My Culinary Berlinale

A Diary by David McKenzie

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OPENING DAY

Under the banner of its idealistic motto, ‘Make Food Not War,’ Berlinale’s Culinary Cinema celebrates its 10th anniversary at this year’s festival. Here I will try to present a running journal narrating the films, atmosphere, events, people and wider environment of this well-meaning auxiliary arm of the Berlin Film Festival.

The Culinary Cinema programme does not kick off until Sunday, but the Berlinale officially opens today, February 11th. So I decided to poke my head around and see what’s happening.

Ticket booths, an official Berlinale merchandise shop, large banners, red carpet, and bookshelves offering crispy Berlinale brochures have taken over the main concourse of the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden. Some people sit in small groups on the carpet, almost hit by passing feet, festival programmes sprawled around them with dates and events being circled and discussions being had.

I pick up the Culinary Cinema brochure, a colourful wagon wheel of (somewhat) smiling Michelin-starred chefs staring back from it. This sparked a thought in me that would be consolidated soon after, having flipped through the programme – namely that this is an exclusive event.

I was excited to get the chance to come to the Berlinale, being able to experience an inclusive forum for discussing where ‘we’ are in our relationship with food and, more importantly, where we could be. Berlin connotes words like ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘avant-garde’ and ‘alternative.’ But maybe I was naive to rely on word association alone because I got a strong whiff of Michelin snobbery. Somehow, even in our world of countless food publications, blogs and websites, a French tyre manufacturer’s motoring guide started in 1900 is still the guiding light. How does so much of the incredibly complex mixture of things we’ll call the ‘food world’ often boil down to one single publication?

I have only ever eaten at one Michelin-starred restaurant – famously known as ‘the world’s cheapest.’ As soon as discussions about food turn to Michelin stars, I feel out of the loop. Which is perhaps why I started Berlinale’s Culinary Cinema on the back foot. The outline of the programme threw me off. The programme’s marquee events (literally held in a marquee – the temporary Gropius Mirror Restaurant, set up in a circus tent) are premiere film screenings accompanied by exquisite meals prepared by top chefs. All of those chefs, as the programme proudly states, run restaurants holding Michelin stars. Yes, maybe I am out of my depth.

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Looking at the sign above those ticket booths in Potsdamer Platz Arkaden was further disconcerting. Culinary Cinema only appeared in the third column, alongside the eye-popping figures of €95 and €40, when everything before that had ranged from €4 to €20.

But then something clicked. My attitude changed from that of a movie-goer to that of a food-lover.

Those prices are a steal!

They refer to those marquee events in the Gropius Mirror Restaurant (and the €40 for a one-off event in Wedding), and those lavish meals are included in the price. Those figures may certainly put off some casually curious foodies, those who had hoped to include a food title in their Berlinale itinerary. But if you ignore the film festival element and look at it from the other perspective, as a diner, that may be the best chance you ever get to enjoy a world-class meal for under €100 – not to mention also enjoying some of the latest leading food documentaries.

Also, for those still prioritising movies over munchies, there are second screenings of most Culinary Cinema films, the day after their premieres. These are at the less glamorous but bigger CineStar IMAX, for standard cinema prices. So all is well.

So, after navigating this initial hurdle of accessibility (tickets for the main events are limited, so be quick), the question for me and other curious culinary cinema goers turns to the actual content – what do I want to see?

I want to see what celebrated, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney has done with Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, in turning it into a four-part documentary series. And Dutch TV presenter Marijn Frank seems to have elongated a feeling I am guiltily familiar with – accepting and agreeing with many of the arguments for eating vegetarian but unable to rip herself from a carnal desire to eat meat – into a seemingly funny, light documentary navigating the landmined food map for middle-class, Generation Y-ers in the western world.

To those earmarked films I can add Singaporean food journalist Eric Khoo’s eye-level exploration of Singapore’s fast-changing street-food scene, Wanton Mee, and Kivalina, an American documentary focusing on food and identity in an Arctic community in Alaska which is predicted to be flooded by the sea in a scarily short time.

Still, I am left with a few questions at the start of my Culinary Cinema odyssey. For one thing, could the fact that the entire programme comprises only documentaries be a missed opportunity? Could some more abstract, artistic connections to food and our relationship to it not be included? A different voice in the conversation, other than top chefs and sharp, eloquent journalists?

It also feels like the opportunity for new food paradigms may be limited. The programme features two films each from, or about, Michael Pollan and Rene Redzepi. This is certainly not a bad thing, and these two names played a big part in the festival catching my initial attention. But to some it may seem like too safe a bet, and it could be hard for fresh, previously unknown ideas to get attention.

Pollan’s ongoing work and wide reach are as valuable as ever, but the fact that these two films are realisations of works he published several years ago blunts the cutting-edge a bit. Same for Redzepi, whose philosophy and work at Noma clearly continue to inspire people – but have we not seen enough documentaries following him foraging around the Nordic coast and whipping up meals 99.99% of us are never going eat, and 99.9% of us are never going to be able to contemplate cooking, over the past decade?

Maybe we haven’t. And of course there are bound to be several surprises. After all, Berlinale, a globally broadcast event where over a hundred films have their world premiere, is an ideal forum for introducing fresh, new ideas.

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Read diary entry II and III

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