Berlinale

Why This Year’s Golden Bear is Bad Cinema but Good Art

Oh, the highly coveted cutie…

coveted cutie

I’d like to start by making clear that, after the initial bafflement at the Berlinale Awards Ceremony last Saturday passed, I’m actually very glad this year’s Golden Bear went to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.

However, this has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the strong public reaction it stirred, especially in its home country, Romania.

There is a huge misunderstanding around this film, which could explain why the press generally disliked it and why many high-profile critics wrote extremely bad reviews about it.

Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is not really cinema, it’s an art installation, in an unfortunate case where the programmers mistook the medium/format for the final product.

And if you judge an art installation by cinematic criteria, of course it falls short. First, it comes across as highly pretentious and cerebral.

One of the first things I found striking about the film (apart from its insidious visual style that draws so much attention to itself), is the fact that, although the “characters” speak incessantly about their emotions in a tentative exploration of human intimacy, no emotion is actually being transmitted to the viewer.

And for very good reasons:  cinema normally uses a dramatic framework to explore human feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make characters just talk about them.

Well, this is experimental cinema, one might argue. But according to the filmmaker, it’s not. Adina Pintilie strongly rejects this label. And who are we to contradict her, who else knows better what she made than the filmmaker herself?

Another line of reasoning could be that this is a highly conceptual, hybrid construction, more of a documentary mixing reality and fiction, with some of the people you see on the screen playing themselves and talking about their real emotions directly to each other or to the camera. But if it’s real, why does it sound so contrived? Being real and sounding real are two very different things. Good cinema makes believe, in other words, it makes things that are not real, sound and appear real. This film does the opposite – a total paradox. And this is through no fault of the actors and all those participating in it. If you read the transcript of the film, it would probably sound very intelligent. I for one blame it on the film’s style. 

Another of my contentions has to do with the unnecessary adornment of the film with all sorts of film gimmicks that give the impression of something very sophisticated (think Godard in Le Mépris) but in reality don’t serve any clear purpose: such as placing a camera in the frame, to kind of highlight the filmmaker’s intrusion into the artwork. Through this device, the filmmaker is addressing Laura: “You’re probably wondering why I’m in your bedroom”…). But the use of this technique here is ill-inspired, it only distracts and puzzles the viewer or makes him/her ask unnecessary questions (such as one blurted out loud at the press screening: “Yeah, why are you in her bedroom?”).

On the subject of questions being raised by the film, another issue is that the film verbally asks them: “How do they f*cking manage?” (Meaning: how do people manage with their conflictual emotional baggage?). This is, we were informed at the press conference, the core question the film intends to raise. Again, good cinema doesn’t need to verbalise these questions, the viewer is supposed to ask those questions himself/herself. Or are we patronisingly being told what we should ask, think or feel here? When you see a film about the Holocaust, whether documentary, fiction or hybrid, no one is musing on screen: “Oh dear, how do these people actually manage?!”

On the plus side, I’d like to argue that, as paradoxical as it might sound, Touch Me Not is good art. Why? Because of the huge reaction it stirred in the filmmaker’s own country, following news of its being awarded the Golden Bear.  Some TV personalities had very heated words to say about the film, while apparently even the Coalition for the Protection of Family is getting mobilised against it! Scary stuff.

But the film is being attacked in Romania for the wrong reasons. To quote a TV personality who posted on his social media: “A woman trying to cure her frigidity by watching a guy masturbate in front of her. That’s the film. I know, it’s me who doesn’t get wanking as art. All Golden Bears leave cinemas empty, they are cheap films with whores and swearings sold to stupid people as art. Berlinale can take its Golden Bear and shove it up its @ss…”. And on and on, he’s not the only one.

While there is no substance to this statement, while I completely disagree that all Golden Bears are bad films (one only needs to think of, more recently, Fuocoammare or the surreal Of Body and Soul), this kind of reaction points to a debate to be had about what the Golden Bear films should and shouldn’t be, what types of characters should populate them ( i.e. on the virginal side, rather than “whorey” side). How can you even begin to explain to a guy like this the depth of fascination that characters of prostitutes always held over the cinematic imagination? 

But leaving all arguments aside, aesthetic or otherwise, good art should stir sh*t up. What is its purpose, otherwise,  if not to stir things up and make the invisible (thoughts, feelings, ideas, mentality) visible?

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is cinematic perfection, but so what? If no one reacts to it, if it leaves people pleased but ready to move on, possibly energised but quasi-indifferent…Isle of Dogs is great cinema but does it function as art, in this sense?  And for that alone, for the strong emotional reaction the film triggered, Adina Pintilie’s film/art installation deserved the Golden Bear.

Regarding the film’s reception in Romania where it hasn’t even opened yet, the pertinent question to ask is: what, really, is the public’s problem with this film? It’s not that it contains sex scenes or nudity, we all know that sex sells.

My conclusion is that Touch Me Not was indeed misunderstood. But I seriously doubt that the reason critics disliked it has anything to do with the subject matter, with them being made uncomfortable by what they see on the screen (as the filmmaker herself hinted at) or with them being conservative or prude (some journalist’s misguided assumption). 

It’s simply to do with the fact that their expectations haven’t been met: this film is an art installation masquerading as cinema, it belongs in a different kind of art space, a gallery or maybe a museum. And I’m pretty sure the art world will appreciate it. 

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15+ Films I Most Look Forward 2 Seeing @ BERLINALE 2017

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COMPETITION

1      The Party  – United Kingdom
By Sally Potter (Orlando, Yes, Ginger & Rosa)
With Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall

Why? Because the director is a risk-taker who never disappoints. The film was also described as “a comedy wrapped around a tragedy” and I’m in deep admiration of anyone who can pull that off.

2     On the Beach at Night Alone –  South Korea
By Hong Sangsoo (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Right Now, Wrong Then)

Why? Because his films can stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system like nothing else (in cinema today). If looking for something intelligent as well as light-hearted, look no further.

3      The Other Side of Hope – Finland / Germany
By Aki Kaurismäki (The Match Factory Girl, I Hired A Contract Killer, Juha, Le Havre)

Why? Curious if he changed his mind about something he mentioned in a 2012 Guardian interview:

“For mankind, I can’t see any way out,” he says in his deadly monotone, “except terrorism. We kill the 1%.” Which 1%? “The only way for mankind to get out of this misery is to kill the 1% who own everything. The 1% who have put us in the position where humanity has no value. The rich. And the politicians who are the puppies of the rich.” (very radical but I’m also thinking: you can’t get more Vitamin D deficient!)

4        Ana, mon amour – Romania
Romania / Germany / France
By Călin Peter Netzer (Child‘s Pose, Maria)

Why? Because his latest film was the most intense drama I saw in ages. It also won the Golden Bear in 2013 so let’s see how this one compares.

5       The Dinner – USA
By Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart)
With Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny

Why? Do I really need another reason besides the very intriguing cast?

PANORAMA

1       Fluidø – Germany
By Shu Lea Cheang

Set in Berlin and described as a “para-pornographic work of underground science fiction”, this is the first feature film immersion by Taiwanese-American artist Shu Lea Cheang.

2        Kaygı (Inflame) – Turkey
By Ceylan Özgün Özçelik

The story of the incremental roll-out of wide-spread censorship of the press in Turkey and its effect on the work of a young female journalist.

3         The Misandrists – Germany
By Bruce LaBruce

The favourite filmmaker of the punk/underground art crowd whose 1994 film Super 8½ was a kind of “fuck you” valentine to the world” continues to question authority and the dominant ideology in this feminist fairy tale.

4         Fra balkongen (From the Balcony) – Norway
By Ole Giaever

After his success with Out of Nature, the Norwegian filmmaker returns with a thematic film essay in which the protagonist observes the world from his own balcony. A film of inaction, or rather, mental action?

5         Discreet – USA
By Travis Mathews

A man approaching middle age gets caught up in the darker depths of his past.

Also:  Berlin Syndromeby Australian director Cate Shortland. This film, alongside Fluidø and The Misandrists, pays tribute to the vision of Berlin as a place of happiness and promise which is drawing increasingly large numbers of young cosmopolitans to it.

 

FORUM

1        Golden Exits by Alex Ross Perry, USA

“This movie was made for the sense of trying something new with a bunch of people I like working with,” says the filmmaker in this Indiewire interview. What better reason to make a film anyway?  With Emily Browning , Adam Horovitz, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Golden Exits tells the story of a young Australian woman who comes to New York for a few months and unwittingly throws the lives of two couples into disarray.

2      Casa Roshell by Chilean director Camila José Donoso

A portrait of a most unusual institution in the Mexican capital, a place where men learn to be women during the day, before the parties get going at night. Blurring boundaries between gay, straight and bi, male and female, past and present, reality and fiction.

3      Casting, by Nicolas Wackerbarth

A film dedicated to the process of filmmaking: director Vera is unwilling to compromise when it comes to finding the right lead actress for a Fassbinder remake for television.

4        Menashe,  by Joshua Z Weinstein (feature debut)

Set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the film sees the titular Menashe fighting to keep custody of his son following the death of his wife. Yet the Hasidic community demands he lead a more ordered life and find a new spouse, neither of which come easy to this kind, but awkward loner.

5        Adiós entusiasmo (So Long Enthusiasm), by Vladimir Durán (debut feature)

Ten-year-old Axel lives with his mother and three sisters in a flat in Buenos Aires. They’d be a perfectly normal family if only the mother weren’t imprisoned in one of the rooms.

TBC

Much Ado About Nothing:Interview with Chilean Filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras

One of the most challenging films that premiered in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance this year was Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Much Ado About Nothing, (Spanish title: Aquí no ha pasado nada), the second in a trilogy on justice (or the lack of) in present-day Chile.

Much Ado About Nothing is also screening as part of the PANORAMA section at the upcoming BERLINALE 2016.

The following interview with Alejandro Fernández Almendras was taken in January 2016 during SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. 

Dana Knight: Much Ado About Nothing is a film that is not very dissimilar, in its theme and general focus, to your previous film, To Kill A Man, that was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago. You obviously feel very strongly about the theme of justice in Chile.

Alejandro Fernández Almendras: That’s true. In the way that To Kill A Man dealt with justice for the working class, this one deals with the theme of justice for the rich. I wanted to make this film because what happened in the real case that inspired the movie was a clear case of abuse of the law and the justice system, of the privilege that money gives certain people. Much Ado About Nothing is the second part of a trilogy about justice. The third part will deal with justice for the big corporations. So if this deals with personal justice, the third film will move into the social sphere, the focus won’t be on the individual but on the corporations and the community.

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Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras

Knight: And do you think, anticipating slightly, that the conclusion to all these films will be that there is no justice because “there is no truth”. This is a striking line from Much Ado About Nothing…

Almendras: Exactly. The third film is not inspired by true events but is pretty much what I imagine, what I know is happening in the corporate world. The question I ask myself if: when you think you are fighting for something, what are you really fighting for?And how we are led to believe in things like the environment, the rights of indigenous communities, and how behind that speech and well intentions are more powerful interests at play. The whole picture this paints is not different from what any person would conclude after reading the news and living in the world. We are living in a society, in a system that is really unfair, that creates a good life for a few who achieve those levels where they know they are going to be safe in terms of social security, in terms of justice, in terms of access to education. The system is wrong and many people around the world think that. That is what want to tell in a way that is cinematic, that makes you feel frustration at what you see on screen. It is very important for me to put the viewer in that uncomfortable position and realising that things are not right.

Knight: Social injustice is widespread in the world, it’s not specific to Chile but would you say it is much worse in Chile than anywhere else?

Almendras: In Chile you have a great disparity in social status, income, that leads to differences in how people are treated. Because you have the worst case of inequality in terms of how much money the rich people make compared to poor people. In Chile we have a big debate about market loss, the fact that you can defraud a public company, send it to bankruptcy, steal millions and millions of dollars from the public funds and the punishment for that is like a slap on the wrist, probably a very small fine, nothing of serious importance. These losses were made during the time of Pinochet or made by the same people who were ruling the country at that time and who are now involved in big economic corporations. Every week we have a new case, the three major pharmacy chains control 90% of the market and they set the prices for 10 years, for the drugs that people need every month. And they make hundred of millions of dollars and no one ended up in jail. So yes, I think inequality in Chile is much worse than in other countries.

Knight: Going back to the film, while the events are based on a real life case, I assume the characters are fictionalised. How did you go about constructing Vicente and the other characters?

much ado still 1

Almendras: I have these very strong opinions about what things are and the direction they should go into. But despite that I know that I’m making films and I’m not running for a political office. So the important thing is to create scenarios that are involving enough for you to feel and understand the other side, the side you know is going to be wrong from the very beginning.  I did the same with  To Kill A Man, that guy was killing for revenge. You know he is doing a wrong thing but I wanted to understand why he was doing that. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, I did the same thing, I created this character of Vicente as someone who has been put in a situation where he is forced by circumstances to admit something that is detrimental to him but beneficial for the bad people. So I started with that point of view and then I said I’m going to construct a character that is like a young kid today. A kid that transcends class. And you see that a lot in an upper class kid, but also in a middle class kid or even lower class: the way they relate to each other, the way they construct their relationships, the way they go about friendship and love and companionship and family. I think it’s the same everywhere you look: higher class or lower class, it’s the same. Everything has to be immediate, everything has to be clear and simple. Which is a very egotistic, selfish way of living, the instant gratification and how something is going to be useful and good for me. And not caring for anyone else. And morally these types of characters are very vulnerable to manipulation. Because if they don’t care about anyone, friends, family, etc, they will care even less for the rest of the population or for the society.

Knight: I know that in writing this script you collaborated with a lawyer, how did that go?

Almendras: I did, yes. Jerónimo (Rodríguez) is a friend, we’ve known each other for 15 years, we worked together on almost all my films, he helped me edit one and write another. And I helped him in his own endeavours of making films. He is a lawyer, he never practiced law but he knows a lot about the legal system and the thinking of a lawyer. Then we consulted with a lot of people, public defenders, prosecutors, to create a plausible, realistic, accurate story. At today’s screening there a few lawyers who came to see the film and they commented on how they face that kind of thing almost daily. One of them was a criminal prosecutor and he was saying he was hoping for the kid to not surrender, to tell the truth and what happened. But she also saw it was inevitable for the surrender to happen. […] It took us a long time to find a plausible case and decide how we’re going to cast all the parts, the script is very accurate in legal terms.…

Knight: Did the main actors contribute ideas to the creation of their characters too?Agustín Silva is a young rising star in Chilean cinema, how did you know he was the right one for the role?

Agustin Silva  film poster

Chilean actor Agustin Silva – center

Almendras: I met Agustín a month before the shooting, we had a few drinks and I knew right away. I had the experience of being a middle class kid going to a very high class school with a scholarship. So I was relating to those kinds of people in my teenage years, I know that world but I never felt part of it, I’ve always been kind of observing that. So I have the ear for the right accent, the right way to relate. It is very common in Chile to ask people what is your last name, what high school you went to, because that places you in a certain context. So when I met Agustin, I think the first question we asked each other is what high school we went to! So I immediately thought he was the kind of person I was looking for. And I pushed him to be a little more like that, not to reflect too much about the character but to let the character exist.

Knight: How about the other kids in the cast?

Almendras: The same thing, basically. Most of them are coming from rich families, they live in that world.

Knight: So they are non-actors?

Almendras: No, actually they are all professional actors, fresh out of school, most of them.

Knight: Were they troubled at all by the way you’re representing their world?

Almendras: No, because in a way it is a fair portrait. At the end of the day, because of what they do and the role they play, you’re probably judging them but the movie is not judging them. But at the beginning they are just having fun, and I think we have all been in that situation. We’ve all been partying late and drinking, dancing, doing drugs or whatever. So the movie celebrates their youth until something happens. Which changes the narrative of the film into something more serious and objective.

Knight: You’re saying the movie celebrates their youth but the opening sequence is a bit disturbing: the kids are watching a video of someone who had an accident and they are kind of laughing it off, as if it’s something amusing.

Almendras: Yes, I agree, they are watching the screen and saying things like, “What do you care, nothing really happened to him”. But they are like that, they watch videos on Youtube and the whole film is full of online interaction and watching things on the internet.

Knight: There’s a lot of social media inserted into this film.

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Almendras: Exactly.  At the beginning they are watching a viral video and at the end of the film we see a lot of tweets coming up on the screen. And many of those tweets came from the real case that inspired the movie, it’s the same things that people wrote on social media about the case, like “let’s kill this guy”, “let’s raise enough money to kill him”, “let’s dump him somewhere”. Because Twitter and all social media are very violent. Very small worlds but very violent. Also after they are having sex they are watching a porn video, another viral video. And there’s a lot of texting. So there’s a lot of this new different layer of communication that I wanted to put in the film, to add a new layer to the narrative. Usually when texting occurs in a film, they are using it instead of a phone call. People today use a text message as a substitute for a phone call, it’s really funny. I’m wondering why we prefer to text instead of talk. It’s probably because texting creates all this parallel universe so instead of this person being 5 min with you, they are all day with you. So you got the feeling that you’re building relationships with people who seem to be there but they are not. Which is different from phoning someone. So I wanted to have this in the film to create this new narrative layer, to comment on things you see in the film, to talk about people you see in the film.

Knight: I was struck by your decision to insert the content of these text messages directly on the screen. You’re basically writing on the screen.

Almendras: Yes, I decided to go that way because it’s a new form of communication that is still not well integrated into films. It’s so different than actual, physical communication. I remember in the late 90s and early 2000 when the cell phones were starting to appear, it took movies at least 10 years to stop showing pay phones.

Knight: That’s because pay phones are so much more cinematic!

Almendras: Maybe! So most characters from movies of that period would still go to a pay phone and call someone. But narratively you would think: why didn’t that character call that person from a cell phone? And I think some filmmakers deliberately set the action of the film 10 years into the past only to avoid dealing with a cell phone! It was so new to be able to communicate with someone from anywhere. For us now it’s the same with texting. But the way I used texting in the film is different, I wanted these texts to tell part of the story and talk about something you have not seen on  the screen. I don’t know how many of my friends said to me, “this guy or this girl broke up with me over whatsapp!” or “he sent me a text saying that it’s over”. It’s so dry to send a text message to say something that is emotionally important for the other person. This type of communication is so different from what it used to be! And this is what I wanted to emphasise in the film.

Knight: I actually enjoyed seeing all these messages silently displayed on the screen, it was as if you were able to read the characters’ minds.

Almendras:  Exactly. But this changes a lot of things from a practical filmmaking point of view. Instead of having someone say “I miss you, I love you” in a scene, you have that message displayed on the screen. And I’m always curious what people are talking about in all those texts! There was this case once in the Parliament in Chile, this congressman was texting during a hearing in the Congress, he was having three separate sex conversations with three different guys. So you see this Congressman working away in the Congress, but what is going on in reality is something entirely different! So this is a medium I would like to explore more because it speaks volumes about the character, the way the character relates to other people and to the world.

Knight: Talking about the internet and social media, there is also a documentary by Werner Herzog on this topic in Sundance 2016. In an interview I recently did in Havana with NYC filmmaker Sam Pressman who knows him well, Herzog was quoted as saying: “This table is a revolutionary object because we can sit around it and have a conversation but Twitter is not!”. A very contentious, controversial statement,  just as we like them!

Almendras: (laughing) Well, I agree! Also Twitter is such a sterile form of communication, such a bad tool of communication. We created language but on Twitter we’re limited to using 140 characters. This will always end up with people fighting or misunderstanding each other. Because 140 characters is no way you can make yourself understood. And what is also disturbing is that we are using a means of communication created by people who were unable to communicate in the real world. We are using systems created by, many of them, sociopaths. Zuckerberg created a tool to judge women’s hotness in a dorm in a university, which is probably the worst environment. And we’re using the same tool to communicate with friends?Obviously we are doing something wrong!So I’m very critical of that, I don’t think it’s healthy to relate to people in this way, that’s why I used it a lot in the film.

Knight: The title of the film in Spanish translates into “Nothing happened here” but the English title is Much Ado About Nothing. Why was it important to find an equivalent expression for the English title instead of a literal translation?

much ado still 2

Almendras: Yes, the Chilean title means “Nothing really happened here” and we use it when you have a big mess and then you kind of fix it a little bit and then you say that nothing actually happened. And we have a similar expression to Much Ado About Nothing in Spanish, the literal meaning is: “all this noise cracking nuts but there is nothing inside”. In other words, all this fuss around something that is nothing in the end. Which is what happened in Chile with the legal case the film is based on: there was a lot of “noise”, a lot of tweeting, a lot of press and at the end all the kids were freed, except this person that no one cares about. So that’s why we decided to go with that title.

Knight: Basically you have a free but powerless press in Chile!

Almendras: Exactly, the press represents the same powers and what happens is this weird thing where they condemn things publicly but there is no real accountability for what they are doing.  A lot of noise and nothing really happens as a result of that.