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East Side Stories — Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu
Since 2005, the Robert Bosch Stiftung has been associated with Eastern Europe, this year its mission expands eastward to the Arab world.
Another window of opportunity has just opened for Arab filmmakers looking for funds. At a presentation and screening in HAU 3 on February 8, Frank Albers, the program manager for arts and cultures of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, announced that the foundation has just expanded its mission to the Arab world. 2013 is the pilot year. Fifteen collaborative projects between German and Arab filmmakers have been selected by the juries. Three prizes, one each for a short, an animated film and a feature-length documentary, are up for grabs. The winners – announced at the Campus Opening Ceremony on Saturday – are the documentaries A Place Under The Sun (Karim Aitouna/Carsten Böhnke) and Three Mile Riders (Philip Gnadt/Michael Dupke/Stephanie Yamine) as well as the short feature film Free Range (Bassem Breish/Jacques Colman). Each winning production will receive up to € 60,000 in funds.
The expansion happened primarily for two reasons: "Since the Arab Spring, many important stories have come to the fore, be they cultural or political. These stories need to have an outlet," said Albers just after the event, which included a screening of past Robert Bosch Film Prize winners. "There is also another concern, a more economic one, regarding the lack of content from the Middle East and North Africa for German audiences, and vice-versa. We would like to fix that."
The four films screened at the retrospective show the possibilities of cross-cultural cooperation. Renovation, the winner of the prize in 2008, is a German-Romanian short by Paul Negoescu about a family that disintegrates during a home renovation.
Also shown were Alerik and Father, both animation projects, winners of the 2008 and 2009 prize respectively. The former is a German-Macedonian production about young soldiers going to war; the latter, a joint effort of Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia and Russia, is an animated documentary based on five true stories about father-child relationships. Last but not least is The Chosen Ones, a German-Armenian production, the prize-winner in 2012. This documentary, about elderly people in Yerevan, Armenia, is still in progress.
South African drama Elelwani raises the pertinent argument of tradition versus modernism, but loses steam on the way.
The Berlinale Forum film Elelwani, based on a novel by Titus Maumela and directed by Ntshaveni wa Luruli brings to the forefront the classic conflict between the contemporary aspirations of the younger generation and the deep-rooted traditions of the older, but there is nothing revelatory in content, and the film suffers from a sluggish treatment that drags the narrative down.
Elelwani is young, liberal, and in love. She was educated away from the shackles of the barbaric landscape of her community, and sees an ambitious future with her boyfriend far away in Chicago. Returning to her tribe in the Venda region, she finds her youthful idealism gradually crumbling as her father already has plans for her marriage, and to honor the culture, she must abide by the diktats and abandon her dreams.
Her inherent conflict is articulated early in the film and establishes the tone which the film mostly maintains. "I will not marry the man I do not love", a firm Elelwani tells her father who interrupts her by saying: "What's in your heart means nothing." This speaks a lot about the intentions of her father whose intentions are at least partly mercenary.
What the film also reflects effectively is the rigidity with which the tradition-worshippers stick to their ways despite being able to see the absurdity in them. It becomes a matter of hypocrisy. It is not only the culture Elelwani's parents are honoring, but also a convenient ploy to get rid of their daughter.
Matthew Porterfield's third feature is a melancholy, sympathetic, but ultimately shaky step into full-fledged fiction filmmaking.
Matthew Porterfield has made a name for himself with his curious ability to create striking, improvisational fiction enhanced by documentary devices. With I Used To Be Darker, he offers his first fully scripted feature film, one reservedly observing the dissolution of Kim and Bill's marriage. Two aging hipster/rockers (Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham) are in the midst of separating when they receive the untimely visit of their daughter (Hannah Gross) and an estranged, runaway cousin (Deragh Campbell) carrying a broken heart and an unexpected pregnancy.
As these characters' lives smash into one another with the impact force of a feather, I Used To Be Darker strikes as oddly careless of its dramatic potential, firmly set in media res, ever-suspended in time as if floating and transitional. Photographed in lush, appropriately muted pastels, the film finds Porterfield fascinated with the possibilities of composition, indulgently at times, and while one quickly falls into its lulling beauty, uneven performances from non-professionals and first-time actors often undermine the illusion.
What Porterfield does admirably, however, is "dressing" his characters believably; using all manners of his actors' personal interests and talents, adding greatly to the film's immediacy and realism–again, finding strength in the realm of documentary rather than fiction. Taylor and Oldham, both real-life musicians, provide most of the film's soundtrack. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of I Used To Be Darker is how music becomes a crucial tool through which the characters manage to express their internalized emotions and move past the inertia. The original songs and the carefully chosen covers express the characters' psyches and personal histories, allowing for entire scenes to be elevated through performance of another type: beautiful moments of music where the fiction cracks, the pretense vanishes and the film manages to feel entirely genuine.
Neither here nor there, really – I Used To Be Darker just happens. Not without emotional resonance, but somehow self-effacing and unsubstantial.
Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil treats moral uncertainty as a bleeding wound.
It's never too late to discover, or rediscover, Orson Welles' late studio film Touch Of Evil (1958), screening this year at the Berlinale as part of the retrospective program. It doesn't need to be examined indulgently just because it's a classic. Paul Schrader once evaluated the movie as "an epitaph for film noir," but it's hardly likely that Welles was trying to bury the genre. Touch Of Evil is a living noir, using expressionistic means to elicit pathos from one character's desire to expose injustice and corruption.
Ostensibly a straightforward crime film about solving the murder of a wealthy American citizen close to the Mexico-United States border, Touch Of Evil centers on the rivalry between two policemen with different working methods: the charming, judicious Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, made up to play the only admirable Mexican in the film), a narcotics agent on the Mexican side of the border; and hefty, imperious Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the local chief of police whose reputation for convicting criminals is undisputable even if his working methods are questionable. The tone shifts are constant and fluent; owing to the interference of peripheral characters and events, the film oscillates from suspense (as the investigation progresses) to romance (in the scenes between Vargas and his wife, Suzy, played by Janet Leigh) and even to slapstick (during some of the lighter incidents set in seedy locales, foreshadowing the greater miseries to come). Unlike a thriller that relies on its action for effect, Touch Of Evil starts with an explosion and ends with a short line by an episodic character, and yet never stops gathering momentum in between.
Welles makes creative use of light and sound to maintain suspense while freeing his characters to be spontaneous. In one of several situations in which this particular noir woman has to look after herself, Suzy, irritated when a stranger points a flashlight toward her window from across the street, yells and then unscrews the lightbulb and throws it out her window. When Vargas arrives, he finds her in the dark and asks why she doesn't turn on the light, to which she responds simply, "Because there isn't any bulb anymore." In the climactic scene where Vargas surreptitiously follows Quinlan with a tape recorder, hoping he will denounce his working method in an amiable chat with an old colleague, the soundtrack literally plays a dramatic part: Vargas has to sneak under the bridge Quinlan is strolling across without making himself (or his tape recorder) heard.
It is this precisely rendered unsteadiness that makes Touch Of Evil distinctive: in the environment in which these two detectives do their job, the morality of the law is a fictional convention – one that Orson Welles decides to break.
Boris Khlebnikov tells the story of a rural man with a dilemma that turns into an existential tragedy.
A Long And Happy Life (Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn, Russia) is a film that centers on one character, Sasha, and his desperation to avoid the collapse of his life: his present job, his future projects, his relationship. The film starts with a shot of a river. Suddenly this image of the calm water changes, and the next scene takes place inside an office where some people argue: the state is trying to buy Sasha's land in Russia. He is a local farmer and has the possibility of leaving this rural life and moving to town with his girlfriend Anna (who, incidentally works in the state department which wants to buy the land).
The problems for Sasha begin when the villagers he works with decide not to accept the selling of the land. They are determined to fight. But Sasha's not against them. In one scene he fights against a fire alongside the other villagers and we understand that there is a sense of communion. He can't abandon them, and his loyalty is the source of the main conflict of the film, a personal dilemma that we can see in his face when he stares at nothing or smiles nervously.
The constant shots of the river reinforce the idea of the land he has to preserve, the natural place where he should belong. Meanwhile, his girlfriend waits for him to get the compensation. She's on the side of the ‘enemies' but she's mainly motivated by a dream of "a long and happy life".
The two sides in this war – the farmers and the state – never meet. The only link between them is Sasha, caught up without knowing what to do. As the film progresses, he loses contact with everyone and ends up alone. Did he betray them all? Did they betray him and his dreams? It is difficult to place guilt in this film and it's even harder to put oneself in Sasha's shoes.
Director Boris Khlebnikov never uses gratuitous cruelty to narrate his tragedy. Instead, he films the story with a rhythm similar to the river stream that appears again at the end of the film, peaceful after a terribly strong current.
Anne Kodura's meticulously composed documentary struggles to outgrow its childlike gaze.
Wasteland – So That No One Becomes Aware Of It (Ödland – Damit keiner das so mitbemerkt, Germany) from Berlinale Generation meditates upon the rural ghettoization of asylum seekers from a child's eye view. Revolving around a group of young Syrian and Lebanese children living in asylum in Germany, the film is a visual marvel, yet it fails to grapple with the true implications of this social problem.
Director Anne Kodura, who previously worked as a script supervisor, frames the story of the spirited Mohammed, Mustafa and Aya in classical form. Owing to Kodura's background in continuity, the film is rigorously constructed, with meticulous black & white camera setups and seamlessly clean editing. The film's core strength is the way in which Kodura captures the children's behavior without seeming at all intrusive, yet remaining intensely formal in style.
The strong approach to form is entirely in service to the concept that the film must represent the child's perspective. There is something magical in the children's adventures around their home. The block of flats in which they live is surrounded by fields, wind turbines, woodland and a marvelous stockpile of junk. Kodura shows this landscape as a playground for the children's creative minds; in one nighttime shot the turbines look like giants with lights for eyes in the desolate German countryside. However, this transcendence distracts from the readily apparent social disconnection that the children experience.
We are never shown the children's parents, yet we hear them in voiceover, painting an entirely contradictory picture to the film's visuals. The parents express their dissatisfaction with being so isolated in Germany, yet Kodura's choice to physically separate them from their children actually retracts the weight of their words. We are made to feel that the children are alienated from their parents, yet this is not the case; the parents and children as a group are lost without a community.
Ultimately the film fails to develop its concept beyond the children's point-of-view. Had Kodura shot contrasting scenes from the adult perspective, the film would have achieved a pertinent counterpoint which would expound the problem of ghettoization. Instead the film is a childlike flight of fancy, built upon a disconcerting backdrop of cultural alienation.
Inspired low-budget filmmaking in this Berlinale Panorama entry: A knight in shining armor-story with a twist.
Indonesian writer-director Teddy Soeriaatmadja presents an inspiring take on the knight in shining armor-tale in his second self-financed feature film Something In The Way (Indonesia, 2013). Ahmad is a porn obsessed taxi driver from Jakarta who falls for the beautiful young prostitute Kinar and will stop at nothing to rescue her from what he believes to be her predicament. One person's road to perdition is often another's way to righteousness, but Soeriaatmadja offers a new perspective by exploring all the ambiguities hidden in the old hero/villain binary.
Ahmad is a deluded young man who is puzzled by the realities of life and is struggling to make sense of different world views he encounters that make him feel anxious and claustrophobic. Soeriaatmadja contrasts Ahmad's sex addiction with unrealistic romantic ideas by using considerate shots that maximize his material's visual potential. The film beautifully renders the inner world of the sensitive and confused young man through the extensive use of close-ups with shallow depth of field—a visual equivalent to his claustrophobic state of mind. The delusions obscuring his vision are shown through focal changes within the shot pointing to the fact that Ahmad is not really able to cope with the realities of the world outside his own head.
The mesmeric blurred shots of the city at night bring a poetic tone to the overall feeling of the film. His choice to use Bach highlights the abyss between the elusive moments of happiness the characters experience and the harsh world surrounding them. By cleverly mixing pornography and romance, Something In The Way manages to question deeply rooted ideas about ideal love on the level of its story. Soeriaatmadja achieves the maximum with the minimal means by breathing life into a well-known story, inflating it with his creative visual thinking and unearthing its hidden layers.