On the 7th of Febuary (and with more than a hint of excitement) I boarded a flight from London Heathrow to Berlin’s Tegel airport, to attend the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) for the first time. The Berlinale was founded in West Germany in 1951 and is now one of the world’s most important film festivals. The festival hosts numerous world premiers, press conferences and a project market that allows filmmakers to pitch and ultimately fund their films.
The Berlinale also plays host to the Talent Campus, which offers 300 young film professionals the opportunity to develop their understanding of filmmaking from craft, to business, to publicity. As well as Campus categories for production crew the Berlinale also has a group for upcoming film journalists called Talent Press, run by Oliver Baumgarten and Aily Nash. I was selected as one of seven candidates from around the world along with Adrian (Indonesia), Ankur (India), Irena (Romania), Visnja (Croatia), Ariel (Canada) and Juan (Peru.) Meeting each candidate was intriguing, as it allowed us to share in our borderless love of cinema with all our similarities and differences. We were also gifted with the experienced mentors, Dana Linssen, Derek Malcolm, Stephanie Zacharek and Chris Fujiwara.
Each day (and under the tutelage of Dana Linssen) I was responsible for producing a text on a particular film, event or expert for the official Talent Press website (as well its partners FILPRSCI & the Goethe Institute). As such, my experience at the festival was not the conventional one of a Talent Campus participant, or a journalist covering the event. As a participant of the Talent Press I was lucky to see two sides of the festival: the films and the Campus events.
The festival features in a number of different categories: Competition, Berlinale Shorts, Panorama, Forum, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Berlinale Special, Retrospective, Homage, Culinary Cinema. Each one has a slightly different focal point, with the Competition focusing on films competing for the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear awards, Panorama dealing with more controversial themes and Forum dealing in experimental and documentary films.
Encouragingly the festival featured a number of films made by campus alumni, including the impressive competition film Harmony Lessons by Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, which won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in cinematography for DOP Aziz Zhambakiyev. Harmony Lessons was my personal favourite of the festival. It impressed me with its elliptical (almost Kitano-esque) take on the gangster genre. The film follows a young boy who is subject to frequent bullying at school and the cyclical problem of violence that arises from his situation. A Talent Press discussion following the film provoked a particularly rich debate on the film’s numerous thematic concerns (including nods to Darwin and Ghandi) and its strengths and weaknesses.
Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker was another favourite. It features a dramatic reconstruction of a Bosnian Roma family’s financial dilemma, when the mother of the family experiences a life threatening miscarriage. As I learned from producer Amra Baksic Camo in a talk entitled ‘Small Wallets, Great Films’, the film was made in a matter of months, with the real family acting as themselves. Tanovic makes excellent use of the family dynamic, making the film feel like an intimate family event. The DSLR cinematography by Erol Zubcevic captures the industrial marred Bosnian countryside with a raw cinematic sensibility.
Soderbergh’s Side Effects was an equally intriguing, albeit structurally chaotic, critique of the drugs industry. While somewhat haphazard in its final act, this film is a brilliantly effective thriller with a staunchly pessimistic outlook on the moral implications of stock trading in medical products. The film has a hyper-modern yet Hitchcockian glaze, within which Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones weave a timely tapestry of sordid deception. [Second Look: 09/03/2013 – On second viewing my negative feelings about Side Effects‘ structure are annulled, the structure is logical, efficient and dramatic; the film is hugely entertaining and a great success, I was the one in need of a second look.]
I also saw a number of films that did not work so well, though this is not to say that they were disinteresting. Polish director Małgośka Szumowska’s In The Name Of was a bizarre story of homosexuality and religion, in which (the otherwise excellent) Andrzej Chyra plays Adam, a Catholic priest who is torn between his faith and his attraction to a young man in his community. The film is overloaded with taboos including the treatment of the mentally handicapped and lacks focus; this also gives way to one bizarre scene where Adam drunkenly dances with a portrait of the pope.
Maladies, starring James Franco and directed by the visual artist Carter, was a great misstep. Dealing haphazardly with the subject of mental illness, the film see’s Franco behaving in a confused, erratic and oddly (and inappropriately) amusing manner, while performances by Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson and David Strathairn revolve inconsequently around him.
Other imperfect films of interest included the enjoyable (and darkly humorous) low budget Indonesian thriller Something In the Way about a deluded young religious man, who drives taxis and masturbates on a chronic basis. No Man’s Land by director Salomé Lamas was an intriguing yet ultimately impenetrable character study of homeless ex-mercenary Paulo who fought in Portuguese colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, before working as a contract killer. Wasteland: So That No One Becomes Aware of It was also a beautiful, but ultimately limited story about a group of Syrian and Lebanese children living in secluded asylum in Germany.
And yet some of the most interesting moments were not the films. At a dinner for British Talents Ken Loach offered his critique on the nationalistic branding (and therefore limiting) of British culture by advertising experts, for the Creativity Is Great Britain campaign. Loach described his unease with the use of the Union Jack (which he referred to as “the butchers apron”) and the unsubtle (and grammatically erroneous) campaign slogan. At dinner he discussed the pyramid of executives now pressuring film directors in the British film industry and I drew his attention to Soderbergh’s recent Vulture interview concerning the same issue in Hollywood, which he regretfully found unsurprising. On the final day we participants were also joined for breakfast by President of the 2013 International Jury, Wong Kar-wai.
Also published on the Talent Press website are my interviews with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Turkish Delight), as well as producer Paula Vaccaro and director Aaron Brookner, who are currently producing the film Smash The Control Machine. I also wrote about Walter Murch, who spoke about using sound in storytelling. The experience of the Berlinale Talent Campus was truly a rich one, full of interesting people, events and films (regardless of quality.) It was one of an open and accepting culture, where people from almost 100 countries could meet and engage in the art and craft of filmmaking. To any aspiring and upcoming film journalists, I endorse you to apply for the Talent Press; it was an exciting and formative experience that I will certainly cherish.