Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Berlin film fest as dark as the city

This year's festival featured a particularly grim collection of films looking at violence in Chechnya, Palestine and Rwanda

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , By Manohla Dargis

Shown is a scene from the South African film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, which won this year's Golden Bear.

PHOTO: AP

History shadowed the recent Berlin Film Festival as ominously as the clouds that darkened nearly every one of its 11 days. In its 55th year, the event has a long and oft-repeated reputation as the most political of the major international festivals. Less glittering than Cannes, more relevant than Venice and considerably less Hollywood than Toronto, this is a film festival where history and politics do more than just converge on-screen at a comfortable remove; it is where movies sometimes come uncomfortably alive, with stories that blur the boundaries between the world on screen and that outside the theater.

On Wednesday, the festival presented the world premiere of the documentary Coca -- The Dove From Chechnya. Subtitled Europe in Denial of a War, the film by the French-born Eric Bergkraut is a portrait of a former Chechen businesswoman, Zainap Gashaeva, nicknamed Coca, who has spent the last decade documenting what, just two days before the film was screened, Human Rights Watch called the Chechen climate of "fear and intimidation" created by the Russian government.

With a video camera and a ferocious will, Gashaeva has assembled first- and second-hand accounts of life in hell, including images of dead children scattered in the street, bodies piled in mass graves and one young man helplessly flailing part of an arm, a large portion of his lower body having just been blown off in an explosion.

Bergkraut goes off point too easily, as if overwhelmed by the material, but the documentary makes for gripping viewing. Screened in the Forum, the most aesthetically adventurous section in the festival, the documentary served as a bracing if despairing complement to White Ravens -- Nightmare in Chechnya, a documentary from Germany that was screened in Panorama, the noncompetitive section of the official program.

Made over the course of three and a half years by Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt, White Ravens is an empathetic, if unflinching look at Russian soldiers who were sent to Chechnya (and, in one case, Afghanistan), where they committed confessed acts of brutality, some so unspeakable that I can't shake them.

There is something surreal about watching such horror in the comfort of a movie theater, nestled in a cushy seat with a bottle of designer water. But at this year's Berlin festival, atrocities -- which at times seemed to speak to the cultural and political tensions playing out in the nightly news -- were hard to avoid.

The competition section included not one but two features about the genocide in Rwanda, Terry George's Hotel Rwanda and the Haitian director Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April. The latter, which will be broadcast on HBO next month, stars the British actor Idris Elba as a Hutu soldier, married to a Tutsi, who, while watching a soccer game one evening in his middle-class home, is plunged into rivers of blood.

Peck, whose previous films include Lumumba, takes an unblinking approach to the carnage that cost nearly 800,000 Rwandans their lives. Still, despite the corpse-laden dump trucks and bullet-chewed innocents -- images that produced audible weeping at the press screening -- this is a film in which terror arrives as much with a whisper as a shout.

In one of the most hair-raising scenes in the film, UN soldiers evacuate white students at a Roman Catholic girls' school, leaving terrified black students and their caretakers behind. As the UN trucks disappear down the road, machete-wielding rebels trickle and then pour out of the surrounding forest, one man barely breaking stride as he sharpens his weapon against the pavement like a butcher preparing for slaughter.

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