When a pandemic gatecrashed the Berlin film festival

By: AFP      Published: 07:05 PM, 4 Mar, 2021
When a pandemic gatecrashed the Berlin film festival

Coronavirus pushed this week's Berlin film festival entirely online, as the industry grapples with new realities and directors harness the drama of the pandemic.

After Cannes was cancelled last year and this winter's Sundance went all virtual, the Berlinale has staged an event unlike any other in its 71-year history. 

Organisers pushed the event back by a month as the second wave of the virus rages in Germany, cut its length in half to five days and chopped it into two parts. 

They hope to welcome stars to the red carpet and audiences back into movie theatres -- or at least open-air cinemas -- at a June edition which will feature the current edition's biggest hits.

Sequestered jury

For now, critics, journalists and rights buyers stuck at home have been watching the movies of the future on their laptops.

But the festival's artistic director Carlo Chatrain wanted to preserve the "cinema experience" for the jury choosing the Golden and Silver Bear winners Friday among 15 contenders.

The panel, made up of the previous six Golden Bear laureates, all travelled to Berlin and are holed up at the same hotel, with the exception of dissident Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, who is watching the movies in a home theatre in Tehran while under house arrest.

Pictures posted on Instagram show the jury seated far apart in a reserved cinema, consulting at a distance around a giant white table and patching in Rasoulof via video link.

Leaning into lockdown

All of the films in competition were made at least in part under lockdown, carrying "beneath their surfaces the uncertain times we are experiencing," Chatrian said.

Some directors such as Romania's Radu Jude said they decided to make the most of the pandemic to create a heightened atmosphere with an existing screenplay. 

He revamped the premise of his biting social satire "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn", about a teacher whose sex tape winds up on the internet, after coronavirus created more social "aggressiveness".

Rather than push back production, "my take was to do it as soon as possible and adapt to what is around", including casting anti-vaxxers in minor roles and choosing coronamasks like "costumes" for his characters. 

"I wanted it to feel contemporary and if there's this pandemic going now why not include it in the film," he told AFP.

Shimmering gem

France's Celine Sciamma, who won best screenplay in Cannes in 2019 for her critically adored "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", lists two "covid consultants" in the credits of her new movie "Petite Maman".

While "Portrait" was a sweeping historical costume drama that gave birth to countless internet memes, "Petite Maman" is an intimate tale about girlhood, just over an hour long, that was shot last summer in an empty house and the woods behind it.

The Guardian's critic Peter Bradshaw called the new picture "spellbinding", as reviewers said lockdown had led Sciamma to compress the story into a small, "shimmering gem".

She told reporters she hoped children would soon be able to watch the movie with their parents "and grandparents".

Stranger than fiction

Other filmmakers said lockdown made them see films shot before the pandemic in a new light.

"Memory Box" shows a mother and daughter investigating the past while they are shut away in a Montreal blizzard, a claustrophobic feeling that suddenly seemed eerily familiar.

"It's two women blocked because of the storm, but you can see it today as the confinement because of the pandemic," co-director Khalil Joreige told AFP.

The surreal times lend themselves to science fiction and several movies tackled dystopias with gusto.

"Tides" shows humans seeking refuge on a space colony after a disaster wipes out much of life on Earth.

Director Tim Fehlbaum wrapped up filming before the outbreak, never suspecting that reality would "catch up with fiction".

"District Terminal" by Iran's Bardia Yadegari depicts a Tehran ravaged by pollution and a deadly virus, with its population forced into quarantine.

What began as a futuristic cautionary tale suddenly became horribly prescient. "The catastrophe was much closer than we thought," Yadegari said.