Recipe for successThe Berlinale is an outstanding example of how a film festival can enhance a city's cultural life and promote social interaction

Entrance to the Berlinale Palast, the main venue of the Berlin International Film Festival.
Berlin takes pride in its solemn modernism and throws one of the best cinefests every February. If Cannes is all about sunshine and buzz, Berlin's murky skies and stoic architecture inspire festival-goers with the intuition that movies remain a serious, consequential, and politically relevant art form.

The 56th Berlin International Film Festival, or the Berlinale, screened nearly 400 movies at 1,100 screenings from Feb 9 to 19. This year a Thai film, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, was handpicked into the elite club of the main Competition, while two titles with strong political clout from Malaysia were shown in the sidebar Forum section. Brand-name Western auteurs served up their latest gigs - with mixed results - while Hollywood fare peppered the programming to refreshing effect (see side story for film discussion).

Braving the subzero climate of the screenings for 10 days straight tempted many to change to event's moniker to "the Brrrrrlinale". But despite the discouraging temperature, Berlin has always been a first-class example of the concept of a film festival as the signature of a city, and as an urban happening that sends a sweeping impact not only to its 10-day visitors but to its citizens. The Berlinale shows, in other words, that a "film festival" is not simply an occasion in which so much money and effort are spent on something as seemingly trivial as the movies - they are spent on endorsing the cultural meaningfulness of the city, on educating the people about artistic appreciation, and on promoting social interaction in both popular and intellectual terms.

For a start, the Berlinale has always been known as an audience's festival. The organisers ensure that this cine-event is something its residents can enjoy; movies are screened at different locations around the city, German subtitles are prepared for every movie, ticket bookings are convenient - there is even a kindergarten at which festival participants can leave their kids while going out to watch films. Thus the crowds respond in delight: the queues to the ticket booths at the festival's headquarters at Potsdamer Platz were lengthy snakes from 9am.

On the surface, the Berlinale seems to have fashioned its identity around movies with strong political or historical significance; past Golden Bear winners include titles such as In the Name of the Father, about Northern Ireland's conflict, The Thin Red Line, a dreamy reckoning on the battle for Guadacanal, and In This World, a docu-drama about Pakistani immigrants, while this year's kudos went to a Bosnian film Grbavica, which captures the country's post-civil war social pains through a mother-daughter relationship.

But in fact, the Berlin programming has a broader appeal, and this is another example of how a film festival must have a clear vision regarding its target audience. Kids and adults come to Berlin especially for the "Kinderfilmfest", a mini-festival within the Berlinale that features a selection of children-oriented movies. The Kinderfilmfest has its own juries and awards, its own cheery atmosphere at the Zoo Palast theatre, and sometimes the selections are as solid as those picked for the main festival.

It's interesting seeing a group of young schoolchildren being escorted by their teacher to the cinema to watch a film about the growing pains of other kids from other parts of the world. Some films in the Kinderfilmfest, such as this year's Opal Dream from England or 4:30 from Singapore, even discuss serious issues or use unconventional storytelling such that some entertainment-addicted adults may dismiss the films as too difficult. The lesson is simple: when these children grow up, the festival will grow along with them.

Likewise, Berlinale's "Perspektive Deutches Kino" showcases samples of the latest German films - and this is a valuable contribution a cinefest can provide to the local film industry. And lastly, this year, Berlin also put together a collection of gay and lesbian films to mark the 20th anniversary of the Teddy Queer Film Award. Since the German capital is known for its pulsating gay scene, to have a gay cinema section (whose screenings are often followed by cool [or heated] parties at invariably inspiring locales) is to identify with a key community of the city, and again this shows how a cinefest should be conscious of its role within the social environment that surrounds it.

It takes years, decades, to achieve all this. But at a time when the concept of "film festival" - Bangkok just held its own a fortnight ago - is being exploited for various commercial purposes, the Berlinale timely attests that, with clear-sightedness, a movie carnival is not merely a frivolous, disposable decoration, but an essential part of a city's cultural identity. Even a tropical country can learn a lot from that attitude.

Berlin's picks

Hits, and misses, from the Berlin International Film Festival

Story by Kong Rithdee

Various states of the human condition and political foul-play characterised the Competition titles of the 56th Berlinale. Meanwhile in the supposedly edgy Forum section, a few eye-openers were squeezed among a perplexing horde of humdrum offerings. Berlin is still at the forefront as a cine-occasion that keeps itself abreast with the reality - often harsh, unhappy reality - of today's world, and the fest's best shots come when personal drama intersects with the fracas of political anarchy and social dysfunction.

Letting fly a devastating punch is Michael Winterbottom's expose The Road to Guantanamo, in which the versatile director recounts the horrors befalling three young British Muslims, known as the Tipton Three, who were mistakenly arrested by the US Army in Afghanistan and shipped to the notorious detention camp in Cuba. The docu-drama derives its explicit power not only from the current real-world debates over the torture of prisoners, but largely from showing the naivete and hallucination with which the "war on terror" is mounted. Like other great political movies with topical subjects, The Road to Guantanamo makes one wonder why the broadcast media never dig deep and show us the torture chambers Winterbottom is showing us here.

Chances are still 50-50, but a local distributor is negotiating the price for the release rights of the film. So let's wish him luck.

But chances are near-zero that one of the best works I saw at the Berlinale will appear in local theatres. Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist is fundamentally a biography of Malaysian communist leader Chen Ping, who's been living in exile in the south of Thailand since the 1960s, but this DV documentary is even more relevant as an intimate portrait of the history of Malaysia's political and social identities, told through the folksy tapestry of everyday life and, weirdly enough, gaudy musical interludes. (I plan to write more about Amir's movie later.)

With another Malaysian movie in the Forum, Woo Ming Jin's satirical replay of a terrorist attack called Monday Morning Glory, I can only bemoan the glaring ignorance of Thai filmmakers who fail to inject anything political into their works - and one can't possibly claim that there's no inspiration from Thai politics these days.

Against most odds, the Berlinale bestowed the Golden Bear to Grbavica, the first Bosnian film ever picked for the Competition. The rather conventional story discusses the wounds of the long war that's passing from one generation to the next, but the film's dramatic disposition seems to lack the complexity displayed by the Iranian film, Offside, that took home the runner-up Silver Bear prize. Ostensibly the most accessible work by Jafar Panahi (White Balloon, The Mirror), Offside concerns a group of young Tehran girls who disguise themselves as boys and try to sneak into the crucial World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain since women, as it happens, are prohibited from entering the stadium.

Panahi shot his film on the actual day of the match. He included what really happened on the streets of Tehran after the final whistle, and by doing so the film curiously carves out a temporary, blissed-out reality when the whole nation shares a collective experience that momentarily shields the less pleasant side of its social structure. I believe that the same Thai distributor is trying to get Offside for local release (for the World Cup season!), so again, we wish them luck.

From realpolitik Berlin also served up politics of sex. An Asian film in the Panorama section (which is kind of reserved for titles not big enough for Competition and not "challenging" enough for Forum, though both aren't always true) that headed straight into my Best-of-2006 list is Takashi Miike's gay/prison/sci-fi melodrama Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, a Fassbinder-esque piece of shadowy compositions, sweaty chests, violent beat-ups, homo jealousy and pretty Japanese boys as inmates of a futuristic jail (another Thai distributor is getting it for local theatres). Also in the Panorama is Singaporean Roystan Tan's 4:30, a hushed-down narrative (a la Tsai Ming-liang) of a schoolboy and a Korean man who's the silent lover of his mom. Roystan perfects an elegant rhythm, and the film milks fine streaks of humour and melancholy out of its rather thin story. An off-handed hint at homo-eroticism may go unnoticed if you blink during this delicate movie.

Back to the Competition, Danish/Swedish production Soap tells the story of friendship between a lovelorn woman and a suicidal transvestite next door. This film, which shares the Silver Bear prestige, will definitely arrive at Bangkok theatres, though its lean portrayal of cloistered suffering and sexual confusion didn't leave a lasting impression.

One of the biggest disappointments in the Competition is the German film Elementary Particles, Oskar Roehler's adaptation from Michel Houellebecqs' inflammatory novel. The problem with the film, I think, is the tone: the dark misanthropy of the book, which rages on the sickness of human civilisation, is treated here as a quasi black-comedy, and thus the pessimism of the film seems more like an act than a conviction. Despite that, Moritz Bleibtreu took home the best actor prize from the film. With a heavy subject and explicit sex, it's unlikely that any Thai importer will take interest in bringing the movie here.

A Berlinale, as in every major fest, won't achieve high voltage without the premieres of the latest works by brand-name directors. And most of the big guns that arrived in the German capital did fire a resounding shot. Head and shoulders above the rest is Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. Altman, one of the greatest American auteurs still at work, delivers a buoyant work, made with such relaxed virtuosity, about a popular country radio show that's facing its end. Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan and John C. Reilly all play country music singers, and it's their yodels as much as Altman's nimble touches that make the film a major crowd pleaser.

Over to the European heavyweights: French master Claude Chabrol presented L'Ivresse du Pouvoir (Comedy of Power), a thick swamp of satire about a fierce female judge (Isabelle Huppert) who's battling the politics of corruption and of her own rocky marriage.

Also from France, though with a different temperament, is Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (Gondry directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a hit here in Thailand). A great bonbon of a movie, The Science of Sleep stars Mexican hunk Gael Garcia Bernal in a sparkling love story between an insecure young man and his nerdy neighbour, and the film blithely slips in and out between contemporary Paris and a child-like dreambox constructed out of folding papers, crumpled plastic sheets and homemade, low-tech gadgets. It's not as a moving an affair as Eternal Sunshine (Gondry wrote his own script for the first time, whereas Eternal Sunshine owed much to scribe Charlie Kaufmann), yet Sleep is one of the fest's visual delights.

Sidney Lumet, another American brand, had his Find Me Guilty premiered at the Berlinale Palast. Legal justice is the theme that has shaped Lumet's glorious career, and here he twists his own arm - to a fairly satisfying effect - by making comedy out of courtroom drama. Based on a true trial, the film, starring Vin Diesel, follows the two-year court case against the whole gang of mafia in New York. The Berlinale's penchant for politics assumes a smiling face in this movie, and nobody will find it guilty for that matter.

Takashi Miike's "Big Bang Love"
Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica"
Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"
Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion"
Jafar Panahi's "Offside"
Amir Muhammad's "The Last Communist"
Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanamo"
Roystan Tan's "4.30"




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