), which was founded in April 1989 with the intention of telling stories about their country and confronting young people with the realities of their homeland. Identity formation – not through the detour of referencing Europe or America, but with a view to the situation in their own country.

Al Mahatta was one of the restored films, having received a special mention from the Interfilm jury at the 35th West German Educational Film Festival in Oberhausen in 1989 and was subsequently awarded numerous prizes in Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Damascus among others.

Film still from It Still Rotates

It Still Rotates(Wa lakin alardh tadur) by Suliman Elnour
USSR – Documentary Short
19 min

Suliman Elnour’s graduation film Wa lakin alardh tadur (1978) depicts everyday life at the time in a school in Yemen.

Film still from The Rope

The Rope (Al Habil) by Ibrahim Shaddad with Khatab H. Ahmed, Mohd. A. Gorani, Mariam M. Eltayeb, A. Gadir Daoud
Sudan – Narrative Short
32 min

Ibrahim Shaddad’s short film Al Habil (1985) documents two blind men making their way through the desert accompanied by a donkey. Connected by a rope, sometimes the two men decide the way, and sometimes the donkey leads them through the desert.

Film still from The Camel

A Camel (Jamal) by Ibrahim Shaddad
Sudan – Short
14 min

The short film Jamal (1981) by Ibrahim Shaddad is a report from the life of a camel, most of which plays out in a dreary, small room – a sesame mill.

Film still from Hunting Party

Hunting Party (Jagdpartie) Ibrahim Shaddad with Ambroise Ruzidana, Petra Hinze, Heinz Schröder, Günter Meier
German Democratic Republic – Narrative Short
41min

Ibrahim Shaddad’s graduation film Jagdpartie (1964), which he shot at the Deutsche Hochschule für Filmkunst Potsdam-Babelsberg (now: Filmuniversität Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF), is a treatise on racism. Shot in a forest in Brandenburg, it uses a Western look to portray the hunt for a Black man.

 

EVENTS

Film still from Neither Wrong Nor Right

Neither Wrong Nor Right: Interactive Series by Bass Breche, Amin Dora, Meredith Burkholder
Germany – Interactive Series Event
90 mins

Just how tricky can online storytelling get? Talents Alums, writer Bass Breche and director Amin Dora, the Lebanese architects of numerous interactive web series (Shankaboot.tv, undocumented.xyz), share the intricacies of scripting stories and alternatives. The narrative format is a challenge in itself, as the storytellers engage audiences on the other side of the computer screen with stories and choices folded into a few minutes of film. Although this session departs from practicalities such as the writing, editing and online presentation of a web series, we can click on the opportunity to tackle bigger questions. Indeed, if interactive storytelling presents us with seemingly endless choices, what does this do to our sense of wrong and right? Under the threat of censorship, their choice to tell stories online is anything but anecdotal