By Brian Brooks | Indiewire February 12, 2011 at 8:58AM
Jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and the Coens' "True Grit" made headlines as the 2011 Berlinale opened, while the first wave of competition world premieres left mixed results.
The festival left an empty seat for jailed filmmaker Jafar Panahi who nevertheless is a juror at 61st Berlinale in absentia. Jury president Isabella Rossellini added her voice to mounting international outrage after a court in the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced him to six years in prison and spoke out for freedom of expression.
"It's important that every kind of film be made. If we only made film based on what the government said, then it would kill the art...Even if he's not here, he's a very big presence."
Opening night, of course, was the premiere of the Coens' "True Grit," which will open in theaters in Europe later this month. Apparently the film had been apparently slated as an International Premiere at the Berlinale, but the film opened in some non-North American territories prior to its red carpet launch in the German capital. Still, the event was a spectacle worthy of any festival premiere, with stars Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld along with Ethan and Joel Coen turning up for the red carpet. "True Grit" marks itself as the Coen brothers' biggest hit in the U.S. Earlier in the day, Bridges howled out "Yee-haw!" during the official photo call and commented about the film's success back home.
"I think people are getting hip to how great of filmmakers that [the Coens] really are."
With the opening festivities over, the traditional throngs of press and industry headed to the initial slate of competition films as the weekend got underway. J.C. Chandor's "Margin Call" had its international debut in pursuit of the Berlinale's highest prize, the Golden Bear, following its world premiere at Sundance (where it was one of the first of many acquisitions in Park City last month.
The Berlinale competition, however, had its own slew of world premieres in the first half of the weekend, including first-time feature filmmaker Paula Markovitch's "El Premio" (The Prize). In part autobiographical, the story is set in an isolated Argentine beach community a long distance from Buenos Aires. A young mother and her seven year-old daughter live in a shack just steps from the ocean. The mother attempts to create some normalcy for her daughter, but it quickly becomes evident as the movie progresses that she's fleeing the authorities. She's fearful that her husband is dead and frequently recalls her missing cousin, who has joined the country's list of "disappeared" - people who have run afoul of Argentina's military dictatorship. Her daughter, Cecilia, eventually goes to the local school but is told not to reveal anything. One day, however, soldiers show up in her class to sponsor an essay contest extolling the virtues of the army and her natural writing talents compromise the anonymity of her words.
"I was aware I wanted to write from an early age and this film is very autobiographical," noted Markovitch following the film's screening. "This film is about real memories. Dictatorship of course destroys lives, but it also destroys art."
The timing of "El Premio"'s premiere could not have been better placed as every news network had its cameras turned to Cairo where Hosni Mubarak said he wouldn't resign, but then promptly left office the next day. "The festival should throw an Egyptian party," one veteran of the festival offered up.
Germany offered up one of its productions Saturday with immigrant story, "Almanya - Willkommen in Deutschland" by Yasemin Samdereli. Rittled with cliché and with cultural and generational disjointedness, there were audible sniffles from the large audience in the cavernous Berlinale Palast, right on cue. The film centers on a "Gastarbeiter" - or guest worker - who came to Germany in the mid '60s as the country's post-war economic miracle lured thousands from southern Europe and beyond.
Huseyin Yilmaz, now in his 70s and the family patriarch of three generations of Turkish-Germans, announces to his family that he's bought a house in his homeland and insists his children and grandchildren take a family vacation to renovate the new abode. As the family heads off to Turkey, granddaughter Canan discovers she is pregnant from her English boyfriend whom the family has not met. Meanwhile, she tries to comfort her six-year old cousin, Cenk, who has been bullied at school for being a "foreigner" by telling him the story of how the family ended up in Germany. Her story recalls images of her gandparents' move to Germany and the inevitable culture shock that ensued - pork-filled German cuisine, dogs as pets, scantily clad women, Christmas and a religion centered on a man hanging from a cross, which frightens the children.
Samdereli and fellow co-writer Nesrin Samdereli noted that they incorporated many of their childhood memories into the film, including their jealousy over Christmas after coming to Germany and added that they hope the film adds to the discussion of how non-Germans place in the country's framework - a discussion that is perhaps universal.
Saturday also brought a near rambunctious crowd to the festival's Cinemaxx Theatre in the heart of Potsdamerplatz for the press screening of Victoria Mahoney's "Yelling to the Sky," which is having its world premiere in competition.
For all of Germany's stereotypical adherence to efficiency and orderliness, crowd control - at least at the Berlinale - is a glaring exception. A late screening earlier in the venue left hundreds of people pushing to get into "Yelling to the Sky" after smothering in a mass of humanity outside the theater doors while passholders yelled at staff in German and English. Once inside, and the film began, the exodus out of the theater may not have been nearly the stampede getting in, but it was a consistent flow.
Starring Zoe Kravitz, Yolanda Ross and Gabourey Sidibe, the film centers on high schooler Sweetness O'Hara (Kravitz) who lives with an abusive father at home and is the victim of a gang of hoodlums at school. Her older sister comes to her rescue after her rival Latonya (Sidibe) beats her to the ground, but after her sister and mother leave home, Sweetness learns to fend for herself. Through power of will, she turns the situation on its head and publicly beats Latonya into submission at school. She then rides the wave of becoming a neighborhood badass, but she confronts her new path into hooliganism after her mother and sister return.
"It's semi autobiographical," said director Victoria Mahoney following the screening Saturday. "I grew up with women who were so strong and so powerful and yet so frail and vulnerable."
Though the film's story obviously depicts a rough crowd not entirely unfamiliar with inner-city gang areas, Kravitz said that the story is nevertheless one that could be relatable to most people her age despite background. "I grew up and felt isolated and alone, so I could feel the pain [my character] felt, though my circumstances were very different from Sweetness - I was very blessed."
"The similarity between this and 'Precious' is that it's not trying to make you like it. It's a slice of life," added Gabourey Sidibe referring to her breakout in Lee Daniels' "Precious" in which she played the title role. "It's not like what Hollywood produces. Everything that is true and real comes out of independent films like this one. My life never looked like Hollywood."