Berlinale 2024 Round-Up: A Film Festival at a Crossroads

The 74th Berlinale faltered when it came to difficult political questions.
Berlinale Round-Up: A Film Festival at a Crossroads
Berlinale Round-Up: A Film Festival at a Crossroads

A long shadow fell over the 74th Berlinale. The festival’s inability to vocally and unequivocally support a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict, its unwillingness to bring the conflict into its programming with a robustness it deployed during the Ukraine crisis, and its ignorance in refusing to distinguish “anti-semitism” from “anti-zionism” in its language and accusations, have placed the festival, known for being the most progressive of the blinging European lot, at a defining crossroad. The noise around films and their curation took a backseat, amidst news items of this being the last year for the artistic director Carlo Chatrian and manager Mariette Rissenbeek, who are leaving under strained circumstances, both financial and creative. The invitation and, later, disinvitation of far-right politicians for the opening ceremony produced a roar far exceeding that of the opening film, Small Things Like These

Cillian Murphy in Small Things Like These.
Cillian Murphy in Small Things Like These.

Indian Films at the Festival

But that does not mean cinema lost its sheen as the centrepiece in what is called “The Second Christmas of Berlin”. A packed late night screening of True Chronicles of the Blida Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in the Last Century, when Dr, Frantz Fanon was Head of the Fifth Ward between 1953 and 1956, began with a cheer when the compere was able to name the full film, without pause. Most, if not all, the screenings I attended were full, from large theatres seating upwards of 2000 people to smaller ones for the press. Even the morning slots were quite bulked up in the frigid Berlin winters. Obscure short films had waiting lines — I was sulking in one of them, hoping to get in. There was even Dimitris Athiridis’s 14-hour observational documentary exergue – on documenta 14, about the making of a divisive edition of an arts festival in Greece, 2017 —  split over two days — which provided a framework to absorb what was unravelling at the Berlinale.

A still from Belly of the Tiger.
A still from Belly of the Tiger.

India had three feature films — PS Vinothraj’s Kottukkaali, Raam Reddy’s The Fable, and Siddartha Jatla’s In The Belly Of The Tigerall three being male filmmakers from the South. We also had four short films that played — Gavati Wad’s O Seeker, Utkarsh’s Remote Occlusions, Subarna Dash’s The Girl Who Lived in the Loo, and Nishi Dugar’s Anaar Daana. There was also, strangely, Allu Arjun who was presenting the teaser of Pushpa 2 at the sidelines of the festival. 

Chatter Around Representation

French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop became the first Black director ever to bag the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, for her documentary Dahomey, on France’s return of 26 ancient artefacts to their original owners, the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin; she accepted the award from Lupita Nyong’o, the first Black person ever to preside over the festival’s competition jury. After last year’s Sur L'Adamant by Nicolas Philibert bagging the Golden Bear, another documentary, this form’s cache seems to be at par, if not exceeding that of fictional feature films. Truth seems to move the jury more than fiction. Or at least the palatable packaging of this truth.

Dahomey, a slim film, is by no means revelatory or poignant. An electronically processed voiceover is given to the statues to ventriloquise; they speak of longing in hoary passages. We see students at the local university discussing this return with the hasty, haughty arrogance — confidence, really — that only the youth possess.

I suppose the very act of stating colonialism is considered powerful in such spaces; the very act of young people discussing it, shows that if no one else, cinema will hear you. 

It is not unusual for festivals and awards to platform righteousness that is made with sincerity, whose optics — “first ever…” — spins the festival and awards some sorely lacking cultural credit; it is the festival emerging into the current moment, finally catching up. 

The Identity Conundrum

Especially since some of the other “exciting” films, Viktor Kossakovsky’s Architecton and Matthias Glasner’s Sterben (Dying) were directed by white men, the former can be reduced to “white man makes a movie about rocks” and the latter, “white man deals with existentialism.” I am using these reductions because this is how these films were spoken of here, often. It is easy to negate the cinema in favour of its politics, its context, as opposed to reading it alongside it. How to hold Kossakovsky’s Architecton, largely silent, a sublime piece on concrete, framing beauty as terror, terror as beauty, from Ukraine to Yemen to Turkey to France, pulping you into insignificance, alongside the demographic advantages he embodies. Why should one overwrite the other? I would, in fact, consider the three-hour-long Sterben’s poignant, provocative investigation of death and the death-drive of a white middle-class family, with a scene at the Berliner Philharmonie that would put Tár’s meltdown to shame, one of the standouts of this festival.

But sometimes, it is just the cinematic pedigree. Would any filmmaker — lets say, female filmmaker — be allowed to make what Tsai Ming Liang made, Abiding Nowhere, where a monk walks slowly for 79 minutes? 

The Awards Ceremony

Alongside Dahomey, two other documentaries were awarded top prizes — Guillaume Cailleau and Ben Russell’s Direct Action, on eco-activists being derided as eco-terrorists, and No Other Land, directed by a four-person Palestinian-Israeli collective, looking at Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. German director Matthias Glasner bagged the Best Screenplay prize for Sterben (Dying) while Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht took the Outstanding Artistic Contribution award for his work in The Devil’s Bath.

Sebastian Stan, whose fame has been buttressed by the MCU, took the Best Leading Performance for his aching patheticness in director Aaron Schimberg’s provocative, Sundance-premiered black-comedy A Different Man — the first male performer to win at Berlin since the festival decided to degender its acting awards three years ago. Playing a man with neurofibromatosis, his face distorted, he chances upon a miraculous cure, but soon, in a marvellous moral-switcheroo realises that his problem might not have been skin-deep. Two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson won the supporting award for her performance in the festival opener, Small Things Like These, an unnerving performance of mother superior in Eighties Ireland who is concealing the Magdalene laundry abuses.

Isabelle Huppert in A Traveler's Needs
Isabelle Huppert in A Traveler's Needs

Prolific Korean director and Berlinale regular Hong Sangsoo won the Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s second-highest honour, for his strange comedy A Traveler’s Needs, starring Isabelle Huppert as a mysterious Frenchwoman who floats around Seoul, teaching Korean French using a method that muddies the barrier between farce and fact. French auteur Bruno Dumont’s rip-roaring sci-fi farce The Empire — that injects into the genre humour, sex, and irreverence — won the Jury Prize. Dominican director Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias won Best Director for Pepe, about a rogue hippopotamus escaping Pablo Escobar’s compound. 

With all these films, all this swirling art, this year’s Berlinale will, for better or worse, be remembered for its politics — the hacking of Berlinale’s Instagram, the criminal investigations, comments by German ministers, pro-Palestinian film director’s house being attacked, etc — because politics has a way of bulldozing its way into a conversation, and having bulldozed, to stake its claim on this land, like an adamant squatter. That a film festival, known for its political stances — say, Trump, say, the Arab Spring — has now become victim to its very own voice that it could not rise up to, not quite enough, anyway.

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