Surrounded by the Scharmützel Lake, the scenic Bad Saarow municipality in the German state of Brandenburg plays host to the International Film Without Borders Festival every September.
While the external setting is picturesque and peaceful, the film selection itself this year is a contrast.
From August 31 to September 3, films will be screened showing unfiltered life and the struggle for happiness and dignity. Yet most of the films share something important in common: a sense of confidence.
This is also the motto of this year’s film festival: “The term ‘confidence’ suggests that we humans can partake in shaping our world.” Even though the films in the festival’s program are not always easy to watch, since they portray difficult situations around the world, they “also show that people remain confident,” explains festival founder and director Susanne Suermondt. “Showing confidence also means having an inner attitude towards something. Hoping, praying, fearing is passive and we wanted to emphasize the space for participation,” she added.
As the late German film director Wolfgang Kohlhaase once said, “Films can’t change the world, but they can make it more visible,” pointed out Suermondt.
Together with her festival partners Tanya Berndsen and Yvonne Borrmann, Suermondt has made the festival a major player in the German festival landscape, with national and international guests gathering here annually at the start of September.
In the documentary film “The Neighborhood Storyteller,” Mexican director Alejandra Alcala portrays the life of protagonist Asmaa in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
Asmaa has a mission: to teach young Syrian girls to read, to open the world through books. With understanding, respect and stoic patience, she tries to convince the girls’ fathers in the refugee camp to let their daughters attend her reading circle. And she succeeds.
The girls gather regularly in Asmaa’s temporary home, where they immerse themselves in other worlds. They talk about their childhood, the loss of home and family. Many of the children are traumatized, unable to look to the future. It is Asmaa who wants to empower the girls and give them some confidence in their dreary daily life in the refugee camp.
“In times like these, confidence is something we all must strive for. And that’s what Asmaa taught me,” said Alejandra Alcala, the documentary’s director. “Sometimes I feel so powerless, helpless, like I can’t change anything — but then she showed me that even small actions can make a difference and change things in our community. That’s what I learned from Asmaa, and I hope people who watch this film get that impression, too.”
Social norms as an obstacle to happiness
The selection of films in Bad Saarow is diverse and international. The Pakistani film “Joyland,” by director Saim Sadiq, provides insights into a strongly traditional, patriarchal society that stifles any urge for self-development and freedom.
Haider, a young man, lives with his wife and his brother’s entire family in a very confined space. After a long period of unemployment, he finds a job as a dancer in the show of a trans-woman called Biba. Haider develops feelings for Biba — and is torn between social conventions and individual freedom.
While the film has been celebrated by critics and fans worldwide, it has caused controversy in its home country. The Pakistani government initially banned the screening, though it lifted the ban later. However the filmmakers were still not allowed to show the film in many parts of the country, including the Punjab province.
Focus on children
Several films deal with children who have been deprived of the most natural thing in the world — childhood.
In “A House Made of Splinters,” director Simon Lereng Wilmont accompanies Kolya and other children who are taken care of by social workers in a special orphanage in eastern Ukraine, in Lysychansk in the north of the Luhansk oblast.
Their everyday life is marked by poverty and the war that Russia has been waging in the region since 2014.
The filming ends before Russia’s major offensive on Ukraine in 2022. In the meantime, this place of refuge no longer exists: The children had to be evacuated under a hail of bombs, leaving their home and family once again.
The film “Overtaken by Life” tells of the puzzling resignation syndrome that puts children in a coma-like state. The phenomenon was observed in refugee children in Sweden in the 2000s. This condition can last for months or even years.
The film follows three refugee families whose children are afflicted with the syndrome. The children have stopped eating, walking and talking and take refuge in sleep. The insecurities and traumas that these children have already suffered in their early lives are some of the causes of this syndrome.
The film shows the suffering of their parents who, having lost their home, have now lost contact with their children. But some children return “back” from this condition — so there is hope, if only the world was more hospitable towards children.
Despite the gravity and thoughtfulness of the films, many carry a positive and hopeful message, inspiring not only reflection but also confidence in viewers.
From August 31 to September 3, the 11th Bad Saarow International Film Festival will take place at Scharmützelsee.
This article was originally written in German.