Berlin Festival: a guide to the highlights

A film about Muslims in Denmark is a highlight of the Berlin Festival, says Kaleem Aftab
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The war on terror is casting a heavy shadow over this year's Berlin International Film Festival. A number of films have been critical of US foreign policy and the military campaigns in both Afghan-istan and Iraq. The foremost of these is Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's engrossing account of the Tipton Three, The Road to Guantanamo, and Syriana, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.

In light of the recent furore over the Mohamed cartoons, perhaps the most topical film is Annette K Olesen's look at the troubled relationships between Danes and Muslims, 1:1 (One to One).

Starting with a description of the building of a perfect housing estate, it jumps to the present day where the dream has been turned into a nightmare estate where Muslims are in the majority. Olesen uses this fact to play up concerns that Danes are allowing their country to be taken over by other cultures, especially Islam. When a white citizen is beaten up, it kicks off a chain of events that forces his mother to question whether she should keep her family on the estate. Olesen concen-trates on the reaction of the whites in the community and paints a picture of a population fearful of their community. A terrific resolution that sees a second generation Palestinian beaten up and driven away from a Danish girlfriend emphasises the divisions that remain in Danish society.

Olesen argued that the idea for the film came from her gut feeling about "fear in life". Arguing that the furore over the Mohamed drawings is just a symptom of a much more complex issue, Olesen says: "It is related to four or five years of political debate, a political tone, and a tone in the media in Denmark that has been arrogant and allowed things to be said that have not been very civilised." The drawings were the "last straw" for many Muslims.

The director Robert Altman argues that the number of films referencing the war on terror is inevitable. After the premiere of his latest ensemble drama, The Prairie Home Companion, Altman said: "There is nothing you can do that does not reflect the political temperature of the times. It may not be about that on the nose, but what is happening around the fabric and around our lives informs what we do and the things that become important to us. It reflects a truth of what is going on within ourselves and it is just a part of ourselves and we are all responsible."

A case in point is Altman's feature film. Using the hook that it is the last episode of the American radio show The Prairie Home Companion, Altman muses on the passing of time and the inevitability of death. The ensemble cast including Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly, all perform their own songs in this astutely studied affair in the vein of M*A*S*H and Nashville. Altman is a master of sound design and The Prairie Home Companion is as noteworthy for what is not said as much as what is.

Stephen Gaghan's Syriana owes a heavy debt to the portmanteau style of Altman. It's a collection of stories that, through clever editing, outline how the corruption of the oil industry and American political aims are linked to the actions of suicide bombers. George Clooney plays a CIA agent sent on a mission to the Middle East. His story is juxtaposed with a fraternal quarrel over who will inherit in an oil-rich state and a federal investigation into corruption in a US oil corporation.

Three years ago, Britain's Michael Winterbottom won the Golden Bear for In This World, which detailed the efforts of two Afghan boys to enter Britain illegally. He may repeat the trick with his documentary made for Channel 4, The Road to Guantanamo. Mixing dramatic re-enactments with talking heads footage of the three Britons from Tipton in the West Midlands who landed up in Guantanamo Bay, the film's narrative structure is similar to Touching the Void.

Starting off with the decision of four friends to go to Pakistan for a wedding, The Road to Guantanamo details how three of the boys ended up in Afghanistan just as the US began its bombing campaign. In the confusion the boys were arrested and taken to Guantanamo Bay prison, via Kabul. The first-hand accounts are told in a matter-of-fact way that reinforces the injustice they encountered. (All three men have said they were abused while in custody.) Winterbottom says: "I made the film to remind people how bizarre it is that a place like Guantanomo Bay exists."

In a festival heavy with work that depicts real-life political questions from around the globe, it is not just the war on terror that is occupying minds. From Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jasmilla Zbanic's Grbavica recounts how a mother tries to avoid telling her 12-year-old daughter that she was conceived when a soldier raped her. The harrowing subject matter is delicately handled by Zbanic.

The Feast of the Goat looks at the ongoing impact of the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship on the Dominican Republic 30 years after it came to an end. It stars Isabella Rossellini as a New York-based lawyer who returns to her birthplace to confront her father about his relationship with the dictator. Rossellini also wrote and starred in the short film My Dad is 100 Years Old, directed by Guy Madden and made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her father Roberto Rossellini's birth. The actress has also written an accompanying book.

Also at the festival, with two films, is the French director Michel Gondry. Science of Sleep is a whimsical romance starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Bernal spends half the film in a dream state and the fantastical sequences utilise many of the techniques honed by the director in his music videos. The performance of Gainsbourg as a shy neighbour is pitch perfect.

Gondry is also presenting the documentary Dave Chapelle's Block Party, which is likely to go down well with fans of the acclaimed photographer. It has been a poor festival overall for documentary fans, and the most interesting efforts were the biographies. Best of the bunch has been Absolute Wilson, about the theatre director Robert Wilson.

The film that has divided audiences is the Swedish director Lucas Moodysson's The Container. Telling the story of a woman trapped in a man's body, it has a non-stop narrative voiced by Jena Malone. Both sound and image are repetitive and almost indecipherable, but Moodysson conjures up a beguiling vision of human frailty. En Soap, from Denmark, takes a more conventional approach to the story of a transsexual and uses the grim past of two emotionally messed-up neighbours to weave a purposefully melodramatic tale.

The 56th Berlin International Film Festival ends on Sunday (