Reflections on the enigmatic ways of film juries and the Golden Bear winner at the Berlinale 60
The Berlinale is done. The verdict is out and the prizes have been given. As always there were big disappointments and upsets. And, of course, accusations will fly back and forth for some time. Take but one rather bizarre example of an international controversy from the recent past, when the Swedish Nobel Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace to President Obama. The uproar was so bitter and loud that there were repeated calls from various quarters insisting that President Obama have the decency to refuse the award. It was as if he had insidiously manoeuvred to bag the prize instead of being the victim of the Nobel committee. But that is the nature and privilege of that beast called the jury: it can and does elevate one particular person from a crowd of contenders but cannot be held accountable.
Something similar, though on a much smaller scale, occurred at the Berlinale this year. Many critics were of the opinion that like last year, the sixtieth anniversary selection of films was an exercise in irrelevance. They felt, and some of them even wrote, that the chairperson of the jury, Werner Herzog, should have taken a stand and not awarded the Golden Bear to any film in the competition section. And if the rest of the panel insisted on giving it, then, according to them, Herzog should have expressed his dissenting opinion at the award ceremony. Perhaps they were expecting too much of the diamond anniversary. What they were looking for was nothing short of a total rethink and a fundamental change in the very credo of the Berlinale. What happened was of course something that everybody must have known in their heart of hearts. Herzog and company did not hold any of the awards in abeyance. And a good thing it was. As we all know, it is humanly impossible to find a jury whose verdict is universally liked. Period.
As to the rethink, yes this would have been the right time. The Berlinale’s 60th anniversary is an occasion for wonderment. How did the Festival take root so soon after the devastation and defeat of Germany in WWII? How did it survive the intrigues and clashes, of the cold war and the political, financial and cultural upheavals that went with it? As the Berlinale’s history will tell you it was touch and go at times. If the Festival came through and became one of the three most important international film events along with Cannes and Venice, it was only by the skin of its teeth. German efficiency may be more myth than fact these days but it still works to perfection at the Berlinale.
But the 60th anniversary is also, or at least it should be, a time for introspection. A time to look back and ask, what did we want to be? How do we measure up? Technology is changing the nature of films and the culture of viewing so much, where do we go from here? Unfortunately the Berlinale at age 60 appears to be reluctant, if not immune, to reflect, question and probe. It cannot make up its mind: does it want to be a showcase for the finest cinema in the world? Does it wish to be politically correct above all else? Are its goals populist? Does it aspire to have its finger in every cinematic pie? What is the purpose of non-competition films in the competitive section? Would it be happy to be the father of young international cinema? Does it want to be all things to all cinema audiences?
The authorities and the people in charge may well ask why should they bother? After all German film audiences are remarkably responsive to all kinds of films and prefer not to be too demanding. The Berlinale is like the Salarjung museum at Hyderabad. It seems to lack discernment and hence unable to differentiate between junk and the real thing.
But to get back to the awards. This year the Golden Bear went to the Turkish film Bal (Honey). At the very beginning of the festival, the Chairperson of the jury, Werner Herzog had said, “There aren’t clear-cut criteria for this sort of thing. But I’m sure the art will come through.” That leaves us no option but to speculate and explore what kinds of inputs/factors go into the aesthetic standards by which a film is judged and as in the case of Bal, gets the top prize.
Bal, is really two movies: the one I saw and the one I read about later or heard random critics opine about. Let me first talk about what I saw. The film opens with a man walking in the forest with a rope he tosses high up and when it finds purchase on a branch, the man starts to climb up. He’s halfway up when there’s a cracking sound and you see a thin branch that’s partially broken and the man hanging up there precariously. Cut to a flashback: Yakup, the man who is a bee-keeper is moving around in his own home and outside in the forest with his son, Yusuf. While the relationship seems self-consciously laconic, it’s clear the two share a special rapport and closeness that precludes the mother. There are some marvellously evocative scenes of Yusuf in the classroom with other students. The boy wants to recite a poem that he has already recited to his father. Oddly enough when he’s asked to do so, he stumbles over the words repeatedly. (While I was puzzled by the tongue-tripping, it did not occur to me that the boy had a stutter till I read a review in Variety. I’m not sure I’m convinced of this since barring the occasions when he is asked to recite, he has no stutter in any other situation.)
Nothing much happens. The keynote is silence. Silence and intermittent and inexplicable patches of near darkness. For me, there are two kinds of silences: those that are unobtrusive and rich in suggestion, hinting at tranquillity, peace, foreboding, unease or all kinds of unspoken things, and add to the finer nuances in the film. And the other kind of silence, which has nothing to say and sits there portentously seeking attention. Unfortunately while there was the occasional resonant silence in Bal, most of the time the silences were blackouts and question marks. What were they supposed to signify? They dragged purposelessly and made one fidgety. Why was a subject that was clearly meant for an evocative short film stretched to a full-length feature film? Even a little bit of editing of the yawning passages would have made it a more meaningful film?
In the meantime you learn that the population of bees is drastically reduced and the bee-keeper is forced to go into the Karakoram mountains to see if he’ll be luckier in these higher remote woods. When Yusuf’s mother begins to get anxious about her husband’s prolonged absence, she sends the boy to her mother. The boy returns, the police are informed, the branch snaps, and you hear a crash in the forest.
From the beginning, the branch was a problem for me. Few people would know the forest as well as the bee-keeper. Accidents can occur anywhere and even with those who are old hands at tree-climbing. But there was something phony in the way the director depicts the accident. When the bee-keeper flings the rope up, you expect him to first of all choose the branch carefully. Secondly, he would not, under any circumstances, start climbing without first testing and retesting whether the branch would take his weight. If he had done this and then lost his grip and fallen, that would have made sense. Perhaps I’m quibbling, but in a film that is ultimately so undernourished and prides itself on a deep feeling for nature, the devil is in the detail.
I came out of the theatre feeling let down and irritated. There were some wonderful moments in the film. Bora Altas as Yusuf is superb as are his classmates who appear for a few minutes and yet leave such a strong impression. The bee-keeper and the son whispering to each other has a delightful quality and even though the mother is so underexploited, she has a strong presence. But I was left with the feeling that the director-screenwriter and producer, Semih Kaplanoglu, could not be bothered to make the film more substantial and resonant. He preferred to take his audience for granted instead of going the few extra miles to flesh out his story and deepen his material. It was as if he was shrugging his shoulders and telling us to take it or leave it.
Then I read the review by Ray Bennett in The Hollywood Reporter’s Berlin Daily. What I learnt was that this was “the third and final entry in Turkish filmmaker Kaplanoglu’s trilogy about a young poet named Yusuf learning the harsh realities of nature…” The review proved prophetic in many ways. While finding the cinematography superlative, we are told that “the film will follow its predecessors in winning great appreciation at film festivals.” There’s more in the same vein. The film is “bucolic and spiritual… . Exquisitely produced but dramatically erratic, this period piece captures the thrill of true romance.” It would appear that the proximity to nature automatically translates into spiritual manna. As to “true romance”, I am not quite sure how to read those words. Does he mean the Mills and Boon variety of penny romances? Surely not. But what is obvious is that many in the audience and certainly the jury seem to have bought into this inflated spiritual claptrap.
Was it Milk and Egg, the previous two films in the trilogy, which spilled over and carried such weight with even the likes of Werner Herzog? But a film must stand on its own and not because it has a pedigree or because the director has a remarkable oeuvre. If a film requires annotations and explications for the viewer to get its import, then it’s failing to do its job. Apart from the spirituality inherent in that loaded word ‘nature’, did the fact that the director is dealing with the purported childhood of a poet also play a role in elevating Bal to the Golden Bear status? When critics as well as lay audiences speak of stunning visuals in a film, I become wary, if not alarmed. A movie is a multi-media experience. When one aspect like the camera work is high-lighted, it usually signifies that the rest of the film is pretty thin gruel. Bal is good to look at except when one is confronted with the deadly black holes in which one gets lost.
‘Nature’, ‘lyrical’, ‘poetic’ and ‘spiritual’ are, or should be, wonderful, resonant words and need to be used with extreme care and sensitivity. But there is a large school of critics that is lazy and lacking in rigour. They take the easy way out and use these evocative words as small change instead of coming to grips with the subject with which they are dealing. What you get then is a tacit collaboration of the artist and critic. The former can depend on the latter to use these magical words to dilate upon his art and in the process the critics too benefit by inflating their own reputations as cognoscenti who possess an exceptional feel for art.
There is no denying that when used economically by the great auteurs, less is indeed more. Offhand the sparseness and quiet of the 70s Palm d’Or winner, Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs comes to mind. It was akin to sitting on the banks of one of the great rivers of the world. The river of time itself and humanity flowed meditatively on the screen as you watched enthralled right up to the tragic end. It was the same with Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. There is dialogue, just enough of it to let you know that what is left unspoken is where the heart and soul of the movie are. What films of this nature do is to induce an effortless and unselfconscious contemplation of the human condition.
Bal had the potential to pull off something similar in a minor key but the director who is also the script-writer is far too enamoured of the pretentious and the precious to ruminate and go deeper. But critics and art-house audiences are more than willing to make up for the director’s posturing. As in the Russian movie How I Ended this Summer, which picked up a few Silver Bears, if you are shooting in the Arctic Circle, then it’s taken for granted that it must be an epic encounter between the forces of nature and human beings. Never mind that there is so much aimless and vacant self-indulgence at the beginning that a mildly interesting story becomes full of self-importance. Similarly the loaded silences, ellipses, pauses and the laboured laconic tone of Bal become bottomless metaphors and symbols into which critics, theoreticians and average cinema-goers like me can read whatever the hell they want to.
It is not my intention to suggest that Herzog fell victim to this kind of mythologizing of a macho silence and symbolism. We will never really know what made this jury choose Bal as the Golden Bear winner. But it would be salutary for future jury panels to be hard on themselves, examine their own critical standards and judgements and to clearly enunciate the reasons why they made the choices they did.