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Documentaries Edge Out Feature Films
by Becky Tan

Panorama has been awarding audience prizes since 1999. This is the first year that there was a prize each for best feature and best documentary. Fifty-three films (20 of them documentaries) from 29 countries were in competition. Panorama director, Wieland Speck, presented prizes. Interesting is that both winning directors, Icíar Bollaín and Britta Wauer, are women.

Audience members who attend films in the Panorama category receive ballots in order to vote for their favorite film upon leaving the cinema. They can vote for the film they just saw (which would be logical) or write in any of the competing Panorama films. On-line voting is also possible. Logically, films with large audiences will also get the most votes. Therefore, I was not surprised that the documentary about the Jewish cemetery in Berlin was a winner – naturally, Berliners will go to a film about themselves – even if they aren’t dead yet. This logic doesn’t quite jell though, when discussing the feature film winner: También La Lluvia (Even the Rain). Perhaps the presence of Gael Garcia Bernal drew a large audience.

Im Himmel, unter der Erde – Der Jüdische Friedhof Weissensee (In Heaven Underground – The Weissensee Jewish Cementry).
This Jewish cemetery in the north-eastern corner of Berlin buried its first soul on September 22, 1880: a man from a nearby old folks’ home. Today, 130 years later, there are 115,600 graves, many of them prominent Jewish Germans and, lately, more often, Russian Jews, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. During World War II the cemetery never closed and Jewish people continued to bury their relatives there, often under sad circumstances as when a whole family chose suicide rather than Auschwitz. Jewish cemeteries, contrary to others in Germany, do not throw out the bones after 20 years in order to make room for new remains, when the relatives stop paying rent or tending the graves. Therefore, there are secret pathways, hideouts and hidden gravestones in remote corners. It served as a wild paradise for small children to play safely in the undergrowth of trees, flowers, shrubs and weeds.

This is also a paradise for anyone interested in history because nothing in this cemetery has been destroyed, not even the archives which are complete since 1880. It is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, the size of 86 soccer fields. After World War II, it more or less sank into oblivion, as there were only 1,500 Jewish people still in the city. Now, there is an active Jewish community of 12,000, which tends to the cemetery, rebuilding some of the larger mausoleums and monuments, many of them originally by famous architects. Many Russian Jews visit graves of their relatives. The rabbi chuckled when he said that these people actually put flowers on the graves – definitely not a Jewish custom, but something they learned from their Russian culture. This film should serve to underline the importance of the cultural value of Weissensee Cemetery, which has been nominated to become an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it definitely should be. Directed by Britta Wauer.

También La Lluvia (Even the Rain).
The winner of the Panorama feature film was less interesting, but according to my colleague Karen Pecota who attended the Sundance festival four weeks earlier, “The films at Sundance were not all that great aside from the documentaries, which were amazing.” Perhaps the current trend is towards documentaries; perhaps our tastes have changed and this is a sign of the times or, as my colleague Mary Wienke, says, “Perhaps that’s why reality TV is so popular now.”

The feature film winner, También La Lluvia (Even the Rain) plays in Bolivia. Poor people need water; the government gives water rights to private companies to sell at high prices; a Spanish film team is hiring poor people as extras to play Indians in a historical film about Christopher Columbus. The peasants start a riot which interferes with filming. The Spanish film people flee, except for one caring person who stays behind to help the injured daughter of an indigent family. This story jumps from one segment to the next, leaving me perplexed and confused at a jagged attempt to show parallel atrocities between Indians in the late 1400s and peasants today. (There really was a Bolivian Water War in April 2000.) Perhaps this, too, should have been a documentary in which water and its importance and unavailability in Bolivia could be explained. It stars Gael Barcá Bernal from Mexico, was filmed in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and also showed at the Toronto film festival.