Day two at Berlin Film Festival, part two

Dr Will Higbee, Senior Lecturer in French, Director of Programmes (Film) and Deputy Director of the Humanities Graduate School, is currently at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival.

Pt 2: films

After a morning of workshop discussion, I then spent the afternoon at a couple of screenings for two very different films at very different venues that emphasise the diversity of filmmaking talent on offer at the Berlinale.

Firstly I went to see celebrated Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s medium-length non-narrative film Xi You /Journey to the West screened in the fabulously retro Kino International on the East side of the city. The film begins with a long take shot in extreme-close up on the face of a man who is breathing heavily. Those familiar with Tsai’s work will recognize this description as part of the authorial style that has come to be known as a cinema of slowness– long takes, shot from a fixed position, observing characters either in close-up or in relation to their surroundings, where change and the perception of duration is almost undetectable. However, in Xi You Tsai appears to be pushing this idea of a cinema of slowness to its experimental limit. So in a film that runs for just under an hour we have single takes lasting around ten minutes (or at least that’s what it felt like) as a Buddhist monk (played by actor Lee Kang-sheng, who has featured in all of Tsai’s films to date) walks barefoot and incredibly slowly, so slowly that his movements are almost imperceptible. In contrast to the earlier scenes where he is shot in isolation, the movements of the monk are placed in the increasingly busy and populated streets of Marseilles. The monk, who is eventually joined by another unnamed man (played by veteran French actor Denis Levant), thus appears to advance in super-slow motion as the rest of the city moves around him as normal. The monk’s incongruous relationship to his surroundings is further highlighted by the fact that Tsai simply places his character amongst pedestrians (not actors) who greet his presence with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. What exactly Tsai is trying to say with this film, I couldn’t honestly tell you. However, if you simply immerse yourself in the cinematic spectacle before you on the screen, there is a hypnotic, poetic beauty to Lee Kang-sheng’s slow walking expedition of the Marseilles streets.

I left Tsai’s film, and returned, geographically speaking, to the very heart of the festival, the red carpet and luxurious surroundings of the Berlinale Palast. I went there to see one of the films in official competition, the Argentinian La Tercera orilla, directed by Celina Murga and produced by Martin Scorsese. With not a slow-walking monk in sight, the film explores the stifling atmosphere experienced by, Nicolas, the illegitimate teenage son of a respected local doctor in the provincial town of Paraná. Simply but elegantly shot, the film builds in an understated manner on the tensions between father and son, with Murga coaxing a powerful performance by the young actor playing Nicolas (Alián Devetac), and leading to an unexpected narrative climax. It is one of two Argentinian films in Official Competition at the Berlinale this year, though given its mostly understated delivery, I’m not sure it has enough to scoop the festival’s prestigious Golden Bear for best film. That said, it could well find success in one of the other categories, such as Best Actor for Devetac.

Speaking of awards, I ended the day at an ‘in conversation’ event with British director Ken Loach, an informal prelude to tomorrow evening’s ceremony where Loach will be recognised for his hugely important contribution to British, European and World cinema over more than five decades. A packed crowd at the film museum in the Sony Centre (with many more looking on from outside, just to catch a glimpse of the director) listened to Loach speak eloquently about his career in cinema and the political and artistic convictions that have lead him to direct more than twenty feature films as well as numerous documentaries and TV films. It was a privilege to attend the event but seeing the size and appreciation of the crowd in Berlin did make me wonder if enough recognition will ever be given to Loach back in the UK, considering the respect for him that exists in Germany, France and Spain and his position as one of the most important European directors of the last fifty years.

Will

Find out more about our MA International Film Business.

Day two at Berlin Film Festival

Dr Will Higbee, Senior Lecturer in French, Director of Programmes (Film) and Deputy Director of the Humanities Graduate School, is currently at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival.

Part 1: Emerging patterns in distribution and marketing

Another packed day at the Berlinale began with coffee and croissants followed by a lively and very insightful master class from Anna Higgs, Commissioning Executive for Film 4.0, the digital arm of Film 4. The master class formed part of the ‘Making Waves’ workshops, to which I was kindly invited as a guest of the Berlin dbbd and LFS. Anna was the driving force at Film 4.0 behind the A Field in England – director Ben Wheatley’s low budget, psychedelic English civil war thriller. As well as adopting a cinematically original approach to the film’s historical subject, A Field in England was experimental due to its simultaneous release in multiple formats and across multiple digital platforms, as well as being screened (without ad-breaks) in a prime-time Friday night slot on Film 4 in July 2013.

The reason this was such a bold move was that the film’s distribution by-passed the traditional series of windows that see a film rolled out over a period of months from cinemas, to pay-per-view/VOD, to rent and buy on DVD and finally on TV. Defying industry logic that suggested no one would go to the cinema if they could watch the film at home for free, A Field in England actually outperformed expectations for a film of this size across all platforms. After going into a detailed analysis of why this distribution strategy worked for this particular film, Anna then responded to questions about the current state of distribution for low-budget/independent cinema today. Her broad conclusion was that the ‘one size fits all approach’ that has to date dominated distribution strategies (and for the most part benefitted Hollywood) is no longer sustainable in a multi-platform, digital age. Instead, producers need to work with distributors to create a bespoke release strategy for each film, using all the digital means at their disposal to engage audiences. For an example as to how this can be achieved, see the Film 4 Digital Masterclass on A Field in England. http://www.afieldinengland.com/masterclass/

Next it was a quick bus ride across town for a late morning session at the ‘Berlinale Talents’, a programme of activities across six days, organized by the festival to support emerging talent within the European film industry. The session I attended was moderated by Ben Gibson (Director of the London Film School) and saw Danish producer Louise Vesth talk about her work on the latest Lars Von Trier film, Nymphomaniac Pt I, as a case study for exploring questions of strategic branding, bespoke marketing campaigns for individual territories, and using innovative strategies on social media in order to successfully distribute ‘difficult’ films. Though Von Trier’s multimillion dollar production and transnational cast of Hollywood stars and European A-listers, which has generated a stir due to its graphic sexual content and the way that the actors’ bodies were digitally replaced with body doubles, is far removed from Wheatley’s low budget ensemble cast in A Field in England, what the speakers from both sessions shared was an insistence on the need for bespoke distribution strategies in order for more challenging and creative films to find a place in the market.

Part 2 will follow later today!

Will

Find out more about our MA International Film Business.

Day one at the Berlin Film Festival

Dr Will Higbee, Senior Lecturer in French, Director of Programmes (Film) and Deputy Director of the Humanities Graduate School, is currently at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival.

The end of a very exciting first day at the Berlinale; after sorting out the all-important accreditation badge and trying desperately to pick up tickets for some of the day’s screenings – most tickets for badge holders are snapped up first thing in the morning or booked the day before – I headed off to the Sony Centre for meetings with Ben Gibson, Director of the London Film School (LFS). Here at the Berlinale, the LFS are key collaborators in ‘Making Waves’: a MEDIA funded initiative that brings together students from film schools across Europe to participate in workshops with industry professionals, focusing on emerging strategies in distribution and exhibition.

During the course of the morning, I met Lizzie Francke, Senior Development & Production Executive at the BFI’s Film Fund and executive producer of André Singer’s documentary Night Will Fall (2013). Singer’s film, which is being premiered at the Berlinale, explores a ‘missing’ film by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1945, Hitchcock was approached to edit a documentary on German wartime atrocities, based on the footage of the recently liberated concentration camps shot by British and Soviet film units. Legend has it that when Hitchcock first saw the footage from the camps that would form the basis for his documentary, he was so traumatised that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week. Singer’s documentary explores the political reasons why this sobering and at times distressing documentary was quickly shelved and retraces the story of the unfinished film that became known as the ‘missing Hitchcock’.

In the afternoon I moved on with colleagues from the LFS to the European Film Market: the business end of the Berlinale. This is one of the places that students on our MA International Film Business will visit on their field trip to the festival next year and is an excellent introduction to the importance of the international festival as a key hub for producers, distributors and exhibitors. The visit to the European Film Market will allow our students to begin to see how what they are learning on the MA is applied to the real world of the international film business. It will also provide them with unique and exciting networking opportunities with producers, directors and industry executives, as well as the chance to make professional contacts that could prove useful for final dissertation projects.

Finally, I went to my first film of the Berlinale, Casse / Scrapyard (2013) by a young French director called Nadège Trebal (a director whom I must admit I’d not heard of before today). The film is an observational documentary that takes place in a scrapyard on the outskirts of Marseilles, where people search for car parts to repair cars. I was intrigued by how the director would treat the film’s quirky subject matter and dutifully queued with other festival-goers at the Cinemax, hoping to snap up one of the few remaining tickets to the screening. There was no way, I told myself, that I was going to let my first day at the Berlinale pass without seeing one of the films selected for the festival. My patience in line was rewarded with a highly original, beautifully shot and totally engrossing documentary. At times, Trebal’s approach to the subjects of her film made me think of the work by the legendary French director Agnès Varda, for the way that it respectfully gave space and a voice to members of French society who are too-often marginalized, while creating cinematic beauty from something as mundane as removing the spark plugs from a car engine. The film also offered an eloquent statement on experiences of immigration and integration in France by simply allowing its working-class (and for the most part immigrant) protagonists the space to tell their stories while working in the scrapyard. Trebal seems to have a rare talent for opening up a genuine dialogue with those before the camera, and responded in an equally generous fashion to questions after the screening. In the end the Q&A ran for almost 45 minutes – a clear indication of the enthusiasm for the film amongst the audience. The unexpected find of the festival? Maybe I’m letting a fantastic end to my first day at the Berlinale impair my critical judgment. (I don’t think so). I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where this talented young French filmmaker goes next.

Will

Find out more about our MA International Film Business.