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Bear in Mind: The
Berlin Film Festival 2009

Bear in Mind: The
Berlin Film Festival 2009


A very adult Rupert Grint, some insightful comments from Dustin Lance Black, and Julie Delpy's blood-soaked lesbian countess drama make for a colorful Berlin Film Festival.

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 Julian Hernandez'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.

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 Siegessaule 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.

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 Mama Tambien -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.

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 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.

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Lawrence Ferber