While waiting for the press screening of Gully Boy, I glanced at the press notes: “Bollywood meets hip-hop in Zoya Akhtar’s colourful but socially critical story about music and love.” The film runs 148 minutes, which is par for the course for us, of course. But at festivals, where people plan their days so that they can see as many films as possible, length can become a consideration. The other films being presented as part of the Berlinale Special programme are mostly less than two hours long. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch — the final part of the documentary trilogy by directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, in which they document the consequences of humankind’s actions on our planet (this one’s set in Kenya, “where tusks are being measured and stacked”) — runs a mere 87 minutes.
I looked at the other films in this section. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, directed by the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (and based on William Kamkwamba’s autobiographical novel) — runs 113 minutes. But Zoya Akhtar need not worry. El Norte — Gregory Nava’s 1984 epic about Guatemalan civil war refugees fleeing to the USA (the promised land of the title) and one of the first US indie films to break out and become a big hit — is 141 minutes long. And Heinrich Breloer’s Brecht (yes, about the writer), runs a whopping 182 minutes. Ritesh Batra’s Photograph (110 minutes) is playing in this section, too. “In atmospheric images that exude a quiet charm he almost casually depicts how social stratification divides Indian society and creates a sensitive portrait of everyday life in this megacity caught between tradition and progress.” If the film lives up to this description, it should be something.
2019 marks the 40th edition of the Panorama section of the Berlinale. This is usually one of the more interesting sections because it seeks out the alternative to the norm, or as the festival describes it, “a programme section that would have more selective freedom than Competition, as well as allow more radicalness and include the new developments in cinema.” The films here are those that challenge, provoke — it’s no surprise that Q’s films (Gandu, Garbage) are a fixture. As is LGBTI* cinema. One of the more interesting films, this year, is Khusein Erkenov’s 100 Days Before the Command, which was shot in 1990, but not seen outside Russia until a smuggled print was screened at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival. In Russia, where homosexuality is still taboo, this dream-like anti-narrative film depicts homoeroticism in the army, of all places. Also screening, The Making of Monsters (1990) by John Greyson, about the murder of a gay teacher at the hands of five teenage boys.
And the award for the best title at this year’s Berlinale goes to… It’s not an easy pick. I’m not talking about merely odd-sounding films like Progress in the Valley of the People Who don’t Know, or The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, or Mother, I am Suffocating. This is My last Film About You. (When was the last time you saw a title with two sentences?) Movie names about mothers are apparently a thing now. (Also see Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.) But no. I’m referring to truly out-there names like The Red Phallus (which, ironically, is about a woman’s struggle for independence), or A Dog Called Money. But my prize goes to a documentary about Greek farmers who take on the world market with organic produce. The title? When Tomatoes Met Wagner. Topping that is not going to be easy.
Finally, a few thoughts around the press screening of Gully Boy. The review will appear after the first public screening, this Saturday, but one of the things I missed is the audience energy you get in India. This is a film made for that energy. I was okay with no whistles accompanying the first appearance of Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. And it was nice to not have those smoking disclaimers and an intermission. (The film is so smoothly done, I couldn’t say where the interval card would have appeared.) But the fantabulous songs, too, played out in total silence — and I kept thinking about Rock On!, where the audience transformed the theatre into a mini concert hall. May I also add that the endless cards displaying the number of tie-ins and sponsors (Rupa, Bira) looked awkward. I’m not saying it’s wrong. Film is a business, after all. But I wished the festival print, at least, had relegated these very commercial acknowledgments to the very end. Anyway, see you with the review in a few days.