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Much Ado about Everything: Berlin’s 58th International Film Festival

by Vera von Kreutzbruck

This year’s 58th International Film Festival in Berlin is offering a heterogeneous mix of topics and genres with many documentaries, a lot of pathos, a few lost souls, war and violence, politics as usual, and last but not least, some comedy.

Every year in February, Berlin becomes the world capital of cinema for eleven days during the International Film Festival known as the Berlinale. The long grey winter in these latitudes at this time of the year is quickly forgotten by movie-lovers as they get the unique chance to watch films that will probably never be released in commercial theatres. And for Hollywood fans, it’s an opportunity to glimpse the stars who otherwise would never come to Germany. Among this year’s visiting celebrities are the Rolling Stones, Martin Scorsese, Isabella Rossellini, Madonna, Penélope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.

The Berlinale is ranked third in the list of European A-list festivals, after the Cannes and Venice film festivals; it shows high quality movies and showcases a balanced mix of topics and genres. And this year was no exception: 21 very different movies competed for the coveted Golden Bear prize, including: Paul Thomas Anderson’s oilman epic There Will Be Blood, Cherry Blossoms by German Zen Buddhist director Doris Dörrie about dealing with death, the US documentary Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris on the abuses committed at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib’s prison, Mike Leigh’s British comedy Happy-Go-Lucky, Brazil’s Elite Squad on urban violence (Golden Bear winner for Best Film), France’s Julia by Erick Zonca about an alcoholic woman, and Italy’s Quiet Chaos, about a recent widower, played by Nanni Moretti.

The German festival prides itself on having a politically engaged program and on supporting independent filmmakers – although at times this support tends to be a little too unconditional. Bad movies are allowed to enter the competition, as it was the case this year again with such mediocre entries as: Heart of Fire (Luigi Falorni), Restless (Amos Kollek), Black Ice (Petri Kotwica) and Gardens of the Night (Damian Harris).

Over the years, the film program has grown a lot, with many new sections; a total of 400 films were screened this year. The program is divided into six categories: Competition, Panorama, International Forum of New Cinema, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino (German Cinema Perspective) and Retrospective.

In the Competition category, major international films are shown. These are films made for the big screen that have what it takes to attract a broad audience. Panorama emphasizes independent and art-house cinema, this year’s absolute gem was Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.

Generation presents lively cinema aimed at younger audiences. Australia’s captivating family drama The Black Balloon by Elissa Down won the Crystal Bear for Best Feature Film in this category. The Perspektive Deutsches Kino introduces international audiences to the latest thematic and stylistic trends in the German film industry. Drifter by Sebastian Heidinger, a sordid documentary on three young lost souls working at Berlin’s Zoo station was the highlight of this category.

The International Forum of New Cinema is considered the Berlinale’s most experimental section. It offers a sharper focus on experimental formats and “distant” film-producing countries. The Forum showcases highly original, often provocative and disturbing cinema. This year’s discovery was Japanese director Kumasaka Izuru who won the First Feature Award for his moving film Asyl – Park and Love Hotel. Finally, the Retrospective section presents film classics; this year it’s dedicated to the fantastic Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

But let’s face it, the Berlinale does not exist solely for the sake of supporting art-house and politically-laden pictures. Most of all it’s a platform to buy and sell films, because without distribution the films would not be seen. Running parallel to the festival, the European Film Market (EFM) is where business transactions take place. For nine adrenaline-driven days, producers, distributors, buyers and sales agents do their best to buy or sell before their competitor does.

While the fest itself is where the “brains” or movies are served to the critics, the EFM is where the “blood” is handled – which will eventually determine if the flick survives or dies-out after the festival (as The WIP’s Jessica Mosby also pointed out in her coverage of this year’s Sundance film Festival).

When Paul Thomas Anderson, who later won the Silver Bear for Best Director of There Will Be Blood, the epic tale of an out of control oilman played by Daniel Day Lewis, was pointedly asked, “How were you able to make a film like this with Disney?” he answered, “I suppose they thought it was going to make money. It’s the only reason why Disney would do anything, I think, but I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. They’ve been terrific to us, actually.” When this sort of frankness comes out in the question and answer exchanges, journalists thrill at hearing the ring of truth rather than a public relations sound bite.

No less than the Rolling Stones opened this year’s festival with the concert movie Shine A Light, directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s a tribute to the British band whose music “inspired” the Taxi Driver filmmaker “constantly throughout the years,” as he pointed out at the press conference on February 7th.

This was my second year covering the Berlinale and I loved every second of it. It was an exhilarating, stressful and surreal experience, all at the same time. From day one onwards you’re in for a non-stop rollercoaster ride of emotions caused by the overdose of films and press conferences and the lack of proper sleep and decent food. It’s like entering a dream-like world.

It’s not humanly possible to watch all of the 21 films in competition nor to attend all of the press conferences that follow each screening. Even if you devise a carefully planned schedule, every journalist knows they will not be able to stick to it. There’s always something else that will come between you and your plans.

A normal day at the festival starts with a screening at 9 a.m. and then the press conference follows. Then another film at noon with another conference, and around 4 p.m., yet another movie and conference. After that the writing starts until midnight, at least. Then the next day it’s the same story again. If you’re lucky, you can also conduct 20-minute interviews with directors between screenings.

In such situations you can get insights you would not otherwise discover. A Japanese film, Asyl – Park and Love Hotel, won the Best First Feature Award. Its director, Kumasaka Izuru, collected a prize of 50,000 Euros ($74,152.13 USD) for it. Producer Keiko Araki offered an interesting perspective on filmmaking in Asia. Mrs. Araki is the director of the Pia Film Festival, established in Japan in 1977, whose mission is to discover and support new talents in filmmaking. It offers the winners a scholarship covering a two year course in filmmaking and opportunities to promote their film through screenings and distribution arrangements.

Speaking about Asyl, she commented, “It’s very difficult to find the money to do films in Japan and we have to do the distribution by ourselves, too. Our film’s purpose is not to make money.”

She also founded the PFF Theater event in Tokyo, which takes place six times a year and introduces Japanese independent films to the international scene. “What we want to do is introduce talented filmmakers through our festival. In Japan there are around three thousand people shooting movies everyday with no money, like Kumasaka Izuru.”

Then she charmed the audience when she admitted, “It’s hard to find the cinemas to distribute, and to find the audience. We are really tired, so nowadays we are thinking of stopping — but maybe this prize is asking us to continue!”

It was one of many satisfying, really human moments.

– All photos courtesy of the 58th Berlin International Film Festival.

About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.

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