No Celluloid Escape

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Levitin

Documentaries reign at the Berlinale, where gritty, low-budget films reflect the grim global mood.

In "The Yes Men Fix The World," a man posing as an Exxon executive shows up at an oil conference in Calgary and unveils the company's breakthrough energy source: Vivoleum, a new biofuel product made of human bodies. He also dupes 300 million viewers when he poses as a Dow Chemical representative on TV, announcing that his company will clean up India's toxic Bhopal plant and compensate all of the victims. Before he's through, the eco-stuntman interviews scientists and families in New Orleans, where he dresses as a U.S. government spokesperson and promises--to a believing Mayor Ray Nagin, among others--to reopen public housing and force Exxon to pay $12 billion to restore the region's wetlands.

The film, showing this week at the Berlin International Film Festival (Feb. 5-15), is part journalism, part mockumentary, influenced in turn by Michael Moore, "Borat" and television newsmagazines like "20/20." Tackling the themes of climate change, corporate greed and wealth disparity--on a budget of just over $1 million--it shines with a raw wit and originality that have inspired e-mails from students who saw the premiere at Sundance and are eager to fix the world. "This is a moment when everyone is reconsidering what we've been doing for the last 35 years," says Mike Bonnano, who codirected the film with Andy Bichlbaum and Kurt Engfehr, the editor for Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." "If we use this as a learning moment and change the way we do business, we can actually prevent the end of the world as we know it."

In a year that already feels like the end of the world as some know it, the Berlin film festival is rife with films like "The Yes Men" that capture the most urgent issues of the day: the environment, social unrest, economic insecurity. Even for the Berlinale, which is known for embracing the political and the avant-garde, this year's lineup is exceptionally gritty and provocative. Some see the trend as a reaction to the widespread excesses of the film industry, and to the shakeout looming among competing studios. Independent films enjoyed booming art-house runs in the 1980s, but were co-opted by the big studios in the 1990s. Now, with production houses as well established as Universal and Focus feeling the squeeze, the doors may be opening for less experienced, more cost-conscious filmmakers, sparking a return to cinema's more daring roots. …