Berlin – It really should have been no surprise when the 53rd edition of one of the world’s most important film festivals, the Berlin International Film Festival, awarded Michael Winterbottom’s In This World with the Golden Bear, the top prize of the official competition.
A clandestinely shot DV movie chronicling a boy’s illegal journey from Afghanistan to London and opportunity, it seemed a perfect embodiment of this Bush-whacked world, and an antidote for other competition entries favored by the European press, like The Hours, Adaptation, 25th Hour and the Chinese martial arts epic “Hero,” all of which were properly lauded with Oscar nominations announced midway through the festival.
On the day the awards were handed out, Feb. 15, massive demonstrations against a possible war in Iraq were played out in major cities around the world, including a healthy 350,000 in Berlin. The topic of war was discussed everywhere throughout the festival, and jury president was Atom Egoyan, the socially conscious Canadian filmmaker known himself for his adventurous approach to his craft.
Germany and neighbor France are famously opposed to President Bush’s approach to Iraq, as lifetime achievement honoree Anouk Aimee — star of “A Man and a Woman,” “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” – acknowledged by intoning with a smile, “I’m part of old Europe.” Take that Donald Rumsfeld.
More directly, Edward Norton and Spike Lee, at the 25th Hour press conference, made their feelings known.
“It must be good to be in Germany and France,” Norton said, “because I have completely forgotten what it’s like to be proud of your government.”
“That guy Bush shouldn’t even be president,” Lee said. “They rigged the last election and they’ll probably do it again (in 2004).”
Festival director Dieter Kosslick selected this year’s theme, “Towards Tolerance,” long before tensions between the United States and Iraq escalated in a major way. Between the time Michael Douglas squired Catherine Zeta-Jones up the red carpet before the opening night screening of Chicago on Feb. 6 and Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio closed the festival with Gangs of New York – both out of competition — no less than three films about the plight of refugees were shown in competition. Besides Winterbottom’s winner, two movies gave insight into the Eastern European refugee crisis – Damjan Kozole’s Slovenian film “Spare Parts” spoke of the hopelessness of illegal immigration, while Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Distant Lights” illuminated the plight of illegal immigrants along the Polish-German border. Both were heartfelt, but neither was especially compelling.
“I would like my films to change the world,” said Winterbottom, director of 24 Hour Party People and “Welcome to Sarejevo,” before his film was announced as the winner.
Considering world events, that may have to wait, although, as Richard Gere pointed out at the Chicago press conference, films do bring us together. “There’s a Japanese poem that went, ‘Under the cherry tree, there are no strangers,’” Gere quoted. “Here, cinema is our cherry tree.”
In This World, although not a great film, is a triumph of the DV medium – the first DV film to win at Berlin, by the way. You could call it “Lawrence of Arabia — The Next Century,” as it is a look at the tension between the Arab world and the West, and it is cropped to a beautiful-looking Cinescope format, juiced up in the lab. Shot on the fly on location in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and London, In This World stars Jamal Udin Torabi, an actual Afghan refugee, basically playing himself. Only in the second half does the narrative flag, but it’s assured filmmaking and immediate importance of its subject matter should gain it an American release in short order.
Other deals were made at this event, part of that elite echelon of festivals with Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. American studios are increasingly looking at Berlin as a launching pad for its big-ticket products, with five in competition this year and several others in other sections but not in competition. Hollywood stars and directors made up what amounted to an invasion force: Nicole Kidman basking in Oscar-nominated spotlight, Kevin Spacey fending off criticism of his death penalty movie, The Life of David Gale, George Clooney here for two films, and internationally respected film personalities like 70-something French master director Claude Chabrol, Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung and British actress Kristin Scott-Thomas also making appearances.
But American distributors had plenty to do here as well, looking at selections in other sections of the festival, including the famed Berlin Market.
Miramax bought up Italy’s excellent competition entry “I’m Not Scared Anymore,” beautifully filmed in widescreen, about a boy who discovers someone his own age imprisoned in an abandoned country house. With that purchase, Miramax is renewing a relationship with director Gabriele Salvatore, whose “Mediterraneo” was a big hit for the then-fledgling independent studio more than a decade ago.
Sony Pictures Classics snapped up the rights to the Canadian-Spanish co-production of “My Life Without Me,” Isabel Coixet’s heart-wrenching tale of a young wife and mother (Sarah Polley) who begins to come alive after being told she has two months to live. Former punk star Deborah Harry plays Polley’s mother. The company also bought one of two Israeli films that will be released in the U.S., “Broken Wings,” an ultimately uplifting tale of a family who struggles after their patriarch is killed.
The other Israeli pick up was “Yossi and Jaguar,” by lesbian and gay specialist Strand Releasing, about the love affair between two male officers in the Israeli Army. Also from the Middle East, Wellspring bought stateside rights for “Marooned in Iraq,” Bahman Ghobadi’s follow-up to his acclaimed A Time for Drunken Horses.
More of the fest in part two of 53RD BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WRAP UP>>>

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