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Unmet expectations at Berlinale

Stranded in Berlin’s Tegel airport for hours on Monday thanks to the Lufthansa pilot strike, I bumped into two Turkish young ladies in charge of a film festival in Istanbul. Both seemed somewhat indifferent to Semih Kaplanoglu’s triumph at the Berlinale for “Bal (Honey), the first Turkish film to win the Golden Bear prize in …

Stranded in Berlin’s Tegel airport for hours on Monday thanks to the Lufthansa pilot strike, I bumped into two Turkish young ladies in charge of a film festival in Istanbul. Both seemed somewhat indifferent to Semih Kaplanoglu’s triumph at the Berlinale for “Bal (Honey), the first Turkish film to win the Golden Bear prize in more than 40 years.

“I didn’t care much for it, one of them told me. “It’s not my kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie made for a fest like Berlin; the kind of movie you’d expect to win here.

Kaplanoglu’s four previous films were failures at the box-office and the young lady believes that “Honey would not fare better in spite of its win.

That conversation was a wake-up call of sorts for me. Major festivals like Berlin always feel like a big bubble trapping thousands of critics, festival programmers and film industrials. The reality of the market is never brought into discussion. And when you’re watching an average of three to four films per day, it’s quite arduous to properly evaluate the films on show.

One reality the vast majority of critics and producers agreed on is that the 60th edition of the Berlinale offered no great films, no real revelations, no new trends. The competition, in my opinion, was the weakest in years, primarily comprised of average works that would not stand a chance if released commercially. I came to Berlin expecting to watch great movies, but I didn’t for the most part.

A number of films came close to reaching this greatness but ultimately fell short. Kaplanoglu’s “Honey – the installment of his “Yusuf trilogy – is the biggest example. A moving, quiet tale of a young country boy looking for his beekeeper father after he disappears in the forest, Kaplanoglu employs his sparse type of filmmaking, telling his story via a series of breathtakingly beautiful images abundant with symbols.

The first part of the film is flawless, chronicling his relation with his father, his schoolmates and the forest. Scenes of Yusuf’s little conversations with his father and his interactions with his peers rank among the most compelling moments I experienced this year at the Berlinale. The moment the father goes missing; Yusuf grows even more inward as the emotional, and physical, gulf between him and the viewers widens.

An Iraqi filmmaker described it best when he said that Kaplanoglu relies chiefly on frame compositions rather than editing. Young British director Duane Hopkins adopted a similar method for his terrific debut feature “Better Things without sacrificing the emotional focus of his film. In “Honey, Kaplanoglu’s reluctance to divulge his hero’s feelings eventually detaches the audiences considerably from the experience.

I admired “Honey, and was quite pleased to see it win Berlin’s top honor. Both the story, and Kaplanoglu, had, alas, much more unrealized potential.

The same is true with Aleksei Popogrebsky’s “How I Ended This Summer, the deserved winner of the best actor award for Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis. An atmospheric piece set in a meteorological station on a secluded island in the Arctic Ocean, the film centers on two men: Sergei (Puskepalis), a veteran meteorologist, and Pavel (Dobrygin), a recent college graduate looking for adventure in one of the most stagnant places on earth.

While waiting for a ship to ferry the pair back home, Pavel picks up a radio messages that holds bad news for Sergei. He’s unwilling to deliver Sergei the message himself, choosing to wait for the ship’s personnel to tell him. But the ship never comes and Pavel finds himself caught in a cat and mouse game in the icy wilderness.

Aleksei Popogrebsky’s third feature was the most critically acclaimed competition film in Berlin. Part coming-of-age story, part psychological thriller and part Herzogian man versus nature adventure, Popogrebsky’s story operates across different genres, and he nearly pulls it off.

The chemistry between Dobrygin and Puskepalis is sizzling; the tension between their characters is frenzied and the foreboding setting is mesmerizing. What blemishes the film is Popogrebsky’s excessive employment of wide-angle shots that not only drags the pace of the film down but also reduces the tension. With little editing, “How I Ended This Summer could’ve been much more gripping.

Other films in competition were even more imperfect. The biggest disappointment for me was Pernille Fischer Christensen’s International Critics prize winner “En familie (A Family), a strikingly photographed family drama replete with poignant, honest moments lost in a predicable narrative that rarely engages. Performances are top-notch and the central theme of the story – family obligations versus personal ambitions – is universally relevant. But Christensen’s themes never succeed in striking a chord and neither the main conflict nor the characters’ inner turmoil is adequately translated on screen.

A bigger letdown was Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s comedy “Mammuth starring Gérard Depardieu, Isabelle Adjani and Yolande Moreau. As in their past works, “Mammuth starts off as a sharp, deadpan examination of modern life seen through the eyes of a retired slaughterhouse worker on a road trip to fix the loopholes of a retirement plan. The film has no shortage of ingenious gags provided by the immaculate Moreau. But then the tone radically veers towards self-seriousness, emerging as muddled assessment of a wasted life, similar in conception to Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries. The result is a mixed bag that continues to swell into an uncomfortable mess until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

And then there were the purely terrible, most notably Thomas Vinterberg’s grim, exploitive “Submarino whose final note of grace felt more like an afterthought; and Michael Winterbottom’s ultra-violent neo-noir “The Killer Inside Me, which takes screen brutality to a new extreme.

Surprisingly, some of the best films screened at the Berlinale came from the US. Along with Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give, there was Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are Alright, a comedy exploring the notion of a modern family in America.

Best of the lot though was Debra Granik’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Winter’s Bone, a riveting, stark saga of a 17-year-old girl searching for her missing father in southern Missouri while caring for her ill mother and two young siblings. Gripping from start to finish, “Winter’s Bone is a detailed, greatly realistic portrait of a place and people living the American nightmare. A surefire early contender for next year’s Academy Awards.

Next week: Visions of Islam in Berlin and the Jew Suss controversy.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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