Those of us who look forward to our annual date with the Berlin International Film Festival start preparing for the trek as soon as the world-famous Berlinale Bear makes his appearance on the posters, just a few days before the festival opens.
This year the Bear is seen half submerged in a jacuzzi, an apt visual: Berlin in February can sometimes be bone-chillingly cold, but the warmth generated by the 11-day feast (over 400 films, press conferences, side-bar events, topped by endless networking parties), and the chatter amongst fellow movie lovers, makes up for the weather in spades.
I’ve often been asked: what’s so special about the Berlinale? My answer is invariably the same. The film festival belongs to the people of Berlin and they have shaped it: the event is not a grafted, hot-house delegates-only soiree; it is an organic part of the city’s cultural calendar, and it is proudly, flagrantly, refreshingly political. The programming reflects an active, continuous engagement with the world and its affairs: if the refugees are streaming into the city, the festival acknowledges the crisis by not just showing the films based on it, but also by incorporating an awareness component about it in the programme. “A segment of the Marshall Plan was dedicated to re-brainwash all these Nazis ( after the second world war, when the re-construction of war-ravaged Germany began). For the first time short films were used for this purpose, and once that process came to an end, the film festival was a natural outcome,” says Thomas Hailer, long-time Berlinale curator. “Unlike other festivals who have to work on it, this platform for expression and diversity is in the DNA of the festival,” he adds.
It’s also something about the city itself. The remnants of the Berlin Wall are all around the main venue of the festival in Potsdamer Platz. Our daily dash from the hotel-to-the-venue goes by the historic Checkpoint Charlie: those so-inclined can get themselves into uniforms and photographed, and dip into the museum down the road for keepsakes.
But, for us film lovers who are covering the festival, the real action happens inside the giant auditorium at the Berlinale Palast and the overflowing press centre, right next to it. Eight hundred and more bleary-eyed journalists lining up to get into the first press-only screening of the day is quite a sight, and sometimes the only way to catch the films in competition. You miss one of those, and it goes straight into the catch-me-if-you-can at the risk of missing other important films.
The first day is four back-to-back films. Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs (the opening film which I was left admiring more than liking), The Silent Revolution, based on real-life events in 1956 revolving around a bunch of East German school-kids who went up against the establishment, Black 47 set in 1847 Ireland, harking back to British colonialism in their own patch, and the 1987 classic Wings Of Desire, which we catch in a lovely, restored version.
It pretty much sets the tone for the next five days, where, with the zeal of bloodhounds, we go looking for the films which make the long distance travel and jet-lagged mornings, worth our while. And, by the next day, I find it: The Happy Prince, which Rupert Everett directs and acts in, as Oscar Wilde, the playwright who was reviled and imprisoned for his open homosexuality. You are transported back to 19th century London, and given a marvelous portrait of a complex, brilliant artist.
The only official Indian entry is Q’s Garbage which goes after the holy cows in today’s India in his distinctive take-no-prisoners style, with its explicit sex-and-violence. It takes a little while getting past the in-your-faceness of Garbage, and then it begins to fly. In these timorous times, when artists are busy toeing the political line, it is necessary to have a Q blowing it all out of the water, even if his film will never find a mainstream release in mainstream theatres in India.
But the most mainstream of them all, producer-director Karan Johar is also at the Berlinale, leading a delegation, comprising, among others, award-winning director Shaji N Karun and Jahnu Barua and promising Bollywood actor Bhumi Pednekar, at the European Film Market (EFM) to talk up Indian cinema.
How do we get our cinema to be seen more? “By getting partners who will distribute our movies”, says Johar, “and by making people aware that we exist. Now if SRK was here, there would be no problem, because the Germans love him.” Right where we are standing (just outside the red-carpet area of the Berlinale Palast, where Don 2 had a gala premiere to miles of shrieking fans) is a good place to be talking about this, where a few selfie-demanding hounds show up to take photos.
Just what is the secret of this completely bizarre phenomenon of SRK’s delirious fandom? “That’s because, in our movies, people see khushi and gham. We give them emotions, and who doesn’t want that?” says Johar.
Movies so radical that even the internet might get singed, and so mainstream that will lead to stars being mobbed — this is a film festival that gives us everything. I’m leaving mid-way and I miss Steven Soderbergh’s shot-on-an-I-phone Unsane, and a bunch of others that those still there will discover and gloat over. But then, I console myself, there is always another day. And the next Berlinale.