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Reality Meets Fiction — By Višnja Pentić
Over a coffee with Campus alumna Neus Ballús who made it to Berlinale Forum with her debut feature The Plague.
For the first time in the history of the Berlinale Talent Campus a former participant had the honor of showing her debut feature at the Opening Ceremony. The Plague, by Catalan director Neus Ballús, is also part of this year's Berlinale Forum. The morning after the ceremony, Ballús and I met for a coffee and discussed how a former Doc Station participant ended up with a film in the official Berlinale program.
The Plague interweaves the stories of five people living on the outskirts of Barcelona, all of whom are struggling with underemployment and general feelings of isolation and emptiness. Ballús started developing her project four years ago and filmed the first scenes after working on the script for two years. In 2011, she took part in the Berlinale Talent Campus' Doc Station, which gave her the encouragement she needed: "After working with my mentors I realized my project had universal appeal and could be interesting to international audiences. The Berlinale Talent Campus also opened new doors in terms of funding and we started to develop the project as a feature film." Ballús explains, "The shooting was planned as if it was a feature films regardless of the fact that I was using the real-life situations of the non-actor protagonists." She says her intention was "to use fictional tools in order to bring out deeper truths about her character's real lives." Ballús says that her work with the actors was a very personal experience, "I had to get really intimate with them and have them believe in the film they were going to be a part of."
In choosing to portray the underprivileged people at the base of society, Ballús says, "I was well aware of the trap of romanticizing or overdramatizing their problems and chose to focus on the subtle realities of their existence." She has done so by showing their feelings of loneliness, "I show them in deserted landscapes in the heat of the summer and let the suggestive images speak for themselves." With The Plague, Ballús infuses reality with fiction in order to discover its invisible pulses, truthfully portraying the often misrepresented Other.
The provocative Dutch director talks to the Talent Press about reconciling art and entertainment.
Known for his ultra-violent and satirical action films (Robocop, Starship Troopers) and wild Dutch films (Soldier Of Orange, Turkish Delight), Paul Verhoeven is renowned for his entertaining storytelling style. Speaking on this year's Campus theme, "Some Like It Hot: Filmmakers as Entertainers", this is a director dissatisfied with the mere notion of providing entertainment. As he says in his own words: "I consider making movies a form of art."
Yet it was shooting military propaganda documentaries for the Dutch Marines that initiated Verhoeven's career. "The most important movie I made when working with the Marines was a twenty-minute documentary. I made that very much like an action movie. I copied basically the way of shooting of the first two James Bond movies: Dr No & From Russia With Love."
The opportunity to make these films trained Verhoeven in action directing. "The whole navy was at my disposal and this was because the General of the Marines wanted this for the 300th anniversary of the Marines." Yet he reflects with an air of cynicism that, "of course it is as much propaganda as Triumph Of The Will, in some way. I mean, less of course, because it's not an ideology that I'm presenting…"
Reconciling this with Verhoeven's move into feature filmmaking, with Soldier Of Orange and Turkish Delight, seems absurd to a foreign onlooker. "Well they were seen as art films outside the country, but in Holland they were not. They were very mainstream, and one of them (Turkish Delight) had the largest amount of spectators ever for a Dutch movie."
Though he considers himself an artist, Verhoeven's understanding of film narrative is not a fanciful one. He admits that a film is "not like a painting that you see in a split second, so you need to follow the rules of drama." Expounding on the need to entertain, Verhoeven describes a movie going nightmare: "It's horrible because you cannot walk out to the kitchen, or have a coffee or a cigarette, you are locked in this chair in the middle of a theatre and you don't like it… you're bored, you're bored, you're bored!"
So what can the filmmakers of the Campus learn from Paul Verhoeven? His wisdom lies in his ability to find a balance between his intent and the need for form. "I think about structure, I think about tension… but that's technique, isn't it?" He concludes, "…yeah it's art, but it's also fighting time." Just as we run out of interview time, Verhoeven summarizes his final thoughts on the challenges of filmmaking. With a laugh he admits "...in retrospect I would have preferred to be a painter!"
Two documentaries similar in form but completely different in effect are part of the Berlinale Homage to Claude Lanzmann.
The homage to living legend Claude Lanzmann includes a complete retrospective of his work which examines World War II and the Nazi genocide. Two of his latest films, A Visitor From The Living (Un vivant qui passe, France, 1999) and The Karski Report (Le rapport Karski, France, 2010), were not screened together by chance. They share in common the question: "What does it mean to know?"
In two interviews that Lanzmann conducted in the 70s for his epic documentary Shoah (1985) but didn't include in that film, he contrasts two characters, a villain (or simply a fool) and a hero, and does it well. He takes advantage of the silence, the interruptions, and even the contradictions of the interviewees.
In A Visitor From The Living, Lanzmann interviews Maurice Rossel, a Swiss delegate of the Red Cross who inspected concentration camps and considered some of them "satisfactory." Over the course of a very long unbroken take, Lanzmann asks Rossel about his infamous reports. The meeting starts as a sincere and sympathetic conversation, but ends up with an intense confrontation as Lanzmann contrasts Rossel's version of events with documents. The filmmaker is not a judge. His work is closer to that of a journalist with moral duties.
In contrast, The Karski Report is a meeting with a Polish resistant and informant who gives his testimony. Although the film follows the same pattern as A Visitor From The Living (one shot, no camera movement), in this case the interviewee speaks eloquently, acts in front of the interviewer, and tells a story of salvation. Lanzmann almost never intervenes and rather plays the role of a spectator.
The material is austere, but it generates a powerful effect. As a witness to the horror, Lanzmann faces questions of memory, violence and hope with a very personal and sometimes raw style. This style transcends the film's immediate subject and achieves wide historical and cultural resonances.
Sexual minorities in Cameroon pour their hearts out to open-minded foreign audiences.
Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann's documentary Born This Way (Berlinale Panorama), borrowing its title from an album of eccentric pop singer Lady Gaga, reports on the prejudice against gays and lesbians living in the very conservative Republic of Cameroon. While the people interviewed in Born This Way may believe they're entitled to a greater degree of tolerance, and know that sexual minorities in Western societies have already obtained it, the current legislation in Cameroon allows for the imprisonment of homosexuals, proven or suspected.
The Los Angeles-based filmmakers admit that working on the documentary was less risky for them than for the subjects, whose sexual preferences are still partly secret in their social circle (for personal safety reasons, the documentary will never be shown publicly in Cameroon). With the exception of one sequence, filmed illegally in a courtroom while a trial for "lesbianism and witchcraft" is taking place, the camera is never in the middle of the action. The story builds as the subjects spontaneously recount their experiences or show evidence of harassment. Since the downside of a progressive documentary is that it practically demands that the oppressed make a spectacle of the injustice they've suffered, the filmmakers have taken the delicate approach of allowing the interviewees the freedom to run the show. On the other hand, their non-interference might have gone too far: on first glance, the best bits in the documentary appear to be the product of chance.
The highlights of this film are simple yet gripping. Recurring characters Cedric and Gertrud make emotionally demanding confessions: he tells the camera that he is "not himself with women"; she decides to come out in front of a nun who took care of her and is met with reassuring acceptance. In another scene, a man driving a woman in his car casually engages her in conversation; he learns she's bisexual and becomes increasingly stimulated by her frankness.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers' techniques don't always rise to the occasion. Kadlec and Tullmann cut within a sequence or between sequences to spare the audience the effort of following the speakers' digressions, but they end up being too intrusive. The idea implicit in Born This Way — that gay rights are human rights — isn't new, but the faces in the documentary are. By interrupting their speech or juxtaposing different fragments of their discourse, the filmmakers inadvertently censor the characters and replace the characters' thought associations with their own. In one scene, after Cedric visits the grave of his father and wistfully reminisces that he was a serene man, Kadlec and Tullmann cut to his explanation of why he wouldn't open up to his father and how pressing it was to keep the secret. But did he say that immediately, as if he were burning to articulate the thought? Or have the filmmakers just taken out the boring bit?
The ever-charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt crafts an engaging and amusing directorial debut.
A pounding rhythm and a swift, dynamic camera movement reveal Don Jon sitting at his computer, about to watch his more-than-daily dose of pornography. From the very first second of its opening sequence, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's quite unexpected directorial debut proves immediately intriguing — grabbing its audience through the sheer power of its relentless editing and sharply exaggerated dialogue. A simple, earnest film for the non-cynical, part romantic comedy, part character study, Don Jon's Addiction is surprisingly assured. Above all, it is a film of momentous rhythm and infectious energy — precision as entertainment.
Womanizer "Don" Jon Marcello (Gordon-Levitt) likes the simple things in life: his church, his fitness, his girls, his bar and his porn. That is, until he meets the seemingly perfect fit in bodacious babe Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), as superficial as himself and, as soon becomes apparent, equally selfish. In the process — and through a chance encounter with an older woman, Esther (Julianne Moore), Jon will learn that there is a little more to life than self-satisfactory sex.
The plot is admittedly slight and formulaic, but as a vehicle for its actor and director, Don Jon's is a commendable exercise in performance. Gordon-Levitt takes on the challenge of a completely different character type — the predatory alpha male rather than the accessible and understated guy next door.
Gordon-Levitt blatantly juxtaposes Jon's addiction to pornography with Barbara's own fascination with romantic comedies — or the manipulative power of cinema. Whether commenting on his own compulsion for performance, or pointing to the validity of "low-brow" entertainment as a valid, if addictive form of expression, Gordon-Levitt arms his debut with an incisive, if thinly self-conscious and deconstructive edge.
Like porn, Don Jon's is ultimately spectacle. It is a film of famous, beautiful bodies dry-humping in a corridor, of hard-hitting music cues, of keen editing and self-aware camera movements. Gordon-Levitt seamlessly carries the film on his shoulders, ever-driving and irresistibly charismatic, proving to be an effective entertainer both in front and behind the camera.
What made Les Misérables the trail-blazing musical it has become?
After earning eight Oscar nominations, Les Misérables, adapted from the long-running stage-musical based on Victor Hugo's novel, had a triumphant screening at the Berlinale Special. But despite the praise for Anne Hathaway, she told reporters at a press conference held yesterday that she still didn't have confidence singing in public, even though she would love to do more musicals.
Hathaway and other stars of the film, Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne, along with director Tom Hooper and producer Eric Fellner, spoke eloquently about the experimental nature of the musical, and on breaking conventions without ever being certain about their audiences' reactions. In the sweepingly photographed film, integrating live-singing into the narrative acts as a wondrous substitute to spoken-dialogue, and for a musical that is as revolutionary as the revolution the film documents.
In terms of the meticulous efforts that went into bringing the epic to the screen, actor Hugh Jackman, who plays the part of Jean Valjean, said it was director Tom Hooper's uncompromising overall vision that helped the entire ensemble sail through: "I think filmmaking is the most difficult thing to do, and the easiest to screw up. Tom did something spectacularly impossible. He redefined the idea of a musical mainly by incorporating live-singing. Before we started filming, he held nine week long rehearsals, again something unheard of, which hugely aided the entire cast in bringing to life their respective characters."
Hooper, when asked what exactly made him choose live-singing over conventional methods, said: "When I told my actors that we were going to record the songs live, all our faces suddenly lit up. There is a certain amount of passion about singing live; it brings a sense of emotional immediacy and doesn't reflect the artificiality that lip-synced songs inevitably bring out. So the intention wasn't just to break rules, but to make the emotions look more real and heartfelt."
Eddie Redmayne, who enacts the part of Marius Pontmercy, stressed the uniqueness of the entire experiment: "The most astounding thing about the project was the amalgamation of musical-theatre actors and film actors. Just to navigate that sort of untried territory was challenging and a novel experience altogether."
What is being? Is it just another form of acting? As in a Shakespeare play, everybody could be anybody in Viola.
In films like The Stolen Man (2007), Everybody Lies (2009), and Rosalinda (2010), Matías Piñeiro shows us a capsule world. The Argentinian director always shapes his stories around a group of young middle-class women whose dilemma is either sentimental or existential. Making a living seems to be no problem; they spend their days chatting about art, politics, and philosophy. Daily life simply does not exist.
Viola (2012), screening in the Berlinale Forum, sports a more stylized take on these conventions. Meager in plot yet rich in plotting, Piñeiro's third feature calls attention to its narrative shape rather than to the story. The film begins as an all-women performance of various Shakespeare plays, namely "Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice." Then, a plot within a plot takes shape. The same ensemble re-enact the same drama and dialogue in an off-stage discussion on love and relationships.
The film's philosophical assaults on human identity are engaging. What is being? Is it just another form of acting? As in a Shakespeare play, everybody could be anybody in Viola. The "viola" of the title actually has nothing to do with the theatre. She's just biking around the city, delivering bootleg copies of movies, until she meets one of the young women acting in the theatrical production. The woman asks Viola to be her replacement. In the second act of "Twelfth Night," Viola is disguised as a man called Cesario, but in the play within the film (s)he is called Bassanio, a character from "The Merchant of Venice."
Piñeiro uses close-ups effectively: characters' faces move and shift across the frame, blurring the background, turning every scene in Viola into a stage open to myriad possibilities. There is one jaw-dropping scene near the end of the film, where several of the girls practice their lines in a van. The van door slides open, revealing the raging wind and rain outside; it's not as sunny as it appeared through the windows a minute ago. Enter a new woman, a new dialogue, and a new plot.