It’s only on the closing days of a new festival that things finally click into place, just in time to plan on heading home. It becomes significantly easier to navigate the vagaries of the city’s transport system, and you spend less time reading signs and more finding shortcuts that aren’t as obvious, especially in a place where everything is built on these intersecting angles (see Diary 1).
Like most festivals, Berlinale felt top-heavy, with many of the major premieres occupying the earlier slots in the fest. At Cannes, TIFF, and even Sundance, my usual ploy is to be there right until the last day, catching up on public screenings long after most journalists have headed back. Despite only being on the ground from Wednesday to Wednesday, I still managed my share of films, including a much-anticipated title I caught just before heading to the airport, while still finding some time to hang out with colleagues and grab some local delicacies.
In the latter days, I saw more and more public screenings, and visited some of the other venues spread out throughout the city. Some of these halls are truly astonishing, rivaling the main palace with their comfort and quality of presentation. For venues alone, Berlin seems to be the best on the circuit in terms of finding multiple locations to showcase the best of the world’s films in rooms worthy of such a prestigious event.
At one of those far-flung-yet-impressive venues, I caught “Hummingbirds,” Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras’ joyous indie hybrid. There’s room elsewhere to parse the popular trend of movies that blur the line between non-fiction and scripted, but whether it’s capturing moments in real-time or simply trafficking in verisimilitude, this warm and revealing portrait of two close friends was well received by the local crowd.
The charm of the film lies in its mix of brashness and serious introspection, mixing tone as much as it mixes its stylistic tendencies. The whole thing could collapse at any moment into something insular or even indulgent, yet the charms of these individuals, and the subtle pushes forward of its slight yet linear narrative, make for a truly enjoyable watch. It helps that the protagonists’ affection is authentic yet never cloying, and their ruminations on life in their local Laredo, Texas defies all sorts of stereotypes that litter such coming-of-age fare.
It’s almost what the film doesn’t do that makes it all work, allowing for quiet moments atop a car looking at stars, or reflecting upon the river that serves as a literal border between two very different potential lives, to feel appropriately poetic rather than obnoxious or trite. It’s simply fun to hang out with the two and their circle, warmed by their moments of grace and awkwardness. It’s a film of deep honesty that’s carefully crafted, and despite being dismissed by some American festivals it truly is one of the best films of this ilk I’ve seen. It's most certainly deserving of attention outside any documentary sidebar.
Another documentary hit even closer to home, as the events of “Concrete Valley” take place about ten minutes away from where I live in Toronto. The Thorncliffe Park neighborhood is home to many new immigrants to my city, many from war-torn areas around the world, and it’s the setting for
Before heading out I snuck in Christian Petzold’s “Afire,” a quiet yet brilliantly effective character piece about a group sharing a cottage on the Baltic Sea shore. A story of four individuals—Leon (Thomas Schubert), Felix (Langston Uibel), David (Enno Trebs) and Nadja (Petzold’s frequent collaborator Paula Beer)—"Afire" is about shifting loyalties and differing levels of passive-aggression, with some kindness and affection thrown into the cauldron of human emotions. It’s a slow burn for a film that features the backdrop of a forest fire, yet one is wrapped up in the dynamics of these individuals in ways that at once feel shockingly intimate yet depressingly familiar.
Petzold has both fans and detractors, and for those that find his works a bit too pat they’re going to be treated to more of the same. But for those open to the film’s occasionally lugubrious tone, you’ll be treated to a truly stellar interrogation of friendship, affection, creative drive, and the vagaries of life in the countryside.
“Afire” went on to win the Silver Bear award, a runner-up prize by the festival jury. The winner of the Golden Bear top prize, Nicolas Philibert's “On the Adamant,” was a surprise win that was on few people’s radar. I look forward to catching it later on the festival circuit.
Over my week in Berlin, I ate well, saw dear friends I haven’t seen in many years and was treated to an opportunity to catch the premieres of some fantastic films. I fought with subway schedules, missed out on key events like the Steven Spielberg press conference in order to catch a film I’d otherwise miss, and other such calculations made throughout any festival experience. I did my best to avoid FOMO as one title or another bubbled up on social media, concentrating as best I could on seeing what I could see, when I could see it, and letting the chips fall where they may.
It’s clear that the nature of this festival is continuing to shift, with some of its programming choices shifting even more towards an arthouse crowd, given the number of staff that have migrated from the very art film-focused Locarno. Yet I was still able to see films that weren’t needlessly esoteric and proved genuinely engaging for both fans of more populist fare and the snobbish alike. The venues were comfortable and the presentation at times extraordinary, the ticketing system easy enough to navigate, and the volunteer and theatre staff members as courteous and helpful as they tend to be wherever I attend (save, of course, France).
Being in Berlin for the first time was a bit of a trip. It’s a city of great beauty and personally oppressive history, resulting in an acute level of ambivalence that took some time to settle into. I tried to get the most out of being there, to be open to its beautiful contradictions, and to not be too upset that the “TÁR” presentation took place the day after I left, or that I couldn’t squeeze in a screening of “Duel” having had to make up for missing the “Reality” screening due to my mix-up detailed in my last diary.
I’m not sure Berlin is a festival I’d rush to return to given the financial challenges of freelance work – Cannes remains a place I’d be willing to lose money at, but even Park City has become prohibitive to attend in person. Yet I could not have been happier to have had this rare opportunity to attend, and truly feel I got a sense of the festival and both its charms and its limitations. So while I have no idea if or when I will return, I will miss my time there. I'm happy I took time to munch on a weißwurst, pretzel, and sweet mustard, pleased with the slate of films I took in, and extremely appreciative of Chaz, Brian, and Nick here at RogerEbert.com who encouraged me to document my time spent at the 73rd iteration of this storied of festivals.
Tschuss, Berlinale, auf wiedersehen, bis zum nächsten Mal.