Tuesday, March 31, 2009

LLGFF: Love in Suburbia

Still from I Can't Think Straight
Patrik 1,5 dir Ella Lemhagen
I Can't Think Straight dir Shamim Sarif

Family life is a big theme this year at the festival and these two rom-coms explore different facets. In the Swedish comedy Patrik 1,5, Goran and Sven's plan to adopt a sweet baby take a wrong turn as they end up with 15-year-old homophobic tearaway Patrik. A sharply observed satire of what lurks behind the manicured gardens and Volvos in the driveway of suburbia is the main attraction of this film, along with Goran, Sven and Patrik's interplay. Very well done.

The polo fields and palatial residences of I Can't Think Straight don't belong to any London I recognise, but this comedy operates in a pseudo-Richard Curtis world in which everyone is rich and looks like a model. Instead of a floppy-haired Hugh Grant, we get glacial Lisa Ray and wide-eyed Sheetal Sheth negotiating a bumpy cross-cultural romance, observed by their traditional families. These two were the leads in Sarif's The World Unseen (shot after this film but released before), which was also beset by clunky dialogue and over-acting. In this film, I found Ray quite wooden and not believable as a Jordanian, her emotional range veering between flirtatious and slightly puzzled. Many of the supporting characters, such as Nina Wadia's maid and the two mothers, are reduced to one-note jokes. A pity, as the film looks sumptuous and there are some fine comic set pieces.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

23rd London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: an organic otherness

The Raincoats
A quick recap of the first few days of the festival, which I've only been able to attend sporadically so far.

Opening night on Wednesday featured Karin Babinska's debut Pusinky (Dolls), a road-buddy-teen melodrama of three Czech teenaged girls' disintegrating relationships as they hitch-hike to the promised land of Holland for some summer work. Betrayal, sexual awakening, rivalries, suicide attempts. I felt I'd seen it all before. Indeed, the set-up and events reminded me very much of two films I've viewed in the last six months: the Russian drama Everybody Dies but Me and the German film Beautiful Bitch.

As such, the film felt like a throwback to the bad old days when coming out as a lesbian was treated with a lot of hysterical hand-wringing. And why is it de rigueur in every coming-of-age drama for female friendships to be cast aside? A strange choice for an opening night film. On the plus side, I did snaffle several free chocolate bars laid out between the seats.

Last night I attended the much-anticipated premiere of the Raincoats doc, with added Q and A and live performance. Quite an ambitious undertaking and largely successful, with one big proviso.

Directed by bassist Gina Birch, the Raincoats film (still not sure of the title) combines brilliant archival material from the band's beginnings in the throes of '70s punk with interviews with band members and admirers including Geoff Travis, Chicks on Speed, Peaches and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. The latter's comments, delivered through shut eyes, were amusing, even if he did appear to suggest that they had no memorable songs. He also said something about "an organic otherness" that rang true in unexpected ways.

Among those in the audience were interviewees Viv Albertine of The Slits, just now getting some new material out, and Jane Woodgate of The Mo-Dettes, now establishing herself as a sculptor. Where have all you original punk women been, I asked Viv. "I don't know", she said, before adding that now seems a good time to get back in, as it reminded her of the punk times.

There was so much love in the room. And when a four-piece version of the Raincoats took to the stage, it was to a very supportive hometown crowd. Every cocked up note and false start was greeted with an appreciative cheer. "You are getting the full Raincoats experience" cracked Gina.

Still, I left troubled. You see, while it was delightful to see this band get its due, VERY, VERY late in the day, and while I enjoyed the atmosphere and the gig rocked, what stayed with me was what wasn't said: where was the queer content? Why, at a lesbian and gay film festival, with a panel of mostly lesbians, was there no mention of the L word? Why does this still happen in 2009? I left feeling as if we really had returned to the dark ages, when these things just weren't spoken about and lesbians were invisible. Like the film, a work in progress.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

After the War, Before the Wall

Still from Fanfaren der LiebeAs the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches this autumn, much cultural introspection is taking place. The Berlinale recently showed a strand of films which presaged the fall of the wall, while the TV and Film Museum in Berlin will be exhibiting photos and films from 1989.

Now the Goethe Institut in London is running a film season looking at an underanalysed period before the New German Cinema. Running from March through June, After the War, Before the Wall is a selection of 20 films from West Germany which offers a real insight into that difficult time as Germany confronted the war and its aftermath. Giving something of an insight into fluctuating identity, the films are variously attributed to Germany (West), Germany (East), FRG, BRD and Germany.

Running pretty much chronologically from 1946 to 1960, the genres include social satire, war drama and romantic comedy. Opening the programme on 17 March, Die Mörder sind unter uns [The Murderers Are Among Us] (1946, dir. Wolfgang Staudte) is the only East German entry (and it would be marvellous to contrast the East and West German output from this period) and features Hildegard Knef's first screen appearance, as a doctor plots revenge on a war criminal in 1945 Berlin.

Subsequent screenings include a couple by expats who returned to the homeland to make films: Peter Lorre's only directorial effort Der Verlorene [The Lost One], from 1951, as well as cinematic titan Fritz Lang's Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse] from 1960.

Social dramas are prevalent in the programme. In jenen Tagen [In those days] (1947, dir. Helmut Käutner), which uses a car and its owners to tell the turbulent history of the previous twelve years. The mixed race title character of Toxi (1952, dir. Robert A. Stemmle), confronts prejudices that existed against the children of German women and black American GIs.

Here's a familiar-sounding plot: two jobless male musicians go undercover in a women's band. Originally a French film, Fanfaren der Liebe [Fanfares of Love] (1951, dir. Kurt Hoffmann) [see pic] was re-made by Billy Wilder as Some Like It Hot.

And, finally, a tale of cross-border forbidden love flourishing among ruins. Himmel ohne Sterne [Sky Without Stars] (1955, dir. Helmut Käutner) is set in the no-man's land between east and west.

After the War, Before the Wall runs 17 March to 30 June at the Goethe Institut, London.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Around the World in 60 Days with Gudrun Gut

Cover of Gudrun Gut EP
Right about now Gudrun Gut should be on her long journey home after a two-week Antipodean trip, with a festival appearances and other gigs. Before she touches down in Berlin, though, the Monika boss has a stopover in Beijing where she plays on the 8th, International Women's Day. Later in the spring, it's off to the USA. So, busy, busy.

And indeed, she was so busy that it was difficult to link up for an interview while I was in Berlin earlier this year. However, before she set off last month, we spoke briefly about her plans over the next few months and about the new EP, her first foray into download-only releases.

Coming up on 19 March is the premiere of her collaboration with sound artist AGF, which will air on Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 in the UK. The theme sprang from a shared interest of the two, as she explained. "It's called Baustelle, it's about a building site, because she built a house and I built a house. But she built a house in Finland and so she doesn't live here anymore. We developed four new pieces for this. And we really enjoyed that, actually, and so we're gonna do more. We want to do an album out of that and that we wanna have finished for autumn, actually. We already have 20 minutes, so it's not so much. We want to do some live shows together."

Gudrun's house is the country house she is building in Brandenburg, north of Berlin. It is one aspect of her new-found interest in nature, which extends to artwork she contributed to the Transgression exhibit as well as her new EP, whose title is almost as long as the four songs within: Apples, Pears & Deer In Poland touches on romanticism and nature.

I can't remember discussing fruit in an interview but Gudrun was quite enthused by her rediscovery of "these sorta like really old German normal fruits", as opposed to the foreign imports that dominate the market. "But going back and eating a good German apple and a good German pear is something really exciting, I thought. Especially if it's not treated and stuff, it tastes beautiful and it looks beautiful. And I thought that it's so different if you have it in the shop or if you just have it from the tree. They just look much more beautiful when they are not so polished."

Another track on the EP, "Harz4Schleife", finds her taking a walk through nature and balancing her response to the beauty of the surroundings with the reality of the inhabitants. "You know, in Germany we have a problem: Landflucht. People from the countryside all move to the city, so, especially around Berlin, there are like only some men. Most women left, because they're, you know, a little bit more clever (giggle) and a couple of men are still there but they're mostly unemployed, so it's really strange because it's a whole different life there, around the country. It's because all the people who are a bit clever left."

She continued, "But then, on the other hand, it has a real life quality because it's not so full as the city. It's not Beton [concrete]. It's not so much houses. It's just like real nature. So, it's like all kind of soft earth you walk on. This has a real fascination. I'm really fascinated with this. Because, you know, I'm like much more like a culture girl. I like computer games and stuff, so this virtual world always was more my world and then I discovered that this new thing (chuckles) for me was nature. It's interesting. I find it really interesting, because there's like some depths I never expected."

Foresaking the lure of native fruit, she is heading in April to Colorado for an appearance at the Communikey festival and a week-long residency at the Uni of Colorado Boulder campus, where Prof. Gut will speak on her life as a self-made artist. This has prompted a bit of digging into the archive to find appropriate photos and so forth. It is now 30 years since she first emerged with experimental bands Din A Testbild and Mania D, and so there is a wealth of potential material, but as of our discussion, she had yet to finalise the speech.

But, how would the one-time scourge of "hippieverseuchten Berlin" cope with the crunchy granola goodness of Boulder? "Oh, no problem. I don't mind hippies at all." A volte face! She laughed. "That was in the '80s." Never mind. Surely, self-made artists are allowed to be contradictory.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lost and Found

Lost keys at the BVG lost property office; photo by Val Phoenix
New month, new country, or rather, old country, as I am back in Blighty. Ah, London. Where one experiences three seasons in three days: spring on Thursday, summer on Friday and now, back to winter. Gotta love it.

I returned from Berlin slightly lighter both in personal weight (6kg, thanks to my unintentional Toast diet) and in luggage, as I managed to leave my tiny, tiny rucksack on a tram while doing the WG shopping. Nothing hugely financially valuable but I cursed my own stupidity and the loss of my reporter's notebook. What is a journalist without a notebook? That hurt: two months of my precious notes vanished into the ether.

I didn't give up without a fight, naturally. I was on the phone to the BVG, the transport authority several times. I phoned my mobile (also in the rucksack) and left a hopeful message (actually one of my housemates did) in German and English, asking anyone who found said item to phone the house number.

And on my last day in Berlin, rather than visiting any one of the multitude of attractions I'd missed in the preceding six weeks, I did a tour of Berlin Fundbüros: firstly, the BVG, where I was asked various details I could not supply, such as the model number of the phone. The sight of the umbrellas hanging forlornly from hooks and the notice of an impending AUCTION of unclaimed items was sobering.

Then it was on to the S-bahn Fundstelle, which I found with some difficulty and then stood outside for ages while the one man on duty attended to a call from some other hopeful seeking a bag. Through the open door I could see what looked like a locker room of items, all tagged. When he did speak to me, he showed me two small bags and several phones but none was mine.

Lastly, it was off to the Zentrales Fundbüro, but, horrors, it was closed! I returned to my flat feeling a lack of closure: if only I could have visited the Zentrales Fundbüro....

Back in London my first day, what do I find in my email? "Found in Berlin".... Surely not. I was a bit suspicious. A neighbour of the emailer had found a backpack "somewhere in Berlin". It seemed too vague to be true. But I emailed back with some identifying info and hoped for the best.

And two days ago, a friend of mine in Berlin emailed to say she had collected the rucksack and all the items were intact. Amazingly, an older couple had found the rucksack on the tram, extracted my business card with my email address and asked their neighbour with Net access to email me to make contact. To them, a hearty "Vielen Dank". If I had cockles, they would be well and truly warmed.

My journalistic career is saved, faith in humanity restored, etc. ;)