It had been a long time – too long, in fact – since I had been able to go to the Berlinale film festival. This was the year we finally corrected that. The joy of the Berlinale is what would seem to make the event frustrating: the hunt for tickets and the duds you see are as much a part of the fun as the surprise discoveries. The duds can themselves be the most memorable part: I still get a laugh when I recall one unfortunate case done in blindingly overexposed sepia.
While a bit of Mystery Science Theater quality has to be, the point of going is to take in films one would never otherwise have encountered. This year, for instance, we saw another film by Naoko Ogigami, whom we first discovered at the Berlinale in 2008, and whose other works we have followed, even though they can be hard to get in Europe and America.
The consensus in the German press this year was that Berlinale 2017 was rather ho-hum. Monday morning I listened to a discussion on Westdeutscher Rundfunk that essentially concluded that the festival’s organization needs some fresh blood. This conclusion seems mostly based on the competition category, and I’m of the school that would just as soon wait on those films. The other categories hold more promise for delivering some insight onto the world we live in.
We took in seven films and a series of shorts over the two weekends we spent in Berlin this month. A few of the highlights:
Honeygiver Among the Dogs: a Buddhist themed film from Bhutan following a detective tasked with investigating the apparent murder of an abbess. The prime suspect is a young woman assumed to be the embodiment of some sort of demon. The film borrows and reworks elements of the noir tradition, as the detective comes to realize that he has unwittingly become an actor in a contest between the spiritual community and those plotting to take the land from the monastery and exploit it for mineral resources. The film was beautifully shot, and I was glad not only that I saw it, but that I saw it on the big screen.
Centaur: We left Honeygiver Among the Dogs only to get back in line for this second screening. The protagonist in this film from Kyrgyzstan steals the occasional thoroughbred out of an affinity for horses. He identifies with an origin myth of his people as nomadic riders, and as such cannot stand to see the abuse of the animals in modernity. His affinity is his tragic downfall. This film, too, has some remarkable shots of the countryside, and while I have an intellectual and political commitment both to the representation of landscape and non-human animals, I confess to having found the main character’s motivation a little forced.
The second weekend we had the chance to take in a couple of films from the NATIVe category, which this year focused on the peoples living in the Arctic circle. Sumé – The Sound of a Revolution was a first-rate documentary on the band Sumé, which made waves in Greenland and Denmark for songs with anti-colonial themes at a time when Denmark exerted tighter control over Greenland. The cover of their first album shows a native Greenlander smiling over the corpse of a Norseman shot full of arrows. The history of the band opens up some of the complicated dimensions of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. For instance, the band formed when its Greenlandic members were studying in Denmark, they were produced by a Danish label and they performed for Danish audiences before touring Greenland. The story of the band also invites reflections on art and politics, as the two members portraited had different feelings on just how political the enterprise should be.
The Tundra Book was our second film in the NATIVe category. The title and division into “chapters” stake an interesting claim to Kipling’s colonial work, and the kind of “soft” colonization by Russian society threatens the dissolution of the community of reindeer herders. The movement of the reindeer herds made this film particularly remarkable from a visual standpoint.
City of the Sun was an understated documentary depicting Tschiaturas, a former Soviet mining town in the Georgian Caucasus on economic margin. We follow the miners into their workplace where night and day are indistinguishable, and observe as one of the characters demolishes a concrete hulk with a sledgehammer in order to remove the frame for scrap metal. The film had a number of aerial shots of the town and its industrial remains couched in a heavily forested valley. I wonder, though, if this kind of photography isn’t quickly on the way to becoming cliché as filming from drones becomes easier and far more common.
Naoko Ogigami’s film Close Knit was a big reason why we returned to Berlin for a second week of the Berlinale. The film was about a girl on the cusp of pubescence who leaves her unstable household and lives for a time with her uncle, who is in a committed relationship with a transwoman. The fact that trans issues have been very much in the spotlight – and have been featured in series such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black – made me wonder if this film could be pulled off convincingly. But the film linked the story of its trans character to larger reflections on family and bodily changes in a way that didn’t seem as if something topical was simply being shoehorned.
And finally there was the dud. In fairness to the film the topic was one that was perfectly fair game for cinema, but that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. We ended up in the theater anyway because I was in line for tickets, studying the board for what was available, and slipped into a Kaufrausch. About five minutes into the film I remembered that I had made a mental note NOT to buy tickets for this movie. Its themes notwithstanding, the film was freighted with a heavy-handed symbolism I found exasperating. I won’t we name and shame, but I will say it would not have been a complete film festival experience if we had not seen one film of that kind!