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Berlinale 2011: The Best of the Fest
Stephen Dalton , February 21st, 2011 06:49

Stephen Dalton finds much to love at this years Berlin International Film Festival including: new docs on Genesis P-Orridge and Black Power; Shakespeare-revivals and true-tales from the Iraq War and new works by Wim Wenders and Richard Ayoade.

Bitingly cold and dimly lit, the cobbled backstreets of Berlin in February feel a million miles from the super-rich sunshine playgrounds of Cannes in May or Venice in September. But while it may lag behind in tabloid gossip and Hollywood premieres, the Berlinale remains the last remaining major European film festival to promote politically provocative arthouse cinema over glitz, glamour and celebrity.

Nobody here in Berlin is remotely surprised that this year’s main festival prize, the Golden Bear, plus the two main acting awards all went to Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian divorce drama Nader and Simin, a Separation. A well-deserved winner, but also a pointed protest vote by the Berlinale over the incarceration of the Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof for making films that contain similarly implicit criticism of Ahmadinejad’s increasingly oppressive, art-censoring, speech-suppressing regime. Before his disgraceful arrest, Panahi had been invited to serve on the festival jury.

Aside from Farhadi’s film and a handful of equally worthy winners, the 2011 Berlinale has been an uneven affair. But as ever, there were oddball delights and unexpected gems lurking deep in the festival’s eclectic schedules. Here is a personal Top Ten preview of the best of Berlin for Quietus readers to look forward to in the year ahead:

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV veteran Genesis P-Orridge treated his 15-year love affair with Jacqueline “Lady Jaye” Breyer as an audacious art project, undergoing cosmetic surgery and breast implants in a bid to merge their two personalities into a fluid “pandrogyne” entity. This sweet and playful documentary by the French visual artist Marie Losier began as a record of the couple’s relationship, but it also explores P-Orridge’s long track record of mashing up music with avant-garde art ideas, then takes a tragic final turn with Breyer’s untimely death in 2007. Despite now looking like a freakish cross between Courtney Love and Klaus Kinski, P-Orridge emerges from Losier’s film as eminently likeable, stoical and witty. Winner of Best Documentary in the festival’s gay-themed sidebar, the ‘Teddy’ awards.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-76

As the title suggests, director Goran Olsson’s time-capsule documentary compiles archive footage shot by various Swedish directors during the peak years of the Black Power movement. Angela Davis appears, in both majestically Afro-haired flashback and in contemporary voiceover, alongside period clips of fellow resistance icons Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and others. This loosely assembled narrative covers Martin Luther King’s assassination, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the slow collapse of the movement in the 1970s when hard drugs swept America’s inner-city ghettos, allegedly as part of the FBI’s undercover COINTELPRO programme. This is a very rich subject which merits a much deeper and longer documentary, but Olsson’s throwback to the Utopian heyday of Socialist Sweden is still a revealing snapshot of one culture’s fascination for another.

Coriolanus

For anyone who’s been forced to sit through endless amateur Shakespeare productions at school, this may not seem an appetising prospect. But the Bard’s bloodthirsty drama about a self-destructively proud Roman warrior forced into exile has been rebooted as a politically charged action thriller by actor turned first-time director Ralph Fiennes, who also stars in the title role opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler. Fiennes re-imagines ancient Rome as contemporary Belgrade, allowing the recent Balkan conflicts to resonate without labouring the parallels. Shakespeare’s dialogue remains intact, albeit heavily pared down and cleverly shared out between various unorthodox narrators - including veteran Channel 4 and ITN newsreader Jon Snow. The visceral, kinetic combat violence is crisply depicted while subplots about food riots, sabre-rattling politicians and populist street protests strike an accidentally topical chord.

The Devil’s Double

A decade ago, New Zealander Lee Tamahori was directing James Bond blockbusters and Sopranos episodes. But since a bizarre 2006 incident in which he donned women’s clothes and offered oral sex to an undercover police officer, the big Hollywood offers appear to have dried up. Funny that. All the same, Tamahori brings a gloriously deranged energy to this otherwise cheap-looking thriller, a heavily embellished true story about the unfortunate Iraqi soldier forced to pose as a body double for Uday Hussein, the power-crazed playboy son of Saddam. Britain’s Dominic Cooper is impressive in dual roles, often acting opposite himself, while French starlet Ludivine Sagnier delivers some painfully corny lines as the sultry femme fatale who beds both men. The Devil’s Double is essentially a horror movie, with scenes in which the psychotic Uday rapes, tortures and murders with impunity; but it is also an unwittingly hilarious, high-camp blingfest destined for guilty-pleasure cult status.

In a nutshell: Borat meets Scarface.

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within

A record-breaking, Avatar-beating, domestic box-office smash in Brazil, director Jose Padilha’s supercharged sequel to his controversial 2007 thriller Elite Squad revisits Rio’s heavily militarised anti-gang police battalions, this time against a broader backdrop of contemporary Brazilian politics. Wagner Mauro returns as the anti-heroic Captain Nascimento, promoted into a government job following a superbly staged prison massacre. Once in power, he starts to question his own trigger-happy vigilante methods after he is caught in the political crossfire between drug cartels, tabloid rabble-rousers and corrupt police militia bosses. Inspired by real events, this is an unusually smart action blockbuster laced with subversive social commentary and a sharp political edge. Imagine an entire series of The Wire squeezed into two explosive hours.

The Guard

Picking up a special mention in the Berlinale’s ‘Best First Feature’ category, this black comedy thriller plants burly Brendan Gleeson centre stage for a gung-ho star performance as a foul-mouthed, boozy, rule-bending policeman gearing up to confront a cocaine-smuggling gang in a small coastal town in the west of Ireland. Don Cheadle co-stars as the visiting FBI agent who becomes Gleeson’s fastidious, exasperated straight man. There are a few creaky sitcom moments in this handsomely shot debut from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, but the sardonic script and knowingly anti-romantic take on Irish movie clichés provide plenty of laughs.

Pina

Decades have elapsed since Germanic screen preacher Wim Wenders last made a great film, but this sumptuously mounted 3D documentary about choreography icon Pina Bausch is an exquisite visual poem. Wenders began the project as a collaboration with Bausch, but it became a celluloid elegy following her sudden death from cancer in 2009. Peppered with fragmentary interviews, the film lacks much-needed context, but the stereoscopic visuals serve the stunning dance sequences extremely well. Wenders restages scenes from four of Bausch’s most famous works in unusual locations including parks, rivers, busy road junctions and the overhead monorail in her adopted home city of Wuppertal (a jokey self-homage by the director to his own 1974 road movie Alice in the Cities). Serious dance fans may consider Pina shallow and gimmicky, but to a total choreography novice like me, it proved to be a surprisingly beautiful spectacle.

Sing Your Song

The 83-year-old Harry Belafonte was in Berlin last week, looking impressively dapper as he undertook promotional duties for Susanne Rostock’s documentary about his remarkable 60-year career as a singer, actor, liberal icon and political activist. Rostock’s officially approved bio-doc is formally conservative and overly reverential - painting Belafonte as a living saint second only to his pal Nelson Mandela. Fortunately, the director still had an amazingly rich and eventful life story to draw on, from marching with Martin Luther King and Marlon Brando in the 1960s to rapping with inner-city gangs and singing the blues with convicted jailbirds today. A classy piece of work, tailor-made for one of those prestige doc-slots on BBC Four or More4.

Submarine

Richard Ayoade, the deadpan TV comedian from The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and the awesome Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, made his directing debut with the 2008 concert film Arctic Monkeys Live at the Apollo. His first full dramatic feature is a classic coming-of-age tale about a precocious Welsh schoolboy scheming to lose his virginity while his emotionally estranged parents hover on the brink of divorce. The dramatic themes may be achingly familiar but Ayoade adapts Joe Dunthorne’s novel with bittersweet wit and visual panache. Puppy-faced novice Craig Roberts is spot-on casting as Pembrokeshire’s answer to Holden Caulfield, and likewise Yasmin Paige as the sulky beauty who seduces him over a shared act of classroom bullying. Cruel, but realistic. The ever-reliable Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor provide first-rate support while head Monkey Alex Turner croons and strums on the soundtrack. Great use of duffle coats too. There are not enough duffle coats in modern cinema.

Tomboy

Widely acclaimed for her 2007 debut Water Lilies, the young French director Celine Sciamma returns to her signature themes of adolescent sexuality and fluid gender identity in this terrific pre-teen drama. Zoe Heran is a magnetic piece of precision casting as the heroine Laure, a 10-year-old schoolgirl gamine who passes herself off as a boy after moving into a new apartment in the suburbs. Malon Levanna is also a remarkable screen presence as Laure’s mischievous six-year-old kid sister, Jeanne. Sciamma directs her young cast with poise and economy, never sensationalising what might have been a lurid plot in the wrong hands. More Gus Van Sant than Larry Clark, this minimalist masterpiece won the Jury Award in the ‘Teddy’ section.

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