Reviews from the 2015 Berlin And Beyond Film Festival

by on January 29, 2015

Berlin And Beyond, the annual showcase of films from German-speaking countries, begins this Thursday with a three day run at SF’s Castro Theatre.  A second chance to see Doris Dorrie’s female mariachis documentary “Que Caramba Es La Vida” provides one reason to visit the festival.  Screening under the English title “This Lovely Shitty Life,” festivalgoers can quiz Dorrie afterwards about the mariachis she met.

Another director making an in-person festival appearance is Pepe Danquart, who accompanies Berlin And Beyond’s Youth 4 German Cinema award-winner “Run Boy Run.”  Danquart adapts Uri Orlev’s best-selling novelization of an amazing true story.  The Nazi conquest of Poland has left 9-year-old Jewish boy Srulik attempting to survive in the countryside as orphaned Christian Jurek Staniak.  The child faces daunting challenges.  Are his parents dead?  Will strangers meet him with kindness or betrayal?  But Srulik’s ultimate challenge is to not forsake his Jewish identity.

Man, or in this case boy, against nature is one of the classic storytelling tropes.  Srulik lacks dependable access to food and shelter. Yet the tension inherent in the boy vs. nature trope is compromised by the viewer’s knowledge that the boy ultimately survives to tell his tale.

Danquart brings suspense back to the story by making human nature the immense outside force Srulik constantly contends with.  Neither generosity nor treachery from the people he meets is a certainty.  Yet the frequency of the betrayals makes any mention of pulling down Srulik’s pants a cause for dread.  To the film’s credit, it eschews utter anti-Semitic paranoia for a more nuanced portrait of the gentiles the Jewish boy encounters.

“Run Boy Run” also has something to say about the shortcomings of the “religious liberty” canard despite the lack of onscreen homophobic behavior.  Danquart’s film shows what happens on a mundane level when religious-based bigotry is accepted as a social norm trumping one’s duty to their fellow human.  How far are the actions of “Run Boy Run”’s anti-Semites from those who see nothing wrong with doing something similar to a member of a sexual minority?

The film’s third act doesn’t concern Srulik’s survival to the end of World War II.  As mentioned above, that’s not at issue.  The final question is how much has the boy’s wartime experiences changed him?

***

Pushing a variety of viewer buttons is Claudia Richarz and Ulrike Zimmerman’s short documentary “Vulva 3.0.”  The current popularity of labiaplasty offers a springboard for an examination of popular attitudes and knowledge regarding the vulva.  Richarz and Zimmerman’s investigation takes them to such places as the vulva picture book My Secret Eye, female genital mutilation, and still pertinent 17th century medical drawings by Bartholin.  Their cinematic journey prompts the viewer to question whether the drive to have symmetrical labia shortchanges the unique beauty of this female organ of lust.

Using plastic surgery to fix bodies badly scarred in accidents is an understandable cause.  Curiosity about exploring the possibilities of the human form underlies the body modification craze.  Richarz and Zimmerman argue no such primal motivation supports labiaplasty.  Interviewee medical historian Dr. Marion Hulverscheidt finds no cases in the medical literature of chafed labia, which might justify such surgery.

The filmmakers suggest negative social and commercial influences create the “need” for labiaplasty.  Pornographic images and commercial media play up a standard of beauty based around invisible genitalia.  Young women believe natural asymmetrical labia are somehow ugly.  Images of pubic hair, even in a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves, set off women’s ick factor.

Richarz and Zimmerman attempt to reclaim the vulva’s beauty in its untouched state.  A computer airbrusher of erotic photographs is shown without comment making a woman’s private parts look exceedingly private. Pudenda drawings highlight the female body’s natural beauty, with the vulva tree drawing being a standout.  An erotic crafts collection includes a football-shaped pussy and a talking vulva puppet.

Do the filmmakers succeed in making their case for the vulva’s natural beauty?  Not to this writer.  But then, the invisible genitalia standard didn’t impress either.

***

Erwin Wagenhofer’s documentary “Alphabet” unhesitatingly hops from China to Germany to Death Valley to offer a blistering critique of the ideas underlying modern education systems.  The ideas being challenged include student competition, standardized testing, and the encouragement of student excellence while maintaining social controls.  Drawing from interviews with people as varied as a neuroscientist, a veteran HR manager, and a student with Down’s Syndrome, the director challenges viewers to create an alternative educational system that doesn’t rely on coerced conformity.

Wagenhofer sees the trouble with the current educational system as primarily being designed to create functional lever pullers.  Divergent thinking, a foundational skill for creative thought, decreases through modern education from a near universal ability to an extremely rare skill by adulthood.  Academic achievements become meaningless to students reduced to test-taking machines.  Surely the burdening of even kindergarteners with homework indicates some serious problem with the current modern day educational system.

Skeptics may challenge the idea of replacing the present educational system with one dedicated to “inviting” students to learn.  What may be an invitation to one student may be rejected as such by another student.  The current educational system at least can’t be faulted for economies of scale.  Then again, that attention to quantity over quality has led to the problems rightly identified in Wagenhofer’s film.

“Alphabet” does not claim to offer The Solution to modern education’s shortcomings.  Its goal is to attack the assumptions underlying current educational thinking.  Maybe an awareness of those destructive assumptions might spark better methods of teaching the world’s children.

(“This Lovely Shitty Life” screens on January 31, 2015 at 1:00 PM.  “Run Boy Run” screens on January 30, 2015 at 10:00 AM.  “Alphabet” screens on January 31, 2015 at 11:00 AM.  These screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, SF).  “Vulva 3.0” screens on February 1, 2015 at 5:30 PM at the Goethe-Institut (530 Bush Street, SF).  For further information, go to www.berlinbeyond.org .)

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