Berlinale: Berlinale Topics


40th Forum
The Carte Blanche of Filmmaking

For its 40th anniversary the Forum is avoiding displays of nostalgia and concentrating on what counts in its programme: the films. Section director Christoph Terhechte discusses existential topics, the necessity to grow beyond oneself, and the festival’s funniest mass suicide scene.

Der Tag des Spatzen by Philip Scheffner

You characterise the films in the Forum 2010 as a sensitive reaction to the mood of the times. Here, reflections on existential life situations play a special role. The topic of death comes up in several movies and in many different forms: in the observation of life in a Canadian old-age home, as a suicide pact between three Spanish youths, as a funeral in Baltimore, as a contract murder in Istanbul or as a assault by the German army in Afghanistan juxtaposed against a sparrow shot to death in the Netherlands. These filmmakers’ different methods of portrayal are probably as varied as the ways these films look at life’s final phase or the end of life…

CT: The crisis that shook the world two years ago has now arrived in film – from conception to completion, a film can take pretty long to make. Looking at the finished programme, it’s clear that death is very present as a topic. I am also very glad that entertaining yet profound movies such as So Sang-min’s Na-neun gon-kyeong-e cheo-haet-da! (I’m in Trouble!) and Arvin Chen’s Yi yè Tái bei (Au revoir Taipei) are with us, even though nobody dies. The selection shows a wonderful range of ways of dealing with existential topics, although elements of genre are used surprisingly often. Whether in very sporadic form as in the Turkish entry Pus (Haze) by Tayfun Pirselimoğlu or more aggressively as in Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In Face of the Crime) by Dominik Graf, in which the genre is totally redefined. Thomas Arslan’s flm Im Schatten (In the Shadows) uses certain basic forms of genre cinema and looks for new human dimensions within them.

Political documentaries such as Der Tag des Spatzen (Day of the Sparrow) by Philip Scheffner and The Oath by Laura Poitras explicitly address the present day. They don’t theorise and deal less with utopias than with situations in which the individual must take a position on fundamental life decisions.

Laura Poitras's The Oath

The Oath almost seems like investigative journalism…

No, that’s not quite the case. Poitras gives us a portrait of a man who has made two fundamental decisions in his life: first to join Al-Qaida, and then to break away from it. His conflict of conscience lies at the centre of the film. He hasn’t really decided whether he did the right thing, even if he has already officially distanced himself from Al-Qaida and provided information to US intelligence services in intelligently carried out interrogations, which were far more fruitful than those involving torture. So it’s less investigative journalism than a film that looks deep inside and works with great journalistic precision.

Does Der Tag des Spatzen function similarly to The Halfmoon Files by the same director?

Definitely in formal terms. In the current film the absence of the war is discussed. Scheffner assumes the perspective of a bird watcher, in order to investigate an apparently peaceful nature, in which traces of politics and war have left their mark, also in the form of military bases. But it is also very interested in its subjects – the sparrows – and brings this motif together with the political topic employing very nice cinematic technique.

Kenta to Jun to Kayo chan no kuni by Omori Tatsushi

The right to decide

Another theme that caught my eye in a few films perhaps fits quite well to the Forum, because it deals with rebellion against strict, inflexible societal patterns, which, through their limitations, try to impose clear roles upon people. What breaks from convention do you see in the programme, such as unusual narrative structures?

Breaking with convention has always been a theme of cinema and is even a significant element of storytelling in classic cinema – characters, who break with their surroundings, grow beyond them or else fight for a position not intended for them. Whether it’s a film such as Im Angesicht des Verbrechens by Dominik Graf, in which a policeman from a Russian-Jewish background struggles against a mafia-type structure, to which his own family belongs, or Winter’s Bone, in which the 17-year-old protagonist fights for her family. By resisting the social circumstances that deny her the right to make her own existential decisions, she manages to overcome them. Kenta to Jun to Kayo chan no kuni (A Crowd of Three) also deals with a rebellion, but one that fails. These are examples of true film characters whose conflicts or larger-than-life moments underlie the narrative.

How does the main character in Tatjana Turanskyj’s Eine flexible Frau resist the machinery of the HartzIV welfare system?

Through insolence. She doesn’t allow herself to be taken in by this system and is a maladjusted person, who suffers a lot from her situation. At her new job in a call centre, she fails because it obviously fails to offer her any real hope. This film is typical for a generation that has to survive in an economy lacking full employment. Here it’s about educated people who nonetheless spend their lives at the edge of collapse. The film shows this unbelievably frustrating existence with empathy, while also tapping into its comic sides – a very nice directing debut!

Tatjana Turanskyj's Eine flexible Frau

Last year there were several films that dealt directly with the human psyche. This year there’s at least one that addresses the subject in a very personal way. What kind of cinematic language does the director Gamma Bak employ to explore her own illness?

Schnupfen im Kopf is a very brave, self-reflective film. The Berlin director talks about her own psychic illness, and at the same time other people express themselves about her and her story. They weren’t all interviewed by her, though, which allowed them to speak more freely. Gamma Bak has found a very good process in order to compile all the various perspectives on her illness.

Broadly defined, two films tackle the living conditions in the Middle East, with a very different focus: Soreret (Black Bus) is about two runaways from a Haredi community in Jerusalem while Aisheen [Still Alive in Gaza] shows the hopelessness of life in the Gaza Strip. Were these two films included together in the programme line-up by chance?

It’s not by chance. But I don’t see the two films as fitting together. Whereby, in previous years we deliberately programmed films from the Israeli and Arab areas together. The Israeli film Soreret is, at first glance, the more political of the two, because it draws attention to the radicalisation of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem and Israel. Through the focus on two dropouts it addresses less the geopolitical issues, than developing a very important private political perspective. Totally different is Aisheen. Not explicitly political, it has a far subtler approach, that functions through the viewer. This film doesn’t confront, it depends on calm observations made in the Gaza Strip. The result is new insights and perspectives – compared to other documentaries we saw, it took a very subliminal approach to the topic.

Contacts to world cinema

Besides Sunny Land there are two more productions from the African continent in the programme, the short-film collection Congo in Four Acts and Imani by the Campus alumna Caroline Kamya. In general, from your point of view, does one see interesting new developments in African cinema or are these films exceptions?

Congo in Four Acts

They are still exceptions, of which there are thankfully more and more. A new generation is making an effort to revive African cinema. Despite the difficult infrastructure, there are still producers looking for talents – in the case of Congo in Four Acts, documentary film talents, who show Kinshasa from different perspectives. We met the director of Imani at the Talent Campus. This shows the productive side of such projects, through which we actually get to find out about current developments in cinema. Talent Campus and World Cinema Fund shouldn’t be misunderstood as development aid for filmmakers. They are the opposite, instruments to discover and prepare the path to contact with the world cinema scene - so it’s more development aid for us, for the Berlinale.

Keeping with the geographical aspect: What treasures or surprises does Asian cinema have in store for us this year?

Again, we have a lot from East Asia, especially Japan, and I wish we had more from the Southeast Asian region such as the Philippines or Indonesia. Thankfully we once again have two Korean thesis projects from the Korean Academy of Film Arts. Again this school has proven itself as a hotbed of budding talent. From Taiwan, we are showing two very different debuts. The son of Taiwanese parents raised in California, Arvin Chen returned to Taiwan. His film Yi yè Tái bei (Au revoir Taipei) shows Taipei as a more interesting version of Paris. The second Taiwanese entry is utterly different: You yi tian (One Day) produced by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It’s rather a dreamy, almost theoretical film with a small touch of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. With Kanikosen, Sabu cultivates his challenging, in-your-face style. A great opera with the funniest mass suicide scene of the whole festival!

Double Tide by Sharon Lockhart

In three films nature and mankind’s relationship to it play a significant role: in Fan shan (Crossing the Mountain), Double Tide, but also Paltadacho Munis (The Man Beyond the Bridge) to a certain degree. In these works is it more about harmony with nature, the overcoming and utilisation of natural forces or about the risks of civilisation?

It’s very interesting that you bring these three films together. Paltadacho Munis is about religion and power. Fan shan explores an area not yet explored by Chinese cinema: the region on the border to Burma, home to a people who held human sacrifices until merely a few decades ago – they would go and look for a their sacrifice in the neighbouring village. Against the background of these real ghost stories, the whole daily life of the current young generation living between TV, landmines and old traditions is portrayed in the form of a puzzle. Sharon Lockhart who made Double Tide is a director who is interested in places and their structures. This time she accompanies a shell collector in her daily routine. This is a film in which the character is not asked about her relationship to nature. Instead, we form a relationship to her direct perception through colours, light and gestures.

(Re)discovered gems

What lies behind the Special Screenings and what makes them so special?

There are different reasons for the name Special Screening. Either they are reissues such as O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (Antonia das Mortes) by Glauber Rocha or the three films by Shimazu Yasujiro, a moderniser of pre-war Japanese cinema who beat the path for the likes of Ozu. These are both freshly restored classics that have become newly available. In the case of Dominik Grafs, he simply expressed the desire to present his TV series once at the Berlinale. It’s really a great epos made in serial structure – similar to Heimat by Edgar Reitz. Boris Lehman is present in the programme with his 16-mm short films. The common denominator I saw once I put them all together is the relationships of the filmmaker to his friends. Yes, and the wonderful Nénette by Nicolas Philibert is a Special because in this version it’s a world premiere, but it has been shown at other festivals in a shorter version – this is a director’s cut, one could say.

Shimazu Yasujiro's Konyaku sanbagarasu

Like the Berlinale, the Forum is celebrating a big anniversary – the 40th already. For the occasion there is a comprehensive retrospective of 12 blocks of films named “4 Decades Forum” in which we can expect to encounter some big names from the history of film. Is it true that, similar to the all-encompassing Berlinale Retrospective, the selection of the films was outsourced? What were your reasons for that?

Last summer we invited international filmmakers to the Arsenal cinema to give them a carte blanche to put together a programme, each with three films that reflected the four decades of Forum. Twelve filmmakers selected one favourite film each. The result of this event was a book with a DVD, which we’ll publish for the Berlinale, alongside a repeat screening of this programme. We’re not interested in a nostalgic anniversary, and I think this is in line with the spirit of the Forum founders, who could care less about making a big fuss and simply wanted to show films and talk about them and nothing else.

Won’t the Forum run the risk – as often is the case with established institutions – of becoming domesticated and losing its flexibility? What can you do as an organisation in order to maintain that certain “unpredictability”?

In 40 years of the Forum I am only the second director and of course I have to ask myself this question. I think you have to quit the moment you no longer have any new ideas and when your passion for discovery has disappeared. As far as I am capable of judging that myself, we’re still a long way from that.