Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2010
Issue No. 988
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

And the winner is....

The last film in Turkish director Samih Kaplanoglu's Yusuf Trilogy won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, writes Samir Farid

A Woman, a Gun and a Noadle Shop

This year's Berlin Film Festival more than lived up to expectations, this being the 60th festival thus far and the 10th since Dieter Kosslick became director. The festival was one of the best of recent years, with the 20 films in the competition all of a quality that would keep critics and film buffs busy for the rest of the year. The festival featured three truly extraordinary films, five excellent ones, five good ones, and seven that were perhaps neither here nor there. For this critic, this is quite a feat.

The Chinese film Tuan Yuan (Apart Together), directed by Quanan Wang, which won Best Script, the French film The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, which won Best Director, and the Chinese Film A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, directed by Zhang Yimou, were all truly extraordinary films.

The excellent films at the festival included the Romanian film If I want to Whistle, I Whistle, directed by Florin Serban, which won first prize for a full-length feature and the Judges' Prize, the Austrian film The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg; the Danish film A Family, directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen, which won the International Critics Award, the Turkish film Honey, directed by Samih Kaplanoglu, which won the Golden Bear, and the Russian film How I ended this Summer, directed by Alexei Popogrebesky, which won prizes for Best Actor and Best Cameraman.

The Japanese film Caterpillar, directed by Koji Wakamatsu, which won Best Actress, the Bosnian film On the Path, directed by Jasmila Zbanic, the American films Howl, directed by Rob Epstein, and The Killer inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and the German film Jud Suss -- Rise and Fall, were all good films.

Islam, terrorism and how Muslims view the West were common topics at the festival. Indeed, the Hollywood Reporter featured these topics on its front pages. Four Muslim filmmakers from Turkey, Iran, Bosnia and Afghanistan were among the 20 finalists at the festival, one of them walking away with the Golden Bear.

The four films directed by Muslim directors were the German films Shahada, directed by Afghan director Burhan Qurbani, and The Hunter, directed by Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts, the Bosnian film On the Path, directed by Jasmila Zbanic, and the Turkish film Honey by Samih Kaplanoglu. Remarkably, the first two films were German produced and the latter two were produced jointly with Germany, perhaps showing just how far Germany is involved in inter-cultural dialogue.

Moreover, the French film The Ghost Writer, directed by Polanski, which won the Best Director award, is a joint Franco- German production. One could therefore say that German cinema won the two most coveted prizes of the year, albeit for joint productions and with non-German directors.

Honey is Kaplanoglu's fifth feature. Born in 1963, Kaplanoglu studied film and television before graduating in 1984. He then worked in television, before making his first film Away from Home in 2000. Honey is the final film in Kaplanoglu's Yusuf Trilogy, the first being Egg in 2007 and the second Milk, shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2008.

The main character in the trilogy is a poet named Yusuf, who is shown as an adult in the first film, as a young man in the second, and as a child in the third. There are parallels between Yusuf's story and that of his biblical namesake. Yusuf's father, a mountain honey collector by profession, is named Yaqub, the Arabic for Jacob. At one point, Yusuf tells Yaqub a dream, and the father, upset, tells him never to tell him his dreams again.

Kaplanoglu produces his own films, and he is usually also involved in their editing. He does not use music in the trilogy, only natural sounds and human voices, and he is one of the few Turkish directors to write his own films. His Golden Bear award at this year's Berlin Film Festival puts him in the illustrious company of other Turkish film greats, such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ismail Metin and Yilmaz Guney.

Competition for the Best Actor award was tough this year, with the frontrunners all being accomplished actors. Three of the ten actors nominated were from China -- Honglei Sun in A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, and Feng Ling and Cai- gen Xu in Apart Together. Other actors nominated for the award were from Denmark (Andreas Lust in The Robber and Jesper Christensen in A Family ), and there were also Swedish (Stellan Skarsgªrd in A Somewhat Gentleman ), American (Casey Affleck in The Killer inside Me ) and German (Moritz Bleibtreu in Jud Suss ) actors in the running.

In the event the Russian actors Grigoriy Dobrynin and Sergei Puskepalis won the award jointly for their performances in How I ended this Summer.

The latter film is director Alexei Popogrebsky's third feature. Born in Moscow in 1972, Popogrebsky's first film, Cocktail, was shown at the Critics Week in Cannes in 2004. The film that won Best Actor in Berlin takes place on a Russian island deep within the Arctic Circle. Two men live in a weather station on the island, one of them a middle-aged man who hasn't seen his family for years, and the other a younger man who sees life at the station as an amazing experience. A complex relationship is shown developing between the two.

One might of course differ with the judges over the winning films, but few would argue that the six winning films this year were not all outstanding. Nevertheless, it was a pity that no additional prizes could be found for A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, The Robber and The Family. Instead, Honey and The Ghost Writer won two awards. While some may have felt that Polanski's The Ghost Writer deserved the Golden Bear, it was no disappointment to see the award going to Honey, also an outstanding film.

Dieter Kosslick is the Berlin Festival's fourth director, and attending this year's event I realised that I had attended 10 of the 60 festivals thus far, the first being in 1972 when Chahine's Iskandariyya Leh (Alexandria, Why?) walked away with the only prize Egypt has ever won in any of the big international festivals.

After the 9/11 attacks, Kosslick announced that the Berlin Festival would henceforth focus on inter-cultural dialogue, and films shown at the festival since 2003 have tended to stress dialogue over any supposed "clash of civilisations."

Films winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival since 2003 have included In This World, directed by Michael Winterbottom, a British film that focuses on international tensions. This won the 2003 award, and in 2004 the winner was the German film Head On, directed by the Turkish-born director Fateh Akin. In 2005, the winner was U-Carmen, directed by Mark Dornford-May, a South African film about staging the opera Carmen in Africa.

In 2006, Grbavica: the Land of My Dreams, directed by Jasmila Zbanic, a film dealing with the Serbo-Muslim war in the Balkans, won the Golden Bear, and in 2007 the winner was Tuya's Marriage, directed by Quanan Wang. Latin American films won in 2008 and 2009.

One might ask how much influence a festival director has over the winning films, since clearly the director does not interfere in the decisions of the judges. However, the director is the only person to have seen all the films entered in the competition, and he or she also names the judges, whose opinions are often well-known. A festival director is therefore often in a position to predict which films are most likely to win, and the director will also attend the final judging session as a silent participant.

Two Arab films were shown outside the competition at this year's Berlin Festival. One was Ibn Babel (Son of Babel) by Iraqi director Mohammad al-Daraji, and the other was Al-Rajul allazi Ba'a Al-Alam ( The Man who sold the World) by the Moroccans Suwel and Emad Nuri.

Ibn Babel won a peace prize and a prize awarded by Amnesty International. It was also shortlisted for best film shown at the Panorama.


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