One talking fish per film festival, you'd think, would be plenty — and I got one in Matteo Garrone's Pinochhio. Imagine my surprise when a second such creature landed up in Abel Ferrara's Siberia. And this is no fairy tale, either. It's a real-world story, but with… a talking fish. Though truth be told, the fish may exist only as a vision in Clint's (Willem Dafoe) addled head. Along with the overweight and naked woman who's performing an exotic dance to an audience of nobody. And the men who are stripped and shot in a death camp. And the stairs to the basement that transform into a steep cliff. Or the cave, the womb-like amber cave that contains a "conscience"…
By now you know the kind of mindfuck this movie is. The question, therefore, becomes: Is it the good kind of mindfuck? Is it going to be Tarkovsky? Or is this going to be Terrence Malick, in his Knight of Cups phase? Alas, it's the latter. The film revolves around Clint's attempts to dive into his soul or subconscious or whatever, and there are times you get a line so inexplicably banal, so plucked out of the pages of a doleful teenager-poet's diary, that the only option is to giggle. In Siberia, this is that line: "There is no beginning. There is no end. That is not the language of the soul." Is this banality intentional? Is Siberia less a mindfuck than Ferrara impishly fucking around with our minds, daring us to call him out, instead of saying, "Well, he is an auteur, so there may be something to all this weirdness…"? Perhaps that's why Siberia has got a Competition slot, because it both mimics and mocks a particularly pretentious strain of "art-house festival-type movie".
Being wanted makes an actor feel alive. If you take that away, it will kill him more than any disease. The distraught woman speaking these words is Lisa (Nina Hoss). The actor she's speaking about is her twin brother, Sven (Lars Eidinger), who is wasting away from leukemia. And the man she's speaking to is a theatre director who made many hits with Sven, but is now reluctant to mount a production with him. What if Sven collapses on stage? The director cares about Sven, but he's just being practical. Lisa, meanwhile, is being emotional. Understandably so.
The title of Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond's film — My Little Sister — suggests the POV of Sven. But this is really a study of Lisa, and how one big event can make one's entire life unravel. Lisa is settled in Switzerland, having given up her dreams of being a playwright in Berlin. (Her husband runs a posh international school there.) But Sven brings her back home, and she struggles not just with a dying twin but also a possibly dying marriage. There's a superb conceit at the film's core. Lisa's mother has never been a "good" parent. And that may be another reason she's tearing herself apart, so that, at the time of greatest need, she can be the mother Sven never had. My Little Sister is a classy weepie that pushes your buttons, alright, but it never becomes distinctive enough to justify its presence in the Competition slot.
David France's Welcome to Chechnya may be the most ironically titled film at the Berlinale — it's about LGBTQ people who are not welcome in the country. Early on, we hear from David Isteev, a crisis coordinator at a facility that helps queer people find asylum in other countries — or, at least, smuggles them out before they can be killed. He says, "It's a crime to be gay in Chechnya. And for a family that finds out someone is gay? It's a shame so strong it can only be washed away by blood." This is no overstatement, as we soon see in a horrifying video that was intercepted by activists. A woman is dragged out of a car. She's dumped on the ground, and a man picks up a biggish rock and raises it over her head… And cut! We don't see what happened, but many in the audience around me gasped.
In 2017, during a drug raid, a suspect's phone was revealed to contain explicit gay images and texts. That set off the purge. The man was taken in and tortured and asked to turn in others like him. It's more than electrocutions and bludgeonings. One victim recalls how they'd put a rat on someone's back, cover it with a pot and then begin to heat the pot. The terrified rat would try to claw its way out through the human. The victim says, "I heard someone died that way." Another woman, "Anya", calls in saying that her uncle has discovered she's a lesbian and wants her to sleep with him, otherwise he will tell her father, who's a high-ranking government official. Translation: Your father will have you killed.
It's state-sanctioned minority cleansing, though Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic and a Putin stooge, not only denies that such a campaign exists but also that there are any gay people in his state. As a result, the minorities have no way but out, and this wrenching documentary lays out the logistics: how they are smuggled to safe houses, how they are flown out, how they are put up in small apartments in unnamed European places until some country grants them a visa on humanitarian grounds… A homesick gay man's mother tells him (the entire family has decided to go with him), "We fled not because of the country. We fled because of the people."
This homesick man — Maxim — slowly becomes the centre of the story. At first, his face is digitally altered, as is the case with everyone else. But when he decides to go public with his story, filing a criminal complaint, we see his unaltered face. The de-digitising happens in front of the media — he's "coming out", so to speak, a second time. Maxim is lauded for his bravery, and yet, we are made aware that the Chechen establishment now knows who he is. It's the stuff of gripping Cold War espionage thrillers, except that this is real life. A female activist says that one way or the other, Maxim will always be in hiding. Without a trace of sentimentality, she puts forth the bare facts: "I'd be afraid to walk dark streets all my life if I were in his shoes."