Festivals: Letter from Berlin: Report from the 54th International Film Festival

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For ten days every February, Berlin becomes the capital of film, as the Berlinale showcases more than four hundred films and an international jury--this year headed by American actress Frances McDormand--selects the winner of the coveted Golden Bear. In its third year under new director Dieter Kosslick (pictured), and in its fifth year at glitzy Potsdamer Platz, this year's installment was even more international, more professional, more prestigious, and more popular with Berliners, slowly narrowing the gap to its great rival in Southern France. While winter in Berlin certainly cannot match May on the Cote d'Azur, many feel that as far as films are concerned, the Berlinale has closed in on Cannes.

Both in the Competition and its others series--the Panorama and the Forum, which showcase international productions as well as smaller, independent films--the festival traditionally focuses on films with a certain political relevance. Among the 23 films in the competition, 19 of which were world premieres, there were several that in one way or another took issue with a variety of political concerns, both past and present. To be sure, there was not the same sense of urgency as last year, when only days before the war in Iraq more than a hundred thousand demonstrated in the streets of Berlin and elsewhere in Europe, and a passionate Dustin Hoffman spoke out against the war during the festival. But this year's films articulated political concerns and issues stronger than in the past.

In Country of My Skull, English director John Boorman looks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Set in 1995, the film revolves around the encounter between a reporter for the Washington Post (Samuel L. Jackson) and the South African novelist Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) who both attend the hearings where perpetrators are confronted with their victims. The film combines a haunting account of the Commission with a classic love story but in the end squanders the chance to probe the difficulties of post-Apartheid South Africa. More impressive was the Croatian film Svjedoci/ The Witnesses by 40-year old director Vinko Bresan from Zagreb. Posing as a thriller, the film depicts the murder of a Serb loan shark in a Croatian village in 1992 at the hands of three young soldiers on vacation from the front. Told from three different perspectives, the film delves deeper and deeper into the quagmire of mystery, allegations, and ideology, portraying the civil war in Yugoslavia as a battlefield without victors. The unusual narrative perspective, the strong performances by Leon Lucev and Alma Prica, and an opening shot that rivals that of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil made this small film one of the gems of the Berlinale.

A special focus this year was on films from Latin America. From Brazil, Marcos Bernstein's O Outro Lada Da Rua/ The Other Side of the Road stood out as an ironic revisiting of Hitchcock's Rear Window. In this film it is 65-year old Regina who works as informant for the local police to escape the boredom of retirement, and, like Hitchcock's hero, she too is witness--through her binoculars--to what seems like a murder. The suspect, however, is a respected judge who claims to have administered medication to his fatally ill wife. What ensues is a murder mystery rolled into a romance story between two older but still very alive human beings.

Argentine director Fernando Solanas was presented with the Bear for lifetime achievement. He was also in Berlin to introduce his film Memoria del saqueo, a documentary made up of interviews and archival footage that comments on the Argentinean crisis of recent years and the consequences of globalization and neo-liberal politics. As he stated, "I wish to contribute to the urgent debate taking place in Argentina, Latin America, and the world at large about the dehumanizing effects of globalization. At the same time, the film attempts to show that another world is possible. …