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More than Magic, By Tara Judah
One loose thread can easily unravel the whole. Before Satyajit Ray had the chance to demystify celebrity with a special screening of his film NAYAK (THE HERO, 1966) the magic of going to the movies was put on hold. With 35mm film prints becoming scarce, digital restoration is now a classic film's best chance at attracting a new audience. But digital cinema packages (DCPs) still come with technical hitches. Projection issues dispelled the magic of cinema, which seemed strangely in tune with the film's message about acting and cinema as all facade.
Bengali cinema icon Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) takes the train from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a film award. Interviewed en route by female journalist, Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), his stories reveal what the life of an actor is really like. Taking every opportunity to make a loveable fool of his leading man, Ray hones in on the silly details that make screen celebrities believe: "There's only one indispensable person on set: the actor."
Constantly checking his reflection, carefully combing his hair and even putting sunglasses on to answer the phone, Mukherjee buys into his own mythology. Strangely enough, as his interview with Aditi soon uncovers, his belief in himself is wavering and he willingly admits his acting career has been marked by cliché.
Based loosely on the biography of Uttam Kumar, Ray's satire is bittersweet. Knowing that every film could be his last and that a life of poverty lingers in the background, Mukherjee (and Kumar) makes the most of his celebrity status while he can.
The high-resolution restoration was stunning and Ray's masterful compositions leapt off the screen. But even though the film was worth the wait, the magic was also interrupted by the film's Academy aspect ratio (1:1.33). With the subtitles a little too far below the auditorium's sight line, we could only read half the dialogue.
Still, there was a playful correlation between the film and the experience that only made it all the more intriguing. As the journey was for Mukherjee, the screening of NAYAK in Berlinale Classic was an exercise in understanding that there's more to the movies than magic.
John Michael McDonagh, renowned director Martin McDonagh's (IN BRUGES) sibling, is in some ways not doing himself any favours by working within the same genre of black comedy in which his brother has established his distinct, sobering style. John McDonagh's second feature CALVARY runs in the Berlinale Panorama. The all too easily lovable tragicomedy set in an Irish village suffers from inevitable, but not unwarranted, comparisons to cult film IN BRUGES. The opening scene of a priest reacting rather light-heartedly to being threatened with arbitrary murder during confession establishes a tone of absurdity from the outset, declaring its intention a tad too eagerly and directly to successfully seduce.
Where IN BRUGES emanates effortless cool, CALVARY tries too hard to be cute. The former's understated absurdity is unsettling, whereas the latter's flips too abruptly from the stand-up comic to the intimately confessional to feel threatening. CALVARY is chockfull of stock caricatures and stars every single iconic Irish actor with nonchalantly floppy hair. Chris O'Dowd plays an inept tortured maniac; Dylan Moran plays his dream role, a filthy rich divorcee - the kind of stereotype Dylan Moran gets off on ridiculing in his own comedy sketches. Brendan Gleeson, star of IN BRUGES, gives a characteristically nuanced performance. His priest has, for the most part, both depth and a sense of humour - the only three-dimensional character in the film. Although the narrative arch charts the build-up to a threatened murder, this plot heaver turns out to be a footnote to what the film really follows: the priest making his rounds talking to the villagers, giving snapshots of individual character's trials and tribulations. CALVARY feels like a series of vignettes that would have made charming short films in themselves, but are too sketchy in a drama that sees itself as a grand fresco of village life in its forced attempt to join the floating dots. It's more of a mosaic; one that is a hotchpotch of knick-knacks from the cultural pawn shop.
In one of the dialogue quips casually littered throughout the film, an old alcoholic writer, who serves no purpose other than delivering sardonic platitudes, announces: "My whole life is an affectation." To which the weary priest replies: "That sounds like one of those lines that are suppose to be witty, but don't actually mean anything." What an apt, unwittingly self-referential comment on the film itself - a film that is begging to be called quirky.
John Trengove is a promising filmmaker from South Africa, mostly known as the director of a TV miniseries, HOPEVILLE, which won the Rose d'Or award for best drama, was nominated for an Emmy award and was turned into a feature film in 2010. This year he has quite a busy schedule at the Berlinale: He is a Talent, a participant in the Script Station program and in the Generation section with his latest short film, THE GOAT (IBHOKHWE, South Africa). The film was also screened at the Berlinale Talents event "Screening Shorts. A Compilation of Short Films", after which he sat down for a brief interview.
When asked how he feels about being recognized as a distinctive director so early in his career, he replied: "Different projects have gotten different kinds of acknowledgment. I did a TV series in South Africa that got a lot of critical acclaim and was a wonderful experience. It sort of became the thing I was most known for in my industry and has certainly opened up a lot of doors. But the work that we're doing now is a lot more personal and is much closer to a personal expression of mine as a filmmaker."
THE GOAT, an adaptation of a novel, "A Man Who Is Not A Man," by Thando Mgqolozana, tells the story of a South African teenager who recuperates in a mountain hut after a ritual circumcision, which symbolizes a boy's journey into manhood and the world of heterosexuality. But the boy's grandfather, who is supposed to lead to him into the new phase of life, doesn't come, leaving him alone with his pain. The film's theme reflects Trengove's interests: "I'm interested in human nature and the experience of outsiders. I feel like an outsider in my life - I've always identified with that position, so that's where it comes from."
When asked to describe his film style, Trengove replied, "I feel I'm always revolting against the thing that I did before, so it's hard for me to say. I suppose I'm more and more interested in a relationship with the audience; I ask the audience to fill in a lot of the gaps and do some of the interpretation." In terms of people he admires, he does have his "superstars of the moment": Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl and Carlos Reygadas are the directors who influence him the most.
His next project, is a feature film entitled, THE WOUND, developed at Script Station, probably won't represent a big stylistic turn. "It's a feature version of THE GOAT", he said. "It's set in the same world, and it deals with the same thematic concerns, but it's a stand-alone story of a gay relationship triangle that becomes dangerous in that context." Being an outsider sometimes involves taking risks.
No paper bags, provocative T-shirts or storming out of the room: when producer Louise Vesth sat down to discuss one of the most talked-about titles of the year, there was no controversy. Instead, at "NYMPHOMANIAC: How to Sell Uneasy Films" the participants of Berlinale Talents got to hear, from the producer's perspective, all about the ins and outs of selling a film.
Despite the title of the talk, it would seem that almost no movie would be easier to sell than NYMPHOMANIAC. Even those who haven't seen any of Lars von Trier's films, and aren't familiar with the name of the Great Provocateur, are likely to be intrigued by the film's explicit and extensive campaign, featuring the cast members making orgasmic faces. The person responsible for piquing our interest in the film these last couple of months is Vesth. She started out producing low-budget children's films. Then she ended up working with one of the most controversial directors on the planet. "When Lars told me that he was doing a porn movie that would be very, very long, I knew that would not be easy to sell", Vesth said. "It was a question of how long the trailers are going to be on YouTube until they notice us, and it meant hours of adjusting the soft version to the standard of soft versions in different countries."
She decided to adjust the marketing strategy to the film's content and make it more aggressive than that of MELANCHOLIA, whose campaign plan was to say nothing, reveal nothing and release only a single poster just a week before Cannes. This time the hype started a year before the official premiere. "It takes a long time to build up expectations", she said. "So we agreed maybe not to reveal many things but rather spread them over time." The teasing began with minimalist posters featuring giant parentheses. Then came the picture of the whole cast in sexual poses, and finally, individual shots of ecstatic faces in close-ups, which, reportedly, caused several road accidents in Denmark. In the meantime, the press got to see short clips of the movie, chapter appetizers, before the main course of the final release.
Even though, as von Trier has said, the movie is 95% philosophical and 5% porn, the campaign was focused on the sexual part. "It is essential to find a hook in the script that will be as appealing as it can be", Vesth advised the young producers gathered in the room: "You don't have to worry that the campaign will not be fully true to the content – your job is to make it more interesting than the film itself. The best compliment you can get is a remark concerning the film heard after the screening: 'It was not what I expected.'"
"If you need distribution in place before you have the courage to make a movie then it's not a movie worth making. There are many other ways to make money than making movies. If you need to make money, please find some other way to do it. You make movies to lose your money. That is the purpose of making a movie, to put your life into something not get something out of it." (John Cassavetes)
To meet Ritesh Batra is to get into a peaceful laid-back mood. I must confess, I was trying to be controversial with my interview, trying to get the filmmaker to talk about the many compromises filmmakers make after becoming successful. This, of course, followed the panel "Help! I made a successful film" at HAU1, where Ritesh, together with Antony Chen and Jan-OIe Gerster, talked about life after their first successful projects. They covered a range of subjects from the most intimate and personal (the relationship with their loved ones), to the political (censorship, cultural policies, etc.). All of them, in their own way, seemed to be aware of the fact that making a first successful film carried some particular consequences in their life.
"It's not like I'm Steven Spielberg all of the sudden", says a confident Batra. "I've been blessed with this wonderful film and now I'm surrounded with a nice group of people that I enjoy working with, and that have helped me so much." Suddenly, the atmosphere relaxed a lot, even when we began to talk about the really controversial issues: his film, supposedly an obvious pick for the Academy Awards, was rejected by the Indian academy, stirring a long controversy. "We made a lot of noise. I was angry, my producers were angry, not only because the film wasn't selected, but because what was selected, a horrible film that actually used footage from an American film. So if that's what the government wants, maybe they deserve to have that. But it's a long fight we have to win."
I dropped the Cassavetes quote somewhere in the interview, and Ritesh answered humbly: "I completely agree. I spent three years of my life investing my time and money. I didn't have to make this film, and I've been so lucky to have this kind of reception. I think, yes, that you put much of your life into your art." It was a sincere answer from a man that seems to have kept his essence intact after so much success. "I'm afraid, of course, of what's going to happen now, how could I not be? But I will just stick to writing and reviewing projects in the next months, as soon as all this is over." He added, "I'm afraid, but I'm not about to run around naked through the streets because of anxiety. Whatever happens will happen".
And with that, the Zen journey through Batra's mind came to an end. A pleasant experience with a humble man.
THE THIRD SIDE OF THE RIVER, a film by Argentinian filmmaker Celina Murga, is a coming-of-age tale exploring the universal father-son relationship. A teenager hates his father, but he still finds himself following in his footsteps. And in the rural Argentinian town where he lives, everyone knows everyone else, only making things more difficult for the young protagonist.
Produced by Martin Scorsese, the film, featured in the Berlinale Competition, was shot in Murga's native province of Entre Rios – north of Buenos Aires. The film's seemingly peaceful small-town scenery contrasts sharply with the grim face of 17-year-old Nicolas (Alian Devatac). He seems bored, angry, and sometimes even murderous. Everyone in town knows the secret that he struggles with. They all know, but pretend they don't: Nicolas' father, a respected doctor, Jorge (Daniel Veronese), has two families – Nicolas, his siblings and their mother – are not Jorge's socially recognized family. Jorge rarely visits them, and when he does, it's usually just to have sex with Nicolas' mother.
Nicolas loves his siblings and mother deeply. Jorge wants him to follow in his career footsteps, and Nicolas can only obey. But rejecting Jorge would also mean hurting his mother, who doesn't want to lose Jorge in spite of the fact that he mistreats her. What do you do when your own desire conflicts with those of the ones you love? It's hard not to feel for Nicolas and his emotional turmoil. Yet what's more interesting in the film – more so than the father-son narrative – is its study of adolescence and privacy. Nicolas rarely speaks, yet the world knows his secrets, making him feel even more isolated. THE THIRD SIDE OF THE RIVER captures the essence of human loneliness, which touches us all.
Christina Newland reviews Yannis Economides' STRATOS, the noir-tinged Greek tale of a hitman living through the economic pinch. The film had its premiere in the Competition section at Berlinale this year.
STRATOS (TO MIKOS PSARI, Greece) is a steadily uncoiling noir drama with all the trappings of a genre film. As is often the case, this belies its intent, where a socioeconomic depth is revealed beyond the conventions of the plot. The story involves a middle-aged hired killer, Stratos, who does the occasional hit for a wad of cash and the rest of the time rolls filo dough in a factory, hairnet and all. Speaking to his jailed, long-time boss, he claims to have "lost his nerve" for killing. Naturally, this cannot be the case for long. After a series of provocations from various unsavory elements, Stratos reluctantly takes up his gun, shifting from chilly hired killer to quasi-vigilante.
With a wide-angle lens, Economides casts his eye toward the arid, craggy landscape of Northern Greece, the looming blue mountains, lonely roads, and graffiti-strewn housing projects where Stratos lives. Without any overt allusions to the economic crisis, the film evokes a stillness and the sense of community in collapse. Partitions – usually windows – are a frequent visual motif, either half-obscuring the figures onscreen or shielding them from the exterior world. They become a pointed visual stand-in for the solitude of our protagonist, an ascetic man reminiscent of those in Jean-Pierre Melville's universe.
The ominousness of the environment is reflected in continual close-ups of lead actor Vangelis Mourikis, who, with his hooded eyes and sallow complexion, has a strikingly mournful face. The actor has an almost Bressonian impenetrability, but for the odd flicker of contempt or apprehension. Stratos has the kind of presence that drives others to restlessness. His friends, associates and bosses don't know how to respond to his silence; they repeat themselves, talk in circles, even become increasingly irate. He looks on quietly at a world where loyalties exist on shifting sands, and corruption is endemic.
The old bromide "desperate times..." has an entirely darker facet here, with Stratos' neighbors Makis and Vicky willing to sacrifice any modicum of dignity to pay off their debts. "The big fish eat the little fish", someone snarls at one point. This vicious cycle of exploitation plays out accordingly. Those who are exploited follow the example of those who exploit them, sliding into moral inertia. STRATOS suggests a wide-reaching indictment of Greek society, holding everyone to account for a messy state of affairs. Stratos, too, is culpable, and he, like the others, must find either redemption or reckoning.
This year, a fair part of Berlinale's Forum Expanded section, devoted to innovative works of cinema and beyond, is dedicated to space, in the widest sense of the word. "What do we know when we know where something is?", is the question that gives the programme its title. Some possible answers are presented at an exhibition housed in the St. Agnes church in Kreuzberg.
Azin Felzabadi's installation "Chronicles from Majnun until Layla" presents an imaginary museum of Iranian history based on a school textbook, revealing the totalitarian tendency to present history as something solid and steady, like a building. In Jakrawal Nilthamrong's two-screen installation HANGMAN, son of Thailand's last executioner participates in a re-enactment of an execution, which for him, is a way to find out his late father's spiritual whereabouts. The same artist's 35mm work, INTRANSIT, inspired by Thai sci-fi movies of the 1960s, confronts the virtual character of new technologies that cannot be defined by space.
Among other works that deal with technological change is Robert Fenz's TEA, a film that documents art collector Erika Hoffman-Koenige making and drinking tea in her dining room, is projected in a loop. The ritualised repetition of her actions and her confined domestic environment evokes Chantal Akerman's classic film JEANNE DIELMAN (1975), but the sophisticated, enormous and noisy apparatus looping the film is part of the installation in its own right. Ken Jacobs, on the other hand, makes use of a new technology – his work, A PRIMER IN SKY SOCIALISM is a 3D video. A montage of impressionistic images shot on the Brooklyn Bridge seen through stereoscopic glasses on a gallery wall prompts a reflection on our perception of depth that was so important to painters of the Renaissance. André Bazin's remark that perspective was "the original sin of Western painting", substituting aesthetics with psychological need for realism, remains unchallenged in this work.
Canadian filmmaker, Denis Côté, winner of last year's Berlinale Alfred Bauer prize for VIC AND FLO SAW A BEAR, grabs the nearest chair, and, wearing an unusual combination of cowboy gear and sleek glasses, says: "Let's do this."
Are you happy with being labelled as an art house director?
What about JOY OF MAN'S DESIRING, your film at the Berlinale this year? Surely, that has a strong socio-political context in its depiction of monotonous, de-humanising factory work?
What is a Denis Côté planet?