The Panorama: True Stories By Rich Cline

in 59th Berlinale

by Richard Cline

There was a strong vein of real life running through the Berlinale Panorama this year through biopics, autobiographical narratives and of course documentaries. The most haunting of these films was Garapa by Brazilian director José Padilha, who controversially won the Golden Bear here last year for The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite, 2007). Padilha has a somewhat contentious history — both Elite Squad and his award-winning Bus 174 (Onibus 174, 2002) have been accused of being pretentious and overwrought, although their power is undeniable.

Some may level similar criticisms at Garapa, but there’s no denying the film’s raw power, as Padilha simply shows us images of hunger without any commentary, tracing the experiences of three extremely poor families in rural Brazil as they seek ways to feed their children and themselves, often resorting to the last-resort option of garapa, a mixture of sugar and water that provides empty calories. We also see these people working within the system to get what help they can while struggling to make a living in a place where jobs are hard to come by and education is virtually non-existent. The most notable thing about the film is the way not a single shot is condescending: these are human beings with dignity, struggling with their most basic needs while also dealing with relationships and bureaucracies that any of us can identify with.

Padilha claims that he wanted to strip the film down to the barest essentials, but his authorial voice can be clearly seen in the striking imagery, shot on 16mm and blown up into big-screen grainy black and white to look like one of Satyajit Ray’s Apu movies by way of Italian neorealism. Padilha’s insightful camerawork and natural sound mix are hardly accidental, following the characters intimately while catching humorous and sparky interaction. He lingers on beautiful children playing naked on dirt floors, oblivious to their own malnutrition or the fact that they are part of a cycle that will be difficult for them to break.

Yes, the squalor is outrageous, but what lingers after the film ends is the shattering sense of futility. After more than an hour and a half of pure footage, Padilha quietly nails his thesis to the wall in a series of final on-screen captions, most notably the fact that it would cost just $30 billion to eradicate world hunger, and yet governments refuse to do it, instead spending 40 times this amount on weapons. Which makes this easily the most unsettling and unforgettable film of the whole Berlinale.

Other notable documentaries in Panorama included John Greyson’s Fig Trees, which recaptured the outraged-comical tone of his offbeat musical polemic Zero Patience (1993). Greyson is examining Aids activism here, specifically the work of South Africa’s Zackie Achmat and Canada’s Tim McCaskell, with a structure loosely based on Gertrude Stein’s subversive 1928 opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Combining cheeky humour and raw anger at greedy pharmaceutical companies and inactive governments, Greyson weaves together a kaleidoscopic experience that’s utterly magical. It may not have many commercial prospects, but winning the Teddy Award for best documentary will help it travel through festivals and on DVD.

Another honouree here was Joe Dallesandro, for his unusual body of work, which usually focussed on that iconic body of his. Panorama presented him a life achievement award for redefining masculinity, and also screened a new documentary, Little Joe by Nicole Haeusser. The film is packed with images from his films with Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, modelling stills and, most intriguingly, clips from the vast line-up of little-seen European B-movies he made in the 1970s. It’s a fairly simple doc, but honestly, you could watch footage of the young Joe all day long.

And finally, it was interesting to see another film written by Oscar-nominee Dustin Lance Black, who recently won Writer’s Guild awards both for his original Milk screenplay and for a script that speaks to civil rights issues. The biopic Pedro, directed by Nick Oceano, uses the same doc touches as Milk, with actors speaking in character to-camera as they narrate the story of young Cuban activist Pedro Zamora (well-played by Alex Loynaz), who appeared on a reality TV program in America in the early 1990s and died at age 22. The film is shot and edited in a slightly simplistic TV-movie style but, like Milk, the script really cuts to the core of the issue at hand, showing how even the most unlikely person can make a big difference in the world.