Born of dissent, the International Forum of New Cinema serves filmmakers and audiences who – while appreciative of cinema’s power to entertain and knowledgeable of the tools of entertainment – want something more.
The singular value of the Berlinale Forum – the most consciously political section of the most political of the mega film festivals – is to be found in its evergreen ability to change our minds as the world changes around us.
“The Forum has always defended cinema’s role as a forum of artistic expression beyond imposed limits or categorizations, focusing on the new and unusual, whether seeking to preserve the experimental qualities of cinema or arouse the interest of audiences for expressive cinema from off the beaten track, ‘Expanded Cinema’, the filmic avant-garde, documentary film projects that shatter formal boundaries as well as popular world cinema have all found their place at the Forum…”
Over the past four decades, international audiences have first seen films like Sátántangó and Shoah; films by Peter Watkins and Frederick Wiseman, at this unique festival-within-festival.
“The Forum thus has to be many things at once, goals which conflict with each other; a venue to reveal otherwise undiscovered geographic-cinematic territory; a place for the premiere of such films that, still today – though maybe not in the next decade – have a small chance of commercial distribution internationally; an integral part of a public event which services hundreds of thousands of Berliners but also visiting members of the media and festival programmers, who are looking for films to write about and bring home to their own festivals and who both thrive on negativity…”
In my brief four years of attending Forum, I’ve been impressed by the skill, knowledge, and passion of Forum interrogators during the all-important dialogs at the end of each screening. Here we see the heart of the project, the dedication to help give audiences orientation in the evolving world of cinema.
Taking advantage of the special attention span that occurs when people go crazy seeing as many films as possible for ten days, and filmmakers from around the world have an opportunity to engage with a knowledgeable audience and with each other, the Forum programmers help to show us a new way, often through films that don’t fit into the mainstream festival and distribution system.
This year, I was fortunate to see twenty of the thirty-four films on the Forum main slate, and a retrospective screening of three groundbreaking films by Bill Forsyth.
I was interested to see the rapid emergence of the Red camera this year, employed to impressive effect in Imani (which recounts a day in the lives of three people in Kampala and in Gulu province, in Uganda); Im Schatten (a straight-up crime film juxtaposing the mechanics of a career outside the law with clear-eyed views of industrial Berlin); Fin (a subdued, tense psycho-thriller in which an 18-year-old recruits two younger teenagers for a mysterious, unnamed action at a mining site); El recuento de los daños (a novel telling of the tragedy of the victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship); and Yoŭ yī tiān (a wholly original film, in which none of multiple narrative streams can be pinpointed as reality).
Ethnography, Sometimes from Unexpected Locales
Several fine films explored new aspects of ethnography in the film medium. In Paltadacho Munis, a tale of loneliness, compassion and the eternal struggle against bigotry, a widowed forest ranger in the Western Ghats of India’s Goa district struck up an unlikely relationship with a madwoman he finds lost and alone in the woods. Putty Hill set a tale of death and coming of age on the fringes of Baltimore. Director Yang Rui spent three years with the Wa people in southwestern China, on the border with Burma, to film Fan shan, tale of human sacrifice, young love, a Russian hand grenade, and a hopeless television set. Winter’s Bone is the unflinching telling of a Ozark Mountain girl’s desperate quest to keep her family intact by finding a father who vanished after posting their home as bond. From the perspective of her stationary camera, filmmaker Sharon Lockhart documented the progress of a solitary clammer in Double Tide over two magic hours in a profession as old as there have been human inhabitants of this area. The Oath – also a selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films series – explored the twin tragedies of 9/11 and America’s reaction to the attacks by tracing the story of Salim Hamdan, largely from the perspective of his friend Nasser al-Bahri, a.k.a. Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s chief bodyguard until his arrest shortly before the attacks.
Globalized Angst via Europe
A number of European filmmakers contributed novel perspectives on modern life in a global culture. Through interviews, a video diary, and film clips, filmmaker Gamma Bak documented her adult life as a “child of freedom,” punctuated by seven episodes of schizoid-affective psychosis in Schnupfen im Kopf. Pus explored a dystopian Turkey. First and foremost a good movie about a woman who loses her job and has problems, Eine flexible Frau also revealed work and life for a woman in the New Berlin, and countless other “cities of women” of the new global capitalism. Der Tag des Spatzen followed connections between sparrows and humans from Leeuwarden to the Buechel air base in the Mosel valley, the villages and forests of the Eifel region, the coast of the Baltic Sea, and cities Bonn and Berlin. In Bibliothèque Pascal, Szabolcs Hajdu employed ravishing cinematography with unique humanity and irony to relate a tale of the brutal sex traffic between the former USSR and the UK as a metaphor for the rape of imagination that rules the global culture business. In a miracle of focused sight and sound, stories of nine travelers unfolded in the context of an extended documentary view of a morning at Orly airport. In Indigène d’Eurasie, director Sharunas Bartas plays the character of a ruthless killer who is not a bad man.
Asian New Wave
Young Asian filmmakers continued to break new ground. Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa demonstrated the power of a “lower-middling woman” – chu no ge no on-na – through a perfect performance by Mitsushima Hikari, an expressive, physically precise comic genius. Kenta to Jun to Kayo chan no kuni, Omori Tatsushi’s second feature, cast Love Exposure’s Ando Sakura as Kayo, a lonely girl who encounters two dim-witted orphans on the eve of a final attempt to break out of their miserable lives. Na-neun gon-kyeong-e cheo-haet-da! explored the lives of young professionals and office workers in Seoul through the misadventures of a vulnerable man stuck between poetry and the law exam.
For each film they select, the Forum curators buy a print, pay for subtitles, and archive – often showing to Berlin audiences in the Arsenal Kino long after the February snow of Berlinale has melted. That makes me hopeful that I will yet see the films that I missed this year: Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza); Yiye Taibei/Au Revoir Taipei; La belle visite; Soreret/Black Bus; La bocca del Lupo/The Mouth of the Wolf; Congo in Four Acts; El vuelco del cangrejo/Crab Trap; Kanikosen (actually saw this at New York Film Festival, but lost my essay); Neo-wa na-eui i-shib-il-seki/Our Fantastic 21st Century; Portretul luptatorului la tenerete/Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man; Sona, mo hitori no watashi/Sona, the Other Myself; Sunny Land; Ya/I Am.
1. Dialoge mit Filmen: 4 Jahrsehnte Forum/Dialogues with Films: 4 Decades of the Forum. Berlin: Arsenal – Institut fur Film und Videokunst e.V., n.d.