An extraordinary arena for visions of human nature

Report about the 58th Berlinale 2008 by Alina Birzache, member of the Ecumenical Jury

Cinematic images seared into the retina continue to linger long after a festival closes. I am left haunted by the image of the Butoh dance, performed as a rite of passage towards the realm of the dead in Cherry Blossoms - Hanami (Doris Dörrie, Germany 2008), but also carrying with me, in a pendant to this one, children’s faces full of wonder in The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi, Iran 2008). In between these images of juvenile innocence and maturity came a whole series of impressions of the flow of life with its challenges, defeats and victories. This year's Berlinale offered an extraordinary arena for visions of human nature: visions ranging from the gloomiest in There will be blood (Paul Thomas Anderson: Silver Bear - Best Director, USA 2007), on the first day of the competition, to a scene of hope and trust in its powers of regeneration in Ballast (Lance Hammer, USA 2008), the film that had the last word.


The Golden Bear and the Jury Grand Prix

With Costa Gavras as the president of the Festival Jury this year, it was no surprise that two of the most politicized films received the Golden Bear and the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear: Jose Padilha’s The Elite Squad (Brasil 2007) and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (USA 2008). By confronting the viewer with extreme violence and unorthodox intimidation methods respectively these films challenge the assumption that under certain circumstances basic rights to life and dignity have to be suspended. Padilha’s gloomy feature film seems to offer no alternative to the two law-and-order forces that are in charge of the Brazilian favelas (slums): the corrupted, ineffectual police and BOPE, the elite squad, famous for their integrity, and trained to eliminate the drug dealers without hesitation. In spite of the story being rendered from the perspective of BOPE captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), who experiences emotional difficulties in coping with the requirements of his job, there is a thin line between reflecting on violence and celebrating it. Ironically, it is the Pope’s visit that is taken as a pretext for enforcing order at human lives’ cost. Morris’ documentary creates a context for the incriminatory pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by giving a voice to five of the American MPs involved in the abuses. In their accounts and the conclusions of the investigations instances of gratuitous humiliation and torture are presented as ‘standard operating procedure’. The common denominator of the two films is the degree of dehumanization that the system requires as a condition for functioning and the powerlessness of the individuals to reform it.


The Awards of the Ecumenical Jury

The Ecumenical Jury took account of the unusually wide exploration of human nature this year, awarding prizes to thematically related films. In so doing, we devoted special attention to the difficulties of reconciliation within a social body wounded by crimes and dislocation. Awards to the feature films Il y a longtemp que je t’aime (Philippe Claudel, France/Germany 2008) in the main competition and Boy A (John Crowley, United Kingdom 2007) in the Panorama section, reflected the powerful way that these films opened questions about social retribution and the rehabilitation of those who have committed crimes against their fellow man. In a similar fashion, the documentary Corridor #8 (Boris Despodov, Bulgaria 2008) that took the Jury’s award in the Forum section, narrated stories of people torn asunder by national boundaries and resentments, and included the issue of social retribution.


"Il y a longtemps que je t’aime"

The films presented contrasts in their treatment of these issues. While Il y a longtemps que je t’aime developed positively the capability of our inner resources to overcome a case of euthanasia prosecuted as murder, and society’s sustained efforts to achieve reconciliation, Boy A offered viewers the shadowed side of the moon: in spite of legal mechanisms promising to protect the safety of children convicted for murder, we are presented with a vision of society lacking the understanding and forgiveness necessary to readmit those who have done it harm. In essence the films gave two opposite types of human solidarity – one generously working towards a redemptive end, kindling a spiritual rebirth, and the other undermining the attempts of the individual to achieve closure on his crime, so that the only form of liberation remaining seems to be suicide. Both visions reinforced a message that without some form of love wounds can never properly heal.

Both the winning pictures were notable for their achievement in presenting complex human situations realistically. Il y a longtemps que je t’aime offered a meditation on the metaphor of prison, not in terms of loss of freedom but rather that of separation: when the physical walls of the prison collapse what are the invisible chains that still hold one a prisoner? For the protagonist, Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) it is her devastating traumatic experience. Having killed her dying son, her soul has recoiled upon itself and become isolated in an ardent desire for expiation. This is, however, merely a starting point, and the slow process of reconnecting with the outside world progresses with the support of close friends and family members, dispelling the initial uneasiness and suspicion.

The introspective quality of this debut feature film is indebted to its director, Philippe Claudel, who draws from his own experience of the crude reality of prison as a teacher. The characters that populate the film are rich and authentic and the snippets of information convincingly recreate a setting for Juliette’s inner drama. At first, soul-numbed, Juliette impassively records the presence of others, but then, step by step, she begins to interact with them, bonding herself ever more with the objective reality around. Her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) offers the stability and tranquility of the family life, supported initially with reluctance by her husband Luc and with constant attention by her two adopted daughters. Juliette’s subjective reality is then intersected briefly but significantly by Michel, Lea’s colleague, the parole officer who finally commits suicide, and the mute presence of Luc’s scholarly father and various other figures who water her with sympathy. We gradually find out how her crime was traumatic for her whole family in short episodes or revelatory remarks. This world around her, mostly benevolent, but not lacking in distrust and insensitivity at times, plays a decisive role in Julliette’s recovery.

The viewer is confronted not only with the mystery that envelops Juliette’s crime but with her mysterious sense of absence. Like the smoke of the cigarette impassively enveloping her figure in the first scene she appears merely a shadow of her former self. As the action progresses she gradually returns to life and we see Kristin Scott Thomas' whole persona, in a remarkable performance, gain in luminosity and beauty. Juliette’s final sentence ‘I am here’ marks her victoriously getting out of her inner prison and is her first affirmation of being fully present in this world. The fleeting image of an angel is captured by the camera in the museum she is visiting with Michel. It is a deft touch, announcing this moment as one of redemption and adding a spiritual dimension to her reconciliation with both herself and the people that love her.


"Boy A"

Such a gilded approach to reconciliation is spurned by John Crowley in Boy A. The mainly benevolent middle class milieu is replaced with a hostile working class one; the stability of a family context with the fragility status of a changed identity; the self assurance of a fully formed personality with the timid awkwardness of the young man who spent half his life in a reeducation house; a killing arguably motivated as putting an end to a future suffering with a cruelly carried out murder; the maturity of a woman in control of her reactions with the impetuous impredictibility of a young man capable of heroic deeds while easily losing control. As in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime the environment is the main factor in the development of the protagonist. In a medium in which vendetta is stimulated by media, excessively dwelling on the crime in news, lying about one’s real identity is the safest way of social reintegration. The protagonist, known under the assumed name of Jack Burridge, has undergone a process of repentance during his long years of social isolation but his spiritual rebirth is overshadowed by the fact that, living in a potential hostile environment, he can’t reveal anything of his past to the people that trust and love him. His obsessions are intimated in flashbacks of the murder and imaginings of his friend having been lynched as an act of retaliation.

Still from "Boy A"

There is an ironic turn of his story when, having saved the life of a child, he is turned into a hero overnight by the same media that demonized him. However, this moment of glory is short as the truth of his identity is maliciously revealed. A series of pressures develop: ostracised by his friends, rejected by his girlfriend Michelle (Katie Lyons), chased by journalists, unable to get in touch with Terry (Peter Mullan), his parole officer and father figure, circumstances conspire to crush Burridge’s weak character.

The director shrewdly contrasts the closed spaces, using small apertures with rays of light filtered in, with wide open ones, recreating the feeling of imprisonment that the protagonist experiences even when out of jail. The only two moments when he appears in the open are pivotal: first when he saves the life of the young girl and risks being uncovered, and second climatically when his real identity is discovered and he feels at last liberated. Sadly, no form of redemption awaits this character in whom innocence and corruption coexist: a paradox convincingly captured in Andrew Garfield’s masterful performance.


"Corridor #8"

The documentaries offer a different forum for expression of cinematic ideas: unlike the feature films there is a chance to play with characters in their natural state. In Boris Despodov’s documentary Corridor #8 we see a failed infrastructure project transformed into a metaphor for human separation. The Corridor #8, a project inaugurated in 1997 by the European Union, was supposed to connect the Black and Adriatic Seas, passing through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. From Bourgas in Bulgaria to Durres in Albania the camera captures people’s dreams of prosperity and better communication among three countries, but also their suspicions about their neighbours and their distrust that such an enterprise will ever be completed.

Those expecting a touch of Balkanism have not be disappointed. In spite of the promises of the numerous delegations sent to assess the project, nothing of any consequence has ever happened. In a well tempered ironic tone the documentary reveals absurd and delightful situations. In one scene, at Gyueshevo, in the rail tunnel that should have connected Bulgaria and Macedonia, left unfinished by the Germans in 1941, the villagers grow mushrooms and store cheese.     
More sombre notes are sounded when people tell their stories of family separation as a result of the three countries having closed their borders.  Among the last accounts, one of the most disturbing involves an Albanian family embroiled in a blood feud choosing total isolation in order to save their lives. The road from heart to heart can sometimes be as difficult to achieve as the ghostly Corridor #8.


"In Love We Trust"

Zuo You/In Love We Trust was awarded a Silver Bear for best screenplay (Wang Xiaoshuai, China 2008) and a Commendation by the Ecumenical Jury. The Chinese title in translation is ‘Left Right’, the opening words of the film, representing the instructions that Mei Zhu (Liu Weiwei), an estate agent, gives to the driver and her clients when showing them around. They are emblematic for this woman’s later determination to save her daughter, Hehe (Zhang Chuqian), suffering from leukaemia, at any cost. As none of the parents, now divorced and remarried, are compatible with Hehe, the only solution is to conceive a sibling that could ensure a spine transplant. This poses major problems to their present marriages but in the end each decision is taken with the sick daughter in mind. Could the English title, In love we trust, be the expression of this solidarity and love? Even if apparently it seems to be the case, the moral issue behind this film has to do with viewing this second child as a means to a purpose. What seems reasonable and right from one perspective appears less justifiable from another perspective. But we shouldn’t ignore the meek character of Lao Xie (Cheng Kaisheng), Mei‘s husband, who saves the situation by his gratuitous and genuine love that embraces not only Hehe but also the yet unborn child.

Still from "Zuo You" ("In Love We Trust")

The other films in the main competition that captured the Ecumenical Jury’s attention were Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico 2008) for the way it presented children’s struggle to come to terms with the grief of losing a parent, Cherry Blossom-Hanami (Doris Dorrie, Germany 2008) for its meditation on the meaning of life and death and the gap between generations, Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi, Iran 2008) for upholding family values, Restless (Amos Kollek, Israel/Germany/Canada/France/Belgium 2008) for its moving father-son reconciliation process, Ballast (Lance Hammer, USA 2008) for its trust in the regenerative powers of life.

The deeply humane film of Eran Riklis Lemon Tree (Israel/Germany/France 2008) won the Audience Award for best film in the Panorama section. Set on the Israel-West Bank border, it is the story of a Palestinian widow, Salma Zidane (outstandingly perfomed by Hiam Abbass) fighting in various courts the decision of the Israeli authorities to uproot her lemon grove. The grove, inherited by Salma from her father, is declared a security risk for the Defence Minister, who owns a mansion next to it. The increasing sympathy that the wife of the minister develops for the plight of her neighbour turns the film into a celebration of women’s strength and resilience but also a testimony about their political powerlessness.


Ecumenical Reception

The annual Ecumenical Reception of the Churches honoured the contribution of the Ecumenical Jury over the years to reward films that raise human fundamental questions. Placing his speech in the context of the Bundestag’s discussions of the Film Promotion Act, Bishop Dr. Wolfgang Huber, Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, concluded on the role of cinema: "Beyond their entertainment value, cinema movies need an added value, a message that makes us set out – initially for the cinema, but then also on an onward journey. Films have only a long-lasting effect when they do not lead us away from ourselves, but into our innermost being." I left the Berlinale in the hope that the films that our jury had rewarded would inspire such a journey.