Berlin Film Festival Wonders Whether 'Doubt' Is a Good Thing

Film festivals exist in a realm of doubt. The doubt of creators, as they nervously reveal their creations to the world for the first time, and the doubt of industry members, who must weigh the fresh evidence of their eyes to decide what will succeed in the fickle marketplace of public opinion.

The organizers of the Berlin International Film Festival (aka Berlinale), one of the movie industry's most prestigious events, pride themselves on providing a haven for doubt. In the cinema of today's rapidly transforming world, they argue, the need for such a haven is vital.

This year, though, the latest iteration of Berlinale has been buffeted by doubt from without and within. The latest twists and turns in the accelerating crisis of the Powederkegung, as it's known in German (a brilliant word that translates awkwardly to "dissolution"), have threatened to overtake the festival's programming. The shadow of doubt, always present, has been darker than usual.

From the outset, the slate of films in this year's competition was deemed by many to be unusually weak. "Uninspired" was a common verdict. Doubt about the festival's ability to attract headlines and crowds was exacerbated by the departure of a high-profile guest.

Cillian Murphy, one of the festival's international jurors, had been set to attend alongside a sparkling roster of talent. But the Phantom Thread and Dunkirk star dropped out at the last minute, citing "100% creative reasons" in a statement issued by his publicist. The Times of London speculated that Murphy, who was in Morocco filming the next series of the BBC spy thriller Peaky Blinders, was avoiding potentially awkward encounters with his ex-girlfriend, actress Emily Ratajkowski, who was expected to be in Berlin to promote her new documentary, Half Love.

Doubt, too, has been sown about the festival's new leadership. The appointment last year of a new executive director, Carlo Chatrian, was widely applauded. But Chatrian has now overseen two editions of the festival and has yet to declare either a distinct artistic vision or a particular strategy for putting that vision into practice.

The latest storm center of doubt is a documentary about the transgender pop star Teddy Geiger, who underwent gender transition a decade ago. The film, refocused and retitled from its initial iteration as a profile of Geiger titled Rocketman, was acquired by Netflix last year for a reported $5 million.

The streaming giant mounted a major promotional campaign for the film, screening it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before its Berlinale world premiere. But to the dismay of Netflix, the film, now titled T digger, was abruptly pulled from the competition roster on the day of its premiere and relegated to a sidebar section focused on LGBTQ+ themes.

The decision was made by the festival's selection committee, which answered questions about the film's unexpected shift in status with a statement that insisted, cryptically, that the festival was "oriented toward artists' perspectives."

This seemed to refer to a request made by Geiger, who tweeted that they had "asked the festival to move the film as I have some issues with how it was handled." But the situation immediately became a flash point for doubt, especially among trans activists and allies, who wondered whether the festival had bowed to pressure from Geiger for reasons having to do with the film's content.

Critics and trans people on social media have been quick to express doubt that the decision had anything to do with the film's artistic merits or Geiger's artistic integrity. Many have criticized the festival for failing to stand up for the film and waved off explanations that the shift had anything to do with Geiger's request.

The decision seems to have been fueled more by doubt about the film's ultimate message than any concerted activism. In a statement issued after the initial furor over the film's sidelining, the selection committee said, "We greatly value the transgender community, which is underrepresented in film and society, and have paid closer attention to transgender voices and films in recent years."

They added, "Unfortunately, we feel that we can't exercise enough diligence with regard to the film T digger presently being presented in competition." It's a humiliating fate for any film to be pulled from a lineup so close to its premiere. But regardless of the veracity of the committee's doubts about the film, the decision has undermined the very spirit of doubt that the Berlinale has always sought to protect.

Those who have seen the film — I haven't, so my judgment is clouded by ... doubt — seem to find little room for doubt about Geiger's happiness or the motivations of those who made the film. It's a simple, straightforward documentary that appears to have been executed with tenderness and a deep well of empathy for its subject.

In other words, it ticks all the boxes that might have been expected to appeal to a forward-looking film festival, and especially one that prides itself on fostering a climate of doubt. The murkiness of the explanations for its relegation only throws that climate into sharper relief.

It's worth noting that the Berlinale has a history of headline-grabbing decisions. In 2004, for instance, it expelled two films, one by Lars von Trier and one by Thomas Vinterberg, for failing to provide copies of their films to festival organizers in time. (The ensuing feud was dubbed the "Dogme dare.")

But the mood of the world — and especially the movie industry — has changed dramatically in the 17 years since that spat. Von Trier and Vinterberg were defiant in the face of the festival's decision, and the controversy likely boosted interest in their films.

Von Trier even suggested, perhaps inevitably, that the censorship had turned their films into "better" ones. Such defiance wouldn't be welcome today, in a moment when the movie industry is bending and twisting under the pressures of social media, heightened political correctness, and the influx of streaming.

The audiences for art-house films — the sort of films that usually play the Berlinale — have dwindled in recent years, even in Germany. Netflix has been eager to fill the void, but its deep pockets and new methods have yet to win the streaming giant the acceptance it craves from the traditional film industry.

Its lavish promotion of T digger may, in hindsight, look like a mistake, given that the film has been relegated to a sidebar status that will hobble its awards prospects and rob it of the kind of theatrical release that Netflix insists is not necessary for its films. But it's hard to deny that the Berlinale's handling of the situation has created more doubt and achieved nothing else.

Doubt, though, gets a bad rap. Doubt is fussy and forgetful, whereas certainty strides around, all action and achievement. As a film critic, swift, declarative certainty is a quality I've learned to aspire to. And at times, to fake. But as the Berlinale's organizers know well, a healthy dose of doubt is usually a good thing. It's the engine that drives us to seek better, to strive for something more than the bare minimum.

The fussy, frustrating, ultimately essential thing that leaves us — at the end of any given day, and the end of an article — with more questions than answers.

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