Festival review: The 60th Berlin Film Festival (11-21 February 2010)
By Steven Yates
(18/03/2010) - In its milestone 60th year, the 2010 Berlin film festival was an expected success with a record number of ticket sales in what was an interesting but sometimes indifferent program. The frenzy centered on Potsdamer Platz and its immediate environs has become a permanent fixture of every cold February in Berlin due to the media coverage and film market focus that the Berlinale has generated, particularly in recent years. Also a familiar sight are the red carpet and barriers keeping back the excited crowds on Marlene Dietrich Platz leading to the Theater Am Potsdamer Platz, annually renamed the Berlinale Palast for the festival with its red Berlin Bear logo adorning the glass frontage of the theater. With British stars Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams present for the screening of Roman Polanski's British-set political thriller The Ghost Writer, following the opening night premiere of Chinese director Wang Quan'an's romantic drama Tuan Yuan (Apart Together), both in competition, it underlines how the Golden Bear prize attracts the best of world cinema and the most renowned names.
British films were not over-represented at this year's festival but the ones that were still created conspicuous responses. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy, the mysterious and notorious British street artist famous for black-and-white images of kissing policemen and rioters throwing flowers, managed to turn the tables in a film where he was originally the main subject. The film began as a project by Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant shopkeeper in Los Angeles who documents events on film for personal storage. Guetta took an interest in the emerging street artists in L.A., including his cousin Invader's plastered Space Invader mosaics, and Shepard Fairey. By fate, Banksy had come to L.A. and a meeting was arranged through a contact. The previously reluctant Banksy trusted Guetta to film him at work as long as he filmed him in shadow and from behind. Banksy also encouraged Guetta to edit his hours of footage into a documentary but was horrified by what he saw and so, for the rest of the film, decided to become the director himself and challenged Guetta to become an artist. However, he hadn't counted on what Guetta had in mind, nor the grand scale of his vision. As an artist known as much for his publicity stunts as much as locations for his works such as post-hurricane New Orleans, the notorious wall of the Palestinian West Bank, and a blow-up figure of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner smuggled into a Disneyland ride, this is the closest so far the public have got to seeing Banksy (albeit in disguise) and the people around him. Like his work, he comes across as politically motivated but dry, ironic, humorous and, most of all, serious about art. The enigma of Banksy is still pretty much intact though and Exit Through The Gift Shop is certainly a thought-provoking and humorous look at the art world.
Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll, the biopic of singer Ian Dury's life, was already on release in the UK before the Berlinale but it still gave audiences here the chance to see the talented singer-songwriter, sometime actor and all-round British institution. The portrayal by actor Andy Serkis was so convincing that, at times, I forgot it wasn't Dury himself and you didn't need to know the man or his music to enjoy director Mat Whitecross's account. Much of the film is as much an insight into Dury's life before, during and after his period of fame in the late 1970's, first with Kilburn and the High Roads and more famously with the Blockheads, and often the private man is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me looked promising, given that it was based on a novel by crime writer Jim Thompson who had worked as a screenwriter for Stanley Kubrick, amongst others. Narrating the story in first person, Casey Affleck plays a young and seemingly regular deputy sheriff of a small Texan town who, as the film unfolds, reveals a sadist, psychotic and murderous side which, in all good noirs, leads down a trajectory to hell. Though The Killer Inside Me has an interesting cast including Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Kate Hudson and Bill Pullman, one of the film's discrepancies was that, like the novel, it was set in 1952 but many of the characters, particularly Casey Affleck, often have an attitude and use language from a much more contemporary era, making the film slide into occasional pastiche. Ultimately, this watchable but pulp neo-noir is something the Coen Brothers would have probably done more justice to and Winterbottom, commendable as he is for attempting many film genres, is a little way off target here.
There were some very well-made documentaries in presentation this year, not least the sold-out world premiere of Beautiful Darling: The Life And Times Of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar directed by James Rasin. The film presented a revised account of the life of the transgendered actor (born James Lawrence Slattery) before, during and after her fame in New York's revolutionary Off-off-Broadway theater scene, Andy Warhol's legendary Factory, and her death from cancer in 1974, aged just 29. The film was based on the documents kept by Darling's close friend Jermiah Newton, including audio recordings he made after her death and interviews with other people who were close to her, archive footage and more recent interviews with friends and associates. Chloe Sevigny features as the voice of Candy, reading extracts from her private diaries and letters from childhood to her death. The film works well as a revisionist account of a very unusual person but also of a time and place, in this case New York's Long Island and Manhattan between the 1950's and 70's, where personal memories and recollections are juxtaposed, gradually revealing more clues to this enigmatic character's inner person. .
The American indie The Kids Are All Right (screened out of the main competition), with some well known names (Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo), was an original slant on family relationships and turmoils, but also showed that the same jealousies and insecurities are omnipresent regardless. A female lesbian couple with two teenage sperm donor children find their lives turned upside down when the childrens 'father' contacts them. Director Lisa Cholodenko has so far in her career managed to make films that look at slightly unusual aspects of American life while passing no moral judgement on them. She has also found favour with the independent critics, particularly at Sundance and now Berlin where it has just won the 2010 Teddy Award for best feature film at the Berlinale that recognises films with gay, lesbian or transgendered subjects.
The main competition screening of Kak ya provel etim letom (How I Ended This Summer)was in total contrast to the other competition films. Russian director Alexei Popogrebsky's film is set on a remote island in the Arctic Circle where Sergei is an experienced meterologist at a research base that has been open since 1935 but is no longer significant. In fact, only because of his dedication has the state deemed worthy of keeping the station open. Sergei's only contact with the outside world is his radio which he uses to convey the meterological readings to the state. However, this summer he also has Pavel, a graduate intern, for company. The film gradually portrays how the remoteness and isolation has an effect on people. The tension is built up initially by the way the stubborn Sergei has disregard for the younger and somewhat carefree Pavel. When Sergei goes fishing for a day, Pavel receives some very bad news on the radio and doesn't know how to break this to Sergei and decides to keep the information from him on his return, thus creating further tension and suspense. The time spent on producing the film paid dividends as How I Ended This Summer picked up the Silver Bear for best actor, shared between Grigory Dobrygin (Pavel) and Sergei Puskepalis (Sergei). The film's cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov also received a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution. He was not present at the Berlinale so Jury President Werner Herzog accepted the award on his behalf and paid tribute to his work, including his documentaries.
This year's Golden Bear for best film was awarded to Bal (Honey) by Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu. This Turkish-German co-production was the third part of his reverse-order trilogy and has become only the second Turkish film to win the Golden Bear in Berlin since Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer) in 1964, and it also won the Ecumenical Jury's prize for best film in the competition. At the 1,600 packed awards ceremony in the Berlinale Palast, the main jury president Werner Herzog thanked festival director Dieter Kosslick for "his wonderful selection" which helped make the jury's decisions easier on choosing the winner quickly. Kosslick himself was heartened by record audience attendances for this year's Berlinale saying "it was the kind of birthday celebration we had wanted from the outset," before paying numerous tributes to people involved in the festival.
Roman Polanski's was honoured for his well publicised (not least after the director's arrest in Switzerland) film The Ghost Writer, the main jury awarding the veteran director the Silver Bear for best direction. Polanski had first won the Golden Bear more than 40 years ago in 1966 for Cul-de-Sac. Paying homage to the host country, the film's producer Robert Benmussa (who picked up the award for Polanski) thanked the German crew, Studio Babelsberg and the German film funds all of which "without whom the film would not have been made."
As well as the two awards for How I Ended This Summer, another Eastern European country was to claim double prizes. Romania has particularly come to the forefront of world cinema in the last 10 years, winning prizes at many of the main film festivals with its new wave of directors receiving critical acclaim. This success continued at the Berlinale with director Florian Serban's film Eu când vreau sa fluier, fluier (If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle)winning both the Grand Prix of the Jury and also the Alfred Bauer Prize recognising new perspectives in the art of film.
Asian cinema was highly regarded this year, not just for the 60th Berlinale opening festival film, the Chinese Tuan Yuan (Apart Together), and closing film Otouto (About Her Brother) from Japan. The International Jury awarded director Wang Quan'an the Best Screenplay Silver Bear for Apart Together, making it the second time in four years the director has won in Berlin after Golden Bear award in 2007 for Tuya's Wedding. Also, Japan's Shinoba Terajima received the Best Actress Silver Bear for her performance in Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar. Another Japanese film, Parade, by Isao Yukisada, was awarded one of the three FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) prizes for its inclusion in the Panorama competition. Parade is a film about four twenty-somethings (Naoki, Mirai, Kotomi and Ryosuke) who share a flat in Tokyo and the people who touch their lives, set against a backdrop of fatal attacks that are happening in their immediate neighbourhood. The two other FIPRESCI prizes went to the Danish film En Familie (A Family) by director Pernille Fischer Christensen in the main competition, and El vuelco del cangrejo (Crab Trap), a Colombian film by Oscar Ruíz Navia in the Forum competition.
Although it was out of competition, the main motivation for screening closing film About Her Brother on the night of the 60th Berlinale award ceremony was to honour Japenese director Yôji Yamada with the Berlinale Camera award. Since 1986 it has been awarded to a film personality or an institution whom the film festival feels especially attached and is a way of expressing thanks. Other recepients of the award this year were Ulrich and Erika Gregor who were founders of the International Forum of New Cinema festival which ran parallel to the Berlinale before being integrated into the festival in 1971; and also the Fine Art Foundry Noack who have been responsible for sculpting the unmistakable Berlinale Bear prizes since the first festival in 1951.
The complete list of prize winners at this year's Berlinale can be found at the festival's website. A link is provided on the left sidebar of this page.
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