Friday, February 29, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Still from The Edge of Heavendir Fatih Akin

Bright young thing of German cinema Fatih Akin returns with this complex tale of six characters crossing gender, ethnic and physical boundaries.

The story is divided into three parts and the titles presage major plot points, which I shall not give away. But Akin, both writer and director, seems especially interested in how things happen, making for a twisty journey with an uncertain end.

And journey is an appropriate word because transit is a major theme in this film: characters fly in and out of cities, coffins are transported, and there is much to-ing and fro-ing as the story criss-crosses from Germany to Turkey.

At the centre of all this is Nejat, a German with a Turkish background who leaves Hamburg to look for Ayten, whose mother, Yeter, has died. As he searches for her in Istanbul, and she seeks her mother in Bremen, a web of relationships is created. Bonds are forged and broken. Loyalties are tested and tragedy ensues.

Family relationships are especially trying, as Nejat's relationship with his father Ali breaks down. Ayten's girlfriend Lotte rebels against her middle-class upbringing, castigating her mother Susanne for being "so German".

Yet, even in these seemingly polarised situations Akin finds subtle parallels, drawing threads of the story together. For example, Nejat and Ayten both declare that education is a human right, and Susanne and Lotte share traits that are only gradually revealed when the mother arrives in Istanbul looking for clues about her daughter.

There is no neat resolution as Akin leaves the viewer hanging, wondering whether certain characters will ever meet and recognise each other. But he does seem to suggest that the ties that bind can be found in the most unlikely places.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2008

Photographers Gallery, London
Through 6 April

The DB Prize always throws up an interesting array of photographers, some traditionally journalistic in approach, some more experimental and I frequently wonder: a) how they are selected for the shortlist and b) how the winner is chosen.

This year's crop, all male, are: John Davies (UK), Fazal Sheikh (USA), Jacob Holdt (Denmark) and Esko Mannikko (Finland).

Davies, separate from the others in the Cafe, takes large format black and white shots, documenting the changing face of Britain's landscape. Many of his shots are of the north of England, with its complex relationship to the Industrial Revolution. It is a fruitful exercise, but I found his shots a bit dull.

Mannikko has his own quirky world, and his entry is drawn from several exhibits, giving it an un-unified feel. Close-up shots of animals' faces sit side-by-side (and indeed are jammed in together, at his behest) with shots of weathered wooden doors, these being two of his interests but not intended for one exhibit. So. An interesting character but again not really my bag.

Holdt's work I found extremely problematic. For a long time he lived a nomadic existence, hitch-hiking across the USA in the 1970s and frequently, it appears from his captions, shacking up with all and sundry as he did so. His interest is in the marginal in society: drag queens, prostitutes, poor black Southerners, drug addicts.

But his approach I find extremely exploitative. He frequently refers to his "friends", as well as various girlfriends, in his captions to the photos. Really? Did his "friends" know he was going to publish his work and benefit from their poverty and degradation? Did they really want everyone to know they were street-walking or taking illegal drugs? It truly smacks of the worst kind of smug colonialism: the European artist sweeping in to decry the lives of the poor, suffering natives.

The work I did find impressive and moving was the series by Sheikh, about continuing discrimination against women in India. He approaches the project as an outsider but his portraits (taken with consent) are both dignified and dramatic. There is also considerable context given in the accompanying text.

Some of these women have suffered extreme abuse: set on fire by their husbands, abandoned by their families, trafficked into prostitution. But they want to tell their stories and his work is helping to raise awareness of the consequences of the cultural preference for male children.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Berlinale: Panorama

Stickers on the schedule for the Berlinale programme indicate sold-out screenings; photo by Val PhoenixI have a habit of picking Teddy Award winners to see. Last year it was Zero Chou's Spider Lilies while this year it was Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela.

In truth, I was a bit underwhelmed by the latter: great story, panoramic sweep (Philippines, Iceland, USA, France, and a bit of Thailand are in there). But, for me, the faux documentary style was distracting.

The director explained after a screening that he originally wanted to make a documentary about ladyboys and contacted various candidates via email. When Raquela Rios replied from the Philippines, he decided she was the one. But then he thought her story deserved a more cinematic treatment. The Amazing Truth contains a mix of fiction and non-fiction techniques. Many characters have the same names as the actors and speak directly to camera in some scenes. Some scenes appear to be improvised but at other times are more cinematic.

It is a gripping film, with Raquela longing to meet her Prince Charming and stroll through the streets of Paris. In some ways she gets her wish but life is no fairy tale and she goes back to the Philippines and an uncertain future.

Probably the standout performance is by Stefan Schaeffer as the sleazy American chatroom boss who embodies the ugly side of globalisation. This character is based on a real person but is not played by him, the director was at pains to point out, lest the audience lynch Schaeffer. He really is a b-----d in the film, with a hilarious rant about France that brought laughter from the audience.

Also viewed was the documentary Shahida: Brides of Allah (Natalie Assouline). This one is quite contentious, as the director, a Jewish Israeli, spent two years visiting failed Palestinean female suicide bombers in prison. She explained after the screening that she wanted to meet them face-to-face to see why they did it. She had expected them to be hard and ugly (why?) but found them beautiful and engaging. One does wonder how much her expectations led to the shaping of the film, which was, at times, a bit emotionally manipulative.

In fact, the theme of manipulation is interesting to investigate: the prisoners have a spokesperson and a lot of sensitive negotiation went on behind the scenes to get the project made. Very little of that makes it to the screen, although there is one scene in which a prisoner concludes an interview with the camera crew, goes into the prison yard and is met by another prisoner who asks: "What did you tell her?" "Nothing. Just the usual interview stuff." Hmmm.

The interviewee who made the biggest impression on me was Ranya, who said she is shunned by the others because she refuses to join Hamas or any other organisation. During the filming she left the prison, but then returned, and explained that prison life was better than at home. Truly heartbreaking.

The film suggests many of the prisoners had difficult home lives and that this contributed to them agreeing to help or become suicide bombers. But no context is offered for the larger conflict between Israel and the Palestineans.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Berlinale: Forum + Expanded

Isabella Does Cheap from Val Phoenix on Vimeo.

In my second year at the Berlinale I have become more acquainted with the different strands of the festival. Forum is the home of art cinema and its spinoff Forum Expanded shows installations utilising film. Both are housed in the Filmhaus complex in Potsdamer Platz and I have become a frequent visitor there. The dramatic glass-fronted lifts go up to the 9th floor and there is a definite hierarchy in place, with the European Film Market at the top level off-limits to the non-accredited, while the Cheap Gossip Studio in the basement is open to all. Hmmm.

The most fun place to be is definitely the latter, back for a second year. I missed Patti Smith's spoken word performance there but did see Isabella Rossellini (see film), a swarm of press in tow, wowing the crowds as she visited. Her film Green Porno is showing in the festival and a related installation is part of Forum Expanded. For this, she dresses up as various forms of insect life to explain their sexual behaviour. "This is a strange role for her, no?" enquired a TV journalist. "Yes, I think she wanted to stretch herself as an actress," was my reply.

Cheap is presenting a series of Underground Über Alles awards, the first of which were handed out on Sunday night. One went to filmmaker and friend of Cheap Marie Losier, who was swept into the arms of Cheap's Vaginal Davis, twice her size, as she collected it. Clearly emotional, Losier said she felt she was among family. Moments earlier, I overheard part of her conversation with Guy Maddin, in which he described someone peeing. I guess that's familial.

As for the films, well, they were certainly arty. One Hand on Open (William Wheeler and Stefan Pente) is an experimental feature featuring drag queens pondering violence and appropriate responses. It looks fantastic, shot with a blue screen and a lot of animation. But I found it a bit of, um, a drag. Too long and a bit pretentious.

The same could be said of some of the shorts. I saw two programmes, Grandmother Threading Her Needle and Locations and Speculations. The latter featured two quite long shorts, and I can't recall ever experiencing so many people leaving a screening in my life. It really is a case of voting with one's feet. If I were one of the filmmakers I would be mortified. But one could understand: 33 minutes of a silent film consisting of shots of a building site (In die erde gebaut--Ute Aurand) is a bit too künstlerisch for me.

Shorts highlights for me were Schein Sein (Bady Minck), a lovely evocation of a 2D orchestra coming to life from the page to the stage, and Bruce Lee in the Land of Balzac (Maria Teresa Alves), a witty juxtaposition of kung fu sound and French pastoral images. Arty and captivating, a wonderful combination.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Berlin museums

Museum for Communication in Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixWhile waiting for the opening of the Berlinale, I have availed myself of the plethora of museums on offer in Berlin.

First up was the DDR Museum, which I have meant to check out since it opened in the summer of 2006. With late openings seven days a week, it`s pretty accessible and surprisingly busy on a weekday evening visit. Star attractions include a Trabant in the window and a replica DDR living room, complete with the dreaded Black Channel for one`s viewing pleasure. More enjoyable was the DEFA film on housing available in the screening room. Definitely worth a visit.

In a very much more sinister vein is the Stasi Museum, previously headquarters of the security police and now on show to the public to see just what the police were up to for all those years. Behind the bland wallpaper and plush chairs, hideous things went on, and the contrast is startling and disturbing, even now. Most of the complex has been taken over by doctors and Deutschebahn, which lends a peculiar air to the place and it`s easy to walk by without noticing it. Easily worth three hours and there`s an adjacent archive, which has limited opening hours.

On a more cheery note, one can find the Museum for Communication within walking distance of Potsdamer Platz. Current exhibits include photos by Erika Rabau of Berlinales of the past. Famous names on show include Kirk Douglas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Shirley MacLaine. One gets a tinge of faded glamour from the array of photos draped over railings around a central courtyard patrolled by robots. Most peculiar. Also showing is Andreas Gox`s exhibit of Berliners at streetlights. But these are not just any streetlights but the fabled Ampelmann lights. Why one would want to devote a year to shooting people at streetlights is anyone`s guess. Anyway, clearly the spirit moved Herr Gox to pursue this project and the photos are, at times, charming.

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