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Soaring Past the Truth, By Tara Judah
Indulging in that taut space between biography and imagined history can easily seem ridiculous. But it doesn't seem to matter when it's as obviously tongue-in-cheek and enjoyably rambunctious as Dominik Graf's Berlinale Competition film Beloved Sisters.
Establishing its timeline through dates that fly unapologetically into frame, breaking any sense of historical authenticity, Graf's intention to play with the truth is so bombastically in your face that its near three-hour running time never lags. Though it is punctuated by recorded events, including the storming of the Bastille and advances in the printing press, Graf isn't interested in telling a story confined by facts or generic tradition.
Imagining what was written in Caroline von Wolzogen's (Hannah Herzsprung) deliberately destroyed letters — hoping to exclude something from the biography of her brother-in-law, Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) — Graf leaves no melodramatic stone unturned. Everything is so far over the top that even the metaphorical becomes literal, when our kindly narrator tells us "Now she hears the music of tragedy", Graf cues the music of tragedy. Symbolism that has become exhaustingly clichéd is given a new lease of life as Graf's droll self-awareness permeates each of the pointless establishing shots; letting the score match the image of a soaring bird or linger a little too long on the wind in the trees just before someone rustles up trouble.
Corny moments and soap opera elements aside, what makes Beloved Sisters such a joy to watch is its playful insistence on the uncertainty of historical documentation. Triangulating Caroline and Friedrich's torrid love affair is Charlotte (Henriette Confurius). The three express themselves through a series of coded letters, which makes getting at the “truth“ of their relationships near impossible.
If overtly veiled images and deliberately performed character interaction weren't enough, Graf excuses himself with a passing quip from Schiller's lips, "Literature can cope with inconsistencies." The film may be unreservedly histrionic, and only occasionally historically accurate, but it is never boring.
What happens when a 10-year-old-boy is forced to hit the road, when all he wants to do is go home? Edward Berger's family drama in Berlinale Competition, Jack, tells the story of one such boy, Jack (Ivo Pietzckler), who acts as a surrogate parent to his younger brother, Manuel (Georg Arms), due to the frequent absence of their mother (Luise Heyer), which leads social services to place him in a children's facility. After a serious conflict with a fellow ward, he flees to his home but discovers the door closed. Soon he finds his brother but not their mother, and they begin searching for her all over the city, experiencing the worst few days of their lives.
Jack is shot with a hand-held camera, which follows the boy as he rambles across different spaces, often racing with time. The camera's movement accentuates the inner restlessness of the child, who struggles with responsibilities a boy his age shouldn't have to worry about — for example, fixing meals for his brother, or accidentally burning him in a hot bath. The film reflects the view of the protagonist by placing him close to the camera or occasionally surrounding him with the urban landscape, which highlights his feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
The film is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers' The Kid With A Bike (Le gamin au vélo, 2011). In both films, the characters survive hardships only to find that there are no happy endings in real life. Also, both children are emotionally tied to an object. The Dardennes' Cyrill has his bike; Jack and his roommate from the children's home have a pair of binoculars, which they use to watch a bird's nest up in a tree. It's a strong metaphor for their desire for the family security that is out of their reach.
Although it's slower-paced in the second half, Jack is solidly directed, with impressive performances by Pietzcker and Arms — it's easy to sympathize with them. But their mother is less convincing as a character. She's depicted as an irresponsible person who nevertheless enjoys the presence of her children, albeit in a childish way; the film doesn't really explain her motivation for leaving them. Jack is well crafted, but it's more like a TV drama than an unforgettable Berlinale Competition film.
Icarus. A man flying towards the sun, turning into a soaring eagle, comes into view in the opening images of The Last Hijacking (Berlinale Panorama). Though perhaps this metaphor is too revealing of the course of the story, it conveys a certain power that will be missed in the rest of the film. The creature snatches a giant cargo ship with its claws, a bird of prey in action: it's an overbearing image filled with purpose and energy. Suddenly, animation gives way and documentary takes over as the film tells the story of Mohamed and Muse, two Somalian men who turn to piracy: one experienced, the other a newcomer.
Intertwining genres can be interesting, especially when the line is blurred between documentary and fiction. In The Last Hijacking, not only does animation come into play in some segments of the film (mostly in a metaphorical way), but there are also dramatized scenes that offer an interesting take on this Somalian survival tale. It's all cinema in the end, one might say, but here genres overlap with each other in a disorderly fashion, fight one another, and diminish one another's power.
The filmmakers have the obvious questions in mind: how did these two men end up with such dangerous lives? What has driven them and so many people in their country, to do such things? In a more straightforward presentation, the answers might have been fascinating (in all their difficulty, complexity and brutality), but here, the answers get obscured in a massive hodgepodge of ideas and styles.
Some of the best films in recent history have added fiction to documentary to good effect. The recent Mille Soleils by Mati Diop also deals with issues of identity in a marginalized country. Jonas Trueba's Los Ilusos is a perfect example of the fantastic results that can come when the line between documentary and fiction blurs. Sadly, the attempt of directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting to delve into their subject in The Last Hijacking derails exactly because of this blurring. Attempting to achieve an integrated view of the piracy problem in Somalia, Pallotta and Wolting instead offer a confusing and frustrating overflow of information. Maybe, like Icarus, these two filmmakers were flying too close to the sun, trying to make the ultimate merged-genre film.
Often when the sun is setting in a Western, we can expect to see the good guys riding horses toward the horizon. In the Berlinale Competition film Two Men In Town there are plenty of setting suns, but the good guy, William (Forest Whitaker), instead of riding a horse, is first seen kneeling on the ground smashing in someone's head with a rock. So it's a bit uncertain that the good guy is a good guy.
In Rachid Bouchareb's movie, nothing is as it seems, and well-established cinema tropes get mercilessly debunked. A housewife singing and polishing something on her porch looks innocent, until we see that what she's polishing is a gun. The sheriff (Harvey Keitel) turns out to be more morally ambiguous than we might expect from his white hat. After eighteen years in prison, William rides his motorcycle with the wind in his face and nothing but the Texas highway and horizon before him. We see him smile, and disturbingly, in another context, this same smile returns to his face yet we read it as sinister.
What William finds over the course of the film is that with limitless freedom there comes limitless loneliness. It's a condition shared by all the characters — as if loneliness inevitably comes along with citizenship in the small town where the film is set. Each of these characters is so fully developed that, depending on which you choose to focus your interpretation on, the film tells a different story. The main plot asks whether a simple life is achievable after imprisonment. But the film can also be read as a critique of American patriotism, through the portrayals of the sheriff (at the barbecue he hosts for a soldier just back from Afghanistan, the guests recite the Pledge of Allegiance) and William's criminal brother (Luis Guzmán), who smuggles pregnant women from Mexico to help them achieve the American Dream.
Normally an abundance of issues rarely serves a film well. Here, however, the issues are skillfully blended into the story, making it engaging and pleasurable rather than dissipating one's interest. In the unconfined spaces of Two Men In Town, there is room for many characters and interpretations.
Like thunder before lightning, we hear before we see and we see before our eyes focus. The opening shot: the sound of an oncoming train, a fuzzy image of a hill, into which a boy on a bike sharply emerges. In Lee Song Hee-il's second feature Night Flight, an anatomically subtle study of the fraught relationship between two schoolboys weaving their way through the incarcerating Korean school system, the camera does virtuoso storytelling work, gently drawing the spectator into its world. Characters glide into still frames, blurred images slowly focus; an entire silent dialogue is conveyed through the shifting foregrounding from one boy to another. The film places great emphasis on looking: emotionally charged stolen fleeting looks, I-challenge-you stares, exchanges of unspoken and unspeakable understanding. We see the world not through the characters' eyes, but in their very eyes. The actors' gripping performances aptly use the human face as a canvas for portraying depth and ambiguity of feeling. But this is as much a testimony to the cinematography, which eschews more conventional static close-ups in favour of agile 360° degree portraits. The camera dances around the human face, taking in atmospheric background landscapes in the periphery of its gestures. Much of the film takes place outside of the space of the main city: under train bridges, in scrapyards, in fields. The foregrounding technique used throughout establishes a marked distance between the two protagonists and the city (and by extension society) they are victims of.
Night Flight, running in Berlinale Forum, is epic in scope, looking at cultural homophobia and the detrimental effects of a highly competitive, pressured education system through the prism of internal emotional drama. It has the linear ebbing rise and fall narrative rhythm of a classical tragedy. This dynamic is literalised in the form of the boys racing up and down the city's hilly terrain – away from bullies and towards loved ones. Although the film invites a contemplative viewing experience, the dominant current pulsing through Hee-il's neon-lit Seoul is urgency and brute force: the kind of urgency of feeling that is particular to adolescence; the unprecedented force of displaced emotion that comes out in an outburst of uninhibited, undistinguishing physical aggression. The title Night Flight refers, none too subtly, to an abandoned gay bar at the top of a Seoul skyrise, where the protagonist escapes to from the unaccepting, stone-cold face of society. But Night Flight is anything but a flight and the film's initial fantasy of running away is replaced with the possibility of escaping in someone else's arms. Like its ending, the film itself is an act of defiance in a society where there is great social pressure to stay in the closet.
No one has memories of the time before our lives. Yet our stories start before we were born, as our parents' stories — how they met and who they were — become our own. Helma Sanders-Brahms' 1980 film Germany, Pale Mother, which is being screened in this year's Berlinale Classics session, offers a fictional biography of her mother — a German woman who raised her during and after World War II — and shows what makes her mother's life inseparable from her own. In the film, we meet Lene (Eva Mattes), a stand-in for Sanders-Brahms' mother in real life, who falls in love with a man, Hans, and marries him in 1939. One of the reasons she falls for him is because he is not a member of the Nazi party. Shortly after their wedding, however, the war breaks out and Hans gets conscripted. Lene gets to see him only briefly on his short leaves, and soon after, their daughter, Anna — essentially, Sanders-Brahms' stand-in — is born. After her house is destroyed during a bombing raid, Lene, without Hans, escapes to the countryside with Anna.
Lene's almost-lifeless face, paralyzed, without teeth and full of horror, is also partly Anna's creation, as much as it is of Hans and the war. Lene's face, one of the film's most striking images, is a result of the hardship of providing for her daughter, alone, during the war. Lene gave birth to Anna during an air raid, and she was raped by soldiers while escaping with her daughter in winter. Although Anna, in voice-over, says she is “not guilty for what happened before she was born”, it seems Sanders-Brahms feels both victimized and responsible for what Lene's paralyzed face symbolizes: the disintegration of hope and lost opportunities for happiness suffered by her mother's generation.
Acclaimed French director Michel Gondry's latest project may seem like a minor one, yet it is a significant primer on cultural and linguistic theory. His "animated conversation", Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? (Berlinale Panorama), is the genesis of a series of filmed interviews with esteemed linguist, scientist, and political activist Noam Chomsky. What appear to be the antithetical qualities of the two men make for strangely fertile intellectual territory; Gondry's dreamy, self-deprecating sensibility chafes against Chomsky's deeply rational perspective. Gondry illustrates the conversation with hand-drawn, child-like animations, as the philosopher expounds on topics ranging across cognitive science, the birth of language and the tribalism of society. Rudimentary drawings are juxtaposed against faded photographs, offering up madcap conceptual diagrams that waver between crudely-drawn and insightful. It may be knowingly facile, but such simplicity offers both counterpoint and explanatory companion to Chomsky's academic rigor.
Gondry takes the role of fumbling narrator, interjecting often with confessional thoughts and digressions — self-indulgence is rife. Yet he manages to bring a light touch and novel approach to the conversation, creating a satisfyingly jarring dynamic. The language barrier (with a prominent linguist, none the less) provides a few laughs, with Gondry struggling to pronounce "endowment" and Chomsky, holding forth on science fiction, going blank and needing to be prompted on the word "teleportation". It must be said that the film's great success is in having Chomsky as its subject. He is perennially fascinating, and sometimes dauntingly inscrutable. Gondry attempts to mine into his formative years; growing up Jewish in America during the Second World War, his child-rearing practices; even inquiring about what "makes him happy". It seems clear Chomsky's not used to fielding such personal questions. He is tentative, particularly when asked about happiness. He chooses to share what he finds "gratifying" instead — a tellingly solemn response. The film's lively, visual sense serves to demonstrate Chomsky's intellectual argument, but also reveals the personal shaping of one of the world's foremost thinkers. The result is a playful, impressionistic display of two divergent minds at work.
The Berlinale Talents programme, bringing young filmmakers into the spotlight since 2003, has launched a new initiative this year. In addition to the Talent Project Market where emerging producers and directors have an opportunity to learn about the business, a stand under the name "Berlinale Talents Market Hub" was opened at the European Film Market (EFM). Being one of the major meeting points for industry professionals, EFM is a perfect place to network for anyone involved in film production. Surrounded by influential studios' and national industries' stands, the Talents Hub blazes with bright magenta in the centre of EFM's main hall. Selected projects of this year's Talents, as well as those of alumni, are in the focus.
On the first day of this year's EFM, Ana Hernández, a Talent producer from Mexico, is getting herself familiar with the environment, using the Hub as a starting point of her journey. "I have a project in development", she says. "So far I am just seeing what's happening." As a new part of the Market — visible from everywhere (which also helps) — the Hub draws attention from business pros getting acquainted with the Berlinale Talents concept. The most commonly heard question is: "What's Berlinale Talents?"
"We have three main objectives here", says Brigid O'Shea, the representative of the Talents Market Hub. "First, it is the place where Talents meet industry professionals. Second, we present selected projects from our Project Labs and the Editing Studio. And we also aim to promote the Talents initiative as such." The project embraces different genres and formats, from a Belgian romcom (Souvenir) to a short adaptation of Dante's “Divine Comedy” from Kazakhstan (Poppies).
Director/screenwriter Ludmila Curi from Brazil is leaving some promo material on the counter — she is looking for a producer and editor for her two documentary film projects. One of these is connected with Soviet history, so she's considering a Russian co-production. As that country's national, I direct Ludmila to the Russian corner of EFM. After all, it is all about networking.