The Bomb: Conceived as an art installation with several screens and involving a live soundtrack by a band called The Acid, it might not really count as a film, but this hour-long the history of the nuclear bomb was a disturbing experience that drew its power without ever resorting to narration.
Strong Island: A memoir as much as a documentary, Yance Ford’s film was an emotional and fierce study of his brother’s murder – dissecting the non-investigation and the devastating effect on his family.
The Theatre of Disappearance: The title should have been a warning, but at least the Argentinian video artist responsible for this collection of random wobbly pictures seemed to have put some thought into it, unlike the rest of this rubbish. This film mainly consisted of someone wandering round a building site holding a camera, apparently lost and looking for something to do, lovelessly intercut with pictures of insects. Make your own meaning? How about you work out what you want to film first and get back to us. The Berlinale programme mentioned that some of it was filmed in the DMZ between North and South Korea, as if that was important or even recognizable. Made it to 30 minutes out of 120, which felt generous.
Medium – maybe a bit long or hokey but still mainly good:
Masaryk – A Prominent Patient: The story of how Britain sold out the newly-born Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler’s expansion seems like a minor issue compared to the many betrayals and horrors that happened in the following cataclysm. But then again, now is a good time for a story about dread of war and unchecked authoritarian ambition. This Czech-Slovak co-production centres on Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian Ambassador to London (and son of the man who fathered the nation), who had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a New Jersey sanatorium following his desperate failure to get the rest of Europe to take a stand and defend his country from fascism. There are a few cliches involved – has there ever been a film set in a mental home where nurses don’t end up wrestling on the floor with a flailing patient? – but the intelligent lead performances by Karel Roden as Masaryk and Hanns Zischler as his German psychiatrist keep it gripping.
1945: Hungary was well-represented in the competition with the Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul, but this war-aftermath drama from the Panorama section would have gone down well too. The war in Europe has only just ended, and panic besets a tiny rural village when two Jewish men arrive at the local train station – they must be here to reclaim the property long since bought up by the villagers. There are some comparisons with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a bitter story of small-town dysfunction and evil – but the film is nowhere near that good (besides, the whole power of Haneke’s film comes from the fact that it is set before the apocalypse, when all the evil was still in people’s hearts). But still, 1945 is a subtle and well-made drama.
Investigating Paradise: Documentaries about the Arab world made by female Arab journalists are rare, or at least rarely seen here, and this Algerian non-fiction (with a fictionalized framing device) offered some rare insights into Arab society. But the main premise – trying to understand what exactly Muslims think heaven is – devolves into a lot of very long conversations and very little cinematic ambition (unless you speak Arabic, you’re in for two hours of solid subtitle reading). It isn’t helped by the investigating journalist’s one-idea interview technique: she carries around a laptop and shows dozens of people the same YouTube clip of a bonkers preacher describing how the famous 72 virgins “don’t need Nivea or Vaseline”, and then waits for them to talk about it.
But then again, the stupidest questions sometimes get the best answers, and the answers of some of the young men hunched in internet cafes are as scary as the opinions of sundry intellectuals, psychologists and comedians are enlightening. The paradise promised by clerics is actually just pornography, which begs two questions: what happens to women after they die? And do you think this might be why patriarchal religious societies are so fucked up? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that religion is the result of sexually repressed men dreaming about death.