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Berlinale 2015. Correspondences #2

The second entry in our ongoing joint-coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Dear Danny,

The pleasure is all mine. To count myself as your partner in this correspondence is an honour, albeit an intimidating one. You accurately describe our friend Fernando as inimitable, and indeed I find myself in a position with big shoes to fill. Rather than to naively hope to imitate the insightful and often inspiring exchanges you’ve had with Fern these past few years in Toronto, I’ve made a point of not looking back at those pieces and instead intend to rely on whatever differences I bring to distinguish our written conversations from those. I'll be writing eagerly in pursuit of my discoveries. Do you find, like myself, that your ideas develop as you write, that you don’t begin to truly understand what you're writing on until your fingers are typing away, seemingly ahead of your thinking? I'm equally excited for your discoveries, which have intrigued and provoked me since I discovered your writing around the same time, as you recounted, when you first covered this behemoth of a film festival. I have the advantage of not being a complete newcomer to this format—you and Fern generously encouraged me to include a “coda” entry to one correspondence in 2013, and since Cannes of that same year we’ve had occasion to write “dialogue”-style pieces. You’ve also been my editor for a few years now. Hence, we’re not unfamiliar with one another, but as with the unknown pockets of programming in this year’s Berlinale that you point to, I equally look forward to being surprised by your takes on the films we’ll encounter amidst the dry cold of the Berlin winter. Without surprise, there isn’t much hope for a film festival or for film criticism, is there? 

I’ve very much enjoyed the Berlinale these past two editions, but I can’t lie: your conclusions based on the years you attended are ones I share and can affirm. It’s too big, there are too many sections, too many films, and far too many of them are mediocre or worse. But still, there are always a handful to look forward to, and our eyes are fixed on the same familiar targets you have listed, and they may even be enough to justify the festival entirely. One of the two most distinct components are the Forum Expanded section, which not only includes experimental films by the likes of Ken Jacobs but also exhibitions (which in the past have filled various venues, such as what once was a crematorium in the working class neighborhood Wedding—no other festival has prompted me to explore its host city the way the Berlinale does, and the rewards are immeasurable!). The other is the retrospective, which each year seems to include some dubious choices in a very  stubborn and German commitment to the theme of each edition. The selection of Technicolor specimens this year appears to be, on paper, just that, an academic assortment that exemplifies the famous color process’s characteristics, regardless of the quality of the actual films, which varies from masterworks like  Jean Renoir's The River and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to footnotes in film history like George Sidney's Show Boat. Even so, I admire the inclusion of such films, and more often than not these retro screenings have led to unforgettable viewings of great films from the past I may not otherwise see on the big screen, and especially not in film (as a Vancouverite I have access to some repertory fare, but not an abundance a Brooklynite such as yourself gorges on). 

The Berlinale is an inherently mixed bag. A mine field to tread through most carefully so as not to come across the myriad bombs scattered in our path. And yes this is something one must expect from a festival that prides itself on a prestigious history, and must stand out and attempt to please everyone. But we know of a few filmmakers to look for, and luckily we can look forward to friends, be they critics, press agents, producers, Berliners, or programmers, who will whisper helpful “must-see” titles in our ear over the coming days. The anticipation of discovering a great film at a festival wouldn’t have so much meaning if we could predict precisely what to expect. If there wasn’t some mystery that envelops us as the auditorium’s lights dim, I imagine you and I would lose interest in this practice. As film critics, we’re appreciators of art, sure, but we’re also searchers for pleasure—something we shouldn't forget, and if we look often enough we occasionally find happiness in these dark rooms illuminated by single sources of light (assuming the audience lacks assholes on smartphones). You speak of the loneliness of festival-going but is it not the very loneliness of existence itself? Surrounded by people we don’t know and people we cherish alike, in life, and in the cinema, we are nonetheless stuck with ourselves. Yet, there are moments when things align and we transcend such barriers. And there is no method of this transcendence I am more familiar with than that of when we share an experience in the cinema, when we find we have thoughts and feelings in common. I also look forward to disagreeing with you, I must add, and I look forward to the relief from the responsibility of solely covering this massive festival as in the past couple of years, and am happy to know that at times our readers will not have one or two opinions to take into account, but rather the tensions and insights that two opinions can create.

What makes the Berlinale a must amongst festivals though, at the end of the day, is the city itself—my favourite I’ve yet known. I look forward to traversing its considerable expanse to get from one movie to the next, to squeeze in unhealthy and overpriced meals in tiny intervals between, and maybe even to get lost once or twice. I hope we can discuss the disparate venues strewn across this metropolis at some point, and the impact of environment on viewing. However, I don’t know if directing this exchange is even necessary, as I can already feel it taking on a life of its own.

See you at the movies,

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