Berlinale 2009

Report by Jolyon P. Mitchell, member of the Ecumenical Jury

© Mike Kollöffel

There were few obvious signs of a global economic recession at the 59th International Berlin Film Festival. A total of 383 films, at 1238 screenings, were shown. At least 20,000 accredited visitors, from 136 countries, attended the festival. A record-breaking 270,000 tickets were sold. There were long queues for most of the films and it was rare to find an empty seat at any of the screenings. The European film market, where over 400 companies came to sell their cinematic wares, was reported to be as busy as ever. Nevertheless, the turbulent world of economics did occasionally find its way onto Berlin’s silver screens. The festival opened with The International (Tom Tykwer, USA/Germany, 2009), an expensive thriller depicting violent subterfuge in the world of global banking. It closed with Eden a L’Ouest (Eden is West, Costa-Gavras, French/English/Greek, 2009), the tale of an illegal immigrant in search of a better life in the European Union.

The Milk of Sorrow

While this year’s Retrospective “70 mm - Bigger than Life”, offered wide-screen spectacles, such as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1958/9) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it was the smaller scale actor-centred films which dominated the prizes awarded by the International Jury, presided over by the British actress Tilda Swinton. The Golden Bear was awarded to the Peruvian drama La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa, Spain/Peru, 2009). The backdrop to this film is the Peruvian internal conflict of 1980 to 2002, which claimed as many as 70,000 lives. Rather than recounting case after case uncovered by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission the film focuses upon the parabolic story of one young woman called Fausta (played by Magaly Solier). She has drunk the ‘milk of sorrow’. The rape of her mother and the murder of father continue to haunt her, even though it happened just before she was born. To prevent such repellent history repeating itself she has done something repulsive: she inserted a potato into her vagina as a way of trying to ensure that no-one will violate her. The death of her mother, combined with her own frailties, force Fausta to face her hidden anxieties and the secret within. Gradually, through unexpected kindnesses in the midst of the daily wounds of life, her anxieties begin to dissipate and she starts to leave behind fear and move towards freedom. 

The Ecumenical Jury Awards

A number of other films portrayed various kinds of searches for freedom. For example, the film which, after lengthy deliberations, the Ecumenical Jury agreed to award their main competition prize. Little Soldier (Annette Oleson, Denmark 2008) reflects the quest for freedom from a violent past and troubling present. The film portrays a young female soldier back home from a peacekeeping mission. She struggles to cope with this difficult experience.  By showing how her father draws her back into his violent world, Little Soldier illuminates the issues of gender, father-daughter relations and trafficking. She even tries to liberate one of the West African prostitutes partly entrapped by and partly loved by her Father. While not offering an easy resolution, the narrative depicts a move towards her first tentative steps to freedom. Visual reticence about her wartime experiences combine with excellent performances from the main actors enriches the film. The unstated memories of violence forged in a foreign war resonate with the hidden but very real violence in European societies.

The depiction of actual violence is kept off screen but the implications of facing it peacefully are deftly explored in Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009, Algeria/French/UK). The film brings together a Christian, Mrs Sommers, and a Muslim, Ousmane. She resides in the Channel Islands and he lives in France. She has a daughter and he has a son: both are students in London. After hearing news of the 7th July 2005 terrorist attacks, but no subsequent news from their children, they travel to London independently, but meet and eventually go in search together of their offspring. Gradually, mistrust and suspicion are replaced by their common task and hope. This film received extremely positive reviews in many papers and a Commendation from the Ecumenical Jury, especially for the way in which it showed how prejudices can be overcome and mutual respect developed in the midst of tragedy.

Still from "London River" with Brenda Blethyn

In contrast to the serious subject matter of London River, the other film that received a Commendation from the Ecumenical Jury was My One and Only (2009, Richard Loncraine, USA). Renée Zellweger plays a flighty and feisty mother who is in search of a husband, after she finds her own in bed with another women. Setting off with her two teenage sons they drive across America in search of love but discover much more. Based on the actual childhood experiences of the actor George Hamilton (born in 1939), this road movie set in 1950s USA combines humour and existential questions intelligently. How do you find your way and what do you need to be happy? The Ecumenical Jury particularly appreciated the elegant lightness of touch that brings life and laughter in the midst of loss and the yearning for freedom. 

There were several other films in the main competition that were particularly appreciated by the Ecumenical Jury including two powerful dramas. First, Storm (Hans-Christian Schmid, England, Germany, Bosnia, Serbia, 2009), this film depicts how a prosecutor (played by Kerry Fox) at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague attempts to persuade a young Bosnian women (Anamaria Marinca) to testify against an alleged war criminal. Second, The Messenger, (Oren Moverman, Silver Bear for Best Script, USA, 2009) the film follows two officers (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) who are commissioned to inform the nearest of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. The two men form an unlikely friendship that is shaken when one of the officers is attracted to a young widow (Samantha Morton), precipitating an ethical dilemma that has a surprising dénouement.

Alongside the main competition, special screenings and retrospectives, there are several other major competitions held in Berlin. In the Panorama competition the Ecumenical Jury awarded Welcome (Philippe Lioret, France, 2009) their prize. This is a story about the search for love. Bilal, a young 17 year-old Kurdish boy, has walked from Northern Iraq, through the Middle East and across Europe to try to meet up with the love of his life, Mina, who has recently immigrated to England. His odyssey comes to a premature end as the police in Calais prevent him from making the crossing. Bilal decides to swim across and begins to train at the local swimming pool. There he meets Simon, a swimming instructor who is tumbling towards a divorce. In the hope of winning back his wife, Simon takes this young refugee under his wing. Through the engaging narrative, the film convincingly shows that love between two persons needs to include concern for others.

Still from "Welcome"

In the Forum competition the Ecumenical Jury prize went to a film from South Korea, Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, South Korea, 2008). At the heart of this Korean film are two young children, abandoned by their Mother, and deposited with their alcoholic aunt. They are left to fend for themselves in a world that overlooks their vulnerability. By telling the tale from the children’s perspective Treeless Mountain skilfully illuminates the effects of parental absence, abdication of responsibility and economic marginalisation. This is well balanced by the understated depiction of the gentle care of an aged grandmother, firmly earthed in the natural world, who gives them a most precious commodity: her time.

Other Awards

Several films touched on the current environmental threats to the planet, but none appeared to notice the vast amounts of glossy brochures, posters and leaflets distributed, trying to raise the profile of individual films, over the ten days of the festival. It is hard to estimate the carbon footprint of the film festival industry but it would be a sign of hope to see whether the organisers in Berlin could see ways of reducing the cost to the earth of their 60th anniversary next year. One documentary, winner of the audience award for the Panorama, used irony and impersonation to illustrate their case. The Yes Men Fix the World (Birchlbaum, Bonanno, Kurt Engfeghr, USA, 2009) show how two documentary makers, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, are able to pose as top executives of large corporations that they wish to challenge. Most memorable is when Andy, pretending to be a Dow Chemical spokesperson, makes it onto BBC World News announcing that after 20 years of denial, Dow will finally clean up the site of the Bhopal Catastrophe, the largest industrial accident in history. The result: as people worldwide celebrate, Dow's stock value loses two billion dollars. Through adventures, that are at times hilarious, they come to the conclusion that: ‘If we keep putting the market in the driver's seat, it could happily drive the whole planet off a cliff.’

At the very end of the festival after all the Golden and Silver Bears had been awarded, a short ten-minute documentary Wagah (Supriyo Sen, India/Pakistan, 2009), which had won the sixth Berlin Today award, was screened for the estimated 1600 people watching the closing ceremony. Sen's film is about the ritual that takes place at the frontier post along the border between India and Pakistan. This film is full of memorable detail capturing what happens on both side of the border: soldiers march extravagantly, the flag is lowered dramatically, the crowds cheer enthusiastically, then, when all is quiet the children imitate the ritual playfully. The detail may be specific to the India-Pakistan border but this is a powerful cinematic reminder of the daily practices that can divide peoples all around the world.