Ron Holloway Finds “Political Movies” at the 2009 Berlin Festival

By James M. Wall


Ron Holloway was one of my earliest mentors in relating film to religion.  We met during the 1960s, the peak era for art movies when European imports were arriving in the US from directors like Ingmar Bergman, Francoise Truffaut and Michelangelo Antonioni.  

Ron was instrumental in creating a Chicago-based organization for film education that became the National Center for Film Study.  He and his actress wife Dorothea continue their intense involvement with film, and their exhaustive coverage of festivals,  from their home in Berlin, Germany.  A posting he wrote for this blog on the 2008 Cannes Film Festival continues to attract readers. 

Ron has sent me his report on the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. He graciously allowed me to trim it to fit this space. 

His edited version runs below. Before reading about Berlin 2009, I strongly urge you to have a look at a profile on Ron and Dorothea, just published in Cinema Without Borders. It will take you on a journey through the world of world film festivals, a topic rarely covered in US entertainment media.

The profile begins:

Almost any veteran of the European film festival circuit knows of Ron and Dorothea Holloway, and if they don’t they should. As journalists, critics, publishers and filmmakers over the past 30-odd years, they’re Berlin’s longest-running co-production, a husband and wife team devoted to discovering and encouraging the art and appreciation of international cinema. 

Since 1979, they have written and published their small, well-respected English-language magazine on German cinema, Kino, with a razor-thin staff and a loyal group of supporters, including some impressive advertisers. It says a lot about the esteem the German establishment holds them in – not to mention the couple’s charismatic approach to sales – that Lufthansa has
reserved Kino’s back cover for decades.

That esteem was also evident at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, when festival chief Dieter Kosslick honored Ron and Dorothea with a special German Camera award for their career contributions to German film. For the ceremony, the festival screened their documentary on the late great Soviet Georgian director Sergei Parajonnov, maker of the magnificent Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and who, like many filmmakers, was a good friend of the Holloways. (To continue reading this essay, click here.)

Now on to Ron Holloway and his coverage of the 2009 Berlin Film Festival:
Has the Berlinale created an image for itself as a “political” film festival?

Asked that question, Christoph Schlingensief, the German jury member at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival (February 5-15, 2009), responded emphatically: “A competition entry here scarcely stands a chance otherwise.”

Schlingensief, who is himself a highly motivated political filmmaker, is correct. Consider this survey of recent Golden Bear (top prize) winners.

In 2007, the Grand Prix went to Wang Quan’an’s fiction-documentary Tu ya de hun shi (Tuya’s Marriage) (China). Set in rural Mongolia, Tuya’s Marriage mirrored the plight of nomadic shepherds whose way of life is threatened by the government’s misguided plans to move them to urban shelters.

In 2008,  José Padilha’s Tropa de elite (The Elite Squad) (Brazil), won the Golden Bear.  When the Pope announced his 1997 visit to Brazil, the news triggered a drive by a Special Police Operation Battalion (BOPE) to rid the Rio slums of drug barons, regardless of the cost.   That drive inspired the creation of The Elite Squad, which was made more as a fiction-documentary than as a crime thriller. Padilha’s film depicts brutality, violence, torture, and executions as standard practice by the Brazilian police, on both sides of the law.

At this year’s 59th Berlin International Film Festival (February 5-15, 2009), the Golden Bear was awarded to Claudia Llosa’s La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (Peru/Spain/Germany). The first Peruvian film ever programmed at the Berlinale, The Milk of Sorrow deals with the traumatic scars left on the populace, particularly women, following the bloody massacres perpetrated by the still active Peruvian “Shining Path” guerrilla movement.

According to the findings of a “truth commission” established in 2001, approximately 70,000 people were murdered between 1980 and 2000, the two decades when the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrillas challenged the corrupt Fujimori government in open conflict. The commission also recorded rapes, kidnappings, and other transgressions inflicted upon women and children by both sides.

In the film’s opening scene, the violence of those decades is mirrored in a plaintive chant sung by an old woman on her deathbed. She sings of her rape as a pregnant mother and the brutal murder of her husband.

As the film’s title, The Milk of Sorrow, hints, Claudia Llosa maintains that an undefined illness was passed on from a mother’s breast to her offspring due to this prior rape and abuse under guerrilla terrorists. The director is the niece of renown Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is best known for The War of the End of the World (1981), an historical novel questioning the idealization of violence.

The Milk of Sorrow stars Magaly Solier, whose stoically detached performance commands respect by her presence alone. Further, the film picks up where Claudia Llosa’s previous Madeinusa (2005) left off. That film was an internationally awarded debut feature depicting a distorted Catholic religiosity in the Peruvian Andes. The lead role in Madeinusa was also played by Magaly Solier.

In The Milk of Sorrow Solier plays a vulnerable young Incan woman, whose inordinate fear of rape prompts her to place a potato in her vagina as a “shield” against unwanted intrusion on her body and soul. That scene alone prompted a lively give-and-take at the press conference. There, Llosa and Solier confirmed that the “potato shield” was a common practice among Incan women of the Andes.

Coined by an observant critic at Berlinale, “festival incest” has become a fashionable practice at major European film festivals. Take Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow as an example. The film was one of a handful in competition in Berlin, thanks the festival-sponsored World Cinema Fund (WCF).

Founded in 2004, the WCF is a joint funding project supported by the Berlinale and the German Federal Cultural Foundation in cooperation with the Goethe Institute. Its aim is to support filmmakers in developing countries and regions which lack a constructive film industry.

The project focuses on feature films and feature-length documentaries with a strong cultural identity. Working with an annual budget of 500,000 Euros, the WCF has helped in the co-financing of quality productions by creative filmmakers from the Near East, Africa, Latin America, Central and Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus.

Of the 25 productions earmarked for WCF support over the past five years, nearly all have merited top awards at key international film festivals: Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Rotterdam, San Sebastian, Locarno, Pusan, Almaty, and Sundance. Indeed, the WCF record of awarded prizes at the Berlinale is impressive, to say the least:

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (Netherlands/Germany/France), the Blue Angel Prize for Best European Film at the 2005 Berlinale. Rodrigo Moreno’s El Custodio (The Shadow) (Argentina/Germany), the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2006 Berlinale. Ariel Rotter’s El Otro (The Other) (Argentine/France/Germany), the Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize, plus a second Silver Bear for Best Actor (Julio Chavez), at the 2007 Berlinale.

This year, WCF productions were the major award winners at the Berlinale. Besides the Golden Bear awarded to Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow, another Latin American entry, Adrien Biniez’s Gigante (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands) was handed numerous prizes by international juries: Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize, Alfred Bauer Prize for Particular Innovation, and Best First Feature Award. Not bad – four of the Berlinale’s top prizes were awarded to the festival’s own WCF films.

Based on the results, “festival incest” is a festival funding formula that works like a charm. In fact, it has become a tradition. How did festival incest begin in the first place? Most critics credit the Cannes festival as the initiator, thanks to its visionary programming and adept scouting teams. A decade ago, when a trade publication statistically noted that practically every film in the festival sidebars had received some kind of French funding, Gallic coin was dubbed a fast track to Cannes participation.

I was once asked which festival director first launched a visible beneficial festival policy of production funding. My response: Hubert Bals – the late Dutch founder-director of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, who honed cross-cultural film funding to a fine art. Twenty years ago, Hubert Bals put the Rotterdam film festival on firm ground by establishing a fund – subsequently named the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) in his honor – to support filmmakers from developing countries.

Altogether, 270,000 tickets were sold for Berlinale attractions – 30,000 more than in 2008. Add free passes for press and guests, and the collective festival attendance is said to have approached the 300,000 mark. Even festival director Dieter Kosslick expressed surprise when the Friedrichstadtpalast, a 1800-seat entertainment palace in downtown Berlin converted overnight into a venue for the film festival, drew packed attendance almost every single night.

This year’s Berlinale Specials section served as a popular platform to highlight the cream of current German film production. When one notes that the German film productions in 2008 had recorded a high of 33.9 million admissions – or a 26.6% box office share (the highest mark since 1991) – Dieter Kosslick need not be clairvoyant to play this trump card as a major festival attraction.

Altogether, he booked 50 German films for the 2009 Berlinale, offering slots in the sidebar “German Cinema” section for both commercial hits (Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex and festival award winners (Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9). Besides the strong audience turnout for Effi Briest and Hilde, other new German productions programmed as Berlinale Specials also proved worthy seat fillers.

Asked if he regretted losing any aspired entry for the competition, Dieter Kosslick named Gus Van Sant’s Milk (USA). In fact, his ire was raised when he discovered that Milk had been screened outside the production country within days after its Beverly Hills premiere on October 31, 2008. According to FIAPF rules, the International Federation of Film Producers Associations could scratch Milk from Berlinale Bear consideration on the grounds of international “over-exposure.”

Well aware of the dilemma, Dieter Kosslick is reported to have pulled out all the stops to get producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen to premiere Milk at the Berlinale instead. To no avail. Instead, Gus Van Sant’s Milk was programmed in the Panorama, outside of the main competition, together with Robert Epstein’s vintage documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (USA, 1984), as a double-bill “celebration presentation” of a high-water-mark in Berlinale history that happened 15 years ago, when The Times of Harvey Milk was first screened.

Had Kosslick succeeded in securing Milk to play in competition, it is quite likely that Milk would have been amply rewarded with festival kudos by a friendly jury headed by British actress Tilda Swinton.

Which raises an important question regarding the future of Hollywood-produced films at the Berlinale. Box-office hits released in the U.S. towards the end of the year travel rapidly around the globe as attractive holiday fare, to say nothing of instant DVD consumption, pirated or otherwise. Does a prime Hollywood production need Berlinale exposure? For that matter, the question must be raised: Do A-festivals, in general, still count as choice launching pads for international release.

And should the arcane FIAPF rules be changed to accommodate the coming era of internet downloading, digital projection, and satellite distribution. Despite the ability of these rules to prevent the appearance of major Hollywood productions, the major A-festivals – Cannes, Berlin, Venice – are still valuable as venues for discovering directorial talent, exploring timely thematic material, and signaling new and technical trends on the horizon.

One important example at this year’s Berlinale was Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (USA). Awarded a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay (Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon), The Messenger was by far the most important film seen at the Berlinale, if not the best. The story of two Iraq War army veterans assigned to bring the bad news of husbands and sons killed in action to the relatives of the dead, the pair (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster) are ill suited to each other’s company in temperament and military code.

Their arduous mission as messengers of bad news comes across as a labyrinthine odyssey into the self, along the lines of American cult director Hal Ashby’s similar The Last Detail (USA, 1973) and Coming Home (USA, 1978). Despite some bumps in the narrative line, The Messenger is nonetheless a thought-provoking feature debut that deserves extensive festival programming and arthouse distribution.

Another Berlinale discovery was Adrian Biniez’s Gigante (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands), a feature debut supported by the aforementioned World Cinema Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund. Set in suburban Montevideo, Gigante is the story of a shy, middle-aged giant who works the night shift as a security guard in a supermarket. Although his job is keeping an eye on employees at the supermarket, he takes a heartthrob interest in a younger cleaning woman and follows her home and to the movies in his off-hours.

Soon the lumbering giant is living two lives, his own and the woman’s. The day of awakening comes when workers at the supermarket are laid off, including the cleaning woman. A minimalist film composed mostly of looks and gestures, thus stripped to the bone of superfluous dialogue, Gigante introduces a talented Uruguayan writer-director who also scored the music for the film.

A leading Auteur in the German New Wave, Hans-Christian Schmid is the moralist of the movement. Born in Altötting, a Bavarian pilgrimage locale, Hans-Christian Schmid capped his studies at the Munich Film Academy with the documentary Die Mechanik des Wunders (The Mechanism of Miracles) (1992), depicting how belief and enterprise go hand-in-hand in his home town.

Years later, he returned to this strict religious milieu to make Requiem (2006), the story of a young epileptic whose penchant for hearing voices is misinterpreted as possession by the devil. Based on an actual incident that occurred in an isolated Catholic community at the beginning of the 1970s, Sandra Hüller’s performance as the suffering girl merited her a Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2006 Berlinale. Even more impressive as a statement on social conditions in eastern Germany at the Polish border after the fall of the Berlin wall, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Lichter (Distant Lights) (2003) sketched the fates of five “losers” in an interlocking narrative that never loses sight of the tragicomic no matter how bitter it is for the protagonists to face the truth.

Distant Lights was awarded the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize at the 2003 Berlin. “I feel a great sympathy for people who fight so hard for their happiness,” Schmid said in an interview. Perhaps this is the reason why he returned to the border with his Polish cameraman Bogumil Godfrejow to shoot the documentary Die wundersame Welt der Waschkraft (The Wondrous World of Laundry).

Programmed at the Berlinale in the International Forum of New Cinema, The Wondrous World of Laundry chronicles the daily chores of Polish laundry women as they labor in shifts to wash, clean, and press the linen transported daily in trucks from Berlin luxury hotels. With the focus primarily on the needs of the women to assure a steady income in the household, albeit with sacrifices on the family, we know from the start where the director’s sympathies lie.

Cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow also collaborated on Hans-Christian Schmid’s Sturm (Storm), one of the two German competition entries at the Berlinale. Set in Den Haag, where the International Criminal Tribunal holds court, Storm depicts the moral dilemmas placed on the conscience of a woman prosecutor, Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox), assigned to investigate the guilt of a former Yugoslav commander accused of the rape and murder of Bosnian women and civilians. Since the alleged crimes took place in a small town of today’s Srpska Republic, a stronghold of Serb nationalists, Hannah is required to find a reliable eyewitness to confront the indicted commander in court.

In the end, she succeeds – but at a cost. She finds herself compromised by her own lawyer husband, whose client is the European Union. And, of course, his overriding interest in this legal thriller is to move beyond the case to open the door for Serbia’s eventual entry into the EU. Shot in English, Storm is one of those cross-European productions that requires at least a history lesson to unravel the relevant details behind the travesties of the Bosnian War (1992-95), particularly the charge of genocide that happened more than a decade ago within the time scale of this film.

In this respect, Goran Duric, the name of the accused commander in the film, might easily be construed as General Ratko Mladic, who has yet to be turned over to the Tribunal by Serb authorities. Storm, for all its dramatic immediacy, comes to life only when the key witness, a rape victim placed by Romanian actress Annamaria Marinca, arrives in Den Haag to tell her story. The case may be lost, but humanity triumphs.


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in -Movies and politics, -Movies and Religion, Movies. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ron Holloway Finds “Political Movies” at the 2009 Berlin Festival

  1. viper1Movie says:

    great read, I will be back

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