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See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

15/02/2006

Breathless 5

A Berlinale diary

A desperate Iran: Rafi Pitt's "Zemestan - It's Winter" (Competition)

The film starts in winter and ends in winter, but the time in between is no less dismal. The message of Rafi Pitt's "Zemestan – It's Winter" is that things are not getting any less bleak in Iran. It is an unsocial country with no future to speak of.

A man loses his job, can't find another and decides to go abroad, leaving his wife and daughter behind him. Months go by, but the two receive neither money nor news.

Another man comes into town. He is also a mechanic, yet he expects more from life than the same old grind. He who wants to stay footloose, and refuses to buckle under. The camera follows him from a distance through the inhospitable city outskirts to the factories and garages, into cheap workers' shanties and markets whose goods he can't afford. He finds a job and crosses paths with the abandoned woman. He follows her, watches her and discovers the bad news brought to her by the police. They marry.

Half the film goes by before she talks or laughs, and when she does it is the high point of the film. Before that she is silent and anonymous, we don't know her her name, who she is, what she feels or what she thinks. One can only guess where her aspirations lie, what she despairs at or hopes for. Her joy dissipates as fast as it came, the turning point in the film. Her new husband loses his job. From here on we don't really know if the story starts all over or if it starts running backwards. But one thing is certain, it does not move on. The protagonists are faced with a circle of desolation and despair.

The association of Iranian-European filmmakers wrote an open letter to the festival, accusing it of supporting Iran's "fascist regime" by showing Iranian films. An abstruse accusation. Rafi Pitt's silent film shows the country's profound exasperation with its loud-mouthed regime.

Thekla Dannenberg


"Zemestan - It's Winter". Directed by Rafi Pitt. With Ali Nicksolat, Mitra Hadjar, Hashem Abdi and others. Iran, 2005. 86 minutes (competition).


Hot and sweaty: John Hillcoat's "The Proposition" (Panorama)


The film's opening image hurls us into a infernal gunfight. No, it's more of an execution, which is taking place in the little hut over there. Glass is shattering, pots rattling, ragged figures rush through the room, stumbling, whimpering, screaming when bullets hits them. The camera spins from one dying man to another. The hut is being shot at from the outside, from all sides, and you hear the impact of the bullets with the wood, the metal and the flesh, but not the sound of them being shot. Every bullet which goes through the panelled walls leaves a small hole through which the sun shines in. Slowly, as the gruelling first minutes progress, the shed gets lighter and quieter. Out here in the Australian outback of 1880, light means death.

This furious opening which was a joint concoction of director John Hillcoat and script writer Nick Cave (of the Bad Seeds) ensures that no one in the cinema will able to take their eyes off the screen for the next two hours. Captain Stanley makes a deal with the outlaw prisoner Charlie Burns. In the nine days before Christmas, he has to find and kill his psychopathic brother, otherwise the third member of the band of killers, the 14-year-old Mikey will be executed. The classical dimensions of this deal, which even Friedrich Schiller would have approved of, form the temporal and narrative framework of the whole film. And the deal will be the death of both parties.

But there's more to this film than bestial, explosive violence. Heads are blown off, necks are slit open, toes shot for six, backs whipped to shreds, and spears hurled through torsos, but in delicate contrast to all this - and surprisingly more abiding - are the efforts to remain civilised, which are all the more moving for their helplessness. Captain Stanley's neatly fenced front garden stands like a white-washed lunar station in the hostile desert of the Australian interior. Teatime is celebrated with English porcelain, a Christmas tree is imported a great expense and snowflakes are cut out of white gauze. And Arthur Burns maintains a library in his hideout and cherishes every sunset.

The line between the good and the bad blurrs in the shimmering heat of the Christmas summer weather. Everyone out here is so thoroughly run-down that there's no distinguishing between the police, the village inhabitants and the gangsters. The actors look as if they haven't washed in weeks. Only the Aboriginals, whose exploitation and extermination the film documents thoroughly, look like proper people and not sweat-drenched creatures with rotting gums. And we get plenty of close-ups of these because the camera seems to be as attracted to human sweat as the omnipresent flies. And it clamps itself so unbearably close to the utterly hideous faces that you find yourself leaning back in your seat.

Captain Stanley's celebration of Christmas with his wife Martha, in the knowledge that any minute the band of murderers could burst in, is the most surreal moment in this year's Berlinale so far. When Martha is pulled by her hair into her husband's study and her rapist starts singing an Irish folk song, it's all too much for the woman sitting next to me and she runs out of the cinema. And is spared the apocalypse. And also Nick Cave's performance during question time after the film is over. He obviously felt that his Old Testament-like epic of revenge, family, loyalty and evil had been brought so seamlessly to the screen by John Hillcoat that he was left with nothing to say and could only flee the stage in panic. "The Proposition" brought home for anyone that doubted it, that Nick Cave does not particularly love the human race, and he is mistrustful of civilisation. The good thing is that he's so generous with sharing his aversion.

Christoph Mayerl

"The Proposition". Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Danny Huston, David Wenham et al., Great Britain/Australia 2005, 104 min (Panorama Special)



An occidental tourist experience: Matthew Barney's "Drawing Restraint 9". (Talent Campus)


He was "feeling raw" he said, after being exposed to film after film on Dieter Kosslick's "trouser braces and belt-wearing" Berlinale jury. But then this was an appropriate choice of adjective coming from a man who had just showed his latest film that culminates with him and his wife Björk slicing each other's lower bodies to pieces, nibbling at the flesh, growing tails and swimming off into the icebergs.

Matthew Barney made "Drawing Restraint 9" when he was invited to do a major exhibition in Japan, and being a man who, since his days as a college jock, has always had a close relationship with petroleum jelly, he naturally embraced the opportunity to hitch a ride on a whaling ship and witness first hand the elaborate and ritualised process of flensing the raw material that was universally used for lubricants before synthetics took over.

The film fuses footage of the whalers going about their work with Barney's own fantastic processing of Japanese ritual. He and Björk play the role of the tourists, passing through (the belly of the ship) and being spat out as whales at the end. The symbol which recurs throughout the Cremaster Cycle, of the oval body form bound by a linear restraint, plays a central role in this film too, as a vast vat on the ship's deck that is filled with gradually coagulating whale fat, and as a ritual meal of the workers. Here, though, the restraining element is removed and eaten, leaving Barney to surrender himself wholeheartedly to a culture famous for being kept so in check by its traditions.

He and Björk are sucked in and through, in a well-oiled linear narrative of enacted ritual. They arrive at the ship separately and are shaved and trussed up in exquisite fossilised and hairy intestinal perversions of Japanese costumes, click-clacking in brittle conch flip-flops through the steel bowels of the ship to partake in their joint and thickly congealed tea ceremony.

"Drawing Restraint 9" successfully bypasses the "Lost in Translation" treatment of a brush with Japanese culture with all the hilarious but essentially cheap gags that that entails. His desire to penetrate without fear of being engulfed and transformed makes this film a sculptural ode to his host, which is all his own.

Lucy Powell

"Drawing Restraint 9". Director Matthew Barney. Starring Matthew Barney and Björk et al., USA 2005, 145 min.


Collateral damage. Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanamo" (Competition)


Documentary films have long been plagued by the tendency to fill gaps in the footage with acted scenes, to give a leg up to any lack of imaginative powers in the audience. The awful thing about "The Road to Guantanamo" is that there is, of course, very little original footage on the story of the three British Muslims who travelled to Afghanistan for a wedding, where they were taken prisoner and landed in Guantanamo for over two years. This didn't stop Michael Winterbottom from wanting images, convincing images, so he packed up his actors, took them off to Pakistan and he stuck them in a self-constructed prison camp.

Only in the rarest cases do these scenes add any value, such as to visualise specific torture methods which are so inhumane that one could never imagine anything so drastic without them. The majority of the film though constitutes emotional and visual coercion. When in the few real interviews scenes with Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq – who by the way are highly convincing in front of the camera and who genuinely experienced everything that takes place in the film – talk turns to the bomb victims, the film immediately cuts to exhausted-looking actors trudging past a load of Afghanis covered in fake blood. When one of them says Guantanamo made him feel as if he was in a zoo, you can bet the film cuts to a barbed wire fence and some prisoner in orange cowering behind it.

At the press conference, Winterbottom says proudly that it took a great deal of time for him to translate the 600 pages of interviews with Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq into film scenes. If only he'd allowed them talk more and taken a back seat himself. Because they are best-equipped to tell their own story. But Winterbottom prefers to counter this with his fake Guantanamo theatre. Why? I wanted to tell the story as functionally as possible, Winterbottom says. His narcissistic production has succeeded in discrediting Ruhel, Asif and Shafiq's impressive and absurd tale of suffering. In military speak, this would be referred to as collateral damage.

Christoph Mayerl

"The Road to Guantanamo" Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Rizwan Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui, Arfan Usman et al., Great Britain 2006, 95 min (Competition)
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