The Teddy Awards and the wild and wonderful after-party is the night of nights for the LGBTQ community in Berlin. Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst was there last Friday, as was a remarkably youthful Udo Kier who had flown in from his Los Angeles base.
“I was finally able to breathe because I’m in a free country,” the legendary German actor sighed. “I’m coming from an unbelievable situation in America.”
After the refugee crisis had been at the forefront of people’s minds at the 2016 Berlinale, the mood was more upbeat this year and far more comprehensible for English speakers as the Teddys host, Jack Woodhead, a kind of mix of Frank N. Furter and Freddie Mercury, kept things lively. Three years ago the Manchester-born Berliner played his show The Trip in Melbourne and he is worth looking out for – as of course are the Teddy prizewinners.
Watch A Fantastic Woman trailer:
Since its world premiere early in the Berlin programme, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman was expected to fare well, and indeed the film took out the Teddy for best film, while Lelio and Gonzalo Maza won for best screenplay in the Festival’s official competition. After making his mark with Gloria, a story of middle-aged love that won the 2013 best actress award for Pauline Garcia (available at SBS On Demand), Lelio now tells the story of a trans woman’s relationship with an older man who dies, and she must deal with the aftermath from his relatives who treat her with suspicion. Poised trans actress Daniela Vega accepted both awards and proved quite the stunner in classic dresses and stilettos.
Presenting the Teddy, Kier read a jury statement describing A Fantastic Woman as “a perfectly crafted film with a magnificent cinematic approach and an under-represented narrative grounded in natural performances suffused with compassion and illuminating transgender people around the world and how they live.” (Hilariously Kier complained that such wordiness was difficult to say.)
Vega then dedicated the award “to all transgender people who die trying to be themselves.”
Francis Lee, a British actor-turned-director who appeared in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, struck a very different pose when he won the award voted on by readers of Männer magazine. Coming to the Berlinale from Sundance where his debut film God’s Own Country won the directing award, the Yorkshireman took to the Teddys stage looking like a sheep farmer with heavy boots and workman-like clothes. His appearance made a statement regarding how queer men and women come in all shapes and sizes. The film was commended for being “grounded in reality and for needing little dialogue to tell us what each man was thinking”.
“I think it’s a pink unicorn,” the heavily bearded Lee mused as he held up the award. “It looks like a bit of wool from one of my sheep! I just made a film where I grew up. Dad is still a sheep farmer and it’s where I now live.”
It was interesting at the Festival to compare God’s Own Country with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name as the two heart-wrenching gay romances with huge crossover appeal had come hot on the heels of each other. The big difference besides the weather (the wintry Yorkshire moors vs. sun-drenched Italy) was that A Bigger Splash and I am Love director was intent on making a film about romance in general, whereas God’s Own Country, which has widely been compared to Brokeback Mountain, had a definite gay agenda. The good news for viewers of all sexual persuasions is that both films are extremely well made and feature incredible acting talent – that is, hunky men who reveal their hearts and souls on screen and whose careers are on the rise.
* The affable Josh O’Connor from England’s South is nothing like his rough-around-the edges Northerner in God’s Own Country and is coming in big movies, and some are still to be announced.
* Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, the other so- called “strapping lad” in Lee’s film, has a brooding sex appeal that could really take him places.
* Blonde and gorgeous Armie Hammer has acted in Hollywood movies that did not set the box office on fire (Mirror Mirror, The Lone Ranger, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Entourage) and Tom Ford recently had fun with his good looks in Nocturnal Animals. Yet in Call Me by Your Name he really shows his acting chops as well as his huge charm and sense of humour. (He’s not bad in Final Portrait, though it’s impossible to steal the show from Geoffrey Rush!)
* Timothée Chalamet (Homeland, Interstellar) is truly an up and comer with so many films on the boil. His tearful scene in Guadagnino’s film has to be seen to be believed.
Two Teddys were awarded to Asian women filmmakers. The documentary prize, which went to Small Talk by Taiwan's Hui-chen Huang (The Priestess Walks Alone), was commended for its intimate and at once universal look into the family life of the director and her butch lesbian mum, who was married off to an abusive husband at a young age.
“Taiwan is a very small, very beautiful island,” Hui-chen told the crowd, “but this year it’s about to become the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage. [Huge applause.] I’m amazed that our little film comes here to Berlin and I’d like to thank my mum.”
The Special Jury award went to Japan’s Naoko Ogigami for the family drama Close-Knit, about an eleven-year-old girl who goes to live with her uncle and his transgender partner.
“There are lots of family films this year but the families look very different,” notes Panorama programmer and Teddys organiser Wieland Speck.
In his regular speech, Speck singled out Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which also won the Panorama audience award. The film focuses on the gay black rights activist James Baldwin who Robert Kennedy once referred to as Martin Luther Queen.
“James Baldwin was not only one of the great thinkers, poets and playwrights of the 1960s, but he was a human rights activist who knew Martin Luther King and Malcolm X very well," Speck said. "But he couldn't be part of any group because he was homosexual. He knew he had to be independent as black society at that time was as homophobic as anyone.”
In the Oscars I Am Not Your Negro is of course up against last year’s Berlinale winner, the refugee documentary Fire at Sea, a rare documentary that wins a festival’s top prize. Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11 of course won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2004.