Berlinale spotlights new filmmakers, debuts

Last year, on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, the Berlinale reminded the world of its muscular history by packing the program with world-famous names: Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Zhang Yimou, etc. Having made that point, fest head Dieter Kosslick felt the sexuagenarian sprocket opera needed a new approach, lest the lineup drift into the comfortable patterns of old age.

“That means not only discovering new filmmakers, but also looking for new artistic approaches to storytelling, like Miranda July,” explains Kosslick, who estimates that a third of this year’s program represents first- and second-time directors.

Among those making their debuts in competish are actor-turned-helmer Ralph Fiennes, who tackles the tragic title role in a contempo adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” and thesp Victoria Mahoney, whose “Yelling to the Sky” stars Zoe Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe. Fresh from Sundance, J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” is set in an investment bank on the brink of the financial meltdown.

On paper, screenwriter Paula Markovitch is practically a Berlin regular, having come up through the fest’s various programs over the past nine years. Now, after penning 2008 entry “Lake Tahoe,” she makes her first directorial foray in competition this year with the semi-autobiographical “El premio,” in which an Argentinian girl’s outspoken school essay puts her parents at risk.

Kosslick and company keep close tabs on their alumni, inviting nearly two dozen pics that came out of the fest’s Talent Campus and other initiatives (down from 40 in last year’s anniversary edition). Berlin vets returning with the second films this year include “Maria Full of Grace’s” globally minded Joshua Marston, who traveled to Albania for “The Forgiveness of Blood,” and 2009 Silver Bear winner Asghar Farhadi (“About Elly”), who brings “Nader and Simin, A Separation” — both in competition.

These relatively new voices will face off against such established helmers as Hungary’s Bela Tarr (“The Turin Horse” will reportedly be his final film) and German docu-maker Andres Veiel, making his narrative debut with period romance “Wer wenn nicht wir” (If Not Us, Who?).

Though the Berlinale features a handful of Sundance titles — including Sony Pictures Classics pickup “The Guard” and the democratically constructed YouTube world portrait “Life in a Day” — the lineup is dominated by world premieres, bringing a wide-ranging mix of international cinema to Europe’s largest public aud.

Unlike such industry-focused events as Cannes, the Berlinale serves nearly 300,000 regular filmgoers each year, with special sections ranging from the event’s various family friendly Generation programs to a food-focused Culinary Cinema sidebar, now in its fifth year.

Berlin’s newest section, Forum Expanded, explores art and avant-garde cinema on- and off-screen, collaborating with local museums for a series of installations and discussions with such boundary-pushing filmmakers as Barbara Hammer, Guy Maddin and James Benning (whose “Twenty Cigarettes” will preem). Hyper-prolific American “mumblecore” helmer Joe Swanberg has two pics, “Silver Bullets” and “Art History,” in Forum, less than a month after unveiling “Uncle Kent” at Sundance.

Although roughly 100 of Berlin’s sections are either German-made (such as “Three Lives,” a high-profile Teuton TV commission representing three features on a common theme by popular local helmers Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhaeusler) or co-produced with German coin (July’s Los Angeles-based “The Future” was financed by Razor Film, for example), America is fairly well-represented overall. The U.S. represents the second highest number of films in the fest, followed by France.

In a nod to Hollywood, the Berlinale opens with a classically styled American oater in “True Grit.”

“My experience has been that opening night is usually an opening nightmare,” admits Kosslick, who chose Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-nominated remake for its crowd-pleasing potential. The brothers last attended Berlin in 1998, when “The Big Lebowski” debuted in competition.

Operating in a distinctly Hollywood tradition, Brazilian helmer Jose Padilha returns with “Elite Squad 2,” the sequel to his controversial 2008 Golden Bear winner. Pic screens in Panorama, a non-competing category that represents the bulk of the fest’s program. Other high-profile Panorama selections include Celine Sciamma’s “Tomboy,” in which a 10-year-old girl allows her new neighbors to believe she’s a boy; Toronto-launched Juno Temple starrer “Dirty Girl”; and Gareth Maxwell Roberts’ innovative urban noir “The Mortician.”

The latter is one of three stereoscopic 3D films screening in the festival, the others being “Tales of the Night” from celebrated French animator Michel Ocelot (“Azur and Asmar”), Wenders’ “Pina” and the European premiere of Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

Kosslick sees this emphasis on 3D as yet another example of the way the fest is spotlighting advances in filmmaking technology: “These 3D films are made in completely different ways and show that you can also use this technique for an arthouse project,” he says.

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