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Berlin press conference with Wajda and hot Heath Ledger

One of the great assets for a journalist at the Berlin film festival is the very well organized press conference structure and the constant parade of leading figures, directors, stars and others, from film industries around the world. The day here starts out with two matinee press screenings of films in competition in the same giant hall, the Berlinale Palast, where the gala red-carpet screenings are held in the evening. These press screenings are immediately followed by a press conference in the exceptionally well-adapted conference room established for this purpose during the festival in the Hyatt Hotel. The Hyatt, one of several VIP festival hotels, is basically the nerve center of the festival and is just a few minutes on foot away from the gala hall on the far side of Marlene Dietrich Square, which makes navigation from screening to press conference a very simple commute.

Press conferences for films shown at other festival venues continue all day long, so that if one were simply to hang out in the press room all day long, one would witness a procession of film celebrities at close range, and waht's more, even be able to fire questions at them. Professional media people are no different from ordinary film-goers when it comes to gawking at the super and mega-stars, so the presence of a George Clooney (who was here at the start of the festival to push "Syriana") is a guarantee of a mad rush for seats in the conference room and an overflow crowd where late coming turnaways can still view the proceedings on a large TV screen in the hallway just outside of the conference room. Each press conference has a different composition depending to some extent on the country of origin of the film in question. For example today, a competition film from Italy, entitled "Romanzo Criminale" (Crime Novel) was pretty well packed and the Italian language was very much in evidence, although this is not a film featuring internationally known names. This is, in fact, a film about terrorism in Italy during the nineteen seventies, notably the kidnapping and murder of a prominent political figure of the time, Aldo Mora, by an organization known as the Red Brigades. Based on a recent best seller this film is big news in Italy but merely an historical curiosity out on the festival circuit.

One of the main events of the day was a press conference held by world renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who this evening will receive a special Honorary Golden Bear in a separate ceremony for his contributions to world cinema in a career spanning exactly half a century. The director, who will turn eighty this year, shows no signs of slowing down and is currently at work on a major new film dealing with the Katyn Massacre of Polish POWs which took place in Russia during World War II.

In 1943, German soldiers discovered a mass grave in the Katyn forest near Smolensk in western Russia. The grave held the bodies of between 4,000 and 5,000 Polish army officers. Hoping to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western allies, Nazi officials publicized the grave and accused the Soviets of the massacre. Moscow denied the charge and claimed the Germans were behind the atrocity. The western Allies, reluctant to offend their Soviet wartime friends, allowed this all to be swept under the carpet for forty years!
The Poles always knew the truth, but the Russians did not admit that Katyn was a totally Russian job untill 1990 when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted Soviet involvement in the Katyn forest massacre. Two years later, the Russian government released previously secret documents showing that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had directly ordered the mass killings. It turns out that director Wajda's father, a professional cavalry officer, was one of those who disappesared into the ground at Katyn. Says Wajda that his new film will tell the Katyn story as a family tragedy rather than as a sweeping political drama. One wonders who will be the actor to play Wajda in the film. Wajda also discoursed at length on the changes that have occurred in Polish filmmaking since the fall of Communism, and noted that there is not much of an audience today in Poland foir political films. The turnout for this unusual chance to enter into an intimate dialogue with one of the truly great figures of World cinema was surprisingly sparce, attended mostly by Polish journalists and a handful of others with a particular interest in Poland such as myself. I personally thought this was one of the most informative conferences of the fest and hung on the director's every word, most expertly translated into English and German.

The big conference of the day came at the six-thirty mark, after a press screening of "Candy" which features "Brokeback Mountain" star Heath Ledger. Needless to say, Heath being one of the hottest actors around today, everybody here was anxious to get a look at him close-up, and were certainly not disappointed as the young Australian actor was most forthcoming and open in response to the questions fired at him from all sides of the room. In the current picture Heath plays a rather hopeless heroin addict who falls in love with a very beautiful young lady who marries him and also, into the bargain, picks up his smack habit. Before long she (the "Candy" of the title) is working as a fifty dollar a shot prostitute to finace the couple's collective need for the drug. Pert blonde actress Abbie Cornish is a real find and actually steals the shadow (more or less) from top -billed Ledger.
This fetching gal looks something like a cross between CharlizeTheron and Scarlett Johanssen, and besides her astounding good looks, can also act!
The entire "Candy" team was on hand, including the two stars, director Neil 'Armfield, the writer of the novel on which the screenplay was based, the screenwriter, and a couple of producers. Only Geoffrey Rush, who was the main supporting actor, (as an addicted professor of biology) was absent.

Considering that "Candy" is pretty much a straight-forward story of drug addiction and how it ruins young lives, I found it rather depressing with nothing new to say on the subject. Heath Ledger really doesn't have that much to do other than look pained most of the time with that now patented "Brokeback Mountain" look of deep suppressed pain. In this film, however, the pain is not so suppressed as Heath breaks out into tears on several occasions. One of the cute questions from the audience was "How do you manage to cry so easily on cue?" -- shrug -- it's part of the job. In person Heath Ledger does not come across with the aura of a Movie Star, but rather as a good old boy who enjoys his job -- acting -- and does it pretty damn well. One droll question from an Asian lady in the audience, obvious but inevitable, was "does it feel very different to kiss a man (as in Brokeback Mountain) and to kiss a woman, as in this film?" Heath elected to take the question seriously and went on at length about his role in the Ang Lee "gay cowboy" film, concluding that, once you get over the initial embarrassment, it"s just a case of kissing another human being, the main difference coming down to the stubble" -- which brought a roar of appreciation.
With three more days yet to go there are probably many surprises still in store for dedicated festivaleers. Altogether there is a competition slate of 24 films with a strong German presence of five pictures. Where the main competition jury, headed up by elegant English (and French!) actress Charlotte Rampling, will decide to bestow its cache of golden and silver bears is anybody's guess.
By Chaim Pevner
Berlin, February 14


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