It’s all about the looks

December 16, 2009

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall
by Tina Friedrich

Besides a huge commercial center, Potsdamer Platz has by 2009 also become Berlin’s center of moving images – and an icon of the versatile image of Berlin. A symbol of the rise of Berlin around 1900, the square had completely lost its significance during the Cold War – there was literally nothing there. Ever since the new millennium, the city has successfully striven to revive some of the old square’s glamour and importance: by bringing the film industry to the best developed and busiest place in town.

Berlin, 1961. In the middle of the night the borders dividing the Soviet sector from the other – western – part of the city were closed. In some areas the security zone was broad enough to cover a whole square. At Potsdamer Platz, that night sealed its fate for the coming 30 years. What had once been the lively center of a rising city became the dead end of two halves of Berlin, trapped in history.

Berlin, 2009. Potsdamer Platz is anything but dead. Coming up the escalator, one feels displaced to New York, where skyscrapers, blinding lights and people rushing by are perfectly normal. “The Potsdamer Platz is one of the two most important joints in the city,” says Volker Hassemer, cultural senator of Berlin from 1983-1989 and senator for urban development from 1991-1996. “I wouldn’t say it is the center, but it definitely is a link where energies are bundled. This has been the tradition of the Potsdamer Platz and that is what it is finally getting back to. It was our task as politicians to achieve this after 1989.” The Bahntower – a high office building occupied by the national German railway company – welcomes the late visitor fully illuminated. In front of the Price Waterhouse Building, yet another glistening tower, an Austrian Christmas market constitutes a strange contrast to the highly modernized area. Following the lights and stream of people strolling along the tree-lined Potsdamer Straße, a gigantic roof construction appears in the distance: the Sony Center, today the most impressive symbol of the modern urban development.

After the Fall of the Wall, Hassemer was instrumental in rebuilding and reviving Potsdamer Platz. “For us in the senate, it was clear that it must not be a political area, as the governmental institutions were located elsewhere. No ministry, no  administration department, that was essential, also from the urban planning perspective.” Besides office towers and the Sony Center, he arranged for a cultural element in the new urban planning. “Film and cinema proved to be a wonderful resource, because it is such an integrative form of art and the Berliners like it very much. A broad spectrum of movies attracts a wide range of people. That is why it proved to be the best idea for a square which needs to and is able to deal with a large audience.”

The Filmhaus, integrated into one side of the Sony Center, hosts an arthouse cinema, a filmmuseum, a film library and the Berlin School of Film and Television (dffb). From the outside it looks spectacular, while inside it is an peaceful oasis amidst the bustling daily business of the Center. The large glass front and backside of the entrance area enables visitors to take a look inside without entering the building. At the same time, people sitting in the Sony Center’s courtyard get a glimpse of the outside world, which makes the Filmhaus a gigantic window to and from the Sony Center. Its glamour seems unintended, as if it had just happened to be a symbol for visual culture.

The founding history goes a long way. Volker Hassemer and Wieland Speck, head of the Panorama section of the Berlinale, the prestigious Berlin international filmfestival, have both been closely connected to the history of origins of the Filmhaus. “It has always been an idea to build a house for film but to find the right location was difficult,” recalls Hassemer. “When I became cultural senator in 1983, I discovered the ruins of the old hotel Esplanade and was immediately drawn to it. It was a cold, foggy day and I took the project’s partners to the place. They were freezing and didn’t like it as it was so close to the Wall. But I immediately felt that this was the right spot to install the new filmhouse.” Speck remembers the significance of the project: “It was an initiative of several artists, who wanted to create a similar institution as the filmhouse in Hamburg. Berlin might have a big movie scene but it does not have a vibrant film community. Therefore it was remarkable that those filmmakers actually gathered around a table. Soon, the ambitious Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek joined the circle.” Due to financial problems, the project got delayed. In 1988 the final draft of Herman Hertzberger, a Dutch architect, was approved – and never built.

The fall of the Wall changed the circumstances. Potsdamer Platz should become the commercial and social center of the new Berlin. “At the time I wasn’t part of the government, so I when I heard that the place should be sold to Sony, I decided to negotiate with them as a regular parlamentarian. The film house had to be built, and we managed to make this a condition in the sales contract.” says Hassemer. Not only did Kinemathek and dffb secure themselves a place within the new building but also the Cinema Arsenal. “This little cinema in the basement of the Filmhaus has become a wonderful underground, art-house cinema and is very valuable for the Berlinale,” says Speck. The international filmfestival has been founded in 1951 and has always tried to react to social and political developments. One of these reactions was the establishment of the Panorama section, dedicated to independent, less known and experimental films and directors. An art-house cinema like the Arsenal suits that concept. “It is a place where you can experience the whole multi-dimensional power of film.” adds Hassemer.

Berlin has always been susceptible to the potential of film. In the 1920s, it was Germany’s cinematic hotspot with the most important production companies settled in Berlin. Back then, glamour was happening in the bustling streets around Kurfürstendamm and Tiergarten, while the area around Potsdamer Platz was best known to be the largest traffic zone in Europe. While cut off from the West during the Cold War (see box), attractive events returned with the moving of the Berlinale into offices on the square in the beginning of 2000. The prestigious film festival brought back the glamour the city so urgently wished for.

“Modern life was centered around Potsdamer Straße and Leipziger Platz, the first European traffic light was installed on location, the quarter was bursting with activity. During the Cold War, all one could see at Potsdamer Platz was the Wall and nothing but. Berlin used this to create yet another possibility to take a look – this time spectators did not watch a movie but the other side of the Wall: the city had built a viewing platform for citizens and tourists. Where the Sony Center is today, one could buy souvenirs three decades ago. For the time being, that was the only attraction. When the Wall fell in 1989, Potsdamer Platz moved from the periphery to the center of a re-united Berlin. The area was divided into four parts and sold to different companies. Huge construction works started shortly after that. Everything was done to erase the remnants of a shameful past and to make Potsdamer Platz look like the new, modern, rising star that the city wanted it to be.”

“When the Berlinale took place for the first time in 1951, a revival of the glamour of the 1920s began. During times of political unrest in the 1970s, the focus was more on political and social developments than on having the most famous guests. Glamour was not the most important issue. This finally changed after 1989. Today, we have 70% international audience at the Berlinale’s opening nights,” says Wieland Speck. He admits that the location adds to the attraction of the festival. “Nevertheless, it is pragmatism that led us here. The area isn’t necessarily one of creative energy and ambient Berlin city life, but it offers the most attractive infrastructure. We are here to fill the artless halls and streets with Berlin life.” Two weeks every year the Potsdamer Platz is crowded with cineastes, visitors and journalists.

The Berlinale’s move is seen controversial according to Speck and Hassemer and clearly shows the significance of the place when it comes to creating an image of Berlin. “It was an ad-hoc decision of the politicians,” says Speck bitterly, “They were fathomlessly afraid of accidentally having built a ghost town. So they decided to place the Berlinale there to get the glamour and media attention they needed. We wasted two years on negotiations.” Hassemer of course has a different point of view. “It was not only important for the area but also for the Berlinale to be situated in an international environment. For the festival it worked out from the start. The infrastructure was much better there, too.”

Successful urban planning has a lot to do with accessability. Hassemer was “strongly convinced that cinema and film were best placed at Potsdamer Platz.” Even if the commercial character of the area might not appeal to all members of the Berlinale team, it has definitely contributed to its international, glamourous appearance. After one decade, Berliners and movie stars alike know where to find the cinematic hot spot of Berlin.


The German Film Festival: Interview with the Festival Director

May 1, 2009

By Alida Tomaszewski and Nienke Huitenga

Nienke Huitenga and Alida Tomaszewski catch up with Klaus Krischok, AFGF director and programmer, at the 3CR radio studios in Melbourne. Krischok is one cool cat. As the interview begins he dons his aviators and lights a cigarette, explaining that he has in fact quit smoking but, well, you know…

How does the Goethe Institut reconcile its commercial and cultural agendas?

You’ve got to understand that there are always stakeholders in a festival, and certain interest groups. The Goethe Institut is not a commercial organisation, it is a cultural organisation. So we don’t have any commercial interests, we’re not here to sell anything. But we team up with an organisation that’s called German Films, which looks after German film exports, and they have a more commercial interest. That creates a nice kind of friction. 

As the director of the AFGF, what are your personal interests?

I’m more interested in showing the stuff that I really like, and what will work really well with Australian audiences, whereas German Films are interested in making deals with the distributors.

Is there much of a marketplace for distributors at this festival?

Well, in theory yes. We team up with Australian film distributors. The distributors get screeners and have access to the cinemas. Usually there are a few films that get snatched up by Australian distributors. So there is a bit of a marketing side to it, but let’s face it, it’s not that huge.

The Australian film distributors are really well networked, and they travel to Berlin in large numbers, as well as Cannes. Rotterdam, maybe, but it’s really Berlin and Cannes that really are the gateways for foreign films into Australian cinemas.

So that makes for a stronger cultural role of these national film festivals – I think it’s the same with the French, Italian and Spanish film festivals. If you want to shop you go to Berlin and Cannes, if you want to see things you go to our film festivals here.

Aside from German Films, are there any other parties that influence the course of the festival?

Here we work with a commercial chain of cinemas, and that’s Palace, and they of course need to see dollars and cents at the end.  I also need to break even at the end, because even with all the sponsorship money it’s a very pricey affair to put on a film festival.

What would you say is the ultimate goal of this festival?

From a cultural point of view, our goal is to create an awareness of the variety of artistic expression, lifestyle and talent in Germany. The second goal is to help German Films find an audience.

Say we look at the supply chain, one of our partners is World Movies. World Movies usually buys 4 or 5 of our films that are screened at the festival. They then screen those on TV, if they are successful there then SBS will snatch them up.

So, I’ve got 20,000 bums in seats, when World Movies buys a film we have about 60 or 80,000 viewers per night. Then if it’s picked up by SBS we’ll get around 100 to 120,000 viewers on top of that. So in terms of creating the avalanche effect, the festival is what people see, what happens afterwards is the effect that we desire.

Have the numbers attending the festival accumulated over the years?

Absolutely, the festival has grown. When I took over 4 years ago we had 15 films. We have 30 films now. So a lot more screenings take place, in more cinemas, on more days. There are more program slots, and program slots at the cinemas are always an economic risk. Believe me, some of the cinemas are struggling, and therefore are very happy to have us.  For example, a weak session for me is a session with 50 people, but I know at maybe the same time slot on a Friday afternoon there would usually only be maybe 25 people in the cinema [if there was no festival].

We’ve noticed you take good care of your guests and have been showing them around Melbourne during their stay. Is looking after the actors a lot of work?

It can be. In the four years that I’ve been doing this I haven’t had one that was really troublesome. There is a issue with actresses, and that’s blood-sugar levels. It’s such a big thing, they watch really closely what they eat, and once their blood sugar levels are down, I say “OK, I’ve got something I my pocket, have it now!” 

Aside from that, there is a potential clash of egos, so we make a point of not inviting two actors who are on the same level, or would be competing. Australia is too far away, and they’ll say “I’ve taken this long journey, I want to be in the limelight”.

It’s very good with these two [Anna Maria Mühe and Robert Stadlober], because they’re friends. She went to Robert’s concert just a few weeks ago, and it’s all very good.  So it’s better to invite different types, a director and an actor is usually better than two actors. Marco Kreuzpaintner would have been great too, but Robert is wonderful . We had a 45 minute interview on SBS this morning and it was lovely, Robert is full of knowledge.

Can you describe the process of getting Anna Maria Mühe and Robert Stadlober to Melbourne for the AFGF?

In close cooperation with German Films. Because they’re based there [in Germany] and deal exclusively with that subject matter, they have a little more experience than I have, in regards to who can be used for promo purposes and who cannot. Like with Jürgen Vogel who was at the festival last year, who’s really a megastar, it was my own independent decision to go to the agent and say “we want Jürgen Vogel , what do we have to do?”. There was an immediate decision that he wanted to come, because it happened to coincide with his 40th birthday.

In the past we have deliberately not approached a Volker Schlöndorff or a Wim Wenders, because for me it’s very much about this fresh, new, young look – the new generation. For example Wim Wenders travels to Australia twice a year, he only travels first class, he’s got “a thing”, he’s got a Koala complex [laughs]. We know through his agent that he himself suggested he come to this festival, and we said “maybe next year”. We need to find a bigger context for him, because if you get a Wim Wenders it dominates the whole festival, nobody want to hear or see anything else. But I’m not saying no to Wim Wenders! Because on the other hand, it can be good for publicity.

Do you spend all year working on this festival?

Claudia and I work on it for about half a year. Ideally I go to the Munich film festival because you get a good idea of what’s happening, but we start the selection process in later October, early November. Basically pampering the sponsors is a life, not a love, it is a year long exercise.

Apart from the AFGF, we put on about 50 other cultural events per year. Sometimes we support events, like in March we had the St Thomas Boys’ Choir from Leipzig at the Sydney Opera House. It was sold out and there were 9000 people at the Opera House. We invited all our sponsors to a VIP reception at the Opera House and to meet the cantor of St Thomas Boys’ Choir, and they loved that.

Do you agree to give the sponsorship logos visibility over the entire year at all your cultural events?

Yes, that’s all part of it. The easy case would involve deals being made over a short conversation and a hand shake, and a more complicated case involves a contractual negotiation. In the case of Audi, we don’t have a written contract now, they trust us. They have the naming rights, and this is really important for them, and this opens certain gateways for them that they would never find on their own.  By piggy-backing on the back of cultural events, they get very good value for money, like being on all those City of Sydney banners. Or in the cinemas, they are entitled to have their cars displayed which would usually cost them a lot of money.

Are you looking at growing the AFGF into a larger, international event?

We wouldn’t be successful in doing this. There are some very specific factors. Other than Australia I know of no other country that does this circuit of national film festivals. Canada is very much like Australia – it’s a huge country, a federation, has two major cultural hubs and it’s multicultural, the same thing should happen, yet they don’t do this circuit of national film festivals. It’s a specifically Australian thing. They serve their purpose here, in a sometimes healthy and sometimes problematic competition with the international film festivals.

My intention is to plant the right kind of content in the right kind of context. If I think that my German content has gotten the best possible visibility and echo within the AFGF, then I’ve done my job. If  I think a film like Alle Anderen is better hosted within, say the Sydney International Film Festival, then they should have it.

The French Film Festival is a bit of an exception because it’s older, it happens in more cities and has even more of an audience than ours. That could be the benchmark. One could say that we’d like to get to the level of the French Film Festival which won’t happen ’till…I don’t know when. But making it (the AFGF) on par with an international film festival would be wrong.

Lars Henrik Gass essay in new ROUGE

April 30, 2009

An important and provocative recent intervention into ongoing debates about the role of film festivals has been offered by Lars Henrik Gass, Director of the esteemed Oberhausen Film Festival. The essay, titled “Trade Market or Trademark? The Future of Film Festivals” has so far appeared in German in Schnitt magazine (for which Gass has also edited an invaluable dossier on the topic), and in Spanish in Cahiers du cinema Espana.  Now a revised version of the English translation done for Schnitt is available in the current issue 13 of Rouge, at

Interviews with Festival Programmers: Venice, Rotterdam

April 28, 2009

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

While the Singapore International Film Festival appears to target its local audience very effectively, a clue to SIFF’s status as an international market for regional films might be the producer and distributor contacts listed in the back of the catalogue, and especially, the long list of foreign guests, including festival programmers from Venice, Pusan, Rotterdam, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I asked two major international programmers, Gertjan Zuilhof, from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Paolo Bertolin, a member of the selecting committee for the Venice Film Festival, about their experiences at SIFF, and how they would feel about screening small, localised films for an international audience.

Q: What was your major purpose in coming to the Singapore International Film Festival?

Gertjan Zuilhof: I come to SIFF every year to pick up some titles and new contacts from Singapore and the region. They always have a nice mix of new films from the region and some good international films for the local audience.

Paolo Bertolin: I have been wanting to visit SIFF for a few years now. I always heard it was a key event in the panorama of international film festivals in Asia, and certainly the oldest and most well-established film event in Southeast Asia. I would say then that the major purpose of coming to SIFF this year was for me to experience and discover the festival itself. Added to this, obviously, attending a film festival is always very important for me, in my work as film festival programmer, as a way to discover new films and to establish contacts with local directors and producers, also in order to get to know about upcoming productions.

Q: How do you generally come across films for your festival? Do you use other festivals for research?

GZ: I visit other festivals, especially Pusan International Film Festival, and I just go around the world to meet filmmakers and see films.

PB: In the case of a major film festival like Venice a great deal of the films are directly submitted to our attention by film producers, sales companies and directors themselves (especially in the case of smaller, indie productions). However, it is sometimes possible (albeit rare) that films that premiered at other festivals could be included in our line up. But that only applies to films that screened at national festivals (i.e. a Singaporean film that premieres at SIFF). Other festivals still could prove a useful tool to discover films though; sometimes you get to know about upcoming local projects or local films that might be in the final stages of post-production and so did not make it to the festival itself because they were not ready.

Q: How would you compare the programming of your film festival to the Singapore festival?

PB: Venice and Singapore are very different. For one thing, Venice Film Festival, along with Cannes and Berlin, is one festival where all films invited have to be world and international premieres. This is a key discriminating factor. While a festival like Singapore Film Festival (as well as many others around the world) includes in its mission the aim of bringing important and acclaimed international films to local audiences (who might not get to see them otherwise), festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin cater to the whole international film community and have to secure themselves absolute premieres and discoveries, in order to fulfil their mission and maintain their pre-eminence in the international film festival circuit. For the rest, specifically in terms of programming, festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin work through a system of very selective programming (the number of films submitted is huge, around 2000) and don’t include thematic programs and focuses (although there might be retrospective sessions).

Q: Would you program a foreign film which required the audience to have a considerable amount of background knowledge?

GZ: If the film is difficult I show it anyway, but there are ways you can help the audience. Inviting the filmmaker to explain his film a bit is one way. I program a film when I think it is good, like Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, which is difficult for its length and the way it refers to local history. [Melancholia, screening at SIFF, was programmed by Zuilhof for Rotterdam in January; the film also won the Orizzonti Grand Prize at last year’s Venice Festival. It’s an 8-hour meditation on the sadness of three characters in the Philippines, who change their identities several times, becoming pimps, prostitutes and nuns in the process.]

PB: This is a thorny issue. But let me state something first off. In the case of festivals like Venice or Cannes, no one can really claim to “program” something because of his or her own choice, if they are not the Artistic Director himself. Technically speaking, I am not a “programmer”, but a “member of the selecting committee”. This means that I am one of the people who choose the films for Venice, but I alone cannot choose anything. The films I might see and find recommend for the festival have to be watched by my colleagues as well, and our Artistic Director has to validate each and every choice (he basically has the final say over any film).

Having said all of this, there have always been films in Venice, Cannes or Berlin where cultural, political, social or other elements of background knowledge could certainly play a key part in enhancing the understanding and appreciation of the films themselves. However, their inclusion in the festival line-up generally might have been dictated by aesthetic choices in the first place. Let me make myself more clear with some actual examples. If a film from some corner of the world proves to be an “important” film in its local context because of the political or social issues it tackles, perhaps even in a very brave manner – political and social issues with which audiences from the rest of the world might not be so familiar with – but its narrative and its visual style respond to very conventional and predictable concerns, it would be highly unlikely for this film to make it to a festival like Venice. On the other hand, films which make statements about a very local political or social situation, and which include cultural references that might be obscure to foreigners, still have a strong chance to make it to the major festivals (and perhaps might even have a higher chance to get into them) if they convey that political, social or cultural meaning through an engaging, inventive or even provocative cinematic presentation. Eventually, issues engendered by “background knowledge” are always overcome by the sheer artistic/narrative/visual quality of the film. If the “issues” or “content” count more than the cinematic presentation, well then, the film’s chances are reduced. But then again, one should draw a more distinct line between different kinds of “background knowledge” required by a film. This is obviously a general answer that cannot enter into too much detail, and as such cannot be taken as a statement written in stone.

Q: Any particular elements of programming you liked at SIFF, or standout films?

PB: I would mention as the real standouts of this year’s competition, Yang Ik-June’s Breathless and Yeo Joon Han’s Sell Out! They are indeed very different films, but in their own terms they both are great achievements, and really one-of-a-kind: Breathless is a very hard-hitting and deeply touching drama about the inescapable heritage of violence featuring unforgettable performances, Sell-Out! is an irresistibly clever and hilarious musical comedy plus anti-capitalist satire. I also very much liked the festival’s closing film, Semih Kaplanoglu’s enchantingly poetic Milk (which premiered last year in competition at Venice), and the marvellous and politically subtle Agrarian Utopia by Uruphong Raksasad from Thailand – indeed a good example of a film that might require some “background knowledge” to be fully appreciated, but that still, thanks to its artistic quality, would deserve to be programmed anywhere.

What’s That “German-ness”?

April 26, 2009

By Nienke Huitenga

Submerged in visual entertainment, and having a close encounter of the German kind, I feel it’s time to reflect on that intuitive idea of German culture and how it engages the attending audience. In a piece describing the status of the 8th edition of AFGF (in an interview by Dagmar Pysik on the Goethe Institut festival blog), Klaus Krischok stated that “it smiles at the Australian audience and looks forward to new and vibrant exchanges with our cool and young-ish viewers.” I think I fit the young-ish viewer profile, and therefore would like to summarise my impressions of how this festival has communicated its ‘identity’ to me.

The Audi Festival of German Films appears to be a delicately balanced composition of films that appeals to a heterogeneous audience. I have attended screenings where I joined a 60 to 70-something audience (Clara, Effie Briest), but equally enjoyed films with a 20 to 30 year old audience (Dr Aleman, Berlin Calling), or younger (Lippel’s Dream, Krabat). Festival related activities like Berlin Sessions – an event where prominent German DJs present their latest electronic remixes – and GDRetro (East German film side-program), give an opportunity to enjoy this festival just the way you like it: an exposition of German cinema (through the available panel discussions and Q&A’s) or a cultural immersion through the variety of identities presented in the films.

Actually, when I read between the lines of the festival’s presentation and program, I find there is something of a gentle juxtaposition: a reunion of a differing generational viewpoints belonging to an intuitive idea of what German cinema embodies. An illustrative example is the documentary Eye to Eye: All About German Film by Michael Althen and Hans Helmut Prinzler (2008). Presented as a ‘celebration of 100 years of German cinema’, this topically reconstructed overview of cinematic history is built on the memories and personal ‘ideas’ of German cinema of ten eminent German filmmakers, including Tom Tykwer, Doris Dörrie, Wim Wenders, Caroline Link, Christian Petzold and Michael Ballhaus. The interview fragments (with the experts) are alternated with thematic sequences of film clips from the most conspicuous (historical) scenes, and edited together as though we are watching one long take on all the (universally) connected (‘German’) themes through time. Characteristic films like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Heimat (Edgar Reitz 1919-2000), M (Frits Lang, 1931), Rocker (Klaus Lemke, 1972) and Fassbinder’s Martha (1974) are nostalgically associated to childhood memories or genius inventions which influenced the artistic view of some of the experts in this documentary.

Festival director Krischok (who was present in the audience during the screening) rightly pointed out that this documentary is not a history lesson, but an emotional journey through cinematic history. This is exactly what makes it both successful and unsuccessful. It is extremely successful for the thematic chain of clips, which take you on a journey through all the different manifestations of German cinema. However, these drifting-along clips and memories leave the less German cine-savvy spectator empty handed at ‘The End’.

The tableau that Eye to Eye sketches lacks accessibility, for it pertains mainly to a more proficient German cinema cinephile. Therefore it conjured up enough questions for the panel discussion following the screening. Most of the questions from the audience were in the spirit of ‘why are there mostly male directors in de the documentary’ (besides Dorris Dörrie and Caroline Link), or ‘why isn’t there any attention to the New German cinema’? A question I personally had in mind is why the more recent episode from the 1990s till the 21st century is not represented, but someone from the audience covered that interest by commenting that she totally did not relate to the presented view on German cinema, because the invoked perspective comes off a bit antiquated to a younger audience. I assumed she felt just as much a bystander to this phenomenon as me: something of a different generation.

The film critics present at the panel discussion, following this screening, tried to take in the criticism and give a satisfactory answer. Panel member Christian Buss (film critic for Der Spiegel) largely agreed with the audience that his favourites were missing too. Adrian Martin (Film critic and Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies at Monash University, Melbourne) tried to give a more film theoretical approach to this inspection of German film culture. Inspired by the suggested ‘German-ness’ (a neologism suggested in the documentary), Adrian Martin raised the question: what does this idea of a national cinema actually lead to? He commented on this nostalgic (canonical) view on German cinema that it falls in the trap of a narrow interpretation of what such a cinema is. In a similar way, Wim Wenders underlines Martin’s point by saying (in the film) that he actually fled from his German roots to America, so he could free himself of a particular predilection what German film should be. Unfortunately, he could not escape and embraced his film culture later on in his career.

The overall impression I have of this festival is that the perspective given on German cinema gravitates to a national, and perhaps self referential, presentation, rather than placing it in a larger, international context. However, the festival convincingly offers an interesting display of the successes of contemporary German film culture. Yet, as I have stated earlier in my first contribution to the blog (‘The Festival as a Cultural Meeting Point’), I am not convinced that the Audi Festival of German Films will disclose its nature, persona or innate ‘Germaness’ as effectively to an audience non-related to Germany’s (cinematic) identity.

On with the Adventure!

April 25, 2009

Adrian here:

Phase 1 of this collective blog project – the ‘residencies’ of four Monash University students at two Film Festivals since mid-May – is coming to a close, although more posts related to these events will appear soon. But this is only the beginning of the WORLD FILM FESTIVALS grand project! This site will remain up indefinitely, and other contributors (not only from Monash itself) will enter the dialogue. Many Festival events will eventually be covered – not from the usual journalistic perspective, but in the analytical ways explored here. Soon, for instance, I will be posting reports and materials from the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea.

I would like to congratulate my four students for their sterling work. I would also like to acknowledge not only the writing, but also the ‘invisible’ editorial work carried out by the students for each other, in the revision of their texts: Lesley Chow performed this role for Farah Azalea, and Alida Tomaszewski did the same for Nienke Huitenga. It is good to see such student-to-student mentoring in action.

I would also like to thank the supportive and interested individuals who took the time to add comments on the site, or helped promote this project on their own websites. Your comments will be followed up on very soon.

Finally, a big thank-you to Prof. Dina Iordanova of St Andrews in Scotland, who encouraged this project from its inception, and included it within the structure of her exciting DYNAMICS OF WORLD CINEMA site. Like me, Dina is keen to keep the ball rolling, and the dialogue growing in a global fashion … so please check back here soon!

Centrality and Sidebars

April 25, 2009

by Lesley Chow

Even though its world premieres are generally limited to Singaporean films, the Singapore International Film Festival presents itself as a platform for discovering Southeast Asian cinema and launching the careers of regional directors: showing, for instance, the first retrospective of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Film festival theorists have often been critical of the way that festivals seek to individualise themselves through claims of specialist programming, while marketing all films in terms of a global humanist focus, as SIFF does in its publicity, asking us to “understand and appreciate life in its many facets” through films. However, in his work on European festivals, the critic Thomas Elsaesser (in the book European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood) refuses to glory in cynicism over the patterns and progressions that make up a festival’s identity. Unusually, Elsaesser is an undisturbed witness of paradoxes – tolerant of the way that an organisation might be led to articulate its own “uniqueness” in conventional terms, without an awareness of going through the motions. Elsaesser underplays, or evenly plays, the revelation of structural contradictions within the system: the tendency for festivals to “set different accents to maintain their profile and identity” whilst taking their cues from Cannes. Why wouldn’t a festival vigorously promote itself in contrast to existing alternatives – and also make a bid for international status?

In any case, SIFF has had frequent retrospectives on Filipino, Thai and Singaporean filmmakers rarely seen elsewhere, such as the ‘60s Singaporean director Hussein Haniff. In lieu of an Asian director retrospective this year, SIFF has elected to screen films that would be very unlikely to get a showing overseas: a selection from Thailand’s national cinema archive, including the oldest surviving Thai film, The King of the White Elephant (1940), notable mainly for its depiction of a leisurely, English-speaking kingdom of Siam and an elephant can-can. When I asked Rotterdam International Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof about his perception of SIFF’s demographics, he felt that international films were being programmed for the Singaporean audience, while local and regional films were targeted towards visiting cinephiles like himself. However, I assume that he didn’t mean slight, albeit charming Thai films like this!

In addition, SIFF has several enthusiastically attended programs of homegrown shorts, and one venue, the Sinema (which usually functions as a resource for independent filmmakers), exclusively screening Singapore films. However, one of this year’s much-anticipated local features, Sherman Ong’s Hashi, was a little disappointing; it was a series of women’s conversations about relationships and infidelity filmed in long takes. Judging from its bleached-out look and the recurring subject of dreams, I’m guessing Ong was going for an Altmanesque rumination on female consciousness, with identities drifting and merging into each other. It doesn‘t quite work, as a result of the self-conscious performances and the dialogue repetitions which come across as unfocused and hesitant rather than hypnotic. The film needed some kind of dislocation: a blotting, or darkening, of its themes and immaculately tasteful locations.

That brooding feeling was present in another local film, Kan Lume’s amazing Female Games, unfortunately censored and withdrawn from SIFF – let‘s hope it turns up elsewhere. After hearing a positive report from my colleague Farah Azalea – and imagining a glorious film from her descriptions – I watched a DVD copy in the festival lounge. With its synthesised sound and a camera which implies curious attitudes towards bodies – hovering just under the eyeline, or cutting off a speaker’s head to show the line of his leg – there is an odd tone to this story of two actresses trying to make it in Kuala Lumpur. One is Eurasian, the other Chinese, and in the contrast of their appearances, the film seems to be working off the frisson of two physical types, similar to the dynamic between blonde and brunette in Mulholland Drive (2001) or Femme Fatale (2002). However, while the Eurasian girl is immediately perceived as privileged and personable by casting agents, the Chinese one is neglected, resulting in the latter’s breakdown of identity. Meanwhile, the two women appear to be the subjects of a placid but voyeuristic gaze, which turns their smallest actions into a narrative of mystery, desire and loss of boundaries. I can’t think of another film which creates such a mood of eroticised amnesia, although possible reference points might be Mulholland Drive, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) and the softcore of Tom Lazarus. The final, luxuriously slow scene casts the rest of the film as a sensual “game”.

For me, SIFF’s other major highlight was the delicious Malaysian farce Sell Out!. Yeo Joon Han’s feature begins by explicitly referencing the world of film festivals, with ever-more obscure events handing out awards in tiny areas of specialisation, and journalists trying to get quotes out of intractable auteurs. I can think of a dozen directors who might be satirised in the scene where a filmmaker insists that cinema “should reflect the boredom of real life” and hence tries to create authentically dull films. Even before its characters break into song, Sell Out! is a kind of “musical”, with its choreographed moments between a cast of entertainment reporters, arts workers and ruthless media moguls.† Characters move in and out of TV screens and theatrical scenarios; I haven’t seen such space-expanding possibilities in a musical, or any film, since Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007).

I loved this joyous film, especially its old-school pairing of a boyish hero with a fast-talking newswoman, and its utterly personal and unusual humour (Yeo says he “didn’t make the film for people outside Malaysia, except maybe Singapore” and wanted it to come across as “a slightly confused work.”) The film’s budget and publicity were so low-key that extras often failed to turn up, and ended up being replaced by, say, the cameraman’s wife. But Yeo made improvisation a virtue on set; apparently he raised the pitch of the songs every week, and constantly changed dialogue to weave a coherent world out of singular encounters. Everything harmonises.

The most lively venue of the festival was the Substation, its lounge a buzz of viewing stations and filmmakers discussing projects in a kind of mess-hall environment. The sense that this was an existing community being expanded to include international participants was appropriate given that one of SIFF’s two festival directors, Zhang Wenjie, is a former programmer for the Substation’s Moving Images, an invaluable program which provides exposure and mentoring for local directors of documentaries, shorts and experimental films. Screenings at the Substation came across as less of a cultural spectacle than at the National Museum or Arts House. The place seemed an extension of the local filmmaking environment, but with the feeling that via SIFF, an experimental scene was being pulled from the periphery onto centre stage.

The Substation was rowdy during a panel session for the Malaysian director Amir Muhammad, who has had several films banned in his home country, but enjoys critical support at SIFF. The informal, chatty atmosphere lent itself to a discussion of Muhammad’s work, especially since his films question the consensus on political events – this year’s Malaysian Gods investigated the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim – and make use of diverse voices to explore surrounding issues, such as the dissemination of information and the way in which people’s memories converge on certain details. Muhammad commented that he finds Singapore’s censors to be less restrictive than those in Malaysia, which is why he chose SIFF for his premiere.

That said, programmers in Singapore continue to face problems with censorship, particularly in relation to sexuality. Before the festival opened, several films I was looking forward to had already been withdrawn after cuts from censors, for reasons of “homosexual content” – for instance, the scenes of lesbian intimacy in Female Games. One film with “homosexual content” which did get a screening was Filipino director Francis Xavier Pasion’s debut Jay, about a gay male teacher who is murdered. Initially I was disturbed that one of the few remaining gay-themed films in the program featured its eponymous character only as a blood-spattered corpse, but this is a wild film with unpredictable shifts in tone. It has a stunning central performance from Baron Geisler as a suave reality TV producer covering the case, who is also gay. His machinations and wit leave everyone – including himself – unable to reflect on their social relation to the crime.

As with Sell Out!, Jay shows us emotion and extroversion ironised by the context of reality TV, while subjecting us to extreme bouts of humor and charisma. The film is too broad to make us question our reactions to the psychological conflicts generated by television, but it’s possible the director has another agenda in mind. Pasion may be mimicking the media presentation of homosexuality, in that a narrative which begins with a gay hate crime turns into an all too effective camp comedy. That the perverse transition is seamless is due to Geisler, who is as memorably glittering and smarmy as Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). SIFF deserves credit for picking up this debut work, which starts off as a sledgehammer satire in its first third, before morphing into a rather more mysterious film on the nature of performance and beguilement. Overall this has been an adventurously programmed festival, with four outstanding mixed-genre, multi-language films – Sell Out!, Female Games, Jay and Malaysian Gods – defining its hybrid character for me.

† As the film shows us, there are many creative ways to sell out, such as hiring a medium to exorcise your idealism, or through a director’s selection of actors. By featuring the half-English Peter Davis as the male lead, the film addresses the issue of “pan-Asian” casting; as in Female Games, Eurasianness is seen as a commercial signifier, satisfying the public’s desire for “fusion” products in the form of multiracial actors and models.

Where is the Sex?

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Up until my last day in Singapore, I was still preoccupied with the idea of the films which had been banned. I wanted to see for myself how offensive a sex scene could be for a film to be taken out of a festival filled with sexual themes. I was trying to see if I could spot any double standards in regard to homosexuality, race and religion. From viewing Melancholia, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Boy, I felt the reasons for banning could be justified given their over-the-top sex scenes.

But Female Games was an exception. I was so grateful that I decided to persist in viewing this film, since it was totally booked out at the festival lounge the day before. It’s easily the best film I saw at this festival and it totally changed my perception of Singaporean films, which I found mediocre up to now. Not only did I fail to understand the reasons for the ban, I felt sorry for SIFF audiences who were denied such a pleasure.

As was the case with the other withdrawn films, this film is said to have prolonged and explicit homosexual scenes. However, the only lesbian scene in this film didn’t happen until the last ten minutes or so, and it showed two women in a candle-lit room dancing romantically and making out semi-naked with Mozart in the background. It barely lasted two minutes, and was supposed to depict a romantic loving relationship. The very few other “sex” scenes were merely suggestive (as was the case with the short films I saw at SIFF) and hardly had a lasting impact, unlike the ones in the other banned films.

What left an impact was how incredibly brilliant the entire film was, from start to finish. The plot wasn’t uncommon but incredibly realistic. What stood out for me was the style. The locations were outdoors, with dialogue drowned out by the ambient noise, as though we were witnessing a real life conversation. The shot compositions were carefully choreographed and each one carried a specific message. When a character revealed a secret to the protagonist, his figure was in half frame and his face could not be seen although his words were loud and clear. The protagonist then looked sideways towards the camera, as if responding to us watching from the other side.

Director Kan Lume breaks many Hollywood codes. Often the camera was placed on a tripod and the subject would move in and out of frame. The pace was slow but not painful, every step filmed without seeming redundant. The dialogue sounded free-flowing and natural – it was hard to imagine it being scripted.

Often the scenes were interspersed with a video interview of the protagonist, but this wasn’t cheesy or predictable. If anything, this technique threw the film off-balance a little, making it more intriguing. At the very end of the film, I was so taken aback by the progression of the plot that some minor details escaped me; I had to re-watch it to satisfy my doubts. Many plot points listed in the blurb never occurred – the director later told me to disregard the blurb, as he had no say in its wording. The film leaves you intrigued, hungry for more but at the same time completely satisfied. It was the best way to conclude the festival.

The Musical Experience at the Audi Festival of German Films

April 25, 2009

By Nienke Huitenga

Amongst the various thematic ties that link film to film in this festival, the one that stands out for me most is music. Within the selection of films that I managed to attend, I have found three films that caught my attention for their portrayal of various German music-cultural scenes. Together as a group they diachronically represent three major moments in German music history: Clara, Hilde and Berlin Calling.

A film that refers to the hedonistic life of a specific music cult of my generation is Berlin Calling. Electronic music composer DJ Ickarus travels the world to play his music on festivals and in clubs, and eventually gets lured down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. In his hometown of Berlin he works on his new album, but the pressure of delivering the album he dreams of, paired with the temptation of drugs, initiates a downward spiral from which we wonder whether he will ever return. Watching this film, I was comfortably submerged in an ambient spectacle. Paul Kalkbrenner, in the role of DJ Ickarus, performed very au naturel although this is his acting debut, for in real life he is a fulltime musician like his character. Thanks to the flowy electronic music, the film is a nice ‘trip’ through the psychotic episodes of DJ Ickarus. However, without it, the story might come off too placid.

Next is Clara, a film by Helma Sanders-Brahms (a distant relative of Johannes Brahms) exposes the struggle Clara Schumann undergoes when her deep love and passion for music conflicts with her duties as wife to Robert Schumann. Young Johannes Brahms, who admires Clara’s talent, touches Clara with his brilliant and entrancing compositions. His charming personality brings him close to the family circle of the Schumann family. Robert Schumann respects him for his virtuoso compositions, and later, Clara finds herself torn between feelings for charming Johannes, and her duties to the care of the mental health of her husband.

Naturally, the film zones in on the music composed by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and these moments are by far the most powerful in the film. The art department and set design give the mise-en-scène a sense of historic truth, however, the characterizations by the actors feel a little beyond the historic period. Pascal Greggory, who plays Robert Schumann, looks a bit uncomfortable in the role of the German composer. It may partly be because, as a French actor, Greggory has to tackle the German language as well as the flamboyant character of Schumann. In fact, part of Greggory’s downfall is in his larger-than-life portrayal of his character, which brings colour to the film but lacks truth. As it happens, the film loses me on several occasions because of the strange camera angles, and jarring transitions. On the other hand, the film captivates me again in its calmer scenes where the pleasure, love and passion of Robert Schumann’s and Johannes Brahms’ compositions are given the time and focus that they deserve. I was both bored and moved watching this film, but in the end I loved it for the justice it did to the talent and artistry of these passionate musicians.

Hilde, my second favourite thus far, is a biopic about Germany’s multitalented Hildegard Knef, beginning with her youthful years. She fearlessly and cheekily auditions for an acting school (at age 14), and without hesitating exclaims that she has talent. Her determined spirit comes through in one of the songs she writes later on in her career – ‘Fur mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ (It Shall Rain Red Roses for Me). She puts down her fist by singing ‘I want everything or nothing!’ It marks the persevering spirit she has in making her dreams come true. Hildegard shakes up 1950s Germany with the first nude scene in Die Sünderin (1951), and tries to make it in Hollywood as an actress in film productions by David Selznick, further signs of her strength and ambition.

For me, the phrases of song-text, rhythmically intercut at various moments of the film, reveal much about Hilde’s life journey. Set between different ‘chapters’ of her career, the poetic motif culminates in a full performance at the end of film. The songs we hear during the film act as commentary, shedding light not only on the atmosphere of her home, Berlin (‘Mein Zuhause’- My Home), but also on her state of mind, as she finds herself as an artist. The jazzy ‘best singer without a voice’ (as Ella Fitzgerald called her) is convincing when the film reaches the last chapter, where Heike Makatsch (Hilde) performs ‘Fur Mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ both skilfully and seductively.

Digging Up The Trash

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Unlike some blurbs which appear to have been written by an advertising agency, the descriptions of films in the Singapore International Film Festival catalogue were reasonably good. They were mostly brief but succinct, highlighting potential events of interest in the film, and how the film came to be selected for its particular section. I would say that the catalogue blurbs played a large part in my selection of films: that, and the director, country of origin, and the programming strand (as in, Singapore Panorama, Asian Feature Film Competition, etc.)

My colleague and I made our selections before heading to Singapore, but a few days before the festival started, the website announced that six of the films in the list had been withdrawn. To my disappointment, three of my film choices had been taken out. For the most part, these films were disallowed or passed with edits as they contained “prolonged” and illicit sexual scenes. I was lucky to be able to watch four of these films at the festival lounge, and as I ended up loving most of them. It frustrated me that the festival audience didn’t get to see such great films, particularly Female Games, which I will discuss in a later entry.

If anything, the bans just made people more curious, and I had to queue to see the withdrawn films. Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly, a young Indonesian director’s attempt at combining identity politics with pop culture, and marital issues with homosexual fetishes, would have intrigued anyone who read the blurb. My guess was that the film was withdrawn partly for religious and race issues, since Indonesia and Singapore have a similar mix of ethnicities and religions, but apply different concerns and approaches to them. But ultimately, it was a terribly uncomfortable and disturbing 11 minute ménage a trois (witnessed by a daughter of one of the participants) between grown men with fetishes for army gear that I believe was the reason behind the ban. It’s unfortunate, since a scene that could have easily been cut out prevented SIFF audiences from viewing an honest portrayal of citizens who feel foreign in their own land. The director explained the significance of a Chinese-Indonesian girl eating firecrackers as a citizen who is constantly waiting for something to blow up. He represented the fear, paranoia and confusion of minority Chinese-Indonesians who do not know how to be themselves and are constantly searching for answers. He used non-linear storytelling and built up his stories in segments, offering audiences a total panoramic experience, rather than just a beginning, a conflict and an end.

Next I moved to Boy, a Filipino story of lip-synching drag queens and dancing rent boys. The reasons for the ban of this film were not stated, but if I were to judge it by its ten minute sex scene between a young boy and a rented dancer, I would say that the reasons were similar to the other banned films. Aside from that, full frontal nudity, foul language and the continuous discussion of penis sizes and hard-ons might have seemed inappropriate for a festival like SIFF. Yet if all those scenes were taken out, it would severely affect the plot of the film. Although there isn’t anything extraordinary in a story of a boy who falls in love with a stripper, the performances were convincing and the film’s witty poetry was something to remember.

When the notes on Melancholia stated that it was 450 minutes long, I was almost certain that it was an error in the program (as was the case with a few other films), but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Shot in digital black and white, the film sounded promising from its blurb: the story of a prostitute, a pimp and a nun in the provincial town of Sagada in the Philippines. And judging from some unexpectedly amazing Filipino films I’ve seen at SIFF, I decided to give it a go. But I found the film incredibly painful, with endlessly drawn-out shots à la Andy Warhol’s Sleep. The eight hours turned out only to contain a few scenes. A character would light three cigarettes in turn, with the scene still not ending when the third one had been put out. The two sex scenes were also interminable – fifteen minutes each. Prolonged and illicit indeed.