This year's Berlin Film Festival opened with Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light, a documentary about the Rolling Stones, which invested opening night with the requisite hysteria. The four shrivelled rock stars and the Oscar-winning director swaggered down the red carpet to the ecstatic screams of fans wrapped in Union Jacks and sticking out their tongues.
The following night, a smaller and somewhat more civilized crowd gathered around the festival theatre on Potsdamer Platz to see another pop star, this one in a tweed blazer, looking almost chastened by his own celebrity. Neil Young came to Berlin with CSNY: Déjà vu, one of 15 Canadian films featured at the 10-day festival that closes tomorrow.
Both films document recent concerts given by bands that rose to fame in the 1960s, but the similarities end there. While Shine a Light is a visual orgy of close-ups, celebrating every inch of the Stones in performance with one of its 20 cameras focused exclusively on Mick Jagger's gyrating torso, CSNY: Déjà vu documents the reunion of four self-described balding hippies who, for lack of torso definition, have the courage of their convictions.
"I'm not angry," said Young, sitting with a small round of journalists in a hotel room overlooking Potsdamer Platz, and nor does he look it. Donning earthy tones and fine wools, the 62-year-old looks quite the country gentleman. "But I'm not going to stand by and not say what I think."
In 2006, Young, a Toronto native and long-time resident of California, brought together the dispersed members of Crosby Stills Nash and Young to tour the U.S. during mid-term elections. Wearing oversized Hawaiian shirts and patched jeans, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Young played songs from Young's explicitly anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war repertoire. The film, directed by Bernard Shakey (Young's film-making alias), follows this Freedom of Speech tour and records audience response, which was not always positive.
Young's are clear and he delivers them without embellishment. When asked at the Berlinale press conference what he thought was wrong with President George W. Bush, Young suggested re-phrasing the question: "Let's talk about what's right with Mr. Bush, that's an answer I have time for. Mr. Bush is a fine physical specimen for a man of his age."
A strong political thread runs through Young's musical career, which has traversed folk, country, rock and grunge. He describes his recent Living with War album and the Freedom of Speech tour that followed as "warning labels on a jar. 'If you eat this, you're going to get that.'" "This" being Bush, and "that" being thousands of wasted lives.
But he's not naive about his own impact. "The time when music could change the world is past," he says, providing the perfect headline for the following day's reviews of his film. Recalling CSNY's initial crusade against the Vietnam War, he says, "Back then, we were part of 'the movement.' Today there is no movement. Today it's science, physics and spirituality that can change the world." He adds that film-making can be a "great tool" in this process.
Young is soft-spoken and articulate, and there are penetrating eyes behind the sunglasses that come off when he's out of the public spotlight. But when asked if he has a hard time understanding American-style patriotism, he raises his voice. "There are a lot of things that are hard for me to understand," he says. "Like Americans who think I shouldn't have an opinion on this as a Canadian. This is the 'leader of the free world!' And I shouldn't have an opinion? That bothers me. But that's not the message. The message is: Why are we stuck with war? Are we not supposed to evolve to a point that we don't have war? Or are we forever going to be throwing fireballs at each other, like for the last 2,000 years?"
Asked if he's ever tempted to return to Canada, the exasperation lifts: "Oh yeah. I love Canada. But I've got an American family." And family is home.
Later that same evening, filmmaker Guy Maddin gave a performance of his new feature My Winnipeg - "performance" because the film, typically Maddinesque in its silent-film aesthetic, was accompanied by the director's live narration. The event opened this year's Forum section of the festival, which is devoted to more experimental film and which has showcased much of Maddin's work over the years.
My Winnipeg was commissioned by the Documentary Channel but is no documentary in the conventional sense. Rather, it's an homage to the Winnipeg of Maddin's idiosyncratic - some say psychosexual - imagination. So the Berlin audience can be forgiven for wanting to know if Winnipeg's young lovers really do gather to exchange intimacies among frozen horse heads on the city's fringes and whether, on a so-called "What if" day in 1942, the city really was renamed Himmlerstadt and overrun by police dressed as Nazis in an attempt to raise support for the war effort.
Two slightly straighter documentaries enjoyed positive receptions: Be like Others, co-produced by Montreal's Peter Wintonick, explores Iran's paradoxical policy on homo- and transsexuality, and the Israeli/NFB co-production Flipping Out visits colonies of Israeli youth in India, where they go to recover from the stress of mandatory military service.
Telefilm Canada, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007, is pleased with the Canadian showing. "Canada is represented in all sections of the festival," says Brigitte Hubmann, Telefilm's international festival specialist, "and the strategy we've been developing over the last few years at the Berlinale has come together."
Hubmann is especially pleased with the two first-time features from Quebec - Le Ring by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, and Tout est parfait directed by Yves-Christian Fournier - that are being screened alongside more recognized directors such as Bruce LaBruce and Israel's Amos Kollek, whose Restless, a Canadian co-production, is running in the main competition. On the commercial side, all six companies represented at the Canada Desk of the film market have succeeded in selling something.