Berlinale Dispatch (2013) #3: Harmony Lessons, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, Closed Curtain, Child’s Pose

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Notes on the competition at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.

The Berlinale has a reputation for its political bent, far more so than the other big film festivals. This year’s competition didn’t disappoint in that regard, with many of the major prizewinners revealing in their political nature.

Kazakh film Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii) is a remarkably assured debut from 29-year-old director Emir Baigazin. Picking up an award for outstanding artistic contribution, the film follows 13-year-old Aslan, a boy who is humiliated and ostracised at a small rural school. The school is essentially run by a bully named Bolat, who forces other students to pay him protection money and is unashamedly violent towards those who cross him. Aslan’s response to his humiliation and interactions with Bolat form the thrust of the narrative.

Baigazin certainly has a wonderful eye, and his visual intelligence adds weight to a small but intriguing narrative. He does tend to overdo the visual symbolism in the first half of the film—water and its notions of purity, fixed vs. unfixed states, and so on—but tones things down thereafter. The acting is striking: Timur Aidarbekov as Aslan, and Aslan Anarbayev as Bolat, are both great finds. (Anarbayev, in particular, nails the strutting teenage bully—almost too well, as evidenced by the audience of critics who whooped at a moment when Bolat is punched back.) The Kazakh steppes also provide a fascinating visual contrast to the school: modernity set amongst a savage wilderness.

It’s hard not to view Harmony Lessons as an austere dissection of contemporary Kazakh life, with the school serving as a potent microcosm. Bolat’s violence simply carries up the chain (he is collecting money for older bullies), and a narrative swerve two-thirds through brings wider authoritarian behaviour into naked view. While the narrative shift is a little disorienting, it works in adding resonance and a kind of poetic ambiguity to proceedings. The film presents a society governed by violence, where ‘order’ is maintained via threats, casual masculine violence, and a confused awkward adolescence. As Kazakhstan has only been independent for twenty years, one could perhaps draw a parallel to an adolescent country finding its feet. Considering the dictatorship and corruption that plagues contemporary Kazakh society, it’s surprising that such a film was even made. Nevertheless, it clearly marks Baigazin as a major talent.

Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land) picked up the Jury Grand Prix for his small but intimate An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. Made for a paltry €13,000, the film is essentially a Bosnian version of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, with the added drama being that the actors themselves experienced the rejection of an uncaring and bureaucratic health system in real-life. Although it lacks the resonance of Puiu’s Romanian masterpiece, and therefore perhaps suffers in comparison, it stands as a moving account of family and community ties, bureaucratic indifference, and the difficulties of living on the margins of society.

The film centres on a Roma family in small-town Bosnia-Herzegovina and their routine existence. Father Nazif (a Best Actor-winning performance by Nazif Mujic) picks scrap iron and sells the proceeds, while mother Senada looks after the house. Senada one day complains of stomach pain, and the story follows her urgent quest for medical attention. The film is shot with urgency, matching the actors’ experience, while Tanovic keeps things simple and austere. He praises the community spirit of the Roma people around the protagonists, but also poses awkward questions about the lack of care for all in the post-war era and more recent times of European austerity.

Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (Pardé, co-directed with Kamboziya Partovi), the latest project made under house arrest and in defiance of his ban on filmmaking, was always going to be an interesting event. And while it is obvious that anyone of Panahi’s talent is wasted making films with such aesthetic and political restraints, Closed Curtain, is still fascinating and worth consideration. It picked up a Best Script Silver Bear for Panahi at the festival.

An unnamed writer is trapped within a house on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The sea—much like in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—is both a wall and a tantalising symbol of escape. In hiding because he has a dog in contravention of an edict by the Iranian authorities, he experiences solitude and depression, before being interrupted by a couple on the lam. From there the story tosses and turns, essentially becoming an account of imprisonment and its effect on a person’s state of mind and artistic ambition. The symbolism of blacked out curtains, unseen but heard raids, and an artist struggling to make his point isn’t exactly subtle, but anyone familiar with Panahi’s predicament would surely forgive the narrative.

Closed Curtain is a self-reflexive work, with scenes shot in multiple ways and the artificial nature of film constantly alluded to. Considered on those terms, the film is less about presenting a realistic world than trying to replicate the flawed nature of memory. And although undoubtedly dark, it offers a chance of escape: art. An incredibly moving statement of pride and intent, we can be sure that no matter what happens to Panahi from this point on, he’s going to use art to transcend the situation. Just recently, the actors’ passports were seized in Iran—evidence that the film’s commentary on imprisonment and personal torture has already caused a stir amongst the very authorities it critiques.

The Golden Bear for Best Film went to Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (Pozitia Copilului). Unlike other successful exports from Romanian New Wave (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu a notable exception), Child’s Pose is set in the direct present. But the links between the past are made all too clear. The film is a pointed attack on the insidious nature of Communist-era Romania corruption and class seeping into the ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ EU Romania.

Luminita Gheorghiu plays Cornelia Kerenes, a well-to-do mother who finds out that her grown son has hit and killed a poor teenager while driving. Her instant reaction is to bribe and intimidate the policemen and investigators in order to prevent her son from going to jail. Here, Netzer is drawing a clear parallel to the culture of favours for Party members that typified Ceausescu’s Romania. And of course, it’s little wonder where Kerenes’s wealth comes from (i.e. it’s clearly not a post-Cold War thing). Gheorghiu, who was so potent as the moral centre in Lazarescu, plays the scheming and emotionally sterile mother to perfection.

Modeled on the cinema vérité style that has typified the Romanian New Wave, the film’s explicit political nature and beady view on social relations will obviously see it marketed alongside the greats. In fairness, it left me a little cold. The lack of a moral centre—there is no character on which to root for until much later in the film—and an austere formal approach limited its resonance. As a result, its political points were also delivered with a heavy-hand—understood rather than felt. In the end, while Child’s Pose certainly wasn’t a disappointing Golden Bear winner, it lacked the power of some of its competitors.