The Berlinale File

Year by year, I’ve somewhat grown a muscle of confidence in understanding how to navigate, behave and extrapolate what I need out of a film festival. Edinburgh (EIFF) having been my prominent testing ground for four to five years and London (LFF) last year. Both are fine, offer some decent films and a lot of shit ones, a few okay discussions and occasional networking session. But the Berlinale is a festival I’ve set my sights on for a while. It is after all one of the largest and highly prestigious film festivals in Europe. A ‘Category A’ I am told. So I worked my arse off in my demeaning below London living minimum wage job to afford coming to Berlin for the whole thing. Fortunately I’ve got a really cool friend who has agreed to put me up so I’m bloody fortunate to keep the costs low.

So pretty much as soon as I do stop work and prepare for my trip, I get a good all rounder cold, that allows me a good two hours sleep before my ten to six alarm call. Fortunately I’m not feeling too awful, but I soon I find I’ve mistaken my bus stop for somewhere else, so I end up running a fatigued body and lungs that wouldn’t get a sale on any black market with a heavy suitcase to try and make my Easy Bus. Which I bloody didn’t. Fifteen minutes for the next one. Fuckety grand. And this is the point I find out there are trains to Gatwick, but the cheap bastard I am didn’t take that into account or care to look. I decide to play it patient and wait for the next bus. The Easy transit wagon arrives, I see what I get for five pounds. The English speak fuck all driver doesn’t know how to read my ticket. There’s no danger of me not getting on, I’d have hijacked the bus myself. I don’t know what the ethos of Easy Bus is whether it is to get it’s customers to its destination on time or safely, but the driver is such a fan of cautionary speeds I fathomed he must have got an erection at a health and safety training video. Fifteen minutes late it’s running, to add to the extra fifteen I fluffed earlier. “Run”. The girl at the check in desk tells me. Well from there on in I make it, not without losing the belt I only bought the fucking day before.

This is my third trip to Berlin, it’s my favourite city, the beer is cheap, the concept gluten free doesn’t exist and the people are beautiful to the point my DNA looks thoroughly inadequate. But I’ve never been here when thermal underwear is advisory. I didn’t think that would matter too much, not until two days later did I realise it mattered a lot.

So after picking up my pass from the very friendly volunteer and told me where to pick up my tickets. The mistake I made was I thought I knew where she meant. Also the concept of getting tickets was slightly new giving I’m used to industry screenings. I take a look at the main centre point, the Gropius Bau, the centre point for the European Film Market not the delegate centre I had originally thought but where a good majority of the various visiting sales agents and international film bodies are parked. It’s mightily impressive. I ask the information desk for the WIFI password. Apparently as I am not part of the EFM I have to buy one at twenty plus Euros. So now apart from buying a pass I need to add add-ons. I know this sounds quite white middle class of me but having WIFI to help navigate and communicate with delegates is pretty useful. The place is also rammed to fuck, there’s hardly anywhere to sit and charge my portables. Free WIFI and a socket are absolute gold dust in this city. I go to an event that introduces newcomers to the festival, explaining how to go about it. In hindsight I learn they fail to mention a few festival truths.

The next day after a good needed sleep, a foray into the German bakery, I nonchalantly turn up at where I thought the ticketing booth was. First thing I was confused with was where is the accreditation queue? Later I find I was at the wrong place. And further to my disappointment, I was told I’d be very lucky to get any tickets for today or tomorrow as I needed to queue early. Well that was news to me. No one told me I needed to queue at stupid o’clock in the morning, rightly so the ticket desk opens at eight thirty. I’m even told to come earlier than that. Apparently the first person at the queue arrived at five in the morning! I’m pissed off. The volunteers sympathise. I’ve no ambitions to turn myself into a human ice-lolly. I’m kind of at a loss as to what I’ve paid for? There’s no delegate centre, sign of networking drinks to meet fellow filmmakers, a large part why I attend film festivals and seemingly it’s slim pickings to see anything I want unless I turn up stupid early and risk not turning into something Heston Blumenthal would put on a menu. I send an email to someone from the festival who I had to back and forth correspondence previously.

I turn up around half eight the next day. The queue is massive and moves at a paralytic snails pace. Yep it’s bloody cold. After around thirty minutes I get in. Every film I wanted to see is ticketed out. The volunteer looks at me sympathetically. Okay, maybe on another side the alternative films I get tickets for are secret little gems, I mean it is interesting to see films set in Liberia and Guatemala, I’m pretty cool with that. I get told I can go see the Short Film programmes with my pass alone. He does tell me I can queue up without a ticket at the cinema and now and again try my luck. I know as a short film programmer this is something I should be on my to do list, but I usually find with these festivals the films are pretentious artistry self-indulgent wank that puts me off submitting whatever films I get made to them. And it turns out I’m right, bar two American entries that raised a smile. One in particular whereby an intrusive flatmate keeps interrupting her flatmates sexploits. It ends with the main character fingering herself on the bed. Amusing but it reeks of Lena Dunham. In the shopping centre later, one of the few places I can get WIFI, the before mentioned actor walks past me. It brings a wry, yes immature smile and marks the only saving grace of my day.

A moon passing later, determined to make my impact on this festival and see some films, I get there an extra half an hour early. I’m not as far back in the queue, but it’s still long. The people behind me are moaning, I occasionally look at one of them longingly in the hope that the meeting of our eyes would translate into a connection where we’d know to embrace our collective bodies creating a force field against Berlin’s bitter Winter bite. But I don’t have that look and I stood in silence shivering contemplating peeing down my leg for the warmth.

Eventually I get in. I tell myself it will be worth it. I reach the ticketing booth attendant and… only one of the three films I wanted to see I got. Love & Mercy, which I can tell you is brilliant and thoroughly recommend. But at the time I’m pissed. I don’t have the will power to turn up at seven in the morning and freeze my nuts off with no guarantees of seeing what I want to see. I get an email from my correspondent. She’s really sympathetic; she had to do the same crap years before as a student. She tells me to come to the accreditation desk where she can help me out with understanding the festival more, getting me WIFI and telling me where the good coffee is, because it’s bad here, despite the amount of hipsters in this city.

Giving the time it took for me to get the tickets, I’m now too late to see a film I had a ticket for on that day, which is at a venue I don’t know where, the bloody irony. So I decide to try my luck at the nearby cinema, which has a screening of 600 Miles, something I requested the day before and told there were no tickets. I queue and get in. It’s a bloody big screen, there’s quite a few seats left, which makes me wonder and angry even why I couldn’t have had a ticket for it the day before. The film is not great despite Tim Roth being formidable as ever.

I meet my correspondent later and she’s lovely. We have a laugh at the bad map in the brochure and informs me of a few tips and tricks and even gives me a free WIFI code. She tells me there really isn’t such a thing as a delegate centre, nor a great deal of networking events. Telling me I can try the American Independent and Documentary stands, so I take that into account for later on. But from hereon I’ve decided to sack off queuing up in the morning for tickets and just go to the desired screenings and try my luck. It seems to work. I finally see some good films in Nasty Baby and as mentioned before, Love and Mercy, I feel a tad more on the up. The recommended coffee is better but only just. I’m still none the wiser about the networking events.

The next day lingering around the Gropius Bau, or the European Film Market, I see the American Independent Film Producers are holding a Q&A with two directors, Sebastian Silva and Hal Hartley. I was unaware who Hal Hartley was but pretty excited for Sebastian Silva, giving he wrote, directed and starred in Nasty Baby. But unfortunately he’s ill. I bump into someone I had met at the London Film Festival. I tell her about the less than great time I’m having. She tells me I should visit my national stand to get info on relevant networking meetings and how I can utilise the festival more. I tell her about the IFP talk and we head to it. The room the American IFP is situated in is part of a long corridor with the Meet The Docs stand. Despite being just two bodies away from Hal Hartley, I can neither hear him or the interviewer and not knowing who he is, I up and leave, politely, guiltily leaving the girl I just met.

I loiter around the EFM, looking at the stands seeing who is selling marketing what, mostly wondering how the hell most of these really awful films sell. A cheery and friendly Canadian girl at one of the stands, yes I know all Canadians are cheery and friendly, starts chatting to me about what I’m doing at the Berlinale. I tell her I have a feature script in early development. She asks if I want to have a chat with one of the sales agents? Why not I say. Half an hour later I’m granted the meeting. He’s tired but happy to have a chat and willing to have a look at a treatment of said script. It can take weeks to have a brief chat like that in London but here I’ve been a curious spectator of this orgy and now I’ve somewhat fallen in and got a hard on for some more action. I plan to make more of an effort the next day. The next day I visit the UK Film stand, asking about networking events and a bit about getting the most out of the festival. I’m told that I’ve pretty much missed it all; it’s all done on the first weekend and everyone is pretty much packing up the next day. Oh well, I make up for lost time and wonder around having a few brief chats, picking up some business cards.

Feeling a bit more satisfied with getting into films I scrap getting up at stupid o’clock and turn up when and where I want. And it pretty much works out, although I turn up to see Mr Holmes at Friederich-Palast. Another long bloody queue, sod it, I head over to Zoo-Palast to see if I can get into Ned Rifle, a film I wasn’t too excited about but happy to take the risk. I get in no problem. I will hand it to Berlin, the people attend the screenings in good numbers, their screens are massive and the standard of seating puts the ‘luxury cinema’ I work in to shame. The director is introduced on stage, Hal Hartley. Oh typical. He introduces Ned Rifle as the final piece of trilogy of films about a set of characters he created back in the nineties, starting with Henry Fool, which premiered at the Berlinale in the nineties. Ned Rifle turns out to be a little gem with a rather unique style I’ve not really come across before, I feel like I’ve stumbled across a little secret and look forward to going through the director’s catalogue.

The following few days pretty much blur into one. I see a few films, nothing spectacular, I walk out of the Chinese film Gone With The Bullets along with most of the audience, I have a good laugh with the ushers on my way out. I also leave early a through the Japanese film Wonderful World End that featured in the Generation 14+ category. The film wasn’t particularly terrible but I only decided to see it after I bollocksed up my timing with the intention of seeing Selma. The main off putting incident was having to listen to rude buggering kids heckle throughout. Apparently they must have banned smacking in this country too.

Another film I probably should have walked out of was Elixir, which is about a commune of artists and a vagabond loner who didn’t much care for lines of dialogue. The film that was so painfully up it’s own arse, around 80% of the audience left early meaning an embarrassed producer didn’t have the will power to perform a post screening Q&A. I only stayed as I quite liked the aesthetics and curious to see if it had a purpose. It didn’t and left my head scratching how the investors thought they were going to get their money back or whether the filmmakers thought? One of the biggest issues I have for films as clearly bad as this is do the programmers really think an audience will like these films? Especially during a festival when the ticket prices for these films are more expensive, it’s grossly unfair to think it’s okay to charge cinemagoers so much. I know some of the hardships of film programming but I probably have the luxury that I don’t have to deal with exhibitors or distributors dictating what gets selected or is available. But my main argument still remains that really films should be selected whether they are going to pull in an audience and satisfy them. I was left rather unimpressed by the Berlinale programme. As a category A festival, I really thought there’d be a noticeable improvement in the programme compared to Edinburgh and London, but was left feeling rather nonplussed by it. From what I hear in further conversations with people who have been at the festival for a few years, the programme hasn’t been all that worth shouting about. If there was to be a final insult that I endured from the festival, is that I was informed that despite paying a certain amount for my accreditation and the same as most people I fathom not a student, is that I was giving a numerical value as to my importance and status as a delegate. I don’t know how lowly they considered me but it smacked of snobbishness and classism the world of film is riddled with and I find no place for. In the brief bio I gave Berlinale, they really don’t know anything I’ve done or achieved. It left a real sour note in my mouth. It may very well be the case that most big name festivals operate as such, but it makes me less keen on the idea of submitting to the Berlinale in the future.

My final Berlinale venture is spent watching Mr Holmes on the final day at the Friederich-Palast, in what is a wonderful and immense venue, let down by cramped and uncomfortable seating, although not as bad as shocking as the Edinburgh International Theatre for spinal contortion. Whilst by no means a bad film, Holmes reminded me of the film industry I was returning to, where most British films share the common hallmarks of being adaptations, with Queens English gentry protagonists whilst the aesthetics are more geared towards TV than threatening with cinematic flair.

Uber-alles, for all my complaints I’m glad I went, if not for the festival but the delight of being in Berlin, which like Paris, the people seem to really support the art of cinema and that spirit is quite overwhelming, so I do hope to return one day, with my own feature, that’s hopefully not shit.

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