Bearing it all

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A roundup of all the buzz from the Berlinale Film

The Berlinale is one of the world’s best international film festivals. In terms of popularity and industry significance, it’s right up there with Cannes and Venice. Berlin, however, takes a more diverse approach to film, aiming to show a range of styles from all over the globe. Although often challenging the Hollywood standard of big budget, profit-motivated film making, it’s not just for art-house cinema lovers and Film students. From blockbuster to avant-garde, they attempt to cater for all audiences. Unlike Cannes or Venice, the Berlinale is open to anyone, not restricted merely to journalists and industry professionals.

Over a two week period we are presented with over 400 films in 10 unique sections. Ranging from the star studded main Competition division, to the real hipster-point scorers like the radical and often controversial Berlinale Shorts, here you’ll find some of the most progressive and challenging films of the festival and often of the whole year. Even the Generation section (aimed at children and under 18s) works hard to blur the boundary between art and entertainment, pop and intellectual. Although initially targeting younger viewers, Generation is one of the hidden gems, hosting some of the most interesting stories and characters of the whole festival. On top of this there are numerous other sections devoted to Germany, the avant-garde, historical films and even culinary cinema.

With the 22 Berlinale venues dotted far and wide around the city, the atmosphere of the fastival changes dramatically from place to place. Potsdamer Platz, the main hub of activity, was a chaotic but exciting combination of red carpets, stars, tourists and film lovers. The less central venues, however, had a completely different ambience, less glamour and blacked-out BMWs, but there was instead an impression of greater integrity to the viewing experience. As the large majority of these films shown may never make it to DVD (let alone the New Picture House on North Street) there’s a real sense of privilege in the smaller screenings. For nearly everyone it is a rare opportunity to have so much outstanding cinema available in one place. The fact that the audience might never see these films again really adds to the sense of excitement and enthusiasm that dominates the festival. To further its distinction, the Berlinale is also a unique opportunity for the public to engage with a film’s stars, directors and producers as they are often in the audience and hold Q&As when the curtains close.

The winner of the Silver Bear (best actress) was Rachel Mwanza in Rebelle by Kim Nguyen, a film in which she plays a child soldier, abducted at the age of twelve and forced into the harsh realities of guerrilla warfare. Amongst the hundreds of other films, Rebelle still remains a highlight. Although not fantastically groundbreaking in its subject matter, it’s success was a case of quality over innovation. With 10 years of cultural and social research by Nguyen, the line between fact and fiction became increasingly hazy as the film went on. The acting was truly breathtaking. Mwanza’s success is made all the more interesting by the fact that she grew up in the Congo, where the film is set. Although she’s never been a child soldier, she did have a relatable childhood; thrown out of her house by her neglectful parents at a young age and forced to fend for herself. With no formal training whatsoever, she stumbled into the role when she was auditioned in Congo. Never having expected it to lead anywhere, she is now in a different world, one of awards and stars and safety. I was taken aback when at a press conference she said “These are my family now” (referring to the director, co-actors and producers next to her).

The winner of the Golden Bear (best film of the whole festival) was Caesar Must Die, a film about inmates in a high security prison performing Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’; surprisingly good given the frankly terrible sounding plot.

The real quality was often found beyond the award winners. Hemel, an overtly sexual look at monogamy and objectification gave a new and interesting perspective to the ‘rebellious rich girl’ cliché. After her mother’s death, a young woman’s successions of indelicate and unfulfilling physical conquests are juxtaposed with her father’s equally dubious search for a new love. Although not the most striking of films at first glance, carefully considered sound production and subtly powerful cinematography accented lead actress Hannah Hoekstra’s impressive performance, to create one of the most thought provoking films in its class.

Pushing the boundaries of activist filmmaking, Don’t Clean Up This Blood was the most shocking and engaging piece of drama of the festival for me. A political film about the atrocious police violence at the G8 summit in Italy in 2001, it shows how the gradually mounting tension between protesters and officials is intensified by a series of unrelated incidents that eventually lead to the unforgettable climax. The boundary between activism and entertainment was ever present. Rather than focusing on one particular lead, the narrative moved from individual to individual. We had a window into the lives of police officers, anarchists, officials and peaceful volunteers, slowly revealing how their stories intertwined. It was enjoyable in a non-traditional sense; a lot of the film was incredibly emotionally captivating but also shockingly, horrifically violent (to the point where some people even left the cinema). Nevertheless it remained deeply compelling to watch as my stomach churned between thoughts of pity and horror, politics and protagonists. We are drawn to numerous individuals as they fumble blindly through the complex moral maze. Both repellent and captivating, it left you thinking for days.

With some of the most exciting and innovative cinema of this year, the Berlinale’s true appeal lies in its variety. The organisers are not afraid to show what so many films avoid, and are impressively forward thinking and consistently challenging our preconceptions. The Berlin Film Festival is sowing the seeds of the future of filmmaking, from innovative and beautiful cinematography to surprising, contemporary perspectives on new and old ideas. It is a truly unique festival in one of Europe’s top cultural cities.

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