Images Unbound: Encounters at the Berlinale

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Nace Zavrl

“Do you believe you really understand the people you are translating?” This rhetorical query, asked by protagonist Kai early in Nele Wohlatz’s Sleep with Your Eyes Open, names something of a recurrent thread across the films and embattled sociopolitical discourses at 2024’s edition of the Berlin International Film Festival. An event steeped in controversy from its lead-up to the end (and, indeed, well after), the 74th Berlinale appears to have achieved total, overwhelming success in enacting its self-espoused identity as ‘the most political of the major festivals,’ albeit in a cruelly different way than the institution might have intended and desired.

That Dormir de olhos abertos, centered around the tales of interlinked Taiwanese, Chinese, and Brazilian workers in Recife, elaborates a highly developed vision of fragile yet tenacious lives under hyper-globalization should come as no surprise. But that it also addresses some of the hard urgent topics in art and politics today – weaponized non-understanding, willful miscommunication, the (im)possibility of dialogue – is, perhaps, somewhat less expected. Wohlatz skillfully withdraws from lapsing into harmonious and all-too-easy resolutions: failed exchanges between the diasporic characters are allowed to play out in their infinite human messiness, leaving the spectator to ponder over a vertiginous anarchy of fables, storylines, and destinies that incessantly overlap without ever happily intersecting. In the process (and through elaborate temporally laminated narration), Sleep with Your Eyes Open offers a wistful meditation on displacement, home, and migratory belonging as well as a humble, understated celebration of unprogrammed intercultural encounter. At a time when calls for ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation’ ring hollow, wielded above all by politicians as slippery alibis for complicity in violence, the film’s studied interrogation of contact and its absence, of facing otherness in its intricate fullness, resonates loudly.

Elsewhere on the docket, filmmakers probed themes of foreignness and transnationality in the nonfictional mode. With Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing, American independent documentarian Travis Wilkerson takes up his experience of living in Split, Croatia, as the epicenter of an expansive –and, at times, troublingly dispersed – narration on the effects, legacies, and afterlives of fascism in the territories of former Yugoslavia and outside. While the director’s status as an outsider energizes his sprawling consideration of ethnonationalism’s stubborn ubiquity, it is local, domestic activism that takes center stage in Farahnaz Sharifi’s superlative My Stolen Planet (Sayyareye dozdide shodeye man), featured in the hectically adventurous Panorama Dokumente subcategory. Images of on-the-ground demonstrations, recorded since 1979 in Iran, constitute the essential source material; alongside them are home movies, sourced from anonymous 8-mm reels deposited at thrift stores in Tehran. Handheld and thoroughly pixelated video of ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ uprisings thus comingle with historical found footage of everyday domesticity, resistance, and joy, weaving an aggregate group portrait of a community in constant struggle.

Together with Oasis (an enthralling observational look at the heterogeneous anti-government protests that shook Chile from 2019 to 2022) and Resonance Spiral (Filipa César and Marinho de Pina’s circular, inclusive, and extraordinary chronicle of experimental archival initiatives in Malafo, Guinea-Bissau), the Palestinian-Israeli exposé No Other Land demonstrated that documentary is in ever-strong form. Aesthetically unassertive yet affectively, humanly shattering, the award-winning film details Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank – specifically, in this case, Masafer Yatta – with argumentative force and insistence. Uncompromising, surgically precise, and all the stronger for it, No Other Land illustrates in audio-visually impactful ways what the Berlinale as an organization neglected to assert: the necessity of a ceasefire and the end of apartheid. 

While this season’s festival was certainly a compromised platform (as, perhaps, all institutions of its size, orientation, and stature necessarily are), committed, emancipatory cinema managed, as ever, to dig and stake out liberatory pockets from which change can be imagined, thought, debated, disseminated, and dramatized. If radical moving images are able to retain this enormous strength in the future – with or without the ambivalent framework of the Berlinale to house and ‘nurture’ them – then we as spectators and social actors should have very little to fear.


Nace Zavrl