Cinema James Abbott
Spending a fortnight watching five films a day in state of the art surroundings— with the odd champagne reception thrown in — may sound like the life of Reilly, but, believe it or not, there's a downside.
As a jury member at the Berlin Film Festival, I was practically living in darkened auditoria fearing it was only a matter of time before my body shut down and entered hibernation. So what on earth possessed me to watch 48 films in such a short space of time?
Representing OCIC, the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema, I travelled to the old East German capital for its 51st International FilmFestival, joining nine Catholics and Protestants on the ecumenical jury.
Our remit was to unearth films that best conveyed human spiritual and social values in accordance with the Gospels.
In order to judge as many films as possible in the three categories, we decided to divide our efforts; three of us would concentrate on the Forum of New Cinema section, three on the Panorama section and four would float between the two. I chose the Forum as did fellow jurors Ernesto Laura, former director of the Venice Film Festival and Rome's answer to Barry Norman, and Orthodox member Kirsti Uibo, currently flying the flag for Estonian filmmakers in Croydon.
Being a festival novice, I made the rather arrogant assumption that subtitles would be in English. How I nursed my stiff upper lip through 145 minutes of Werkmeister Harmoniak, a bleak German-subtitled portrayal of a Hungarian community driven to anarchy by oppression and freezing weather. If I'm ever lucky enough to go to Budapest, at least I'll be able to say hello, goodbye and ask after my uncle's health.
It was decreed that my days would commence with a 7.30am breakfast meeting. Having grown fond of my temporary yet surprisingly comfortable bed, this was hardly music to my ears.
Berlin festival veteran Fr Michael Graff from the Black Forest chaired our jury through many lengthy deliberations. Fr Michael's pastoral agenda extends to running a 50-seat cinema in a former monastery offering films to people who would ordinarily have to travel several miles for such a privilege.
Our final candlelit discussion took place in St Mattaus Church near Potsdamer Platz on a cold Friday night. The main competition presented a real mixed bag from Mike Nichol's Wit, the moving account of a woman stripped of her dignity and individuality by intensive cancer treatment, to Beijing Bicycle, a tale
of two young men fighting over a mountain bike for a posterior-numbing two hours.
In the end, Dogme film Italian for Beginners the our main prize. Director Lone Scherfig won several awards, including a Silver Berlin Bear for her simple, charming portrayal of a group of Danish misfits struggling for direction but unified by their weekly Italianclasses.
We made the important first strike in awarding Scherfig the prize and felt thoroughly vindicated as the International Film Critics and International jury followed suit. Wit deservedly received a special mention for poignantly documenting a painful journey to death.
As well as a lesson in Australian geography from Fr Richard Leonard, our Jesuit film aficionado, I took a great deal from the privilege of serving on the ecumenical jury. Watching the otherwise disappointing Hannibal two seats behind Anthony Hopkins was an experience that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Not, however, through tension generated by a thrilling plot, more the fear that he'd turn around and flash the whites of his eyes in my direction.
Despite now suffering from silver screen super saturation, I've well and truly caught the festival bug and can't wait to go again. Bring on Cannes and Montreal and let me dissolve in the microcosms created by world cinema.