Film

Borelinale

Jordan Schiele, The Silk and the Flame, 2018, black-and-white, 87 minutes.

LAST NOVEMBER, A GROUP OF LOCAL FILMMAKERS PUBLISHED AN OPEN LETTER in Der Spiegel criticizing the Berlinale as the weakest of all international film festivals and calling for “a new beginning”: a clear reference to festival director Dieter Kosslick, whose contract runs out next year. Given the poor programming he has overseen and the subsequent general decline of the festival’s stature, the Berlinale is no longer at the level of Venice or Cannes as a serious forum for a rigorous assessment of the state of the art. Rather than listening to his critics with an open mind, Kosslick and his sycophants perversely chose to exacerbate their failings, delivering what will undoubtedly come to be seen as the worst program in the festival’s entire sixty-eight-year history.

Among the precious few highlights screened in the “Panorama” section, Jordan Schiele’s The Silk and the Flame (2018) reminds us that documentary can be a vehicle for great storytelling. Yao, a Beijing resident nearing forty, returns to his home village for the Chinese New Year to visit his deaf-mute mother and invalid father, whose dying wish is to see his son wed. Yao, however, is gay and has no plans for getting married. Rather than hammering out an ethical argument, Schiele uses stark black-and-white photography to evince a fascinating and subtle narrative that reveals how deeply entrenched his subjects are in China’s tumultuous history of the past century, the Confucian values that shape society, and his subjects’ battles with the simple means of communication that most of us take for granted.

James Benning, 11x14, 1977, color, sound, 82 minutes.

In the “Forum,” a division that traditionally comprises experimental film and video art, cineasts were treated to a new print of James Benning’s debut 16-mm feature, 11x14 (1977), which originally premiered at the Berlinale. For those who don’t remember (or, like me, weren’t alive), that was the year after the American Bicentennial and three years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). 11x14 evokes memories of an enduring and lonely highway Americana that has been forever lost, with all the sinister and gothic undertones of the earlier horror classic (it even looks like Texas Chainsaw). With this meditation on vehicular existence, America’s greatest living landscape poet established his voice, and thanks to its 35-mm restoration, the song has been preserved for a bit longer.

Of the other auteurs this year, it was a mixed bag. Lav Diaz’s Season of the Devil (2018) was one of the few films in the main competition worth watching, based solely on the director’s early oeuvre and his status as a pioneer of the so-called slow cinema movement. (While I indeed skipped most of the competition, the poor reviews these films have received across the board are yet a further confirmation of the damning assessments by the Berlinale’s most vocal critics.) Ostensibly about the military dictatorship that destroyed so many Filipino lives in the late 1970s, the film is of course really about the present drug war waged under the brute reign of Rodrigo Duterte. At nearly four hours, Season’s sung (a cappella) dialogue makes the film easier to get through––but, emotionally, it’s all a bit one-note.

Lav Diaz, Season of the Devil, 2018, black-and-white, sound, 234 minutes.

Still, compared to Kim Ki-Duk’s new film, Diaz’s is a masterpiece. Human, Space, Time and Human (2018)—which, before landing in the Berlinale’s “Panorama,” was rejected from Venice and every other major film festival in Europe, leading some to joke that the section might change its name to the “Panorama of Rejected Films”—is the worst of Kim’s career. In this bad Orwellian parable—rife with the clichés of every bad Orwellian parable—a crew of passengers on a cruise ship falls victim to a totalitarian structure and, ultimately, cannibalism, after they awaken one morning to find their ship inexplicably floating high above the earth. Here, the constant gore and misogyny go beyond gratuity and enter into the world of the unbelievably stupid. Nearly every female character in the film is raped, often several times, and those who escape this fate are the prostitutes, which pretty much sums up the director’s total assessment of women’s roles and purpose.

Of course, the obvious failures of the Berlinale have their roots in the ossified structure of Germany’s cultural bureaucracy, which also accounts for the dismal state of the country’s filmmaking industry, wherein lifelong—or otherwise contractually inflated—jobs are rewarded through nepotism rather than based on talent and vision. Kosslick and his gang like to respond to such criticisms with a populist argument that the Berlinale is the “people’s festival,” where anyone from the public can attend screenings, as opposed to the exclusivity of the badge system that reigns at Cannes; in doing so, they unwittingly insult the very audience they claim to serve, implying that mediocrity is all that the film-going public is capable of appreciating. The director and his team seem to dispense more energy on attracting A-list Hollywood celebrities to the red carpet than they do on building a truly dynamic program, ultimately exposing the provincialism that is an enduring trait of the Prussian character. As more and more industry professionals and critics decide to strike the Berlinale from their annual calendars, the festival will also inevitably lose its local audience. I’d say something has to break, were it not so apparent that the Berlinale is already broken.

The Sixty-Eighth International Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 15 through 25.

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