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Berlinale Wrap-Up 2013: Competition Films

copyright Alexander Janetzko, used with permission from the Berlinale press office.

The Needle is back after my winter break, and in time to catch the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, which finished up last weekend.

This week I will offer a few thoughts on a selection of the Competition films and next week I’ll tackle the Forum films.

The Audience’s Festival

I came to appreciate, this year, much more how the Berlin festival distinguishes itself from others: as an audience festival, where members of the public actually can attend a premiere, unlike Cannes for example where getting a ticket is next to impossible and you won’t be let into the theatre if you’re not dressed to the nines. I suppose I am all rosy about the Berlinale mostly because I liked what I was seeing this year. It’s a shame to think, though, that so many films are simply shown on the festival circuit and never make it to mainstream distribution because they tackle hard or obscure topics. Since the festival, I’ve seen some of the offerings in the cineplexes––like the shapeless The Master or slick market items like Argo–– and in comparison to the bonhomie of a Georgian living room with a group of girls singing around a piano (see In Bloom, in my next post) or the sublime indifference of the Kazakh steppe (see Harmony Lessons, below), I am left a little bored and feel spoiled by Berlin’s most important annual arts festival.

If you’d like some tips on how to make the most out of the festival with an accreditation, scroll to the very end of this post.

Competition Films

As it happens, I only had time to see a selection of films, and the one’s I didn’t see won the prizes. This isn’t a reason to stop reading this post! I’m actually delighted, and you should be too, that I did not get to see many of the winners: Child’s Pose which won the Golden Bear for best film, or An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker or Gloria, which captured the acting titles. These films will almost certainly make their way into wider distribution and so I have something to look forward to. Most of the films I saw (apart from Before Midnight or Promised Land) might not be seen outside the festivals, and so are worth looking out for on video.

W Imie

I started off the festival with a topical Polish film, Malgoska Szumowska’s W Imie (In the name of…). A priest arrives in a small community where he overseas troubled youth. He is troubled himself and can only barely suppress his homosexuality, running off his pent-up desires and drinking too much vodka to forget. There’s a marvelous drunken waltz with a portrait of the Pope and at times I’m happily reminded  of early Polanski (Knife in the Water), where the wildness of the Polish landscape (in this case forests, instead of waterways) beckons the characters to cast off their cultural/religious restraints. Pay attention at the very end, because there’s a saucy suggestion about the nature of the priesthood. This film has a couple of quirks that will annoy audiences: first, it’s not clear who the suicide victim is. I have asked a number of people who have seen the film about this, and they also feel it’s difficult to identify the victim, and that this is a flaw in the plot. As well, there’s a very strange Indie music video meets Catholic religious procession towards the end of the film. Maybe it was a vision. I hope so;  it doesn’t belong in the film. Szumowska was a hoot in the Q&A saying that she’s really glad to have shown the film in Berlin, because certain films are easier to premiere ‘outside your own country’. She continued that, after a very warm reception in Berlin (and the Teddy prize), the next place the film needs to show is its home, Poland.

Harmony Lessons

There’s plenty of nasty social pressure in the Kazakh film Harmony Lessons, the best film I saw in the Competition section, which won the Silver Bear for camera work. The violence of young men, future gangsters or mafiosi or policemen, was a running theme in the festival, in other films like In Bloom or The Act of Killing (see next week’s post). Here, the frank brutality of school-age young men, bullying their peers for money and ganging up on the vulnerable, connects brilliantly to the political brutality of the State. It’s a powerful continuity: interrogation scenes from a Kazakh prison are formally paired with how kids are beaten up in the schoolyard. The film’s motor is one student’s desire for revenge, a desire which motivates the viewer’s suspense,  and implicates him or her in something worse than what even the State can concoct. The camera work is indeed amazing: a wide landscape that should suggest possibility, but which instead impress on one a sense of loneliness and indifference, like the bare hallways of the rural school.

W Imie and Harmony Lessons were the two best films I saw.

Before Midnight

I also saw Before Midnight, the latest Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke installment of their more-than-a-decade-long affair which started delightfully in Before Sunrise. The couple are in Greece and have two children, and they are battling to keep their love alive. There are impressively long scenes of dialogue made with a single shot, such as a tour-de-force in the car at the film’s beginning, with the two children sleeping in the back seat. You cannot help but admire the protagonists’ wit, careful gestures and chemistry. The problem is that one is never in doubt that they will resolve their banal problems. There’s plenty of funny dialogue, but what is essentially a trivial marital spate feigns to be a real crisis. Nothing that few glasses of retsina on the Aegean shores won’t fix.

Layla Fourie

The stakes are higher in the South African film Layla Fourie, the story of a single young mother who accidentally runs over a man on a country road, while her young son looks on from the back seat. Improbably she gets implicated in the lives of the dead man’s family after she disposes of the body. There’s plenty of moral questioning about whether she should tell the truth (in particular because she administers lie detector tests for a living!), and whether she should sleep with the dead man’s son. This might all ring a little melodramatic, but the acting of the female lead Rayna Campbell is sensitive and remarkable, elevating a film that grimly faces the improbable consequences of an accident to a higher level.

Promised Land

Gus van Sant’s new film Promised Land stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in a funny double-act. The acting is clever, with plenty of good two-liners tossed between the leads,  so good that I am now finally convinced that Matt Damon can act. Or is it just Frances McDormand sharing her wryly deadpan magic? But while the politics in this film about fracking are something I can sign up to, I didn’t like being preached to. There’s a clever twist at the end of the film… but it’s simply that, a twist, without providing any new insights on the tactics of big energy companies or how small-town American farmers respond to them. What irked me most about the film was the portrait of an ever-sunny small-town America, the cliché of the friendly communitarian diner and the entrepreneurial girl with freckles making lemonade outside the high-school basketball match. This American pastoral of weathered faces, artfully dirtied overalls and red barns, is a propagandist’s concoction prepped to show people what they stand to lose if natural gas companies contaminate their fields. A more nuanced vision of rural life might have helped the audience take the message a little more seriously.

Paradise Hope

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s final installment of his ‘Paradise Trilogy’, Paradise Hope, is a nasty, mean film. What’s in the water in Austria? Is Seidl drinking from the same well as Thomas Bernhard or Michael Haneke (with the latter’s grim portrait of Protestant Germany and Funny Games)? Seidl’s first film, Paradise Love, was one of the best films I saw last year, the story of female Austrian sex tourists in Kenya. The mechanics of exploitation––lonely Western women meeting cash-strapped Kenya men in Mombasa––fleshes out, so to speak, some uncomfortable questions about European racism, neo-Colonialism, and desire. It’s uncompromising and at the same time sensitively shows how understandable the motives of both parties (client and gigolo) can be. It also has a compelling political dimension. In Paradise Hope, Seidl focuses in on obese teenagers at a diet camp in rural Austria. Here, there is no politics, except for laughing at fat Austrian provincials, and in particular their defenseless children. 13-year old kids are the object of the camera’s gaze, as it scans their rolls of fat as they do calorie-burning exercises. There’s a nasty voyeuristic scene when two girls escape to a night club in the village, tarted up, and are intoxicated by the local men, one attempting rape in the club while his friend records the event on his smart phone presumably for youtube. There is the feeling that the only thing that these girls have done wrong is to be fat, and the camera will record this sin mercilessly, without compassion. It’s all filmed beautifully, of course, much better than a smart phone could manage, with careful choreography of obese bodies in what looks like a stunning mid-century modern building.

So DO look for W Imie and Harmony Lessons, hopefully in theatres and if not on video, and read The Needle again next week, to find out more about the Forum Section films, which were in fact much better than what I saw in Competition…

Doing the Festival Right With An Accreditation

Last year, I just didn’t do the festival correctly (you can read about my experiences here), and I saw a lot of lousy films.

With an accreditation in hand this year, and more time invested in researching what’s good, I saw seventeen films, and only one or two of them was a real stinker. I learned a few lessons. If you have an accreditation, then don’t wait in line in the accreditation reception area to get tickets for films in advance. Even those accredited at the festival wait early in the morning to find out that these tickets are all gone. Simply show up instead at whatever film you’d like to see a half-hour in advance. There are almost always a few seats available for those waiting. I got into every film I wanted this way, although perhaps I was just lucky.  Large venues, such as the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, where many of the Competition films show, are good places just to show up. Venues like the Friedrichstadt Palast and the Berlinale Palast generally don’t let those with accreditation enter without tickets, so don’t waste your time. You can also simply hang out at the Delphi Film Palace, of course, where those with accreditation don’t require tickets at all. Remember that accreditations are not valid on the final Sunday of the festival, the Kinotag. I saved a lot of films for this last day, and found out I couldn’t get in.