Cathrin Schaer, a New Zealand journalist living in Germany, blogs from the 61st Berlin International Film Festival
A funny thing happened to Zoe Kravitz while she was backstage at a New York concert by US hip hop group The Roots. You know, as it does, when you're the daughter of celebrities, Lenny (yes, that Lenny, with the guitar and the hippie outfits) and actress Lisa Bonet. At a press conference in Berlin on Saturday, Kravitz junior told the story of how she got the part in Yelling to the Sky, a film in the main competition at the Berlinale, one of the biggest film festivals in the world that's taking place in the German capital this week.
She was "bopping around" to the music when she noticed a whole group of friends - also backstage - who had decided to wear fake moustaches.
"I don't know why they were," an ebullient Kravitz laughs. "It was a concert."
When one of the moustachioed ladies left the gig, her false hairpiece was handed onto Kravitz, who ended up keeping the costume on all night, then abducting it. "And when I got home I put it on a painting that I had at home."
Around a year later, writer-director Victoria Mahoney, who made the film, came to visit Kravitz at her apartment. "And I thought, oh sh*t, that's her moustache," Kravitz says. "So I think it was all totally meant to be." Additionally, the mixed-race 23-year-old actress exclaims, the script was "about a mixed-race 17-year-old growing up in Harlem. And that's like a unicorn in Hollywood, it's like an f**king leprechaun," Kravitz enthuses, before apologising for swearing so much.
Coincidentally, Tariq Trotter, founding member of The Roots, also made it into the movie - he plays a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer with a heart of gold.
And although Kravitz may not have realised it, she was already being sized up for the part, backstage at that Roots concert. "I didn't know her work but a friend told me that I just had to meet her," Mahoney tells. "Her spirit was very clear," raves Mahoney, who is clearly into a bit of the ol' touchy-feely, good-vibes, female empowerment kind of thing. Even though Kravitz does not come from anywhere near an impoverished background, like the character she would eventually play in the film, "there were a couple of things about her that made me think if she was willing to touch what this character was going through, it would be like lighting in a bottle," added Mahoney, who auditioned over 200 young women for the part which is partially based upon her own life.
Well, maybe. While Kravitz gives good emotion as a tormented teenager growing up in a Harlem home, the movie doesn't exactly go down like bottled lightning. Yelling to the Sky, which is in the main competition at the festival, is not cheery stuff. It's a slow-moving coming-of-age tale of mental illness, poverty, violence, hard times at school and an uneasy family life - and it tells its story with mixed success. Mahoney says it is coincidental both films were being made at the same time but Yelling to the Sky won't escape comparisons to last year's Precious - the star of that film, Gabourey Sidibe, also co-stars in Yelling to the Sky but she plays a school bully.
Dry Documentaries and Love Letters to Black Power
Film festivals are often great places to see the sorts of documentaries you won't ever get to view on the big screen elsewhere. More's the pity because sometimes these are the films that make the most impact. Under Control, or Unter Kontrolle, is one of those docos New Zealanders may never get to buy a ticket to. It's a strangely compelling and very nicely shot documentary that goes behind the scenes in Germany's nuclear power plants.
Maybe it's because the film is German but the thing is so dry, it's crispy. It's also one of the most objective documentaries this journalist has ever seen. The director, Volker Sattel, barely even seems to have a point of view. He just allows all the interviewees and the pictures to speak for themselves. The reactions of the mainly German audience to the film made it clear though, exactly what they thought. Nuclear power is being phased out in Germany, and it's a pretty controversial subject - every time nuclear safety was mentioned, members of the audience scoffed loudly. And this in itself was fascinating - because one realises, over again, how much of our own preconceptions we bring to every movie we see.
Another great documentary that brings this point home again is the Swedish-made The Black Power Mixtapes 1967-1975. Basically it's a documentary made out of archival Swedish current affairs footage, caught on film when Swedish reporters in the US interviewed leading members of movements like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Narration is provided by "conscious hip hop" stars like Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Abiodun Oyewole of the seminal Lost Poets among others, as well as Harry Belafonte, who made a surprise appearance at the screening too.
The whole package is fascinating because it offers up American history from a different point of view, (comparatively) very liberal Swedish one. In fact, at the time one American magazine moaned that Swedish television was portraying America "as an evil nation run by evil men". After the screening, director Goran Olsson asked the audience if they remembered making mixtapes. "Often you did it for someone you wanted to impress, like a girl. And you did it in a loving way," Olsson said. The result is one fascinating love letter from a bunch of Swedes to the black consciousness-raising movement.
Best Actors Are Smart - And Short
A few more press conferences and interviews later and something else is also becoming apparent. An informal, highly personal, and probably very dubious survey indicates that the best actors are often the smartest ones. Forget all that stuff about them being vainglorious, self-aggrandising show boaters who need to outperform everyone else at a glamorous party filled with big heads.
The evidence so far? Well, first of all there was Kevin Spacey at the press conferences and in interviews for Margin Call. The man was clearly well versed in the film's philosophy and some might say, the nihilism and loneliness of the high flying financial trader. American actor Josh Brolin tried to educate clueless European journalists about the unique American vernacular evident in Coen brothers' movie True Grit and Australian leading man Ryan Kwanten, who plays the physically well-endowed Jason Stackhouse in True Blood, started quoting American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson to the teenaged audience at the premier of his film, Griff the Invisible.
And then there's James Franco. The Oscar-nominated actor isn't making an official appearance at the Berlinale but he did happen to be opening an exhibition of his own artworks at a well known Berlin gallery, Peres Projects, on Saturday evening. He wasn't giving many official interviews. But as one Irish journalist who did manage to sneak in a phone call to Franco, who is also currently a PhD student in English literature at Yale, said, Hollywood's flavour of the month wasn't what she expected. "Not goofy at all," she noted. "Intimidatingly smart actually." So there you go.
And guess what the other most noticeable thing about all these clever leading men so far? They're mostly short. None of them come close to six foot. Guess there's got to be a trade off somewhere along the line.
The Coming of Madonna
Another not-quite-official visitor to the Berlinale who's been getting a lot of press is Madonna. The pop star is in town - she's either here today or tomorrow, nobody knows exactly when - to help sell the second film she has directed. She will be presenting three minutes of W. E., a romantic comedy about the love affair between the King of England, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in the 1930s. Her visit moved an editorialist in the influential, conservative German newspaper Die Welt to wonder what the Berlinale was really about. "The Berlinale has mixed feelings about her. They never invited the singer," Die Welt wrote, before comparing the city's film festival to the other big European events in Venice and Cannes.
The editorial continued: To overcome the difficult times that the film industry faces Dieter Kosslick, head of the festival, apparently has a cunning plan - according to him the film festival should evolve into a "cloud of culture", that is, the cultural spectrum that the event encompasses will broaden. Indeed, already on the schedule here are workshops, talks, debates and dinners - for instance, the Culinary Kino section teams up a movie with a fancy chef and after the audience watch the film, they get a tasty multiple-course dinner (stay tuned, we'll be attending one with a difference later in the week) in a mirrored tent opposite the cinema. "The following week will show how well the Berlinale moves across increasingly difficult terrain. And Madonna has nothing to do with it," Die Welt concluded briskly. Take that, Madge.