SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS BERLINALE 2009
TATARAK (SWEET RUSH)
WINTERSTILTE (WINTER SILENCE)
(Germany, 2009, d. Hans- Christian Schmid. Berlin Competition)
Topical, tense, alarming. And winner of the Amnesty International award.
The Balkan wars of the 1990s (repeats of centuries-long conflicts and heightened in the 20th century with the breaking up of the former Yugoslavia and the demands of independence) took their toll in the Balkan Peninsula and beyond Europe to further parts of the world like Australia where Serbs and Croats and others had migrated, their wars migrating with them.
Wounds may have seemed to have been healed but the scars need only to be scratched.
The United Nations established the International Court in The Hague to investigate war crimes. President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevich, died before his trial was completed. As production began on Storm in August 2008, Radhovan Karetich of Bosnia was apprehended and extradited to The Hague.
Storm is definitely topical.
The film opens with a happy family playing on a Spanish beach. But, the father is soon apprehended and arrested. He is Bosnian Serb, General Duric. Three years later, his trial is under way and the legal teams, prosecution, defence, investigators, administrators, judges are working on the final phase of the trial only to have hopes of a conviction dashed because of faulty evidence, the falsity verified by the court visiting the site of the alleged incident and Duric's guilt.
The new prosecutor, tough in her manner, legal know-how and justice idealism, Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox) who may be resenting her not being promoted of colleague, Keith (Stephen Dillane) goes into court and finds her case collapsing. At the same time she is in a relationship with a top-ranking negotiator for the Balkan countries to enter the European Union. She is a determined woman and her shrewdness leads her on an investigation of her witness' sister and the name of a remote place visited by the witness. Now a luxury hotel, it was a government owned facility, and the new owner uses strong arm tactics on her and the sister to convince her and the UN officials not to investigate.
Storm works on many levels. The human drama of Hannah's interactions with the sister, Mira (Anamaria Marinca) and Mira's being subjected to violent harassment ensures an emotional involvement. The political drama of how the court works, the compromises, the influence of broader factors (applications to join the EU and economic considerations) complicate the human drama.
The justice drama of courts hamstrung by legal minutiae and deals will probably affect those who take matters personally while those of a more objective perspective will be persuaded by 'bigger picture' arguments.
Filmed in Bosnia, Berlin and The Hague, the film looks and sounds authentic. It also means that these stories need telling and telling widely.
(Director Hans- Christian Schmid made Requiem, the story of the Bavarian girl possessed by the devil in 1976 and her exorcism process.)
TATARAK (SWEET RUSH)
(Poland, 2009, d. Andrej Wajda. Competition)
Veteran Polish director, Andrej Wajda, has made many films since the 1950s, is now in his 80s. His vision is a touch melancholic, focused on illness and death, but his directorial skill is still very much alive.
This brief film has two stories in one. Adapting a short story by Krystina Janda about her cinematographer husband's terminal cancer and death, he has Janda herself present this memoir in a dramatic monologue. It is intercut into the film within the film, based on quite a different short story, in which she is playing the role of a middle-aged woman, a doctor's wife in a small town, who is charmed by a young man.
The title of the film in English is 'Sweet Rush'. It could be interpreted as the sweet rush of infatuated love the woman feels. However, it is the name of a water reed whose stems are used as decoration at the beginning of summer, at Pentecost, because of its distinctive odour.
As well, there is a 'realistic' scene as the actress becomes upset during the filming of a sequence where the young man is swimming with a bunch of sweet rush and gets into difficulties. The actress flees the location as the town now teems with rain.
Wajda has his character contemplate illness, time passing and death and the film, though brief and well-acted by Krystina Janda, is often moving.
(France, 2009, d. Philippe Loiret. Berlin Panorama).
A film to be welcomed (and winner of an Ecumenical Jury award in Berlin, 2009).
Xenophobia, whether racially or economically motivated (or both), is an emotional (and irrational) disease that corrodes individuals and societies.
The wars, revolutions and persecutions that marked the 20th century still take their toll. On the other hand, the greater social awareness which the often (justly) maligned media can take a great deal of credit for, means that the phobias can be identified more readily as they surface and can be combated.
Welcome is a helpful contribution to this kind of awareness, especially in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent upheaval in that country and in the region. Welcome is obviously an ironic title.
Director, Philippe Loiret, says he opted for a feature film fiction rather than a documentary, even though there is much documentary material throughout the film. It concerns young Iraqi men and boys trudging and getting lifts through Europe to Calais and their so often futile attempts to pay their way and hid in stringently examined trucks to cross the Channel to England.
The French, concerned for years about the retention camps on the coast and refugees' attempts to hide under the Eurostar, have a special force to police solely for the illegals. And illegal it is for local citizens to shelter the refugees and they too are policed as are the volunteers staffing soup kitchens.
This is all there in Welcome.
The fictional narrative focuses on a 17 year old Kurd, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), who wants to reach England to be with his girlfriend whose family are legal residents in London. Joining the group at Calais, he assumes that it is easy enough (with a fee to a 'handler') to cross to England. Not so.
An athlete and hoping to play for Manchester United, he decides he will swim the Channel and goes to a local pool for lessons. He meets the coach, Simon (Vincent Lindon) who has been a swimming champion but did not reach full potential. He still loves his wife (a soup kitchen manager who chides him about his head in the sand attitudes towards the illegals) who is divorcing him.
The story is emotionally powerful as Simon keeps helping the very polite Bilal, is questioned by the police and finds in Bilal a substitute for the son he never had.
The rest of the film is not easy, as it never could be. At one sad moment, the audience audibly sobbed so much had the characters gotten to them.
A hope would be that Welcome, while not solving any political or economic problems, would get to audience humanity and sense of compassion.
WINTERSTILTE (WINTER SILENCE)
(Holland, 2009, d. Sonja Wyss. Berlin Forum)
It is somewhat odd that a director from the flattest of lands, Holland, should make a film about life in remote, wintry German mountains.
This is a 70 minute docudrama, virtually no dialogue, though Ave Maria is sung and one daughter murmurs the rosary.
The beautiful cinematography is poetic: mountains, clouds, sky, sun emerging, night... The moods of the day and night reflect the grief at the father's death in a mountain fall but the main focus is on a mother and her four adult daughters. Life seems ordinary (details of washing and hanging it out to dry, dough kneading...) but when mysterious men visit the village there is a night of release of repression. Sounds in one sequence indicate that the mother is involved in miscarriage activity and she tosses a bundle from the bridge, finishing with putting some shavings from the base of a statue of Mary in water for one of the daughters to drink.
No explanations. The director relies on audience knowledge and interpretation.