Berlin Panorama remains loyal to its roots

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COLOGNE, Germany -- With the rocket-propelled growth of the European Film Market attracting all the attention in Berlin, it's easy to forget among all the industry buzz and dealmaking that the EFM originally was formed as an extension of Berlin's Panorama sidebar.

"It wasn't originally about making money, it was about finding a platform to get our films seen," Panorama director Wieland Speck said. "It was about building awareness and an audience for films that don't come prepacked with the stars and marketing attached."

While the EFM has embraced the commercial as part of its expansion, Panorama remains true to its roots, with a 2007 lineup as edgy as any of its predecessors.

From Mitchell Lichtenstein's tale of vaginal dentata "Teeth" to Hal Hartley's story of state espionage and paranoia "Fay Grim" to the bizarre high school transsexual comedy of E. J-Yong'scq "Dasepo Naughty Girls," it is clear the Panorama is not your usual multiplex fare.

For most of the films screening, Berlin will be their first chance to test the reactions of an ordinary, that is nonindustry, audience. Unlike the Festival de Cannes or Venice, screenings of Panorama films are packed with regular, ticket-buying Berliners.

"Berlin offers a genuine city audience, and it's a fairly spoiled audience," Speck said. "So if a film works in Berlin, it's a good measure for how it could work in other urban areas across Europe."

Certain to spark interest of international buyers is the proliferation of American indie titles in this year's lineup. In addition to "Fay Grim" and "Teeth," the sidebar will be screening "Away From Her," the directorial debut of Canadian actress Sarah Polley, starring Julie Christie and Michael Murphy; Steve Buscemi's "Interview," in which he stars alongside Sienna Miller; the feminist high school comedy "Itty Bitty Titty Committee" from Jamie Babbit; and Canadian director Bruce McDonald's "The Tracey Fragments," which features rising star Ellen Page ("Hard Candy") and will open the Panorama section todayFeb. 8.

"American independent films are becoming more radical again, which makes them more interesting for us," Speck said. "In the '90s you saw them getting softer, becoming more commercial, everyone was talking about making a 'product' instead of a film. Now things are turning the other way."

But if U.S. films at Panorama this year are more controversial, the documentaries, usually teeming with political outrage, are less so.

Nonfiction screenings in Panorama's Dokumente section include several music docus: Stephen Kijak's "Scott Walker -- 30 Century Man"; Leopold Gruen's "The Red Elvis," about U.S. singer Dean Reed, who became a rock star in the communist GDR; Uli M. Schueppel's "BerlinSong"; and two fashion biopics: Rodolphe Marconi's "Lagerfeld Confidential" and Olivier Meyrou's Yves Saint Laurent portrait "Celebration."

The most obviously political film in the lineup is "Invisibles," an omnibus film featuring shorts directed by, among others, Isabel Coixet, Wim Wenders and Javier Corcuera and produced by Spanish star Javier Bardem, "Invisibles" shines the spotlight on peoples of the third world largely ignored by the citizens and media of the West.

While the expansion of the EFM might seem to threaten Panorama's defiantly indie edge, Wieland Speck sees no sign of commerce overwhelming culture in Berlin.

"If you look at the companies active at the EFM, the majority have something to do with the festival, there's still a very close connection," Speck said. "Even the big companies, like Weinstein Co. or Lionsgate are independents that grew with the Berlinale, by having films in the festival. We're growing but we're not becoming an American Film Market or a new version of Mifed."

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