Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals become more political
Major international film festivals are reliable indicators of how the independent film community is responding to the heightened political mood around the world. Nowadays more financiers are prepared to back more realistic, challenging dramas or politically committed documentaries in the certainty there will be a decent audience for them. Ken Loach was recently questioned on Radio 4's Today programme about how we can explain the growth of interest in political films. He replied that because the mass media fails to tell the truth these films have come to fill the void and explain reality.
The opening film of the Berlin Film Festival was Man To Man, a story of three 19th century Scottish scientists who use two captured African pygmies in their research into the missing link between apes and humans. It purports to explore Victorian hypocrisy and racism.
The hallmark of the film festival this year was a slate of African films, heralding a mini-renaissance. The Golden Bear prize was awarded to U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, the story of Bizet's Carmen set in South Africa, performed by local talents and sung in Xhosa. It is a traditional story given a fresh context with allusions to politics, police corruption and living conditions in the slums.
Sometimes in April, set in the hell of the Rwandan tragedy, was also popular. The director included archive footage shot by Belgian colonialists because he wanted to show how it was the Belgians who first installed the rigid system of racial classification that distinguished between the Tutsis and the Hutus.
The highly contentious issue of Palestinian suicide bombers was explored in Paradise Now. The film claims to humanise the bombers through the story of two Palestinian childhood friends who pledge their lives to the cause, and what happens to them on their way to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days told the story of the German wartime freedom fighter who was one of the leaders of the White Rose student underground, caught by the Nazis while distributing anti-war leaflets and executed six days later. Since then she has become an emblematic figure of German resistance to Hitler's regime during the Second World War.
The Sundance Film Festival in February was marked by political films. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is meant to be the kind of film that appeals to fans of Supersize Me and The Corporation, a slick anti-corporate movie on the culture behind the financial share dealing scandal. I look forward to hearing the audio tape of Enron's energy brokers allegedly first joking about how they are fleecing poor grandmothers, then allegedly calling power plants to shut down operations so as to artificially raise prices.
World Documentary Special Jury Prizes went to a film by my old college chum Sean McCallister for The Liberace of Baghdad, about a classically-trained concert pianist whose life has been put on hold by dictatorship and war. The film documents the downward spiral of violence, and the heartbreak, fear and anger of Samir's family. The prize was also awarded to Arab Jewish filmmaker Simone Bitton for The Wall, which dramatises the occupation of Palestine.
Dogme founders Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier's film Dear Wendy shows they were on form with another controversial hit - a hard-hitting satire of US politics and culture. According to Screen International it specifically tackles 'military adventurism - the rightness of the right to bear arms and the notion that one's beliefs, if strongly held, are justification enough for unilateral action'.
The award-winning African films included The Hero, about a civil war veteran which is apparently a poignant portrait of a country ravaged by war which will resonate far beyond Angola's borders. Drum is the fact-based story of Henry Nxumalo, a black journalist who was targeted by the Nationalist government after he exposed horrifying prison and work farm conditions. This snapshot selection adds up to a vibrant film culture of movies unafraid to take on the big subjects because film-makers know there's an audience out there ready to question and challenge the world.