Everyone who’s anyone knows that, in the past few years, documentaries have been catching up with fiction films, both in terms of popularity and form, as docs are becoming increasingly creative when it comes to telling a story. The Berlinale hasn’t failed to deliver in that respect, having selected plenty of documentaries across its sections as well as sticking to its guns with the special doc section Panorama Dokumente.
Amongst the films that were consistently sold-out in Berlin this year were The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s doc sequel to The Act of Killing, and Cobain: Montage of Heck, a documentary directed by Brett Morgen about Nirvana’s one and only.
Yet, I watched two documentaries that, though in different sections and directed by two filmmakers with an age difference of 40, both turned to the sea as a symbol for complex issues linked to history, identity, longing and desire.
The Pearl Button: the sea as history’s basement
The doc in competition was Patricio Guzman’s El Boton de Nacar (The Pearl Button), which also won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. I saw it at a public screening (yes, with all the common mortals), where the huge and imposing Friedrichstadt Palast had been filled to the very top. As opposed to the press screenings, where people walk out even 20 minutes into a film, I didn’t see one person leave Guzman’s gig. It may have been because, since it was a public screening, there were people there that paid good money for that ticket, yet the applause at the end suggested there was something more to it.
Guzman warmed up the public to his poessay (a cross between what critics call the poetic doc and the essay doc) documentary style through Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010), in which he connects cosmological phenomena, the Atacama Desert and the murders of the Pinochet regime. In El Boton, Guzman draws out similar poetic associations between the water surrounding the 2670 miles (4296 km) that constitute Chile’s coast, the indigenous population that was exterminated by colonialism and the political dissidents of Pinochet’s regime.
The director, who is also literally the voice of the documentary, starts out gently, calmly, almost hypnotically, by recounting how the sea is Chile’s backbone, one whose benefits the country has ignored. Guzman uses transitional phrases such as “the act of thinking resembles the ocean. They can both take any shape” to lead the documentary into a different direction than the one of nature.
We get to the indigenous population of Western Patagonia that had lived in primitive peace on the ocean’s shores until subjugated and slaughtered by Spanish colonisers. Amongst these peoples was Jemmy Button, who agreed to be taken over to Europe on an English ship to be civilized in exchange for a pearl button. “He traveled from the Stone Age to the Industrial Age and back”, muses Guzman.
The chapter about the political prisoners of the Pinochet regime creeps up on us, as Guzman delivers his punchline about the bodies of those prisoners having been thrown into that same ocean. By connecting the water to the Chilean identity and, in turn, the Western Patagonians and political prisoners to the water, Guzman’s underlying idea seems to be that it’s about time Chile acknowledged things that it would rather forget about.
Using a poetic montage made up of shots of the sea filmed in digital 2k, archival photos, an art installation of a life-size Chilean map unrolling before us and a minute reconstruction of the way in which the Pinochet dissidents were killed and thrown off into the sea, Guzman gets his point across without suffocating the viewer. It’s clear that he wants to distance himself from the form of the informative doc, to explore other means that the film medium can make use of to tell a non-fiction story.
Yet, Guzman’s tone seems a little forced, if not even manipulative, which is ironic given that he wants to break free of the journalistic documentary, which is most often accused of manipulation. Guzman simplifies things from a historical and political point of view, as the film becomes solely his own vision upon history in a manner so subjective that it could create discomfort amongst historiographers.
While the introduction sinks one in a hypnotic state that works well emotionally, narratively and visually with the story of the Western Patagonians, the transition to the political dissidents seems forced if not a little heavyhanded. I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated when the doc got to that point, hearing an inner voice go, “voila, so this is where he wanted to bring me, I knew he wasn’t gonna stick to the Patagonians,” a feeling that undermined the poetry of the previous sections.
I still applaud the fact that Guzman continues to look for ways in which to communicate facts and information, ways in which these would sink deep into one’s own depths as opposed to remaining on the surface as something that is external.
Exotica, Erotica, Etc.: the sea as fuel for desire
A doc that seems to be coming into a metaphysical dialogue with El Boton de Nacar is Exotica, Erotica, Etc. from the Berlinale’s Forum section (the more experimental part of the programme). Directed by the Greek Evangelia Kranioti in a similar poessay style, it follows the parallel yet intersecting worlds of sailors and South-American harbour prostitutes.
Characters from both sides speak about what the sea means to them and why they do what they do. They do so not through the usual talking-heads but through voice-overs running on top of a montage of long takes of ships at sea, cabins, the ship entering ports, breaking pieces of ice in two (a playful innuendo image there), a prostitute’s home or clubs. At times, this montage is replaced by sequences in which we get back to the daily lives of the sailors, along with their diegetic sounds, as they sing karaoke, cook and prepare to greet “the ladies of the night”.
The strongest sequences, however, are the ones featuring the prostitutes. We get up close to them, to their bodies, to their thoughts. It’s these sequences that reminded me of the way non-informative docs can make me want to understand a character, to see them beyond the status of a representational subject, or to feel an illusional bond to them that takes the same nuance as the one the director felt.
The doc achieves all of the above through Sandy’s perspective, a retired prostitute who recounts with much warmth and melancholy her sailor clients from her youth. Kranioti portrays these “ladies of the night” in a down-to-earth and warm light.
As the film kept going back and forth between the voice-over and the diegetic, inviting me to forget which was which, I could feel Sandy’s melancholy seep through every sequence of the doc and through every shot of the sea, of course.
Documentary as a non-verbal medium
To wrap things up, a Berlinale Talents masterclass highlighted what the docs above did by using this poessay style. Titled Hybrid News: Documenting True Events, the masterclass was led by directors Atsushi Funahashi and Marcelo Martinessi, whose films seemed formally similar to Guzman’s and Kranioti’s.
It came down to a debate about the difference between journalism and doc films, and objectivity was obviously a key point here. Ultimately, it was argued that documentary directors can either wear their subjectivity on their sleeves, as opposed to some journalists that proclaim to be objective, or otherwise they must take on the responsibility to show the multifaceted aspects of a character or situation as opposed to anything painted in black and white.
The masterclass also brought up the idea that whereas journalism is the medium that expresses something that can be put in words/ verbalised, documentaries can use the means of cinema and its inherent quality of tracking movement through time in order to express something non-verbal, something that could usually only be found between the lines or beyond them.
Sure, it’s easy to say but hard to do. Yet, while El Boton and Exotica, Erotica, Etc use words (especially El Boton, as it uses a ‘narrator’ and I guess winning the Bear for a script pre-supposes the strength of those words), their images are not merely illustrations of those words, but instead have a life of their own.