Indirect Action:
No Other Land, Dahomey, and Direct Action at Berlinale 2024
By Nicolas Rapold

When Palestinian and Israeli directors Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham received an award for No Other Land at the closing ceremony of the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival, Abraham called for a ceasefire in his acceptance speech, and Adra called for Germany to stop sending weapons to Israel, opening by saying “it is very difficult for me to celebrate when tens of thousands of my people in Gaza are being slaughtered by Israel right now.” The responses to these courageous speeches were maddening: a festival statement lamenting “one-sided statements” on stage, and Culture Minister Claudia Roth issuing a communiqué clarifying that she had been clapping only for Abraham, not for his Palestinian co-director. This was only a portion of a longer chain of widely reported and analyzed events and statements, which extended past the close of the festival to a well-meaning but much-lambasted post from the outgoing artistic director and head of programming. To an extent, just a month later the controversy largely feels overshadowed by another fearless acceptance speech, Jonathan Glazer’s at the Academy Awards, condemning the Israeli occupation and the massacre of innocents.

Indeed, the particular focus of No Other Land, filmed over half a decade, is Israel’s forced removal of Palestinians from the West Bank. Its Palestinian-Israeli collective of four directors—Adra, Abraham, Hamdan Ballal, and Rachel Szor—won both the juried award for Best Documentary and an audience award for their film about villagers in Masafer Yatta surviving the Israeli military’s concerted onslaught of demolitions, displacement, and deadly violence. Unfolding mostly in the perpetual present tense of crisis and recovery, it follows Adra in his role as activist and brave cameraman-witness, filming aggression by Israeli soldiers and civilians, and often forced to run full-tilt or hide to escape detainment or death. One villager who later died, Harun Abu Aram, is shown paralyzed by an Israeli bullet and, even as his family is pushed to live inside a cave, and as houses and schools and even a pigeon coop are demolished, he embodies a tragic rebuke to the invasion.

Threaded throughout No Other Land are scenes conveying the warm friendship between Abraham and Adra, who is initially skeptical of whether his companion’s exposés will have much effect; their chats, filmed by Szor, are oases of communion and symbolic potential in a rocky, increasingly insecure landscape. But even sequences figured as Adra’s memories—older video shot of his father, also an activist, and of a fleeting visit to their village by Tony Blair—only testify to the sense of never-ending struggle. The October 7 attacks by Hamas effectively cut short the film’s timeline: the Israeli army and gun-toting civilians then step up their attacks on Palestinians, forcing an unprecedented number of villagers to flee outright. It’s a film at once disturbing to the conscience and hopeful in its very existence, and even inspiring in Adra and Abraham’s continued unity in the face of remorseless oppressors.

With or without No Other Land—and by any reasonable measure it was an essential film of the festival—the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza loomed over the Berlinale. Some filmmakers pulled their films; a petition called for a ceasefire and decried the suppression of free speech in Germany. Even before the opening night curtain rose, the festival was on notice for inviting far-right parliamentary representatives to the opening ceremony, who were finally ejected after staff dissent. And later, when an official IG account was hacked to satirize festival and government positions on Israel and Palestine, the Berlinale inflamed outrage by announcing the filing of criminal charges. The festival plainly has its work cut out for it in repairing wounds, on top of a year in turmoil in leadership when its artistic director was not invited to continue by the German culture ministry (who some say want a glitzier, normier fest), despite a petition in his support from nearly 500 filmmakers including Martin Scorsese.

It’d be a shame, however, if essential works like No Other Land were overlooked, since the 2024 lineup featured several exemplars of resistance and reckoning. Documentary was very nearly dominant this year, up to and including the second nonfiction Golden Bear winner in a row (after Nicolas Philibert’s win last year for On the Adamant, which receives its U.S. release on March 29), for Dahomey, Mati Diop’s meditation on the repatriation of ritual artifacts to Benin decades after their 19th-century theft by French colonizers. Diop’s wise, long-awaited follow-up to Atlantics doesn’t waste a shot or a cut as it traces the journey of 26 artifacts and their official reception in 2021, first secured and accounted for at the presidential palace, then displayed, absorbed, and debated over by the public. Much as Atlantics exerts an entrancing hold scene to scene, so too does Diop make manifest the gravitas of the sometimes weathered wooden and metal statues and paraphernalia with a steady camera and hushed soundscape. She orients the film’s subjectivity around the artifacts themselves by taking the point of view of a statue of Gezo, King of Dahomey: he’s given a basso-electronic voiceover, commenting upon his journey and state of being, and before shipping, the entire screen goes black as we are effectively nailed into the packaging box with him. Dahomey turns especially electric when the artifacts are finally exhibited, as Diop’s camera captures the play of gazes and nuances of mood among adults, teenagers, children encountering and reuniting with these avatars of their heritage (wonder, love, apprehension). Diop refuses to pretend at some sudden stability or contentment with these objects: it’s still only a fraction of what was stolen, and in a forum (organized by Diop), students debate the politics of the return to a society with other pressing needs and not all sound willing simply to forgive and forget. Even King Gezo expresses a certain lonely sadness (“Night again...” he muses on off hours), as if caught between the past and the present, physically home but never able to return to the home of his memory.

There was more audacious nonfiction: Une famille was the shattering feature directorial debut of Christine Angot, the eminent French author who has written extensively about being raped by her father and here confronts family members. Jin Jiang’s entirely interior Republic depicts a young man’s idealistic withdrawal from Chinese society to a single cluttered room which becomes a strange oasis visited by a series of friends. Fiction features, too, seemed to feature a fair share of personal revolutions, from festival opener Small Things Like These, in which Cillian Murphy plays a coal deliveryman who grapples with how to save a girl from abusive nuns at one of the Magdalene Laundries (not in some premodern era but in 1985), to La Cocina, Alonzo Ruizpalacios’s explosive, operatic adaptation of Arnold Weskler’s 1957 play, here set in a Times Square restaurant kitchen with mostly immigrant workers, to the clashes among personal ethics, professional aspirations, and romantic jealousies in Who by Fire, Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Lesage’s misterioso-tinged drama of friends and family gathered on a remote island.

But maybe another film that spoke to the urgency of the moment was the well-deserved winner in the Encounters section, Direct Action. Ben Russell and co-director Guillaume Cailleau have made one of the most precise uses of durational, process-oriented documentary that I’ve seen in a while. Direct Action immerses us in the rhythms of an eco-activist group in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France, a rural collective that has used occupation tactics dubbed ZAD (Zone to Defend) in order to thwart the development of an undesired reservoir. It’s aggressively the opposite of the sort of wiki-documentary that might introduce you to a pop or political phenomenon: in lieu of a potted history about the group, the film begins by showing Russell and an activist flipping through folders of videos of past protests on a computer. It’s an established organization, but watching the run-up to this specific direct action feels like watching a popular movement assembling and coming to life before your eyes.

The canny visual and ideological strategy is to show several sequences of deeply material processes: smashing a wall that covers the span of the screen, mixing and kneading dough, plowing a field, moving a multi-ton tower frame by hand through group effort. These aren’t glamorous pursuits—though the wall demolition is pretty cool—but they instill a bodily sense of progress and patience in the viewer (along with a certain pre-industrial sense of self-reliance). There’s plenty else in the film—including a woman reading from an anti-interrogation manual, and a children’s birthday party—but it’s not till the final hour that we see the protest group in action. Because we have been conditioned by the earlier sequences, the lengthy shot of crowds of activists and fellow travelers helping each other one by one over a ditch toward the field of protest felt genuinely inspiring. The scenes of the direct action itself, filmed in long shot, resemble nothing so much as a battlefield because of the explosions and smoke from police stun grenades, but we feel the protest as something concrete and real, not a historical event or a series of slogans captured for our curiosity. As grim and relentless as the world’s injustices could feel, and the maddening political inertia when it comes to doing the right thing, films like Direct Action and No Other Land demonstrate not only the hope for but possible models for radical change.