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After Cannes, the Berlin Festival vies with Venice for second place in the crowded European Festival arena, and with almost 400 films, it is certainly the biggest. The difference is that the films screening in the bustling German capital are freely available to the public, and there's a groovier energy to the proceedings as well, reports Helen Barlow. Not to mention tons of Aussies.

The Festival opens this week with 23 films in competition for the top prize, the Golden Bear, to be awarded by a Jury led by Venice Festival winner Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) split into four major programs: Competion, Kinderfilmfest, Forum of New Cinema, and Panaroma.

Incoming Berlin Festival director, Dieter Kosslick, was bound to make an impact when his program was announced last Wednesday. "It's perhaps more serious than normal", he said, post the September 11 attacks. Yet few would have expected Australian filmmakers to have an unprecedented seven films in the line-up. It follows the recent Aussie Golden Globe wins and that eight Australian films made it into the recent Sundance Festival. It also results from Kosslick's announced agenda to veer away from Hollywood fare and to showcase local and international cinema. The Festival has included a strong showing from China as well.

"Australian films"

The Australian films have been selected across all major screening categories, and include Ivan Sen's directorial feature debut Beneath Clouds, which will have its World Premiere screening In Competition. Screening in the International Panorama section is the feature Walking On Water (directed by Tony Ayres, produced by Liz Watts) and the short film The Pitch (directed by Nash Edgerton, produced by Louise Smith). The Berlin children's section, Kinderfilmfest, has selected the feature Hildegarde starring Richard E Grant and Tom Long. Hildegarde is directed by All Saints producer Di Drew and produced by Heather Ogilvie and David Hannay. Rachel Perkins' One Night The Moon (produced by Aanya Whitehead, Kevin Lucas and Paul Humfress) will screen in Berlin's International Forum of New Cinema section.

Apart from the Australian films screening, two Australian stars are taking pride of place: Cate Blanchett will be seen in the edgy opening film, Heaven, the English-language debut by German hot shot Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Heaven, which tells of a woman seeking revenge on the dealer who sold drugs to her deceased husband, is based on a screenplay by late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. Russell Crowe will be in town with two films--not only to present A Beautiful Mind (screening out of competition) where his portrayal of a genius schizophrenic has already won a host of awards, but to talk up Texas, a documentary feature about his band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunt. Whether Crowe and the band will play at a late-night party, is yet to be announced.

American films maintain a strong presence-no matter what Kosslick says - and are of a high standard this year. Gene Hackman has won plaudits for his portayal of an eccentric estranged patriarch in Wes Anderson's wonderful The Royal Tenenbaums, while Halle Berry, when promoting her likewise lauded Monster's Ball, will most likely talk about how fab Billy Bob Thornton was in their on-screen love scene - after Hugh Jackman showed her the ropes in Swordfish.

"a career tribute"

Robert Altman will hopefully come with his wry humour intact to talk about the foibles of British upper class folk in his captivating Gosford Park - the 76-year-old director, who won a Golden Bear for Buffalo Bill and the Indian in 1976, will receive a career tribute, together with veteran Italian diva Claudia Cardinale. The Festival also features the Director's Cut of Milos Forman's 1984 Oscar-winner Amadeus and will close Feb. 17 with the screening of a new print of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film, The Great Dictator, with members of Chaplin's family in attendance.

Judi Dench appears in two films already on release in Australia: Iris, the debut film from British theatre director Richard Eyre, and Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News, the moving story of an awkward man (Kevin Spacey) who undertakes a journey of self discovery when he returns to his ancestral roots in Newfoundland. Dench became fast friends with Spacey on the film, and both actors will attend the Festival.

Benjamin Bratt will also present his latest movie Pinero, the story of urban drug-taking poet and playwright Miguel Pinero. On the independent front, Sundance opener The Laramie Project should prove a festival favourite, with the irrepressible Steve Buscemi. Moises Kaufman directs the film, based on his play focusing on a theater troupe developing a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Actor Fisher Stevens will present his directorial debut, Just a Kiss, starring Marisa Tomei, who is experiencing a career resurgance after her fine performance in the award-winning In The Bedroom. Donald Sutherland will venture to the Festival for Feng Xiaogang's Chinese-language Big Shot's Funeral, which has become the highest-grossing
locally-produced film in Chinese history. But the question remains-will the tall, toothy Space Cowboy speak Mandarin in the movie? (The film be released in Australia through Columbia TriStar later in 2002.)

"highlight recent French cinema"

As in the past, the Festival will highlight recent French cinema, with Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct and Francois Ozon's murder mystery, Eight Women as competition selections. After making the international hit, Under the Sand, with his favourite actress Charlotte Rampling, the openly gay Ozon has indulged himself completely by working with his favourite divas, including Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve, who will attend the Festival.

In the sidebar Panorama section Coline Serrau presents Chaos starring Vincent Lindon, while Jacques Audiard who made the fabulous A Self-Made Hero with Amelie star, Matthieu Kassovitz, now directs Vincent Cassell (Kassovitz's best friend) in Reading My Lips, while Kassovitz himself appears in the Competition entry, Amen, directed by Costa-Gavras. Tony Gaitlif, also directs his new film, Swing, which is bound to be a musical treat.

Other competition entries include the English-language Taking Sides, from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, the animated feature Spirited Away from Japanese Princess Mononoke director Hayao Miyazaki, and Bridget, a French-Japanese co-production directed by Israeli Amos Kollek. The extensive program of German films include Andreas Dresen's tragicomedy Grill Point; and Baader, a drama from Christopher Roth about Red Army Faction terrorist Andreas Baader.

Published February 7, 2002

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52nd Berlin Film Festival
February 6 17, 2002

Russell Crowe in Texas


The Royal Tenenbaums




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