Berlin Film Festival report

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Dave Calhoun leaves the Berlin Film Festival feeling deflated, but stills finds a few gems from a lacklustre week

Berlin Film Festival report
'Summer Book' was a highlight
By any measure, the quality of this year’s Berlinale was in inverse proportion to the spring weather: a bit of a damp squib. After six days in the cinemas of Potsdamer Platz, I left this supposedly top-notch film festival with few memorable films on the mind (and one of those, Mike Leigh’s ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, I’d already seen). More than anything, the competition section provoked one overriding feeling: roll on, Cannes – surely that’s where the good films are hiding? Or at least that’s what one hoped as we watched with tired eyes another Hitchcock-lite, soapy Finnish thriller (Petri Kotwica’s ‘Black Ice’) or cloying, paper-thin German family-portrait (Doris Dörrie’s ‘Cherry Blossoms’).

But enough of the grumbling. For its sheer sense of horror and smart modes of investigation, Errol Morris’ ‘Standard Operating Procedure’, his documentary on the behaviour of US soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, was a highlight. It’s both a mystery and a coup how Morris – last seen with Vietnam doc ‘The Fog of War’ in 2003 – managed to secure interviews with most of the troops (a number of them since convicted) who featured in the sickening photos of soldier-prisoner torture that emerged in 2004. He allows his motley subjects to speak for themselves, with no narration and only the odd question heard. Are his interviewees honest? Repentant? Deluded? Evil?

Fair questions – and for us to consider as Morris concentrates on showing us the mass of pictures and reconstructions of their details. The director adds an extra level of inquiry by asking how we should read these photos. The award for the most pathetic excuse in the history of war crimes must go to Private Lynndie England for her reasons why she was pictured giving the thumbs-up next to Iraqi prisoners who were forced to masturbate or form a naked human pyramid: ‘Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands.’

Three other documentaries, not in competition, deserve a mention. ‘Be Like Others’ by Tanaz Eshaghian is an Iranian-American documentary about sex change in Iran – which, as opposed to homosexuality (a capital offence), is legally sanctioned by the country’s ruling clerics. All praise to the investigative instinct as Eshaghian draws out fascinating testimonies from her pre- and post-op subjects and their families. It’s a sad and revealing work. On the lighter side of things, Julian Cole’s illuminating ‘With Gilbert and George’ is the result of filming the artists over more than a decade, at home, at work and, significantly, on pioneering trips to Russia and China. ‘We don’t have a kitchen because it’s against our religion,’ says one of the pair as Cole snoops about their Spitalfields home. Cole is good at allowing the duo to explain their work and they come across as free of art world pretensions despite the surface oddities.

A second, and much more slick documentary came courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shine a Light’, his Rolling Stones film. Give or take some hokey topping-and-tailing (sure, we believe that nobody gave Scorsese the set-list until the last minute…), this is a straightforward beast: two hours, two gigs at New York’s Beacon Theater edited as one, snippets of amusing archive interviews, the band shot up-close, and the music and performances mostly speaking for themselves. The last two elements stagger through adequately; Jagger comes off remarkably better than Richards, who looks to be entering his ever-smiling dotage. It’s fun but no ‘The Last Waltz’.

The dramas were the biggest let-down. Erick Zonca (‘The Dream Life of Angels’) hasn’t made a film for eight years, and ‘Julia’, in which Tilda Swinton plays a deluded, alcoholic child-snatcher is a flawed comeback. Swinton copes admirably with a meaty role and is on screen for more than two hours as the plot becomes more and more ridiculous. There’s a strong sense that, like many tourist-filmmakers before him, Zonca is too in thrall to the Americana of it all – and once we cross the border into Tijuana we turn the clock of representation of Mexicans back by at least two decades.

Much more objectionable was Damian Harris’ ‘Gardens of the Night’, a mediocre flashback drama about a seven-year-old (Ryan Simpkins) who is kidnapped by a paedophile (Tom Arnold) and abused over several years. I left the room after a scene in which the girl lies crying on a bed, a towel wrapped round her, having just been raped. Life’s too short to spend it with a poor treatment of such a serious issue. You’d have to be a genius to make this work.

Two quiet dramas made a stronger impression. ‘Lake Tahoe’ from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke (‘Duck Season’) was an intelligent exploration of grief in a minor key: teenage Juan (Diego Cataño) wanders around his small home town trying to find a mechanic to fix his car; his brief encounters add up to a sensitive portrait of loss that’s slowly revealed. Meanwhile, and not entirely dissimilar, ‘Summer Book’ from Turkish director Seyfi Teoman was a small delight. It’s an assured summer-holiday film about a young boy in the midst of his faintly troubled family: his ageing dad argues with his older brother about whether to continue military service or head to Istanbul; his mum thinks dad is having an affair; the boy has minor run-ins with other kids. It’s the stuff of life, subtly handled, cleverly framed, sensitively acted – and just what you hope to discover at a festival. If only there were more masterworks to sit alongside it.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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