From the incomparable James Baldwin to two runaway weirdos, the Berlin International Film Festival features must-see films from around the world.
The year of 2017 is in motion, which means the Berlin International Film Festival is upon us. Each year, the festival opens the calendar with experiments on-screen and forays into the unknown, bringing together filmmakers and movie buffs from around the globe to get frostbitten in the plazas of East Germany. The “Berlinale” is the first of the year’s ‘Big Three’ European international film festivals, running February 9-18, setting the standard for the premieres in the months that follow.
Though Berlin is not the oldest of the European festivals (Venice is), it is one of the most highly regarded, especially as a hub for arthouse and the left-field. Since its conception in 1951, it’s garnered a reputation for its high-profile documentaries, broad subject matter and dedication to young filmmakers. There is a series of events known as the Berlinale Talents during the buildup to the main festival in which established directors and producers host master classes and give talks.
Though the centerpiece of any international film festival is the main competition, Berlin offers a wide array of options that cater to newcomers and connoisseurs alike. The Panorama section foregrounds experimentation but aims to connect the works shown with commercial distribution companies, bridging the gap between strong auteurship and mainstream markets. Previous pieces in the selection include the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck (2015). The Generation section targets a younger audience, with its own awards and independent judges. The 2017 festival will also introduce a new directive run by the European Film Market (EFM) called Country in Focus — this year the country will be Mexico — which was “conceived to give the film industry and filmmakers of a country the opportunity to introduce themselves in greater depth and highlight certain aspects.”
While Silver Bears are awarded to the best actor, screenwriter and so on, the famous Golden Bear is the most sought-after prize of the festival, given to the producer of the best film. Previous winners of the Golden Bear include anime classic Spirited Away (2002) by Hayao Miyazaki, and Magnolia (2000), Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble drama. Last year’s winner was Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016), a documentary about the European migrant crisis in which people have been drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to cross into “fortress Europe.”
The man leading the decision to nominate this year’s winner is Dutch director and screenwriter Paul Verhoeven (Robocop 1987, Total Recall 1990, Basic Instinct 1992), following in the footsteps of Werner Herzog and Wong Kar Wai. All things considered, there’s a lot to look forward to, but here are some highlights:
1. I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck (France / USA)
Peck’s biopic on James Baldwin is the movie I’m most excited about because Baldwin’s work is pertinent today. As a Black, gay American novelist and essayist living during the civil rights movement, Baldwin’s engagement with questions of race, inequality and power in the United States remain significant and elucidating. His most respected works include the nonfiction piece The Fire Next Time (1963) and the novels Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Just Above My Head (1979). According to the Berlin International Film Festival website, Peck has been intending to make a piece on Baldwin for a while now. Given the director’s track record of high-caliber documentaries and biographical dramas (Fatal Assistance 2013, Sometimes in April 2005, Lumumba 2000), we should expect something special. The film includes narration by Samuel L. Jackson and footage of the man himself, James Baldwin, discussing the history of race relations from slavery onward. You can find out more about Baldwin here.
2. Honeygiver Among the Dogs by Dechen Roder (Bhutan)
Dechen Roder’s first feature-length film follows up her entry to the 2015 Berlinale, 3 Year 3 Month Retreat (2015). This short work showed a young, troubled woman in search of redemption, against the backdrop of the Butanese countryside. Her earlier movie, Boy of Good Waste (2005), presented a beautifully simple tableau of a young boy going around his neighborhood dealing with the rubbish and buying and selling scraps and disused objects. Honeygiver Among the Dogs marks a slight addition to Roder’s serene atmospheres. The synopsis describes the movie as “veritable Buddhist film noir,” as we follow “an undercover detective” who “investigates the case of a missing Buddhist nun” but gets caught up with “an alluring young woman known as the village ‘demoness,’” who also happens to be unfortunately his only suspect in the case. Obviously exploiting the breadth afforded by the form of a feature film, Roder is branching out into what sounds like the makings of a dynamic and exciting story. We’ll have to wait and see.
3. Últimos días en La Habana (Last Days in Havana) by Fernando Pérez (Cuba / Spain)
This most recent work by Fernando Perez, Cuban auteur, could be considered part of a sequence of reflections on the life and inhabitants of the city of Havana, considering that his previous films, Madrigal (2007) and Havana Suite (2003), are also set there. The latter of these simply follows 10 ordinary occupants of the famous city as they go about their day, accompanied by music and images. Perhaps, we might imagine, this time the focus will be on the destitute and on endings: the protagonists live in the poorer, ‘Centro’ neighborhood of the city. One is a dishwasher and the other is suffering from AIDS, though each gets along as well as they can. Listed as a tragicomedy, it’s been suggested that, too, the film’s principal theme is friendship and the sustenance that companionship can offer despite all odds. The film is a Berlinale Special and will be shown at the Kino International theater.
4. Toivon Tuolla Puolen (The Other Side of Hope) by Aki Kaurismäki (Finland)
Le Havre (2011), a comedy-drama about the relationship between an old French shoe shiner and a young African immigrant arrived by cargo ship, was Kaurismäki’s last feature-length movie (see the trailer here). Toivon Tuolla Puolen, or, The Other Side of Hope, also deals with the philosophical and political questions of immigration and hospitality: engaging with the “other,” reflecting on “difference.” It follows the friendship between a group of refugees from Finland and a “poker-playing restaurateur and former traveling salesman,” no doubt with the deftness of humor present in its cinematic predecessors. Kaurismäki, true to Berlinale standards, has a track record of esoteric figures and colorful journeys. His previous work also includes Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), in which a Siberian rock band called the Leningrad Cowboys make their way to America in search of glory. The music is great in the trailer for this year’s contribution (above), and it looks hilarious.
5. Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) by Sebastián Lelio (Chile / Germany)
In Lelio’s last movie, Gloria (2013), Chile’s first-lady actress, Paulina García, won the hearts and minds of critics for her performance as a woman in her later years who finds love and excitement in a whirlwind relationship with a former naval officer. This year the focus shifts to aftermaths — we accompany a 60-year-old traveling salesman and his two ex-wives through a tragicomedy about “living, drinking and dying” in Santiago de Chile. Evidently Lelio excels in his attending to the spaces, mental and physical, that we pass between as we proceed from middle to old age. The cast includes Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes and Luis Gnecco. Its presentation at the Berlin International Film Festival will be the world premiere, and the movie is a collaboration between Chile, Germany, the USA and Spain, from each of which it has received funding. Lelio said in an interview with Variety that, in his eyes, the film is one of “aesthetic splendor, narrative vigor, tension and emotion.” There aren’t trailers yet for the film, but you can get a sense of the director’s style by watching a trailer for his last film here.
6. Weirdos by Bruce McDonald (Canada)
Dylan Authors as Kit and Julia Sarah Stone as Alice in Weirdos / Holdfast Pictures / Lithium Studios / Shadow Shows
Last up we have a movie showing in the Generation selection for kids and teenagers. This year the theme is “Peril and Promise — Walking Fine Lines and Life on the Road.” Weirdos easily fits the specs; it’s a clear-cut, coming-of-age road movie: two young runaways make their way along the east coast of Canada, in Nova Scotia, shadowed by the Vietnam War but when hitchhiking was still a thing. The film’s already been released on home soil to largely positive reviews. Critics note its excellent sound track consisting of classics from the era, setting the mood of the ’70s. Notably, the movie is black-and-white and decked out with nostalgic wardrobes you’d find only in thrift stores now — perfect to finally show the kids it actually was once cool to wear flares… Director McDonald’s previous movies range from thrillers to sci-fi to oddball indie dramas like Pontypool (2008), The Ray Bradbury Theatre (1985), The Tracey Fragments (2007) — oldskool Ellen Page! His colorful portfolio will likely make for an interesting distillation of his influences. We should expect to be pleasantly surprised. According to the Berlinale blurb, “All sense of certainty gets left by the wayside.” And so 2017 begins with a bunch of weirdos!
Hit us up with any other films you stumble upon that we need to watch!