Bear in Mind: The Berlin Film Festival 2009

By Lawrence Ferber

Originally published on Advocate.com February 26 2009 1:00 AM ET

Berlin has long held a
reputation of being a little freaky, but the 2009 Berlin Film
Festival was downright experimental. The finalists and winners
of the festival's
Teddy
Awards

, for works with LGBT content and/or creators, were primarily
experimental in style, with
Raging Sun, Raging Sky,

Mexican director Julián Hernández's plotless,
three-hour-plus wide-screen poem snagging the Best Feature
prize. More mainstream, accessible fare peppered the festival's
substantial queer-interest lineup, including
Pedro,

MTV's Pedro Zamora biopic scripted by
Milk

's Dustin Lance Black, while big stars like Kate Winslet, Keanu
Reeves, and queer icon Tilda Swinton, who headed up the
festival's main jury, added nonstop Hollywood excitement.

One of the most highly
anticipated premieres was that of
An Englishman in New York,

in which actor John Hurt -- who played Quentin Crisp in 1975's
The Naked Civil Servant

-- reprised his role as the beloved/loathed, famously pithy
icon.
Englishman

follows the witticism-spewing, aging British dandy as he leaves
England to achieve fame in New York City; forges friendships
with a gay magazine editor and a lonely artist; makes bitter
enemies with the very community he once stood for by declaring
"AIDS is just a fad"; and finds a kindred spirit in
performer Penny Arcade (played by Cynthia Nixon).

At the film's press
conference, Hurt, along with director Richard Laxton, discussed
the differences between
Englishman

and
Civil Servant,

both of which were produced for British TV (Jonathan Nossiter's
1990 documentary on Crisp,
Resident Alien,

also screened).

"The context of the
first film was a man against the world," Laxton said, "and
the second film is about the man and his relationship with
himself." The film paints a sometimes pitiful picture of
Crisp, who despite having accrued substantial savings lived in
a tiny, filthy studio apartment, resigned to remain unloved.
Nonetheless, Hurt assured listeners, "Quentin certainly
didn't suffer from loneliness, and he wouldn't consider himself
lonely. But even if he was lonely, he didn't suffer from it. It
was something he took on board as part of life. I admire
him."

Hurt was later awarded
a special acting Teddy for his performance. "I don't think
I've been more excited about receiving any award than this
one," he gushed during the televised ceremony, at which
Warhol muse Joe Dallesandro -- subject of the new documentary
Little Joe,

coproduced by his stepdaughter and rich with incredible
archival footage - was also honored. Wieland Speck, programmer
of the fest's Panorama section and a Teddy cofounder, praised
Dallesandro for changing "perceptions of maleness on film
forever." And Dallesandro praised Germany for the way it
changed his perception of himself during his Warhol days.
"Europe made me feel like an actor," he shared.

BERlinale 2009 RAGE JUDITH DENSCH XLARGE (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The Best Documentary
Teddy went to
Fig Trees,

a literally operatic look at AIDS activists Tim McCaskell and
Zackie Achmat by Canada's John Greyson. Legendary American
experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer won Best Short for
A Horse Is Not a Metaphor,

"an intimate visual essay about her journey to survive
ovarian cancer." And the Siegessäule Magazine
Readers' Award went to director Yun Suh's
City of Borders,

which follows Israeli and Palestinian queers as they struggle
for love and equality -- and occasionally "fuck the
enemy."

Berlin's out mayor
Klaus Wowereit (who looks like a missing Baldwin brother) made
a Teddys appearance, during which he stressed the importance of
films like
City of Borders,

which bring to light queer life and rights struggles in regions
where discrimination, homophobic violence, and dark ages-level
attitudes towards gays still run rampant, and praised the
legacy and accomplishments of Harvey Milk.

 

Berlinale 2009 Little Joe xlarge (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Milk

writer Dustin Lance Black, director Gus Van Sant, and producers
Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen were in town for their film's
festival screening and a press conference, during which
international journalists asked about their views on President
Obama (Van Sant: "It seems like he's doing a pretty good
job"), the pope (Black: "I've heard he has some problems
with me -- maybe we can patch it up if we ever get
together"), and the film's use of stock footage of Anita
Bryant versus having an actress portray her. "Unlike Dan
White," Black responded to the latter question, "who I
found it easier and important to find the humanity in, the more
I looked into Anita the more she seemed like caricature. I was
afraid people today would not believe she said and meant the
things she did, so to have an actress portray that would seem
like caricature and I would seem like a really bad writer ...
so I thought,
We'll let her sink her own ship.

"

As usual, there was
plenty of star-hungry crowd clamor around the festival's ground
zero, Potsdamer Platz, and handful of satellite theaters. Harry
Potter fans from around the world flew in to catch Rupert
Grint's very adult turn in
Cherrybomb, a

n
Y Tu Mamá También

-esque drama about two boys into the same girl, it falls short
of that film's homoerotic edge -- although at one point,
teasingly, it seems like it might actually go there -- and
Grint doesn't go full monty a la Radcliffe in
Equus

. Ultimately,
Cherrybomb

plays like a good episode of BBC series
Skins.

BERLINale 2009 PEDRO XLARGE (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

A few titles fell far
shorter of audience expectations, including Lukas Moodysson's (
Show Me Love

)
Babel

-esque
Mammoth,

which was loudly booed at its press screening, and Sally
Potter's (
Orlando

) murder-in-the-fashion-world faux documentary,
Rage.

An example of formalistic minimalism gone completely wrong,
Rage

boasts an amazing cast, including Jude Law in drag and a
joint-smoking Dame Judi Dench, but they simply talk directly to
the camera, a colored background the sole visual flourish.
"It should've been an art installation at the Whitney,"
clucked one discontented viewer.

Julie Delpy's
The Countess,

about Hungary's famed virgin-blood-soaking Countess Bathory,
lacked lesbian bite. Conversely, groundbreaking German
filmmaker Monika Treut's
Ghosted,

a totally sapphic culture-crossing drama-cum-mystery about a
Hamburg artist and her Taiwanese girlfriend, scored mixed to
negative reviews. Other titles that inspired conversations and
buzz amongst festgoers and industry: Hong Kong filmmaker Kit
Hong's
Soundless Wind Chime,

an artful, melancholy tale of love and loss; Greece's
Strella,

which features a lurid twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan
uncomfortable;
The Fish Child,

Lucia Puenzo's downbeat romantic follow-up to
XXY;

and Jochen Hick's
The Good American,

an unglamorous slice-of-life documentary about Tom Weise, the
HIV- and hep C-positive creator of

Rentboy.com

and hustler party Hustlaball.

Even if some works fell
short in their critical reception or execution, 2009's was an
adventurous and conventions-defying queer slate and a
boon for lovers of experimental cinema, and quite appropriately
the Teddy ceremony closed with a rendition of "Walk on the
Wild Side" with Nena Hagen, Joey Arias, Sherry Vine, and
Berlin's own towering drag queen Gloria Viagra.