The Diplomat

(7-18 February, 2001)

The ‘International Forum of New Cinema’ is an independent section of the Berlin International Film Festival dedicated to innovative and experimental cinema. It is considered worldwide as one of the most prestigious showcases for independent and alternative films, for films from developing countries, for a cinema outside of independent genres and independent of market considerations.

In the process of selecting films for the Forum, those films are preferred which have not yet been shown at other European festivals. Had my film, The Diplomat, for instance, played at one of Europe’s major documentary festivals, for example, Amsterdam or Cinema Du Reel, or had it had a screening in Germany at any festival it would have been immediately ruled out of consideration. I’m not sure how strict the Forum is in applying this rule to festivals which are not the major ones. The Diplomat was shown at the 2000 London Film Festival, but this may not technically count as ‘European’.

The Diplomat was shown in a special section of the Forum devoted to films finished for exhibition on video. The Forum is like many European festivals still biased towards screening documentaries on 35 and 16mm. However, each film, regardless of its final format is projected a total at least three times. All the multiplexes in the newly built Potsdamer Platz have cinemas which have video projectors installed as well as the standard 35 mm facilities. The video projection is truly superb – state of the art. However only one cinema has live translation facilities. That cinema is mainly reserved for films in the Competition or Panorama section of the Festival. This means that the audience for films not in German or not with German subtitles are disadvantaged and consequently have smaller audiences.

Berlin is comprised of 5 sections: The Competition, The Forum, Panorama, the Retrospective and the Kinder fest (children’s films). All up, there are around 300 films screening and at any one time there are 13 screens playing.

The Panorama has a special sidebar which shows feature documentaries. These are usually some of the best documentaries produced anywhere around the world in the previous 12 months. They tend to be more mainstream than the ones in the Forum section, usually made with the benefit of television involvement.

At the 2001 Forum, The Diplomat was one of 18 documentaries in a program of 105 feature films. To be eligible for consideration, a film (this also applies to documentary) needs to be at least 60 minutes long. In fact all the documentaries shown were at least 80 mins long. The Diplomat at 82 mins was one of the shortest. A German film B52 (Hartmut Bitomsky, Deutschland/USA 2001, 122′) was the longest at 125 mins.

The Forum has remained one of most the prestigious in Europe for new features and documentaries around the world that are cutting edge. The documentary entries certainly reflected this though some were less conventional than others. The ones that stood out for me included B52, an engrossing 2 hour account of the famous American military plane of the same name, and Pie in the Sky (Shelly Dunn Fremont, Vincent Fremont, USA 2000, 75′), a bio doc about Betty Berlin, Warhol’s off-sider, which mixed verite style with an archive account of her work.

One thing that is still very noticeable in Europe is that documentaries still tend to be finished on film – shot on super 16 and then blown up to 35mm. Most of these are re-versioned for television, and the features tend to circulate around festivals of which there are a steady growing number in Europe. In fact, I estimate the number of festivals which exist solely for documentary have increased 5-fold in the past 10 years.

Each year there is a focus on a national cinema. This time it was “Cinema in Vietnam” reflecting the Forum’s recent bias towards Asian countries. A total of 8 films were shown that were made between 1997 and 2000. As an Australian, I was embarrassed to realise how much more Berlin was interested in cinema of our own region than we ourselves appear to be. In total, 8 films were shown in the special sidebar – the film Vao nam ra bac (Heading South, Going North, 2000) by German-based director Phi Tien Son offers an ambiguous view of the war from the point of view of a war-weary deserter and is currently a hot topic in Vietnam. Other films also threw surprisingly critical, albeit subtle views on State Socialism Vietnamese style. They reminded me of Polish cinema pre the Solidarity movement. Iranian cinema is not dissimilar in its use of metaphor. Booye Kafoor, Atre Yaas (Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, Bahman Farmanara, 2000) is a story about a filmmaker who, after a long period of stagnation, is commissioned by Japanese television to make a film about death. The film ends up making sarcastic reference to present day life in Iran.

The Forum selected no less than 7 Japanese entries – the standard of Japanese films was incredibly high according to Forum’s new director, Dorotee Wenner. One of these was a documentary Riben Guizi (Minoru Matsui, Japan 2001, 160′) which examines the horrifying war crimes committed by the Japanese army during the conquest and occupation of Manchuria and China between 1931 and 1945. Indian, Korea and Taiwan were also well represented. Love Juice (Kaze Shindo, Japan 2000, 78′) was also a favourite of mine, about a delicate relationship of unrequited love between a heterosexual girl and a lesbian who share the same flat in Tokyo.

Indian, Korea and Taiwan were well represented, and as usual there was a special section of new German features documentaries and essay films. This included the longest film of the Festival – a 6 hour work Die Legende vom Potsdamer Platz (The Legend of Potsdamer Platz) by Manfred Wolhelms who over many years followed the transformation of Berlin’s centre. His footage is complimented by historical material and interviews with those who remember the pre-war Potsdamer Platz.

Screenings of The Diplomat were well attended, although had the film been sub-titled in German the audience would have been greater. Jose Ramos-Horta himself was present at the first 2 screenings. He was in Berlin ‘on business’, trying to secure Germany’s commitment to invest in particular projects as part of East Timor’s re-building strategy. Horta extended his stay in Berlin especially to remain for the Festival. A lively Q&A followed each screening (Q&A’s are very much part of the Forum’s philosophy of involving the filmmaker and audience in extensive discussions about the film itself. The discussions are moderated by one of the Forum’s staff). Discussion was wide-ranging and included direct questions relating to Timor’s on-going re-building, the issue of war-crimes and so on. Others concerned the film’s style and pertained to decisions I had to make as director. A common question related to my relationship with Horta and how it changed and evolved over time. The audience was generally very well informed about the issues in the region, especially in relation to Indonesia (not so much in relation to Timor). There were a significant number of ex-pat Australians and a few German diplomats-in-training.

About The Author

Tom Zubrycki is an Australian documentary filmmaker whose films have been locally and internationally acclaimed. His career as director spans 25 years, and includes films such as Kemira-Diary of a Strike (1984), Homelands (1993), and The Diplomat (2000). He has also produced several documentaries, including Exile in Sarajevo (1997), Whiteys Like Us (1999) and Stolen Generations (2000). His latest film The Secret Safari was a finalist in the 2001 IF (Independent Filmmaker) awards (Sydney) and won the Dendy award at the 2001 Sydney Film Festival.