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Berlin 2005 : the Talent Press
Wednesday, February 16th 2005
The Blade Unsheathed (THE HIDDEN BLADE - Competition)
The Berlin film festival brings us THE HIDDEN BLADE (KAKUSHI KEN-ONI NO TSUME) by Yoji Yamada, the prolific Japanese director who has directed over 60 films, but is best known in Japan for his 27-year run helming some 46 romantic comedies in the Tora-San series. For long it has been a Japanese pre-occupation to see the latest Yamada sequel - the director usually prefers small-town settings, casting his lead roles in unusual professions and places.
Since the talkies first appeared, the Chaplinesque arts faded away as films developed a link to language and literature. However, language, a means of globalisation, can also make for homogeneity, and filmmakers must find ways of being unique and preserving differences. Yamada seems to have achieved this by focussing on plebeian people rooted in the local culture - and the samurai have a distinctive culture and history that cannot easily be delved into, let alone imitated. His new film THE HIDDEN BLADE tells the story of a samurai who, at a time of social upheaval in the mid-19th century, seeks his place in the world.
This quest turns into a challenge of love. It has
echoes of Yamada's previous samurai film THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI, screened
in the Berlinale Competition two years ago. It captures an epic sweep
of Japanese history in a beautifully intimate style, and focuses on
ordinary men called upon to deal with those society rejects. While
THE HIDDEN BLADE focuses on humane issues of the community, Yamada
does a terrific job exploring layered relationships. Masatoshi Nagase,
Takako Matsu and Hidetaka Yoshioka's performances have persuasiveness
and depth, and re-establish the inner world of small people in a time
"I agree, the production designers don't get enough credit for their work," says one of the best production designers in the world, Stuart Craig. He is a three-time Oscar winner (for GANDHI, DANGEROUS LIAISONS and THE ENGLISH PATIENT), and since 2000 has been working on Harry Potter adaptations. "There have been a few exceptions like Ken Adam and Dante Ferretti - I think they are helping the world to understand. I mean Ken Adam is almost as famous as James Bond! Other than that, people confuse what the cinematographer and the designer do. Everybody says the cinematographer made a wonderful recreation of 18th century Berlin, but actually he didn't - the production designer did, or they did it together."
Film is very much co-operation. The production designer's
decisions must also be the right decisions for others, from director
to costume designer and composer. Craig thinks that flexibility is one
of the most important characteristics of a production designer. "The
director is the boss, it's as simple as that. So you must satisfy him.
He never has to accept what you do, but you hopefully begin with a good
He admits the most difficult director he has worked with is probably Alfonso Cuaron who directed the third Harry Potter film. "He is difficult because he is one of the most demanding directors. Often he would demand something or reject something not knowing what he wanted instead. He knew his instincts were so good that you were on a search for something that would be much better. But that's a good thing and I'm full of admiration for him."
One of the most exciting things about production design is the way it influences the dramaturgy and atmosphere of the film. "In designing a set you block the scene, imagine where the actors will be, where the entrance and the exit is, who is the dominant one, who is the submissive one. In that sense you directly influence dramaturgy. You position the windows and lighting and, in doing that, you hugely influence the mood on the set. My job is to tell the story. It isn't decorating things in a superficial way. With the design of Dumbledore's office you should describe who he is, that is the job," he explains.
Though Harry Potter isn't the hottest thing at this year's Berlinale, it's actually a very interesting combination of classical old-school cinematography and very new technologies. Craig is finishing the fourth part, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, which should come out in November. "It's going to be very different. Mike Newell is not very interested in the visual side, but he's very, very interested in the script and the performances. The children are probably much better than they've ever been before. The engine driving the thing is a different one - Alfonso was in love with the images and the poetry, Mike is in love with charactererization."
Craig agrees that it's good and refreshing that Potter films have different directors. "It would have been impossible for me to do four films with the same director. That's why I'm probably also going to do the next one, too." HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF PHOENIX is announced to 2007, and it's going to be directed by David Yates, a young director working on BRIDESHEAD REVISITED right now. And Stuart Craig's handwriting is going to be one of the main connecting links between all five films, combining computer generated special effects with production design and creating new amazing worlds.
Politics, soccer and culture togther in one room sounds like a curious combination. But if the aim is to get the best out of a group of young filmmakers who are using their skills to promote soccer, and at the same time assist Germany to give the world the best tournament of all time, then the party can roll.
That was precisely what was achieved on Tuesday at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, when the compilation of 45 short films on the love and glory of football was premiered.
An official element of the artistic and cultural programme
to the 2006 FIFA World Cup which Germany will host, SHOOT GOALS! SHOOT
MOVIES!, the compilation's theme, aptly captures the essence of the occasion.
About 28 of them will be invited again to spend a week in Berlin during the mundial next summer. The readiness of the host country was stressed at the press conference that preceded the premiere by Franz Beckenbauer, the former German captain who is the President of the Organising Committee of the 2006 World Cup.
But the aim was not to predict the chances of the 'German
Machines' who were runners up at the last mundial. SHOOT GOALS! SHOOT
MOVIES! was more of the marriage of culture and soccer, and how this
union could sensitize the peoples of the world about the dynamism that
the host nation hopes to bring to the organisation of the tournament
"The results of the short film competition may confidently be described as fascinating," says Heller. "These films provide insights into the filmmakers' perceptions and fantasies surrounding the complex theme of football. I openly admit to having felt very touched more than once while watching them."
Most football fans with eyes for cinema will agree with him after watching the compilation. Lasting between one and 10 minutes in duration, in different genres and styles, the shorts indeed represent the whole width of cinematic forms suitably illustrating the cultural wealth of a common passion.
It does not matter that India is known for cricket, Sainath Choudhury's one-minute entry called VILLAGE FOOTBALL shows with humour how crazy Indians are for football. Americans too may have a different type of football, but in Stephen Curley's THE ADDICT, the passion with which American women support soccer comes to the fore. It's a beautiful story told in one minute as though it is Public Service Announcement.
A film that makes a profound point, even in five minutes, is HERTHA by Germany's Soren Lang, which tells the true story of a gay supporter of Berlin-based team, Hertha BSC. The film suggests there is little or no more sexism in soccer, which is also why Nigeria's film student, Princess Ayelotan, comes with FOOTBALL - MY AFRICAN QUEEN, which was shot in that part of her country known for religious volatility and discrimination against women.
Her Ugandan colleague, Tecla Nambi, simply says in IT CAN BE ROUND that "the way footballers calculate using their legs keeps the mind awake."
TICKETS was one of the most eagerly awaited films of this year's Berlinale. Shown out of competition, this sketch film, which brings together three famous filmmakers (Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach), presents a train trip from Central-Europe to Rome. The three directors tell three different stories but the location and some of the characters are present in all three films. In fact, it is not right to say three films because the parts are not strictly divided as usual, and we almost have a continuous story, where only the accent put on different characters changes.
The first problem which arises is how the three "auteurs" managed to work together, how they succeeded to do separate films within the same structure. Both filmmakers present at the discussion - Loach and Kiarostami - argued that everybody made his own movie. "There is no other way of working, you have to follow the internal logic of your own subject", Loach said. Kiarostami added that real communication between them begun only when linking the parts together. Not only three directors, but three different cultures and languages were brought together for the movie. For Kiarostami, the shooting proved that "language is not the most important thing because you can communicate with your physionomy, with your faces and with your eyes." So cultural differences can be overcome.
Asked about the element common to all three directors,
Loach said: "What we share is the attempt to reduce things to the simplest
way of explaining something. Reducing and clarifying is not what you
see in most films which tend to exaggerate, to make things dramatic.
That kind of simplicity, clarity and economy is something we would like
We can't ignore that this movie - especially Loach's segment - has political connotations, so this question appeared during the discussion too. The English director talked about the gesture of the Celtic fans who shared what they had with the Albanian refugees. He compared this to the reaction of the world to the tsunami appeal. He argued that everybody put his hand in the pocket, because all of this was encouraged by the media and politicians, but nobody does the same thing with the people killed in Iraq.
Three styles are put together in the same small world of a train and, despite the differences, something seems to unite the visions.
JALSAGHAR (THE MUSIC ROOM), showing this year as part of the Berlinale Production Design Retrospective, is the fourth of Satyajit Ray's films, made after his more famous Apu trilogy. Released in 1960, it was generally criticised in India as being too conservative amongst the radical wave of the sixties. In a world where the tide had turned against colonialism and the inequity of the old caste systems, Ray chose to make a film that lingered over the decline of an old Indian landlord (zamindar).
The film starts in the midst of a crumbling palace, with the zamindar, Biswambhar Roy, reclining in stagnation on his rooftop. From across the surrounding plain he hears music from the house of a wealthy tenant-neighbour, and this is the beginning of a motif that recurs throughout the film as a counterpoint to his emotional journey. The music he hears from the rooftop awakens him from his mental slumber, and he goes downstairs and back into his past.
Ray has a well-acknowledged gift for subtle character exposition. His work is also distinguished by generous pacing and understated narrative. In JALSAGHAR, he takes his time to reveal the character of Roy, and he creates a very solid sense of an order, a way that things should be - not just in terms of caste and custom, but in the larger sense of living, and nature. Our understanding of this "order" makes the decline of the world of the Zamindar even more ominous for the viewer.
Some aspects of the deterioration are explained as the inevitable sweep of modernity. The vanguard of this revolution is the return from overseas of Roy's neighbour, "the usurer's son", whose coming portends his own financial decline. The usurer's son builds a modern palace next door, and soon the sounds of the music room are competing with the rhythm of an electric generator and the neighbour's new car.
The music plays a key role in this film, and Ray contrasts silence with long interludes of classical Indian music, composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan. The Zamindar's music room represents a lifestyle of idleness and indulgence; when he closes the music room, it signals a withdrawal from his life and a descent into melancholic reverie.
Elsewhere there are signs that not only time but nature also is conspiring to undo the established order, as the sea encroaches into Roy's property, and swallows his family; dust settles on the decaying past; flames dwindle to extinction. Chhabi Biswas is compelling as the old gentleman sinking into physical neglect and emotional abandonment.
The space and time that Ray provide in the film are what really make it so haunting: the characters and their world will linger with the audience across the decades, largely because we are given plenty of time to sit within a scene and absorb its emotional and visual nuances. Such "mental space" is a rare luxury for the film viewer these days. In hindsight, Ray's work is anything but conservative; in fact, this classic remains a poignant revelation.
The business of filmmaking, and it is often treated as such, is ruthless. CHILDSTAR, the second feature film from Don McKellar, takes off from this idea. The story revolves around 12-year old American TV star Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall), his divorced business manager and mom Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and their production driver Rick Schiller, (played by McKellar himself), who ends up more intimately involved in their lives than anyone would expect.
McKellar knows the Canadian entertainment scene well, having been involved as a writer, director, and most often, actor, in a number of productions. He has spoken out against Telefilm Canada's new policies encouraging more commercial rather than personal productions. CHILDSTAR, packed with in-jokes and cultural references, is an insightful look at this subject.
McKellar's Rick is an aspiring experimental filmmaker who has given up his position as a University lecturer to work as a driver on a Hollywood production in Canada, the Taylor Brandon Burns vehicle FIRST SON. By the second day of shooting, Rick has slept with Taylor's mom, been hired as their full-time driver, and soon after, has become Taylor's tutor (both formally and informally), as well as legal guardian on set.
CHILDSTAR'S plot thickens when Taylor goes AWOL, sneaking out for an evening at the nightclub with an older cast member, failing to return the next morning. The search for Taylor gives us a panoramic view of the characters and their priorities - the producer; (the great comedian Dave Foley) whose main concern is getting the production in on time; Taylor's mother, who shrewdly works on a renegotiation of his contract while he is missing; and Natalie, the groupie, with whom Taylor runs away, and who is thrilled to be in his company, but realistic about the nature of their relationship.
Beautifully shot in Scope, the film marks a visual departure from most Canadian features, aspiring to a classic cinematic look in the context of its study of the contemporary Canadian film world. It is through this consciousness, the littering of anecdotes and insights about the industry in what may well be perceived as a commercial story (poor troubled rich kid, the pitfalls of fame), that McKellar's cynical thesis is observed - encouraging young directors to break into filmmaking in Canada as a business is a cruel practice.
© FIPRESCI / Berlinale Talent Campus 2005