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The 5 Excellent Documentaries Worth Watching from Berlinale 2019

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February 20, 2019

Berlinale 2019 Documentaries

"Good cinema is good cinema." -Agnes Varda. Looking back at the 69th Berlin Film Festival this year, there honestly weren't that many great films. A few really stood out (like Golden Bear winner Synonyms), but in general the line-up was pretty dismal. Even the competition selection was mostly awful. I saw a total of 24 films over 10 days at Berlinale 2019, and looking back over them, my favorites were all documentaries. So to recap Berlinale this year, I put together a list of my 5 favorite docs which also happen to be 5 excellent films that are very much worth watching. It's always hard to convince people (anyone, really) to watch a documentary. So the least I can do is highlight my favorites and try to explain why they're good. If you have time, watch all five, but if not, at least watch one of them - I guarantee you'll be enriched by these fine films.

For more discussion on documentaries, listen to our podcast episode #17 - Documentary Love, feat. Amirose Eisenbach. On that episode, I discussed how I went from not caring about docs at all to being totally in love with them. There's so many great docs. And now I do my best to try to see as many as I can at every festival, which is not always easy. And I'm glad I found a few this year at Berlinale that I think are truly outstanding. Please seek out these five, and take the time to enjoy them. They're each excellent in their own unique ways.

Shooting the Mafia
Shooting the Mafia
Directed by Kim Longinotto

This is a GREAT documentary. One of the last films I caught at Berlinale, and it left me in awe. Shooting the Mafia is a fantastic, powerful doc that is both about a remarkable woman, Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, and also a historical examination of how the Mafia lost its power over the years. There is some serious filmmaking at work in this film, weaving together multiple narratives and keeping the audience fully engaged. Kim Longinotto's Shooting the Mafia is made up of incredible archival footage + a bounty of great clips from cinema to emphasize emotions + many of Letizia's photographs, all of which make it superb. I am really, really impressed by this film and how much it moved me. I felt some deep emotions looking at her photos at the end after she told her story about living in Italy under the Mafia's rule. Highly recommended.

Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace
Directed by Sydney Pollack & Alan Elliott

Lord Almighty this film is magic, just pure musical magic. Aretha Franklin is a goddess. But we all know that already, right? She is truly one of the greatest singers of all time. Amazing Grace is a long lost film from 1972 (originally directed by Sydney Pollack!), finally fully restored and released for us to bask in glory and brilliance. Watching this joyful gospel performance filled me with so much goodness and happiness and all I wanted to do after is dance around the streets all day. It's a tremendously soulful throwback to the 70s. Just a raw presentation of footage from this recording session at a Baptist Church in Los Angeles - but seeing it all is truly amazing. I'm not a religious man, but I could sense the presence of God in her. No doubt. There's nothing like stepping into that room and listening to Aretha sing her heart out, and that's pretty much all this concert doc is and it's glorious. Turn the volume ALL the way up & enjoy this one. Read my full review.

Varda by Agnès
Varda by Agnès
Directed by Agnès Varda

I love Agnès Varda!! She's a true hero of cinema. Even if you don't love all her films, she is still the best. This documentary is a beautiful examination of the inspiration and explanations behind some of her work (both in cinema & in art) that she has created throughout her life. She has an immaculate understanding of cinema, and shares some of her insights (but not all of them, of course) and it's an utter joy to watch her talk films for nearly two hours. I really love listening to Agnes, she's a genuine master. It's not the most in-depth analysis or anything, and I'm sure a few will complain that it's very surface level. But she's just a wonderful, masterful artist who expresses her love for people so perfectly through all of her work. And it's encouraging to watch her talk about it all for 115 minutes, with plenty to can glean from her wisdom. Read my full review.

System K
System K
Directed by Renaud Barret

This is another great discovery profiling a world most known nothing about - the street art scene in Africa. It's made by a French filmmaker who has spent plenty of time in Africa before, named Renaud Barret (of Hide Hide, Jupiter's Dance, Victoire Terminus Kinshasa, Benda Bilili!, Pygmée Blues, The Africa Express previously). System K (aka Système K) is a fresh, funky, entertaining doc about the radical street art scene in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This film also features some rad local music that intertwines with all the footage, making it feel even funkier as they follow these determined Congolese people who fight the system (mainly the oppressive government) by making art. This is a "good times, good vibes" documentary. It's inspiring to see what these artists are creating, and be introduced to a radical scene that is simultaneously very similar to and completely different from anything we know in the western world.

Talking About Trees
Talking About Trees
Directed by Suhaib Gasmelbari

This enchanting, fun documentary is about the history of (and continuation of) Sudanese cinema - not about trees. Don't let that deceptive title steer you away, this is still incredibly fascinating to watch thanks to endlessly thoughtful conversations between the main subjects. Talking About Trees introduces us to four old filmmakers from Sudan, who spend most of their time trying to figure out how to revive and reignite a love for cinema in their troubled country. We also follow them around as they desperately try to organize and arrange a screening (of Django Unchained), but they keep encountering resistance. It makes the film a bit depressing, but there's still hopefulness in their tenacity. There's also some beautiful cinematography in this, which is not common in most docs, but it really stands out here. It's a fantastic film because these four guys are totally awesome and passionate about cinema and just doing their best to keep that passion alive.

I also recommend from Berlinale: Berlin Bouncer, The Biggest Little Farm, He She I (Er Sie Ich), The Magic Life of V, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, Midnight Traveler, Serendipity, and Talking Money.

To find all of Alex's Berlinale 2019 reviews and updates:

You can find all our Berlinale 2019 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, my 5th year in a row at this festival. We'll be back again next year, as always. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw during the festival posted on my Letterboxd account here. For more info on the festival and all of the films that have played there, visit Berlinale.de. I'm excited about attending every festival, and always hope for the best. There's always good films to discover in the line-up, some gems hidden away, and as long as you keep watching more you'll come across them. I hope these five documentaries will reach audiences all over the world. They deserve to be seen and appreciated by everyone.

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