Creating a new film festival in the same time and place as one of the world’s most venerable and large cinematic celebrations may seem like a futile task, but the third edition of the Berlin Critics’ Week (Woche der Kritik) proved to be a strong parallel event to this year’s Berlinale. Instead of a complete slate of screenings, the Critics’ Week follows the example of the Locarno Semaine de la Critique rather than Cannes’ denser namesake, focusing on single daily evening screenings that feature no more than one or two films. Unlike the Locarno event, however, the Woche der Kritik doesn’t restrict itself to a single genre such as documentary, but attempts to provide a wider view of the current state of innovative cinema ranging from the mainstream to the experimental, the commercial to the financially unviable. Its “critical” element comes during the extensive post-screening discussions between one of the festival’s programmers, an invited guest and the filmmaker of one of the evening’s works. This year’s edition opened with a thematic conference entitled “Lost in Politics” that seemed to announce the programmed works, although in some cases the link between the two was more opaque. The included films represented a range of genres and geographic origins, but it was difficult to observe a general theme beyond their variety, which complemented rather than competed with the line-up of the Berlinale’s mainstay sections.
The Woche der Kritik’s opening film was also its most anticipated, Eduardo Williams’ El auge del humano (The Human Surge). One major challenge for this work that straddles different locations and casts involves the creation of connections between three successive narratives. Williams largely succeeds even if there is a certain didacticism in his geographic movement and its summary in the film’s epilogue, when we enter a manufacturing plant where workers are constructing LCD screens. The arrival of what appears to be the most purely non-fiction element in the film works to bind together what has been gleaned from the other sections, shot in Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines: the meandering lives of contemporary youth in far-flung corners of the globe are increasingly connected through the medium of technology. That this is the note on which the film ends lends a conclusive element to what in its early stages seems to be a more free-form narrative careening between depictions of place and circulation which is notable in its exclusion of the global north as a central point of reference.
While Williams’ film is formally and conceptually transgressive, other works shown at the Critics’ Week tended to gesture at rather than consciously violate the boundaries of genre. Abba Makama’s Green White Green provides an incisive commentary on the role and influence of Nollywood cinema, ultimately preferring its own comedic style. Accompanying Green White Green was Bertrand Bonnello’s short, Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera, which develops its dialogue between performance and history through a reduced yet rigorous three-act structure. Isao Yukisada’s Aroused by Gymnopedies is a mash-up of the film studio Nikkatsu’s softcore pornographic filmography from the 1970s and 1980s and the frequent film director-focused narratives of Hong Sang-soo that ultimately hews more closely to the former. Feng Xiaogang’s Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I am Not Madame Bovary) makes use of an innovative formal device (much of the film appears in the shapes of a circle or a vertical rectangle) in its telling of a woman’s search for justice that doubles as a Dickensian critique of class and bureaucracy. Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium seems more suited for the Berlinale main slate than this parallel event: aside from the occasional gesture at reflexivity it strides the tried and tested path of conventional narrative. Mike Ott’s California Dreams is an original mix of staged and non-fiction sequences that addresses the circumstances of a group of individuals’ failure to achieve their ambitions. Beyond The Human Surge, which some festival attendees would have already seen, the major discovery of the Woche der Kritik was the world premiere of Alexandre Koberidze’s Lass den Sommer nie wieder kommen (Let the Summer Never Come Again).
Let the Summer Never Come Again is Koberidze’s first feature, as challenging as Williams’ in some ways, not the least in its lengthy three and a half hour running time. Primarily shot on a Sony Ericson cell phone, the film’s visuals frequently dissolve into pixelised flares, which Koberidze uses to great effect – the image’s eternal blurriness functions to erase certain details while accentuating those forms that remain visible. Shot in the republic of Georgia, the film primarily adopts a fixed perspective in outdoor spaces, city streets, train stations, and markets. Its low resolution lends it a voyeuristic perspective, not unlike The Human Surge’s, although here the formal approach is more repetitive, despite Koberidze’s narrative liberties. The story that the film appears to tell is relayed through fixed shots where a main character only occasionally appears and a pair of male and female voiceovers announce certain details corresponding to a narrative, but this seems to matter less than its more general visions of urban life with a background of war. The latter is alluded to through a voiceover that coincides with high definition sequences shot in a projection booth, which may represent the filmmaker’s own perspective or recollections. In his refusal of visual and narrative clarity, Koberidze alludes to the uneasy moral compass of a complex world. The film’s parallel insistence on unfinished stories taking place on its periphery reflects a primordial notion of the political as that which occurs not in private but in public space. The Woche der Kritik’s inclusion of Let the Summer Never Come Again was perhaps its most deliberate assertion of this year’s editorial line: in a world “lost in politics,” we can increasingly look to innovative cinematic work to orient us, without necessarily relying on filmmakers to show us the way out.
Coming at a moment when many are questioning the political role of art in an increasingly divided world, the Woche der Kritik’s program addressed politics without reducing its scope to avowedly political films. As the presenter of the first night’s program stated, people, not films, participate in politics. But, he noted, films have the power to affect and even change the way people see themselves and the world. In a number of cases, the selection of this year’s Critics’ Week proved his point
Woche der Kritik
9-16 February 2017
Festival website: http://wochederkritik.de/