Berlinale Goes Documentary

As mentioned in my final post from last year, documentary films are coming more and more to the forefront and competing almost equally with fiction. This year’s Berlinale had more documentary films than ever before, and one of the highlights of the whole festival was a documentary about Nick Cave.

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are British video artists who have worked together for 20 years. They’ve been collaborating with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds since 2008, and their documentary about Cave unexpectedly grew from that relationship.

20,000 Days on Earth both reveals and contains the mystery of Nick Cave and isn’t your typical music documentary at all. It was mostly filmed in Brighton with Cave discussing his life with his friends and collaborators (at least Blixa Bargeld, Warren Ellis, Ray Winston and Kylie Minogue). You find out interesting things about Cave from the film, but at the same time it doesn’t try to figure out everything that ever happened to him. The emphasis is on new material but some hilarious archived photographs are included.

The film was awarded best directing and editing prizes at Sundance, which is not at all surprising considering how well it’s constructed. For a first feature, Forsyth and Pollard have accomplished an extremely well controlled and stylish trip to Nick Cave’s mind that is more imagined than real. In the press conference Pollard emphasized that however much liberty they took with editing conversations — with answers not always related to the questions we hear — she still recognizes the Nick she knows from the film. It definitely belongs under the documentary category and is much more documentarian than some experimental films shown each year at documentary film festivals.

For a music documentary it’s certainly a revelation that shows you can do something different within the genre and still be entertaining. It assumes the viewer knows the subject rather well, so it’s perhaps not the easiest entry to his music. It’s aimed at the fans, but its filmmaking is far more stronger than we’ve come to expect from music documentaries. The sardonic sense of humour confirms that it’s not merely trying to make Cave look good.

Martin Scorsese came to Berlin under unusual circumstances of showing an unfinished documentary about The New York Review of Books. In its 50 decades the magazine has taken a strong stance on national and international topics. What we saw was still unfinished enough that I find it simply impossible to write about, but suffice it to say some of the largest news events were covered in the sections that were shown. All in all it was very interesting to look at. I’m curious to see how long it will take to finish. Scorsese is co-directing it with David Tedeschi.

David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese presenting their Untitled New York Review of Books documentary. ©Mikko Pihkoluoma

Another film to feature plenty of news reel was Concerning Violence by Göran Hugo Olsson. Compiled from Swedish television archive footage, the visually gruesome film montage is accompanied by Lauryn Hill’s voice-over reading of Frantz Franon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It’s a very polemic text about colonialism and it works stunningly well with the old film footage from Africa.

Interestingly in addition to the voice-over the text is flashed on screen in a white font on top of the image. I found the technique very effective and not at all gimmicky or distracting, although in less assured hands it could have been that. Olsson’s previous film Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was equally powerful and used archive footage as well.

The film was partly funded with Finnish money, and Kati Outinen will be voicing the Finnish translation. All in all they are translating the film in number of languages using the already existing literary translations.

Another succesful documentary dealing with colonialism that is more focused on today came to Berlinale straight from winning the best documentary award in Sundance. We Come As Friends is not as cinematic, but it was interesting and enlightening enough. The first part of the film is focused on Sudan (left the screening after 40 minutes for another film) where they’ve managed to get some surprisingly straightforward interviews from the Chinese oil company workers.