20th Berlin And Beyond Film Festival Reviews

by on January 20, 2016

The 2016 Berlin And Beyond Film Festival marked the twentieth annual Bay Area showcase of new films from Germany and other German-speaking countries.

The 20th anniversary film festival delivered a flashy opening with Baran bo Odar’s contemporary cyber-thriller “Who Am I – No System Is Safe.”  Yet the film’s attitudes about computer hacking felt more reminiscent of Hays Code-era Hollywood films than an insightful eye on the present.  Instead of considering hacking as a modern form of problem-solving creativity, once again hacking became the tool of magicians and criminals.

Genius hacker Benjamin (festival Spotlight Award recipient Tom Schilling) had social connection issues.  After joining charismatic hustler Max and his buddies, he helped form the cyber-prankster group CLAY (Clowns Laughing At You).  But CLAY’s hunger for peer respect accidentally led to an unwanted entanglement with the notorious criminal hacker collective known as FR13NDS, which was connected to the Russian cyber-Mafia.

Bo Odar’s film did indulge in narrative clichés.  Rather than showing Benjamin to be a genius hacker, the viewer was told of his skills through such moments as his cracking a highly secure system in less than three minutes.  Max introduced the hacker naïf to the joys of boldly exploiting peoples’ lack of appetite for confrontation.

Fortunately, “Who Am I” took some steps away from lazy Hollywood storytelling.  Hacking didn’t get completely treated as magic, but as the product of ingenuity and boldness.  Marie, Benjamin’s love interest, wasn’t a breath-stopping gorgeous babe.

“Who Am I”’s best stroke was its cinematic depiction of a chatroom.  Mask-wearing inhabitants and a dark subway car setting captured the cyber-environment’s anonymity and underground setting.

Benjamin may have frequently dreamed of being a superhero.  But his actions and those of his CLAY compatriots demonstrated their forgetting the classic credo “With great power comes great responsibility.”


Unfortunately for curious Americans, the five Foreign Film Oscar nominees didn’t include Samir’s epic documentary “Iraqi Odyssey.”   This literally globe-hopping film delivered a recounting of 20th-century Iraqi life and history far richer than the stereotypes belched by Faux News.  Its cinematic recollection was accessibly structured around the experiences of one family’s members.

On the other hand, certain American prejudices would probably kill interest in “Iraqi Odyssey.”  A couple of interview subjects were Communist activists.  One subject even worked on a high-profile job for Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Yet the subjects’ understanding of Communism greatly diverged from the Soviet Union’s practice of same.  The high-profile job for Hussein raised serious questions about Iraq’s reparations to Kuwait.

Who was this family portrayed in Samir’s film?  They’re members of the filmmaker’s own family, which included uncles Jamal Al Tahir and Sabah Jamal Aldin as well as half-sister Souhair Jamal Aldin.  These subjects recounted their life experiences and what events led them to leave Baghdad to settle in such places as Moscow and Auckland.   Samir also related his own experiences growing up in Switzerland.  The older subjects also recalled the life of the filmmaker’s grandfather.

Samir stated early on that his family’s experiences were not intended to provide a definitive portrait of Iraqi history.  But a couple of facts about Samir’s family made them unique film subjects.  First, the grandfather was an honest judge who had politically progressive views on educating his children.  This view produced children who became doctors, lawyers, a teacher, and an engineer.  Secondly, the family members were Sayyids, direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Family stories, particularly those told by the uncles, were wonderfully colorful tales.  But it was the inclusion of favorite songs, a poem, and even a film clip that created a sense of a promising nation currently lost to imperialism and sectarianism.

“Iraqi Odyssey” will never be mistaken for an apologia for Saddam Hussein.  But its recounting of the devastation UN sanctions had on Iraqi society definitely showed the West’s treatment of Iraq was far from pristine.


One of Berlin And Beyond’s must-see films was a documentary about people invisible to the average American.  Homeless people and NASA scientists didn’t rate the mass familiarity afforded the Kardashian clan.  Yet it was a tribute to director Nicolas Steiner that he managed to convince viewers to be fascinated by the people he follows in his film.

Steiner’s film, “Above And Below,” followed five people living on American society’s margins.   April is a former US Army soldier now turned geologist for a NASA training mission to Mars.  David is a twice-divorced former US Army medic who now lives off the grid in a converted desert military bunker.  Living in Las Vegas’ drainage tunnels are three homeless people: Lalo, the unofficial community Godfather, and Rick and Cindy, a married crackhead couple.

Steiner’s weirdly beautiful film mixed haunting imagery with insight into its unconventional subjects’ lives.  Despite the disparate backgrounds of Steiner’s subjects, their lives had unexpected similarities.  April, David, and Cindy were all alienated from their nearest relatives for reasons ranging from a desire for independence to being resented for such circumstances outside their control as being born.  Visual cues frequently tied the subjects together.  They ranged from the stark wastelands all the film’s subjects inhabited to such surrealistic images as a stream of ping pong balls floating down a drainage tunnel.

The uncommon lives “Above And Below”’s subjects pursued felt like necessities more than affectations.  Rick may engage in low-level criminality such as drug dealing, but such crimes were never first-choice options.   David’s off-the-grid life may be money poor, yet it was an understandable response to the mistakes and disappointments of his disastrous marriages.

It seemed as if insufficient time was spent with April.  But it was probable that her ongoing mission limited the amount of time Steiner’s camera crew could be allotted.

When “Above And Below” gets commercially released, viewers will probably not be able to ask the director how he found his subjects and developed rapport with them.  However Steiner accomplished his feat, the cinematic results showed a work of wonderfully off-kilter beauty.

(“Above And Below” has been picked up for American distribution.)

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