February. Berlin doesn't know what it wants right now, hinting at spring but still lodged firmly in winter. Snow lies on the rooftops when we wake, rain pours when we walk to and from the U-Bahn, and sunshine blinds us off and on. It seems that Berlin is torn between pleasing its people with sporadic breaks in the clouds, and torturing its visitors from warmer climates with freezing wind. And that brings me to the theory that the organizers of Berlinale, the yearly film festival, deliberately schedule it for February, a pretty miserable time in the city: they want to keep Berlin to themselves for the rest of the year. If they showed the city off in its most pleasant, warm, and vibrant months (May through October), these filmmakers and producers would never leave. I can't fault them - I may be an expat, but that doesn't mean I want to share Berlin with just anyone and everyone. It deserves to keep its magic for as long as possible.
So... this weekend we went to the world premiere of Ixcanul (Volcano), written and directed by Jayro Bustamante, and the first film from Guatemala to ever screen in competition at Berlinale. This premier screening had appeared to be sold out, but we happened to be looking at the website when they released another batch of same-day tickets, so a few a hours later we were walking down the red carpet at the huge Berline Palast next to Potsdamer Platz.
Ixcanul is a complex and often harrowing portrait of life in a very rural part of Guatemala, following a Kaqchikel Maya girl who lives with her family under the shadow of a volcano, picking coffee beans on a plantation to survive. The actors are all non-professionals, and the performances by the girl and her mother were both remarkable. The two of them appeared at the screening, and (as in the film) they could only speak their native Kaqchikel language and a few rehearsed lines of Spanish.
Early in the film, there is a scene of a pig being slaughtered for a feast, and it was clear that it was not faked. This was an effective tool to convey the desperation, helplessness, and sense of captivity felt by the film's protagonist, but it was very disturbing and shocking to watch, and we questioned the ethics of the filmmaker. Aside from that, it was an excellent film, and deserves to be in competition this year.
We're hoping to see one or two more films before the festival ends. There are so many movies screening at the Berlinale that it's totally overwhelming, and unfortunately too expensive to see more than a few. But with any luck we'll be here for next year's festival too!