Berlinale 2017: Day 1

By Sascha Krieger

Django  (Competition / France / Directors: Etienne Comar)

The beginning sets the tone. Before we meet the film’s protagonist, famed jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt, the film takes us into the Ardennes in 1943. An old gypsy sings, the group is ambushed, people are killed. The killers are not seen but very much present in the next scene. Django and his band play in Paris, the room is filled with German officers. Django is no simple biopic. It follows Django through those pivotal two years from his refusal to tour Germany until the end of the war. Musical scenes anchor the film – the wild „gypsy jazz“ Reinhardt became famous for, a watered-down version to please the taste of the German occupiers, and the requiem he wrote for the gypsy victims of the Nazi regime. But the mood remains timid, the „gypsy swing“ finds no expression in narration or imagery. For most of its two hours, Django is a rather conventionally told film littered with plenty of clichés, filled with quiet, dark, earthy images. It has its specific look but it never takes flight. Reda Kateb’s Django is as subdued as the film that contrasts uneasily with the energy of the music. The character remains vague and pale. We do not get a clear view of him although all indications are that we should. Not quite a biopic and not really a music film, Django remains also in an artistic no man’s land but may serve well as a starting point for exploration of its history as well for discovering Django Reinhardt’s music. It could certainly be worse.

Django (Image: © Roger Arpajou)

Django (Image: © Roger Arpajou)

The Wound (Panorama / South Africa, Germany, Netherlands, France / Director: John Trengove)

It’s all in a face. In this case, a young Zulu man’s, travelling back to his home village to act as a so-called caregiver at a traditional initiation ritual that centers around circumcision and includes the soon-to-be young men spending eight days isolated in a hut without food and drink. As the film opens, the camera in on the face of Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and will remain there for most of its duration. A face that doesn’t seem to say much. But just as the viewer is about to lose interest, there is a hesitation in that look, a hidden, half-ashamed sideways glance, easy to be missed but the key to this character’s secret. The Wound  is a story about the difficulty of discovering and owning one’s identity. Xolani’s evolves around a volatile triangle. In one corner, there’s his charge, Kwanda, a cocky, self-confident city boy disdainful of the backward ways of his father’s village. In another, Vija, an old friend of Xolani’s and more. Close-ups dominate the film, symbolizing the claustrophobic narrowness not only of the character’s worlds (that indeed become smaller and smaller) but also of their own minds and selves that contract more and more as decisions have to be made, as Xolani has to choose: between the modern and the traditional, between facade and truth, his identity and the one others have projected on him. Vija and Kwanda need to make their choices, too, and they choose different paths. In the end, Xolani ist back on the back of the truck he arrived on. He has made his choice and the ending it has in store for him may not be a happy one. Choosing sides can be hard and prove, as in Xolani’s case, impossible. Not doing it, however, can kill. A quiet, haunting, unsettling tale from a world caught between the times – as is its protagonist.

Dayveon (Forum / United States / Director: Amman Abbasi)

„Everything is stupid“. This is the summary of the long list of stupid things we hear at the film’s outset while we’re watching a teenage boy ride a bike. Dayveon is 13, has just lost his brother and is about to join a gang. The world Daveon takes the viewer to is a desolate rural wasteland somewhere in the south of the United States. A large open air ghetto with not a single white person inside. Jobs are rare, bills too high and the best way to get money is to rob each other. Changing back and forth between handheld camera naturalism and impressionistic collages, the film paints an intense portrait of a youth with little perspective but a surprising amount of love. The characters are tenderly portrayed, never given up for cheap clichés (although the film isn’t free of them), it suffers with them – and especially the title character, impressively played in all its stubbornness, confusion and lust for life by Devin Blackmon – and it hopes with them. A dark film (exemplified by the nocturnal natural light car rides) and a bright one in which the sun tends to shine. As desolate as this world is, hearts are not broken yet and neither are wills. A laconic series of everyday miniature portraits finishes the film, unassuming, gentle, not despairing. If there is a weakness, it’s the predictability of much of the storyline. Dayveon doesn’t need it and survives it quite well.

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