In the first of a two-part report from Berlin, K. Hariharan wonders if the virtual paths of art and commerce will ever meet.

Maintaining the position among the top three film festivals in the world is no mean task. It requires a certain kind of religiosity and determination to run the Berlinale in sub-zero temperatures to show over 300 films from across the world and at the same time keep over 1,000 international delegates from freezing! The 63rd Berlin International Filmfest retains its flavour as a serious non-glamorous event dedicated to creative freedoms of innovative authors and their critical perceptions.

Opening the event, Brand Neumann, Minister of State, explained with pride about securing Parde (Closed Curtain), the latest film of Jafar Panahi who is still under house-arrest in Iran, for the competition. Emphasising the importance of keeping one’s freedom of expression he recounted how 80 years ago (1933) Germany slipped to come under the grip of Hitler and the treacherous era of Nazi power for 12 long years. As if echoing this sentiment, the people of Berlin and other parts of Europe assemble on the icy streets for 10 days (February 7 to 16) in front of the 25 cinema venues to probably reaffirm the right to artistic expression, however personal, as the fundamental credo for every society.

The opening film Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai, also the chairman of the Competition Jury, was probably the most glamorous film about a kung fu master and his equally talented spouse who had to migrate to Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion and resign to a life of oblivion. Sadly the film with its over-dependence on glitzy special effects and syrupy background music will also meet the same fate as the character. Going by the weak applause it received, it will enter the catalogue of forgettable cinema! The Berlinale, however, has 13 different sections, each screening about 20 to 30 films and every film gets a minimum of three screenings in one venue or the other. Each film even gets screened once with English and at other times with German subtitles. Though the overall director is the ultra-energetic Dieter Kosslick, the sections vie with each other to attract the 30,000-plus audiences selected by separate panels.

The biggies vying for the Golden Bear in the competition also include Gus Von Sant (The Promised Land); Bille August (Night Train to Lisbon); Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects) and Danis Tanovic (Episode in Life). I got to see Khlebnikov’s saga of corruption in rural Russia through a young Sascha’s point of view in A Long and Happy Life. The Young Forum Section screened Deepa Dhanraj’s restored version of her powerful documentary Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? (1986) to incredibly packed houses. The Panorama section witnessed similar crowds at Friedrichstadt Palace, their largest venue, to see Maladies by Carter. Also managed to catch up with Skins in the Native Cinema section screening films dealing with issues relating to indigenous and traditional cultures of various countries.

The Panorama had a grand opening with a well-mounted documentary called Assistance Mortelle by Raoul Peck about the heartless scam that was the relief package promised in the aftermath of an earthquake to the devastated Port Au Prince, capital of Haiti, in which over 250,000 people died and more than one million people were left homeless.

These are not outstanding films, but on relooking I could see a common thread. All the films were in one way or the other about the impact on citizens made by policies laid out by political agents who are completely out of touch with ground realities in these rather underdeveloped nations. It then studies how it eventually results in public apathy often leading to divisive and internecine conflicts. Soon the rulers and the victims call for aggressive measures leading to right versus might. Finally we see how the powerful political agents slip out of their promises and actually accuse the common people of irresponsible behaviour. Certainly these films depict the reality of the rather sad international games played out in Third World nations, but it leaves me wondering as to how these political tragedies impact the viewers of highly developed city centres like Berlin. Would these films have a similar impact in their own countries of origin? Or is this fundamental qualification for an art house film?

Of course coming from the world’s largest feature film producing country like India, one is bound to make some comparisons with the German film scenario. Serendipitously, it happened in a meeting with Ms Angelika Kruger of SDP, the German opposition party, who explained some salient features. For a total turnover of about one billion Euros, the government’s contribution was over 350 million for the 212 German films produced last year. In the 4,600 screens spread out over Germany to screen a total of 532 releases, 18 per cent theatres accommodated German language films, while the rest dedicated themselves to Hollywood and other European films.

Back in India, we produced about 1,100 films last year for a turnover of around 1.4 billion Euros, with 85 per cent of our 12,500 theatres screening only Indian language films. The situation was exactly the opposite in Germany. Most of our Indian films have happy endings and that is not something which any film festival wants, be it in India or abroad. This leaves me wondering whether the questionable status laid out for the virtual paths of art and commerce will ever meet.

More in the next instalment, after we know who walks away with the Golden Bear.

The writer is director, LV Prasad Film and TV Academy.