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The Berlinale Blog: The flies on the wall

In a Forum selection which examines the ever changing rules of documentary film making, Rory O’Connor looks at two of this year’s best.

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The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

This year’s Forum selection has been asking all sorts of questions about the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Celebrated directors like Corneliu Porumboiu and Denis Cote have offered their own unique answers to varying effect. Fly-on-the-Wall filmmakers have always strived to take themselves out of the equation, casting a spell which shows life on a stage all its own. Two Forum films to use this trick to quite different ends are Christiane Schmidt and Didier Guillain’s The Forest is like the Mountains and Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, with one shooting reality as beautifully as fiction and the other shooting fiction as if it were reality.

In 2004 Schmidt and Guillain were travelling through Sfantu Georghe when they came upon a Roma village. Drawn to the community the pair became gradually immersed, visiting annually before becoming godparents to a young girl called Anamaria, a primary focus of this wonderful portrait.

Shot over the course of a year this documentary takes in the seasons of village life. Women talk faith and abortion; the community leader negotiates terms for the coming harvest; Anamaria, his daughter, is looking for love. Life’s tough, of course, but through their obvious affection, the filmmakers capture the enormous warmth of the community too. Documentaries of this kind have a tendency to over sympathise, almost patronise, but there’s a remarkable breath of humility here.

What’s more, the filmmakers are apparently skilled photographers too. The opening shot alone is a marvel, capturing Amamaria in the foreground, shallow focus, looking nervous in a jacket of shock red as far behind a man drags illegally collected wood from a snow-covered forest – hardship, warmth and social status in the very first moment.

Guillaume Nicloux almost inverts this aesthetic for his faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq; a hilarious work of fiction masquerading as real life. The plot has the IMPAC-winning poet (played with nihilistic swagger by the man himself) kidnapped and brought to a country house outside of Paris where a two-way spell of Stockholm syndrome occurs.

His captors are an MMA fighter, a body builder and, we can only assume, their boss. The would-be criminals are in immediate awe of the writer, hanging on his every word, perplexed by his artistry and celebrity, almost desperate for his acceptance. They begin pandering to his every whim – novels, smokes, wine and women – while rather coyly, almost childlike in their manner, letting him know what makes them tick. Hilarity and genuine friendship ensue.

Both of these films are incredibly endearing and share a great deal of warmth for human connection and the lightness and beauty of the everyday. ROC

The Forest is like the Mountains screens Feb 12, 19:00 (Delphi Filmpalast), Feb 13, 16:30 (Cinestar 8), Feb 14, 20:00 (Cubix 9), Feb 15, 14:00 (Cinestar 8).

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq screens Feb 8, 21:30 (Delphi Filmpalast), Feb 9, 19:30 (CinemaxX 4), Feb 11, 11:00 (CineStar 8), Feb 16, 16:30 (CineStar 8).