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DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Is There a Solution to the Problems With the Competition Films?

DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Is There a Solution to the Problems With the Competition Films?

You’re a German. Prosperous, settled, with a nice home, to which people have flocked for years; despite your chilly exterior, you’ve been known to throw a pretty decent party.

But you also have a neighbor. Let’s call him… oh, I don’t know, Pierre.

Now, you and Pierre have always gotten along, more or less. So much so, in fact, that he’s visited your place a number of times and met a lot of your friends. And why not? You work in the same industry, share many of the same interests. 

But now, as Pierre seems to be getting more and more popular, you notice that your friends aren’t dropping by so often. In fact, it might be more accurate, now, to regard them as his friends.

It’s a dismaying realization: Haven’t you been a good host? A little dogmatic, perhaps. And hard, at times, to feel entirely comfortable with. But lavish with the food and drink, and anxious that everyone has a good time. Still, there you are: Out in the cold, increasingly lonely.

And then one day it occurs to you: Maybe it’s time to start moving in on that other guy you know? The one nobody likes much – though he always seems to have people hanging around him. What’s his name again?

Ah, yes: Martijn.

Which is to say: as the Cannes Film Festival has become more and more indispensable to the international industry, a kind of tectonic shift has taken place. With the result that, today, despite 62 years of history and a lingering reputation as one of the three major European fixtures, Berlin’s competition might best be understood as a Rotterdam-level event.

How else to explain the presence of such second- and third-leaguers as Erwin (“Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly”) or Brilliante Mendoza – still, to my mind, the most ironically named filmmaker in history? 

Watching the latter’s “Captive” (clumsily shot, crappily edited, with Isabelle Huppert cowering in “Time of the Wolf” mode), it suddenly occurred to me that the qualities of the text paled before its provenance. Had the film arrived as, say, a debut American indie from some Midwestern unknown, it would barely be given the time of day. But because it emerges from Southeast Asia, and from a filmmaker persistently visible on the festival circuit, it’s taken as an urgent and authentic voice, a vindication of auteurist principles.

(By contrast, another jungle-set tale of violence and retribution, Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” was everything “Captive” was not: Stunningly visualized, carefully conceived, loaded with emotional heft and narrative satisfactions; it should win the Golden Bear. I hope Mr Mendoza sees it, sometime, somewhere, and has a moment of clarity, as he realizes just how piss-poor his own effort was.)

Or the inclusion of the many first-timers, with works that proved unable to sustain the expectations a Competition berth entails – like Frédéric Videau’s “A moi seal” and (by all accounts: I chose to spend my time elsewhere) Greece’s Spiros Stathoulopoulos, with “Metéora?” (“Wow, those austerity measures are really hurting Greece,” remarked a friend afterward. “That looked like it was shot on audio tape.”) 

There are, admittedly, a few more established names among the selection: Benoit Jacquot, Christian Petzold, even Hungary’s Benedikt Fliegauf (who I note is now calling himself“Bence”). Plus two grizzled veterans, in the form of Italy’s Taviani brothers, whose “Caesar Must Die,” while not up to the standard of their best work, was still better and more vital than anybody had any right to expect. Another two A-list filmmakers, Zhang Yimou and Steven Soderbergh, chose to opt out of Competition altogether, presumably because they could see no benefit to it.

I often wonder: Cannes notwithstanding, why do festivals bother with competition strands, anyway? The obvious answer – as a lure to filmmakers – doesn’t really bear close examination. Apart from the ego boost of holding a heavy objet d’arte as the flashbulbs pop (which is, I realize, no small inducement to movie directors), the actual benefits to either one’s movie or one’s career are remarkably slight.

Most sales agents, when pressed, will confess that winning a Golden Bear, or a Golden Lion in Venice for that matter,  doesn’t add much in the way of value to a film out in the real world. A laurel on a poster can mean anything: from the Berlinale to the Crying Monkey award at Beijing, it’s merely a vague signifier of Quality. If it’s noticed at all, it tells viewers that the film comes from artisanal festival world rather than the mass-market sausage factory.

But it didn’t help Jasmila Zbanic’s ‘Grbavica’ (Golden Bear 2006) find widespread distribution. Or Mark Dornford-May’s “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” (Golden Bear 2005). Or Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” (Golden Bear 2009). Last year’s prize went, in what seemed a foregone conclusion, to “A Separation,” and it seemed the most deserving winner in almost a decade – the only one with the gravitas and level of achievement befitting an award that has previously gone to classics like “Veronika Voss” and “Alphaville” and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”

Part of it comes down to size. Berlin’s 2012 Competition runs to a hefty 18 titles. A stretch, you might think, for a festival that now struggles to attract the filmmakers it would like. It’s a problem for this particular event, but also a symptom of something much broader: a new paradigm upending the old certainties and rendering the precise function of most film festivals even more parlous and uncertain.

It also suggests another question: Where exactly are the new masters? We can bitch and moan about the predictability of Cannes lineups – every year, the usual faces: Almodovar, Von Trier, Haneke, les Dardennes, et al. – but who is there to replace them? Where are the new generation, making works of similar scale and ambition, filmmakers who generate the same excited anticipation?

And if Berlin is in trouble, where does all this leave Rotterdam’s competition? Put it this way: Martijn’s new friends? They really suck.

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