Saturday, February 16, 2019

Gems at the 69th Berlinale: "Fourteen" and "Photograph"

Some films hit you like a machine gun, as is the case of  two knock-out Chinese titles, So Long, My Son, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai (it should win the Golden Bear) and The Shadow Play, by Lou Ye, both graduates of the Beijing Film Academy. Others are a slow burn, hidden gems that can get lost in the shuffle of a festival premiering 124 new films this year. It is always a combination of tips, luck, hunch and opportunity that brings you to works that could get lost in the fog.  A festival has a paralyzing built-in anxiety, difficult to tame but overridden when one stumbles upon pearls like Fourteen, directed by Dan Sallitt, who attended the Film Critical Studies program  at UCLA in the 1970s, and Photograph, by Ritsh Batra (The Lunch Box, 2013).

Tallie Medel (left) and Norma Kuhling (right)
as friends since middle school who live in Brooklyn
Very different in genre, mise-en-scène and approach to narrative, both films deal with emotional turmoil, in friendship and love, very effectively conveyed by tight screenplays and assured direction.  From the opening sequences – all dialogue, no action, long takes, stationary camera - Fourteen feels like a French film by Rohmer and Pialat, spoken in English and set in Brooklyn. (It's an eerie feeling). Unhurriedly, it comes into focus as the record of a friendship since middle school and over a decade between two girls from affluent Westchester county, New York, who struggle in the city as young adults – the stuff of mumblecore films and cable series like Girls, made by directors a generation younger than Dan Sallitt.  What is gripping is that the various dramatic peaks of these lives are off screen, alluded to or cleverly explained by the indirect mean of a bedtime story.  

Writer, director, producer and editor Dan Sallitt
at the Delphi Palast, Berlin
Like Pavel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, the passage of time is not marked by visual flourishes or explicitly telegraphed to the viewers through dialogue. Fourteen requires full attention because these two friends – one sensible (Tallie Medel), the other high strung (Norma Kuhling) – are chiseled with the care a goldsmith gives to intricate details. You blink and you miss them.  Sallitt, who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film over 18 months, makes the point eloquently with the almost four-minute high angle long shot above a suburban train station where seemingly nothing happens.  The long take functions to make the viewer take stock of where the story is at – not to enhance its upheavals as in the recent Roma.  Fourteen places itself in the opposite spectrum of melodrama, and by eschewing almost all context and backstory, except for two dramatic peaks, creates a space where the nature of this friendship, human and universal, can be savored, understood and mourned. The Delphi Palast, where the last screening took place, was full – all 800 seats taken - but you could hear a pin drop.  Dan Sallitt came for a lovely Q&A with the audience of mostly young Berliner. I approached him at the end and introduced myself as a fellow UCLA graduate. He remembered my husband Jonathan Kuntz, his fellow mate, fondly, and he graciously posed for a photo with me.

 In the case of Photograph, the emotional turmoil is romantic in nature, and vividly set against the sprawling background of Mumbai, the third protagonist of this story. Unlike Fourteen, Photograph feeds off a strong context: social, economic, religious and geographic differences in modern India make the potential relationship between a street photographer (Nawasuddin Siddiqui), Hindi, and a middle-class university student (Sanya Malhotra), Muslin, an impossible dream.  The way out of this conundrum is tell the story as a fairy tale, otherwise it would plunge into neorealist waters, or become  the social thesis drama it obviously doesn’t want to be.  The fairy tale structure makes it a whimsical confection, one that delights in winking an eye to Bollywood popular culture by having the protagonists a few times to a local movie house, where we can only listen to the song-and-dance numbers.  This interplay between what is seen and what is implied – the city and the unspoken differences of its inhabitants - is interesting to watch; the open end it proposes may be the only optimistic way out.  Photograph works as a believable story because, like Fourteen, it hinges in the tight direction of the actors, without a hint of improvisation, keeping realism at bay.  The goal is restraint, going for small gestures to convey meaning, like the shy and tenderly mismatched attempts to hold hands at the end of the film.

Photograph will be streamed by Amazon Prime soon, and Fourteen is looking for distribution.

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