Berlinale: Berlinale Topics


Forum 2008: On patterns, societal roles and
playfulness as the basis of filmmaking

Regarde-moi by Audrey Estrougo

The Forum is a refuge for courageous, unconventional filmmakers and in 2008 again presented a diverse selection of films, both extraordinary in formal terms and politically daring. “The filmmakers whose work we show in the Forum want to go beyond the usual.” A look at the 2008 programme shows that a distinct interest in socio-political processes is often the driving force behind these works. We talked to Christoph Terhechte, director of the section, about the continuing strength of Asian cinema, kids with no freedom and the significance of passion and memory to making films.

I noticed that the certain motifs arise again and again in the Forum programme. For example, one finds a theme that is fundamental for the medium: memory, the past and the relationship between individual and collective history. Do the films you’re showing take a new, contemporary approach to this theme?

How contemporary that is remains to be seen but I do see a parallel between several Asian films in the programme. Here “memory” is addressed on several different levels, sometimes on a private level, sometimes on the public level. Invisible City, for example, is more about history than private stories whereby that, too, is also about individual people. Here, a central question is how many historical testimonies are still available and what should one keep and what not. The fact that humanity keeps so much, not just testimonies but also objects is relatively new. And if we keep on going this way, at some point we’re going to drown in memorial objects – the entire world will be a museum. Questions like these are brought up in the film. It’s very interesting.

Private and political memory

In the Asian films there is a strong focus on Japan’s dominance in 20th century Asian history. That’s true for a film such as Yasukuni, which talks about the Yasukuni shrine – where all sorts of war criminals have been honoured since the 1970s – from the point of view of a Chinese man who has lived in Japan for years. The Japanese argue that they are simply honouring their dead who died for their country, and that it’s not the business of foreign countries to interfere. The counterargument goes: If you honour war criminals, we can’t take your apologies for war crimes seriously. That’s also reflected in a film like Invisible City, that shows how a place like Singapore also suffered under the Japanese occupation.

Or take the Korean film Grandmother’s Flower, which brings together private and political memory. On the occasion of the death of his great uncle, the filmmaker begins to ask questions about his family history and discovers the tragedies found in practically every Korean family, but which the older generation is not actually able to communicate to the younger generation. Beginning with the Japanese occupation, the division of the country through the Russians and the Americans, the war and the subsequent societal split, to the escape of many Koreans from the military dictatorship and the subsequent repression in Japan. All these films deal with the past and allow political and private memories to flow into one another.

Yoav Shamir's Flipping Out

Besides this focus on time, I noticed in several films a concentration on certain places. In Yasukuni, the name of its central place of remembrance, one finds both. In a film like Asyl - Park and Love Hotel one should perhaps talk about places of refuge.

“Place of refuge” does fit here. Park and Love Hotel already carries the idea in its international title: Asyl - Park and Love Hotel. On can argue that Flipping Out takes a similar perspective, even if set within a far more severe societal context. After doing their military service – and this applies to men and women, because women are required to do military service there – most young Israeli soldiers have a huge need to get out of Israel for a while. They nonetheless end up in an Israeli microcosm – North India in the summer, warm Goa the winter – where one finds psychological counselling as well as Israeli-operated drug rehab centres. So they don’t ever really leave their own universe.

Actually, the same is also true of Asyl – Park and Love Hotel, but not on a socio-political level, but rather on the personal level of people who are lost in society and come together and find support together.

But such parallels are vague. I do see direct similarities between, for example, Flipping Out and Shahida. The latter looks at the other side of the conflict, so to speak, specifically Palestinian women who are detained in Israel because they helped prepare suicide bomb attacks or because they were themselves arrested for attempting to carry out a suicide attack. We would call them terrorists, but they consider themselves legitimate fighters for the Palestinian cause. The film doesn’t try to resolve these conflicting perspectives. It simply takes an observational standpoint. I find it remarkable how calmly this Israeli film addresses the topic of women who want to bomb their country. The film manages to describe this insanity with complete sobriety.

A similar approach is taken in Flipping Out. There too the question of what the Israeli soldiers – most of whom were deployed in the Palestinian areas – actually did there, which causes them to “flip out” so much, even if the subject is only broached indirectly. In this respect, the two films fit together very well.

Standing out from the usual

RR directed by James Benning is being shown as a Special Screening. In Benning’s films, the self-reflexivity of the cinema experience plays a big role. While watching the screen, the viewer is thrown back at himself, so to speak, and he watches – if you will – himself watching images.

While that still applies, of course, his new film functions differently to his previous ones. RR stands for railroad and so trains appear in every shot. Benning often filmed trains in his earlier works, but here the length of the shots actually corresponds to the length of the trains. What is also new is that the meditative aspect that his films often had is disrupted by extremely loud train noises, which are effectively disturbing components. While in his other films a different background sound was always present, one could hear dripping water in one shot, or leaves rustling in the wind in another, here that’s not the case, because the thundering noise of trains drowns out everything for 90 minutes.

Cinematic reflexivity was for a while considered to be a sign of challenging films. Is this quality found elsewhere in the programme?

RR - Special Screening at the 38th Forum

Elements of cinematic reflexivity always play a certain role in our programme. The films almost always question the cinematic form itself. This has to do with the fact that most of the filmmakers who show their work in the Forum have some critical distance from the conventional.

A good example of this is Wakamatsu Koji who already belonged to a group of Japanese directors in the early 1960s that didn’t want to fit into the normal Japanese system. And because he made films that met the requirements of pornography, he managed, with the help of the porno industry, to finance a totally different type of cinema. Funnily enough this was recognised abroad earlier than in Japan itself, where he was long considered to be a sleazy director. In Japan it was considered scandalous that his film Secrets Behind the Wall ran in the Berlinale Competition 1965.

Now he has made a new film and we are using the occasion to show three of his older works. His new film United Red Army primarily addresses Japanese politics, and is also very self-critical. Wakamatsu was himself very political, very leftwing, and sympathetic towards the Japanese terrorist group United Red Army. In his film he tells the story of the militant Japanese student movement of the 1960s. In Japan, radicalisation began earlier than in Germany or Europe. The Japanese left was basically dead after World War II and was forcibly assimilated into the Japanese military and state. This pre-history of the 1940s is told in the Competition film KABEI by Yamada Yoji. There was already strong radicalisation in Japan during the 1950s. United Red Army picks up on this and depicts the history of the student movement in the early 1970s, when terror groups grew out of the militant student struggles.

There is a noticeably high number of films by younger directors from Southeast Asia, Japan and the Philippines. Is this due to an increase in filmmaking activity?

Yes, that is definitely the case. We show films by directors that don’t fit in and, based on our experience, these are usually the younger ones. Of course there are exceptions like Wakamatsu and we’re happy to have them in the programme. The same goes, of course, for other parts of the world. For example, Jacques Doillon from France still experiments with narrative forms in his 27th film.

The high number of Japanese films is a coincidence, but it’s hard not to see that a lot more is happening in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand than in previous years. Very personal, formally interesting and politically or socially relevant films. There is definitely a process of globalisation.

I had the impression that “gobalisation” comes up rather subliminally, or appears as it affects individual lives rather than being addressed as an overarching theme.

The term “globalisation” is a bit overused, in my view, but we do have several films that deal with the effects of such processes on individuals and these are, noticeably, often children.

“Childhood cannot be postponed"

For example, La frontera infinita shows people, including a lot of children, who travel from Central America, right through Mexico towards the US border and risk their lives in doing so. If you see how hard these young people are fighting for a better future, the questions automatically arises, what kind of childhood is left for them. Childhood cannot be postponed and if you’re only oriented towards the future, already as a child, and can’t live in the present, you don’t have a childhood any more.

Tanaz Eshaghian's Be Like Others

The same goes for the kids and youths in the Irish film Seaview. This is a portrait of refuges waiting for approval of their asylum applications in an Irish asylum-seekers home. As opposed to those in La frontera infinita, these people have reached Europe, their destination, but they still live in the no-man’s land of the refuge home. The children staying there try to make the best out of the situation. Finally, they too are given an “easy” childhood.

Balikbayan Box also addresses children’s day-to-day struggle for survival. In this case, it’s in the rural areas of the Philippines. The films Tirador and Tribu show youths getting by in the big city and how they have to fight for their lives. If you like, these films can all be categorised under “globalisation”. But for me the question of how belonging is defined and how clichéd behaviour is repeated is more interesting. As, for example, in Regarde-moi directed by Audrey Estrougo, a young filmmaker from France. Her film is centred around 24 hours in a cité, a Paris suburb. The day is narrated twice in a row and filmed differently, once from a male perspective, once from a female one. Clichéd roles are exposed in a very special way. The characters in Regarde-moi can’t escape them, as they’re more or less permanently under observation and are immediately branded as deviants when they change their behaviour. The film shows you close up how people define themselves through patterns of behaviour and societal roles. I think that’s really interesting and new in this work.

If you watch a film like Shahida, it becomes clear that such patterns become even more entrenched and internalised in prison, or in social conflicts.

With the films about Islamic structures and contexts, did you deliberately want to tap into current socio-political discussions or is it by coincidence that these films are in the programme?

It’s more of a coincidence. Of course Islam plays a central role in Be Like Others by Tanaz Eshaghian. As far as I know, the director comes from Iran but lives in the US. Her films are about, put briefly, the possibility of having a sex change in Iran. Transsexuals are broadly accepted under Islamic law, because the Koran doesn’t actually mention the word “transsexual”. Finally, this means that the dualism of man and woman is only strengthened. A consequence of this is that many homosexuals in Iran who would otherwise have to fear drastic punishment, can define themselves as a two-gender couple, and undergo operations that aren’t actually necessary – because they’re not really transsexual. This isn’t said explicitly in the film, but it comes through very strongly. Here again, you see an expression of how certain patterns that are defined by the state, religion and society can mould or break the individual.

Global behaviour patterns

A German film that’s being shown is Nacht vor Augen (Night Before Eyes), a story about a German soldier who has returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. Does the film have special political poignancy in light of current events?

The story’s opening – a traumatised soldier returns from a war situation – does remind us that German troops are involved in a military conflict in Afghanistan. But this film, too, transfers its subject to other contexts, because after his return, the main character on the one hand endangers his relationship to his girlfriend and on the other hand makes his younger brother a hostage of his trauma.

'Green Porno'
Green Porno by Isabella Rossellini and Jody Shapiro

One can recognise a parallel to the Pakistani-Australian film Son of a Lion. Here a young boy wants to go to school, but his father, who makes weapons, wants his son to follow in his footsteps. Comparable scenes in which the child is supposed to be normalised, can be found in Night Before Eyes, when the older brother confronts the younger one with his power fantasies. It’s almost possible to talk about global behaviour patterns, so it’s not surprising that many directors have apparently addressed the issue of how to tackle societal roles.

With Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno short films and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, the Forum’s kick-off is “passionate and playful”, in the section’s own description. Is there still a misconception that the Forum is too serious and un-fun?

I don’t think our programme is un-fun or that viewers see it that way. Just the opposite: if there’s anywhere in this festival that offers a chance to be playful, it’s the place that cherishes experimentation and that isn’t limited by formal boundaries. There have always been playful films. If I look at the work of directors like Jonas Mekas – it’s nothing but playful, in the most beautiful sense of the word.

The word “playful” reminds me right away of the Australian film Corroboree, in which it’s really about a play. A young actor is paid by an older man to replay key situations in his life. It’s extremely bizarre and just like the character in the story, the viewer doesn’t really know what’s happening. Then, in a later scene, when “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by Tom Waits is heard, it’s clear that it’s a programmatic defence of childishness and playfulness itself.

It comes up again and again, as in the Japanese film Musunde-Hiraite directed byTakahashi Izumi. The title itself is a nursery rhyme that every Japanese kid learns in the kindergarten. The film begins with a sleight of hand. Two people who don’t actually know one another are stranded in a bar after a wedding celebration. One of them shows the other a trick in which a key is swapped. One could say it’s the playful opening of a social experiment. Playfulness is an extremely important component. The preconditions of a fictive, playful opening situation are found in many films and usually are a sign of a narrative experiment. I prefer watching this sort of material than a film shaped by the last script-writing seminar by some failed Hollywood writer. That’s just terribly boring.

With Forum Expanded you also enter the realm of visual art and installation. Do more innovative ideas originate from this context today than from the film academies?

It’s impossible to generalise, because before anything can be done, the right framework has to exist. Here economic pressures also play a role. I think that the art world simply has greater financial resources, because art lovers often spend more money than cinemagoers who spend 8 euros on a ticket. And so it’s easier in visual art to be playful and experimental, which is also very good. Or you are well-known as an actress, like Isabella Rossellini and can afford to play with your own image. In her Green Porno films – which she herself calls pornographic, but which are not really – she plays a male insect and shows, for example, how two worms, when they have sex, do it in the 69 position. It’s marvellous and funny. And we try to reflect that in the presentation form: we’re not just showing the clips as shorts before My Winnipeg, we’re also presenting them in a playful way on little screens in terrariums. So one can watch Isabella Rossellini as an insect in a terrarium.