Berlinale 2009 Report

Beatrice Ní Bhroin reports on Berlinale 2009, which took place 5–15 February 2009.

The Berlinale broke into another snowy February and opened with Tom Tykwer’s The International, a German-American co-production starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, with the director and actors Clive Owen, Ulrich Thomsen and Armin Mueller-Stahl in attendance. As ever, the Berlinale delivered a star-flooded red carpet that continued throughout the festival, with many directors and actors making appearances at their screenings, and most taking questions from the attendees.

The festival is now in its 59th year and welcomes grand productions and arthouse films alike, with substantial audiences for all categories. There were over 20 films in competition with strong contenders from across the globe. These included the English period piece Chéri, directed by Stephen Frears, with actors Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend and Kathy Bates. Chéri sees a younger man fall passionately for an older woman, a theme that was explored in several prominent films during the festival including The Reader and The Countess.

Demi Moore headlined the acclaimed Happy Tears, with Parker Posey in a film by Mitchell Lichtenstein. This sometimes-surreal picture deals with complicated family relations and gets laughs where films often don’t dare to go. Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton carry the seriously intense The Messenger with Oren Moverman in the director’s seat. This present day film captures the poisonous elements of the Iraq war that are dealt with away from the battleground. Also in competition was the English production London River, based around the 5th July terrorist bombings in London in 2005. Actors Brenda Blethyn, Sotigui Kouyaté, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila are directed by Rachid Bouchareb of Dust of Life fame.

Accompanying the eleven film screening sections was the Berlinale Talent Campus. This is a creative platform for young filmmakers to meet internationally acclaimed experts and to get involved in one-to-one hands-on training. 350 young film industry hopefuls and students were picked to take part in the campus, giving them a chance to meet Berlinale jury president Tilda Swinton, the British film composer Max Richter (Waltz with Bashir), and filmmaker Wim Wenders, amongst others. Many of the talks were open to the public and allowed attendees the chance to get some tips from the professionals while discussing popular themes and concerns in filmmaking today.

Ireland was well represented in the festival with the feature Cherrybomb, directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and husband Glenn Leyburn. This gritty coming-of age drama set in Belfast includes Harry Potter star Rupert Grint alongside Robert Sheehan and Kimberley Nixon with James Nesbitt. Also in the Generation selection was Brendan and the Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, described as ‘transforming the mythical world of the Book of Kells into a multi-dimensional, calligraphic renaissance’.

Last year, Irish filmmaker David O’Reilly came away with a Special Mention his short animation RGB XYZ. This year, he topped that by winning the Golden Bear for the best short with the animated film Please Say Something. The cat and mouse characters explore a special kind of relationship in a fantasy world that reflects our own engagement with big cities.

Elegantly accepting a Shooting Star Award was Sarah Bolger (In America, The Spiderwick Chronicles) who attended the festival to collect the award. Ten up-and-coming actors are selected each year from across Europe highlighting the Shooting Star’s blooming career in film.

For a full listing of the award-winners, please click here.

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Berlinale 2008

Popular consensus on this year’s Berlinale Competition selection was that it was a weak crop, with the daily trades describing the menu as ‘dull’ and ‘unexciting’. However, the cinematic energy of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood provided some early momentum and the mid festival Happy-Go-Lucky was perceived mostly as a successful change of humour from Mike Leigh. Both were touted as Golden Bears but in the end they collected other awards.

Anderson got the Best Director Silver Bear for his undeniable feat and his collaborator Johnny Greenwood got the Special Outstanding Artistic Contribution for his music, which was from the beginning of the film a truly original dimension, at first obtrusive before becoming an integral parameter of the story. Sally Hawkins got Best Actress for her perky interpretation of a dyed-in-the-wool colourful optimist in Happy-Go-Lucky, a performance that had audiences teetering from irritation to identification from frame one right up to the closing credits.

The Golden Bear went to José Padilha’s The Elite Squad, a film that depicts hard-nosed and cynical policing in Rio in the late 1990s. It was a controversial enough choice given that it had divided critics and audiences during the week, some claiming that its realism seemed to defend police brutality or even promote fascism. Padilha responded by saying it only reflected the reality of the streets. It’s a film that certainly packs a punch and at the very least it provided an antidote to some of the mushier sentiments displayed in many of the other competition pictures. It also packs a distribution punch because its sales are being handled by the Weinstein Company, meaning that many will get a chance to see for themselves.

It was also an interesting year in Berlin for up-and-coming Irish filmmakers. Seaview, a straightforward documentary by Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowly, had the honour of being selected to participate in the Forum, which represents the artier, more experimental, side of the Berlinale. Seaview tells the story or rather the many stories that take place in Mosney, in the former Butlin’s holiday camp, now a residence for asylum seekers. From distant troubled spots different coloured faces, some of them already with Irish accents, tell their stories and provide personal insight into this no man’s land at the tougher end of the Irish immigration scale.

In addition, two Irish shorts won distinctions at this year’s festival. After winning in Galway and Cork, Darren Thornton’s Frankie picked up the UIP special prize for a short film that had already won in a recognised festival. Frankie is a young teenager wondering if he’s ready for the imminent fatherhood that awaits him. The jury described it as ‘A simple and powerful approach. The straight-forward point of view of a working class teenager on love, responsibility and fatherhood. We also want to re-encourage the director in developing his project of short films for young makers.’ The Berlinale has an extensive section for younger audiences and this year the Generation Kplus jury gave a Special Mention for a Short Film to Steph Green’s New Boy, saying, ‘The plot is easy to follow even though there is not much dialogue. The portrayal of the characters’ feelings touched us and swept us along and the reminder of Joseph’s earlier homeland gave us a realistic insight into his former life as well as his feelings. In the end we learned that having prejudices just isn’t worth it.’

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