BERLIN 2006 – The Awards

Grbvacia: The Land of My Dreams
(Austria/Bosnia/Germany/Croatia(, director  Jasmila Zbanic

JURY GRAND PRIX (ex aequo):
Offside (Iran), director Jafar Pahani
En Soap (Denmark/Sweden) director Pernille Fischer Christensen.

Aldrig som första gangen! 
(Sweden) director Jonas Odell

Moritz Bleibtreu, Elementarteichen Germany, director Oskar Roehler)

Sandra Hüller, Requiem(Germany, director Hans-Christian Schmid)

Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross, The Road to Guantanamo (UK)

Peter Kam, Isabella (Hong Kong, director Ho-Cheung-Pang)

Jürgen Vogel, for his performance in Der Freie Wille

Berlin probably sets something of a record for the number of prizes available to the films in the festival’s various sections – including ecclesiastical awards, the “Teddies” for the best gay films and various memorial prizes, there are something in the region of sixty awards up for grabs:   Though it is always nice for the film makers not to go home empty-handed, however, it is only the festival’s main awards that make the press.

The 2006 jury, headed by Charlotte Rampling and including the Dutch feminist director Marleen Gorris and the fine German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, was an inscrutable bunch; and there was universal surprise at their choice for the Golden Beaar Award,  Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, directed by Jasmila Zbanic.  A sincere portrayal of the daily struggles of a woman and her young daughter endeavouring to survive in the aftermath of the Balkan wars (Grbavica is a district of Sarajevo), the performances are winning, but the shaky script makes the pace sluggish.

Among films that might have been better candidates for the big prize was Jafar Pahani’s Offside. Pahani goes from strength to strength after The White Balloon and The Circle.  In this new film (awarded the Special Jury prize ex aequo) he brilliantly combines a real event – the world cup match between Iran and Bahrein at the Azahi Stadium, Tehran – with a fictional story.  Comedy and charm are deployed with lethal subversion in his continuing assault on the treatment of women in a n Islamic but hypocritical society.  The football stadium is rigidly prohibited to women (ostensibly because their ears would be sullied by the cursing of the malefans); but intrepid female soccer enthusiasts still try to run the gauntlet.  Seven ot these are rounded up and penned by the soldiers on duty at the stadium.  In the battle of wits and will that ensues, the poor, dumb, uneducated  soldiers are consistently upstaged by these bright and feisty girls.

Offside shared the Specil Jury Award with a sharply contrasted film about sexual identity, En Soap (Denmark/Sweden), directed by Permille Fischer Christensen.  This is the comic, sometimes painful story of an odd-couple relationship between a beauty specialist and her neighbour, a lonely, troubled transsexual hooked on a British tv soap, and working as a reluctant rent-boy/girl. Cleverly weaving scraps of soap-idiom into her perceptive character study, Christensen’s endearing film marks a portentous launch for the Danish Film Institute’s new production experiment New Danish Screen.

Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross won best director award for their devastating The Road To Guantánamo.  By lucky chance, the screening coincided with the UN Report on the abuses of Guantanamo, providing as it were the illustrated version.  The film recreates the experiences of three British Moslems from Birmingham. Visiting Pakistan for one of their weddings, they were persuaded to go into Afghanistan to help war victims.  There they were picked up by the American forces. From their testimony and much more evidence that has leaked through from the prison camp, Winterbottom exposes the senselessness and brutality of the establishment. Of the eight hundred people rounded up and incarcerated for year after year, without trial or accss to lawyers, only a handful has ever been charged and found guilty.  Winterbottom shows marine guards who behave like the SS; and inquisitors whose attempts to bully or torture fictitious “confessions” resembles the most primitive Stalinist techniques.  The evidence is incontrovertible; and essential if painful viewing for Americans in whose name the atrocities are committed.  The British, too, show themselves not clean-handed: the young men featured in the film attended the screening in Berlin, but on their way home were held and brutally interrogated by British airport police.  The case against Guantanamo was argued further in Erik Gitmo’s revealing documentary, Gitmo (Sweden), shown in the Berlin film market. The Bush administration’s Iraq adventure came under further attack in Laura Poitras’s shrewd documentary My Country, My Country

The indefatigable and ever-surprising Winterbottom had another film in Berlin, outside the competition. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story  is a clever and playful attempt at Sterne’s impossible, though equally playful novel, proposing a film production (of Shandy) within the film.  Although full of inside jokes that will be best appreciated by British audiences, it should intrigue any festival audience, with its incidental literary attraction, and Winterbottom’s readiness to experiment with any genre.

Among the most unappreciated films was Robert Altman’s valedictory elegy, The Prairie Home Companion, ignored by the main festival juries, and sent home with the prize of the readers’ jury of the Berliuner Morgenpost as its only recompense  Altman’s supreme originality is very much in evidence in this complex mixture of reality and fiction, record and recreation. The subject is the final performance of the long-running and much-loved radio show of the title, and the exodus to allow the studio to be razed for a parking lot. The action is confined to the real-time 100 minutes of Garrison Keillor’s nationally famous show, and the on-air performances and off-air proccupations of a group of hill-billy artists, fruitily played by the likes of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters and Woody Harrelson and John C.Reilly as wise-cracking cowboys.  Keillor himself is the show’s MC who has seen and done it all before. Additionally there are more mythical presencess – Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) representing the developers; a private eye working as security man (Kevin Kline) and a fatalistic lady and angel of death (Virginia Madsen).  It is funny, sad, nostalgic, haunting and beautiful; and its reputation is likely to grow with time when other contemporaries are forgotten. [POST SCRIPT, 20 November 2006:  the film was, indeed to be Altman’s last, and a valediction which in retrospect would appear wholly conscious].

Another veteran still capable of top form, Claude Chabrol displays his legendary mastery of story-telling, compelling attention upon every move and gesture in L’Ivresse de Pouvoir.  Isabelle Huppert plays a top-flight examining magistrate, engaged in the pursuit of a high- ranking financier charged with corruption.  .  The net spreads wider than she anticipates, reaching to top political levels, at which point polite steps – honours, promotion and hints of violence – are employed to divert her too enthusiastic diligence.  Supported by beautifully cast character actors, Huppert still steals the show.  The elegant machinery of corruption depicted in the film is specifically national, and perhaps more meaningful to French newspaper readers – but sleaze is universal.

Three out of the four German entries ran away with all the main acting awards. The actor Jürgen Vogel won a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic achievement for his grim performance in the leading role of  Der Freie Wille, directed by Matthias Glasner.  This is a well-crafted, unsparingly detailed account of an unrelievedly dark subject.  The dour and solitary protagonist is imprisoned for a series of brutal rapes. After twelve years of prison and therapy he returns to society, still solitary and conditioned by treatment.  He embarks on a difficult affair with the troubled daughter of his employer; but the old compulsions return, leading to a bleakly tragic ending.

Moritz Bleibtreu took best actor award for Elementarteichen (Elemenatary Particles), Oskar Roehler’s rather softened version of Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling novel about two half-brothers, both, in contrasted ways, sexually disturbed.  Sandra Hüller won best actress award for her leading role in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requim, the bleak story of a girl in need of psychiatric treatment but who instead is fatally subjected to exorcisms by her strict catholic parents and the priests.

The only competing German entry that remained unrewarded was writer-director Valeska Grisebach’s fiction film debut, Sehnsuch, the story of a lovingly married volunteer fireman who embarks on an affair with another woman – a disastrously destabilising event in a small village in Brandenberg.  The characters and humdrum daily lives of this rural community are conveyed in faithful documentary detail, using attractive and impressive non-professional actors.  Appreciation of the film depends upon a somewhat patient response to the killingly narrow horizons of this rural life.

Italy offered only Michele Placido’s Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel). Its two-and-a-half hours also require a degree of patience and concentration; but Placido’s narrative is well staged and cast.  Set in the 1970s and early 80s. it mainly chronicles the adventures of three participants in Italy’s “years of lead”and the links between politics and terrorism that culminated in the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro in 1978.

Asia was less prominent than usual in the competition. Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves (Thailand-South Korea-Hong Kong, Netherlands) offered a modish, reaching-for-style Far Eastern film noir – from moment to moment quite arresting and with a possible cult attraction for younger audiences. Elsewhere in the festival was Shin Dong-il’s richly satisfying Host and Guest (South Korea). This low-budget independent film is an irresistibly attractive record of an improbable friendship. A thorough-going slob – drunk, womaniser, unable to get a job as a teacher, neglectful of his estranged wife and child – is one day rescued from death by a bright-eyed young Christian evangelist.  Understandably wary of each other, they nevertheless start to hang out together.  The slob remains suspicious that the other may still try to convert him: the Christian is nervous about being exposed to the cinema, disconcerted by his new friend’s manic tantrums; and angered when he calls up a couple of prostitutes for an evening’s entertainment.  Somehow friendship prevails – most touchingly when the slob stands by the evangelist when he is imprisoned for his refusal to do military service.  The performances are outstanding: Gang Ji-hwan pulls off the difficult feat of making an uncompromisingly “good” character interesting and likeable, and in the process presents an uncynical and positive assertion of Christianity, climaxing in his impressive and moving address to the court.

Also rewarding were a couple of documentaries on the festival side-lines. Amir Muhammed’s The Last Communist (Malaysia) offers a biography oc Hin Peng, now in exile in Thailand, illuminatingly paralleled with pictures of life in the same scenes today, and enlivened with fierce irony and musical numbers. Dear Pyongyang (Japan), directed by Yang Yong-hi, is aat first sight a straightforward documentary about the director’s family, Koreans living in Japan.  Her septuagenarian parents remain enthusiastically loyal to their beliefs in the communist regime: thirty years ago they sent their teenage sons there as “returnees” to become new citizens of their ideal state.  The only suggestion of doubt is the monthly supply of boxes filled with needful food, medicines and other supplies of which North Koreans are deprived.The family are reunited in Pyonyang.  The richness of the film is in the complex relationships between the director and her parents: understandably sceptical, her filial duty prevents direct confrontation, as she allows these decent, perhaps deceived people, to express themselves.

Alongside Robert Altman, another veteran American presence was Sidney Lumet.

At 82, and close to half a century after his classic Twelve Angry Men, in Find Me Guilty  he returns to his major preoccupation – the vagaries of the jury system.  This is based on the true story of the longest mafia trial in history: 20 men, on some 70 patently well-founded charges, spent 21 months in court yet were finally acquitted all but one.  The court-room setting, and the cast drawn mainly from the New York stage, will be generally dismissed as tv-drama style; but it has quality in narrative and performance as well as a subversive message at a time when – from Guantanamo to the Blair administration’s dismantling of the British legal system – the traditional process of the law is sacrificed to ends-justify-the-means compromise.   It is absorbing watching, but rather depends on reaction to Vin Diesel’s regeneration as a comedy character actor (with wig).