Autumn Film Sensation

in 63rd International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Sabine Könner

Mannheim belongs to Baden-Württemberg, and here you can find, in addition to the renowned film academy of Ludwigsburg, one of Germany’s oldest film festivals. Since 1993, the journalist and film researcher Dr. Michael Kötz has been head of the festival, which took place for the 63rd time this year. Focused on debuts, the festival invites films from all over the world. Emphasis is placed on European cinema, with the cinematic compass pointing slightly towards Northern Europe. The Middle East is well-represented, and then, moving around the globe, there are films from Russia, Azerbaijan, Taiwan, Australia, South America and the US.

Are there as many films here  as in Locarno, another festival which focuses on newcomers? Far from it. There are only 24 films in the main program, with screenings evenly distributed between Mannheim and Heidelberg. There are three cinemas in Mannheim, two in Heidelberg, and a festival shuttle which facilitates city-hopping. Films are repeated several times, so that someone staying for the entire festival might almsot succeed in watching them all.

The festival atmosphere is quite different from that of Locarno. While Locarno is a major international summer event, Mannheim is a solid, tightly-run audience festival set in the autumn chill of Baden-Württemberg, its visitors mainly from the region. Compared with the shimmering, multicultural Locarno, which is eternally sensual and romantic, Mannheim keeps you grounded in the here and now. The ambience is unromantic, with all the shopping malls and drugstores. Only the district around the Atlantis Cinema possesses romantic charm: here you might not only read but write books, in which case you would rent a place for some months in one of the old buildings in the narrow streets of red-light bars and charming little shops and eateries.

The mayor of the city of Mannheim announced at the final event of the festival: “You won’t find any any cynical films here.” One would have liked to ask him what he meant by that; it could be interpreted as a gentle warning to the festival organizers not to get too carried away. There were complaints about the supposedly insufficient coverage of the festival in the national media. But art likes to be a child of freedom, and at Berlin or Locarno, it might feel less fenced-in.

There was, however, a very liberal atmosphere at the moderated Film Talks which united directors, actors and the audience in a quiet corner of the bustling Town Hall, so that everyone could discuss the day’s films. However, the practical multi-functionality typical of this kind of sterile building could easily be improved with just a little more decoration and space, to give a touch of poetic playfulness. A different way of experiencing space would lead to different types of questions, and the moderator wouldn’t need to stifle the audience.

For the festival’s opening, Savina Dellicour was invited as a special guest with her film All Cats are Grey (Tous les chats sonts gris). It is a brilliant film, in which each character appears plausibly complex. A 15-year-old in an otherwise functionally intact family searches for her biological father. Her mother’s attempts at concealing the facts during her adolescence have failed. The mother seems to be hiding something, and she loses temper with any attempt at digging through the past, even if it only means looking through a suitcase of clothes in the attic. Although the film makes use of all sorts of unbelievable coincidences, the actors and the characters’ psychology are convincing.

At the centre of the plot is Bouli Lanners (who is also known as a director in Belgium), who believes that the teenage Dorothy might be his daughter. He emerges as the catalyst and the focus of a group of people trapped in emotional turmoil. This film shows the conflicting needs of different people (mother, daughter, ex-lovers) at different stages of their lives. It’s also a lesson in how a secret swept under the rug can find its way back into life.

When you’re as old as the 92-year-old character of Farewell (A Despedida),  then every simple act becomes a feat of strength, and every morning presents a challenge to get the ailing body going. Brazilian director Marcelo Galvao spends a lot of time at the beginning of his film watching his protagonist do just that. Even the soundtrack aids this purpose, since the viewer stops hearing voices in a mumbling undertone the moment the old man pushes a hearing aid into his ear. This is not the last day of the Admiral’s life, but it could be, so he decides to have a special day and drink his coffee in a bar. Several steps later, he has travelled to visit his long-term lover, whom he had lost track of but never forgotten. If the film begins as an amusing story about a charismatic old man trying to taste life one last time, the second half becomes a full-fledged melodrama, nothing less than a farewell performance of (physical) love. In addition to his marriage, this man had a lover who was fifty years younger; now he meets her in order to sleep with her for  the last time. We find that love is essential to life, even when one of the two bodies is on the verge of self-destruction. Love’s spark touchingly illuminates their souls and bodies.  “Sleep with as many women as you can” is the Admiral’s advice to a taxi driver. He does not mean trophy one-night stands, but the emotional desire you can feel for several people over a long life. Nelson Xavier received the Best Actor award from the festival for his performance.

The big prize of the festival went to 23 Seconds (23 segundos) from Uruguay. Dimitry Rudakov, a Ukrainian from Odessa  who stayed in South America after getting his degree, is a filmmaker we’ll be hearing a lot more from, according to festival director Michael Kötz. His film focuses on the mentally disabled Emiliano, a traffic light car-washer in Montevideo. On average it takes 23 seconds to wash the windows of a car, and in this brief period, friendships can be made and love stories can begin. Emiliano’s protective instinct is awakened when a beautiful blonde is hit by a bullet and collapses after a robbery, right under Emiliano’s window-wiping hands. This is a film about a disabled person’s late coming of age, a captivating story of emancipation interspersed with dream sequences. It is unpredictable right up to the very last scene. Poetry, action, emotional tension, dreams and credibility are combined in a work of beauty which will linger in your mind for a long time.

The Azerbaijani film Nabat by Elchin Musaoglu impressed us with its references to nature. The film is convinced that we are are part of nature: our roots are in nature, and animals are our friends and have souls like us. To be able to feel all this was comforting and touching.

The Dutch film Helium by Eche Janga succeeded in showing the peril and loneliness of an aging gangster boss with its minimal action and tense atmosphere. 316  by Payman Haghani focuses on shoes, so we see a lot of footwear footage, but what we hear is the entire life story of an Iranian woman. This is a universal film, testament to a man’s feeling for women’s issues, humor and wisdom.

Seen from a gambler’s perspective, the film selection at Mannheim was a win.

Edited by Lesley Chow