It can be a fine line between goodbye and good riddance. Carlo Chatrian might have breathed a sigh of relief when his tenure as Berlinale’s creative director came to an end this February, yet wherever the festival goes from here, his reign will be warmly remembered. Not least for Encounters, the sidebar he instituted, which fast became a home and launching pad for films too daring or challenging for the competition proper. This year’s edition opened with a film that felt like a legacy pick: in 2022, Ruth Beckermann’s MUTZENBACHER became the first documentary to win the top prize, and Beckermann returned this year with Favoriten, a work that itself seemed to echo and engage with another gem of the Chatrian reign, Mr. Bachman and His Class, a film about a multi-cultural classroom in a German high school. Beckermann’s film moves that concept to the most diverse neighborhood in Vienna, finding warmth and joy in the many lives she encounters.

No sub-genre requests more minutes of our time than the institution documentary, and to no other sub-genre are we as willing to give them. Bachman clocked in at 217 minutes, Claire Simon’s Our Body (another gem of the Chatrian era, though oddly appearing in Forum in 2023) required 168. If Frederick Wiseman gave us a week-long exploration of the district housing commissions of middle Missouri, we would remain happily in our seats. Relative to all that and the apparent difficulties faced by the teachers and students, Favoriten plays at a surprising skip. This is something that the director signposts in the opening credits, wherein colorful drawings from students are edited at a playful rhythm and with a jaunty tune.

Situated South of the Danube, the Favoriten district of Vienna is best known for its Prater amusement park (cinematically notable for a romantic moment in Before Sunrise and a menacing one in The Third Man) but is also home to the city’s largest Turkish and Balkan communities. At one point the students visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral. When a priest asks who among them is Christian, not a single hand is raised. Beckermann’s film is alive to this cultural dichotomy and does well to explicate the challenges faced without resorting to preachiness or solemnity. Favoriten takes place in the largest primary school in the city, focusing on the classroom of Ilkay Idiskut, a charismatic and formidable presence in both Beckermann’s lens and her 25 students’ lives.

Favoriten plays out over three years (2nd to 4th grade, around ages 7-10), each taking up a tidy 40 minutes or so of the running time. This allows ample time to get to know the students, to watch them grow from spelling exercises to preparing for their first meaningful academic assessment, but also to watch the growth of their rapport with Idiskut, even Beckermann herself. (Unlike most of her peers, the director isn’t shy about including herself in proceedings.) The more extroverted kids take more of the screen time, of course, but plenty is spent with the less camera-savvy. Beckermann’s choice to film from their eye level brings us closer to their vantage still.

Most of all, the director maintains a lightness of tone without shying from the realities of the school’s limitations or the difficulties faced. When a student, newly arriving in Vienna, joins the class, Favoriten is honest about the practical problems this introduces: namely that the child’s lack of German is going to hold back the rest of the class. (This, in turn, will affect their chances of progressing in a school system that tests kids at an early age to determine whether they will go on to university or take on a trade.) Regardless, this film is something to be enjoyed, and Beckermann quickly becomes as enamored with her subjects as they are with her. At one point she chooses to include the children in the filmmaking process, asking them to capture moments from their own world outside school. Beckermann then edits these in to make Favoriten a true collaboration, fully delivering on all the promise of those vibrant opening frames.

Favoriten screened at Visions du Réel.

Grade: B+

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