Berlinale press conferences are clenching embarrassment time, and press junket group interviews a more concentrated kind of sycophancy where irritated publicity agents hover and dead-eyed filmmakers suck in their guts to sell the movie one more time.
The best place to see a good discussion with a filmmaker is at the Berlinale Talents, a week of talks and workshops to which selected young "talents" get first access. It's mainly enlightening, even if the events' baffling titles ("The Freedom Gene: How to Remain an Optimist" or "Walking Home Ideas: Inspirational Flows") are just interchangeable gloop. On Thursday evening, the Haitian director Raoul Peck gave the kids 90 minutes of his time to discuss his career (the title was: "Shock of the Real: History as Provocation", because obviously) – including his 2000 movie about Patrice Lumumba (Lumumba), the Congo prime minister who was executed after being abandoned by the US, and his 2013 documentary Fatal Assistance, about the chaotic aid work inflicted on his home country after the 2010 earthquake.
For the Talents, Peck drew a line between those films and his two Berlinale movies this year – first the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which it's impossible to get a ticket for here and which has lit a fuse on release in the US, confirming his hunch that Baldwin's voice was so urgently needed right now ("It's like he sat down this morning to write these texts," he said here). And then there's The Young Karl Marx, a drama which is probably amazing but to me seemed like it mainly involved Marx and Engels and French people shouting at each other during heavy cognac sessions as they struggle to put a theoretical materialist foundation beneath the nascent Communist League.
On Thursday, talking to Ben Gibson, director of Berlin's DFFB film school (which Peck attended in the early 1980s), the 63-year-old Peck came across as an old street communist, nostalgic for the days when West Berlin was a haven for left-wing radicals from around the world: "They were all here: the ANC, the Nicaraguans, el Salvador, the Iranian communists fleeing Khomeini – there was incredible international solidarity. And my teachers were on the street with me."
Those days are gone, Peck said, and then turned with a certain bewilderment to his young audience: "There is no ideology, no history. Now you are a perfect consumer. Capitalists know how to put us against each other." But, as Peck tried to explain, there's no such thing as "just doing it for the money" - everything you do matters.