The Diversity of the Panoramic View

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

The extensive program section of the Berlin Panorama exists to inspire an enthusiastic response from audiences as it is often a once-only chance to see certain films from across the world in all their glowing diversity and sub-neo genres. Presenting such films is an attempt to be vivacious and take cinema forward into new territories. In this of course the quality can, and largely does, vary and this year was no exception. The, if you will, “Good, Bad and Ugly” still exist comfortably side by side in the Panorama but even the most difficult films should at least demonstrate a reason why it was produced and, not least, be programmed here. Furthermore, all films in the Panorama section celebrate their world or European premiere.

Among the highlights this year was Vietnamese entry Nuoc, by director Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh. It is 2030 and global warming has meant most of the arable land in southern Vietnam is below sea level with most of the population evacuated, but Sao and her husband Thi refuse to leave their land. When her husband is murdered, Sao gets a job at the floating farm in search of his murderers. Nuoc is a masterful, atmospheric combination of elements from different genres: part apocalyptic film, part sci-fi, part thriller and part romance. Stunning cinematography and editing creates a compelling reaction.

Bringing environmental catastrophe much closer to reality and the present, Homeland (Ieji) concerns Jiro who has come home to find that his tiny former farming village is now a deserted and badly contaminated zone near Fukushima after the nuclear disaster. Undeterred, Jiro begins cultivating his land with an old school friend and defiantly they plant rice. Meanwhile, Jiro’s family wonders why he has returned to these poisoned fields, a home that will never be the same again. Incorporating grief with poetry, Nao Kubota’s film illustrates life after global and personal disaster.

Last Hijack is set in Somalia, where piracy is nowadays far less socially acceptable but still lures local fishermen into the clutches of the pirate recruiters as many families still rely on the income. Mohamed is just like many others and has to decide if he should capture one last ship or begin a new, albeit uncertain, life with his fiancé, whose parents disapprove of his activity. Combining animation, documentary and dramatized scenes, Last Hijack illustrates Mohamed’s complex situation from different viewpoints: compelling animation sequences show how ships are captured by pirates, but also depict Mohamed’s childhood and show how drought and war forced him to leave his home.

In the Georgian entry Brides (Patardzlebi), seamstress Nutsa marries her children’s father Goga in a prison, where he will serve another six years. Through marriage, Nutsa can now talk to Goga once a month on the other side of the glass but the children refuse to accompany her, feeling estranged from their father. After Nutsa becomes acquainted with another man, Goga phones with news that married inmates are occasionally allowed to have their spouses stay overnight, but they are awkward in this new arrangement. For her first film Tinatin Kajrishvili conveys daily prison life and human defiance against the repressive Georgian judicial system with poignant images, the camera always remaining close to the characters.

The tragicomedy Cavalry, directed by John Michael McDonagh, is almost the flip side to his 2011 Berlinale Panorama entry The Guard (2011), a neo-noir film that Brendan Gleeson also starred in as a strait-laced Irish sergeant. Its memorable color symbolic cinematography was by Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut, Elizabeth and Bronson). The difference here is that, where The Guard was reaching out to an international audience, including casting excellent American actor Don Cheadle as an FBI agent, this film looks inward to the traditional West Ireland way of life with Gleeson playing a priest. A man confesses to father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that he was abused by a priest as a child and now his revenge is to kill a priest, giving Lavelle a week to settle his affairs. Since under the seal of confession he cannot go to the police, the good-humored priest attempts to prevent his murder but finds obstacles all around him. With a nod to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journa l d’un cure de campagne, 1951), Cavalry is entertaining in its fast dialogue, wit and dry humor, but after seeing The Guard it is often a case of Deja-vu.

The Better Angels is director A.J. Edwards’ account of the early life of Abraham Lincoln, aged nine-twelve, living in a log cabin in the deepest Indiana backwoods. Just after his mother dies his father marries a widow with three children and the film focuses on how Lincoln’s step-mother inspired him in his boundless search for knowledge. Shot in black-and-white and with outstanding camerawork, Edwards was once Terrence Malick’s editor and for his first feature has created his own visual style, not least in the dynamic camerawork and score which is a sensual orchestral soundtrack.

The Midnight After is a fast paced and creepy film set on a typical night in the streets of Hong Kong focusing on a disparate group of passengers heading from Mongkok to Tai Po. The group is as diverse as the city: there’s a young man on drugs, a quarreling couple, a woman with prayer beads, a girl who has just fallen in love and a chatty bus driver. But as the bus emerges from a tunnel, everything is suddenly quite still: the streets and buildings are all empty and there’s not a soul to be seen, neon-lights still flickering like nothing has happened. The group of passengers takes refuge in a deserted café but soon encounter something horrific. After his film Dumplings (2004), which premiered in the 2005 Panorama, indie director Fruit Chan adapts the best-selling novel “Lost on a Minibus from Mongkok to Taipo” and once again turns the horror genre upside down for his screen version with a consistent suspense element but sometimes jarring linearity.

In The Night (YE) a young man grooms himself then leaves his apartment to wait in a poorly lit alleyway, as he does every night. One particular night he meets a female prostitute of his age who’s new to the town’s district. Walking the streets, they toy with the idea of renting their bodies out to each other and name themselves after flowers: he Tuberose and she, Narcissus. The strangers they follow remain faceless – until Rose, after a one-night stand, falls in love with Tuberose. With help from Narcissus, Rose uses all her charm to try and win over the young sex worker and although Tuberose responds with cool reserve it becomes increasingly difficult for him to remain aloof. In his visually impressive, sensual debut film in which he also plays the leading role, the 21-year-old director draws allusions to the poetic intensity of Jean Genet in describing these three misfits’ silent search for intimacy. The love songs of Taiwanese singer Teresa Tung help the protagonist get in touch with his locked-away emotions.

Regards the ‘documentary’ Journey to the West (Xi You), a French-Taiwanese production from director Tsai Ming-liang, to be honest, the less said about this film the better. However, it does at least demand the viewer’s attention in some hypnotic stance as a fully focused old man seeks inner harmony on the streets of Paris as he attempts to bring inner solace in some meditative way to surprised or bemused onlookers in a busy shopping area.

Finding Vivian Maier is director John Maloof’s story of a chance discovery leading to posthumous fame. At a wholesale he frequently visits in Chicago, he acquires a box of undeveloped films and negatives that were found in an attic. The material reveals moving moments of ordinary life in America which are reminiscent of the street photography of major artists such as Helen Levitt or Robert Frank. But why were the photographs of Vivian Maier, who died alone in 2009 at the age of 83, never discovered? Maloof hunts for clues about the life of a woman who for over forty years travelled the world with her camera, dressed boldly in men’s checked shirts, while working as a nanny in Chicago’s wealthy suburbs. When he visits these families they describe Maier as a reserved, introverted woman who nonetheless observed her environment with great attention. There are a large number of photographs of children, absorbed in play, or staring confidently into the lens. His ensuing portrait is a fascinating depiction of an enigmatic artist with an open gaze to which even strangers consented, allowing her to plumb their soul with her lens.

Vulva 3.0 shows how, despite living in hyper-sexual times, where advertising and the media are constantly putting naked women and their genitalia on display, many are still deeply guarded regarding their own body. The ideal manipulated image of the smooth, perfectly shaped vulva with symmetrical labia, and the resultant insecurity many women feel about their own bodies, has proven to be a gold-mine for cosmetic genital surgery. The directors shed light on every facet of the matter in hand, from sex education to censorship, from the airbrushing of ‘misshapen’ labia in pornographic images to the work of activists against female genital mutilation.

Since 2005 producer and project initiator Kristian Petersen has asked gay and lesbian filmmakers from various cities to make short documentary and fiction films – in each case a lesbian taking on gay topics and vice versa. The sixth part of this compilation film series Fucking Different XXY comprises seven short films from transgender filmmakers all over the world, presenting aspects of sexuality which are alien to them. The mixture is colorful and diverse and includes contributions from pornographic filmmakers Buck Angel and Mor Vital and experimental approaches by J. Jackie Baier and Gwen Haworth who both come from a documentary background. The film series attempts to overturn stereotypes regards the ‘other’ and what’s ‘normal’ – stereotypes which also exist in the queer community.

The gay related theme was also ubiquitous in the Panorama section, a nod to the Berlinale’s annual Teddy Award Prize. In Land of Storms (Viharsarok), Szabolcs, a young Hungarian footballer, plays in Germany and befriends his roommate Bernard. Finding the training hard, and after a quarrel with Bernard, Szabolcs returns to Hungary to work on his grandfather’s farm. Áron, a stonemason’s apprentice from the nearby village arrives and together they renovate the dilapidated farm. Before long their initial friendship turns into a love affair, but while Szabolcs accepts his newly discovered sexual identity, Áron inflames the wrath of the reactionary villagers and even his mother rejects him. Bernard visits and tries to persuade Szabolcs to return to Germany and for a while, an idyllic ménage à trois ensues. When Bernard eventually leaves, Szabolcs decides to stay on with Áron to protect him in this repressed and intolerant environment.

In the Philippines entry Quick Change, transgendered beautician Manila arrives from Japan to help others fulfill their dreams of winning a Miss Gay or Miss Amazing beauty contest. Director Eduardo Roy, Jr. follows his heroine through a community obsessed with beauty and improving their chances of a career. Wearing eccentric and colorful costumes for the contests, there’s no sign of the numerous injections into their cheeks, nose, lips, breasts, hips and behinds. They know exactly what their clients want: “My looks are all I have. As long as I’m beautiful I’ll have a career.” One day the dark side of this artificially created beauty comes to light. Filmed in real locations using a hand-held camera with fast and verite-like precision, the film portrays a wild yet precarious society.

Yves Saint Laurent begins in Paris in 1957. Aged just 21, talented young fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent becomes protege to renowned couturier Christian Dior. Following Dior’s sudden death, Saint Laurent is elevated to artistic director of the global fashion house. His first collection is a major success, making him famous overnight. With personal and professional partner Pierre Bergé they found their own label: ‘ Yves Saint Laurent’. In subsequent years, creative crises and emotional conflicts begin to drain this sensitive artist, putting a strain on his relationship and also the company. Director Jalil Lespert chronologically portrays an extraordinary genius caught between his meteoric career and his self-destructive inner struggles, while also reflecting a golden age in fashion.

The FIPRESCI Prize for the Panorama section this year went to the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho) by Daniel Ribeiro. The film also received the Teddy Award for best feature dealing with homosexual themes, and placed second in the Panorama Audience Award. The unusual scenario is that the main protagonist is a blind boy but the director deals with the story of two young men falling in love both sensitively and compellingly.

Steven Yates