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The Unreliable Narrator — By Irina Trocan
Talking-head documentary No Man's Land (Berlinale Forum) challenges traditional ways of turning outstanding life stories into history.
Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas shapes her documentary, No Man's Land (Terra de ninguém, Portugal), into a radically sparse form of biography: one person sits in a chair in front of a dark background, telling the story of his life. As Paulo de Figueiredo recounts his experiences as a soldier in the Portuguese Colonial War and then as a CIA-hired mercenary, it's hard to discern fact from fiction, unless we choose to take Figueiredo at his word. His personality, however, is never a mystery: from the beginning of the film he smilingly confesses to the atrocities he's committed. He's both entrancingly frank and sadistic.
The ex-soldier's speech, recorded over five days, is punctuated with numbered inserts (perhaps to indicate the questions that were omitted from the film; after all, the purpose of all the questions is the same — to encourage Figueiredo to talk) and occasionally with a title card indicating the day and the location of the fight he is about to chronicle (or maybe fantasize about, who knows?). Given the minimalistic approach, any event interrupting the confession — like, for instance, his sudden decision to get up from the chair and go out to smoke a cigarette — comes as a visual shock.
References to historical events and figures are dense and should be abundantly revelatory to viewers initiated in Portuguese history. For the rest, the documentary doesn't provide a context, but it doesn't need to — viewers who need more background information should look to more mainstream documentaries to fill the gaps. No Man's Land is best seen as a character study for the tough-minded. Several voice-over interventions by the filmmaker (mentioning, for instance, the absence of some documents which could corroborate Figueiredo‘s statements) try to fit the story into a larger context, but the connections remain vague.
There's artistic merit in Lamas' decision to talk about atrocious historical events without trying to draw a clear-cut, and perhaps uplifting, conclusion. One could say the film makes demands on the viewers, but it also shows respect for their intelligence and perceptiveness. Brave predecessors have used Lamas' working methods to similar ends. Claude Lanzmann, whose films are honored in this year's Berlinale Homage, made Shoah, a comprehensive 566-minute documentary about the Holocaust, by editing together interviews with people who were involved. Lanzmann dismisses the way mainstream historical films attempt to make sense out of history by shrinking it down to size. Any life story is just a tiny, loosely connected part of an event. The approach Lamas takes in No Man's Land — getting inside the head of one unrepentant individual whose guilt is hard to assess — may be a more honest way of taking the measure of historical events
Denis Côté's elegant film reveals unsuspected levels of cruelty in human nature.
Berlinale Competition film Vic + Flo Saw A Bear (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours, Canada) tells the story of Victoria, an ex-convict who tries to reestablish her life with her girlfriend, Florence. Denis Côté reflects on the real dimensions of prison and freedom for human beings.
It's interesting to compare this film with Côté's documentary Bestiaire (Canada, 2012), which collected images of animals in unnatural situations inside a Quebec zoo. The parallel and the analogies of captivity are obvious. Like the animals of Bestiaire, the protagonist of Vic + Flo Saw A Bear is also in an unnatural situation. Though supposedly released from prison, she is still under the daily control of a parole officer. Seeking freedom, she refuses contact with people and prefers to hide in the forest.
Once again, Côté uses a stationary camera and elegant compositions to contrast the beauty of the images with a cruel reality. And in this film, too, he gathers together a "bestiaire" of weird characters around the lesbian couple: the ghostly parole officer, a mysterious woman seeking revenge, and a crippled old man who can't talk but observes everything from his wheelchair.
Vic and Flo suffer to unsuspected degrees. When we think some incidents are unbelievable, Côté hits us with an irony: "Horrible people like us don't exist", says one of the characters, but, in fact, these people do exist. These humans are uncontrolled animals abusing their freedom (or taking vengeance for the lack of it).
At the end of Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, it seems to be easy to separate the characters between good and bad, order and chaos, but human nature, as the film reveals, mixes everything together. The delirious outcome of the film works as the logical consequence of its dark and absurd situations. With a calculated use of black humor and a succession of strong scenes, Côté manages to construct a splendid and daring film.
Talent Press meets a working producer and director, with a particularly personal project in the Berlinale Co-Production Market.
From developing filmmaking craft to tackling the business of filmmaking, the Berlinale Talent Campus in cooperation with the Berlinale Co-Production Market helps upcoming directors develop projects within the film industry. Aaron Brookner and his producer Paula Vaccaro are part of the Talent Project Market with their deeply personal feature Smash The Control Machine, as they work to complete the vital stages of pre-production. The film tells the personal story of Aaron Brookner's uncle, director Howard Brookner, who inspired Aaron to make films when he was a child. Howard Brookner died of AIDS in 1989 and yet his work, including the documentary Burroughs (on which Jim Jarmusch worked as sound recordist) and the feature Bloodhounds Of Broadway is much revered. For Aaron Brookner, the Berlinale provides an opportunity to make a very personal project a reality.
Considering the support of the Campus Brookner says: "They structure it very well. They spend two days, intense days, preparing you for really all aspects of what you're going into: be it pitching, the personal element of a story, both physically and intellectually and learning about these complications of co-production financing strategies." Brookner also feels that being at the Berlinale has put him on a platform for potential partners "they're showing up to meet you and they want to meet you and you're on a higher ground."
Producer Paula Vaccaro acknowledges the financial challenges of making a project by a new director, saying, "I work with bigger directors and known names and when you're out there trying to look for finance for newer directors. I think they become in danger of not being able to develop artistically." Elaborating, she points out that, "a place like this to a director in the right moment in their career is really nurturing, it's key to gaining a brilliant network, it's key to being validated by people who do finance films."
With Jim Jarmusch recently announced as Executive Producer, the project's prospects at the Berlinale look increasingly promising. Paula Vaccaro notes that "if someone like Jim will trust the project then others will trust the project." Aaron Brookner adds: "In Europe, Jim Jarmusch is a very important name. He has contributed immensely to the landscape of interesting cinema, so he gets attention."
African filmmakers discuss their urban realities in the Campus' "Set in the City" session.
"I want to put my own story up there on the silver screen", said Kenyan filmmaker Tosh Gitonga at the panel discussion "Set in the City: Depicting Urban Africa" at this year's Talent Campus. Campus participant Gitonga made his debut feature Nairobi Half Life (Kenya, 2012) with the help of German producers and managed to conquer Kenya's box office. He was joined on stage by French-Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte who is currently working on a short film for the series African Metropolis and is preparing his feature debut Run which is to be set in Abidjan.
The discussion primarily focused on how they set out to depict urban Africa which plays an important role in their work. Lacôte even went as far as to say that, "Abidjan is the main subject of my film, the story comes second." Both Gitonga and Lacôte agreed that what they want to capture is urban landscape as they see it, in a more realistic way, rather than embellish it. The young Kenyan director was asked by fellow African filmmakers in the audience why he had chosen to focus on the city's darker side: "I want to put Nairobi on the map as we see it, not as everybody else sees it."
This opened the question of their responsibility in representing their long-suffering societies to the rest of the world and the potential of changing the problematic view of Africa which is present in such classics as Jean Rouch's Moi un noir (France, 1958) which Lacôte described as "well-made but colonialist". Both directors said they primarily focus on the stories they want to tell and try to put ideology aside. However, the key factor in their filmmaking is reality itself, they begin from it and keep going back to it, or as Gitonga put it: "I have a passion to show reality, to put a mirror in front of society."
It turns out, African filmmakers cannot focus on their private stories when there are disturbing truths to be told about the society they live in. And their societies are, just like all others, made up of individuals who have dreams and who dream in fictions. We can only hope that one day we will be able to see these up there on the silver screen too.
Ulrich Seidl sits down with Ariel Esteban Cayer to discuss Paradise: Hope.
Over the past year, Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy has taken the festival world by storm. Its final installment, which premiered last Friday at the Berlinale, expectedly offered another deeply uncomfortable, yet beautifully composed exploration of decadence, bodies and lust. Paradise: Hope, Seidl's own version of Lolita, closes the trilogy with the story of overweight, pre-pubescent Melanie, who, sent to an absurd diet camp, falls in love with the camp physician, 40 years her senior.
When asked about the controversial and cynical gaze that his films throw on the world, Seidl remained elusive: "This vision comes from inside me; this vision of the world is my own vision — a very personal vision... It is a question of what I want to show." He specified: "I am not concerned with the audience. My concern is with how I can get the audience to feel [the images]".
Seidl's cinema walks a fine line between the exploitative and the representative, the affectionate and the judgmental. What allows him such audacity of filmmaking? "I try to approach it in such a way where I have the greatest freedom possible: in the way I make the film and what I make the film about… You renounce big budgets, you work with small budgets and the smallest possible crews. The other thing is that I work with reality. I take reality and make an artificial image of it".
Paradise: Hope is strikingly less mean-spirited than his previous films. In keeping with this year's Berlinale Talent Campus theme, I took the opportunity to ask about his views on the possibility of cinema as pure entertainment. He offered: "All my films deal with aspects of reality that are very unpleasant for audiences, that can upset, that might make them want to look away. For that reason, humor is very important, so that audiences are able to laugh. But at the same time, the audience is always aware — or at least, I hope they are aware — that in my films, the laughter, at some point, might stay stuck in their throat."
Max Ophüls' The Trouble With Money might have failed at the box office, but certainly not on the artistic front. It's a gem waiting to be rediscovered.
The title says it all. The Trouble With Money (Komedie om geld, Netherland), screening in Berlinale Retrospective, was indeed troubled with money. This Max Ophüls film cost 150,000 guilders (approximately 20,000 Euros) to produce, the most expensive Dutch film in 1936, but managed to earn only 10,000 guilders, failing to appeal to the Dutch audience. This paradox of a very expensive "comedy about money", as the Dutch title goes, played a crucial role in shaping the film's subsequent reputation as a financial flop. It's an often-forgotten work made by a legendary director.
Despite its poor box-office record, The Trouble With Money is far from being an artistic flop. The big budget certainly allowed Ophüls to realize his whims for the grandiose. He built lavish sets as a backdrop for this moral tale about the power of money in a capitalist society. Central to the film is a fairground stage, where a master of ceremonies addresses the audience throughout. In the prologue, he lures us into following the protagonist, Brand (Herrman Bouber), a bank clerk who accidentally loses 300,000 guilders. Failing to explain how he misplaced the money, Brand is accused of theft by his co-workers.
A sense of helplessness grows as the film progresses. Ophüls cleverly builds the tension by splitting the film into two distinct visual styles. The first half features mostly realistic sequences, shot on location in various spots in Amsterdam, showing Brand as he struggles with his job as a bank clerk. The second half is more expressionistic, taking place inside luxurious offices. To render Brand and the other workers insignificant within the trappings of wealth, the director frames his characters so that they're dwarfed by the furniture around them. Heinz Fennschel, the set designer, actually built oversized furniture to magnify the effect.
In essence, The Trouble With Money holds up a mirror to its times. The 30s were riddled with consequences of the Great War: economic depression, authoritarian regimes, and threats of another war. In times of such distress, humanities are often set aside, and it becomes easy to lose sight of an individual's worth beyond his or her ability to make money, and that's the cause of Brand's suffering. In retrospect, The Trouble With Money is unique within the filmography of Ophüls. It is neither a romantic comedy nor a melodrama, two genres that we associate with Ophüls during his stint in Hollywood in the 40s. It's a movie with a social conscience, one worthy of being rediscovered.
Romanian drama Child's Pose a front-runner for the Golden Bear.
In Child's Pose, a speeding BMW crashes into a boy crossing the freeway and kills him. When one of the eye-witnesses narrates the incident to the mother of the guilty driver, he uses props on a coffee table to describe the accident and, ironically, the ash-tray becomes the site of the collision. After patiently listening to him, the mother nonchalantly throws her cigarette ash into the now symbolic tray, and looks on. It is a gesture that immediately uncovers the woman's indifference toward the causes of the mishap and tells of her intentions to save her adult son, preferably by buying the witness off.
The mother, played with phenomenal composure by Luminita Gheorghiu, has become a victim of her unconditional love for her son. It has reached an extent where she's incapable of despising him even though he hates her authoritarian attitude and spells it out in colorful language. Yet despite her stubborn and dominant nature, she is vulnerable as a mother, and will do whatever it takes to save her child from trouble.
Child's Pose is a deeply unsettling film and evokes feelings as myriad as those of the characters in the film. Rather than making it a police procedural, director Calin Peter Netzer concentrates on the emotional specifics and documents the traumatic consequences of a terrible misfortune. He shows, with alarming precision, a turbulent mother-son relationship that is severed beyond repair. The mother's excessive affections have clearly done more harm than good. The camera movement is such that it appears to be pursuing the central character with an almost intrusive gaze, and that treatment lends more power to the already-compulsive mother.
Toward the end, when we see the victim's family for the first time, we realize Child's Pose is essentially about irreparable loss. Although it is a matter of interpretation whether the mother is trying to emotionally manipulate the victim's family, one cannot entirely eliminate the fact that in the process, she too has lost. And that loss is as devastating for her as it is for the family of the dead son.