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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