Berlinale 2021: A lament for a lost festival experience
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After that rather dramatic headline, let me clarify that the lament is not about Berlinale 2021 going online. The pandemic has opened up something akin to what social media did way back. At one time, only establishment critics had their voice heard, but with Facebook and Twitter, anyone could opine on a movie. The online nature of the Rotterdam festival (recently) and the Berlinale (now) has, similarly, democratised media coverage. Earlier only those with invitations from the festival could go—also, only those who could fork up the hefty costs involved, even if the publication you write for was footing a bit of the bill. Now, you can sit in Chennai or Chandigarh and “attend” the Berlinale. So, it’s all good—with just one caveat. The theatrical experience will be missed.

Again, let me clarify. This is not a lament about not watching these films on a big screen. Well, it’s a little bit about that, sure – but I think we have all (meaning, media people) gotten used to screeners now. We have all gotten used to reviewing meant-for-big-screen films after watching them on a small screen. But leave screen size aside, and you’ll see how important it is to just be inside a theatre. A lot of people say this, right? They talk about the pleasures of “community viewing”, etc., even with the big entertainers we make in our country. The whistles, the claps, the waves of laughter that wash over that confined space when a comic line clicks – everything works together to enhance your experience of the movie.

But with artier festival fare, theatres serve a different purpose. If a film begins to “bore” you while you are watching it at home, you may be tempted to PAUSE. You might feel like taking a break. You can’t do that in a theatre (unless you decide to walk out, of course). There’s darkness all around you. You have to keep staring at the screen, and if the film is any good, its initial “boredom” begins to make sense. You get it. You get used to the rhythms. The sheer force of being passive makes the mind more alert, more active. That’s the thing you’ll miss. So a small part of my lament is for this.

The bigger lament is about missing the live festival experience. The Berlinale was the first international film festival I was invited to. (I was with The Hindu, then.) It remains my favourite festival simply because of the weather. Yes, Cannes has the Riviera and Venice has the water scooters. (One of the coolest screenings I attended was when I had to “boat it” to a theatre. It was so cool, I practically felt the face-with-sunglasses emoji hanging over me.)

Berlinale 2021: A Lament For A Lost Festival Experience
A scene from Céline Sciamma’s ‘Petite Maman’ premiering at Berlinale 2021.

But Berlin has the cold that someone from Chennai so desperately craves. It’s not bone-chilling, exactly. You’re always some kind of covered, plus all the insides (the theatres, the press rooms) are heated. But when you walk it up between venues or even back to your hotel room, you see your breath fogging up in front of you and dammit, that cheap thrill is what this lament is for: the fact that there is actually a shade of weather that’s not (as the local joke goes) hot, hotter, or hottest.

This lament is for that big, bulky jacket that hangs in my closet for eleven months, waiting for Berlin. (I’ll have to air out the poor thing.) This lament is for my thermal pants, too, and for the happiness that comes from slurping hot food from the stalls that have you lining up (in the cold) and standing (in the cold) and eating (in the cold). This lament is for the peculiar halfway-warmth you get from the sun in a really cold place. Have I mentioned I’ll miss the cold? I’ll say it again. I’ll miss the cold.

It’s already hotting up in Chennai. Maybe I should turn on the AC full-blast and keep the fan running as well, and watch the films with my Berlin-wear—but no, I think that will only make me seem weirder than I already am. So yes, dear Berlinale. I look forward to your gifts, the films you will bring to me from directors like Céline Sciamma and Radu Jude and Natalie Morales and Alonso Ruizpalacios. But these films just won’t be the same without seeing the piles of coats at the feet of viewers (and taking care not to tread on them as you head to a corner seat) and wondering how those actresses in backless gowns manage not to get icicles between their shoulder blades as they do the red carpet thing. And oh dear god, I forgot to mention my gloves. Those are going to need airing out, too.

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