On Cuvrystr. in Kreuzberg there is a famous street art mural of a man chained to his own wealth, a gold watch that binds his hands together. This is an image that sometimes comes to mind when thinking about artistic creation, and the choices artists don’t make because of market concerns, their hands tied. But I shouldn’t complain about the Berlinale too much, where commercialism is comparatively lightly felt. The mural might better be the banner of the Oscars.
Last week, I weighed in on the competition films I saw in this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Most of them, of course, are vying for market success. And it is striking that so many of the best films of the festival were, to my mind, in the International Forum of New Cinema section, or Forum for short. The section started in the 60’s as a response to the Berlinale, which was perceived as too commercial. But like many protest movements, the Forum was soon (in 1970) assimilated into the mainstream festival. It continues, however, to have a non-competitive spirit (which means that it does not award a prize for the best film––this is left up to independent juries). And it continues to produce many great films that sadly never make it into mainstream cinemas.
Let’s take a look at four of this year’s films from this section, most of which won jury prizes. A couple really deserve the extra effort to go see at the festivals or to obtain on video if they never make it to theatres:
A remarkable Georgian film directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß (who are partly based in Germany) set in Tbilisi in 1992, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of civil war. The experiences of two young women are the focus of the narrative, which follows too their families whose experiences, in microcosm, reflect those of a society in dysfunction. There is panic in the bread line, a knifing in the park, a bride abducted by thugs. Violence spreads to all aspects of life. Every interaction is fraught with aggression. In the midst of it, the girls crowd with their friends around an old piano singing and smoking and making do, continuing the lives of young people despite the chaos (all done with majestic and sweeping cinematographic style!). The collective breakdown also offers, strangely, opportunities: in particular for one of the (remarkable) female leads to reassess her relationship with her father. In the Q&A, I asked the directors whether the film was arguing that there is something particularly violent about the Georgian character. I’m more than a little allergic to essentialising generalisations about national character. One director did reply she considered the Georgians a ‘culture of warriors’. One of the audience members, a Georgian, piped up saying that the film successfully captures the incredibly explosive atmosphere of 1992; so I don’t think one needs to take this film on as a statement about ‘Georgian character’ but rather appreciate it as a profoundly moving depiction of a moment in time. Regardless, this was certainly one of the best films of the festival and won the independent jury prize of the International Confederation of Art Cinemas (CICAE).
The 727 Days without Karamo
There were a number of other excellent films in the Forum section, including a portrait of bi-national couples battling for immigration rights in Austria. Anja Salomonowitz’s film is stylised with the colour yellow linking together the various life stories––a colour which appears in the clothing of the protagonists, in their apartments, the mailboxes they cycle past, and even as the dress code for a (real) wedding in the film. I’m not sure why yellow, as opposed to orange or purple, is the colour of choice (and I wasn’t convinced by the director’s answer to this one in the Q&A), but it certainly doesn’t matter that much. It provides a useful visual sense of continuity for the injustice that so many Austrian people face if their partners are of a different race and from a different country. Some of the anecdotes of racist treatment by the Austrian police are particularly awful, and it is heartbreaking to see the effect these separations have on children. The film is also done with good humour: a binational gay couple explaining their troubles in the gym while doing subtly erotic exercises, a couple embracing over a bowl of soup and marking a sweater with a perfect ring, a class of Chinese students reciting ridiculous German language texts. The film steers clear of discussing explicitly an important issue, however. Almost all the subjects interviewed were suffering separation from their loved ones because they do not earn enough money in order to sponsor their spouses to live in Austria. The unspoken message is that only the rich in Austria can afford to have foreign spouses. An Austrian government minister was sitting in the audience. I hope s/he was listening.
Krugovi / Circles
Srdan Golubovic’s film from Serbia is about how an act of violence in Bosnia at the beginning of the war in that former Yugoslav republic affects all those involved in the decades that follow. It follows the protagonists from Trebinje, Bosnia, to Halle, Germany. The Bosnian-Muslim who escaped the attack shelters the girlfriend of the man who died protecting him. She in turn is pursued by an emigré Balkan thug who is intent on getting their child back. Meanwhile, back in Bosnia the father of the killed man has trouble accepting the son of one of the attackers. And in Serbia the victim’s doctor friend has to choose whether to operate on the chief perpetrator who has wound up in his hospital. This pageant of human choices is all a little too neat for my taste: a tight humanist (but also quasi-religious) vision of causes and effects in interconnected relationships. The main investigation is into whether a good act can create more good in the world, and the answer is a resounding yes (confirmed in Q&A by the authors who continually returned to this vague category of the ‘human’). The vision, to my mind at least, is a fiction of causality. And not even all the characters in the film form that perfect a circle. The thug husband in Halle, for example, is not in any way related to the events in Trebinje, except that he is vaguely from that region. The film ends, predictably, with uplifting redemption. And while the peaceful revisionism of recent history is hardly dangerous, you can ask people back in Bosnia whether they think that’s the lesson they’ve learned from these tragic wars. Then again, I understand the directors are simply sifting through the wreckage for something to feel good about, and recognise that this film is based on a true story (substantially rewritten for the film––I’d be interested to know whether the real events are so uplifting). The film has some wonderful acting, although one audience member was right to ask about the conspicuous absence of strong female characters. Nonetheless, this film is worth seeing for its powerful leads, the striking location shots (I particularly liked the formally similar housing projects in Trebinje and Halle), chilling views of the stark Bosnian landscape, and a terrifyingly tense scene of an old man trying to carry a dying young man down a hillside to safety. Krugovi won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for best film in the Forum section.
Roots (Senzo ni naru)
Kaoru Ikeya’s film from Japan tells the story of an old woodcutter in a tsunami-devastated region of Japan who decides to rebuild his house. He lost his son to the flood in March 2011 and refuses to leave the place of his ancestors. The handheld camera work seems at first casual, but there is an emerging consistent and elegant rhythm to it, as it casually pans between the destroyed household items––such as his bed raised above the waterline on beer crates––and the visage of this ‘stubborn old man’ . Naoshi’s not only stubborn but remarkably agile for a man of 79 years, climbing trees, clearing debris and agitating for people to return to a village that risks abandonment. There is a remarkable scene at the end of the film where the camera slowly peeks around the corner from room to room of his newly built house. The film moves very slowly, sometimes it is like watching paint dry, but the pace sets us up to feel the reward at the end from a simple scene of domestic life restored. Senzo ni naru was not easy watching: the subject matter is quiet but devastating, and, again, the pace is slow. The focus on one man also makes it difficult to put his experiences into a wider context. Some broader perspective came out in the Q&A when someone asked the question: why do you glorify a man returning to a place that risks being destroyed again by a tsunami? Don’t you portray stupidity as a victory? The director (aided by an amazing translator) replied: these people have had their houses destroyed by nature through the generations because they live by an unpredictable sea, it is in the culture to build and rebuild. The film is an excellent corrective for our assumptions of what makes a stable home. Roots won a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury.