May 2009

Last updated on May 1, 2009. Please check back later for additions.


Coming Attractions: Summer Trailer Night
The Cinema Lounge
Filmfest DC Award Winners
Rudo y Cursi: Notes from Director Carlos Cuarón
Director Atom Egoyan on Adoration
Adam's Rib Cuts Costs the Muppet Way
The Berlinale
We Need to Hear From You
Calendar of Events

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Last 12 issues of the Storyboard.

Coming Attractions

Summer Trailer Night 2009

It’s time for the warm weather - and the parade of Summer blockbusters and releases, a spectrum of action, comedy, drama, romance and horror films. Come into the air conditioning, get cozy, and be among the first to view the season’s hottest trailers with fellow film fans.

You'll see up to 30 trailers which may include some of the following: Angels & Demons (sequel to The DaVinci Code), Sasha Baron Cohen's Bruno, Judd Apatow's Funny People, the latest Harry Potter, Night at the Museum, Transformers & Terminator films, comedies The Hangover, I Love You Beth Cooper, and latest from My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos, My Life in Ruins, 70s tv-inspired Land of the Lost with Will Farrell, Public Enemies with Johnny Depp, Billy Crudup and Christian Bale, Drag Me to Hell, the Denzel Washington/John Travolta remake of Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Taking Woodstock from Ang Lee, Disney Pixar's Up...and many more.

This unique twice-a-year event takes place on Tuesday, May 19 from 7-9pm at Landmark's E Street Cinema. $5 for BASIC members and Free for GOLD members. $8 for all others. Tickets are sold at the door night of the event starting at 6:00pm. Your ticket includes lots of movie promotional items, movie posters and raffles of movie tickets and DVDs!

The Cinema Lounge

The next meeting of the Cinema Lounge will be on Monday, May 11 at 7:00pm. The topic to be discussed is "Best Movie Openings" (first ten minutes).

The Cinema Lounge, a film discussion group, meets the second Monday of every month at 7:00pm at
Barnes and Noble, 555 12th St., NW in Washington, DC (near the Metro Center Metro stop). You do not need to be a member of the Washington DC Film Society to attend. Cinema Lounge is moderated by Daniel R. Vovak, ghostwriter with Greenwich Creations.

Last month at Cinema Lounge
On April 13, 2009, we discussed movie sequels. Many people in the group came up with film titles. (Note: all numbers are approximate).

Friday the Thirteenth (10). Rocky (6). Hellraiser (11). Star Trek (6-10). Star Wars (7). Ghostbusters (2 or 3). Superman (5). Karate Kid (4). Jaws (4). Jurassic Park (3). Batman (6). Matrix (3). James Bond (24). Lord of the Ring (3). Rambo (4). High School Musical (3). Bambi (3). Aladdin (3). Gremlins (3). Indiana Jones (4). Jaws (4). Godfather (3). Vacation (4). Alien (4). Space Odyssey (2). Exorcist (4-5). The 400 Blows (4). Highlander (maybe 10). Frankenstein (7). Dracula (9). Mummy (3 or 4). National Treasure (4). Die Hard (4). Grease (2). Spiderman (3). Harry Potter (5). Beverly Hills Cop (3). Lassie (maybe 8). Benji (3ish). Halloween (too many to count). Miss Congeniality (2). Home Alone (4). Smokey and the Bandit (3). Saw (5). American Pie (too many). King Kong (3). The Producers (2). X-Files (2). Airplane (2). Blair Witch Project (2).

Participants made the following comments:

Sequels are a continuation of a previous story. They're merchandising for new markets. They're not made for art, just profit.

By the time a horror movie gets to space, then you know the franchise is over.

If you watch all three Matrix movies, it's like 'get the hell off my screen'. It's sensory overload. I was mentally fatigued.

Rambo was the most nauseating stuff ever. There were 3-4 people a minute who were killed. There was like a 25-year gap of time within the Rambo series.

There was a tangent about which presidents had sequels: Adams, Bush, Roosevelt, and Cleveland (who was his own sequel).

Filmfest DC Award Winners

Award winners at the 23rd DC International Film Festival were:

The Capital Focus Award winner was Snow (Aida Begic, Bosnia-Herzogovina). A Special Jury Award went to The Necessitites of Life (Penoit Pilon, Canada).

Circle Audience Award winners (the audience award) were (1) Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love (Chai Vasarhelyi, Senegal); (2) Skin (Anthony Fabian, South Africa); (3) Old Man Bebo (Carlos Carcas, Spain); (4) The Least of These (Clark Lyda and Jesse Lyda, USA); and (5) The Necessities of Life (Benoit Pilon, Canada).

The Signis Award for a film to celebrate what it means to be a human in a diverse and challenging world went to Departures (Yojiro Takita, Japan) with special commendations for The Necessities of Life (Benoit Pilon, Canada) and Kabei (Yoji Yamada, Japan).

Director Carlos Cuarón on Rudo y Cursi

From the Press Notes

Popular Mexican actors Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna play brothers who work at a banana plantation and also play soccer for the village team. Nicknamed “Tough” [rudo] because of his personality and football style, Luna dreams of becoming a professional soccer player; his brother's dream is to be a famous singer, and both share the dream of building a house for their mother. Their luck changes when a soccer talent scout discovers them and they move to the big city. But success brings its own problems.

Writer and Director Carlos Cuarón discussed the film. "Rudo y Cursi (Tough and Corny) was like a family project, literally, as one of the producers (Alfonso Cuarón) is my brother, the other two (Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro) are very dear friends, Diego [Luna] and Gael [García Bernal] are my buddies and the rest of the crew became my creative kin. We were able to create a big family in which we were all united by the same cause. Alejandro, Guillermo and Alfonso explained everything that could happen and everything I could feel while directing my first feature. Diego and Gael explained and had opinions about everything they wanted in regards to acting issues. So I was very sheltered.

"What else can one ask, but that your producers be people that understand filmmaking creatively and that are willing to help at all times and contribute extremely valuable advise with the talent, trade and experience that they have? It’s having the best of both worlds because they not only can support you financially and in when it comes to logistics of filming through their experience as producers, but creatively through the constant feedback I received from them.

"Diego and Gael gave their best to the characters. It was an extremely pleasant process to see how out of nowhere they were suddenly there in flesh and bone, characters that had nothing in common with the actors. At the beginning, they were puzzled because Diego said that because of his nature, he was Cursi (Corny) and Gael felt the same way with Rudo (Rough), and I agreed with them; but that is exactly why I did not want to cast them like that, I wanted to make a film that went against their natural personality.

"Guillermo Francella (“Batuta”) is the best-known and most famous comedian in Buenos Aires. To begin with, I was surprised by the fact that he wanted to participate in a casting process, and later on by his great humility when working. He fully grasped that I was not looking for Francella the comedian, but the actor and that is exactly what he delivered: a real Batuta that is credible from beginning to end. Working with Guillermo was a delectable experience.

"The creative work is not what one imagines. At the beginning, you have an idea of what you want your work of art--book or film--to be; but in reality, you build upon it every day. As I wrote and directed the film, I did have an image for certain things, but I had no concrete expectations because I was very much in the present tense of creation, there was nothing else for me.

"To say that life is like football is almost commonplace. In life, you have penalties, corners, warnings… in a way it is a mirror of society, a microcosm of what happens in the world. In this case, soccer is a metaphor for life and life becomes a metaphor of the game. What I tried to do, was a faithful portrait of Mexican society. For me, Rudo y Cursi has a tone of realistic drama, more than a comedy, but what happens is that there is a lot of sense of humor.

"Originally, I had conceived Rudo y Cursi as a mockumentary about Tato, a player from humble origins that attains glory within professional soccer, but disappears mysteriously and becomes a legend. When I told Diego and Gael the story, they both wanted to play Tato, which was really cool. The problem was that there was only one character. That is when I realized that I wanted to work with both of them together again and I had to grow the story to two characters. The first thing that came to my mind was the image of two soccer players solving an intimate drama right before shooting a penalty in front of a full stadium. Then I thought, why not make them siblings, and I started constructing the story backwards.

"In me, all creative process is chaotic; nothing comes in order. I put it in order as the ideas follow each other. It was very complicated to write the script, as complicated as the production itself. Writing is very difficult for me, so is directing. I enjoy it all the time, but both are difficult processes. I had to rewrite at very unusual--or strange--moments, during a very intense preproduction, because there was no other choice. It is a very different process when the story is discovered by the screenwriter than when the director discovers it. For the first one, it is almost a literary fact where he finds drama and coherence, for the later, it is closer to knowing how to carry it out.

"I hope that honesty and authenticity are what bring people to the theatres. Beyond the cast, it is a unique concept that deals with a universal subject matter--brotherhood--which we all have experienced one way or the other. Besides, the story is told within a very rich context: the banana plantation and coastal context, and the approach to the dark and bright sides of how professional soccer happens in this country (even though it is NOT a sports film)."

Rudo y Cursi opens at Landmark Theaters on May 15.

Director Atom Egoyan's Newest Film Adoration

From the Press Notes

Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian) is a high school French teacher who gives her class a translation exercise based on a real news story about a terrorist who plants a bomb in the airline luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. The assignment has a profound effect on Simon, one of the students (Devon Bostick) who uses it to probe a family secret.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan's twelfth feature film is an exploration of the nature of our relationship to media and technology and its effect on the construction of personal identity. One of the original inspirations for the film came from a 1986 news story Egoyan had read about a Jordanian man who sent his pregnant Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight with a bomb in her handbag, of which she had no knowledge until security found it. “The story always struck me because it was one of the first examples of how extreme a terrorist act could be and how one could turn someone close into an abstraction—not only his fiancée but also an unborn child. I came across the story again in 2006 and began to wonder about the child and the legacy of being raised knowing what your father had done.”

Simon uses the internet to misrepresent himself as the unborn child of the plot and the story shifts between a foiled terrorist plot and its unexpected repercussions on the lives of three contemporary characters living in Toronto. “In many ways, Adoration is about the need to find objects and places which give a sense of meaning, as opposed to the instant meaning accorded to the sea of responses that Simon is dealing with over the Internet. This actual event of the terrorist plot began to mesh with the story of a young man maturing in an age of invented screen names and the creation of alternate identities through gaming avatars. What’s interesting and what has always fascinated me is the exploration of how we communicate as human beings and also how technology allows us access and ways of representing ourselves. In the '80s, society was clearly divided into people who had access to making images and broadcasting them and people who were just watchers—people who were relegated to that position. What has happened in the 20 years since is that now we can all make images and anyone can broadcast their thoughts.”

Photography began in September of 2007. At that time an application like Apple's iChat only allowed up to four people to conduct a group visual communication. Egoyan’s vision included open video conversations with dozens of people from all over the world joining in. “The technology proposed in the film is slightly ahead of its time, however, I have no doubt that by the time the film is released it will be possible to speak with a community.”

To better understand adolescents’ approaches to Internet communication, Egoyan conducted sessions in a number of Toronto high schools interviewing students and setting up workshops for several months beginning in the spring of 2007. Using six to eight cameras, Egoyan initiated chats and had the students regard the cameras as though they were looking at each other to gauge how comfortable they were with the medium. “It was surprising how unselfconscious these kids were and how very comfortable it was for them to have, in some way, two identities, which is what this film is dealing with. In the scripted scenes, there’s an attempt at naturalism and there’s a tone to those scenes which is very different from the way a person acts when they know they’re being broadcasted. Simon is a boy who is caught between these two worlds.”

On finding the right actor to play Simon, Egoyan said, “Simon was a real search and Devon [Bostick] is a true gift because, like the character, he really is this young man at the cusp of adulthood and it’s really very moving to me to see him in this zone. There’s an innocence and a playfulness to him and he is still seeking approval, which I find very touching. He somehow got the tone really right on his own and I consciously decided not to rehearse too much with him because what he feels is so close to what I had in mind.”

Arsinée Khanjian, who plays the teacher, has worked with Egoyan in numerous films during the past 20 years. “She’s an extraordinary actress. This role is very different for her. In a way, it was inspired by seeing her playful and mischievous side in Sabah. Sabine is a character who undergoes a huge shift. She is dealing with this incredible secret but wants to present herself as lightly as possible because the pain of what she’s actually living with is so great.”

Although the film’s overall subject of the world of digital communication over the Internet is associated with a disposable visual texture, Egoyan, in contrast, chose a rich and deeply layered palette. For a film obsessed with new technologies, where the Web, computers and video are central ingredients, it’s an interesting juxtaposition that Adoration was shot on 35mm film. “It’s fascinating to me how the technology of shooting with film negative has become antiquated so quickly. For purely practical reasons the language is simply disappearing. Film is an incredibly beautiful medium and I was really quite convinced that I wanted to shoot this on film stock. The challenge was in finding negative cutters, color timers—people who still know how to work with film. Scenes between Sami and Rachel [Simon's father and mother] have a dreamy feel, and were shot with an extremely long lens which seems to always float around the couple, thus throwing the background of the rooms and places they inhabit out of focus. We come to understand that these scenes exist in Simon’s mind. Indeed, this couple—like all the other sacred objects presented in the story (from the crècheto to the stolen Christmas decoration to the severed scroll) are presented in a way that emphasizes their precious nature. Other than the flashbacks where the image was filtered slightly to suggest a differentiation from the present reality, the ‘look’ of the movie was largely accomplished with contrast, color, production design, wardrobe and lighting.”

This is an age of instant avatars and wildly improbable icons. In a world where everyone has an opinion that can be instantly broadcast, it’s easy to understand the impulse towards embellishment and fantasy. “While Adoration might be dealing with the issue of how new technologies transform our identities, the film is also a coming-of-age story. There are two stories within one. The story of all of our loved ones who remember us and how they remember us—the truth versus the realities that people have created for their own purposes.”

Adoration opens May 29 at Landmark Theaters.

Adam's Rib Cuts Costs the Muppet Way

By Adam Spector, DC Film Society Member

Times are tough, and we are all looking to stretch our dollars. Who do we turn to in this difficult economy? The Muppets, of course. Check out their financial wisdom in my
new Adam's Rib column.

The 59th Berlin International Film Festival

By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member

Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website

What do you get — in fact, almost can’t help catching — when you spend ten frosty days in February in Germany’s capital city? A cold, you say? Try... a virus. In fact, the
Berlinale Virus, so named by Berlin’s Tagesspiegel because it seemed to have infected not just film fans but people all over the city arriving from all over the world. Even those who don’t give a fig for films (the law of averages says they must be out there) couldn’t escape the cheery, cherry-red-and-white posters plastered throughout the city, culminating in a parade of six-foot screen shots and placards lining the sidewalks leading to the festival center at Potsdamer Platz, and ticket queues streaming as far as the eye could see, both there and at 15 other festival venues. A record 270,000 tickets were sold this year: a full 11% more than the year before, continuing the steady climb in ticket sales for what is proudly hailed as one of the top international film festivals and the world’s biggest film festival for the general public.

One of the biggest draws this year, and the pride and joy of festival director Dieter Kosslick, was the opening of a new festival cinema: the magnificent Friedrichstadtspalast, Europe’s largest show theatre. A historic institution, the Berlinale’s second “palace” (the Berlinale Palast, in Kennedy Center-esque red and gold, anchors Potsdamer Platz) was rebuilt in 1984 on a grand scale, with 1,750 seats devoted to cinema screenings. Here, rather than festival red, an elegant white and blue set the tone for opening night, and for scores of screenings to follow over the next ten days and nights.

Kosslick, an indefatigably and irresistibly enthusiastic promoter (he started out in advertising, moved on to political speechwriting, took hold of the reins of the Berlinale in 2002 and has been unstoppable ever since) has used his talents to shape the Berlinale both structurally and programmatically. The Berlinale has always been by birthright a political film festival, conceived during the Cold War when Berlin was a divided city and the conflict between East and West was not only ideological, but, just beyond its borders, intermittently martial. “We try to show the world as it is or how it’s perceived on screen as a political image,” Kosslick told Lufthansa Magazine. “That sort of thing is only possible in Berlin. It’s a city where different cultures collide... Berlin has a sharp, edge-like quality, just like the festival.” And film people agree. “If you take a film with a political theme to Berlin, you know you will get an audience that will take it seriously,” producer Maria Kopf told The Hollywood Reporter back in January, before she could even suspect that one of her two films would walk away with three prizes.

  • Opening Night: The International
    The film that opened this year’s Berlinale was an almost preternaturally fitting choice even before its subject became uncomfortably close to reality: The International (Tom Tykwer; USA-Germany 2009), which opened in DC the following week, was shot partly in Berlin itself, along with Milan, New York, and Istanbul. For those who haven’t seen it, a quick summary: Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) follow the money being illegally funneled by one of the world’s most powerful banks to terrorist groups and other disreputable organizations, determined to put an end to their nefarious dealings and bring them to justice.

    While the current banking crisis has caused many to turn a newly jaundiced eye on the world of high finance, The International was actually inspired by events dating back more than 30 years. In the 1970s the Karachi-based Bank of Credit and Commercial International added a few new folders to its portfolio — among them, arms trafficking and support of terrorism — eventually facilitating the most pervasive money-laundering operation in history. (The schemes were unearthed in 1991, and the bank collapsed.)

    “Over the past few years, culminating with the current financial crisis,” says Eric Warren Singer, International’s screenwriter, “we have seen an unprecedented escalation of corporate greed, but what fascinated me about BCCI was that it was more than simply greed; they were the bank for those who operate in the black and grey latitudes of this world — intelligence organizations, drug dealers, organized crime, and third-world tyrants looting their own countries... Although the BCCI was shut down in the 1990s, there are banks that are engaged in the same type of business today — laundering money, promoting and fostering conflict in order to profit from the debt that it creates.”

    It then fell to director Tykwer to bring it to the screen. “We were always aware that we wanted this film to have the engine of a quintessential 70's thriller,” he said. “We were trying to strike a balance between a film that was weighty enough to feel like an exposé, but had the velocity and visceral tension of a classic paranoid thriller.”

    The Press Conference: There’s a striking similarity between the director and Clive Owen, who plays the main character. Did Tykwer perhaps see himself as Salinger, and was this his way of taking on the banks? While acknowledging that he felt a connection with the issue “in moral terms” and may have sought, if subconsciously, an actor who could express onscreen what he himself was feeling, Tykwer firmly and convincingly refuted any factual link between the current financial crisis and his film, which was, he reminded us, the product of eight years’ effort.

    “It’s important that we not dramatize the situation in a way that is totally superficial,” he cautioned. “It’s not banks that are evil [in the film], but this fictional consortium.” However, that’s not to say there’s no truth in the fiction: The system that created this problem “has been here for more than a century. That’s what we need to look at... [The banking meltdown] was something we absolutely did not foresee.”

    Another questioner noted that the director also resembled the lead actor in his previous movie. Did he really not see himself in these roles? Tykwer would have none of it: “A film doesn’t represent the view of a director, but a whole group of people working together,” he said. “In the end, [Salinger] is like all of us.” (Later, though, when asked what he looks for in making a film, the director couldn’t resist joking, “A character that looks like I do.”)

    And this is a director who continually surprises. The International is a shift in tone for you. Can we expect more of the same? “I just fall in love with an atmosphere,” Tykwer replied, something that will allow him to “experience new grounds,” something “secretive” that’s hard to describe. Language, budget, country — there’s no rule. To illustrate, Tykwer noted that after the big-budget, multinational International he went to Africa to shoot a small, $60,000 film. Genre is important, he continued; he was intrigued here with the possibility of doing a thriller with several levels of intrigue and many players working against seemingly insurmountable odds.

    What about the actors? Clive Owen’s “main reason” for doing the film was that it “reminded me of those 70's political thrillers,” plus, of course, it “gave me a chance to work with Tom Tykwer.” (Owens’s assertion would be echoed — indeed repeatedly — at the press conference for Tykwer’s episodic film, Germany '09 – 13 kurze Filme zur Lage der Nazion [Germany '09 – 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation, as several of the dozen other contributing directors, asked what convinced them to join the project, said: “Tom Tykwer asked me.”) At the press conference, asked about the making of the film Owen gave us a bit of inside information, telling us that because of the shooting sequence, it was sometimes a challenge for him to calibrate his emotions at certain points. “We actually shot the last scene first,” he revealed, “and it was hard to know how to pitch it” without having experienced what came before.

    And what about Armin Mueller-Stahl, the legendary German actor well known to American audiences for The West Wing, who plays the bank’s hatchet man, Wilhelm Wexler? (Tykwer called the character “a ruthless killer [who] organizes assassinations... quite frankly, he’s a monster.”) How do you feel, being such a character? “I play the role, I am not the role,” Mueller-Stahl intoned, then added wryly that such roles allow him to do all sorts of things he’d love to do in real life, without suffering the consequences. How did Tykwer cast the villain (Ulrich Thomsen, who plays Skarssen, the bank head)? What was he looking for? Tykwer had decided to make him “just a pragmatic businessman... He’s not scary, which is what scares me the most.” As Tykwer’s great philosopher compatriot once phrased it: the banality of evil...

  • Storm
    Which made another muted and malignant appearance, this time in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm (Germany-Denmark-Netherlands, 2009), a “political thriller” that takes us back to the terrors in Bosnia through the eyes of one of their victims and the prosecutor who tries to help her bring one of the perpetrators to justice. The film would go on to win three Berlinale awards, including the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Berliner Morgenpost Readers’ Prize.

    The film begins as an apparent family drama: mom, dad, and two pre-teen daughters on their way to what we assume is a vacation spot. There is tension from the start between the parents, which spreads to the kids as they all get into the car. Dad drives erratically as the argument escalates. Stopping the car, he gets out, and is assaulted on the dark street.

    Three years later, a pair of prosecutors for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague (ICTY) discuss their case against a Serbian national hero for crimes committed in Bosnia. Their witness — a dark-eyed young man we first see in a hotel room, terrified, praying for strength — becomes easy prey for the defendant’s attorneys, who raise telling doubts about the credibility of his testimony. Embarrassed at having been publicly made a fool and feeling betrayed (her resentment aggravated by the recent assignment of her male colleague, whose accomplishments pale beside hers, to be her supervisor), the young man’s lawyer upbraids him for stringing her along, angrily demanding an explanation. His weak protests — American movies, he tells her, which gave him courage when all hope seemed lost, led him to believe that “the good guys always win in the end” — do nothing to assuage her fury. Broken, despondent, he returns to his room and hangs himself.

    Winning this case has now become a personal mission, even an obsession, for her. It will take her to Sarajevo, where she meets the young man’s sister Mira, whose tales of horror are all too verifiable. He was, it turns out, protecting her by making her story his; a combination of nervousness and ignorance became his undoing at trial. But his death has given her courage, and a determination to see the murderer brought to justice, whatever the cost. In the end, there will be costs that neither woman could have calculated.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference, the Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for her award-winning performance in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, was asked how she prepared for the emotionally and linguistically demanding (the character speaks three languages) role of Mira. “This story hasn’t left me since I first read the first draft,” she replied. “This works within you.” The most difficult part was learning her Bosnian and German lines, neither of which language she speaks (she is fluent in English).

    Kerry Fox, who plays Hannah, had visited Sarajevo several years ago, and found that exploring the dimensions of her role gave her a new appreciation for human rights lawyers. They are, after all, people who choose to devote their time and talents to what can be a thankless and comparatively low-paying job, when they could be earning far more. But “they become so passionate about the rights of the individual and the rights of the human being. It must be a calling.”

    The ICTY is slated to close in 2010, although there are many cases yet to be tried. Why did it take so long for the movie industry to take on this subject, and what does the director hope to achieve with it? Perhaps it’s the complexity of the issue, suggested Schmid, which doesn’t lend itself easily to dramatic storytelling. The stories his film portrays are based on real people and events that were “formed and shaped to make a story.” What they would like to do, he said, expressing frustration with how the legal proceedings seem to keep dragging on, is to create public awareness of the time pressures the court is under, and eventually convince the U.N. to extend the court’s mandate beyond its scheduled expiration.

    After this movie, can you still believe in justice? “We can never really define for people who have suffered what justice might mean for them,” said Fox. “We can only provide support, an opportunity for it to be exposed and revealed.” She stopped, halted by the enormity of the question. “Do we believe in justice...?” She turned to her director. “It’s definitely worth working for it,” he said. In an interview with Berliner Zeitung, Schmid was asked whether a solution was possible in the former Yugoslavia. “How was it in Germany after the war?” he replied. “How much longer will we still be dealing with tensions from the fall of the Wall? A radical reversal would be desirable, but it’s not going to happen. It will be a long time before there’s even a halfway normal relationship.”

  • London River
    A thought that could well describe a healthy percentage of the films at this (or indeed any) film festival, to varying degrees. Few do it as well as French director Rachid Bouchareb, in his affecting tale of two people from opposite sides of the world who discover their common humanity through mutual need, London River (France-Algeria 2009). Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a plump, graying, recently widowed mother from Guernsey whose daughter has gone missing in London after the subway bombings. She makes the acquaintance — gingerly — of Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté, who would take home the Silver Bear for Best Actor), a tall, reed-thin, coal-black African with dreadlocks flowing down his back who, similarly, is looking for his son. Their paths cross repeatedly; at first coincidentally, then purposefully, as their concerns increase and her ignorant fears (“Arabic?” she exclaims upon learning her daughter was studying it. “Is that even a language?”) abate.

    As we become caught up in their stories, we are slowly drawn to these two unlikely characters, whose reluctance, and eventual ability, to reach beyond the narrowly defined borders of their own lives is drawn with sympathy and respect, yet allows them their individuality. Blethyn found the experience of making the film “a hugely pleasant experience. Being with Sotigui was like being in the presence of royalty. The majesty of the man is “well, how lucky was I to be working with him? He’s just wonderful, and I just hope a little of what he had rubbed off on me. He has true inner strength. We’d have long conversations, both of us struggling to be understood, and by hook or by crook we got there.”

    Kouyaté was similarly reflective. “While I am African, and always will be, what matters most to me is humanity. London River is about the problems that life poses for mankind. It has to do with the attacks of 7/7, and it also talks of Islam, but these subjects are not at its heart. Rather, it wants to show the difficulties people have in accepting one another, the fear they feel... It teaches us that when you meet the other, don’t be scared to look them in the eye; for if you are brave enough to do so, you will finish by seeing yourself more clearly.”

    The Press Conference: At the press conference, director Rachid Bouchareb was unequivocal: This film could not exist without these two actors. Blethyn confessed that while she had to learn French for the film (much of it takes place in the immigrant communities of London), she forgot it as fast as she learned it. Blethyn was full of praise for Kouyaté, with whom she had an “immediate rapport,” and apologized for her character, a “simple woman looking for her daughter, slightly prejudiced” who “didn’t know she was.” Kouyaté, who laced his replies with African proverbs, returned the compliment to both Blethyn (“right from the very first scene, we felt as if we’d known each other for ages”) and Bouchareb (“he has great respect for actors, he loves actors, and left us a lot of room to maneuver... It was a film made out of love”).

    One reporter jokingly reproached Bouchareb for making her makeup run, “I cried so much.” He laughed: “Don’t worry, we have people backstage who can fix that.” Amazingly, the shoot took only three weeks, facilitated by its singular focus on two characters in one location. Your film is like “Romeo and Juliet” from the parents’ perspective, said a reporter. Do you think it will make people look into themselves, and confront and deal with their own prejudices? Bouchareb turned the question back on the questioner. I just made the film, he said. It is up to you, to the people who see it, to make the changes in the world. But do you hope that it will change? the reporter rejoined. “Well, you always hope; you have to hope. But to think the world will change, that people will change because of a film, would be very naive.”

  • The Yes Men Fix the World
    Naivety is not something we like to associate with our financial or political leaders. But two films, one a documentary, made a strong case for its presence among the first and predominance among the second. The Yes Men Fix the World (Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno, and Kurt Engfehr, USA, 2009), continues the adventures of the “guerilleros of fun,” a merry trio of impersonators who make a mockery of our most revered institutions so as to shine a light on their iniquity — and our gullibility. The film was the winner of this year’s Panorama Audience Award.

    Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who call themselves “The Yes Men,” have become (in)famous for passing themselves off as the heads of large corporations. But not just any large corporations, and not just for the ego trip. Their forays are meant as a slap-on-the-head wake-up call to all of us who trust too willingly, believe too easily, and allow big business and “the cult of corporate greed” to reap billions of unearned dollars while millions of nameless victims pay the cost.

    We watch, alternately hysterical and horrified, as The Yes Men weasel their way onto the BBC and CNN to announce that Dow Chemical, after more than twenty years of pussyfooting, has announced a $12 billion plan to compensate the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. Posing in a thrift-store business suit as a Dow representative, Andy, clearly conscience-stricken, solemnly intones that Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide, is resolved to liquidate it. “Our shareholders may take a bit of a hit,” he says, “but I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to be a part of a company that is doing the right thing.”

    Their next stop is Bhopal, where they fear becoming victims themselves: of angry mobs who, after all, will receive nothing from Dow. And yet, following their conscience (pointedly, unlike their nemesis), they do what they feel they must. While there is some anger, the people who come to greet them are on the whole grateful that they shone a spotlight on their misery and injustice, and are still hopeful that something will come of it.

    Next stops: a FOSE-type conference for corporate types, where they pose as Haliburton reps who earnestly present preposterous solutions to climate change. (Watching their stone-faced audience of so-called experts at Exxon give serious consideration to the viability of making fuel out of human corpses will bring tears — laughter or pain, take your pick — to your eyes.) Then it’s on to New Orleans, where the thoroughly psyched duo vigorously lambaste corporate and government inaction in the face of human suffering, and vow in the name and on behalf of the dispossessed to rebuild, sharing the stage with a completely credulous mayor and governor.

    The filmmakers came onstage at the conclusion of the screening, elaborately bandaged from head to toe — the result of their madcap motorized whirl, shown before the film, in search of a theme (if memory serves, they used a very used car, and crashed it through several stories of a condemned building). But they also had a serious message. At the film’s heart is an uncompromising indictment of corporate greed, “the blind worship of the free market that has led so many corporations and government agencies to put profits before people.” In accepting their award, the filmmakers dedicated it to the people of Bhopal, and recommended that any med students who were listening do their internships there.

  • Encirclement - Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy
    Corporate greed’s political stepsister was in the sights of another film that, unlike Bichlbaum and Bonanno’s partially sugar-coated pill, was a bitter medicine that you nonetheless felt satisfaction in taking because you knew it was good for you. Encirclement – Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy (Richard Brouillette, Canada, 2009) takes on what its director persuasively sees as the increasing encroachment of neo-liberal ideology, and “the various mechanisms used to impose its dictates throughout the world.”

    His thesis is backed up in filmed interviews with experts whose arguments, granted, may go down well or ill depending upon one’s own views or beliefs. He is, after all, on an avowed mission: to reveal “the globalization of a system of thought.” To that end, he has put together a two-hour and twenty-minute, black-and-white documentary about “mind control, brainwashing, ideological conformism; about the omnipresent irrefutability of a new monotheism, with its engraved commandments and golden calves.”

    Be it MIT’s Noam Chomsky on think tanks (which “emerged to swing public opinion back to the right, since, in the 1960s, it had become increasingly antagonistic”) or financial markets (which “constitute a ‘virtual parliament’ that can dictate to the world’s various governments which policies they must adopt”), or Canadian intellectual Norman Ballargeon on how the Creel Commission, “at the origins of modern techniques of manufacturing public consent, has succeeded in imposing its world view, vocabulary, [and] way of thinking,” Brouillette’s experts are relentless in pressing their case.

    The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank by coincidence wrote a commentary the week after the festival on neo-liberalism’s kissin’ cousin, neoconservatism, and one of its flag-bearers, Richard Perle, who spoke at the Nixon Center and denied any connection with the philosophy or its promotion during his tenure in the Bush administration. “I don’t know that I persuaded anyone,” Milbank quoted Perle as telling the assembly. Replied the moderator: “You certainly kept us all entertained.” Were Mr. Milbank to see this film, he might appreciate anew the irony of those words.

  • Chéri
    Coming to the US next month, Chéri (Stephen Frears, Great Britain-Germany-France, 2009) is set in Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century, the famed “Belle Époque,” when the City of Light showed the world the way in creative arts and intellectual pursuits. It was also the capital of pleasure of a less exalted but no less popular kind, the kind offered by the legendary courtesans of the demi-monde. Chéri, based on Colette's most famous novel, is a young man with a particular problem whose mother, an aging practitioner of the trade, has decided to take care of as only she can. To put it bluntly, before he can gain the power and riches she has planned for him, he must first lose something: his virginity.

    Unfortunately, he not only learns the art of love, but falls in love with his aging but still lovely mistress, Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer). As the overbearing boor-cum-snake-in-the-grass mother, Kathy Bates is perfection (“Oh, you smell so good,” she purrs to Léa. “Don’t you find that now that your skin is less firm, it holds perfume so much better?”), while Pfeiffer (who was the toast of the fest, her face gracing the front page of every paper’s arts section) holds her own with elegance and élan. The sets exactingly recreate the Paris of the period; the costumes, inspired by Impressionist paintings, and the carefully researched hair and make-up designs create a fashion-show template reflecting the positions and personalities of the wearers and their society.

    The Press Conference: This was an important anniversary for Frears, Pfeiffer, screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the Oscar-winning script for Dangerous Liaisons) and the Berlinale: It was twenty years ago that Dangerous Liaisons screened here. and there was standing room only at the press conference. Asked whether she thought she had a chance at the Best Actress Silver Bear, Pfeiffer refused to speculate, adding that having German roots, it was an honor to have won the award several years before [for Love Field, 1992]. “My leading men just keep getting younger the older I get,” she observed. Is hitting 40 liberating? “If you think hitting 40 is liberating, just wait till you hit 50,” which Pfeiffer did last year. “You really count your blessings,” she observed, adding: “It’s better than the alternative.”

    Asked about the film’s topic of “fading beauty” and whether it reflected the difficulty for older actresses to get good roles in Hollywood, Pfeiffer acknowledged that “the older you get, the fewer parts there are,” but that also, from a broader perspective, fewer people these days are willing to invest in dramas. But she has “always really loved doing character work,” and while those roles “are few and far between, the older you get, I think the roles actually become more interesting.” It also comes at a good time for her, she added, because she no longer wants to work as much as she once did.

    Asked about the seeming ease of her exchanges with Kathy Bates — “like drinking champagne,” said the reporter — Pfeiffer thanked the reporter for the compliment, which was particularly gratifying because these scenes, while “a lot of fun,” were difficult to do: “Christopher’s writing is lyrical, but it’s really [densely packed].”

    Complimented on the magnificence of the seascape shots and the beauty of the photography, director Frears waved it aside. “Well, you’re in Biarritz; that’s what’s there,” he said, joining the audience in laughter. “There’s nothing else to photograph, really.” And in these times of financial crisis, do you think people can relate to a period of wealth and profligacy? “Well I guess you’ll find out, when you put it in the cinema,” Frears replied, adding that “during the Depression, people used to go and see Fred Astaire films. A lot of cinema has to do with escapism.”

    And how was the experience for Rupert Friend? The main challenge was the character of Chéri (or, as Léa contends, the lack of it). “He had no needs, wants, desires, nothing driving him. He’s entirely apathetic and passive.” Still, it was a pleasure working with Frears, “who has the same sense of humor as Colette... and that sort of pervaded the whole thing.”

    A final question for Pfeiffer: What is the pleasure of acting? Quoting a fellow thespian, she offered a surprising answer: “If there isn’t anything else in the world that you would be good at, then yes, become an actor. If there is anything else... And I think for me, there was no other choice I could make. The first time I walked into an acting class, I felt like home. And I think I finally felt like I was amongst people where I didn’t feel like an alien.”

  • Ricky
    Feeling like an alien — or rather, like the parents of an alien — is a sentiment familiar to the protagonists of a film also situated in France but, in a sort of nationality hopscotch from Chéri, is based on a short story by an Englishwoman, and made by a Frenchman: François Ozon’s Ricky (France-Italy, 2009). From a short story by Rose Tremain, Ozon (with co-screenwriter Emmanuêle Bernheim) has crafted an engaging hodgepodge that comes off as a kind of infant “Alice in Wonderland” where the grown-ups go down the rabbit hole.

    Katie (Alexandra Lamy), a thirtyish mother with a six-year-old daughter and an assembly-line factory job and Paco (Sergi López), who is similarly employed, fall in love and set up housekeeping. Before you know it, baby makes four: Ricky (Arthur Peyret), a blond-haired, blue-eyed, apple-cheeked cherub, their pride and joy. As all doting parents, Katie and Paco think their perfect child is an angel. But when Mother Nature turns metaphor into masquerade and their angel begins literally to sprout wings, their previously dull and ordinary lives literally fly out the window.

    Ricky elicited a slew of contradictory critiques, from Berliner Zeitung’s “Was it all only a dream? A projection? A flashback? Regardless, you absolutely have to see Ricky” to Berliner Morgenpost’s “Too bad there are no diapers for bullshit.” What did the young filmmaker, who at 41 could himself be considered an enfant prodige, with 13 shorts, 11 features and a documentary to his credit, have in mind when making what is — for someone better known for sophisticated thrillers such as Swimming Pool — a fantasy/social-drama?

    The Press Conference: At the press conference Ozon allowed that Ricky was a departure for him, but he had read the story two or three years ago and it intrigued him. Contrary to what we might expect, what held his interest was not its supernatural aspects, but its naturalistic ones: the relationships between man and woman, mother and child, father and child in a working-class setting, and how they play out in highly unusual circumstances. Alexandra Lamy, who plays the mother, noted that making a realistic film that literally flies off into fantasy was a delicate balancing act, for the actors as well as for the director.

    What about the baby? How did you get him to fly without fear? To smile, giggle and gurgle on command? Little Arthur was a pro, Ozon assured us. Didn’t have the least bit of vertigo. “He loved it.”

    In general, Ozon said, he leaves his casting calls completely open, and likes to give actors a chance to explore types of roles and characters that are new to them. López, for example, may be best remembered as the sadistic Capitán Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, while Lamy is familiar to French audiences for her stage and comedy roles. While this casting against type contravenes expectations, it is, in a larger sense, true to this mixed-genre film. For his part, López loves movies that lead us down false trails. “I like ambiguity.”

  • About Elly
    Ambiguity was certainly the watchword in the Iranian film About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009), which won the Silver Bear for Best Director, in which a group of friends take a trip to a resort on the Caspian Sea for a three-day holiday break. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani, seen recently in Body of Lies with Leonardo DiCaprio) has brought along a surprise guest: Elly, who teaches at her daughter’s kindergarten. There’s some minor grumbling, but in the end they make room in the car and invite Elly to climb in.

    Upon reaching the resort, they find that the cottage they’ve been assigned might be better named “last resort”: windows broken, glass shards everywhere, barely functioning appliances. In the spirit that inspired the trip — they are, after all, old college friends who haven’t seen each other in a while, and Ahmad has just returned from a years-long sojourn in Germany — they join forces to make the place livable. At one point they briefly revert to their student selves, play charades, turn the radio on full blast, jump on the sofa, and dance like there’s no tomorrow. For one of them, there may not be. Ahmad is divorced (his wife left him with the words of a German proverb: “Better a sad end than sadness without end”); Elly is single. Voilà! A perfect matchmaking opportunity. But things are not always what they seem, and the story takes a tragic turn.

    The film is beautifully lensed, with images that linger in the memory: Elly running along the beach, flying a kite in joyful freedom as she helps a small boy get it into the air, her laughing face turned upward. A summer sky slowly darkening, the sea’s waves growing ominously stronger, a breeze becoming wind, a long skirt wrapped around running legs. A frantic child racing to the cottage, screaming that a little boy is drowning, the waves now pounding, lashing, terrifying in their sudden force. The group’s realization that Elly is not among them, followed by a frantic dash into the churning sea, the camera illuminating the underwater search with breathtaking clarity. The stillness that descends as the squall ends unceremoniously, almost as an afterthought, leaving uncertainty and destruction in its wake; the searchers returning, exhausted and in despair.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference (in which, curiously, the actress who played Elly also went missing), director Asghar Farhadi was at pains to emphasize the universality of his film, hoping it would appeal to people everywhere regardless of their nationality or culture. But some were reluctant to abandon their impressions of Iran, particularly its treatment of women. That scene of Elly flying the kite. Does it have a deeper meaning? With almost Sphinx-like equanimity, Farhadi replied that it doesn’t matter what he may have meant. Each viewer must decide for himself what it means. The differences one encounters in Iran are the kinds you will find pretty much anywhere in the world, he continued, adding cryptically: “I don’t want to show just the tip of the iceberg, but what goes on beneath the surface as well.”

    The press wasn’t ready to give up. Did the director impose his views on the chador-clad actresses? Or did he allow them room to develop their own ways of seeing the story, their own interpretations of their roles? To a woman, each lauded Farhadi’s openness and skill in directing them. “It was a partnership in every way,” said actress Golshifteh Farahani, “and a valuable learning experience.” The other two agreed, saying how fortunate they felt to have worked with Farhadi, who gained international fame in 2003 with Dancing in the Dust.

    What about the scandal — at least, it is assumed, in Iran — of Elly, an engaged woman, taking up with a divorced man? You’re looking at it wrong, Farhadi replied. The central question here is not the morality of Elly’s behavior, but what others thought of her behavior. What is morality? What is an upright person? How do we decide? These are complex issues, he said, for which there are no easy answers.

  • Katalin Varga
    Complex issues with no easy answers abound in Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (Romania-Hungary-Great Britain, 2009), which takes moral ambiguity to a disturbing if lushly filmed level. Katalin lives with her pre-teen son and husband in a small Transylvanian village where time for many, in ways both on and beneath the surface, seems to have stopped: the women’s hair pulled back in cotton head scarves that clash obliviously with their housedresses’ faded flowers, the men seeing their women as property, or at least as unlikely to assert their independence. And yet the modern world has not been kept entirely at bay, as Katalyn has, in striking incongruity with her surroundings, a cellphone that will be an instrument in both her deception and her destruction.

    Katalin’s husband has discovered that the boy he raised as his son is in fact the child of another man, and banishes both mother and son from the village. Telling the boy that his grandmother is ill, Katalin takes him with her on a trek through the Carpathian mountains, grimly resolved to take revenge on both the man who brutally raped her ten years before and the one who, his wits dimmed by drink, stood by and watched. Finding the anything-but-innocent bystander in a bar, she exacts her revenge, equal in its brutality, with a sense of justice and at least partial closure. The rapist will not be so easy to deal with, for he is no longer the man he was: devoted to his adoring wife and adorable small daughter, he is as if reborn. But the hideous cycle, temporarily halted by a decade of ignorance and innocence, has resumed. It will not quickly run its course.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference, the young director found himself engaged in a sometimes heated philosophical match with journalists who, while admiring the film’s naturalistic score and stunning cinematography, questioned its moral underpinnings, particularly its humanizing of a character who commits an indefensible act. Director Peter Strickland responded volubly, by turns as straightforward and as enigmatic as his film. The sound? “I’m a big fan of Bresson,” in particular Au hasard Balthasar (1966), “who hardly ever used music,” achieving a “very pure” sound. “For me, the sound [in Katalin Varga] was almost hallucinatory.” Katalin Varga would go on to win the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for its sound design. Bresson’s signature naturalism in both image and sound inspired in Strickland a single-minded pursuit of the same for his film, at one point leading him on an exhaustive search for the perfect owl call (he finally found it in a library, where he spent an entire day listening to owl recordings, and “bought the rights to the species”).

    Responding to objections from Romanian and Hungarian journalists who questioned the film’s authenticity, Strickland politely shrugged them off. “I’m an Englishman. No matter how hard I tried, it could never be really authentic.” In fact, as Strickland earlier told an interviewer, “The film has nothing to do with Romania or the relationship between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians... I’m a foreigner – a total outsider... (E)verything is heightened – the goat bells, crickets, wind, etc. It’s a conglomeration of what I felt as an outsider.”

    “How did you come to terms with what your character did?” Tibor Pálffy, who played the onetime rapist turned doting husband and father, was asked. “And with the seemingly radical personality change he underwent years later?” [Tagesspiegel praised his performance, saying he “has what it takes to be the nicest rapist in movie history.”] “Everyone makes mistakes in life,” Pálffy responded with great gravity. “People become aware of these mistakes after a while. And if you come to grips with the awful mistakes you have made, there comes remorse and penance. I think that this figure has to carry a very heavy cross upon his shoulders for the rest of his life. People in Transylvania,” he added, “have very strong religious belief, and that helps them come to terms with extremes in behavior. People commit great sins and still experience forgiveness.”

    Strickland picked up the thread. “You can see that all the time with revenge, politically. Good people do very bad things, thinking they’ve been wronged. When we made this film we were very aware we were working within a tradition — rape, revenge, à la Tarantino — sometimes it’s a very sleazy tradition... but what I found lacking was this chain, this counter-revenge.

    “I think all of us can imagine killing someone, if we’re pushed enough. But this person we have killed, he’s leaving behind someone, a wife, a child, a brother... so you are adding to this chain of suffering. You see this sort of thing all the time. You just turn on the news, you look at the Caucasus, you look at Gaza and Israel... the moral compass is completely blown up.” Pressed by a journalist who said she felt “very offended” by the ending of the film, Strickland concurred vigorously. “It IS offensive. That’s what I wanted. There are many people getting killed all the time. I know plenty of people who have been victims of horrific violence,” and the police do nothing. “It makes ME very angry... I’m not going to compromise and give you a happy ending. It’s just life. “I wanted the audience to struggle with the ending. Else it would just be another dumb film to chew popcorn to.”

  • The Pink Panther
    You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of films at this festival that fit that description. One of them may have been a movie that met with mixed reviews (including here in D.C.), but whose popcorn-worthy parts had ’em rolling in the aisles at the press screening. The Pink Panther 2 (2009) brought Steve Martin to Berlin, along with the film’s director, Harald Zwart, and co-stars Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jean Reno, and Andy Garcia. The first question went to Martin, who was asked how it felt, “as a comic actor, taking over from the great Peter Sellers,” and how much he felt he needed to... “Apologize?” finished Martin. Embarrassed denial gave way to apologetic acknowledgement.

    “I feel that comic characters are like dramatic characters,” Martin replied, “that they can be played by several actors as time goes on. To me, Inspector Clouseau is the comedian’s Hamlet.” How influenced were Martin and Zwart by previous Pink Panthers? “What I tried to bring from the original was mainly the visual style; I wanted it to look very French,” said Zwart. Although they spent just five days in Paris, “it was very important for me to bring to the screen a very ‘frenchified’ look,” with Citroëns, french blue, “not just the art nouveau and marble staircases, but also the fantastical twirly-twirly bits of France.”

    His influences? “I’m very influenced by Tom and Jerry. The timing and the precision of those jokes have been influencing me a great deal in my career.” Was Martin involved in the writing of the script? Very much so, “in every draft. I wrote some original scenes before the actual script was written — before we actually had the idea for the Dream Team. I contributed to every stage of the writing.” And what about the beautiful Bachchan, a celebrated Bollywood star? What was it like to play in this film — “like James Bond without violence” — and in this “icon[ic] film of the Western world?” Put very simply: “Bad has never been so good. It’s simple, it’s sweet, it’s innocent fun... a movie that we know will bring a smile to your face, and will leave the audience feeling good. It’s a feel-good film.”

    What is the most courageous thing Steve Martin has ever done? It dates back to when he was 18 years old and had to develop his first comic routine, he said. He put together assorted things — “some magic, joke- book humor, material from other comedians, a bit of banjo playing” — only to realize a couple of years later that “everything must be original. And my original 25 minutes went down to 5 minutes. And I had to create an entire new act,” with no previous experience in writing comedy. “And it was just perseverance, really, that sustained me.” Reno (who plays Clouseau’s partner Ponton) told the audience what a pleasure it was to work with Martin, “a real artist in many ways.” Silence. “And...?” Martin’s eyebrow arched expectantly, causing Reno to chuckle. “I sort of consider us like Laurel and Hardy,” said Martin. “We have a good onscreen and off-screen rapport.”

    The Pink Panther is different from Martin’s comedy of yore, which was verbal, as opposed to Panther’s slapstick. Will we see the old Steve Martin again? Martin sees it as a natural progression — “You wouldn’t ask a painter to do the same sort of thing he did 20 years ago” — and also drew a careful distinction between slapstick’s “low, pie-in-the-face comedy” and “physical comedy, which is what I think this is.” As he thought about it, he seemed to realize that the progression might not be not as definitive as it first appeared: “Even when I did stand-up comedy, I was a very physical comedian. This is no transition; this is what I’ve always done.”

    This film has received not altogether positive reviews, observed one journalist. “What’s your take on this?” “I have received bad reviews my whole life,” Martin replied, citing as an example The Jerk (1979), whose standing has risen steadily since its release 30 years ago. “Comedy is not a critic’s medium. It just isn’t.” Chimed in Zwart deadpan, “A lot of critics don’t get it that if you laugh, it’s generally funny.”

    A question was posed to the beauteous Bachchan. After the phenomenal success of Slumdog Millionaire’s portrayal of India’s seamier side, “how does it feel to play someone from India who is intelligent, super sexy and smartly wicked?” Sonya “was just fabulous fun to play,” and the “franchise” will have a long life because it’s something the whole family can enjoy together, responded Bachchan, astutely sidestepping the prickly first part of the question. But Martin had a more serious one: “Just how difficult was it,” he asked, fixing Bachchan with a gaze of reportorial intensity, “for you to play a beautiful woman?”

    And what about the Vatican? Did you get permission from them to play the Pope? What was their reaction to the film? No permission was sought, said Martin, adding that the Catholic church is probably pretty used to being ribbed about everything, with English films dressing men as nuns and all the rest. “It’s just a long tradition, and I think the church is very smart not to go crazy about it... The Catholic church will probably last longer,” stretching out the syllables for ironic emphasis, “than this film.”

    Question to Bachchan: What are the differences between making a Bollywood and a Hollywood film? The differences do not inhere in the country, but in the genre, cast and director. When you come down to it, “It’s about acting in cinema. Each experience is an individual experience.” Summing it up in a newly declarative, professional manner, the glamorous actress said simply: “You’re just an actor, doing your job in a film.”

    To the director: How did you create that wonderful animated intro? That was the one thing Zwart spent the most time on: “I storyboarded every scene. Because I think that is one of the big homages to the original series. I wanted to make it modern, but still with the original retro feel of the old movies.” Was there any improvisation? The improv happens while you’re doing a read-through, while you’re rehearsing, but once in front of the camera there can be no more improvisation, out of respect for the cameraman and the cost, said Martin. “The haircut scene was totally improvised,” interjected Reno, and Martin concurred.

    Was there a chance for Martin to play his banjo on the set? Not on the set, but in the trailer, Martin replied, and took advantage of the opportunity to plug an album of banjo music he composed, due out soon. “And if we have a minute, I’ll play you some.” True to his word, Martin pulled out a classy banjo from behind the podium and played an excerpt from the title song on the album, “The Crow.”

    The film and its lighthearted cast and crew offered a needed break from some of the festival’s weightier fare, of which there was no shortage, as exemplified by the Katalin Varga discussion earlier. These dramas and documentaries — and the inspirations of their directors — were sometimes linked by more than genre. There were in fact two key themes that director Kosslick explicitly wove into the fabric of this year’s Berlinale: the consequences of globalization and radical social change. But a keen observer would soon pick up on additional leitmotifs. One of these was the Middle East, on which the festival’s films and discussions offered both complement and contrast to the Kennedy Center’s "Arabesque" cultural celebration of the region a month later.

    Panel Discussion "Cinema in Palestine"
    “Cinema in Palestine,” a 3½-hour panel discussion featuring filmmakers and producers from the Middle East, offered a wide-ranging investigation of the state of cinema in Palestine — something most of us do not immediately think of when we think of that embattled land. The discussion was at turns enlightening, surprising, infuriating, heartbreaking. Indeed, the passion of these panelists — and of the audience members who supported or challenged them — for filmmaking, and for their own people, transported the observer back to the time of King Solomon: Why must the baby be cut in two for each mother — each people — to have her own?

    The first question posed to the panel, while seemingly simple enough, was emblematic of this dilemma, as were the answers and discussion that followed: What does “Palestinian cinema” mean? A film written or directed by a Palestinian-born person, wherever he or she lives, that deals with Palestinian issues, replied Palestinian filmmaker and author George Khleifi. Maybe it’s a bit more complex, suggested Alia Arasoughly, director of the Shashat’s Women’s Film Festival. Themes, locations, the director’s and writer’s nationality, the audience it’s made for — all of these feed into it. Then she changed the camera’s angle. “Why do we always look at Middle East cinema as an expression of national identity? We don’t do that with Swiss films.”

    Is it, by definition, cinema in exile? When there was a Palestine Liberation Organization, responded producer/distributor Irit Neidhardt, there was an “exile” Palestinian cinema. Independent “post-Lebanon” Palestinian cinema started in 1979, added Khleifi. After the “disaster of 1948,” Palestinian films tried to portray the lives of the people “in the context of the diaspora,” he continued. Arasoughly asserted that the horizon plays the same role in Palestinian film as it did for John Ford: what lies beyond. Since the “second intifada,” she continued, Palestinian themes are approached from the context of the diaspora, and how it has formed them. But now there is internal as well as external occupation: that is, depression, with the Israeli the central focus, rather than the Palestinian. “Have we told our stories, our personal stories... in the context of a situation that has overwhelmed us?”

    The internal occupation of which Arasoughly spoke has a sexual component as well, she added. In the Arab world, it can sometimes be difficult for women to assume positions of leadership or management. The purpose of Shashat’s Women’s Film Festival was, simply, to empower women filmmakers. “We wanted to enable women to be not just the subjects, but the movers behind films.” Responding to a listener who forcefully inveighed against what he said was the Israeli destruction of Palestinian films, Arasoughly replied calmly. “People want culture” so as to transcend their situation, she said. “To know that they are not animals.”

    A Palestinian filmmaker rose from the audience. “Every film we make is a miracle,” starting with the funding, then the restrictions, working under tank fire, attending funerals for people who worked on or helped with the film. “So with every film, we say: ‘We did it!’” Arasoughly concurred, noting that there are few crew members, so “everybody’s a director.” Her mailing list of 114 directors “is a sign of their aspirations, and commitment to filmmaking.” Another filmmaker expressed concern at the kinds of Palestinian films that get distribution abroad. ‘When we show films like Paradise Now {Harry Abu-Assad, 2005), what kind of image are we showing the public? That we’re terrorists? We need to enrich the image of Palestinians.”

    The discussion was eye-opening, with people from opposite sides sometimes taking positions that were opposite from what one would have expected, or revealing things that caused one to look at familiar people or events with new eyes. At the end, when everyone had had his or her say, a new voice spoke in quiet entreaty: “I want to use Cinema Jenin to teach children to love others, and to love peace. We want something useful for our kids. Our politicians — all due respect to them — cannot bring us peace. We have to bring peace.”

  • Rachel
    A young American who tried to bring peace to the troubled land is the focus of Moroccan filmmaker Simone Bitton’s documentary Rachel (France-Belgium, 2008), which takes as its subject the same young woman who was the protagonist of the controversial 2005 play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” While the filmmaker’s provenance might cause one to wonder how objective the film could be, and her sympathies are never in doubt, her research is meticulous and allows us as full a picture of Corrie’s death, and the events leading up to it, as we are likely to get.

    The film portrays Rachel through film, video, and photographs of her life and death, through the eyes of her friends and family and the letters and e-mails she wrote to them. But Corrie’s life and death were anything but. Rachel was 23, still young enough to have ideals, still naive enough to believe that one’s ideals are so irrefutably right, one’s cause so undeniably just, that all obstacles, human and material, must eventually give way. Tragically, for Corrie, they would not.

    Rachel was a peace activist who went to Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza strip, to demonstrate against the Israeli military’s destruction of Palestinian homes in response to acts of terrorism by Palestinian militants. Having attended training in non-violent resistance provided by the International Solidarity Movement, Corrie was eager to join her cohorts in their efforts and to get to know the people in the region, both Arab and Israeli. Rather than effecting an end to the destruction, her efforts would instead lead to the end of her young life as, waving peace signs, she fell beneath the blades of a bulldozer, whose driver’s sightline may have been blinded by the huge machine’s shield.

    “My inquiry is rigorous,” Bitton tells us. “Since the matter was never brought to trial, I play the role [via the film] of an investigating judge: I interrogate witnesses, I scrutinize their testimonies, I examine the incriminating evidence, etc. I unravel a mountain of lies and let the truth emerge of itself, without commentary.... In a movie, the result of an investigation counts for less than the investigation itself. The point is to film and to observe places, people and objects, to gather words, gestures or silences. To arouse emotions from the coldest and hardest materials, like the images from a surveillance camera or the smooth metal of an autopsy table...

    “I am a pacifist who has known many wars, and I am aware that I have made this movie to protect myself from despair. Rachel and her friends have been my human shields.”

    Military conflict and its human cost informed several films (as well as the off-screen activities of visiting stars, which sometimes turned into conflict of another kind. But more on that later). Two that deserve special mention, in addition to being powerful films on their own, are also paradigms of the toll exacted not only upon servicemen and women, but on those they leave behind.

  • The Messenger
    “You are about to embark on what will be one of the most difficult duties you will be called upon to perform in your military career.” So reads the first page of the manual containing the new marching orders for those who will serve, after grueling tours of combat duty that may have stretched them almost to the breaking point, as The Messenger (Oren Moverman, USA, 2009). This directorial debut film, which would win the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay (co-written by the director), is a moving but decidedly not maudlin testament to the compassion and courage of those assigned the unenviable job of CNO: Casualty Notification Officer. It would also win the festival’s Peace Film Award.

    The angry young man (Ben Foster) and his hardened, and seemingly imperturbable C.O. (Woody Harrelson), who actually has a drinking problem whose roots will be revealed in a shattering denouement, learn truths both instructive and uncomfortable about themselves, each other, the people they confront and the organization they serve as they go about the notification process. The characters — soldiers, parents, spouses, significant others — are incisively drawn and sensitively portrayed, succeeding as both individuals and archetypes. Interestingly, behind the podium at the press conference Harrelson, whose barking, blustering, larger-than-life captain towered over Foster’s staff sergeant, was startlingly mild in demeanor and slight in stature, a testament to his acting chops and the film crew’s skill. Foster surprised not so much “in the flesh,” in contrast to his Messenger role; rather, his Tony Stone was a revelation in contrast to his previous work, in which gentleness was not a notable hallmark (e.g., the psychopathic Charlie Prince in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma).

    The Press Conference: The press conference began in reverse, with the director asking a question of the press: You’re the first audience to have seen this. What did you think? There wasn’t much doubt: Amazing. But now to the questions. Did Moverman receive help from the Army? “The U.S. Army supported the movie. They read the script, they gave us technical advice. We had a lieutenant colonel... on the set who was a huge contributor in many, many ways... I think the reason they wanted to support the movie is that there’s a lot of pride in this procedure, they think it’s an honorable thing that most people don’t know about — including soldiers... For many soldiers they describe it as the toughest job they have to do; it’s extremely difficult because it’s something they were not trained to do, and it’s an emotional landscape they’re not prepared for.”

    And how did the actors prepare for their roles? Both Foster and Harrelson went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where they “visited with the returning soldiers, went to the amputee ward, talked with the nurses, doctors, and just listened,” said Foster. “We went to Virginia, to the headquarters of Casualty Notifications, and we listened. We talked to the men and women who do this professionally... and we listened. We watched documentaries, we talked to soldiers, we talked to those who lost family members... We just tried to get out of the way. And that’s how we shot it.”

    Is this an anti-war movie? “After these decisions are made [to go to war], it’s about the people who have to live with them. We’re hoping it’s a humanist message,” said Moverman. Foster, who declared himself “a huge fan” of Moverman’s films, said that what really struck him was how Moverman “managed to avoid the specifics of the war and deal with something that’s incredibly universal and not time-specific.” Harrelson, who said he’d prefer to call himself “not anti-war, but pro-peace, for good reason,” observed that “what was missing from my own philosophy was a real understanding of what these soldiers are going through.” And his experiences at Walter Reed “really left me with a profound respect and compassion for these people who are going over to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in some cases the Philippines and other places the government doesn’t let us know about... and they’re putting their life on the line. And they’re doing it not because they’re making any money, but because they believe in trying to help, and doing something for their country. However you feel about the war, I have a lot of respect for these soldiers... Whether or not [the film] is anti-war is not the issue. It does put these soldiers in the light that they deserve.”

    The film premiered at Sundance. How was the reaction there? It was very well received, “but I think they were a little bit stunned,” said Moverman. “But I think we can all, as Ben said before, connect with grief,” as a result of having either to hear about or tell about the death of a loved one, “and I think we can all connect with that kind of grief and the need to get back to life, from the personal side of it.” And the two actors: Did they know each other before? How was it working together? No, they didn’t, “but I told my wife, this is some of the finest acting I’ve seen close up,” Harrelson said of Foster. “I was really amazed by his performance and his level of commitment, and as a person, I can’t rate anyone higher; I’d say he feels like a brother to me.” Harrelson added that the two “bonded” as a result of the experience: “I’d probably take a bullet for this guy.” Foster looked back at him and smiled. “Roger that,” he said.

    And as for the war, and the soldiers who are fighting it, “None of the men or women we spoke to ever said ‘Bush is right’ or ‘This war is right.’ That conversation never same up,” said Foster. “They might say, ‘Well, my lieutenant is a dickhead, but I’d go back in a second for my boys. I’d rather get blown up than him.’” The intensity of his emotion on the issue was visible. “You know, it’s really easy to put a flag on your car,” he said quietly, tears not far from the surface. “But it’s hard to look someone in the eye and say, ‘You know? For you, I’ll go back.’”

  • Little Soldier
    But what of those who come home, to all eyes safe and sound, but with their purpose in life suddenly feeling like a rug that’s been ripped out from under them? And to a country which wants to pretend that they, and the unpopular war they served in, do not exist? In Little Soldier (Annette K. Olesen, Denmark, 2008), which won the prize of the Ecumenical Jury for best Competition film, the soldier in question is a Dane — and a dame. Unable to find a job, Lotte reluctantly accepts her father’s offer: to chauffeur his Nigerian call-girl girlfriend, on demand, to her various “jobs” and errands.

    In addition to dealing with what is clearly a case of borderline if not actual post-traumatic stress syndrome — it would never occur to the emotionally closeted Lotte or to her proud, self-absorbed, my-little-girl’s-tough-as-any-guy father even to consider the possibility of, much less the need for, psychological help — Lotte must come to terms with the humiliation of her job and the snarly, sullen imperiousness of her father’s “escort”. But neither woman is as self-possessed as she appears, and the masks slowly slide down, revealing mutual needs that will be both fulfilled through selflessness and, in true Greek tragedy mode, perverted by pride.

    The Press Conference: Curiously, the press conference mirrored in an exterior way the inner conflicts of the film. Trine Dyrholm (who plays Lotte), in a Harrelson-like metamorphosis, was graceful, fresh-faced and feminine. In introducing her the moderator noted her versatility, citing among her previous work the ballet film, Dancers (2008). Lorna Brown, seen in the role of call-girl Lily, in a sort of reverse mutation appeared without makeup, revealing, again counter to expectation, a natural beauty that had been obscured by cosmetics.

    Transformation was also the watchword as the film emerged from its conceptual chrysalis. In researching script ideas, Olesen began with the idea of portraying the relationship between a father and daughter, a subject not often treated in film. Coexistent with this thought was the desire to do a gangster film, which evolved into the idea of trafficking. The final ingredient attached as Olesen began reflecting on her acquaintance with a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and wondering what could connect these very disparate ideas. “And we finally realized that the common theme was saving: How do you really save someone, be it a person or a country? And when you decide to help someone, how you might have to confront yourself with your own motivation for doing so. Because it’s very often rooted in something personal.”

    “We realized early on,” Olesen said, “that we were dealing with stereotypes: the hero, the villain, and the victim. And what we wanted to do was to turn all of the stereotypes around. Because there is no such thing as a clear hero, a clear villain, or a clear victim.” Picking up the idea as the conference was ending, co-screenwriter Kip Fupz Aakeson observed in response to another question: “You know what they say: American movies have answers, European films have questions. This is a true European movie.”

  • Eden Is West
    While there was no shortage of those at the Berlinale — movies that were European in conceit as well as provenance — a few deserve special mention. Eden is West (France-Greece-Italy, 2009) is a personal paean to the immigrant experience from renowned Greek-French director Costa-Gavras. Taking his cue from Homer’s Odyssey, he leads us through the eyes of a young man who steals aboard a freighter crossing the Aegean, seeking a place where he can realize his dreams of freedom and self-actualization. The film, which Costa-Gavras calls “probably my most personal,” seeks “to echo the path, the journey of those (once our fathers and mothers) who cross through lands, braving oceans and seas of uniforms, looking for a home.”

    Elias’s journey is fraught with dangers and graced with good luck, both of which he meets with a combination of courage, common sense, and Chaplinesque humor and inventiveness. “I have enormous respect for a man who immigrates,” says the director. “To leave your country, to move into the unknown is a terrible ordeal. It requires both mental courage and physical courage in unlimited quantities. And it requires intelligence as well — intelligence that comes from life... In the end, it may very well be the best among us who come to join our ‘Eden’.” To ensure that Elias’s voyage would be seen as universal, the character’s nationality is rendered unidentifiable by the language he speaks, which was invented by the director “so that it would sound more like from elsewhere, a far-off elsewhere.”

    The Press Conference: The film’s linguistic and cultural breadth found their echo in the press conference, where questions were asked and answered with ease in French, German, Italian and English, and the director identified both the French Candide and the Greek Odysseus as the story’s literary ancestors. (The script was written by Costa-Gavras’s wife, Michèle Ray-Gavras.) The protagonist’s Everyman innocence and susceptibility were also important elements, he said, allowing viewers to see things through his eyes as if for the first time, and realize that the things they take for granted are not as ordinary or as commonly available as they might think. The financial crisis has added another layer, he noted, exacerbating Western prejudice against immigrants who take jobs from native-born workers, who in most cases wouldn’t want the jobs anyway. A further negative factor not often taken into account by the West is that these young workers are draining their own countries of intellectual capital and labor, to their economic detriment.

    The "Eden Is West" Press Conference. (Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website)

    In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Costa-Gavras also emphasized the lighter aspects of the film. “I think we have excessively blackened the problem of immigrants,” he said. And in words that strike uncomfortably close to us, he added: “I think in Europe we see immigrants as an enemy. There’s a fear of being invaded, a fear of other religions that may come in, other colors... A large part of the population of most European countries is made up of people who immigrated — either way back or more recently — and who adapted to their new country. So I wanted to view my main character from this perspective, and see him with optimism.”

  • Mammoth
    In some cases, of course, immigrants adapt to their new country well, but with a view toward returning home as soon as they can to those they had to leave behind, or if possible, to making a new life with them in their adopted home. In Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s English-language Mammoth (Sweden-Germany-Denmark, 2009), the character is also seen with optimism — but the circumstances of her life will make optimism seem not only naive, but cruel. The story’s lead characters, however, are ostensibly not the Filipino nanny Gloria and the two young sons who wait for her, but the successful young New York couple for whom she works. Leo (Gaél Garcia Bernal) is a Web designer whose international business trips will take him to places and experiences he cannot easily bring home to his wife Ellen (Michelle Williams), an emergency-room surgeon whose unimaginably stressful work life is, almost by definition, impossible to communicate to her husband.

    When Gloria’s 10-year-old can no longer bear the separation, and determines to speed her return — the quiet, searing emotion of their phone call, a child’s need set against the mother’s equal determination to do what she knows she must while her heart is torn in two, is one of several scenes that score direct hits — he sets in motion a chain of events that will be played against the two other storylines that inhabit this thematically complex film. “My view of the world centers largely on trying to link things together,” Moodysson told a film magazine.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference, Moodysson was asked whether he thought his film would spark debates about the situations it portrays. “If it starts debates about how to take care of your children, about rich countries and poor countries, that would be good and I would appreciate it,” he said. “But I don’t make films to start debates. I make films to express things that I feel deep in my heart. If that turns into a debate somewhere that’s fine, but that’s not my main priority.”

    And the children: How was the experience for them? Was this their first film? A pro down to her fingertips, Sophie Nyweide, who plays Leo and Ellen’s daughter Jackie, informed us with delightful self-possession that this was her fifth film, she is eight-and-a-half years old, and “it was great getting to work with Lukas, Gaél and Michelle. I had a really nice experience getting to work with these people. It was a great crew and a great cast,” earning spontaneous applause and appreciative laughter.

    To the director: What inspired you to write this script? Moodysson was reluctant to specify a particular inspiration. “Films just happen; you don’t really know where they start.” But “maybe it started when I was cleaning my apartment, and [wondering] what it would be to clean someone else’s apartment, or to have someone clean my apartment. And then I started to read some things about the situation in the Philippines, and one thing led to the other...” When he made his film Together (2000), “I wanted to make something about people who had beards, and it turned out to be a whole film. So the birth of something is not necessarily what it turns out to be when it’s finished.” In an interview, Moodysson became philosophical. “Sometimes you have a vague hope that the message in a bottle will wash up on a beach and lead to something. When we were... in Bangkok, right there among the go-go bars and tourists and market stalls, I was aware of thinking ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if Mammoth happened to turn up right here on one of the stalls that sell pirate copy DVDs?’ A physical message in a bottle.”

    Sweet Rush: Farewell to Love
    There are times, rare and cherished, when a miraculous “message in a bottle” washes up on shore within a filmmaker’s easy reach — the message signed by the author. For Sweet Rush: Farewell to Love (Tatarak, Poland, 2009) by legendary director Andrej Wajda, whose Katyn screened here last year, what would become the film’s second layer came to him in just such a manner. “One day, while shooting,” writes Wajda, “[lead actress Krystyna Janda] handed me a couple of pages that she herself had written. To my surprise I realised she was describing the final days of her husband and my friend, Edward Klosinski, an outstanding cinematographer. I asked her ‘is this for me personally or do you want me to tell about it in the film?’ When she admitted that she wanted to share her experiences on the screen I suspected that Krystyna had been living alone with her private thoughts quite long enough.”

    Clearly, cinematography is one of the key foci of this multi-layered film, which would win ex aequo the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation. It begins with a lovingly held shot of river reeds — the “sweet rush” of the title — swaying against sparkling waters beneath a cloudless blue sky, a soprano’s ethereal tones in mournful tribute to the bittersweetness that will follow. The film operates on three levels. The first is as a fictional tale of Marta, an attractive woman in late middle age, wife of a country doctor, still mourning the deaths of their sons in war, who suspects that she has not long to live. Her husband decides not to confirm her suspicions because he does not want her last months clouded by worry or fear. Instead they are filled with a mixture of uncertainty and infatuation: a handsome young, barely educated village boy has caught her eye, and she offers to tutor him in literature.

    Intercut with this are scenes of the actress who plays the role (i.e. Janda) reading from the letters her late husband wrote to her during his terminal illness, and from her diary entries of the time. The third level — what we are given to understand was both unplanned and unforeseen — breaks through the two scripted ones when Janda, distraught at seeing the young man “drown” in the scene where he gathers rushes in tribute to the woman she is playing, becomes agitated and flees the set.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference Wajda explained that Janda is also a successful journalist and theatre director in Poland, and the film gave him the chance not just to say, but to show how actors have lives apart from their screen personas. (This statement was stunning for its echo — as with Janda’s flight, unplanned and unforeseen — of a similar one by Armin Mueller-Stahl at the first press conference of the festival, reported earlier in this article.) The scene in which Marta flees was not, in fact, a complete improvisation, but was suggested by Janda, who nonetheless did not appear at the press conference. “This story was certainly too close to her heart, too personal, too painful,” explained Jan Englert, who appears in the role of the doctor husband. “The whole atmosphere of the festival would have been in such stark contrast to what she has suffered, and I certainly respect her decision” not to subject herself to questions or possible criticism of something that is so much a part of her. It also came as a surprise that the young man who plays the object of Marta’s affection is a Polish American actor, Pawel Szajda, who was recommended for the role by Janda herself.

    Asked about the design of the film Wajda confirmed that he had drawn inspiration for it, and in a larger sense for the film itself, from the paintings of Edward Hopper, “who can portray loneliness, who can portray solitude in a city” in a way that reflected the way Wajda saw the character of Marta, and Janda. “These Hopper paintings... are so expressive that I thought I would try to transfer that feeling to my film.” And his next project? Right now Wajda is looking to make a biopic on Lech Walesa, who is still “a hero, irrespective of the mistakes he may have made when he was in power. The fact that we are here today, coming from a free country... I can remember the Berlin Wall, the barbed wire; I can remember all that. And the people who are telling these lies [about Walesa], they’re not worth one small part of what Walesa was worth. So I wanted to do something to stand up for him. And the best way I can do that is to make a film about him.”

  • My One and Only
    Honoring someone with a film is not just for world-renowned cineastes and political figures, of course, nor is creating fictional characters based on an actor’s writings. Nor does it preclude a less familiar filmmaker from taking those writings and successfully stirring unrelated, even conflicting stylistic elements into an intriguing cinematic brew. Or from luring A-listers to star in it: in this case Kevin Bacon and Renée Zellweger, who team in Richard Loncraine’s My One and Only (USA, 2009), a genre-bending, liberationist, coming-of-age road movie loosely based on actor George Hamilton’s memoirs.

    The film, which moves from New York to Pittsburgh to Boston but was shot in Baltimore (“It’s a very photogenic city in many ways,” Loncraine told the Baltimore Sun), with “Santa Fe for the California bits,” is told from the perspective of young George Devereaux. It’s the early fifties, their can-do optimism winningly brought to life by radio jingles and TV commercials with housewives cheerfully touting the joys of dish detergent, while, almost as if from another world, the sharp, stentorian tones of moviehouse newsreels show children practicing duck-and-cover drills in preparation for an A-bomb attack. The film would be recognized with a Special Mention Prize by the Ecumenical Jury.

    Temporally situated in this bipolar universe we meet Ann, who seems to have found her way in it — if her serially unfaithful bandleader husband seems to have hopelessly lost his. Having discovered him once more cluelessly apologetic in full flagrante delicto, Ann takes George and his little brother on a take-no-prisoners search for a husband and stepfather, heading north in a very used Cadillac Eldorado purchased by the new “man in the house,” 15-year-old George. Their quixotic search will turn up a panoply of potential papas, most of whom have a screw (or two) loose. But Ann the indefatigable will not give up until she has found a place to raise her boys — even if it does turn out to be Hollywood.

    The Press Conference: At the press conference Loncraine told us the film was a hard sell, lacking the box-office draws of sex and violence, but Zellweger believed in it and supported it from the start: “Without [Renée], we’d have never made this movie.” Interestingly, screenwriter Charlie Peters may not be well known by name, although his work most certainly is. “Charlie was a ghostwriter for many, many years, and some of the films I know he’s written, which I’m not allowed to say — you know, what happens in Hollywood sometimes is that other writers come in to write stuff and they don’t get credit — Charlie’s wit and wisdom has actually been seen in many more movies than you would know.”

    Did Zellweger interview women to create the character of Ann, who is desperate to find a man, or did it come from... “Life experience?” she interrupted sharply, enjoying the mock offense. Loncraine told us that the story itself is largely fictionalized; only the beginning and the end are taken from Hamilton’s memoirs. In fact, “all of the events in the middle” were based on the writer’s life experience.

    And what do you think of your characters? Zellweger said, “I think this woman who doesn’t recognize her own value, who is certain she needs to rely on others to get by on this journey of self-discovery... at the end I think she learns she’s capable, she learns what she values, in herself and in her family. They become a real family at the end of this... I guess you could say they find truth in the end. It’s a beautiful story; there’s a lot more there that sneaks up on you.”

    Zellweger also got a kick out of playing a woman who “broke the mold” in the fifties, when it was much easier to be a rebel because the era was more or less characterized by conformity. “I can’t think of an experience that I’ve had — I’ve been making films for what? Twenty years now? Good God — that I’ve loved more. I loved the experience of making this movie. We went on road trips together — we went to DC, we took pictures of the monuments — it was truly, truly memorable. And I just love the film, love the film.” There seemed to be some agreement in the room, as other journos rose to praise it. Loncraine seemed surprised and humorously kept careful count, then took the opportunity to open a window on the difficulty he had in getting the movie made: “The studios did not want to make this film... they couldn’t place it into a box,” he said. “And one man made it possible, he wrote a check. His name is Norton Herrick... And without his being an angel really... and looking out for us, myself at one end and Renée at the other... I just want to say thank you publicly.”

    To Zellweger: Hollywood is all about being young, thin, and beautiful. How do you deal with the pressure? “Not MY Hollywood. My Hollywood’s about doing a good job and doing your homework and knowing what you’re doing, and making something that’s worthwhile.” Zellweger is also a big fan of Berlin. “Where do you start when you talk about Berlin? Do you talk about the architecture, the art, the music, the food... I love it. It’s sort of THE place to be at the moment.”

    As it was for other stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio, who no doubt appreciated Berlin’s cultural wonders but whose visit was both more momentous — and more controversial. This year the international human rights organization “Cinema for Peace” held its annual gala in Berlin and honored DiCaprio “for his ongoing and outstanding dedication to environmental issues.” Other guests from the film world included Catherine Deneuve, Ben Kingsley, Bob Geldof, and Christopher Lee. While the organization’s mission would seem unassailable, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick questioned its expenditures. “I’d feel much better if I could read a report showing how much money has been taken in by ‘Cinema for Peace’ over the last few years, and which organizations it went to,” he told the Morgenpost, and sharply criticized the organization’s unauthorized use of the Berlinale to promote the event.

  • Everyone Else
    If peace is elusive even for those whose raison d’être is to promote it, it should be no surprise if it’s a struggle for everyone else. In Maren Ade’s eponymous Everyone Else (Germany, 2009), a young couple on vacation find that struggle compounded by their quirky personalities and their unhappy encounter with his colleague and the man’s wife. A textbook example of the truism that in European films you have questions, in American films you have answers (which, by extension, may also say something about U.S. and EU moviegoing expectations), with this film “the audience should rack their brains,” Minichmayr told Die Welt. “There are films that leave you still thinking about them as you leave the room. Everyone Else is one of them.”

    Leaving Berlin with two Silver Bears — the International Jury Grand Prize, plus Best Actress award for Birgit Minichmayr — Everyone Else would be one of those curious (but far from uncommon) cases where the judges and the critics seem to have seen completely different films. “An extraordinary choice for a competition slot at Berlin,” wrote Variety, “pic is headed nowhere,” while The Hollywood Review called it a “delicious, acutely observed dissection of the mercurial emotional and psychological ties between two young lovers.” Screen Daily split the difference, saying that “the film’s overall talkiness, sparse action and quintessentially arthouse sleepiness will make theatrical prospects tenuous.”

  • The Exploding Girl
    Arthouse sleepiness is not a quality normally associated with U.S. films, nor (despite the implication that it signals box-office poison) are movies containing it necessarily snorers. Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl (2009) not only bursts that bubble, but slices neatly through the infamous questions-answers truism with a film that raises subtle, gently probing questions, starting with the title. Its characters, in contrast to the truly explosive twosome in the Ade film, never articulate or deny the affection they clearly feel for one another, but come slowly to the realization that it was there all along.

    The Exploding Girl is indie in its heart, but sophisticated in its production. From the opening shot, Eric Lin’s camera is a full partner: A sleeping girl rides in a moving car; the streaming sunlight dapples her cheeks, gravel-pothole bumpity-bump, through the filigree of tree branches. We immediately want to know who she is, where she’s going; even with her eyes closed, Zoe Kazan’s face is engaging and expressive. Ivy’s spring-break dreams are of the frustratingly elusive Greg, who strings her along via cell calls she pretty much schedules her life around. The comforts of home are a help, but this is something that may be beyond their range, part of the new, independent, grown-up Ivy who reaches out for new experiences. While she’s trying to figure it all out she runs into her oldest and best friend Al, who needs a place to stay. Al will also be her best, most insightful, most caring listener. And who’s to say that’s not the best part of what love really is?

    The Exploding Girl is one of those rare small films that was reviewed by most, if not all, of the major print media, some of which seemed to try to complement the film’s poetry with their descriptions. Wrote Tagesspiegel: “At the end, as flocks of birds cross the sky and Al shows her the baby doves and friendship turns into love, the film graces the two of them with a moment of magnificent, silent poetry. Beauty in American independent film is rare.” Rare too is the subject matter, treated with uncommon humanity and delicacy by this director. ”Loneliness healed by love is the common theme for all of our films,” says Gray, who has made four, including this one, with his wife, So Yong Kim. “Our characters have a fragility which becomes mended through a relationship with someone who’s always been close at hand, but never seen in the right way.”

  • Gigante
    Fragility would probably not be the first word you’d use to describe the lead character in the aptly named Gigante (Adrián Biniez; Uruguay-Germany-Argentina-The Netherlands, 2009), but the rest of the sentence could easily apply. As with Rust’s work, Gigante is also a sweet, intimate, deeply human film that follows the unlikely relationship between a guy and a girl for whom love shouldn’t happen. Its excellence was recognized handsomely by the Berlinale juries, taking home the Grand Prize of the International Jury (Silver Bear) ex aequo for Best Film; the Alfred Bauer Prize, awarded in memory of the Festival founder, for a work of particular innovation; and the 50,000 euro Best First Feature Award, given by the jury of the same name.

    Jara is a gentle Gigante, paradoxically heavy into heavy metal (which provides a rousing soundtrack) who works as a graveyard-shift security guard at a supermarket, his presence concealed behind the surveillance camera he monitors from another room. The job is more or less a cipher — a grocery store is not, after all, Topkapi Palace, the average shoplifter no Winona Ryder — and Jara passes the time doing crossword puzzles, with occasional glances at the screen. One day someone new appears on the monitor: an attractive but unassuming young woman who’s been hired as a cleaning lady. Unfortunately, the impression she makes on the boss is somewhat less than positive after she accidentally backs into a huge tower of toilet tissue and sends the rolls careening across the floor. The boss upbraids her mercilessly and threatens to fire her; as the sole support of her family, her desperation is visible to the concerned Jara, who resolves to protect her. In a way, this is but his nature; throughout the film this silent, sad-eyed, iron-fisted Superman whose sense of justice is simple but never graceful, and not always unerring, will step in to protect the weak and the bullied.

    Slowly a one-sided relationship develops, as the shy security guard who finds security in anonymity now finds himself increasingly drawn to the cleaning lady and begins following her each day as she leaves work. What in another film would spell stalker alert is here the prelude to a relationship that is every bit as unlikely and unexpected as any classic genre romance — but sans suspension of disbelief: Gigante’s boy- and girl-next-door characters could easily be your neighbors. (At the press conference the director confessed with a sheepish smile that physically, the security guard was based on a friend of his.) In fact, Biniez sees his film as “a subversion of the classic patterns of romantic comedy... It is about the process that any human being in love has to face before taking action, at a stage where he has to deal with his feelings and his deepest fears.”

  • Human Zoo
    Feelings and deepest fears also play a giant role in Human Zoo (Rie Rasmussen, France, 2008), a disturbing whirligig of nations, languages and genres and an appropriate choice to open the Panorama section, where “the emphasis is on independent and art-house cinema, films which are made in a personal style and attract a demanding, passionate audience.” The debut feature film of the Danish-born, multilingual, artist-author-screenwriter-photographer-actor, world-famous onetime Victoria’s Secret model and current New Yorker Rie Rasmussen, Human Zoo is an alternately passionate and dispassionate, factual-fictional tale of one woman leading two lives in two cities in two times.

    Rasmussen, who wrote, directed and edited the film, also plays the lead, a woman the circumstances of whose birth — Serbian Christian mother, Albanian Muslim father — mark her as prey for just about anybody with a weapon and a will to use it in war-torn Kosovo. As we follow her in-one-era-and-out-the-other, slash-and-burn trail (of which she is alternately victim and perpetrator) from hell to Marseille, we’re never quite sure where everything is going. If the end left this viewer feeling as seriously non-linear (not to mention emotionally battered) as the film, the director’s appearance onstage as the credits rolled brought the disconnect jarringly home. A fairy-tale princess dressed in a floor-length, sparkling blue gown, Rasmussen took questions with poise and aplomb. Like a scene out of Cinderella, all that was missing was the prince.

  • An Education
    He wasn’t far behind... although, to be honest, when he did appear it was in another film. Only in Lone Scherfig’s An Education (Great Britain, 2009), which won this year’s Audience and Cinematography awards at Sundance, as in many of the real Grimm’s fairy tales long since sanitized for American kids, his charms may be a clever camouflage. For what? In this case, for less than princely designs on the underage princess.

    As in Human Zoo and Eden Is West, France would again figure as the place of dream fulfillment: not Marseille’s rough sensuality to be sure, nor Paris’s promise of freedom and independence; rather, its romantic savoir vivre. Jenny, dark-haired, vivacious and sweet sixteen lives in west London, excels in French and dreams of visiting the City of Light, of reclining languorously on the Left Bank, puffing Gauloises in the company of its fabled artistes. Her feigned sophistication is a flimsy cover for her essential innocence, and it’s only a matter of time before she’s swept off her feet by the smooth, thirtyish David, who offers her a lift on her way home from school in a torrential downpour. But David will offer her more, and Jenny will soon find herself in way over her head.

    Scherfig, whose Dogme film Italian for Beginners won multiple prizes at the 2001 Berlinale and a dozen other European film festivals (and raves here in DC) for its charm and simplicity, had “a much bigger challenge” here. It was important, she told us, that the film’s several colorful characters — “who all meet Jenny’s character but don’t meet each other” and are played by renowned actors, including Emma Thompson as Jenny’s dour and disapproving headmistress and Alfred Molina as her well-meaning but clueless father — “still belong in the same film.” While her Dogme experience was not directly related to her work here, “Dogme develops the director that you already are, so to speak... it gives you more self-esteem and helps you trust the moment more.”

    Author and screenwriter Nick Hornby, who based his script on Lynn Barber’s memoirs, was asked whether it was “more painful” to have his novels turned into a film or to write a screenplay from someone else’s work. Hornby took issue with the terminology, which seemed to imply that “the novel has ceased to exist, and become this other thing, and it’s not true. They co-exist quite happily side by side, and then the book usually takes over again, in bookshops, and it returns to the life it had before.” Writing a screenplay, on the other hand, may actually be the more painful exercise, “because it was written to be filmed, and any time there was any doubt about the film being made,” a situation inherent in independent filmmaking, it “becomes more agonizing.” With books, “whatever happens, happens; they’re read, they’re not read,” but with a screenplay “you want it to appear in the form it was meant to be. So I felt more emotionally involved” in the fate of the end product.

    There seemed to be “a pretty intense relationship between Carey [Mulligan] and Dominic [Cooper],” who play Jenny and her boyfriend Danny. How was it to play that dance scene? Cooper graciously passed the question to Mulligan who, offering an interesting insight into the acting process, deadpanned that “We shot that at four in the morning, so I don’t really remember; I was brain dead.” Producer Amanda Posey suggested that the relationship between Carey and Danny acted as an effective “red herring” that drew attention from the danger David might pose. It’s interesting, Scherfig noted, that the one who really has an education, Danny, doesn’t use it, preferring to invest his time in the pursuit of pleasure, seeing it as his entitlement “to beauty and wealth and self-esteem because of where he came from.”

    Why is the concept of independence never brought into the film? That is, after all, what Jenny is seeking. “It’s good if it turns up later, in somebody’s mind,” said Scherfig. “That layer comes with the fact that it’s a period film, and that Jenny all the way through longs for something she can’t really put into words because she doesn’t know that soon London will be swinging, women will be burning their brassieres and everyone can smoke if they want to.” It’s a period film, but “the period is so recent that [most people] can remember it,” Scherfig, said, an awareness that gives the film “that layer that adds to Jenny’s innocence, to the innocence of people who were adults then.”

  • Bellamy
    Adulthood, independence... France, romance... a wrong choice leading to a lifetime of regret: sounds like we’re back to Chéri. But no. This time we’re on the other side of the water, not in the hands of a mistress, but those of a master with Paris in his blood: the indefatigable and inexhaustible (this being his seventy-first film) Claude Chabrol, who with his latest release Bellamy (France, 2009) marks a half-century of filmmaking. Blending the familiar and the new, Chabrol created Bellamy as an hommage to both his beloved friend Gérard Depardieu, whose eponymous filmic character bears more than a passing resemblance to his own, and a favorite author, the celebrated detective-story writer Georges Simenon.

    For his part, Paris police commissioner Paul Bellamy is certainly doing the familiar: spending the holiday at his wife’s family home in the south of France, trying to resist her pleadings for the two of them to take a vacation cruise around the world. For all the comforting conventionality that surrounds him, Bellamy will soon be confronted with, and by, situations and people that will on the one hand take him out of his humdrum existence, and on the other plunge him back into an earlier one that he is extremely reluctant to revisit. In an interesting twist, “what in the film seems fictional is actually real – since it came from a news story” about an insurance scam, said Chabrol in a press interview, “while the part that appears realistic is actually fiction, as Odile [co-screenwriter Barski] and I are the ones who made it up.”

    The Press Conference: At the Bellamy press conference, Chabrol confessed that his co-screenwriter had slipped some elements of Chabrol’s own personality into the character, making it a triple amalgamation. Asked a question in English, the director lamented his loss of a language in which, he asserted, he had been fluent twenty years before. Would he ever shoot a film in English? While he would love to direct an international cast, Chabrol allowed, the cost of shooting these days is so high it would be prohibitive. In addition, the actors might feel uncomfortable with a language that was not their own, and it might show. Has your success been an encouragement, or an impediment? On the contrary, Chabrol claimed relief at never having been burdened with it. While some of his films have enjoyed moderate success, he said, he never had to deal with the outsized expectations that greet a director following the release of a blockbuster: What will he do to top it?

    How do you find such an equitable balance between romance, comedy, and tragedy? Chabrol expressed satisfaction that he was seen to have achieved this, and said it was simply a matter of having respect for the characters, allowing them to be human and taking care never to allow them to become caricatures. Having his son (Matthieu Chabrol) compose the score was another advantage: all he had to do was to ask him not to exaggerate, to have the pathos of the music overwhelm the image or be a redundancy to the emotion onscreen.

    And what about the future? What young filmmakers do you see as carrying on the tradition of Chabrol? Not so fast, said Chabrol, who has no intention of passing the baton yet. Besides, he’s not crazy about the current crop. While there are certainly some excellent young directors, some of whom astonished him with their sensibility and acuity when he met them, too many films today place too much emphasis on special effects — “nothing but a series of sensations” — and not enough on story and character development.

    And, finally: What do you do with your fears? Fears are a part of the business, said Chabrol, acknowledging that he had them ten years ago. “Now it’s pure joy to make films; I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I see my actors, I see my crew, and I’m happy. And when they see me happy, they’re happy, and we have a very nice time.” Chabrol was disdainful of directors who throw their weight around, issuing commands from on high with the attitude that “you have to do what I say because I’m the director,” because it’s beside the point. “The actors already know what to do.” Besides, “When I shoot a film everybody has fun because we work well together. No, I’m not afraid at all anymore.”

    Maurice Jarre: His Legacy Lives On

    Maurice Jarre receives a Golden Bear award (Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website)

    Nor, one would wager, was Chabrol’s celebrated octogenarian compatriot and fellow Berlinale honoree, composer Maurice Jarre, recipient of this year’s Homage and Honorary Golden Bear, whom we would sadly lose just weeks after his appearance in Berlin. The first composer to receive this distinguished recognition, Jarre is beloved by moviegoers and cinephiles around the world for his Oscar-winning scores to the film classics Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984). A composer of astonishing variety and sophistication, Jarre’s 164 film scores easily encompass the symphonic idiom of the West and the ethnicity of the East, from the sweeping, melodic strings of Zhivago to the ancient cithara heard in Lawrence of Arabia to The Tin Drum’s Slovak flute, then embrace the eighties with an electronic score for The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).

    In an interview at the Berlin Filmmuseum, Jarre spoke with great fondness of his early years at Paris’s Théâtre National Populaire (“the happiest years of my life”), where he learned perfectionism from its director Jean Vilar — the same perfectionism he later found with David Lean, who directed all three of Jarre’s Academy Award-winning films (and won Best Director for Lawrence). From Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff, said Jarre, he learned “perfectionism in everything.” (Schlöndorff, seated in the front row, beamed and returned the thanks, whereupon Jarre invited him to elaborate. Schlöndorff politely declined, saying he was saving his thoughts for the award presentation.) A drummer in his youth Jarre found that composing for The Tin Drum came naturally, and thanked Schlöndorff for “letting me do these kinds of crazy things” that were “not at all sentimental.”

    His first job writing film scores, for Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides (1952) — “a totally artistic film” — was an important starting point that in many ways set the pattern for much of his subsequent work. Franju, for whom Jarre would write 10 additional scores, insisted on using “ethnic music” for his films. Soon the use of ethnic instruments would become Jarre’s specialty. This was to become a sticking point when it came to Lawrence of Arabia for which Lean insisted on largely English music, the film being told from the English perspective rather than the Arabic. “So I had to write two different scores,” Jarre related, a Western version and “a version called the Arab,” using ethnic Arabic music. Jarre opened a small window into his compositional thought processes when asked what he wanted to express with the music. “Lawrence said he liked the desert because it was clean. So I tried to write ‘clean’ music.” Conversely, for The Tin Drum Jarre abstained from using violins (“Volker was happy when I decided not to use violins”). From the audience, Schlöndorff observed that Jarre once told him that “the most important thing in film music is silence. Maybe it’s not the cleanness, but the silence of the desert you like.” Jarre nodded. “Maurice is a filmmaker at heart,” said Schlöndorff. “You can’t say that about many film composers.”

    Indeed not. But one of this year’s world premieres did offer something of the reverse. In John Greyson’s TEDDY award-winning (for Best Essay Film) video opera Fig Trees (Canada 2009), Greyson and composer David Wall powerfully employ music from Bellini to Gertrude Stein to portray the struggle of AIDS activists in Canada and South Africa. The dearth of reviews for this singular film may speak to its complexity: “To comprehend the entire depth of this work on first viewing is essentially impossible,” wrote the online film journal (Movie Time).

    It begins with a dedication to St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars, whom the devil cursed with “the perfect palindrome,” which is detailed in a ravishing kaleidoscope of colors and images. From there it proceeds in nonlinear, quasi-documentary fashion, intercut with operatic and poetic interludes using just about every graphic multimedia means imaginable, to tell a tale at once dispiriting (the seeming hopelessness of the battle) and inspiring (the refusal despite it all to give up hope). Narrated by a singing albino squirrel and occasionally by Gertrude Stein, the film, decrying governments’ and drug companies’ failure to step up to the plate, shuttles us back and forth between the two continents, alternately portraying and documenting the ongoing battle to make AIDS drugs available to all who need them.

    Another world-premiere Canadian film that may have a better chance of making it here is Gary Yates’ High Life (2009), which also deals, at least in part, with drugs and those who want them. Only in this case, we might find ourselves siding with the other side of that argument. It’s 1983. Dick, who works as a janitor, gets an unexpected visit from an old friend just out of prison. Within minutes Dick is out of a job, and he and Bug are shooting up, earnestly contemplating their next career move. After tossing a few ideas around, they come to the conclusion that the job they’re best cut out for is the only one they’ve had success with in the past: robbing banks. But they need a team, and proceed to audition potential partners in crime. One after the other, a real rogues’ gallery of murderers and misfits come to their door, some of whom they know, others having heard the word on the street and wanting to try their luck.

    Soon they are four: Donnie’s specialty is picking pockets, a skill increasingly compromised by his drug-fueled jumpiness while Billy’s pretty-boy looks, smooth talk and eye for the ladies make him the perfect front man. For what? The perfect scam: robbing ATMs from the inside, using charming (but brainless) Billy to sweet-talk the teller. It’s all downhill from there — but not for the audience, some of whom laughed so hard, they (we) cried. Emotions also ran strong at the end of the film, although here the tears were in response to a surprising shift in tone that showed us heretofore unrevealed (and unsuspected) facets of our hapless heroes.

  • Home From Home
    Unsuspected facets of those we know and love are even more revealing and surprising than those of film characters we observe from afar, as Sung-Hyung Cho’s beautifully lensed documentary film Home from Home (2009) demonstrates with warmth, humor, and as in High Life, a refreshing empathy and refusal to judge. That the people whose lives are portrayed here are not characters in the filmic sense does not prevent them from seeming both larger than life and decidedly individual, becoming as affectionately lodged in our imaginations as any fictional character.

    The situation is one that will be familiar to many U.S. immigrants whose happy and successful life in their adopted country does not preclude an occasional yearning for their countries of origin. More than thirty years after arriving in Germany as “guest workers,” three completely assimilated Korean-born women have the chance to realize their dream of returning to their homeland. What may not be so familiar is what happens next. Because these women’s assimilation has extended to their spouses, all of whom are ethnic Germans, their decision to return home will require the husbands to, in effect, relive first-hand their wives’ experience three decades earlier. Watching these alternately puzzled, intrigued, tentatively willing and I’m-not-going-there-resolved husbands learn the rudiments of a new language and culture is a heartwarming and edifying lesson in the strength, and occasionally reluctant limits, of love.

  • Oscar Winner Meets the Press in Berlin: The Reader
    A lesson the cinema-going world would also take home from a blockbuster film that screened here and just days later, would yield a Best Actress Oscar for Kate Winslet. Watching Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (USA-Germany, 2008) here was an at once strange and instructive experience, as feelings drifted from tentative to proud to uncertain to uncomfortable and back again. The opening shot hit as it never did at E Street (where The Reader has been held over for weeks): “Berlin, Germany 1995”. Being in Berlin — that very place whose name filled the screen in front of me — had never struck with such force as in that one, breath-catching moment.

    Even the title was eye-opening: In German, “The Reader” is “Der Vorleser”; that is, one who reads to someone else. That is of course the title of the best-selling book by Bernhard Schlink that was the basis for David Hare’s screenplay. It the also heart of the story and, appending yet another layer to the truth vs. fiction discussion (this one probably entirely serendipitous), would find disturbing echo in a Washington Post column the week after the festival. The anguish of the film lies in Hanna’s refusal to admit, although it would spare her a long prison term, not to mention public opprobrium, that she cannot read and thus could not have written the damning document that will seal her fate. In the Post commentary referenced above in connection with the documentary Encirclement, columnist Dana Milbank writes: “So what about the 1966 report he [Perle] co-authored that is widely seen as the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy? ‘My name was on it because I signed up for the study group,’ Perle explained. ‘I didn’t approve it. I didn’t read it.’”

    The Press Conference: At the packed-to-the-rafters press conference, Winslet was asked how she was able to reconcile not only the conflicts inherent in her character, but also those between the book, in which Hanna feels shame but never guilt, and the screenplay, in which she feels both. “It was a very complicated experience and process for me in many ways, playing Hanna, and in many ways felt like a huge responsibility,” in that she wanted to honor both the novel and the screenplay, Winslet answered, each of whose authors sat to her right. “It was a difficult balance. I think the illiteracy forms and shapes [her] and informs us as an audience about who she is in everything. And the shame she feels is of course unbelievable shame.” As for her guilt, “I think it is something she learns about, her own guilt, during the trial, but most certainly while she is in prison.

    “Whilst I knew that it would be wrong of me to take on the responsibility of trying to humanize her,” Winslet continued, touching on a topic that has been a sensitive one for some, “I did also know that I had to make her a human being... A woman who was [capable] of great love and affection and warmth... [as well as] a woman who was capable of great courage, as she begins serving her prison sentence.” How hard was it for Winslet to do love scenes with “someone who was a little bit younger than you... just a little bit?” Winslet discounted the suggestion. “It wasn’t difficult doing the love scenes with David at all. A lot has been made of the love scenes and David’s age. He’s eighteen and he’s a young man, he’s extremely professional and he’s absolutely brilliant in the film.” In the end, “we just got on with it really, and we actually... had a laugh.”

    To Ralph Fiennes: How was it to play the role of a character who has to deal with the guilt he must feel for not writing to Hanna in prison, although he knows he cannot? “He’s in trauma. He’s traumatized by what he knows about her. He can’t divorce himself from wanting contact... He doesn’t want to write a letter to her. He doesn’t want that sort of intimacy. He wants to maintain the contact, I suppose in the way they did when they were lovers; that is, through the reading of books.” He doesn’t want to deal with her, because of what she’s done and the conflicted feelings she arouses in him, “but he can’t lose her.” Asked for his reaction, author Bernhard Schlink said how wonderful it was “to have an actor who’s really grasped what I was meaning, grasped it so well and expresses it so well.”

    For David Kross: As an 18-year-old-growing up in Germany, do you think you’ve been informed properly about the Nazi period? And what role can films play in this regard? “We certainly studied the Nazi period in school, pretty thoroughly, which I think is positive, and I think that’s something that should be continued,” replied Kross. In preparing for the film he did a lot of additional reading about the period, both for the role and because of his own interest, “because I had a sense of responsibility in a way.... I hope that many of my friends, and many people of my generation, will have an opportunity to see this film and will think about the issues it raises.”

    To the screenwriter: Why did you choose to move back and forth in time, rather than telling the story in linear fashion? “Because the film is not about the events, it’s about the effect of the events on Michael,” said David Hare. “It’s not about the Holocaust, it’s about postwar Germany. And so you need to move through time to represent the impact of the events on Germany, and on [Michael Berg’s] life... an experience that has been both a great blessing and a great curse in his life, I think. And so I had to give a sense of the passage of time and the profundity of the effect of the event on his life, from which he’s only liberated in the last few frames of the film.” Added Daldry: “I think the other aspect of this is obviously that the book is written in the first person narrative, so one needs to find a filmic equivalent of the act of writing a book: the act of release, in terms of understanding through writing, that this character comes to. And so David came up with the idea of a filmic equivalent... the act of telling his daughter is an act of release.”

    The next question was almost immediately disallowed by the moderator, but Winslet would have none of it and calmly stepped up to the plate. You are the Hollywood actress I’ve seen naked on the screen most times, asked the reporter. What is it like to be exposed in front of the camera, now and ten years ago? “It’s not something one particularly enjoys necessarily; I think that would be a very honest and fair thing to say,” Winslet replied. “At the same time it’s sometimes a part of my job. And with this film — coincidentally, I read the novel six years ago, and was completely transported by and deeply moved by it, because for me it was a love story. And the relationship that Hanna and Michael share, and the impact it has on both of them for the rest of their lives is enormous. And so of course it would be important that those scenes would be a part of this film. It’s a part of my job. And I just get on with it.” Spontaneous applause broke out in the room.

    And how does it feel to be such a dedicated actress and work so hard, and then see your name splashed across the tabloids or the subject of talk-show gossip? Winslet basically ignores it all: “I don’t read reviews, I don’t read magazine articles, I don’t read interviews that I have given, we don’t keep magazines in our house — and that’s how I, quite honestly, remain sane.” Applause and laughter brought a broad smile. “Well, it’s true. For me... this is a great passion for me, acting, and I absolutely love it, I love my job. And in order for me to be able to do it with a full and open heart and a clear mind, I really can’t read what other people are saying about me. And that’s just how I operate.”

    How were the books that Michael reads to Hanna chosen? It was a collaborative effort between Schlink, Daldry and Hare. And “The Reader” itself: Was it based on personal experience? “Every book is based on personal experience,” said Schlink, his gaze impenetrable. “This one too.” How did Winslet connect with the wartime and postwar experience? Surprisingly, although she immersed herself in the history of the time, the majority of her research focused on Hanna’s illiteracy. “That seemed to me to be more important than anything else,” along with “trying to perfect a German accent as well as I could.”

    Could you compare the experience of being directed by your husband Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road to that of being directed by Stephen Daldry in The Reader? Winslet wasn’t fooled for a minute. “You want to know how it was being directed by my husband,” she said with a wry smile. “I would say that if there were a similarity between Sam and Steven, it would be that their background in theatre gives them a great love of actors.... and the crew as well. Everything was up for discussion, and there were no right or wrong answers. And as an actor, that’s the environment you dream of working in.”

    A reporter picked up on an earlier comment by Schlink that the film was different from his book in some ways. “So then, why are you here at this press conference?” It’s completely understandable that a film would be different from a book, Schlink replied, and no need for him to distance himself from the press conference on that account. “If a good director and a good scriptwriter and a magnificent cast take the subject matter and cast it into a new shape, I think that’s wonderful; why on earth would I distance myself from it?”

    And how did you feel when you saw German actors speaking English onscreen? “I wasn’t surprised at all. I always wanted it to be an international film, and English is, after all, the lingua franca of our age. It doesn’t bother me at all. There’s something quite correct about it too.”

    And so it was. From The International, an English-language film by a German director, to The Reader, an English-language film based on an international best-seller by a German author, with more than 400 films from 50 countries in between, this Berlinale came full circle, exploring commonalities and contrarieties along the way. If English is indeed the lingua franca of our age, then cinema is its creative counterpart, as the steady growth and popularity of international films and film festivals in DC would seem to confirm. The long runs of The International and The Reader at local cinemas may be a sign that the potential market in DC for international cinema is larger than anyone suspected. Here’s hoping that other Berlinale films will soon be seen at a theatre near you.

    See you at the next one!

    We Need to Hear From YOU

    We are always looking for film-related material for the Storyboard. Our enthusiastic and well-traveled members have written about their trips to the Cannes Film Festival, London Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Reykjavik Film Festival, the Munich Film Festival, and the Locarno Film Festival. We also heard about what it's like being an extra in the movies. Have you gone to an interesting film festival? Have a favorite place to see movies that we aren't covering in the Calendar of Events? Seen a movie that blew you away? Read a film-related book? Gone to a film seminar? Interviewed a director? Taken notes at a Q&A? Read an article about something that didn't make our local news media? Send your contributions to Storyboard and share your stories with the membership. And we sincerely thank all our contributors for this issue of Storyboard.

    Calendar of Events


    American Film Institute Silver Theater
    With the international success of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, it's time to look at (or re-look at) his other films: Millions, Sunshine, Shallow Grave, and Trainspotting can be seen in May with more in June.

    "Beautiful Dynamite: The Films of Cyd Charisse" is a series of seven of dancer Cyd Charisse's best films. In May you can see Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather with more in June.

    Two locations (AFI and Freer Gallery of Art take part in "Korean Film Festival DC 2009". At the AFI is Night and Day, The Chaser, Christmas in August with more in June.

    "Charlton Heston Remembered" looks at some of the late actor's biggest films including The Big Country, Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, The Ten Commandments and an extended version of Major Dundee. More in June.

    The 48 Hour Film Project, a competition for do it yourself filmmakers takes place May 5-8. See the website for more information.

    If you missed the "New African Films" festival last month, there are two encore screenings: Shoot the Messenger and 13 Months of Sunshine.

    "Signore and Signore: Leading Ladies of Italian Cinema" presents some of the greatest film actresses of Italy including Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitta and Giulietta Massina. Films in May are Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta Massina); Two Women (Sophia Loren); Theorem (Silvana Mangano); Bread Love and Dreams (Gina Lollobrigida); Open City (Anna Magnani); Death of a Cyclist (Lucia Bose); Old Fashioned World (Alida Valli); and Girl With a Suitcase (Claudia Cardinale). More in June.

    A series of films produced by Alan Pakula ends in May with All the President's Men and Sophie's Choice.

    Nicolas Roeg's debut film Performance (1970) can be seen May 1-4.

    Freer Gallery of Art
    Two locations (American Film Institute Silver Theater and Freer Gallery of Art take part in "Korean Film Festival DC 2009". On May 8 at 7:00pm is The Seashore Village (Kim Soo-young, 1965); on May 10 at 2:00pm is Man With Three Coffins (Lee Jang-ho, 1987); on May 15 at 7:00pm is Daytime Drinking (Noh Young-seok, 2008); on May 29 at 7:00pm is The Wonder Years (Kim Hee-jung, 2007); and on May 31 at 2:00pm is The Show Must Go On (Han Jae-rim, 2007).

    National Gallery of Art
    "In Praise of Independents: The Flaherty" is an annual forum for film critics, students and academics, held in upstate New York. A selection of films from the latest seminar is shown on May 2 at 2:00pm, May 2 at 3:30pm and May 3 at 4:00pm including short films and feature films Half Moon and Colossal Youth.

    "Profils paysans: The French Farm" is a trilogy by Raymond Depardon. On May 16 at 2:00pm is L'approche (2001); on May 16 at 4:00pm is Le quotidien (2005) and on May 17 at 4:30pm is La vie moderne (2008).

    "The Film Memoir" illustrates the film as personal narrative. On May 24 at 4:30pm is L'aimee (Arnaud Desplechin, 2007); on May 30 at 2:00pm and 4:00pm is My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007); and on May 31 at 4:30pm is The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008).

    Other special events in May include RR (James Benning, 2008) on May 9 at 2:30pm; Hungy Blues--The American Dream (Peter Forgacs, 2009) with the director in person on May 10 at 4:30pm; Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947) on May 23 at 2:30pm; Puccini and the Girl (Paolo Benvenuti and Paola Baroni, 2008) on May 24 at 2:00pm; and Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (Arne Glimcher, 2008) on May 31 at 2:00pm.

    Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
    On May 7 at 8:00pm is "Democracy Challenge Finalists," a program of 3 minute films on democracy. On May 14 at 8:00pm is Palms (John Block, 2008), a noir-inspired melodrama.

    Smithsonian American Art Museum
    On May 9 at noon is Annie (John Huston, 1982) as part of the "1934" film series that accompanies the exhibition on 1934 art. On May 21 at 6:00pm is The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), also part of the "1934" series.

    On May 20 at 6:00pm is "Art:21" a series from the award-winning documentaries Art in the Twenty-First Century.

    Films on the Hill
    On May 15 at 7:00pm is a silent double feature His Picture in the Papers (John Emerson, 1916) starring Douglas Fairbanks in a very timely look at celebrity culture and publicity hounds; shown with Homecoming (Joe May, 1928) a German film about WWI prisoners of war starring Dita Parlo, Lars Hanson and Gustav Frolich. On May 16 at 7:00pm is Cockleshell Heroes (Jose Ferrer, 1955), about a British commando unit which carried out a suicidal mission in WWII, starring Jose Ferrer and Trevor Howard. On May 30 at 6:00pm is a double feature Trent's Last Case (Herbert Wilcox, 1952) starring Michael Wilding, Margaret Lockwood and Orson Welles, shown with So Soon To Die (John Brahm, 1957) with Anne Bancroft and Richard Basehart.

    Washington Jewish Community Center
    On May 5 at 7:30pm is Dear Edmond (Amit Goren, 2006), a documentary about Rothschild Boulevard today and rare archival footage. On May 12 at 7:00pm is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, 1968) with an introduction by Dr. Eliza McGraw, starring Alan Arkin who plays a deaf mute in a Southern town. On May 17 at 3:00pm is Ask Not (Dohnny Symons, 2008), a documentary about gay and lesbian military service members.

    Pickford Theater
    On May 7 at 6:30pm is North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) starring Cary Grant, shown with The Shrine of Democracy at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (1953).

    Goethe Institute
    "People in Cities" is a film series about the issues faced by people in urban cultures. On May 4 at 6:30pm is Short Sharp Shock (Fatih Akin, 1998; on May 11 at 6:30pm is Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2001); and on May 18 at 6:30pm is Status Yo (Till Hastreiter, 2004).

    The DC International Children's Film Festival will hold screenings at the Goethe Institute and other venues. On May 9 at 2:00pm is Sergeant Pepper (2004) from Germany, shown with the short film Deweneti (2006) from Senegal.

    On May 19 at 8:00pm is the silent film Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) accompanied by the National Philharmonic with Hugo Munro Neely conducting an original score by Philip Carli.

    National Geographic Society
    Some short films from the "All Roads Film Project" will be shown on May 5 at noon to celebrate Mexico's "Cinco de Mayo."

    French Embassy
    On May 13 at 7:00pm is All About Actresses (Maiwen, 2009), preceded by the short film Au premier dimanche d'Août (Florence Miailhe, 2000). On May 17 at 3:00pm is Azur and Asmar (Michel Ocelot, 2006).

    The Japan Information and Culture Center
    The DC Anime Club presents Five Centimeters Per Second which was awarded Best Animated Feature Film at the 2007 Asia Pacific Screen Awards; it will be shown with Voices of a Distant Star on May 29 at 6:30pm.

    As part of the DC International Children's Film Festival is Voices of a Distant Star (Makoto Shinka, 2002, Japan) and Saïd’s Trip (Coke Riobóo, 2006, Spain), both short films.

    On May 20 at 6:30pm is Winds from Zero (Toshi Shioya, 2007), based on the true story of Kyoko Suzuki, whose 19 year old son was killed in a hit and run accident.

    National Archives
    On May 7 at 7:00pm is Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) preceded by a lecture by Rob Hummel about the history of motion picture formats. On May 23 at noon is The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

    As part of the year-long Abraham Lincoln Centennial is Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) adapted from Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play and starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln on May 16 at noon.

    The Avalon
    As part of the "Lions of Czech Film" is Marbles (Olga Dabrowská), an omnibus film with four short stories, on May 13 at 8:00pm.

    For this month's French Cinémathèque is One Day You'll Understand (Amos Gitai) with Jeanne Moreau on May 20 at 8:00pm.

    Italian Cultural Institute
    On May 13 at 6:30pm is Fever (2005). Reservations and ID are required.

    Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
    On May 8 at 7:30pm is the premiere of American Herro (Kirk Roos), about a young Kurdish girl, Herro Mustafa, who came to the US in 1976 as a refuge from Iraq.

    On May 21 at 8:00pm, the National Symphony Orchester presents "Nights at the Movies: A Night on the Red Carpet," with movie music from Oscar-winning films including Ben Hur, Casablanca, Dr. Zhivago, Out of Africa, and others.

    International Spy Museum
    Former CIA officer John Hedley will discuss the film The Sum of All Fears (2002) on May 12 at 6:30pm.

    Embassy of Venezuela
    On May 1 at 6:30pm is Beyond Elections, a documentary film and part of the PASSPORT DC.


    The GI Film Festival
    The GI Film Festival takes place May 13-17. See the website for locations, film titles, and panel discussions.

    The Ninth Annual International Jewish Film Festival
    The ninth Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival takes place April 30-May 14 at four locations: Cinema Arts Theater, Rosslyn Spectrum, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Approximately 20 feature and documentary films will be shown from the US, Israel, Canada and France, including Beau Jest, Strangers, Villa Jasmin, Noodle, Secrets, and The Deal. Check the website for the complete schedule.

    The Maryland Film Festival
    The Maryland Film Festival takes place May 7-10 at various locations in Baltimore. See the website for film titles and other information.

    Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival
    The 2009 Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival starts May 1 and runs through September 4. The theme is "the 1980s" and films are shown at dusk every Friday at Gateway Park, two blocks from the Rosslyn Metro. On May 1 is The Goonies (1985); on May 8 is Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989); on May 15 is Dirty Dancing; on May 22 is 16 Candles; and on May 29 is The Blues Brothers. See the website for more information.

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