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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Berlin Film Festival

Russian documentary captures anti-Putin pranksters in action

March 4, 2012 |  2:26 pm


Russia held presidential elections Sunday, and amid reports of irregularities, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed victory after early returns showed him with 63% of the vote. Opposition groups have threatened protests Monday, and the outcome seems sure to add kindling to the fire that fuels art group Voina, the country's premier political pranksters.

As documented in the new film "Zavtra" (Tomorrow), Voina's mission is to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment. The group, whose name means "war" in Russian, has a handful of core members and an amorphous set of more than 200 activist accomplices. They perform what could be called radical acts of creative outrage, such as throwing stray cats around a Moscow McDonald's, staging mock hangings in supermarkets and jamming gum into the locks at a Putin campaign office. Voina posts amateur video of its activities online, which is where they caught the eye of Russian competitive ice dancer-turned-documentary filmmaker Andrey Gryazev. 

"The first time I saw a Voina action on the Internet, I came to the decision that  their work had potential," said Gryazev.  "That these ideas should be distributed beyond the Internet, that there were possibilities for them to become known through television and in newspapers. ... Through my film, I wanted to bring them to a larger audience."  That audience turned out to be at February's Berlin International Film Festival, where "Zavtra"  had its premiere.     

Gryazev said he had to earn the trust of the outside-the-law street activists by making about 50 mini-films of their actions, and posting them online. "It was a symbiosis in the sense of 'I'll help you, you help me.' " Voina members try to live without money -- they don't pay rent, and they shoplift food and supplies. Gryazev had to live by those rules while making the film: He said he slept on the floor in the group's squat, ate members' purloined food and spent only about $2,000 -- almost all of it on train tickets between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In all, he spent a year and a half with the group, recording some of its most infamous performances, and keeping his project a secret.    

Among the actions depicted in the film is a precision-timed mega-graffiti work from June 2010 that turned a rising St. Petersburg drawbridge into a phallic retort to the nearby offices of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.   Though the paint was quickly removed by the authorities, a video of the stunt has been viewed countless times. The stunt even won a contemporary art award sponsored by Russia's Ministry of Culture, which was, naturally, rejected by Voina, which said it would give the prize money to political prisoners.   

Much of "Zavtra's" plot concerns a Voina action called  "Palace Revolution," and the months of practice  and planning that preceded it. The group overturned a police car, set up in a scripted video as a scheme to rescue a child's ball that had rolled underneath. Thanks to "Palace Revolution," two of the group's main members, Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor) and Leonid Nikolayev, face multiyear prison sentences for hooliganism.    

The breakout star of the film is the child whose ball gets stuck under the police car in "Palace Revolution." He's a charming toddler named Kasper, and he's the son of Vorotnikov and Voina member Natalia Sokol, known as Koza. Whether he's turning over his own toy police cars, gumming large hunks of "borrowed" supermarket sausage, waking up group members by sprinkling them with a watering can or being taken into state custody briefly when police arrest his parents, Kasper is more than just along for the wild ride. While shoplifting, vandalizing and protesting, it sometimes feels as if Vor and Koza are using their baby as a prop, excuse or even a shield.

Gryazev insists that Kasper's parents and the other members of Voina have the boy's best interest at heart. "Essentially, everything the group has done has been for Kasper.  For his future, so that he will be able to live in comfortable conditions, that he will have laws, or perhaps it's better to say an absence of laws of the sort that we currently have in Russia, so that in the future he will be able to enjoy absolute freedom."

With Koza a fugitive and the case against Vor under review for the third time by the Russian public prosecutor, it's safe to say that future is yet far off. 

Given Voina's nature, it's perhaps no surprise that in advance of the film's debut, the group reportedly claimed that it was unauthorized and inaccurate.  Gryazev insists that as an auteur, he has the right to show his own reality, even starting "Zavtra"  with this disclaimer:  "This film does not claim to be historically accurate.  Some or all of the events depicted here may or may not have happened in reality. "He freely admitted that the film is a mix of traditional documentary techniques, re-enactments and scripted scenes, and he said  "Zavtra's" subjects often played to the camera, both acting and overacting.

Voina has its enemies and fans alike.  British street artist Banksy pledged proceeds from one of his prints, more than $100,000, to the group, and Voina, including Kasper, now nearly 3, has been invited to help curate the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art this spring.   

This is the third documentary released by Gryazev, who says he now splits his time evenly between ice skating and filmmaking.  His previous two movies, "Sanya and Sparrow"  and "Miner's Day," both look at life and hardship in contemporary Russia, and have been critically acclaimed in festival appearances. "Zavtra"  has been booked for festivals in Latin America, Australia, Britain, Portugal and Spain. 

Check out the trailer below:


-- Susan Stone in Berlin
Photo: A shot from "Zavtra." Credit: Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival

Berlin Film Festival: Top award goes to Italian prison documentary

February 18, 2012 |  2:38 pm

Caesar must die
The Berlin International Film Festival handed out its awards Saturday, awarding the top prize, the Golden Bear, to "Caesar Must Die" (“Cesare Deve Morire”) from octogenarian filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.  

The crowd- and critic-pleasing scripted documentary follows inmates at a high-security prison in Rome as they rehearse for a public performance of Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.”    Accepting their award, the Taviani brothers greeted and named their behind-bars stars by name, and gave thanks for “the sublime words of Shakespeare.”  The filmmakers have previously won a Palme d´Or and the Grand Prix du Jury in Cannes, and have also been honored with a Golden Lion for Career Achievement at the Venice Film Festival.

“Csak a szél” (“Just The Wind”) by Bence Fliegauf won the Jury Grand Prize Silver Bear. The intense realist drama is inspired by an actual series of hate-crime murders in Hungary; the film also won two independent jury prizes, the Peace Film Award and the  Amnesty International Film Prize. 

This year's jury, which included Jake Gyllenhaal, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, also took the unusual step of inventing a new prize for the occasion.  “When there are so many films, and so few awards, there is sometimes an excellent film that doesn't quite make the final selection. So strongly does the jury of the 62nd Berlinale feel about one such film that we have decided to award a special mention,”  said Jury President Mike Leigh,  presenting a Special Award Silver Bear to Ursula Meier for her film “L'enfant d'en haut”  ("Sister").  Set behind the scenes in a Swiss ski resort, the story focuses on a young boy who survives by stealing from well-off holiday-goers, supporting his sister, with whom he has a rather complicated relationship.  

Germany's Christian Petzold won a Silver Bear for best director for “Barbara.” Set in 1980s East Germany, the film is part thriller and part quiet personal drama.  

This year's Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution singled out cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier for his work on the Chinese film “Bai lu yuan” (“White Deer Plain”) directed by Wang Quan'an, which is full of golden landscapes of grain, and beautiful but desolate vistas.  

“Tabu,” an unconventional black-and-white film from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, received the Alfred Bauer Prize, awarded to a feature film that "broadens the horizons of the art of filmmaking."  Gomes and countryman João Salaviza, whose film “Rafa” got the Golden Bear for Short Film, took their opportunity on stage to draw attention to what they see as a lack of support for the film industry in their country. 

The Silver Bear for best script went to Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg for  “En Kongelig Affære” (“A Royal Affair”).  Arcel also directed the historical Danish drama, which boasted fellow Dane Lars von Trier as an executive producer. One of the film's stars,  Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, took home the top acting prize for playing the immature and irresponsible King Christian VII. 

Best actress kudos went to 15-year-old Rachel Mwanza for her performance as a child soldier in “Rebelle” (“War Witch”) from Canadian director Kim Nguyen.  Mwanza lived on the street in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo before being discovered by Nguyen and cast in his film, along with other amateur actors.

Many of the feted films have already picked up distributors for North America.   Adopt Films acquired U.S. rights for “Caesar Must Die” and  "Sister."  Magnolia will bring “A Royal Affair” stateside. 

Other prize-winning films include “The Great Rabbit” by Atsushi Wade, with a short film Silver Bear, “Kauwboy,” by Boudewijn Koole, which won for best first feature, a prize endowed by German film industry group GWFF. Earlier Saturday, “Kauwboy” also won a Crystal Bear from the Generations section, which focuses on films for young people.  Other Crystal Bear winners include “Gattu” from Indian film director Rajan Khosa and the American independent film “Arcadia,” directed by Olivia Silver, which took home the top prize in the section for best feature.  


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Berlin Film Festival: Documentaries take cameras behind bars

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-- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A scene from “Cesare deve morire." Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival.

Berlin Film Festival: Keanu Reeves tackles film vs. digital

February 17, 2012 |  5:30 pm

Capturing a fleeting moment in time before it disappears forever is one of the essential functions of a film camera. A new documentary, “Side by Side,” aims to grasp the transition from photochemical film to digital in an objective way, by talking to some of the most opinionated people in the business, from George Lucas to Lars von Trier to David Fincher.  The movie premiered Thursday at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Berlinale Special section.

“Side by Side” is directed by Chris Kenneally  (“Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating”), with Keanu Reeves playing a dual role as co-producer (with Justin Szlasa) and interviewer.   The two have woven a user-friendly but detailed look at the tools and techniques that are challenging tradition, working their way through filming, editing, color correction, digital effects, distribution, projection, and archiving.  

Kenneally and Reeves came up with the project while working together on “Henry's Crime.” Reeves starred in and produced the 2010 film; Kenneally supervised its post-production.  “We were having all the same conversations you see in the movie,” remembers  Kenneally.  “One day Keanu's just like, 'You know what? We should make a documentary about this.' ”

The two went on to interview a lengthy dream list of directors, cinematographers, editors, technicians, and even a couple of NYU film students, all of whom have heartfelt and often hilarious commentary to offer Reeves, who elicits a relaxed conversational tone from his subjects. 

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Berlin film festival: China's epic 'White Deer Plain' premieres

February 17, 2012 |  1:30 pm


Epic Chinese drama “Bai lu yuan” (“White Deer Plain”) made its intense premiere Wednesday at the Berlinale. Wang Quan'an's film, which runs three hours, details the lives of two feuding families, Bai and Lu, over several decades of political and social turmoil, and is based on the controversial 1992 award-winning novel of the same name by Chen Zhongshi, which was blacklisted for its explicit sex scenes. 

Many top Chinese directors, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Wu Tianming have tried to bring “White Deer Plain” to the screen but have been unsuccessful for various reasons. “In Chinese cinema, we've been thinking about this for 20 years, and for 20 years I've been wanting to make a film like this,”  Wang said at the film's news conference. He said he'd been working on the historical saga himself since 2005.

Set in the wheat-filled plains of Shaanxi Province in the central part of mainland China, “White Deer Plain” delivers an unflinching look at peasant life in the early 20th century. A village evolves through the end of the empire, the abuse of rampaging gangs, drought, famine, plague, and the rise of communism. In the midst of all this changing history, Bai Jiaxuan, the region's moralistic clan head, played by Zhang Fengyi, tries to maintain order and uphold traditional ethics and values, helped by loyal servant Lu San (Liu Wei).  He is challenged by corrupt Mayor Lu Zilin (Wu Gang). All three men find their status and beliefs challenged by their sons and a beautiful but dangerous woman (Zhang Yu Qi) whose presence upends their lives forever.

Wang Quan'an conceded that the five hours of footage he produced had gone through many changes — and not all in editing. "There was some intervention on the part of censorship, or let's call it 'corrections,' that were made," said Wang. “It is sometimes painful and sad — I can't really say it's the film I fully intended.”  He went on to say that the final cut of the film constituted about 40% of what he wanted to show audiences.

Still, he said that the film was an important historical document of Chinese identity, and the fact that it had even been made was a sign of progress.

“It's a symbolic film, and it is also a symbol for what we can now achieve with film in China,”  he said.  “And so we also want to show that things are more relaxed now and that we now have a working environment where we can be critical."

Wang also took a moment at the news conference to thank his cast and crew for enduring a grueling shoot in rural Mongolia during the frigid fall and winter months.

The film was a last-minute addition to the Berlin International Film Festival's competition lineup; it reportedly had a long wait for official permission due to extended negotiations with the Chinese censors over content.

In advance of Wednesday's premiere, Hong Kong's Distrubution Workshop picked up international rights for the fillm (excluding China).    

Wang Quan'an has a solid record of success at the Berlinale: His  film “Tuya's Marriage” won a Golden Bear in Berlin in 2007, and he picked up a Silver Bear for best screenplay for “Apart Together” in 2010.


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— Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A scene from "White Deer Plain." Photo credit: Berlin International Film Festival.

Robert Pattinson: I loved playing a player in ‘Bel Ami’

February 17, 2012 | 11:31 am


A corrupt government –- supported by a corrupt media –- that seeks to invade an Arab country for its resources is how Declan Donnellan described his film adaptation of the 1885 Guy de Maupassant novel “Bel Ami,” which focuses on France’s complex relationship with Morocco.

But Donnellan and collaborator Nick Ormerod’s movie, which  premieres Friday at the Berlin Film Festival, will get attention for a less geopolitical reason: It stars Robert Pattinson.

“The Twilight Saga” actor plays the lead character, Georges Duroy, who smarms and charms his way out of poverty and through the drawing rooms and bedrooms of the power-couples in 1890s Paris.  

In the film, Duroy is pulled out of squalor by Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), a fellow former  soldier who has become a big-shot political editor.  But, as Forestier's smart and beautiful wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) tells him, the most important people in Paris aren't these men but their wives.   The handsome Duroy enchants every female he meets, including the daughter of his mistress Clotilde (Christina Ricci), who gives him his nickname “Bel Ami.”  

The lazy Lothario later becomes boy toy to the brilliant and savvy Madeleine, who writes his articles and mingles with the politicians the newspaper has brought into power. When Bel Ami is insulted and dismissed by the paper's editor Rousset (Colm Meaney), he turns his attentions to the man's wife Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger). 

 At a press conference, Pattinson said he felt very motivated to play the morally dubious character. “When I first read it, I immediately related to just the idea that someone's energy wasn't about trying to achieve some kind of goal -– the only time he had any energy [was] when someone slighted him,”  Pattinson said.  “That's how I was a few years ago.  If someone insulted me, I'd get 10 years of ambition.”   (He said he'd grown out of that in the years since he first read the script.)

Pattinson, who next appears  in David Cronenberg's “Cosmopolis,”  said he’s sometimes thrown by the female fans who wait hours for him to arrive at a public appearance, as they did, in Berlin's frigid temperatures, on Friday. “It's strange having a pretty much single-sex audience a lot of a time.  But it's great -– they have been incredibly loyal.” 

When asked if he would consider appearing in a future “Twilight” movie if author Stephenie Meyer continued the franchise, he said, “Yeah, I mean, I'd be curious to see what Stephenie would write, but I just think I'd probably be too old by the time they did it.  I'm already too old!” 

“Bel Ami’ is co-directed by Donnellan and Ormerod, a theater team that has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre in London and Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet; this is their feature film debut.  “The part's somebody the opposite of Rob,” Donnellan said of his lead actor.  “Bel Ami,” he explained, “is about somebody who has very little talent, who gets to the top on no talent, and it's a great parable for our times.”    


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Berlin film fest kicks off with an international mix of upheaval

 -- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: Robert Pattinson in "Bel Ami." Credit: Berlin Film Festival

Berlin Film Festival: With 'Iron Sky,' Nazis land on moon

February 15, 2012 |  6:22 pm


Nazis on the moon.  It’s hardly the topic you’d expect from a Finnish film at the artsy and often earnest Berlin International Film Festival, which takes place in a city that sometimes feels weighed down by its history.

But one of the most talked-about films in this year’s festival has turned out to be “Iron Sky,” a quirky sci-fi parody with aspirations to political satire that has grabbed the attention of international press and audiences as much for its creation mythos as its plot. The movie also will be screening next month at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.  (You can watch a trailer below.)

“Science-fiction has been going around this idea for a long time -- circling around Nazis in space. Why circle? Why don’t we just do Nazis in space?” asked Timo Vuorensola, the film’s director, pointing out that the Galactic Empire in "Star Wars" and several worlds in "Star Trek" are clearly modeled on Nazi Germany.  “Every science-fiction TV series has its Nazis -- and every science-fiction film has more or less its Nazis -- well, not every one, but many epic ones.  So this is taking that one step forward: Let's just make it about Nazis!”  

Vuorensola, who is also lead singer for a Finnish industrial metal band, has just one previous film under his belt: the 2005 space spoof “Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning.” The low-low-budget film was released for free online, and has been downloaded millions of times.

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Berlin Film Festival: Bob Marley documentary unveiled

February 13, 2012 |  7:16 am


A long-awaited Bob Marley documentary premiered Sunday at Berlin’s International Film Festival, and -- people get ready -- will open in U.S. theaters April 20 after playing the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March.

Though Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were previously attached to the portrait of the reggae legend, “Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald was brought in by producer Steve Bing, who had procured the music rights, film rights and the support of the Marley family

Macdonald told journalists at the Berlinale he had just 13 months to work on the bio-doc, which spans 2½ hours, packing in numerous interviews with mostly admiring family members, friends, lovers and musicians, historical concert footage, rare recordings, and 50 of Bob Marley’s songs, and 10 from other artists).

Macdonald’s touch for innovation within the documentary style, seen in 1999’s Oscar-winning “One Day in September” and 2003's “Touching the Void”) feels lacking in “Marley,” a lengthy portrayal of the man who rose from poverty in rural Jamaica to become a musical visionary and globally beloved figure, dying from cancer in 1981 at age 36.

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Berlin Film Festival: Documentaries take cameras behind bars

February 11, 2012 | 12:59 pm

Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but cameras are the windows to the cell in two wildly different but gripping films premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Saturday's entry in the competition section, “Cesare deve morire" ("Caesar Must Die") from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, is a dramatic documentary set in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, where inmates from the high-security section are staging William Shakespeare’s tragedy "Julius Caesar" for a public audience. The Tavianis capture six months of rehearsals leading up to opening night, and the struggles of the men as they internalize Shakespeare’s dialogue detailing power, betrayal and manipulation, all themes they know too well from the lives of crime that led them to incarceration.

The inmates-turned-actors find resonance in Caesar’s ancient capital reflected in their own corrupt cities, be it Naples or contemporary Rome. The Taviani brothers, now in their 80s, have been making films since the 1960s; their films have been awarded a Palme d´Or ("Padre Padrone," 1977) and the Grand Prix du Jury ("The Night of the Shooting Stars," 1982)  in Cannes and the two were honored with a Golden Lion for Career Achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1986.

After viewing a presentation at Rebibbia of a prisoner reading from Dante’s "Divine Comedy," the directors were moved to design the film and theater project with with Fabio Cavalli, a stage director whose theatrical program for the incarcerated has resulted in more than 100 convicts performing behind prison walls for 22,000 audience members over the last 10 years.  Most of the film is shot in black and white, with color coming in for the energetic stage performance.  Along with Cavalli, the Tavianis developed a guiding screenplay for the filming, leaving ample room for chance and improvisation. The action feels at times stagy, but it’s hard to fault the characters for playing larger than life when they are serving life sentences. 

Nearly Shakespearean characters also populate Werner Herzog's “Death Row,” a four-part documentary series made for TV.  This lengthy companion piece to last year's Herzog prison doc “Into the Abyss” will be shown in the U.S. as a series on the cable channel Investigation Discovery.

After shots of a prison death chamber and the cells leading up to it, a brief narration from Herzog states his position respectfully disagreeing with the death penalty (the same sequence opens for each episode).  Each episode then offers a portrait of criminality, personalized.

I may sympathize with your cause, says Herzog to James Barnes in one episode, “but I don’t have to like you.”  Barnes, a convicted murderer who confessed to another brutal slaying while in prison, and two more during Herzog’s filming, is a  consummate actor to the extent that it’s unclear what his current relationship to the truth might be.  A trip into his past turns up juvenile delinquency, but also physical and possibly sexual abuse.  In each episode, family, lawyers and media clarify the facts of the story, but leave it up to the viewer to decide whether these individuals deserve death at the hands of the state.  It may not be pleasant spending time with these subjects, but it is riveting.


Pan African Film & Arts Festival celebrates 20th anniversary

Berlin Film Festival: 3 documentaries on Japan nuclear disaster

Berlin film fest kicks off with an international mix of upheaval

-- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A scene from “Cesare deve morire." Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival.

Berlin Film Festival: 3 documentaries on Japan nuclear disaster

February 10, 2012 | 12:12 pm

Less than a year after the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan devastated whole towns and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, causing a radioactive disaster, filmic portraits at the Berlin International Film Festival are presenting the human fallout. Three documentaries appearing at the Berlinale provide sort of post-nuclear ghost stories -- landscapes and people haunted by the aftermath of the nuclear accident and residual radiation.

Atsushi Funahashi’s "Nuclear Nation," which was to debut Friday night in a world premiere, documents life in exile for the residents of Futaba, a town that prospered and then all but perished, its rise and fall tightly woven together with the Fukushima nuclear plant.  National subsidies and major tax breaks came to Futaba starting in the 1960s, compensation for the presence of the plant. Along with jobs for citizens, the plant brought money for a new community center, library and sports facilities.

Funahashi’s film shows that all lies empty now, beyond the ornate city gates reading “Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous” -- the entire city has been designated as an exclusion zone, and will be uninhabitable for years.  Says Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa, “It was the perfect little town.” Now home for 1,400 of the town´s residents is an abandoned high school 155 miles away, where they sleep without privacy, eat tasteless box lunches, and are sporadically lifted from boredom by visits from out-of-tune military bands and a washed-up group of flabby costumed wrestlers.

Alternately moving and chilling are scenes of Futaba´s residents visiting their homes or now-empty foundations on two-hour "return permits." Wrapped up in safety suits and masks, with radioactivity monitors around their necks, they search for family photos and beloved articles of clothing, or lay flowers at the sites where relatives lost their lives.  Though long at its festival screening length of 145 minutes, the film will be released in shorter cinema and television versions.

Toshi Fujiwara’s "No Man’s Zone" screens Sunday, and aspires to more artiness, featuring a voice-over by Armenian Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian. Fujiwara hopes to show the beauty in the tainted landscape, while leveling a critique of the disaster and how it was handled.  And "Friends After 3.11," bowing internationally here on Monday, follows director Shunji Iwai as he struggles to make sense of the country’s new reality. Iwai wanted to learn everything he could about nuclear power, and traveled the country speaking to researchers, anti-nuclear protesters, energy specialists and 14-year-old Kokoro Fujinami, an activist, former child model and television personality who has emerged as a sort of "anti-nuclear idol."

The documentaries are screening just days after a fresh reminder of the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. On Feb. 8, workers battled rising temperatures in one of the plant’s reactors, raising new questions about the stability of the facility.

The films should have a special resonance in Berlin, where anti-nuclear sentiment has been strong for years, partly due to secrecy around and problems following the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986.  After the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, the German government decided to phase out all nuclear energy by 2022, and started by immediately shutting several plants.


Berlin film fest kicks off with an international mix of upheaval

First new US nuclear reactors in decades approved

 — Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: Workers pile up plastic bags containing radiation-contaminated fallen leaves and surface soil collected from the surrounding area in the municipal baseball field for temporary storage in Okuma, a town where the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is located, in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Thursday, Feb. 9. Credit: AP Photo / Kyodo News


Berlin film fest kicks off with an international mix of upheaval

February 8, 2012 | 12:21 pm

Berlin film festival 2012
The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, and with nearly 400 films screening over 10 days in Germany’s chilly capital, it's hard to find just one theme to describe this year's Berlinale. To be sure, the event’s signature blend of politics and pomp is on display, and festival director Dieter Kosslick may have summed it up best with one of his favorite words: upheaval.

Eighteen films will have their world premieres in the competition section, including “Barbara” from German favorite Christian Petzold, about a woman trying to flee 1980s East Germany to meet her lover; “Captive,” by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, which concerns an aid worker (Isabelle Huppert) kidnapped by Islamic separatists; and “Bai lu yuan” (“White Deer Plain”) from Chinese director Wang Quan'an, who won a Silver Bear for “Tuya's Marriage” in 2007. The three-hour film, which focuses on three generations of a family from China's western plain over a half-century, is based on what's been called “one of the most controversial Chinese novels in contemporary times.”

The only U.S. competition entry this year is the 1960s drama “Jayne Mansfield's Car,” directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, with Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Kevin Bacon. The film is the first co-production between Russian AR Films and American Media Talent Group, which founded a film investment fund together.

The opening gala features “Les Adieux à la Reine” (“Farewell, My Queen”), from director Benoît Jacquot. Stars Diane Kruger, Lea Seydoux and Virginie Ledoyen will walk the red carpet, adding the requisite glamour and gowns. The film focuses on the last days of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, with Kruger taking the lead role.

“Everything's a bit French this year,” mused Kosslick at the festival's introductory news conference, referring to the numerous Gallic productions, co-production, and guests punctuating the program, from the Culinary Cinema section's “The Chef,” starring Jean Reno, to the jury's François Ozon and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Among the other jurors this year are Jake Gyllenhaal, Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, German actress Barbara Sukowa, and Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of “A Separation.” Mike Leigh is leading the panel.

Films screening out of competition include the seductive costume drama “Bel Ami,” with Robert Pattinson and Uma Thurman; the 3-D “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,” with Jet Li; and the IRA-themed “Shadow Dancer” with Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson and Andrea Riseborough.

The festival's highlights and classics section, Berlinale Special, will premiere several documentaries. One hotly awaited title is the bio-doc “Marley” from “The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald. U.S. distribution rights for the portrait of the reggae legend were bought ahead of the festival by Magnolia Pictures; VH1 has secured first dibs for television. Also on tap is Werner Herzog's “Death Row,” a lengthy companion piece to last year's prison documentary “Into the Abyss”; the film will be shown in the U.S. as a series on the cable channel Investigation Discovery. Then there's “Anton Corbijn Inside Out,” from Klaartje Quirijns, which could mark the first time a member of the jury is profiled by a festival film.

The Berlinale this year includes a special focus on the Arab world, with films, panel discussions and installations representing Egypt, Syria, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and other countries. Among the screenings are “Althawra ... Khabar” (“Reporting ... A Revolution”) by Bassam Mortada, which documents the role played by independent media during the Egyptian revolution; “Hijos de las Nubes, La última Colonia” (“Sons of the Clouds, the Last Colony”) directed by Alvaro Longoria and produced by Javier Bardem, about the forgotten colonial war in the Western Sahara; and the World Cinema Fund-sponsored “Death for Sale,” about three friends trying to make their way through the underworld of an impoverished Moroccan city.

Keanu Reeves will premiere a film he produced, “Side by Side,” directed by Christopher Kenneally, which compares digital and “photochemical” filmmaking through interviews with people in the industry including Steven Soderbergh, Joel Schumacher, John Malkovich and Lars von Trier. Berlinale Special will also present a selection of films — from “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “The Iron Lady” — in tribute to Meryl Streep, who will receive this year’s Honorary Golden Bear.


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Cheat Sheet: Your guide to the Oscar nominees

— Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A poster advertises the 62nd Berlinale film festival in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz on Wednesday. Credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.


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