Aid workers, immigrants search for home at Berlin film fest

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Two fish-out-of-water movies about immigration, culture shock, alienation and integration premiered Saturday at the Berlin film festival as the race for the Golden Bear top prize entered its second day.

German-French-Dutch production "Sleeping Sickness" and "Almanya" from Germany look at people living outside their comfort zones, by economic necessity or in search of new horizons in a far-off place.

"Sleeping Sickness" by German director Ulrich Koehler tells the story of Ebbo and Vera, two European aid workers who have spent most of their lives in Africa.

When the couple end up in Cameroon, Vera feels disconnected from the expatriate community and suffers from the separation with their 14-year-old daughter Helen, at boarding school back in Germany.

Ebbo agrees to sacrifice his life in Africa for his family's sake but the prospect of returning to a land that is no longer home fills him with dread.

When a French doctor of Congolese origin goes to Yaounde years later to check up on the development project, he finds Ebbo as a Mr Kurtz-like broken man, just as he struggles with his own identity.

Koehler, who lived as a child with his parents in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, observes how aid workers lose their idealism to cynicism while, paradoxically, they become deeply attached to life in Africa.

"I'm not a neo-liberal, I don't think the market can fix everything," said Koehler, as he fielded questions in French, English and German.

"But I think there is a certain naivite in the discourse (about aid) in the West, for example when you look at Bono or Bob Geldof who have raised a lot of money (for Africa) ... without really solving any problems. But I don't have the answers."

His characters become ground down in the face of pervasive poverty, disease, corruption and despair but also seduced by their unique position in African society.

"I don't think that my protagonists lack human feelings, it's just a difficult and complex situation where you will never be a normal part of society," he said.

"At the same time, you get used to a certain social status and autonomy which you will never have when you're working in Germany."

Later Saturday, 37-year-old Yasemin Samdereli, one of several young female directors at this year's festival and of Turkish extraction, will unveil "Almanya", a comedy about Germany's "guest worker" programme with Turkey which started 50 years ago.

"Almanya", the word Germany in Turkish, covers nearly the entire length of that time, showcasing the lives of guest worker number one-million-and-one, Huseyin Yilmaz, and his family who feel as though they live between two worlds.

But when Yilmaz decides it is time for the clan to move back to Turkey, each member has to decide where their loyalties lie.

The film comes amid an anguished debate in Germany about the integration of "foreigners," many of whom have spent their entire lives in the country, touched off by a divisive best-selling book by a central banker.

The author, Thilo Sarrazin, argued that Germany's Muslim minority -- 2.5 million of them of Turkish origin -- was making the country "more stupid."

"Sleeping Sickness" is among 16 contenders for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded by jury president Isabella Rossellini on February 19.

"Almanya" is screening out of competition.

© 2011 AFP

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