Notes from the Berlin Film Festival: Four nights at the movies




Before the Coronavirus pandemic, the 70th Berlinale opened its below-freezing point doors to the city of Berlin on February 19. The EFM, or the European Film Market, is held in this exciting city every February. This film market is slow and lacks the exuberance and parties associated with the glamorous Cannes film festival. Add to that the gloomy, sub-zero temperature, and you are glad it’s just a four-day event. In fact, most people talk about their return on day one itself!

Tales of the city

This is not to say that this isn’t a significant market for films and that Berlin as a city isn’t vibrant enough to host it. Divided during the cold war after World War II and then reunified with the fall of the Iron Curtain, you still come across remnants of the broken Berlin wall at various places around the city, now covered with colourful graffiti.

Checkpoint Charlie is the name given to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing between East and West during the cold war

Just a few minutes’ walk from the center of Potsdamer Platz, you can visit the Holocaust Memorial, a melancholy reminder of the city’s tumultuous past. The famous Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century by the Prussian king Fredrick William II, is one of the best known and most visited landmarks in Berlin. And no trip to Berlin is complete without a quick stop at Checkpoint Charlie, the name given by the Western powers to the best known Berlin Wall crossing between East and West during the cold war.

The logo for the Berlin International Film Festival 2020 is cute bear

The logo for the Berlin International Film Festival 2020 is cute bear

Berlin is also home to three Unesco World Heritage sites: The Museum Island, Sanssoussci Palace, and the Modernism Housing Estates. And if you get tired of visiting these sites and absorbing history, Berlin has 23 Michelin star restaurants to stimulate your gustatory receptors.

Past in the present

But let’s talk about films. The format for the Berlin film festival is the same as any other film market. Lots of scripts to read before the market, meetings, and screenings fixed over four days, and pitches by famous actors and directors. One of our first pitches this time was by acclaimed actress Maggie Gyllenhal for her directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. Based on the book by Elena Ferrante, it tells the story of a middle-aged divorcee who while trying to rediscover herself is instead confronted by her turbulent past. Maggie, famous for her roles in films such as Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and The Dark Knight (2008), engaged us with her vision for the film, in which she has cast the supremely talented Oscar winner Olivia Colman. This will be a film to watch out for, and will possibly receive a lot of attention during awards season.

(From left) Misbehaviour is about a group of women who disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition in London; Johnny Depp plays a photojournalist in Minamata, which highlights the greed of many corporations, relevant even today

(From left) Misbehaviour is about a group of women who disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition in London; Johnny Depp plays a photojournalist in Minamata, which highlights the greed of many corporations, relevant even today

Amongst the many other films I got to screen, the one that made an instant impact, which meant I had to acquire it immediately was Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour. Based on actual events, it tells the story of a group of women who planned and succeeded in disrupting the 1970 Miss World competition in London that was hosted by the iconic American actor and comedian Bob Hope. These women entered the auditorium and shouted slogans condemning the very sexist nature of the pageant that objectified women. It was appalling to watch the participants being labelled as perfect 36-24-36. With actresses Kiera Knightley and Jessie Buckley in the lead, the film that will inevitably be delayed due to the pandemic raises very significant questions and makes you wonder if much has changed in the last 50 years.

Waiting for the dawn

Our red carpet invitation this year was at the Friedrichstadt-Palast, and my red carpet date for the evening was my niece Nayana. We were invited to the premiere screening of Andrew Levitas’ Minamata. Johnny Depp plays a photojournalist who travels to Minamata, Japan, where toxic waste and mercury poisoning have had devastating effects on the communities there. It highlights the greed of many corporations, relevant even today, without any regard for the environment, human, and animal life. The seemingly interminable narrative, however, is rescued by Depp’s brilliant performance.

Sanjeev Bijli (right) and his niece Nayana Bijli (left) with actor and director Maggie Gyllenhall at the Berlinale

Sanjeev Bijli (right) and his niece Nayana Bijli (left) with actor and director Maggie Gyllenhall at the Berlinale

In addition to watching all these thought-provoking films, I also got my dose of popcorn fare at the screening of Greenland. This action thriller, a collaboration by the director-actor duo from Angel has Fallen, Ric Roman Waugh and Gerald Butler, is a roller coaster ride about a family trying to survive a natural disaster. I watched this in February and little did I know then that the world would be faced with a pandemic so enormous in weeks to come that our world would be shut down, and many would lose their lives.

As uncertainty looms large in our lives, movie release dates are delayed and reshuffled for the year, and the Cannes film festival has been officially postponed for the first time in 74 years. Daniel Craig will invoke his Licence to Kill on November 25, Wonder Woman will wield her Lasso of Truth in August, and December will see the return of Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun. We all eagerly look forward to the return of normalcy and our invigorating dates with the movies. As Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight, “The night is darkest just before the dawn, and I promise you, the dawn is coming.”

Author bio: Sanjeev Bijli is Joint Managing Director of PVR cinemas, and a much loved face on Delhi’s social scene

From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020

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