It is snowing in Berlin. The whole city is covered in a sheet of white with the sun out to give some respite from the biting cold. The 68th edition of the Berlinale (The Berlin International Film Festival) starts on 15 February. The festival is the annual film pilgrimage for almost everyone in the film festival circuit.
The Sundance Film Festival and International Film Festival Rotterdam mark the beginning of the new festival year, in January, but it is the Berlinale where the festival world convenes to watch 400 new films that premiere in various sections and attend one of the biggest global film markets (EFM- European Film Market).
All film festivals develop a distinct personality over the years. Both in terms of programming as well as the ecosystem that builds around them. Getting to know a festival in all its dimensions, offerings, nuances and layers is almost like getting to know a person. Therefore the preparation for a film festival has become as much of a fine art as attending it. How do you make the most of your time at a festival? How do you navigate the mad 10 days? How do you keep your sanity amid the chaos?
I got in touch with some of the best professionals in the business to give us their ‘cheat codes’ to crack open the Berlinale maze. These are film warriors, the Knights Templar of good cinema, the ones who have been shaping the cultural landscape for years. Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival), Clare Stewart (Festival Director, BFI London Film Festival), Bero Beyer (Festival Director, IFFR), Frederic Boyer (Artistic Director, Tribeca Film Festival) and Mike Goodridge (Artistic Director, International Film Festival and Awards Macao) gave me their take on the mighty beast called the Berlinale.
You’ve been attending the festival for many years. Give us 7 Berlinale navigating hacks, a gift from a Berlinale veteran to a Berlinale rookie.
- Seek out repeat screenings at cinemas beyond glossy Potsdamer Platz. Venues like the International (kino International) are where you soak up some of Berlin’s history.
- Speaking of history, visit the Holocaust memorial and Berlin’s other monuments to the darkest moments in its history. To its credit, Berlin, and Germany, acknowledge their crimes against humanity.
- See the Forum section’s art installations at galleries like Kunst-Werke. Berlin has some of the world’s most exciting contemporary art.
- Find the Berlinale section that suits you best. Panorama is great for a wide view on international cinema and especially LGBTQ films. The Forum is typically for more adventurous filmgoers, although they’ve also been known to screen big commercial Indian films there. The Competition is where you can find at least one of next year’s contenders for Academy award for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Wear warm layers of clothing and good, grippy footwear. Berlin’s February weather is unpredictable: rain, snow, sleet, wind — anything’s possible.
- Use the Berlinale app and, if you’re an industry professional, the Cinando app, too. Both have up-to-the-minute information on screenings.
- Eat some German regional food, but branch out too. Try something Turkish.
- One more: dance until dawn at a warehouse club.
- If you are planning to watch the Official Competition films and you have a Festival and/or Market badge, you can take your chances and line up at the 9 am and 12 pm press screenings at Berlinale Palast and usually get in.
- The third Official Competition screening of the day at Cinemaxx 7 is usually a bun fight and non-press badge holders rarely get in. I just get a ticket for the repeat screening the following day at Friedrichstadt-Palast and avoid endless queuing and disappointment.
- Festival Director Dieter Kosslick is a champion of vegetarian eating and at most Festival venues there are good veggie eating options, including the vegan hotpot at the European Film Market’s principle venue, the Martin Gropius Bau (MGB). Eating your greens is important when you are gunning for a hectic festival schedule.
- Pick up the trade dailies – Screen International, Variety, Hollywood Reporter – every morning. It’s worth carrying them around all day so you will never be bored in a queue or waiting for a film to start. Also, the Screen critics grid is a helpful way to keep up-to-date with what is being well received by the critics (but never confuse this as a guide to audience or jury responses).
- Go to screenings off the Potsdamer Platz grid at least twice — relish the socialist modernism of the Kino International on Karl-Marx-Allee, and Cinema 1 at the recently refurbished Zoo Palast is one of my favourite places to see films in the world.
- Download the apps. They are excellent for scheduling and the European Film Market (EFM) app is a great way to move quickly on films you are interested in while on the ground.
- Make the most of Berlin. There are so many great new restaurants and such fantastic museums and galleries, great architecture and design — combine your meetings with doing something distinctively Berlin.
- Basic gear: good shoes, coat and other stuff to keep you warm.
- Basic food: treat yourself to the right lunches and in-between snacks.
- It is very tempting to favour the meeting instead of watching a film… don’t.
- If you’re an emerging filmmaker/producer remember all those market booths are there for you and because of you.
- Check out the dailies and other feedback to see what surfaces (and what doesn’t).
- Try and get a feel of all sections, not just the competition.
- Have fun. A joyful person will always make better connections. People like making films with people they like.
- Don’t walk too fast.
- Say a nice good luck word to the shuttle’s drivers.
- Prefer the press screening at 9 am to any meeting at the same time.
- Don’t promise you will see a film you cannot.
- Decide to watch a film that you have never heard about before.
- Attend a public screening.
- Sleep well the first three days.
- Bring warm clothes, a hat and sturdy boots.
- Keep your ears open for word of mouth on the best films in the programme. It’s such a large and amorphous programme that you never quite know what to watch out for.
- Find a good sandwich shop. You always end up eating in screenings.
- Get acquainted with the U-Bahn. You will need it to get to other venues and taxis get caught up in traffic.
- Visit the film museum (Die Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen) on Potsdamer Strasse. It’s a great permanent exhibit with fascinating insights into cinema under the Nazis.
- Be aware of where you are; it’s easy to forget that the festival is a couple of streets next to Checkpoint Charlie and the market is situated next to former SS headquarters (The Topography of Terror). These sober monuments can sometimes give you perspective!
- Book restaurants in other parts of Berlin for dinners. It’s a huge and wonderful city and you need to get out of Potsdamer Platz.
Be aware of where you are; it’s easy to forget that the festival is a couple of streets next to Checkpoint Charlie and the market is situated next to former SS headquarters (The Topography of Terror). These sober monuments can sometimes give you perspective!
Your most abiding memory of the festival.
Cameron Bailey: I remember the years when the Berlinale was moving from the former West Berlin to the newly reunited city. Now Potsdamer Platz is a bustling commercial centre but 20 years ago it was a barren field that had just seen the Berlin Wall come down. I remember trudging to a Forum section party in the empty, muddy field, tagging along with R. E . M front man Michael Stipe.
Clare Stewart: I have many abiding Berlin memories, amongst them seeing one of my favourite films – Asghar Farhadi‘s A Separation in an early morning press screening – and racing to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, still in tears, to invite the film for the Sydney Film Festival. It was my final year as director of SFF and there I was, negotiating with emotions! The film went on to win Best Film at SFF later that year. More recently, I remember the rush of pride at the world premiere of Yann Demange’s ’71 (LINK) in competition. I was so thrilled that the BFI, the organisation I work for, had backed great new British talent and this terrific film. It was also genuinely exciting to see the BFI logo hit the screen at the Berlinale Palast.
Bero Beyer: I attended Berlinale as festival director, as Netherlands film funder and as independent producer. But probably the most abiding memory is having a film in competition (2005), because every screening for a full house is magic. That is what cinema is about.
Frederic Boyer: The intense and deep conversations with filmmakers at the whisky var at the cafe Einstein Stamm Haus.
Mike Goodridge: My most abiding memory of the festival is a screening of the first two episodes of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz at Friedrichstadt – Palast with the cast and many Fassbinder collaborators present. Seeing Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa on stage to celebrate this homegrown master and his towering achievement was a very wonderful Berlinale experience.
They engage in meaningful ways with what is going on in the world … They actually had billboards on the back of trucks being driven around Berlin that said, “Where is Jafar Panahi?”
You lead one of the biggest festivals in the world. What makes Berlinale stand out from the rest of the festivals?
Cameron Bailey: Like Toronto, Berlin takes place in a thriving city and has a large, public audience. The Q&As after screenings can get passionate sometimes. And because the Berlinale has such a long history of political engagement, you can soon find yourself in deep debates about borders, refugees and personal responsibility.
Clare Stewart: The Berlinale has a long history of supporting human rights, not only through its programming selections but also its campaigns, this year for example, they are taking donations for refugees. They engage in meaningful ways with what is going on in the world. In my time attending the festival, this was most visible the year they built on the action many film festivals were taking to protest the imprisonment of Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. They actually had billboards on the back of trucks being driven around Berlin that said, “Where is Jafar Panahi?”
Frederic Boyer: I’m impressed by the quality and the diversity of audience during the public screenings. There is more than 300 films presented at any time of the day.
Bero Beyer: There is a sharp and swift turn around for break-out films because of the market. For us at IFFR, the Berlinale and EFM are actually very nicely placed, because we can focus on discovery and presentation of films that push the boundaries and need or deserve that space to flourish. A market can be brutal — honest but brutal. Berlinale does a pretty good job in combining the two. The focus on new daring filmmakers in the other sections is also very good. And here too there is room for that same cinema-sense as we have in Rotterdam. In fact there are a few concrete collaborations between our festivals and markets that benefit the independent film world in more ways than one.
Mike Goodridge: I always feel that after the punishing excess and exhaustion of the English language “awards season”, Berlin starts the year off with a heavy dose of world cinema far away from Hollywood and all its awards-centricity. I have seen amazing films in Berlin — admittedly not as many as in Cannes or Venice or Toronto — but when you see Turin Horse and A Separation at one festival in the same year, you are in good shape.
A lesser known fact about the festival that only regulars would know.
Cameron Bailey: Terrific Italian food.
Frederic Boyer: There is a great Italian wine bar called ‘Muret La Barba’(After 6pm). We are in Germany, Do not forget to pay attention to the Perspective Deutches Kino selection. There is always a good discovery there.
Mike Goodridge: I can’t think of anything!
Bero Beyer: There is an easy way to remain sane in the fast pace of the festivals many events and market-buzz. Just take the time to sit down with a fellow filmmaker or cinema lover and come up with a new idea for a project. In other words: you determine the level of crazy or fomo! No one else. Now go and make beautiful films.