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BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL 2006 - WRAP

SNOW & SURPRISES
It snowed on cue in Berlin as the 2006 Berlinale opened with Snow Flake, starring Sigourney Weaver, but things soon hotted up with a mix of politics and debates about the jury’s surprising choices for the major prizes. And the negative Berlin reaction to Australia’s entry, Candy, starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish came as another surprise to Helen Barlow.


Perhaps in deference to the increasingly predictable Oscars and the Golden Globes, film festivals are full of award surprises. Last weekend at the 56th Berlin Festival the top prize, the Golden Bear, was awarded to the Austrian-Bosnian-German-Croatian production Grbavica, an all too worthy film about the aftermath of war atrocities committed against women in Bosnia, which was far from the best in the competition.

The second prize, the Jury Prize was shared between Danish first time director Pernille Fischer Christensen’s low-budget human drama, The Soap, and Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside, a talky polemic on the inability of girls to watch football in Iran, which was downright boring and lacked any cinematic qualities. Both Grbavica and Offside fitted the agenda for the deciding jury headed by Charlotte Rampling, who had declared at the beginning of the festival that she wanted the awards to reflect the state of the world.

Still, it does seem ludicrous that a film by 31-year-old first time director, Jasmil Zbanic, should win the festival’s major prize, when Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, which stood at the top of the international critics poll, should be shut out of the awards completely.

The Road to Guantanamo, co-directed by Brits Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, would have been worthy of the top prize, but since Winterbottom’s earlier Arab-themed movie, In This World, had already won the Golden Bear in 2003, it was an unlikely choice. He took out the Best Director Silver Bear nonetheless.

The Road to Guantanamo was the only competition entry to inject a sense of immediacy into the festival. A world premiere, this semi-documentary recreating the experiences of three former British captives, who also attended the Festival, was a kind of a wake-up call to governments and decision makers regarding the ill-treatment of inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where Australian David Hicks still remains.

At a press conference following the awards, Winterbottom said that nobody outside of the Festival has seen the film, so a reaction is yet to come--though he understands that British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants the facility closed down. He notes, when the three former detainees (who now sport full beards as they are stricter Muslims than before) returned to Britain after attending the festival, they were interrogated at the airport for three hours. “That’s not particularly good, but hopefully there will be a better reaction to the film,” Winterbottom said.

"awards are arbitrary, and depend very much on the taste of the jury"

Ultimately, awards are arbitrary, and depend very much on the taste of the jury, which this year also included Dutch director Marlene Gorris, Spielberg’s Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and multi-media artist Mathew Barney, Bjork’s American beau whose own films are unwatchable.

Still, it’s difficult to imagine Dieter Kosslick, a film bureaucrat in the German film industry for 25 years before becoming the festival’s artistic director, not bearing some influence on the prizes. Three German actors in fact emerged as winners, though it has to be said that the films were of high quality and reflected the strength of the resurging German film industry. Juergen Vogel was awarded a special prize as actor, co-writer and co-producer of The Free Will, while Moritz Bleibtreu took out the best actor Silver Bear for his portrayal of a man who is a slave to his sexual fantasies in The Elementary Particles. Bleibtreu appears alongside his former Run Lola Run co-star, Franka Potente who says she is greatly looking forward to shooting Richard Roxburgh’s upcoming Romulus, My Father alongside Eric Bana in Melbourne. “It’s about a family that emigrates from Germany to Australia in 1950,” she says.

The best actress award went to Sandra Hueller, who starred in Requiem, which was also judged best film by the international critics jury. While much compared to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Requiem is far less sensational in its telling of a deeply religious undiagnosed epileptic woman who is deemed to be possessed and undergoes an exorcism in the 70s. Hueller, who had already been named Best New German actress for 2006, was widely tipped to take out the prize. With her pale blonde chiselled features, delicate eyes and mouth, she bears a striking resemblance to Cate Blanchett.

Hueller’s win of course left Candy star Abbie Cornish out in the cold and as one industry type noted, the Festival missed a golden opportunity to take credit for discovering the Australian actress before she ascends to international stardom. Cornish’s rise to fame now seems inevitable, given her upcoming roles alongside Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year and in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

"The Proposition emerged as a far more popular entry"

The negative Berlin reaction to Candy came as a surprise to me. It seems few critics could view the film as a love story and get past the film being about drug addicts. The newfound star wattage of Heath Ledger probably raised expectations too high and I believe the film would have done better in the edgier milieu of Sundance—especially since those who championed the film were mostly Anglophones. John Hillcoat’s Australian film, The Proposition emerged as a far more popular entry, with journalists more excited about interviewing Nick Cave than anyone at the Festival.

Also highly respected for his creative pursuits was the rambunctious Hong-Kong-based Australian cinematographer, Chris Doyle, who was rarely seen without an alcoholic beverage in his hand. As well as imparting his knowledge to the young at the Festival’s Talent Campus, Doyle was in town to promote Invisible Waves, where he re-teams with his Last Life in the Universe director, Thailand’s Pan-ek Ratanaruang and Japanese heartthrob Asana Tadanobu. The noirish film, which follows Tadanobu’s chef who is conned into murder by his boss, is less satisfying than the director’s previous film. It was (deliberately) filmed mostly in bad English of the kind that foreigners usually speak in Asia to communicate with other nationalities, and somehow this does not quite work.

One of the festival surprises came from action star Vin Diesel who more than proves his acting chops in Find Me Guilty directed by that master of the courtroom drama, Sidney Lumet. With considerable weight gain, prosthetics to bloat his face and most notably a shock of hair, Diesel transforms himself into Jackie DiNoriscio, a real-life crook and prison inmate who was offered a shortened time if he testified against the other members of New Jersey’s notorious Lucchese crime family. As defendant and attorney he managed to prolong the trial and get his clearly guilty friends off even if that meant remaining in prison for many years himself.

For The Tiger and the Snow, Roberto Benigni has swapped the WW2 prison garb of Life is Beautiful, for being covered with the dust and flies of the contemporary war in Iraq. It’s in fact the second film in his series dealing with war, and Benigni is at his Chaplin-esque best as he tries to save the life of his loved one (played by his real-life wife, the film’s producer, Nicoletta Braschi) and in the meantime tries to keep the flies away by using a fly swat, which he refers to as his “weapon of mass destruction”. At once poignant and hilarious the film has to be seen to be believed.

V for Vendetta, based on the graphic novel and filmed mostly at Babelberg Studios outside Berlin, should appeal to the comic book loving teens, and to some big kids as well. Natalie Portman is cute as a button and tough too as the woman held captive by a freedom-fighting vigilante called V in futuristic totalitarian Britain. Behind V’s mask of course is Australia’s Hugo Weaving—even if we never see him, because apparently he’s all burned and disfigured. I guess we saw enough of Weaving as Agent Smith in the Matrix in any case. (The Matrix’s Wachowski Brothers wrote V for Vendetta and had a strong hand in the making of this film.)

Many of the festival delights were to be found in the Panorama sidebar. The highly original and sumptuously filmed Brazilian entry, The House of Sand, pairs mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro (the country’s biggest star and Brazil’s only Best Actress Oscar winner for Central Station) and Fernanda Torres together with Torres’ director-husband, Andrucha Waddington (Me You Them). The story follows an impoverished family forced to live on the salty plains but once the men run off or die, the women manage to find a surprising kind of peace.

For fans of the wildly original stage extravaganzas of Robert Wilson it was a treat to meet this eccentric American genius, both in interviews and Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s documentary about him. The film’s title, Absolute Wilson, refers to Wilson’s penchant for vodka. Not to be missed.

REST OF THE FEST

The weather was suitably snowy when the Berlin Festival kicked off with Snow Cake, a film set in wintry Canada. Although small in scale for an opening film, the story proved surprisingly moving with Sigourney Weaver showcasing another side of her talent that we haven’t previously seen. The actress, best known for the Alien series, plays Linda, an autistic woman who babbles on with little eye contact though is remarkably perceptive in her straightforward views on life—and death. Weaver preferred not to call her character autistic.

“She’s a unique woman with autism,” Weaver said in Berlin. “It was one of the biggest challenges of my career to play her.”

When a guilt-stricken Alan Rickman turns up on Linda’s doorstep claiming to be the man responsible for the death of her daughter in a tragic car accident, she lets him know that life has to go on and then helps him turn his life around. Rickman, in buttoned-up mode, is far from the snarly schoolmaster we know from the Harry Potter series—even if he does let rip with that voice and injects the story with some much needed humour.

Another world premiere came in the shape of Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion—and don’t imagine for one minute that the director, who turned 81 on February 20, is retiring any time soon. In fact both Altman and actor Woody Harrelson only made a fleeting visit to the Festival as they both have stage commitments in London. Harrelson is performing in The Night of the Iguana at the Lyric, while Altman is directing Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues at The Old Vic (commissioned by artistic director Kevin Spacey). So the film’s actresses Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan tackled the media interviews for the film. Altman was, however, at the film’s press conference and I asked him about receiving a lifetime achievement Academy Award in March—when he has never won a Best Director Oscar.

“I couldn’t be happier or more proud,” he said. “It’s better to receive an Oscar for all of my work than just for a couple of films.”

"George Clooney was in his usual scene-stealing form"

George Clooney was in his usual scene-stealing form at the press conference for Syriana, the film for which he gained so much weight that he injured his spine while doing his own stunts. Young Berlin women didn’t care and were throwing themselves at him, with one bringing along a bottle of booze for the pair to share while she escorted him around the city. Ever the professional, Clooney also managed to get in something about the politics of the film, which delves into the CIA’s involvement in the Middle East. Though, as always, he was upbeat.

“For the first time since Watergate people in America are sitting around and talking about political issues. I don’t think films lead the way. It takes a couple of years to get our act together.” Though he doesn’t seem to think that Syriana or his directorial debut, Good Night, and Good Luck will lead the way at the Oscars. “I don’t think we’re going to win any,” he declared. “There’s been a lot of Brokeback Mountain stuff. Maybe we should have made them cowboys.” At the premiere a few hours later the star braved inclement weather to greet his fans for over an hour. Quite a trooper.

Music films, films about music and musicians themselves added a lot of life to the Berlin proceedings. While Glastonbury, the movie about England’s legendary music festival from Julien Temple (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners) was a tad long, it made audiences feel they were at the actual event. Brothers of the Head, a mockumentary about conjoined twins who achieve fame as early punk rockers in the mid seventies, was a tad contrived. Yet the film’s directors, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe insist they prefer to make an original film with flaws than not to be adventurous. Unfortunately the handsome and clearly talented real-life twins Luke and Harry Treadaway (Harry on the right resembles Jonathon Rhys-Meyers in his Velvet Goldmine guise) were unable to make it to Berlin as they are in the middle of their theatre studies.

Although not officially part of the festival, Marilyn Manson blended in well with the monochrome city when promoting his directorial debut, Phantasmagoria –The Visions of Lewis Carroll, where he has also written the screenplay, composed the music and will star. Wearing a military style coat with attached bones instead of epaulettes, he explained how he “wanted to re-define the horror genre and put it back where it began with directors like Polanski”.

Peter Cattaneo, the British director of the Full Monty and Lucky Break certainly likes to mix it up. With his latest film, Opal Dreams, he ventured to outback Australia to the opal-mining town of Cooper Pedy, because that was the setting of Ben Rice’s novella, on which the film is based. The film opened the Kinderfilmfest, and it was really quite an experience to be in a huge cinema full of German children, who also asked surprisingly coherent questions after the screening. While the neat uplifting conclusion might be a bit much for adult audiences to take, the kids seemed to identify with the film, which told of a girl with imaginary friends, a common occurrence among kids apparently.

Cattaneo had searched around Australia for the two leads and clearly cast to type. Sapphire Boyce dressed in a pink cardigan and pinks tights and a Denham skirt seemed to have a wild imagination of her own; she shrieked gleefully about the Berlin snow, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen”, while Christian Byers, who plays her older brother, was hilariously over the top, dressed in black pants and a black leather jacket and chewing gum. The movie star thing even gets ‘em at 12—especially since Byers has already also played a major role alongside Daniel Radcliffe in December Boys, which recently filmed in Adelaide. With a new appreciation for filming in the great outdoors, Cattaneo will next make a Hollywood studio movie in wide-open American spaces including the Grand Canyon.

Published February 23, 2006
 

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Snow Cake


Grbavica


Syriana


Candy







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