Should there be a separate production and distribution space for alternative art-house cinemas and their audiences? The second and final report on the Berlin International Film Festival.
In a discussion with Wieland Speck, director of the Panorama Section, he emphasised “When I select films, I keep in mind my Berlin audience first. Since it is impossible for a Berliner to escape ‘politics’, I pick up films that see the world mainly from political perspectives and help connect with our viewpoints.” Asked about the woeful absence of Indian films he said, “Somehow Indian films don’t see me into my eyes”. Apart from a few including Kai Po Che by Abhishek Kapoor, Salma by Longinetto and the NFDC marketing stall, Indian cinema and her stories were strangely present by their absence. Paradoxically it is also here that Shah Rukh Khan has fans adoring him as he walks the red carpet once every few years!
The Berlinale gives serious importance to innovations and Speck believes in films that break the rules. “The well-structured story is an Anglo-Saxon device. And cinema did not start that way, to tell such stories. I keep that in mind when the Berlinale team and I sift through around 6000 films each year. I personally select from about 850 of them, as I travel across the world to keep my local audience engaged”.
Comparing it with Cannes, he said, “You see, Cannes doesn’t have a French audience. It’s a lot of fanfare since they cater to nomads, critics and marketing guys.” And then there is Venice, the quiet and brooding festival giving Italians their time and space to do their annual rethinking about what cinema should be all about.
The undercurrent of this conversation, for me, was “Should there be a separate production and distribution space for alternative art-house cinemas and their audiences?” Berlin has 25 small art cinema houses managed by curators, organising films of little known filmmakers’ right through the year. One of them called Babylon had organised a parallel Indo-German film week and even invited new generation filmmakers like Anurag Basu and Gauri Shinde to show their films along with a workshop dealing with Indo-Germanic mythologies conducted by Anjum Rajabali. I am sure it takes a lot of effort and courage to run such enterprises. Therefore, in the long run, do we realise that these are the oasis around which artistic communities can spring up, be it alternative filmmakers or fusion musicians? This will be probably rule number one for such enterprises. The NFDC started with such a vision back in those days but…
Everything cannot be rosy here in Berlin too. Meeting with a bunch of young German aspiring filmmakers revealed another facet of their struggle. Aron Lehmann (30), recently graduated from the prestigious Konrad Wolf film college in Potsdam, was not too happy with funding agencies. “We have to convince so many officials who understand nothing about our artistic aspirations to get even small sums of money. Yet we have to understand that this is what happens in a harsh capitalist system.” I asked him why great German legends such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Scholondorff or Syberberg are not coming to their help. He smiled briefly saying “Well, even they have to survive!” On the other hand, young Emily Atef from the Berlin film school successfully raised around €4 million to make Das Fremde in mir, which premiered at the Critic’s Week in Cannes 2009. She is on her next film now and hopefully she will take Aron Lehmann on board!
Travelling on the well-knit underground transport system is a big learning experience, as I hopped from one theatre to another, each equipped with state-of-the-art sound, 4K digital projections and ultra comfortable seats. The Panorama section screened the amazing Broken Circle Breakdown, from Belgium narrating the saga of a couple from a bluegrass band whose little daughter suffers from cancer and needs stem cell replacement in a religious world battling with the ethical efficacy of tampering with ‘Nature’s Ways’! The child dies leaving the parents shattered. If I had a favourite in the competition section, it would surely be Bille August’s Night Train to Lisbon. In a very classical way it describes the journey through a book into a literary narrative of intrigues and treachery that surrounded the horrible dictatorship of Antonio Salazar between 1932 and 1968. Jeremy Irons playing a nondescript English professor teaching in Switzerland decides to liberate himself through the brilliant writings of Amadeo Prado, a young revolutionary, and goes in search of the characters that are still alive. With some brilliant photography by Filip Zumbrunn, director August takes us on his journey of studying repressive societies that he began in 1998 with his version of Les Miserables later followed by Goodbye Bafana on the prison life of Nelson Mandela.
Pushing the boundaries, as usual, the Forum Expanded had some amazing installations admirably set inside an old crematorium. The crypts, arches, domes and long corridors provided excellent opportunities for multiple projections. This year, the broad theme was on environment ranging from Fukushima, the war-torn Afghan landscape and even peaceful meditative loops on seascapes. The climax was an installation of immersive reality by Lucien Taylor and Verena Paravel called Leviathan projected on a huge dome displaying spectres of birds, aqueous forms, meteors floating around in a kind of netherworld. Lying down and watching it entranced made me feel will cinema will soon transmorph like this. Started 50 years ago, the Forum for Young Cinema under the watchful guidance of now retired Ulrich Gregor and Christoph, his mentor is certainly challenging filmmakers to innovate or perish.
The curtains came down with Child’s Pose by the Rumanian filmmaker Calin Peter Netzer winning the Golden Bear and Danis Tanovi’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker taking the Silver Bear. More than a hundred thousand viewers would have paid their obeisance to the discourse of cinema as their political negotiator. With severe budget cuts and a big recession looming over the EU nations, the next edition is certainly going to be a bigger challenge.