Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Berlin and Beyond 2009 Preview
"When I left Havana, nobody saw me but me."
And so begins the most oft-recorded song in the history of music – Sebastián de Iradier's ode to desire, wanderlust and melancholy – "La Paloma." Composed in Spanish Basque country in the 1860s, the melody has been adapted by scores of countries and cultures over the past century and a half. Over 2,000 recorded versions are known to exist, which is the subject of Sigrid Faltin's lovely bit of movie musicology, La Paloma – Longing Worldwide, my favorite of the films previewed for this year's Berlin & Beyond film festival.
The documentary begins, appropriately enough, at the Havana Music Museum, with a version played on an enormous 19th century music box that belonged to the wife of poet/writer/revolutionary José Martí. From Cuba, the song's popularity quickly spread to Mexico, where it became the beloved favorite of Emperor Maximilian. The film features some choice clips from William Dieterle's 1939 film Juarez, including Bette Davis' Empress Carlotta on a Chapultepec Castle balcony, listening wistfully as the tune drifts through the night air. Flash forward to contemporary Mexico, where "La Paloma" has become a rousing nationalist anthem decrying election fraud and social injustice, as interpreted by singer Eugenia Léon.
The film's globe-trotting continues with stops in Hawaii (Elvis crooning his version titled "No More"), Germany (as performed by a concentration camp combo known as the Ghetto Swingers) and Romania, where the song has become a brass band funeral dirge. The most distinctive interpretation is discovered in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where it's traditionally sung at the end of weddings to wish the bride, groom and all their guests farewell. Sung in Swahili and set to a swaying Orientalist rhythm, it contains these two wonderful closing lines: "Forgive those who said anything nasty. Nobody should be offended or sad."
"La Paloma makes you open up and feel yourself. It's the great song of life," proclaims one interviewee – a sentiment this documentary does a nice job of affirming. For those who aren't sure how the melody of "La Paloma" goes, I offer a clip from 1961's Blue Hawaii. La Paloma – Longing Worldwide contains an Elvis clip, but it's big-haired, bell-bottomed jumpsuit Elvis. This is Elvis in a pair of white swim trunks crooning alongside a quartet of bongo-playing beachcombers. Incidentally, the film's website is also well worth a look. Among other things, you can watch the trailer, listen to song clips, read translated lyrics and even download a "La Paloma" ringtone.
Another Berlin & Beyond documentary I thoroughly enjoyed was David Assmann and Ayat Najafi's Football Under Cover. This rousing film documents a frustrating, but ultimately fruitful endeavor to stage an all-female soccer match in Tehran between an amateur Berlin team and the Iranian national women's team. Right at the start, the organizers are told that in Iran, "nothing is possible and everything is possible," a dictum that holds true right up until game day. It takes a year of bureaucratic hoop-jumping to make the event happen, during which time the filmmakers shoot a series of poignant team member portraits. Most memorable of these is Niloufar, a David Beckham-obsessed young Iranian woman who prides in her ability to masquerade as a boy in order to clandestinely practice soccer in a public park. In one of the film's few ominous moments, she's mysteriously cut from the team at the 11th hour.
Game day arrives and the German team struggles with their cumbersome, skin-covering uniforms. As only women are permitted into the stadium, the film's two male directors are thrown out and forced to watch through a crack in the fence. (The film would make a great double bill with Jafar Panahi's Offside, about a group of girls who run afoul of the law when they sneak into a soccer stadium disguised as boys). Freed from the glare of patriarchal oppression, the jubilant Iranian spectators get loose and rowdy, cheering their team with shouts, chants and dancing. It's really a thrill to watch. At half time they're reprimanded over the loudspeakers, and reminded that anyone whose veil is askew will be removed by the "moral guardians" patrolling the crowd. "If you want to dance, go to a disco." As if… These admonishments only makes the crowd more agitated, and they start chanting in unison, "We women only have half the rights!" Fortunately, no one appears to get hauled off to jail, and the game's final score is a diplomatic 2 – 2.
As with all the films at Berlin & Beyond, Football Under Cover only gets one screening during the week-long festival, and it's at the unfortunate time of 12 noon on a Wednesday. If you can take a long lunch, I'm confident it would be worth your while. If not, the trailer below offers a small taste. Finally, it's interesting to note that this film won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at last year's Berlin Film Festival. The award is given to films of LGBT interest, and unless I missed something, the queer connection to Football Under Cover is strictly a presumptive one.
I previewed five narrative features in the Berlin & Beyond line-up and my clear favorite was Dennis Gansel's pop political allegory The Wave. Inspired by a 1967 Palo Alto high school social experiment in autocracy, the film considers the question, "Is fascist dictatorship within the realm of possibilities for modern day Germany?" A week-long autocracy class is taught by the coolest teacher in school, Mr. Wenger (we know he's cool because he wears a Ramones t-shirt, lives on a houseboat and has a Fuck Bush sticker on his mailbox). By mid-week he's goaded his class into adopting a group uniform and salute, and stands by as they ostracize those who refuse to conform. They name their movement The Wave and spread their message via a MySpace page. (Mr. Wenger also coaches the school's water polo team, whose dynamics parallel the classroom autocracy theme). Needless to say, by week's end the experiment gets completely and somewhat ludicrously out of hand. It's all a bit much, but I was never less than fully engaged by the films tight script, energetic direction and attractive cast.
In Micha Lewinsky's sweetly unsettling The Friend, a sad-eyed, milquetoast-y young man is asked to be the pretend boyfriend of a rocker chick he's secretly in love with. When she kills herself by electric shock (she removes the ground wire of her guitar amp), he surprisingly finds himself able to comfort the girl's family in his own odd, unassuming way. This leads to a new assertiveness, a new girlfriend (the dead girl's sister) and a new ability to stand up to his passive/aggressive mother. The Friend tells an uncommon tale of how the dead can sometimes bestow the gift of life upon the living. This is Switzerland's submission for 2008's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and director Lewinsky has won the festival's MK Award for Best First Feature.
Cross cultural misunderstandings as they pertain to courtship and marriage is the leitmotif for Sinan Akkus' lightly comic Evet, I Do! In four tangentially connected storylines, four couples find their love lives in conflict. A German man wants to marry his Turkish girlfriend, but must first convert to Islam and be circumcised. A Kurdish radio DJ and his Turkish on-air partner find their respective orthodox and secular families at war with each other. A gay Turkish car mechanic has a German boyfriend, but his parents have set up an arranged marriage. And finally, a poor Turkish immigrant needs to secure a green-card marriage, but the prospective bride is hardly the one of his dreams (and he's no prize himself). Not particularly great stuff, but agreeable and reasonably entertaining nonetheless. The same can almost be said for André Erkau's Come In and Burn Out, a comedy or sorts about misfits working in a new-economy call center. Some of the characters are interesting, but their individual, disparate storylines are strained and fail to integrate into any kind of meaningful whole.
Last and least we have Wim Wenders' Palermo Shooting, a film that was universally reviled when it premiered last year at Cannes. Variety's Todd McCarthy pretty much summed it up when he called it "both pretentious and inconsequential." 20 minutes have been excised from the Cannes edit for this, the film's U.S. premiere, but to little effect. German pop singer Campino stands in as the director's alter-ego, an "art" photographer suffering some kind of spiritual crisis as the result of too many soul-destroying fashion shoots. At the urging of a very pregnant Milla Jovovich (playing herself), he travels to Sicily where he's hounded by a bow-and-arrow shooting apparition of Death (Dennis Hopper). Loaded with clunky dialogue and voiceovers of the protagonist's tortured inner musings, the film is borderline it's-so-bad-it's-good. The best thing I can say is that it's beautifully shot and will look spectacular on the Castro Theater's huge screen (which is where I caught the press screening). But it's truly unfortunate that Wenders is coming to San Francisco for a tribute and this is the film that will accompany him.
As per usual, I've saved the films I'm most anticipating for a big-screen experience at the festival proper. These include Revanche, Jerichow and Cloud 9, which I briefly described in my Berlin & Beyond line-up post. I'm also hoping to catch the new 35mm print of Wenders' 1976 New German Cinema classic, Kings of the Road, as well as the English language version of Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. Also as per usual, Berlin & Beyond is bringing quite a number of filmmakers to the festival, including the directors of Cloud 9, Evet, I Do!, Football Under Cover and The Friend. Legendary German actress Barbara Sukowa will also make the trip with her latest film, The Invention of Curried Sausage. Another special guest is former Palo Alto high school teacher Ron Jones, whose story inspired The Wave.