Event kicks off with documentary for first time

The Berlinale was slated to get off to a rocking start Thursday night with Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones pic “Shine a Light,” the first time in the event’s 58-year history that the main competition section has kicked off with a documentary.

On the surface, programming a docu — and a musical one at that — may seem like a risky choice. But, as with so many things at Berlin this year, festival topper Dieter Kosslick has made a calculated move.

Kosslick has often had to perform a delicate dance between showcasing high-pedigree arthouse works and attracting the red carpet glamour necessary to please sponsors and TV auds.

This sometimes resulted in curious selections, such as last year’s “300.” While that pic may have pleased fanboys and went on to be a smash, plenty of local critics and longtime Berlinale-goers walked out of screenings in protest at such blatant popcorn fare.

That shouldn’t be a problem for “Shine a Light,” with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the Stones expected to accompany Scorsese up the red carpet. Tickets are very scarce and organizers have arranged an overspill screening in addition to the two press screenings earlier in the day. A massive turnout is expected, too, for today’s press conference.

This year the local scribes have been more welcoming to the main lineup, which includes Errol Morris’ Abu Ghraib documentary “Standard Operating Procedure,” Jose Padilha’s Brazilian gang-war hit “The Elite Squad” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar contender “There Will Be Blood.”

Kosslick can claim both star power and world film kudos with the Berlinale Special screening of “Om Shanti Om.” Not only is pic the biggest grossing film in Indian industry history, but also its star, the “King of Bollywood” Shah Rukh Khan, will be there.

Arrangements for his massive entourage and fans made Kosslick half an hour late for a press session at the European Film Market on Wednesday.

The market is also muscling up for its 20th edition. EFM is attracting ever larger numbers of sales companies and the high demand for screenings has allowed the mart to up its own quotient of preems.

“Some 75% of the films we have are market premieres and we have 50 films straight from Sundance,” market topper Beki Probst said. “You can’t get fresher than that.”

Market participants expressed cheerily mixed opinions about the outlook this week.

“There is the small matter of the writers strike and people need product. We expect to do real deals here this week,” Myriad topper Kirk D’Amico said. “This is a good market for reaching European arthouse buyers. And it is really good for connecting with the press.”

“We see no impact from the strike as buyers. We are looking for films to fill our late 2009 schedule. And there is no shortage of product in the market,” said Ann Kristin Westerberg, from Nordic conglom Svensk Filmindustri. “As sellers, maybe we will sell some more.”

“Everyone here can see that the market is changing. There is plenty of finance to make films, but it is getting much harder to sell them,” Austrian Film Commission rep Martin Schweighofer said. “The reality is that you will not see most of the films here on a theatrical screen, rather on DVD, a PC or some form of TV.”  

Buyers are faced with a bewildering choice. In addition to the EFM titles, the many festival sections address themes of corruption, military abuse and human greed. They also address poignant and gloomy subject matter such as suffering, disease and death, signaling a more mature and no-nonsense program than in previous years.

But there will be no shortage of glamour. Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana are expected to attend the screening of Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”; Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper are expected for Isabel Coixet’s “Elegy.”

Also on their way to Berlin are Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe for Dennis Lee’s “Fireflies in the Garden”; “There Will Be Blood’s” Daniel Day-Lewis; and Jack Black and Mos Def, who appear in Michel Gondry’s fest closer “Be Kind Rewind.”

Madonna is sure to electrify crowds when she shows up for her directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” which unspools in the Panorama section. The sidebar also screens Brad Anderson’s “Transsiberian,” which will likely bring Woody Harrelson to town.

Scorsese’s pic is only one of many music films — a genre that scores high thanks to its ancillary market potential — on offer this year. Panorama even examines Iraqi-style punk rock with Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” and offers a portrait of the godmother of punk in Steven Sebring’s “Patti Smith: Dream of Life.”

Queer cinema again plays a major role in the sidebar. Kicking off Panorama Dokumente is Parvez Sharma’s “A Jihad for Love,” which explores the challenges faced by gays and lesbians living in Islamic countries.

And if that were not enough to occupy festgoers, February is a particularly busy month in Berlin. The festival competes with the Echo Music Awards, Germany’s answer to the Grammys, which takes place Feb. 15.

Last night it even had to compete with the Golden Camera awards show, sponsored by Axel Springer’s TV guide magazine Hoerzu, which took place near Checkpoint Charlie. The show honored Hilary Swank, Chuck Berry, Robert De Niro, Kylie Minogue and local teen band Tokio Hotel.

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