At a Berlinale notable for its predictability, one incident above all sticks in the memory: before the opening credits rolled on the Turkish competition entry “Our Grand Despair,” a screen emblazoned with the words FREE JAFAR PANAHI AND MOHAMMAD RASOULOF appeared, and in my seat I braced myself, anticipating the thunderous ovation, the stamping and shouting to come.
But to my surprise, it never did. Instead, there was a beat of silence – and then, after one man or woman high in the balcony began clapping loudly (so loudly, in fact, as to seem almost defiant), there was a short, sparse ripple of applause from the stalls, polite rather than impassioned. Then silence again. A moment later the title appeared, and the film began.
I spoke to some friends after the screening, and found them as baffled as myself. Did the majority of people not care about Panahi’s imprisonment as much as we’d been led to believe? Had they realized their powerlessness to affect events? Or were they simply bored by the whole thing? Like some Lacanian phantom, a signifier even in absence, Panahi was both everywhere and nowhere at this festival. On the jury . . . except, not. His four features appearing in various strands of the program. His name (Rasoulof’s, you soon noticed, not so much) repeated in press releases and interviews by seemingly anyone of note, from Dieter Kosslick on down.
“The Berlin International Film Festival protests …” Well, for Cannes or Berlin to say something makes a certain sense – their standing in the industry, their history of premiering new Iranian work, practically demands a response. But the sight of B and C-grade festivals lining up, one by one, to shake their little fists, seemed to me, and a number of others, faddish and vaguely superficial. If a trade embargo by the White House had not halted Iran’s nuclear program, the realist in me found it difficult to imagine that howls of outrage from a couple of dozen film buffs would do anything to secure two filmmakers’ release from prison – beyond, of course, giving said buffs the satisfaction that they had, at least for a moment, been on the side of the angels.
(Imagine the scene: Ahmadinejad in his office, surrounded by some stones yet to be thrown, and the heaped ashes of books he’s never read. Perhaps even a poster on the wall: NO ISRAEL, KNOW PEACE. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and the arrival of a panicked-looking aide: “Sir! Sir! The Sydney Film Festival has demanded the release of Jafar Panahi!” “Hmm. Sydney, eh?” “And they say Vancouver will be next!” “Holy shit! Well, then I guess we’ve got no choice. Better order him a taxi.”)
That is to say: there comes a point when protest stops being effective, and becomes merely tokenistic and self-congratulatory, a Thing To Do. Like giving the beggar on the subway a coin in order to feel reassured by one’s own goodness. The short-term gesture is founded on the assumption that enough coins, from enough like-minded people, will transform his life; in fact, as we well know, it will take much more than that. It requires sustained assistance, an examination of root causes, a strategy and infrastructure. But those deeper issues fail to trouble us as we walk away, warmed by the glow of our own righteousness.
Which brings me to Asghar Farhadi – and “Nader and Simin: A Separation”, the Iranian competition entry, a film that for various reasons, none too difficult to adduce, seemed to have a lock on the main award here even before the festival began. (No exaggeration: as I stood in line in the press room to collect my badge, I overheard two journalists discussing how the film would win the Golden Bear. Had they seen it? No. Had anyone? Outside the Berlinale selection committee, apparently not. So why, I wondered, was its victory not only assured, but such common knowledge?)
Berlin has always prided itself on being a “political” festival, the legacy of its foundation, in the crucible of the Cold War. And by leaving a chair vacant on the jury for Panahi this year – a showy piece of political vaudeville – the organizers guaranteed that his fate, and the whole Iranian Question, would loom large in the deliberations. As indeed it did: in the end the film walked off, not only with the Golden Bear it was apparently owed simply for turning up, but also with ensemble awards for Best Actor and Best Actress. (Seriously? Better than Vanessa Redgrave in “Coriolanus”?) Clearly, a message was being sent.
Take this to its logical extreme, and we might conclude that those who will benefit the most from Panahi and Rasoulof’s continued detention, are their fellow Iranian filmmakers. Whose careers will continue to thrive, so long as their compatriots continue to be deprived of liberty.
I’m not dismissing Farhadi’s film per se, which is actually very good. It’s smartly directed and well-acted, the work of a filmmaker with a distinct style and a readily-identifiable set of concerns. Personally, I happen to think there were better works in Competition – Tarr’s “The Turin Horse”, Koehler’s “Sleeping Sickness” – but this is, like all preferences, a subjective opinion rather than an empirical fact. We can debate the superiority of one movie to another endlessly; that’s not my point. I just wonder why, if the outcome was such a foregone conclusion, we bothered with the pretence of a Competition at all.
Critics, too, I noticed, kept praising the film less for what it did, than for what it represented. Like his previous film, “About Elly” (which won Best Director here in 2008), it was hailed for the fact that it showed us something hitherto under-depicted onscreen: urban, middle-class Iranians, living in horribly- but extravagantly-decorated apartments in Tehran, rather than blind, balloon-carrying children in the desert.
That Iran has an educated middle-class would seem, on the face of it, to be news only to the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck; nevertheless, the film was acclaimed for bringing us this “startling new perspective” on life in the Middle East. Anything which challenges the monolithic image of a culture is obviously of interest. But acknowledging its novelty isn’t the same thing as engaging with the actual work. And I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that, had it been from anywhere else, its virtues might have been slightly less noteworthy, and its victory less inevitable.
Finally, on a lighter note, let’s hear it for the children. And specifically, die Kinder der Berlinale, who’ve never had it so good, the Generations section being, by some margin, the best-programmed and most reliably thrilling strand at the festival. This has been the case for some time, but this year’s selection excelled itself, and provided a welcome respite from the wan nothings on which the grown-ups grazed.
As ever, the selections suffered for their lack of profile. Who even knew, for example, that the latest feature by Zhang Yimou was screening at the festival? Titled “Beneath the Hawthorn Tree,” the Cultural Revolution-set romance was a smaller work, on the scale of “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” (2005) and 2000’s “Happy Times” – and would not find much favor with Western audiences, one Asian-specialist friend noted, for its “very Asian depiction of ‘a Pure Love.'” But it was charming and beautifully-made, a necessary addition to our understanding of one of the major mainland Chinese filmmakers – and certainly no less hostile to foreign audiences than his last film, “A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop,” which screened here last year in Competition. Zhang’s name alone would have helped boost a disappointingly slight official selection.
There was “She-Monkeys,” a surprisingly gutsy girls’ coming-of-age story, from Sweden, and “The Best Intentions,” from Peru, set in 1980, about the complicated interior life of a lonely young girl, whose musings were set against the rise, just outside the frame, of the Shining Path guerilla movement. I heard good things about Israel’s “Intimate Grammar” and Norway’s “The Liverpool Goalie” – so much so, that every time I walked out of another film in Forum or Panorama feeling like I’d lost a quart of blood, I thought enviously of the pleasures I was missing, amid an audience far younger yet considerably better behaved than their adult counterparts: sitting in rapt silence, with no typing on Blackberries or taking calls on their cell phones.
But my favorite was a tiny, almost handmade American indie, Clay Jeter’s “Jess + Moss,” which earned some good notices out of Sundance (where it premiered in New Frontiers, rather than competition), and deserved every one of them. A dreamlike, impressionistic study of two kids, a girl in her mid-teens and a younger boy, abandoned on a remote Kentucky farm, drawn to the ruins of a crumbling house and the rusting hulks of industrial machinery, it gradually took on darker shades, as their relationship, never exactly clear-cut (were they friends? cousins? siblings?), became more complex and ambiguous – a technique mirrored in the film’s fractured visual style, its shrewd deployment of imagery against a meticulously detailed soundtrack.
Shot, the filmmaker explained, on about thirty different 16-mm film stocks – some as much as a quarter-century old – the result managed to transcend mere gimmickry, becoming instead a mosaic of pieces that combined to form a quietly shattering whole; by the end, tears were rolling down my cheeks, and my throat was dry. There was another film afterwards, but I didn’t want to see it. How could it compare? Despite the experiences of the preceding nine days, I chose to end this year’s Berlinale on a high note, engaged rather than indifferent, hopeful.