This Is the Place

in 67th Berlin International Film Festival

by Sasja Koetsier

The physical environment serves as a starting point for examining collective trauma in two remarkable documentaries shown at this year’s Berlinale.

In El mar la mar, which was screened as part of the Forum programme of the 67 th Berlinale, static landscape shots only gradually reveal their relation to a soundtrack featuring witness reports from what appears to be the border region between Mexico and the United States of America. This barren landscape forms a theatre of suffering by illegal migrants trying to cross the border to a life of opportunity, or perhaps the opportunity to have a life. It’s a tragedy to which we have long been witness, but directors Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki put their cinematic skill to work in order to not just retell the story, but to recreate the experience.

That experience comes in increasing degrees of proximity. Over a shot of a wind-blown desert landscape, a local person’s voice describes an encounter with exhausted migrants. Water containers left by volunteers dangle from a string as a faint sign of hope and solidarity. Sometimes there is no image at all, forcing us to focus all our attention on the audio. In the second part, the camera captures the traces left by the migrants: clothes, shoes, empty bottles, identification documents. The film hones in on the tragedy much in the same way as last year’s Golden Bear winner Fuocoammare, though using very different means – most notably the absence of protagonists. It is a refreshing approach to filmmaking, if slightly academic. What it demands from us, the viewer – to not only watch and listen but in fact also read the film – however yields great reward.

The last series of shots of an empty desert with a sound of an approaching thunderstorm last long enough to make us, if only for a comfortably brief instant, experience the desolation of a no man’s land. It is not just a physical place – for the migrant it is also a mental state, resulting from the cruel necessity to abandon everything that bears a connection to a former life. From here a narrative no longer seems possible, and the naked images serve to convey that perfectly.

Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni exhibits a similar disregard for narrative in Ghost Hunting,which premiered in the Panorama section. The film investigates experiences that form an important part of the collective consciousness of Palestinians: imprisonment and torture. With his own memories of the infamous Moscobiya prison in mind, he places a casting call through which he gathers a group of men who become both cast and crew. Drawing from their recollections, they build a prison set in which they then re-enact the most vivid memories of their incarceration. The moments they recall are often violent, sometimes redemptive. One former prisoner explains how in his cell he would frequently dissolve into fits of laughter; humour would circulate among the prisoners almost as a last resort, an instinctive reflex to retain humanity.

The film focuses on isolated experiences instead of delving into the personal histories of the former detainees. We don’t miss their backstories at all; the prison tells us enough about the politics of humiliation that underlie the detention of such large numbers of citizens. While they relive their experiences, the past that is now fictionalized frequently betrays how very present their wounds remain. Even apart from the clearly therapeutic effect it has on the participants, this makes for fascinating viewing.

Edited by Yael Shuv