February is always marked in bold on my calendar: the Berlinale Film Festival! I’m usually excited to vanish into Berlin, to bask in films, stretch my imagination, change my perceptions, and open new worlds. I meet film directors, actors, film distributors, and fellow journalists as we discuss politics, art, ideas, distribution, and technological developments in their industry. By the end of the festival, I always feel I’ve travelled the world for a mere 60 euros.
This year was different: we could view the opening Berlinale film in CinemaxX at Dammtor in Hamburg. An idea that could have materialized years ago, since retired Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick had once worked as managing director of the Hamburg Film Fund- Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein in the 1980s. Knowing that Kosslick was highly innovative, I wondered why he didn’t organize this earlier. The new team of directors, Carlo Chatrian; program coordinator, Petra Schierke; and head of programming, Mark Peranson, wanted to celebrate a new beginning. However, unexpected events drastically changed the ambiance. After attending the opening film, MY SALINGER YEAR, by French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, there was a moment of silent respect for the victims of the Hanau shootings; I had a sense of dread. Why are we watching a film on Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, who created a protagonist that inspired a lunatic to kill John Lennon? That feeling stayed with me as I boarded the train for Berlin a few days later. Perhaps it was the surreal, invasiveness of the coronavirus, on everyone’s mind as the pandemic slowly moved across the world. I also wondered how I’d maneuver within the festival, since I had no other option than to travel by subway. Looking back, I should be thankful that the festival had continued. But one of my biggest worries was my dog: – my husband had promised he’d be home, but he got stuck in Hong Kong. The Festival center had a container for baggage. A sign said they also took care of dogs. Wow, that’s a big plus! Could they really handle my large Rügen for the festival? Hmm…doubtful. I was thankful that he was safe back home with our favorite dog walker.
One evening I decided to walk to one of my favorite cinemas, the Friedrichstadtpalast, to see the Indian comedy EEB ALLAY OOO by Prateek Vats – exactly what I needed. The young unemployed Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) lacks every skill possible to get a job: no school diploma, no special talents; even worse was he lives with his pregnant sister’s family and needs to earn money to feed the family. His brother-in-law helps him land a government job as a professional “monkey repeller,” a job that really exists in India. Monkeys are considered sacred, ergo no one is allowed to kill, capture, or hurt them. Unfortunately, they are everywhere, particularly cavorting on the national monuments and where tourists congregate. His new job seems quite simple. All he has to do is mimic certain monkey sounds to repel them from the tourist sites and monuments. It’s hilarious to watch Anjani invent ways to discourage them and also overcome his fears. He tries posters of scary monkeys, tape recorders, and various costumes, but each time is hauled into the office and humiliated. The film also delivers a strong message about India’s right-wing politics of expelling or arresting ethnic groups, even though they have lived in India for generations. This surprised me.
I made several new friends. First was the archivist/film projectionist Thomas Pfeiffer from Hamburg’s Metropolis Kino who, while accidentally forgetting his hat, introduced me to Maura Dell-O’Mahony, who works for the University of Hamburg and is a regular festival attendee since 2011; she concentrates on the Retrospektive and the Berlinale Classics and managed to see 30 out of 34 films in these categories. That’s pretty amazing – considering that one venue, Potsdamer Platz, is a construction site, plus we had to travel all over the city to see the films on our schedules. At the next film site I handed Pfeiffer’s found hat to Maura, who was leaving to rush off to the next film. She, in turn, had lost her scarf. Ugggh! After “WhatsApp-ing,” we decided to meet several days later for yet another film and I’d return her lost-but-found scarf. Meanwhile, I lost my scarf in the theater after a children’s film but remembered that my friend Toby would be going to the film that followed and could collect it on her way out. After a couple of days we each got our own belongings back – super friends and no more items at the lost and found.
I had a lovely lunch with our own Ulrike Henn, who had come from Italy to Berlin to be near her daughter for the winter. A new friend was Alex Deleon, an elderly Jewish American gentleman who lives in a 5-star hotel in Armenia. He had written a wild, film festival book called "Looking for Fassbinder and Finding Divine." which takes us on an odyssey through film history from his point of view. He is one of the most the fascinating persons I’ve ever met and has definitely created a rarity, a must-have film cult book. Despite several attempts to fathom who he is and exactly his lifestyle, he remains a mystery. He sends me intriguing emails every so often, and makes me laugh. He was so interesting that I decided to buy his book to have a closer look at his views on many of the same films I’d seen.
After I saw the Israeli film THE VIEWING BOOTH by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, I had a long discussion on word bias and prejudices with my friend Oliver Bradley. Alexandrowicz creates a psychological laboratory experiment, taking a closer look at our flexibility to change our political opinions despite factual evidence that supports the opposite of how we had been raised politically. THE VIEWING BOOTH recounts an interaction between Alexandrowicz and a selected viewer, Maia Levy, an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. The film explores the ways in which we interpret the meanings of actual images, and how such images relate to our own beliefs. Alexandrowicz’s The Inner Tour (2001) and The Law in These Parts (2011) exposed differing aspects of the Israeli occupation. For years he compiled video footage depicting the harsh realities of Palestinian existence under Israeli military rule. He then showed this footage to American students, communicating with them with a microphone while noting their reactions. THE VIEWING BOOTH features Maia Levy. Six months later he invites Levy to watch the same footage, to see if her reactions are any different. Maia then watched footage of herself while she watched images of the occupation. Revealed in the process is a multi-layered, puzzling insight, baffling the viewer. Maia’s candid and reflective analysis of her previous commentary gives the viewer a staggering demonstration that seeing is not always believing. I wanted to see this experiment done with someone who is not Jewish or Palestinian, and see their reactions if they had no knowledge of the conflict. I definitely felt this was a missing aspect. I heard the director talk about his film, so he clearly tried to understand the viewers. How could he reach them? He felt that he was often misunderstood, and struggled with this. I felt I could understand him, since my Jewish friend Oliver also had many of these same biases. The conflict will always be there: the viewers hear and see what they want, not really absorbing what is being presented.
Another film focusing on biases and pre-conceived prejudices is Teboho Edkins’ DAYS OF CANNIBALISM, a contemporary view of the socio-economic situation in an emerging China-Africa relationship in the rural mountains of Lesotho. With the motto, “Khotso, Pula, Nala” (Peace-Rain-Prosperity), Lesotho was long a land of the Bastho people. Lesotho looks like it is straight out of a wild-west movie of men, horses and cattle, with majestic mountains as a backdrop. An impoverished agricultural state, the region has fallen prey to Chinese shopkeepers who not only have the money but the goods and are in control of the region. Edkins investigates the two groups, describing a clash on the brink of explosion. He exposes the capitalistic globalization, which is disabling the traditional ancestral social structure. Beautifully filmed, it never seems to take a stand. I felt no compassion for either side; something was missing. For me, more disturbing was Edkin’s own South African biases. At the end of the film he called up his large crew, mostly white male Europeans. When asked why there were no Asian or African crew members, his answer was lame, saying he was working in Europe, specifically the Netherlands, which made no sense. Missing was that he never really connected with the people of Lesotho.
By the end of the festival, I was ready to go home, feeling closed in, realizing that this pandemic was moving quickly and damaging much more than what was initially feared. People’s concerns and Angst – and the growing xenophobia – are certainly influencing the economic and political situation. It never occurred to me that these films would be the last I’d see on the big screen for a long time – thanks to ‘Corona with Love….’What I am praying for is that the festival in the upcoming years will not be filled with Corona-depressed based films. No hope, no comedy only thoughts of the end of the world. Let us not forget our optimism.