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The Torch: Your Berlinale blueprint

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If I say that I’ll map out a sure way of entering your film into this important festival for you, of getting it screened there, you’d most likely reject the very idea from the start. Seasoned as you are in all circus affairs, you are aware of course how any programming for such an event is partially erratic by nature and certainly interest-driven – and therefore unpredictable.

The TorchBut no, it isn’t! Or at least not entirely, because where there’s a record of long standing, there’s also a pedigree that can be investigated. So let me point out some of the specifics of Berlinale that (whether officially acknowledged or not) are proven to play their part in determining a submission’s faring – and ultimately, a visitor’s level of contentedness.

Apart from the obvious criteria that need to be met and can be reviewed on the website’s official regulations documents for film entries, and besides the standard formula whereby establishment always comes first, there are a number of nonofficial, implicit quality benchmarks which it is not mandatory but verily helpful to meet; or at least bear in mind when seriously considering coming here. I will point out some of them in this column, so here comes your Berlinale master plan:

Firstly, I’ve heard that Berlinale was all about stars, and that’s nonsense. It is, if anything, the most politically driven festival in the calendar and has developed a distinction for favouring a sharp profile and thematic clarity over artistry – certainly under the aegis of Mr. Dieter Kosslick in the years since he took over as festival head in 2001. Then, there is the city’s attraction in itself, the sheer scope of what it has on offer for any guest coming over, ranging from world-class museums over a lively and abundant scene of galleries and alternative exhibition venues to the entire spectrum of its arts infrastructure to explore, which makes it stand out among the circuit. Despite the fact of Berlin International Film Festival being one of FIAPF’s* 12 listed Category A festivals across the globe, it is also its unmistakable brand of down-to-earth appeal, which every year anew wins it such outstanding credibility with audiences, professional and non-professional ones alike. Accordingly, it is the films that are the real stars here and anyone with the right talents (and product) will feel at home, be welcomed and shine.

BFF is one of the most prestigious events in the world of film, but above all else it is the biggest audience festival on the planet. As documented by an attendance total of 430000, with more than 230000 tickets sold this year, movie-goers clearly account for some of the best in the entire show. The Berlin public is an outstandingly valuable asset, I have to admit, as it is free-thinking, sophisticated, international, open-minded and overall the most expert you will get anywhere in Germany. And this sets it apart from its competitors, you should know. Thus, by coming here, you already honour the longstanding German-French love-hate relationship, as mirrored in that well tended antagonism of Berlinale versus Cannes: if you want your cachet of excellence, you go to Cannes; if you want a qualified feedback, come to Berlin!

But of course, there is a solid business side to all this too, and when it comes to the question of sales and possible theatrical releases in Germany or France (and beyond) for your film, both these aforementioned events surely serve as potent gateways to achieving just that. Again, the medium of film in its capacity for instigating international exchange is closely related to the contemporary metropolitan experience anywhere in the world; therein it has its most natural common vein filled with the power of binding together cultures customarily apart and alien. As a side-effect to that, however, there are numerous examples where a film’s chances overseas, the chances of its being exported, were quite simply limited by the factual. Oftentimes, what has been heralded as a landmark foreign country release, in fact was nothing else than a mere three or four screens in Paris or Berlin. This is not meant to denigrate such achievements in any way, but put on record here just to remind you of some capital ramifications too easily overlooked – and to make you re-think your pre-conceived notion of where the heart of the matter is actually to be found, obviously…

Berlinale at least offers you the EFM (European Film Market) right there around the corner at Potsdamer Platz, with thousands of industry participants, more than 1000 additional screenings and many opportunities for doing business, striking deals, meeting important people and reaching out on the Co-Production Market and its WCF (World Cinema Fund) appendix (now open for applicants from the Southeast Asian region as well).

The next issue that needs to be addressed in such a survey is the question of how to measure success in the event. Because most of the screenings are sold out anyway, my advice would be not to go by ticket sales alone. Rather, immediate audience reaction during and after the screening will tell you what you need to know: Do people stay on, or get up and leave halfway through your film? Do they ask questions in the Q&A afterwards, resplendent with interest and real curiosity, or merely out of courtesy? I know our Berlinale audience, believe me, and reactions vary just as much as their respective afterwards (mis-)perception. Professionals seldom ask questions, but local cineastes do – even if it might take a while for them to feel comfortable with coming forth and speaking up. Eventually they will if something did connect, and the resulting dynamics can be quite intriguing and insightful. Audiences are also very outspoken so that at times negative feedback is given and hotly contested or negotiated with a film’s staunch advocates. I’ve personally attended cases where 80% of the initial crowd left early and the remainder made an effort at reconciliation – if only out of sheer despair.

Speaking of the subject matter and promising ingredients now, there unquestioningly exist films specifically made for a festival jury and I’m fine with that. But with the BFF you can by and large expect a little more refinement than that; you certainly should bring it, instead of just pigeonhole your creative input into some slot for so-called “Asian content” as known to (and largely but not exclusively defined by) the West. We do by now appreciate artistic merit as what it is, and even as some jury member may have been deceived in the past, many a challenging movie has found its true foster home here. Character studies and strong women in particular also have a certain likelihood of doing well; keep that in mind whoever harbours the ambition.

Make a gay/lesbian/transgender themed documentary that’s politically, socially engaging and preferably delicate if not outright problematic (banned?) in Singapore – and sure enough you will get your invitation and lots of media attention, plus press coverage; you might even become a hot contender for the prestigious Panorama audience award. Which brings me to Panorama section, now in its 23rd edition and labelled by some as a “runner-up” programme, but that’s not true. If at all, a film originally considered, then rejected from competition for whatever reason, would find its way into one of the various special programming schemes, not into Panorama. Their selection is based on a different set of preferences, in part political and each year aiming at establishing some sort of trend among the unleashed mass output of global film production. As I said, gay and lesbian themes as well as documentaries are traditionally strong items here.

Lastly, in my effort to bring our Berlinale film festival closer to the hearts and minds of you as filmmakers in Singapore, let me remind you of the established fact that indeed, Asian cinema has been traditionally strong here and doing well (past winners include Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and, most recently, “Tuya’s Marriage”). But it doesn’t stop there, nor does it need to be the top prize always: Forum section especially deserves credit for providing an expert platform for young and innovative directors, for inviting films that push the boundaries of cinema. Jia Zhang-ke for instance got his international career a boost by having “Xiao Wu” screened in the 1998 line-up, and making his way around the world from there. Forum Expanded showcases more experimental, installation-like formats and could over time develop into some cross-over, multi-media visual arts annex to the festival proper.

You might be able to tell by now: the future is my prime concern, obliging me to make a quick and honourable mention of the Berlinale Talent Campus, which was held for the sixth time running this year. Being the kind of meeting zone that it is (and according to some, the best-run section of the entire festival), it offered many ignition-points to the 350 up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world who participated in hands-on workshops and panel discussions. “World-class” was one Singaporean’s verdict.

The Berlin International Film Festival is huge and has the potential to change, propel or jumpstart a career. Even as some programmers allegedly don’t travel the region, they have of late been forced by what’s happening on the ground (and elsewhere) to pay more attention toward films from Southern Asia – conditions are favourable, so make use of that tail wind!

* FIAPF = International Federation of Film Producers Associations (Paris) is a global organisation, which as a regulatory body is also in charge of supervising international film festivals.

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