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Letters from Berlin: Transcending the race barrier

  • Published at 08:23 pm March 12th, 2020
Berlin Alexanderplatz
A scene from Berlin Alexanderplatz

Many films at the Berlinale this year were adequately multicultural

Every February, May and September, the film fraternity makes pilgrimages to Europe to attend the three almighty film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. These festivals, some of the highest authorities in determining the future of films, have long been accused of being Eurocentric. Although there may be ample evidence to that, the wind seems to be shifting favorably towards diversity, at least for the time being. Many films at the Berlinale this year were adequately multicultural, enough to offer hope for greater racial harmony and inclusivity, even if it’s only within the realm of cinema.

Bi-racial duos dominated the storylines of several films at the Berlinale this year. In the Competition section, First Cow (USA) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (Germany/The Netherlands) trailed two such leads fused by their collective struggle to survive in a savage world. Berlinale Special entrant High Ground (Australia) saw a white bounty hunter team up with an indigenous tracker to settle an old score, while I Dream Of Singapore (Singapore) from the Panorama Dokumente section featured a local NGO manager’s ardent attempt to relocate a migrant Bangladeshi worker. What do these pairs have in common? A shared goal and a sense of humanity over racial identity.

In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, an unlikely friendship brews between a taciturn cook, Figowitz, nicknamed “Cookie,” and a lone Chinese fur trapper, King Lu, in 1920s Oregon. A stranger among his own kind, tormented by his employers for his pacific nature, Cookie finds a reliable companion in Lu. The film doesn’t endorse any of the racial stereotypes that has plagued the Western genre for decades. The Chinese protagonist is more pragmatic than superstitious, unlike in most other films where the global north and south intersect. In the beginning, Cookie mistakes Lu for a Native American exposing his lack of familiarity with his comrade’s heritage. However, that doesn’t impede him from wholeheartedly trusting this mysterious man from a faraway land. Eventually, the real “secret Chinese ingredient” in the irresistible oily cakes the duo sells to make a living turns out to be a solid friendship.

A harsh contrast to Reichardt’s predominant visuals of earthy green forests is the neon lit concrete jungle of Burhan Qurbani’s Berline Alexanderplatz, which touched on issues of illegal immigration with the lead Franz, who escapes from West Africa and lands in Berlin only to get entangled in further tribulations. An immigrant himself, Qurbani examines how stateless persons can be dragged down dark paths. This poetic adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 classic novel injects here and there existential explorations of what it means to migrate. In an intimate moment with Eva, a club owner of Nigerian descent, Francis reflects, “There is so little sun in Germany, if I stay here long enough, I will become White.” Lying by his side, still panting from exhaustion after intercourse, Eva confesses she sees the world through “white man’s eyes” after spending many years in Germany. In another scene, Franz howls at his associates to not call him a refugee, but an immigrant instead. The distinction was somehow important to him to preserve what little dignity he had left. At home, race never came up once in his passionate love affair with German sex worker Mieze. One of the racial slurs we hear is kingpin Pums repeatedly calling Franz a gorilla. But even Pums soon sees himself in Franz, seduced by the same man to a lamentable point of no return. The gorilla metaphor comes back later in another form, from another person: psychotic wheeler-dealer Reinhold, who hands Franz a gorilla costume for a party. While Eva points out it was meant as an insult, Franz takes it sportingly, confident his “friend” wasn’t a racist. Their misfortunes, in the end, are derived from their statelessness rather than their race.

If Qurbani’s Berlin signified a microcosm of post-colonialism, then Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s High Ground embodied the horrors of colonialism. The vast wastelands of Australia provide a beautiful backdrop to an inhuman tale of massacre. Mirroring true events of an unintentional butchery of an indigenous tribe in 1919, the film revisits the misfortunes inflicted on the natives by European settlers. However, one of these immigrants, Travis (Simon Baker) has his heart in the right place right from the start. He takes massacre survivor Gutjuk under his wing, even going as far as to kill his own people who murdered the Aborigines. He differs from the white saviour archetype, as his actions are not fuelled by a desire to lead a disadvantaged race. His quest is personal, one of cleansing a guilty conscience. Despite Travis’ best efforts to “not make it easy” on the settlers to wipe the natives clean of their heritage, his allegiance is misconstrued. “You can’t share a country,” exclaims fellow policeman Eddy when the natives turn on Travis, as though to justify the ethnic cleansing he has been facilitating for over a decade. The film reimagines the Western genre yet again, differing from FIRST COW in both tone and visuals; sunny and sombre as opposed to Reichardt’s damp and light-hearted take.

Among the documentaries that featured such a central pair was Lei Yuan Bin’s I Dream Of Singapore, which illustrates the struggles of migrant unskilled workers. The shiny cityscapes of Singapore may look like a dream from afar to Bangladeshi village boy Feroz, but the life he can afford there with his low wages is less appealing than the poverty that surrounds his ancestral home he is so eager to escape. When he is injured on the job, and his employers discharge him without compensation, the director, with the help of an NGO, assists him to pay for his medical bills and relocate back to his country. The strong bond this pair forms in the process manifests in a long, heart-warming parting scene. This observational documentary consistently breaks the fourth wall, inviting the audience to join the crude expedition of this accidental bi-racial duo.

Through these and many more films this year, migration and immigration emerge as a timely theme. Racial tension, in many of these films, takes a back seat to compelling personal stories that ring true across continents. The human condition supersedes any socio-economic or political construct and visionary directors once again capture this phenomenon through characters of varied cultures and colours. Although I can’t vouch for the other two mighty festivals, with an array of diverse films, the 70th Berlinale certainly did due diligence to tackle the blame of Eurocentrism.

The article was first published on the Berlinale Talent press website

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