Bears, Teddys and a Palm Dog at Berlin Film Festival

The Friday afternoon screening of “Between Dog and Wolf” was a perfect example of the Berlin Film Festival experience which this year celebrated its 70th edition. The film is low budget high quality and tackles a little known story of Cuban veterans who still train in the jungle. So far so Berlin Film Festival – an obscure setting shedding light on an untold story and screened in a wonderfully quirky Berlin building. In this case, the spectacular Silent Green which was a Berlin crematorium and has been given a makeover and been reinvented as a rather stylish and highly original art centre.

Characterful venues welcome screens across this diverse city home to this eclectic festival means that Berlin and Berliners play a key role in this most diverse annual selection of cinema.

Case in point “Between Dog and Wolf” is a Cuban set docu-fiction feature from woman director Irene Gutiérrez who’s signature style the telling of intimate stories against the backdrop of breathtaking landscape. Not multiplex material. Following the screening in the highly atmospheric Silent Green rotunda the filmmakers were on hand for a question and answer session. This Forum selection is a quintessential Berlin programming choice which gives the festival its unique character bringing a faraway place, an obscure story together on a Berlin screen in front of an audience of open and enquiring minds.

Another Berlin claim to the avant-garde crown is the world’s most prestigious awards for LGBTQ+ cinema – the Teddy Awards. This year a heartfelt standing ovation was given to the emotional standout “Welcome To Chechnya”, which won the Activist Award. The film tells the story of a group of activists who, risk their own lives to rescue persecuted homosexuals and transsexuals in Chechnya. This was a horrifying story of imprisonment, torture and murder and the festival’s highlighting of this suffering was a comfort to an oppressed minority. The top Teddy prize went to No Hard Feelings which told the story of gay love in a group of exiled Iranians seeking asylum in Germany. The Teddy Awards this year found itself highlighting the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights in a world of shifting populations looking for a better life while at the same time facing down discrimination – ironically in their own community.

The main competition winner There Is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear, also found itself in the crossfire of cultural beliefs and political oppression. Jury president Jeremy Irons announced the winner of the top prize with much passion and the win was once again greeted by a packed Berlin rising to its feet in solidarity with loud applause. In a sad irony, the director Mohammad Rasoulof was unable to attend and collect his Golden Bear trophy as the Iranian regime had imposed a travel ban on the director. Members of his team were in attendance and held aloft the statuette and gave thanks to the Berlinale for recognising this story. His film is an act of reckless bravery “When Rasoulof returned from Cannes in 2017, following the premiere of his film “A Man of Integrity,” he was banned from filmmaking for life and sentenced to a year in prison. But as a man of integrity himself, the director could not stop. His latest film, “There Is No Evil,” premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where instead of being silenced, Rasoulof launches his most openly critical statement yet, a series of Kafkaesque moral parables about Iran’s death penalty and its perpetrators, made in open defiance of the restrictions the government put on him.” reported Variety. Berlin awarded the work of a fearless director.

In its 70th year, the Berlinale also found space to salute those unsung stars of the big screen – dogs. Top UK Director, Sally Potter scooped an Honorary Palm Dog at the Berlin Film Festival for her film The Roads Not Taken. Cannes Festival fixture Palm Dog celebrates its 20th anniversary this May, so decided to give a shout out to dogs at the Berlinale. Dogs are central and significant in this harrowing and heartfelt story of dementia. In the film, Javier Bardem plays Leo – a dementia sufferer. “The film recognises the deep love and attachment people feel for their dog,” says director Sally Potter.

Cared for by his loving daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), Leo’s connection with his canine companion is clearly evident early on when, through his befuddled state, he expresses concern for the welfare of his deceased dog Nestor. A photo of his much-loved companion is a treasured memory at the end of his bed.

As Sally Potter notes “It shows love between species”. This dearly held attachment flares into drama when Leo scoops up a lady’s dog in a discount store for a heartfelt cuddle. In his muddled mind, he mistakes the mutt for his dearly departed Nestor. The brief dognapping sparks a dramatic and venomous response from the lady owner. This shows the tension that confused behaviour – in this case, the love of a dog – can spark.

And so Berlin Film Festival celebrated its seventieth birthday with a continued progressive commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and a spirit of enquiry offering the best of world cinema which it boldly seeks out in the most unlikely of places.

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