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Berlinale. Palast of Swords Reversed: Dispatch #4

Berlinale 2010

Stress can effect you now - the weight of your responsibilities may be too heavy. Seek advise from your higher self - pull back into solitude and consider the details of your situation calmly. Put your thoughts in order and determine your priorities - suspend action on all issues but "one", ask your unconscious to work on this one issue and then sleep on it.
Four of Swords (Reversed)

Berlin, 4:32pm Tuesday
Films seen (feature length) so far: 18.
Notably worthwhile: 3 (The Wolf's Mouth, Red Hill, Congo In Four Acts).
Walkouts: 1 (The Counting of the Damages).

Sixth full day in Berlin and, as the cards reveal (see above), “stress” is something of a factor. My own fault, of course—several late nights and early starts, partly because of the pressure of daily deadlines. However the latter element is somewhat eased as the last issue of the 2010 Hollywood Reporter Berlinale daily hits the streets tomorrow morning, and from now on there is not quite the urgency to “file” straight after seeing the films. It’s nice to be able to ponder one’s opinions calmly, of course—and ideally to sleep on them. I had that luxury for the film I saw yesterday afternoon, Bibliotheque Pascal, and whose review I hammered out not long after rising at 7am this morning.

It’s much easier to write a pan than a rave, as all critics will attest, and I certainly didn’t hold back on what I sincerely hope will turn out to be the nadir of my Berlinale this year. An utterly misbegotten, misconceived and clodhoppingly executed exercise in sinister whimsy, this Hungarian entry in the Forum represents overcooked goulash of the most indigestible kind. Indeed, around half of those present at the press show I attended bailed long before the scowl-inducingly ludicrous finale. My initial notes included such comments as “a stain on the Forum, on the Berlinale—a stain on cinema!” but I toned down my bile a bit for the august pages of THR. But only a bit.

While there’s a certain pleasure in vitriol, I actually prefer it when I can try to get behind a small film which can really benefit from a positive review. A case in point: Congo In Four Acts, which I saw this morning, and which exceeded my (admittedly very low) expectations. A rough-edged but highly effective quartet of documentaries on the woes of central African state Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Belgian colony once known as Zaire), it presents some harrowing material in bracingly direct fashion.

As often with such enterprises (this one was developed to help young filmmakers obtain experience and training) the segments are not of uniformly high quality—and it’s unfortunate that the two best sections, both of them directed by promising newcomer Kiripi Katembo Siku, also happen to be the shortest. “Kinshasa Symphony” is an eye-opening tour of the poorest parts of Kinshasa—playing like a horribly vivid illustration of Mike Davis’s excellent dystopian polemic Planet of Slums The film’s humbling closer “After the Mine,” meanwhile, is a brief but indelible glimpse into the lives of young children employed—for meagre wages—to break rocks, school being far too expensive an option to be even contemplated.

One sometimes hears Berlin-attending journalists whinging about their lot, how hard it is to get into screenings, how arduous their deadlines, how slippery the icy pavents as one runs between cinemas, and so on (see above). But watching Congo In Four Acts puts such complaints into their correct perspective. It isn’t the best film of the Berlinale by any means (it would be #3 among my personal picks behind The Wolf’s Mouth and Red Hill) but it is very probably the one that deserves to be most widely seen.

Also seen since the last dispatch: Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide, an experimental film of the kind that the Forum should be dominated by, but which too often proves elusive. 2 x 45 minute shots of a clam-digger digging clams, once at sunrise, once at dusk, on a particular midsummer day in 2008. Not exactly audience friendly, but a worthwhile example of adventurous marginal risk-taking, and one that very much lodges in the memory.

In a similar vein, the world premiere—and perhaps the only ever public showing—of James Benning’s Reforming the Past, a 55-minute DV interrogation of certain 16mm frames from his 1991 North On Evers: mainly portraits of his friends and acquaintances, given a weird, ghostly quality by being slowed down (so that the tiny imperfections in the celluloid grain take on particular prominence) and projected in total silence (punctuated by the usual film-festival coughing—are the attendees particularly prone to germs and bacteria for some reason?).

Benning—who followed the screening by reciting (over 25 minutes) the text that was originally streamed in a handwritten flow along the bottom of North On Evers’ images—is here exploring the boundaries between photography, cinema and installation. And while I don’t think he’s found much gold in such terrain this time round, the fact that the Berlinale has “sponsored” the expedition is a much-needed feather in what has otherwise been a pretty threadbare cap.

A small alteration of the past
Can turn time into space
Small touches can alter more
Than a mere decade

—The Fall, ‘Wings’ (1983)

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