I meet a fellow reporter at the press conference for the latest Gus Van Sant film starring Joaquin Phoenix. For the whole conference, Phoenix seems drowsy and keeps looking behind him. At one point he falls asleep in the middle of a question.
“He looks like he hates the press,” she says.
“Probably but you know it’s an act, right? This whole “I-hate-the-press-thing” is part of his image.”
After the conference, the reporter tells me she’s from Belgium and writes for a newspaper called Metro that they hand out in the subways. For the past 10 years, she’s attended almost every major film festival in Europe and the United States. Cannes is her favorite.
“So how does it work, they get you a place to stay and fly you out?” I ask.
“No, I save up throughout the year for this. There’s nothing I love more. We have a group of freelance reporters in Belgium and we all go together. There’s around six of us. Usually, I only end up publishing one or two reviews but anyway, that’s not really the reason I’m here.” She holds up her red press badge with fingernails painted purple. “It gets me one of these.”
Over the course of the Berlinale, I’ve realized that a lot of the reporters here put up their own money to come to these festivals because they love the experience. Phoenix may not be able to stand it, but for many of the people asking him questions, their lives revolve around getting enough money together to be able to go and attend Berlin, Cannes, Venice.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot tells the story of famed Portland cartoonist John Callahan’s process of recovery through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We see Callahan become a quadriplegic following a drunken car crash.
A severe injury can spawn creativity; when you are physically debilitated and there’s nothing but time on your hands. When I was bedridden on and off for two years following multiple surgeries a few years ago, I realized I wanted to be a writer. Van Sant’s focus, however, is on alcoholism and rehabilitation as opposed to Callahan’s art.
Nonetheless, there aren’t many moments throughout the film that drag or feel unnecessary. Jonah Hill’s performance as an AA guru deserves praise. The editing is tight, the pace is smooth and the film feels like a refreshing experience when juxtaposed with many other movies that have tested my patience here at Berlinale with sedately long takes and themes that go off into the realm of the esoteric. Van Sant succeeds in saying a lot without trying too hard, a task that’s always more difficult than it seems.
It’s the last day of screenings. I’ve seen 23 films and have two more to go. I’m feeling numb and want to go home and spend time with my dog, away from ‘industry people,’ whether they be press, actors, writers, directors, producers or fans — even though I fall into more than one of those categories.
Mug by Polish Director Malgorzata Szumowska centers around a family living in a xenophobic Polish village. Living in a hermetic state of ignorance, they drink vodka and tell racist jokes.
We see the film’s central character, a local headbanger named Jacek, revel in this bigoted humor while, just outside of town, a massive statue of Jesus is under construction. Jacek is one of the labors on the project and while on the job he endures a horrific injury, which leads him to receive the first face transplant in Poland.
Jacek struggles to afford his pain medicine and with the loss of his wife, who refuses to be with him because she finds him too ugly. His own mother has trouble looking at him. His dimwitted yet strong-willed sister is the only person left to care for him. The audience feels empathy for a character with they have nothing in common with, something that is very hard to achieve as a storyteller.
The crowd at the screening bursts into applause and yells “Bravo!” — the first time during the festival that I’ve seen this happen. Mug receives the Jury Grand Prix the following evening.
“I’m so happy I’m a female director!” a jovial Szumowska exclaims at the award ceremony, waving her Silver Bear in the air.
The 11:45 a.m. press screening of In the Aisles by Thomas Stüber is surprisingly packed. The press still want more films, they will always want more films. And like cockroaches, we won’t go away. I’m sitting next to a girl whose eyes look hollow and before the film starts she tells me that she’s seen 34 films and this will be her last.
In the Aisles follows a reclusive and shy young man named Christian as he starts his job at a wholesale market, a sort of German version of Costco. Christian is assigned to the beverage department and builds a relationship with his supervisor, a 50-something-year-old man who was born in East Germany and has had trouble adjusting after reunification. The film uses the unique setting of a wholesale grocery store to depict humorous bureaucratic conflicts, such as which department gets to use the forklift.
It’s the first movie I’ve seen to successfully portray the working class’s struggle with automation, which has displaced many workers from relatively high-paying assembly line jobs into lower wage employment sectors like the service industry. As In the Aisles depicts, they have found themselves working for big chains, performing tasks that are difficult to draw pride from.
Through humor and wit, Stüber details how the older workers, born in the East, struggle to make sense of an automatized society, a newly unified country and to extract meaning from a repetitive job serving a soulless corporation.
It is day five here at the Berlinale and I’m sitting at the press conference for U-July 22, a Norwegian film directed by Eric Poppe that portrays the infamous 2011 massacre at a summer camp on Utøya Island, where a white nationalist gunman, Anders Breivik, slaughtered 69 people. The director and several of the survivors are on hand. The film is captured in one shot over 72 minutes, closely following the perspective of a fictionalized 18-year-old girl named Kaja who tries her best to escape Breivik’s bullets. The film is hyper-realistic, almost a suspense-simulation. It makes the audience feel as if they are also on the island running from the gunman, sharing all of the confusion and terror of the campers.
“Looking around in Europe today, realizing the neo-fascism growing up day by day, we need to remember what took place out on the Island, what right-wing extremism can look like,” Poppe says. “I felt I needed to go into this material, spend time to see how or what would be possible to put that story into film.”
Survivors from the attack were on set at all times during production and they say they have found it somewhat therapeutic to see the events portrayed on the big screen. Personally, I found U-July 22 disturbing — but not for the reasons the director intended. Leaving the silent theater after watching the film earlier, I recalled filmmaker Michael Haneke’s famous remark that he could never understand how someone could turn the Holocaust into a fictional movie, commodifying a genocide. Despite Erik Poppe’s insistence on the political importance of the movie and his bringing survivors to the festival, I felt that there was something off about all this.
I recalled filmmaker Michael Haneke’s famous remark that he could never understand how someone could turn the Holocaust into a fictional movie, commodifying a genocide.
“Over here! Over here! Smile!,” a photographer yells at the survivors during the press conference.
On day four, Figlia Mia brings tears to my eyes. The Italian film is about women, directed by a woman — and a refreshing entry in a competition where female directors are scant. Set in an impoverished fisherman’s town in Sardinia, the film follows a strong-willed, 10-year-old girl named Vittoria who’s caught in a conflict between her adopted and birth mother. The prior is responsible, the latter frivolous and unpredictable, with no control over her own life. In one scene, Vittoria walks in on her birth-mother giving someone a blowjob in the bathroom of a bar. This moment of lost innocence is gut-wrenching while the scenes in which Vittoria, through youthful pragmatism, manages to bridge the divide between the two women competing for her affection are touching. I have a feeling the jury will award Figlia Mia some sort of prize at the end of the festival.
You are waiting for a bad film to end, sitting in a full house and it’s your fourth screening in less than twelve hours. The film is in a foreign language and it’s three hours long, although you didn’t know that going in. The guy to your left is coughing on you and the woman to your right is laughing when no one is supposed to laugh. You begin to pray that every shot is the last, that every fade out will end in the film’s credits. It never does. You need to eat something, you need to piss but you’re in a middle row. The room is full of an international press team that forgot to pack deodorant. And then you begin to sweat. You start thinking about your own life, about things that have nothing to do with the film; ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, family problems, how you need to work out more, eat healthier, all the while trapped in your seat until the lights finally switch on.
Later, I attend The Real Estate, from Swedish filmmakers Axel Peterson and Mans Mansson. This is a different portrayal of the Sweden we’re used to, devoid of beautiful, tall blonde people. The story revolves around Nojet (Léonore Ekstrand), a 68-year-old woman who inherits a broken-down apartment complex from her father. The building is filled with what one real estate developer in the film calls immies (immigrants) and Nojet has to offload the building quickly before the tenants get wind and form a co-op. If you’ve ever been a renter in New York City you might find it hard to identify with the film’s heroine, though Erkstrand’s performance is strong. She manages to make you empathize with her despite her intentions.
The lighting is dark throughout the entire film. The camera action is close, without there really being one wide shot. Peterson and Mansson tell me they chose such a claustrophobic cinematographic approach because they found Ekstrand’s face so stunning they couldn’t couldn’t back the camera away. They also wanted to make a film that could be watched on a cellphone, they said, since people in Sweden don’t have a lot of time to go to the movies — a sentiment not often heard at a film festival.
A bleached blonde German woman in a blue evening gown sitting next to me, who earlier introduced herself as a “very noteworthy German film producer” nudges me awake for the second time. It is the Saturday night premiere of the German film Transit. At this point, I’ve already watched 12 films in less than 72 hours.
“You’re very rude,” she says. I have no idea why the two protagonists are in Marseille and why or what one of them is trying to flee. The crowd erupts in applause and I realize I must have missed something good.
“Next time you drink coffee before a German film,” the producer says to me after the screening.
“Ugh, Germans are so incredibly dogmatic,” a press agent from Canada says to me in line at the ticket window here at the Grand Hyatt. “They’re incredibly procedural. You have no idea how annoying it was trying to organize ticket pickups.”
Film journalists are incredibly pushy. They have a do or die attitude — a sort of cynical pragmatism to getting the job done, watching as many screenings as they can, conducting the maximum number of interviews, making sure no beat is missed. I learn from another reporter here at the Berlin Film Festival that there were “fights and struggles,” over who got into the 11 a.m. screening of Isle of Dogs, the first time Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animation film would be shown to the general press in Europe.
Luckily, I’d already got myself a ticket but those who didn’t get in shouldn’t worry since the Berlinale staff added another screening later in the day. I tell this to the reporter, who was wearing Persol sunglasses — indoors, mind you.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “They’ve already missed the first beat — total suckers.”
As we wait for Isle of Dogs to start a Brazilian journalist from Sao Paulo sitting next to me explains “the first few days are always a rat race.” “It tends to calm down in the second week,” he says, flipping through the festival program on his smartphone with fingers painted black with nail polish. “A lot of people want the first story, the opening film. They get their piece and they leave.”
“Germans are dogmatic, Germans are procedural,” I repeat to myself as I watch a drunk guy pissing on the street outside the press office.
Right away, you know Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson film regardless of the credits. Apparently, his style makes Anderson a true auteur, one with a unique worldview that translates clearly into his work. It’s something Europeans highly regard from a filmmaker. “Auteur driven cinema” they call it.
Composed of stop-motion animation, the film is set in an authoritarian fantasy version of Japan where the regime banishes dogs to a remote island after a canine flu outbreak. We follow five dogs who help a boy come to find his lost dog Spot. I haven’t always been a fan of Wes Anderson’s because I have found his films to be too concerned with symmetrical aesthetics, (I tend to gravitate toward emotionally driven films), though I enjoyed Isle of Dogs’ lighthearted witticisms about the absurdities of authoritarianism. We can hear what the dogs say but rarely the humans.
A majority of the film’s perspective comes from that of the banished former pets, although, in a somewhat random manner, the film quickly interchanges between a human newscaster’s perspective where language is understandable, to that of the dogs’ perspectives, where human language is not. I guess it would’ve been hard to tell the story without the newscaster’s narration, but it would have felt tighter had there been a more transparent reason (other than so the audience can understand what’s going on) for when and why the film would change perspectives.
Earlier in the day, during the Isle of Dogs press conference, someone asked Wes Anderson and the whole cast to tell him if they have dogs themselves and if so what kind.
I’m writing in the pressroom. Reporters are sitting around stacked up on top of one another, laptops open, staring into screens, no one really talking to each other. If I tapped one on the shoulder to start a conversation or ask a question they’d probably flinch and start screaming. At least, that’s the vibe I’m getting.
At 1:45 p.m. I shove some kind of bread down my throat and run over to a screening of The Silent Revolution, directed by Lars Kraume. It is about teenagers in a small town graduating high school in East-Germany during the 1950s. The students protest Soviet massacres in Hungary with a minute long silence in the classroom. The D.D.R.-run school, of course, doesn’t take too kindly to this. The school ministry tries to find out who the ‘ringleaders’ are in typical Stalinist mind-gaming fashion.
The film is good in a melodramatic way but it also drags on too long. I sit here feeling like I’ve seen this thing before. Sometimes it’s so over-the-top that my dear fellow members of the press (who I’m starting to hate because I see myself in them) break into laughter. An older woman next to me shakes her head at this. “Phh,” she says.
I keep thinking about what that obnoxious press agent told me earlier about how she thinks Germans are dogmatic. Then I think about how dogmatic the Deutsche Demokratische Republik was, with its zealous adherence to an awfully bureaucratic, totalitarian ideal that no one seemed to truly grasp the purpose of.
“Germans are dogmatic, Germans are procedural,” I repeat to myself as I watch a drunk guy pissing on the street outside the press office. He’s wearing a tank top and jeans even though it is thirty degrees outside. “Verpiss dich Berlinale! Verpiss dich Berlinale!” he shouts. Across the street, around 30 workers are laying out the red carpet for the formal premiere of Isle of Dogs in the evening.
I consider inviting him into the pressroom just to see what would happen.
A few hours later I go to one last screening for the day — River’s Edge. It’s set in 1994 and is about lost youth in a mill town outside Tokyo. The cast of characters includes a drug-dealing bully who has rough sex with girls in an abandoned science lab; a young model with an eating disorder; and a reclusive teenager who goes to the forest in the middle of the night to hang out with a corpse when he isn’t selling himself to older men in the city.
Director Isao Yukisada tells their stories with a striking sense of documentary-like realism. The camera, the music, the whole package — none of it contrives to generate one emotion or another. Rather, Yukisada lets the story starkly unfold on its own.
It’s easy to become disillusioned by the unreality of film festivals like this. Thank God for cinema like River’s Edge that portrays a greater sense of authenticity than reality itself.
Photo (top): Mateusz Kosciukiewicz in Mug (Twarz). Credit: Bartosz Mrozowski.