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54th Berlinale: The Award-Winning Films
by Mary Nyiri

Golden Bear Award for Best Film: Gegen die Wand (Head-On)

At forty years old, Cahit (Birol Ünel) is self-destructing after the loss of his wife. An attempted suicide lands him in a psychiatric clinic where his only desire is to find a beer. His doctor’s advice: “You can put an end to your life without killing yourself.” But what kind of new life is there for this broken drunk?

At the clinic Cahit is approached by a lovely young twenty-year-old Turkish-German woman called Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who has apparently also tried suicide. She pounces on Cahit whom she recognizes as Turkish, even if he was born in Germany. Sibel believes the only way out of what she perceives to be a prison created by her conservative, devout Muslim family is to marry. And she sees Cahit as the key.

After much cajoling, Cahit agrees to marry Sibel, perhaps thinking that at least he can save one life. But is it his life or hers? Cahit tragi-comically plays the part of a decent Turkish man, stumbling over the language, in order to obtain the approval of Sibel’s family for their engagement. At their wedding they drink themselves silly. But Sibel spends their wedding night elsewhere, already taking advantage of what she sees as her new-found freedom. Cahit continues to drink himself into oblivion every night. Sibel cleans up their apartment, cooks a bit but mostly parties hard, easily and often picking up men for the night. Eventually, Cahit begins to realize that he is attracted to Sibel. He tries to straighten up and have her take notice. Sibel begins to feel something more for Cahit. They almost have sex. But before they have the chance to really explore their growing feelings for each other, a drunk and jealous Cahit is goaded by one of Sibel’s lovers and in a fit of rage, accidentally kills him with a blow to the head. Instead of enjoying the romantic evening planned by Sibel, Cahit goes to jail. Sibel vows to stand by her man but leaves for Turkey to find work. Now in a different prison of her own making, she drinks herself sick until one evening she too falls prey in a drunken battle that leaves her bleeding and broken on a back street in Istanbul.

Director/Screenwriter Fatih Akin draws upon some of his own experiences for this highly charged, very emotional love story. A Turkish girl had once asked him to enter into a sham marriage with her. But he was also inspired by Ünel with whom he has worked before. Akin admires Ünel but remarks, “He celebrates self-destruction, like Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. The role of the ‘lost soul’ Cahit was closely adapted to Birol – even though it contains many of my own longings and my desires to break through the norms.” But perhaps most surprising is that Sibel Kekilli was literally picked up at the shopping mall. During the casting, they all began to realize that there were not very many young women who are fluent in Turkish who are also willing to take their clothes off in front of a camera. Kekilli was spotted by a casting agent and beat out 350 other women at casting sessions. Both actors are phenomenal. The final result is that what was originally envisioned as a comedy morphed into an incredibly well-done, emotionally explosive film of self-healing.

In addition to winning Best Film, Gegen die Wand also received the International Film Critic Award (FIPRESCI Prise). (Mary Nyiri)

Jury Grand Prix – Silver Bear Award and Silver Bear Award to Daniel Hendler for Best Actor: El Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace)

Argentinian director Daniel Burman tells the story of Ariel (Daniel Hendler), a twenty-something Jew whose grandparents came to Argentina from Poland to escape the Holocaust. Ariel’s life is centered around a small shopping center in Buenos Aires where his mother runs a lingerie shop and his brother has an import-export business. Although he feels comfortable there, he senses that his future prospects are limited, so he hopes to get a Polish passport using his grandmother’s documents and to go to Europe. But ultimately, his search for his roots just brings up more questions about his father, who left the family to fight for Israel shortly after Ariel was born. When his father finally returns, Ariel learns more about his father . . . and himself.

El Abrazo is an entertaining (though slow at times) film that studies what makes up a person’s identity – the stories, experiences, truths, and even lies. As director Burman says, “Ariel . . . lives within a confusing and decadent environment, where everything he knows keeps changing into something else. In this process of transformation, many people look back to their origins.” The film also explores the melding of cultures and its impact on our understanding of and outlook on life. (Kirsten Greco)

Silver Bear Award to Catalina Sandino Moreno for Best Actress and the Alfred Bauer Prize (awarded in memory of the Berlinale’s founder) for a work of particular innovation: María, llena eres de gracia (Maria Full of Grace)

At just seventeen, Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) wants to live life to the fullest but finds herself stifled by her family and her job in a small town north of Bogotá. She works with her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paolo Vega) stripping thorns from hundreds of roses to prepare them for bouquets for export. It is the only work in town with just weekend dance parties to break the tedium. Her boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) is more interested in hanging out on the sidelines than salsa dancing with Maria. At home Maria must give her hard earned money to her mother for the care of her sister and new baby.

The tedium at work combined with ridiculous rules that dictate even how often Maria can use the bathroom drives Maria mad. Feeling nauseated, she asks again to be excused but her boss just screams at her as she upchucks all over the beautiful red roses. When told she will have to pay for the damage, she quits to the great dismay of her family. What they don’t know is that Maria is pregnant. When Maria tells Juan about their baby, he offers to marry her but it is clear that he does so more out of obligation than love. Instead, Maria decides to find work in Bogotá. On the way there, she meets again a handsome drifter, Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), who offers Maria work that pays well and lets her travel. Maria decides to accept the cash, agreeing to become a mule and transport heroine to New York in her stomach. She meets another experienced mule, Lucy (Guilied Lòpez), who provides some training tips: how to dress, how to swallow whole grapes to prepare for the heroine pellets, how to act. Even though Maria learns that she will die if one of the pellets breaks open, she still agrees to the deal convinced that the money is the solution to all of her problems and a way to live the exciting life she craves.

Getting ready to leave, Maria is shocked to find out that Blanca, too, has accepted work as a mule. Maria, Lucy, Blanca and another woman all take the same flight to New York. The trip begins badly when it becomes apparent that Lucy is sick, showing signs that one of the heroine pellets has burst. Upon arrival in New York, the fourth woman is arrested and Maria is taken aside for questioning. Only Maria’s pregnancy saves her from the x-ray that would have revealed her cargo, and she is reluctantly released. The three girls then go together to the dealer for the humiliating process of delivering their drugs and getting the cash. But serious problems are only just beginning.

Director Joshua Marston lives in Brooklyn, which is home to many Columbian immigrants. Although his film is fiction, he draws upon stories that he has heard from Columbians about their lives before in Columbia and now in New York. He had heard of drug mules, but wanted to better understand their motivation and the process, so he spoke with many mules serving prison sentences and with Customs officials at Kennedy Airport. Although it was easy to find out how drugs were transported, understanding why people agreed to risk their lives in trafficking was much more complex. Through his research he met Columbian Orlando Tobón, a leader in the community who has tried to help mules and their families for over 25 years. Tobón inspired the character Don Fernando and in fact plays the character himself. Tobón has arranged to ship well over 400 bodies back to Columbia. All together the characters of this moving drama reveal some of the compelling dilemmas faced by young people, ostensibly searching for a better life, caught up in circumstances they can no longer control. (Mary Nyiri)

A Silver Bear was also awarded to Charlize Theron for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. See the review here in the article Made in the USA.

Silver Bear Award to Kim Ki-Duk for Best Director: Samaria (Samaritan Girl)

School girl Yeo-Jin (Kwak Ji-Min) is not quite twenty and lives with her widowed father, Young-gi (Lee Uhl), a policeman. Her best school friend is Jae-Young (Seo Min-Jung), a lovely happy-go-lucky girl who earns money as a prostitute with Yeo-Jin acting as her pimp and money manager. The two girls are trying to earn enough money for a trip to Europe.

Jae-Young starts getting too close to one her customers. She talks to Yeo-Jin about him while they are bathing each other after one of Jae-Young’s tricks. Jae-Young agrees to stop seeing him. Then one day Jae-Young meets a customer while Yeo-Jin keeps a lookout. As police rush the building, Yeo-Jin tries to call but is too late. Jae-Young, clad only in her underwear, perches on the windowsill, two floors up. To the horror of Yeo-Jin, Jae-Young jumps. She is taken to the hospital where it is clear she is about to die from her injuries. Her last request is to see, once more, the client with whom she had begun to feel close. Reluctantly, Yeo-Jin agrees to fetch him, but he refuses to visit unless Yeo-Jin agrees to have sex with him. By the time they are finished and return to the hospital, Jae-Young is dead.

Yeo-Jin begins having sex with Jae-Young’s customers and then returning the money that they had paid to her. Most seem to regret what they did. Unfortunately, Young-gi accidentally sees Yeo-Jin with one of the clients. He is shocked to find his daughter working as a prostitute and becomes obsessed with following her and punishing the johns. One time he goes too far and in a rage beats the man to death. When Yeo-Jin returns home, Young-gi suggests they take a trip to the country where they visit the gravesite of her mother. A kind of cleansing for them both takes place. Young-gi decides to face up to his actions and calls the police.

Director Kim Ki-Duk was praised for his prior film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. He explains that Samaria is “…very quiet and includes forgiveness and understanding, similar to what was intended in Spring…” His direction is very subtle, choosing not to show explicit sex: “I generally excluded the sex scenes and just expressed them through nuance. I wanted to remove any sensationalism. This is important. People try to stir up controversy by showing instead of feeling, such as in cruel sex scenes where middle-aged men inflict pain on girls…This rather becomes a distraction and unimportant when delivering a fresh theme.” With his thoughtful direction which won him the Silver Bear, Samaria addresses many conflicting and complex emotions between two friends and a father and daughter. Kim Ki-Duk muses: “Being within a countless number of people like a flock of fish, we’re being swept along here and there, so our ability to judge what’s right or wrong gradually grows faint.” (Mary Nyiri)

Silver Bear Award to the Entire Ensemble for Outstanding Artistic Contribution and AGICOA’s Blue Angel Award for the Best European Film: Om Jag Vänder Mig Om (Daybreak)

Swedish director Björn Runge pre-sents three loosely intertwined stories of people whose lives all come to a head in one 24-hour period. One story involves Agnes (Pernilla August) and Rickard (Jakob Eklund), a long-married couple with two sons whose lives seem perfect. Rickard is a successful workaholic surgeon who has just landed a promotion in another part of Sweden, sadly requiring them to sell their gorgeous house with sweeping lakeside views. The second story is about Anders (Magnus Krepper), a bricklayer who works hard to provide money for his wife and daughter, but often gets that money from semi-legal jobs. The final story involves Anita (Ann Petrén), a woman whose husband of many years married a woman 25 years his junior and who is fighting her way back from a breakdown that she suffered as a result. In this one fateful day, Rickard loses his new job, Agnes discovers that Rickard has been committing adultery, Anders takes a job that involves locking an elderly couple in their home by bricking up all their doors and windows, and Anita decides to finally confront her ex-husband and his new wife. Naturally, all of these events have catastrophic effects and change all of the characters forever.

I must admit that I’m not sure why this film won a Silver Bear for artistic contribution. Although the acting was good, the film was rather slow and very depressing, and I didn’t think it was particularly artistically striking. This film did win many awards in Sweden, perhaps because the actors are well-known for playing certain types of roles, and they were playing against type in this film. However, for your average non-Swedish viewer, the film simply presents several characters who are either very unlikeable or are complete victims, and though they all do learn some life lessons, by the time they do, we really don’t care anymore. (Kirsten Greco)