By Yun-hua Chen.
Against a backdrop of the Berlinale bear, the film festival opens with Wang Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2012), the five-year’s lavish-looking work of the president of the international jury. During the ten-day celebration of cinema, the city was honoured by the glamorous presence of international stars every night, among them three divas from the contemporary French cinema: Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Hollywood stars such as Matt Damon, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, and stars in the German-speaking world including Nina Ross. The main categories of Berlinale are composed of official competition, panorama, forum, shorts, generation, perspective German cinema, retrospective, culinary cinema and Berlinale special. The competition category straddles between big-budget films and the tradition of arthouse cinema, as we can see Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (2012), Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (2013), and Fredrik Bond’s The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (2013) side by side with Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2012), Danis Tanović’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013), Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies: Hoffnung (2013), Jafar Panahi’s Pardé (2013) and Cǎlin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (2012), which won the Golden Bear of this year. Within the films of young German filmmakers, Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen (2013) is a refreshing and innovative look at the chaos and peace of a household, which was entirely shot within a Berlin flat in which a family’s everyday life shines with magic.
A lot of war-related films can be seen in different sections: Rock the Casbah (2013), Circles (2013), The Battle of Tabatô (2013), No Man’s Land (2012), Narco Cultura (2012), The Act of Killing (2012), What Happened to this City (1986), to name a few. Schaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is situated in the Mexican-US border town Ciuded Juárez, where the drug lords narcos are glamorized into heroes of popular culture. Through The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an opportunity for the perpetrators to reconstruct and hence to reflect upon the paramilitaries’ killing of alleged Communists right after the Indonesian military coup of 1965. The Battle of Tabatô is the flip side of No Man’s Land. The former depicts an old man’s confrontation with the past, traumatised by the experiences during the colonial war decades earlier, in stylish black-and-white cinematography. The postcolonial reality in Tabatô contrasts to the fragmented and numbered monologue of a former soldier in an elite Portuguese commando during the colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, documented in No Man’s Land. Yariv Horowitz’s Rock the Casbah boldly deals with the sensitive subject of the Gaza Strip in the early summer of 1989 and reveals the absurdity of armed action, which only contributes furthermore to the vicious circle of injustice. After the death of a soldier being killed by a washing machine which is dropped on him from a rooftop, a company of young Israeli soldiers have to face the local residents’ hatred and the unsettling environment around them, while they are merely naive young men who barely enter adulthood and whose pleasure in life comprises of things as simple as listening to rock music and sunbathing. Srdan Golubović’s Circles which won the prize of ecumenical jury under the category of forum interweaves narrative threads of several characters, whose life has been changed because of a tragic incident during the Serbian-Bosnian conflict, almost in the vein of 21 Grams and Babel. These people’s trajectories becomes intertwined again twelve years afterwards, with the war being over, but they still have to deal with the issues of guilt, repentance, forgiveness, responsibility and justice, which have remained unresolved during and after the war.
Tanta Agua (2012) and Coming Forth by Day (2012) are two impressive portraits of the parents and children relationship. In Tanta Agua the fourteen-year old Lucía is forced to go for a family trip which seems to be doomed from the very beginning. The role of the divorced father is brilliantly acted by Néstor Guzzini, who is at the same time unbearable with his commandeering tone and over-protective attitudes, and also amicably affectionate. As the rain keeps pouring down and the swimming pool remains closed for health and safety reasons, Lucia embarks upon a coming-of-age journey discovering love, jealousy and heartbreak. Coming Forth By Day (2012) is a touching and subtle work on the daily struggle of a woman in Cairo. Soad lives with his mother and incapacitated father. It starts with Soad’s routine of cleaning and feeding her father, which is interrupted by occasional arguments with her mother and the usual unexpected visit of her soldier cousin. When she finally goes outside on the pretext of meeting a friend at the sunset, the city presents itself as an unfriendly space full of obstacles, starting from a crazy woman and an aloof boyfriend, and ending with a potentially dangerous minibus driver and the all-encompassing darkness, which poses latent threat to women walking around alone. It is a tender debut of Hala Lotfy which beautifully captures the moments between self-sacrifice and self-realisation, individual and family, inside and outside, light and darkness, and the living and the approaching death.
The recent Greek films have often been interpreted as the mirror images of the current crisis-ridden country, regardless of the filmmakers’ initial intentions. Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes’s To the Wolf (2013) documents the trajectory of Father, Mother and son of a poor shepherd family in a village in western Greece. In an ambiguous form of a docu-drama, most of the shots have been taken inside their dark and cramped dwelling which risks falling apart under adverse weather conditions, and where the cinematographer barely fits in. The camera cuts between their weary faces deeply marked by hardships and outdoor labor, and the mountainous area covered in unremitting fog. On some rare occasions when they do talk to one another, it is about cigarette prices, the debts that they owe their neighbours, and how they can find new lenders. When they talk to the cameraman, it is to let go of their complaints and profound fear of sinking down to starvation. The son’s drunken talk at a town taverna in the end of the film is the most illustrative visual rendering of how Greek working class and farmers look at the situation, as they become sacrifices of a society which almost always acts in favour of the powerful ones.
I Kori (2012) also has explicit messages of social criticism. The fourteen-year-old Myrto kidnaps the son of her father’s business partner after her father’s disappearance, because she believes that the business partner bankrupts her father’s joiner’s workshop. She hides the kidnapped boy in the workshop between stacks of spruce, oak and ebony, and their seemingly innocently childish conversation in fact contains political metaphors. In Athens she walks through crowds of demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, long queues of despairing people seeking social benefits, and is given piles of invoices accumulated in front of her disappeared father’s door. In a world where no one takes up responsibilities, Myrto becomes the only one trying to restore justice and order in her own way. Within the framework of a political allegory, the daughter of Elektra complex constantly wanders in the sweet memories with her father bathed in warm colours, almost like a nostalgic look at the happy past of the country. Occasionally it seems like a cinematic version of a Greek soap opera with its dose of dysfunctional families and hysterical women characters.
The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (2013) is a promising debut feature. Also a film about kidnapping, but it is Antonis Paraskevas, a national TV celebrity hosting morning talk shows, who stages the act himself in order to regain his popularity on the media. Disturbed by his decreasing popularity, debts and personal problems, he hides in a luxury hotel, completely uninhabited during winter. To pass the time he follows news about his own disappearance and brushes up on molecular gastronomy, which has been meticulously demonstrated on the TV by a French chef. Wandering in deserted and scruffy tennis court, swimming pool, karaoke lounge, Paraskevas is like a phantom living in the glory of the past. He repeatedly watches his images from a tribute DVD included in a tabloid magazine, whereas his attempt of creating new images by filming himself reproducing molecular pasta through imitation fails miserably. Instead of returning to fame like in his calculations, he sinks further into his own desire for public attention. When Paraskevas contrasts his TV presence on the extravagant New Year party in 2001, which also celebrates the introduction of Euro in Greece, to his boredom and anonymity in the hide, the audience cannot help but comparing the Euro zone’s then and now.
After completing her PhD in Film Studies, Yun-hua Chen works for sound.platz as well as writing film festival reviews and academic articles.