[This is the latest in a regular series of "First Person" articles written by members of the film community. It is meant to showcase the opinions of our readers. indieWIRE readers interested in contributing a future "First Person" column should contact us by email: office AT indiewire DOT com.]
Donald Rumsfeld would like you to believe that anyone who does not follow Bush-America's bold (reckless, damning) path towards a sanitized and nuance free future is stuck in some "old" world. As Rummy sees it, the center of that world is Europe, with Berlin and Paris serving as co-capitals. Predictably, I find him to be completely off the mark, but not necessarily because I find there to be a better path to the future in Europe at the moment. In fact, as the recent Paris riots have demonstrated, there is much work to be done to forge a viable plan for a peaceful and prosperous coexistence for ever-diversifying European populations. But I don't think that it is actually a European future-view that so offends Rumsfeld and the lot. In fact by labeling it "Old Europe", he flags a true divergence, and that has to do with having a real and active sense of history.
It's not only the neo-cons in America that have short memories, as this born and bred McGovern-leftie is reminded of constantly while viewing films in consideration for competition at the Berlinale. Americans tend to view (and make) films in the here-and-now, regardless of the historical context. Smart American artists have found a way through metaphor and beauty to bring our consciousness back to the complicated nature of our national origin. Terrence Malick's rapturous "The New World" (playing out-of-competition in Berlin), announces a sense of menace in its opening notes (with some help from Wagner), and while romanticized, does portray the corruption of one society for the benefit of another. And Robert Altman's spirited and nostalgic "A Prairie Home Companion" (in competition) focuses a deserved spotlight on the fading American liberalism that built and sustained the heartland. But much of what we are exposed to, especially in the independent film world, is either painfully hip (and instantly dated) or overly personal, or both. Refreshingly, the Berlinale challenges this, and does so with even greater vigor this year.
Many of the titles in the festival this year engage a keen sense of history in their narratives. Jasmila Zbanic's stunning competition feature "Grbavica", shocked me into the realization that the war in the former Yugoslavia was long ago enough for there to be children who were born during that conflict who are now teenagers . Annette K. Olesen's Panorama feature "1:1" tackles the complex legacy of European guest-worker programs. But perhaps most troubling for me as an American in Europe, is Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanamo" (screening in competition). What disturbed me most profoundly was the thought that a potential majority of Americans could watch this film and find no fault with the thought of U.S. run concentration camps. Perhaps it's the fact that they're on foreign soil that allows some to forget about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, or perhaps it's simply the well-oiled fear-machine that blinds them. This was not the case for my German colleagues, for whom even the thought that U.S. planes might be using German airfields en route to Cuba is a disgrace.
Berlin (the city and the festival) recognizes the best of its own history and continually infuses sexiness into its seriousness. Like a surgeon who loves strip poker or a psychoanalyst who likes to dance with her shirt off, Berlin's history as a forum for dissent and discussion would not be half as inviting if it were not for it's overt seductiveness and diversity. The festival will be celebrating twenty years of Teddy, the only queer film prize at an A-list festival. Teddy's impact has been profound, on me personally as a Teddy jury member at my first Berlinale, and on the world film scene having recognized the early work of such filmmakers as Pedro Almodovar, Rose Troche and Gus Van Sant. The complexities of straight relationships also come into focus in Berlin. Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish are intoxicating (and intoxicated) in "Candy", and Valeska Grisebach's cast of non-actors in the deceptively powerful "Sehnsucht" elicited some of the most lustful reactions in committee. My own sense of cinematic history was challenged by Jurgen Vogel's devastating portrayal of a serial rapist in "The Free Will". It was hard for me to let go of the idea that being the central character would not turn this "monster" into a "hero" (a la Frankenstein), which director Matthias Glasner skillfully avoids.
These are films that will have the best possible platform on the Berlinale red carpet, not merely because of the glam factor, but because they'll be seen by an audience that embraces complex characters and narratives, and knows that there's nothing interesting about being a part of the "new" world if it's not going to benefit from what was learned along the way.
[Rajendra Roy is a member of the selection committee for the Berlinale and director of programming at the Hamptons International Film Festival.]