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Berlinale 2024: Memories of War

By Sevara Pan

Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham in No Other Land (dir. Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham, and Rachel Szor). Courtesy of Berlinale

Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham in No Other Land (dir. Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham, and Rachel Szor). Courtesy of Berlinale

Political statements are hardly foreign to a film festival’s red carpet, especially during such politically unsettled times. Yet there are statements that hold particularly immense power and urgency, in light of the inconceivable suffering and loss of civilian life in some parts of the world. Such were the ones calling for “Ceasefire Now [in Gaza],” stitched onto the back of the black dresses of Danish film producer Katrin Pors and American director Eliza Hittman, who trod the red carpet ahead of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival’s opening gala. The festival’s opening gala was further marked by other political protests on and off the red carpet, including a “defend democracy” demonstration of dozens of industry professionals, gathered on the festival’s own initiative; a protest of art workers demanding “no seats for fascists anywhere”; and a rally, staged by film and cinema employees, campaigning for better working conditions.

Even before the red carpet was rolled out, the Berlinale found itself in hot water over political controversies, starting with the invitation and then—after widespread backlash—disinvitation of politicians of the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), known for its anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and Eurosceptic hardline agenda. The incident came amid mass protests in the country against AfD in view of recent revelations of the party’s alleged plans for mass deportations, which was first reported by the German investigative network CORRECTIV. This disinvitation was later highlighted by the “defend democracy” demonstration, an example of how festivals can publicly signal political commitments.

Further tensions bled into the event when a group of Berlinale workers penned an open statement, calling for the festival’s leadership to take a stronger institutional stance and join a global solidarity movement to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and release all hostages (the letter offers a position that builds on the festival’s January 19 statement). “We want to hold the festival and ourselves to a higher standard,” the statement said. Recognizing “the unbearable dynamics of institutional inertia” in the German cultural sector and “the current limits imposed on speech,” the statement also alluded to Strike Germany, a call for cultural workers to withhold their labor and presence at German cultural institutions over their “use of McCarthyist policies” that stifle critical discussion and expressions of solidarity with the people of Palestine. A group of Berlinale Talents alumni and filmmakers participating in this year’s edition published separate open letters echoing these sentiments and urging an end to the weaponization of antisemitism deployed to silence critical perspectives in the German cultural sector. The filmmakers also emphasized the importance of acknowledging the selected artists who withdrew from the festival in protest, including John Greyson, Suneil Sanzgiri, Maryam Tafakory, and Ayo Tsalithaba.

As the festival got underway, various collective statements and expressions of solidarity marked the event, echoing similar actions at other industry film festivals like Sundance and IDFA. Among the individuals making the collective statements at the Berlinale were the curators of the festival’s Forum Expanded program and the Teddy Award jury, with the latter stressing that “demanding the end of a war should be neither complicated nor controversial.” On the first weekend of the festival, around 50 people staged a protest action at the Gropius Bau main venue of the Berlinale’s European Film Market (EFM), unfurling a banner depicting a clapperboard dripping in blood and reading, “Lights, Camera, Genocide.” Peaceful daily vigils were held in the vicinity of the Berlinale Palast by Film Workers for Palestine over the course of three days. 

Controversies deepened even after the Berlinale wrapped up, with local politicians, including Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner, slamming what some branded as “antisemitism” or “one-sided” stances taken at the awards gala when several winners and jury members used the stage to express solidarity with Palestine and call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Standing alongside his Palestinian counterpart Basel Adra, Yuval Abraham, one of the Israeli co-directors of the award-winning film No Other Land said, “In two days, we will go back to a land where we are not equal. I am living under a civilian law, and Basel is under military law. We live 30 minutes from one another, but I have voting rights, and Basel [does not have] voting rights. I am free to move where I want in this land. Basel is, like millions of Palestinians, locked in the occupied West Bank. This situation of apartheid between us, this inequality, it has to end. […] We need to call for a ceasefire.” Abraham said later in his social media post that he had received death threats after the Israeli media and German politicians “absurdly labeled” his speech “antisemitic,” which he condemned as “the appalling misuse” of the word.

Critical questions about the role of a cultural institution, such as the Berlinale, unequivocally emerge when a film festival that prides itself on being “the most political of all the major film festivals” refuses to allow for critical discourse on what ranks amongst the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time. Berlinale’s lone attempt, a collaboration with the TinyHouse initiative, invited the festival visitors to “engage in dialogue about the Middle East conflict” over three days, only accommodating up to six people at a time. Such a design hardly engaged industry professionals and audiences in ways that reflected the urgency of the moment. The Berlinale has been no stranger to politics since its creation in 1951. As claimed on its own website, the festival was founded to serve as a “showcase of the free world” on the frontline of the Cold War. Aside from the festival’s compelling programming that boasted films grappling with the topics of war and oppression—this year’s varied sections feature such titles as No Other LandIntercepted, and Afterwar, which are all discussed in this report—one question loomed large: Is the Berlinale still “a showcase of the free world”?


What happens when a war ends? A reckoning with war and its reverberations is at the heart of the Panorama Dokumente title Afterwar, directed by Birgitte Stærmose and filmed over the span of 15 years. “People living in peace think of war as a passing moment. People struggle and then it ends. But that is wrong. War settles in people,” says one of the protagonists in the film, encapsulating the film’s focus on post-war Kosovo. 

Straddling fiction and documentary, Afterwar conjures up a reality that is not weighed down by certitudes. This form of heightened reality, achieved through elements of fictionalizing such as staging, gives an opportunity to tell vulnerable stories of the war-affected youngsters “intimately and emotionally,” as the filmmaker explains in the press kit, without laying bare all the private facts of their lives. The youths’ stories are ultimately anchored in their lived experience, drawn from numerous interviews with the protagonists (Shpresim Azemi, Xhevahire Abdullahu, Gëzim Kelmendi, and Besnik Hyseni) and a scrupulous co-creation process.

The film opens with images of a war-torn Kosovo in 1999. Smoke fills the streets amid the engulfing flames, a fallen horse lies lifelessly on a dusty road, and throngs of people flee, traversing a bleak landscape, prefacing stories of the youths who roam the streets of Pristina, selling peanuts and cigarettes in the wake of war. The film’s narration is aptly dispersed among the protagonists’ unabashedly confrontational monologues. Locking his eyes on the camera, a boy recounts his family returning home after the war to find the only remnant of their previous life, the refrigerator, “[just] standing there.” When soldiers arrive, the family is ordered to retire to safety amid suspicions that an explosive had been placed inside the refrigerator. “Our refrigerator could kill us,” the boy recalls. “But it was empty.” The boy’s gaze into the eye of the camera is sustained and unwavering, denying viewers the opportunity to alienate themselves or fall onto a familiar yet fleeting feeling of commiseration.


The metaphorical act of looking is further explored in a Forum title, Intercepted, by Ukrainian director Oksana Karpovych. The film’s narrative is built on a juxtaposition of images and sound, which in this case do not work in concert with one another but form two parallel realities that tell jarringly disparate stories. Images of a battle-scarred Ukraine are contrasted with excerpts of phone calls from Russian soldiers to their families, which were intercepted by Ukraine’s Security Service in 2022 and published online. Holding an eerie quietness, the images of Intercepted palpably depart from the those of news stories. As the director explained in an interview, this quietness conveys “an uneasy sense of time being suspended” during war and a tension that is at times hard to bear. Filmed in parts of the country still reeling from Russian occupation, the images bear witness to the sheer expanse of the full-scale invasion that has wreaked havoc across Ukraine, from the north to the south and to the east, in its many homes, classrooms, and places of work and rest. Yet the film looks closer past the destruction and despair, to observe various quotidian vistas imbued with life and resilience.

The sound design by Montreal-based sound designer Alex Lane accentuates this narrative, while preserving and enhancing the existing tension that is contained in the juxtaposition of the images and sound. The soundtrack, made in collaboration with Kyiv’s electronic musician Olesya Onykiienko, creates a haunting atmosphere in the film, in particular its road sequences, which take viewers across Ukraine’s war-ravaged villages and towns, as well as through some of its unscathed lush landscapes. Diegetic details of the Russian phone calls emphasize a hollowness in the soldiers’ disembodied voices in a sort of auditory close-up, which is as familiar as it is disturbing. Culled from 31 hours of rich audio material, the excerpts tell an array of harrowing stories, threading together the soldiers’ casual confessions of looting, the torturing and killing of civilians and prisoners of war, and to our horror, their families’ encouragement to further perversion. Strung together, these conversations reveal the dehumanization of Russia’s war that gives free rein to ruthless cruelty at the frontline where nothing is off limits, as well as its far-reaching government propaganda and the imperialist nature of its full-scale invasion.

No Other Land 

Witnessing turns into a collective effort in No Other Land, directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective of four activists/journalists—Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham, and Rachel Szor—which received the Berlinale Documentary Award and the Panorama section’s Audience Award. “I started to film when we started to end,” says Adra, in the documentary. Adra is one of the Palestinian co-directors and an activist living in Masafer Yatta, a region of rural hamlets on the southern edge of the West Bank that have continuously been subjected to Israel’s mass expulsions. Israel designated a large swath of the area as a closed military training zone (a classified Israeli document has reportedly revealed that such “firing zones” in the occupied West Bank were established “as a mechanism for transferring land to [Israeli] settlements.” Commenting on the Israeli High Court of Justice’s rejection of the petition against the expulsions in Masafer Yatta, which ended the two-decades-long legal battle in 2022, UN human rights experts noted, “By upholding this policy to drive Palestinians out of Masafer Yatta, the Israeli judicial system has given carte blanche to the Israeli government to perpetuate the practice of systematic oppression against Palestinians.” 

Growing up in a home filled with activists, Adra was just a young boy when people in his family and community started to film what was happening around them. This left him a homegrown archive of Masafer Yatta community footage and placed him right in the midst of that history, setting in motion his own years-long endeavor to record the dramatic events transpiring around him. Adra and Ballal, another Masafer Yatta activist, have documented Israeli activities aimed at evicting their community for most of their adult lives. Joined by Israeli journalists Yuval Abraham and Rachel Szor, the true challenges in creating No Other Land emerged not from the collective’s makeup but from the extreme inequality that an apartheid system has produced in their land, afflicting the lives and work of the Palestinian co-directors who live under the military occupation of Israel. 

No Other Land is a vital film that demands to be seen. Split into several season-based chapters, the documentary chronicles the events that have been at crisis point for years. Whittled down from a staggering 2,000 hours of footage and edited tightly, the film throws us into the mayhem of unfolding demolitions. The loud, heavy breathing that escapes the camera operators as they film in the heat of action places us in close immediacy. Throughout a string of scenes, we witness homes, a water well, and an electricity pylon being torn down, with residents bemoaning, “Is our electricity a security threat?” and “Water is a human right!” In an unnerving scene, armed soldiers, accompanied by workers driving bulldozers, show up at the doorstep of a primary school while a class is in session. Panic ensues as desks pile up outside the building and children scurry to salvage their school supplies.

Reaching an intensely emotional truth, the documentary’s searing scenes also drive home the utter failure of the international institutions and mechanisms in place to put an end to the grave atrocities and protect civilian lives. One scene epitomizes this sentiment. Resident Harun Abu Aran, paralyzed from being shot by an Israeli soldier as he was holding on to his family’s generator, sits next to his mother outside a cave where they have found refuge after their home’s demolition. In the quiet of the night, he asks, “Is somebody coming?” After a pause, his mother responds succinctly, “Nobody is coming.” Harun, we learn, passed away.

Sevara Pan is a freelance film critic, journalist, and curator, working in the documentary field with a special focus on human rights, social justice, and activism. She contributes to such industry publications as Documentary Magazine, Modern Times Review, and Cineuropa. She is on the Activist Film Committee of Movies that Matter, an annual human rights film festival taking place in The Hague.