Berlin 2017: Our Festival Highlights

The 67th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday with Etienne Comar’s Django, a biopic about the late jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt. Born into a gypsy family, Reinhardt’s nomadic roots beautifully bookend the themes and issue that dominated last year’s Berlinale: namely migration and the power of art to unify communities. Both themes were encapsulated by last year’s Golden Bear winner, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea. A poignant documentary about the refugee crisis, Rosi’s film epitomised the type of progress and formally inventive filmmaking the Berlinale is famous for showcasing.

Wedged between the indie films of Sundance and the Croisette galas of Cannes, the Berlinale prides itself on its socially-conscious programming, with the relationship between the real and the factual often hard to decode. Last year, the quality of the festival’s competition strand was incredibly high, and the Golden Bear could quite easily have gone to Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love or Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent. This year, director and screenwriter Paul Verhoeven will serve as President of the International Jury and amongst the films vying for the Bears are new works from Aki Kaurismäki, Sally Potter and Hong Sang-soo.

It’s often the festival’s Forum sidebar where the most daring and inventive work can be found and amongst this year’s crop of innovative films hell-bent on changing the world are Chinese director Ma Li’s four-hour observational documentary Qi, about the inmates of mental asylum in northern China, and the latest offering from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Somniloquies looks to push the boundaries of filmmaking; an experimental documentary about the work of songwriter Dion McGregor, best-known for talking in his sleep and releasing an LP of his dream diatribes. The documentary looks to explore the border between dreams and reality, guiding the audiences on a sensory journey between the two realms of consciousness.

For those who prefer a quirkier brand of cinema there’s also Tiere, by Polish director Greg Zglinski, a drama about a couple who move to Switzerland to focus on their writing and relationship, only to find their efforts undermined by the local wildlife; including, but not limited to, a talking cat. The festival boasts over 200 films from across the globe – far too many to cover in great depth ahead of its Thursday launch – so here instead are our top five films to look out for from this year’s programme.

Ana, Mon Amour (dir. Călin Peter Netzer)
In 2013 Netzer won the Golden Bear with Child’s Pose, a taut study of overbearing maternal love and the corruption at the heart of Romania’s burgeoning middle-class. This year he returns with Ana, Mon Amour, a tale of love and addiction framed by a deeper study of middle-class malaise. Viewed through the prism of a fractured marriage, the film aims to illuminate the complex taboos and anxieties of contemporary Romanian society

My Happy Family (dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß)
Surprisingly, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s follow-up to In Bloom, their tense coming-of-age tale about Georgian youth in revolt, is consigned to the Forum strand. Their debut, shot by renowned cinematographer Oleg Mutu, was one 2013’s best-kept secrets and the excitement surrounding their follow-up was surely enough to warrant a slot in the festival’s competition strand. My Happy Family, lensed by Tudor Vladimir Panduru (who recently shot Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation), once again sees Ekvtimishvili and Groß wrestle with the generational disparity in Georgia’s staunchly patriarchal society.

Golden Exits (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
Perry brings his fifth feature Golden Exits to the Berlinale fresh from its Sundance premiere. Another challenging and divisive character piece about American thirtysomethings trying to oscillate their carefully curated identities to the constantly shifting expectations and contradictions of adulthood. Following last year’s two-hander Queen of Earth, Golden Exits looks, by contrast, to be a more expansive tale, featuring the acting talents of Emily Browning, Adam Horovitz Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Sevigny. Perry has proved himself to be one of America’s most exciting director so expectations are understandably high.

When the Day Had No Name (dir. Teona Strugar Mitevska)
Macedonian director Mitevska is a regular at the Berlinale but remains relatively unknown outside of the festival circuit. That could all change with her latest offering, a fascinating real-life drama about the lives of four teenagers whose bodies were found by a lake just outside the Macedonian capital of Skopje. They were discovered in 2012, perfectly lined up, each with a bullet hole in their head. If the film’s intriguing premise isn’t enough to whet the appetite, When the Day Had No Name is shot by renowned cinematographer Agnès Godard, best-known for her long-running collaboration with French filmmaker Claire Denis.

A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio)
In 2014, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio wooed audiences with another fantastic woman, Paulina Garcia, the star of Gloria, a hilarious and tender drama about a free-spirited, middle-aged divorcee and her attempts to get back into the dating world. It was a film full of empathy and compassion and his latest effort, which stars Daniela Vega as a transsexual woman coping with her boyfriend’s death, looks no different. Timely and thought-provoking, Lelio’s latest is surely the forerunner for this year’s Golden Bear.

The Berlin Film Festival takes place between 9-19 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble