Berlin Music Video Awards showcase bright stars, hidden gems

What do a rave-age Joan of Arc with an inhaler, Luke Evans running away from things and a rapper channeling Genghis Khan vibes have in common? They all show up in the bright, bizarre spectrum of offerings featured at this year’s Berlin Music Video Awards. A small but growing festival, klein aber fein, that takes visitors on a journey into entries plucked from the farthest-flung niches of world music, along with blockbuster-level videos straight from the pop and rock mainstream.

Now, it’s not like music videos are some kind of ugly duckling art form without plenty of cultural cachet. The influence of MTV over the last four decades, the role of YouTube in making modern stars, the caliber of the work done by legendary music video directors like Samuel Bayer and the crossover with the film world through directors like Roman Coppola and David Fincher would all suggest otherwise. But while MTV spawned the MTV VMAs, the music video equivalent of the Oscars, there is still perhaps a vacuum for festivals, awards and platforms celebrating and elevating artistry on all levels, whether indie obscure or crowned by viral success, for the strange, the beautiful, even when incompatible with mainstream formats, for brilliant and memorable visual narratives in languages other than English.

Berlin Music Video Awards 2018In that sense, the Berlin Music Video Awards do exactly what the Berlinale does in comparison to other film festivals. Where the Berlinale firmament is studded with Hollywood stars, the BMVAs are seasoned with Mick Jagger, Beck and Muse. But there are also entries from Russian artists, from essentially unknown German bands and directors, from the dreamy French cinematic school and other corners of the globe. And while every festival or awards show serves the inner-industry purpose of networking and business, Berlin likes these events democratic. As with the Berlinale, the interested public can show up to the Berlin MVAs and enjoy the art, rub shoulders with creators and get an inside perspective impossible at rarefied, closed happenings like Cannes.

The festival, this year in its sixth edition, was a four-day smörgåsbord of music videos in the Kreuzberg club Gretchen and the historic theater Delphi. On Wednesday night, I stopped by Gretchen to sample the nominees in four central categories: Best Concept, Best Narrative, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Festival attendees chilling outside at Gretchen.

Festival attendees chilling outside at Gretchen.

The night fired off with a live performance from Brunettes Shoot Blondes. This pouty rock-infused electropop outfit out of Kiev laid down a couple songs with more melancholy guitar stylings, yielding to the banging track featured in their nominated music video, “Hips.”

Brunettes Shoot Blondes onstage at the festival.

Brunettes Shoot Blondes onstage at the festival.

The video visuals, backdropped behind their live performance, are a sterile android dream of youthful passion and infatuation, something like Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” monologue in Blade Runner, or Michael Fassbender playing a humanoid AI playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. A frenetic electric pulse shaded with resigned despair provides the score to white tiles, walls and technology, an explosion of 60s mod meets Kraftwerk meets modern minimalism and Instagram flatlay aesthetics. There’s a lot going on. Retro futurism, old switchboards next to more cutting-edge tech, pop-art candy colors splashing through spartan white environments.

The rest of the nominees in the Best Concept category couldn’t really be more disparate. In “Words Hurt,” Naive New Beaters offer up a reflection on the random nature of life and ripple effects. It’s interesting, but with the technically glitchy live game demonstration of this choose-your-own-ending style music video, a neat idea becomes overlong and tedious.

Beck’s “Up All Night” delivers the aforementioned Joan of Arc-like character, a young girl in armor, battle-ready yet vulnerable, crashing through nightlife scenes, searching and lost and yearning. Residente “Guerra” brings more historical and modern references, Che decked out in a keffiyeh, the searing war zone imagery a direct nod to the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, delicate threads of Spanish guitar exploding into socially conscious rap. Bobi’s “Apartment” features black-and-white aesthetics and a nested TV concept, the focus on small changing details, a concept that would impress on its own but fails to stun next to the other nominees. Noize MC “Childfree” is a wild, provocative odyssey from a smartphone’s perspective, traveling through the furthest extremes of Eastern European lifestyle cliches. It’s startling, blackly comedic and leaves an impression. Alt-J’s “In Cold Blood” is also pretty out there, with a nature documentary-style mouse feature turning steadily grimmer into human dystopia. DOP “Melancholia,” filmed in Berlin, is another exploration of human darkness. And rounding out this vibe is Royal Blood “How Did We Get So Dark,” a nightmarish, gritty rock road story that literally goes down the rabbit hole. The winning video in this category, Oren Lavie’s “Second Hand Lovers,” wouldn’t have been my choice – it has lovely modern dance-inspired choreography, but its slow-mo, male gaze-y narrative paled for me next to the more daring entries. But to each their own.

My personal favorite in the concept department – “Childfree.”

The nominees for Best Narrative showed a bit less random weirdness (although Dizzee Rascal’s “Bop N Keep It Dippin” is certainly delightful and bizarre) and more social consciousness. “PeilSCHNARTE” from Lexy & K-Paul feat. Enda Gallery takes a surprise turn from the chavvy, violent party milieu into a painful story of LGBT awakening, internalized homophobia, shame and acceptance. Blassfuchs “Dunkelziffer” takes a “friendzoned” character and throws a disturbing, compelling depiction of date rape into the faces of the audience, masterfully utilizing discomfort to spread an important message. Goldie’s “I Adore You” is a wrenching portrait of a father torn away from his daughter by prison. And Hurts “Beautiful Ones” delivers a merciless depiction of violence against drag queens, wringing defiant beauty out of a world still locked in the grip of transphobia and intolerance. The category also featured a few less memorable entries, including Luke Evans starring in Mick Jagger’s “England Lost,” a highly aesthetic bit of video that ultimately lacks the depth of its competitors.

While I was completely impressed and won over by “Dunkelziffer,” I also loved the quirky video that ultimately won, Leningrad’s “Is Not Paris.” This entry tells the tale of a Russian everywoman with a secret identity as assassin/agent/ninja, absurd and flashy and fun, like if Black Widow’s cover life was that of a frustrated, exploited housewife staggering wearily from one menial task to the next, perpetually cleaning up after scuzzy, good-for-nothing men until she ultimately has to save the world by punching the shit out of an incoming asteroid.

On the whole, there seemed to be two kinds of narratives at this year’s Berlin Music Video Awards: The leitmotif was rather neon-saturated, Berlinesque tales of people partying a lot, living dissolute lifestyles and feeling kind of bad about it. Then there were also plenty of entries with in-depth interrogations of race, gender dynamics, poverty, privilege, war, dysfunctional families and relationships, and so on. And sometimes the two overlapped. The Best Director category was no exception, with kids trying to dance or fight their way out of terrible situations, more appealingly bizarre Russian sensibilities, more portrayals of white male rage and criminality, the utterly strange and baffling fantasy world of Alt-J’s “Pleader” and Somewhere Else with “Uh Huh,” a lo-fi psychedelic cowboy romp on acid. The video that ultimately won, Clement Froissart’s “Peupleraie,” wasn’t quite my favorite – that distinction would have to go to Charlotte Cardin’s “The Kids.” This is how you do black-and-white, folks. Spellbinding in its savagery, terrible and beautiful, bursting with raw, desperate passion and anguish. Space, sex, birth, death, life as cyclical pain and strife, but gah, the aesthetics of it all. Give this one a look:

Wednesday night at the Berlin MVAs was graced with two more live music performances along with the countless video screenings: The British singer JYLDA and the Dutch artist O-SHiN. The former fell a little short of dazzling, with soulful stylings but weaker vocal moments when she seemed a bit lost, off-key and disconnected.

O-SHiN and her accompaniment, on the other hand, were entrancing. The resonant, gritty depths in her voice are like a blend of Halsey and Fever Ray, combining with funky guitar and stripped-down synths to create languid atmospherics, floating like a cloud of weed smoke over a silken bedspread drenched in shadows and moonlight.

O-SHiN performing earlier this year with a full backing band:

The last award of the night, for Best Cinematography, also featured some gems. Muse’s “Thought Contagion” is a high-budget, slick piece brimming with visual references: This neon noir reminds the viewer alternately of video games, the 80s, vampire slashers, Michael Jackson and militarized police state dystopias. Tokio Hotel’s “Boy Don’t Cry” is a beautiful, equally neon-splashed celebration of fluid gender identities and individual liberation through exploration, a particularly Berlin-appropriate journey of discovery through the lens of nightlife. Aigel “1190” was another drug-hazed reverie, Mikromusic’s “Son” featured more dysfunctional relationship dynamics, Jah Khalib’s “Medina” features – sorry – cheesy AF rapper vibes but cool landscape and structural shots, sweeping on horseback through snowy central Asian vistas.

And in this category, my personal favorite also swiped the trophy – the spectacular video for Ezio Bosso’s “Rain In Your Black Eyes” absolutely deserved this recognition. The song and video were so different from anything else on show – this modern classical piano and violin piece, full of haunting longing, begins with a shot of a woman standing in the rain and then cuts for the remainder of the shoot to a dancer underwater. The award went to the experienced deep-sea diver and underwater filmmaker Julie Gautier and her co-producer Jacques Ballard, who shot the sequence in the deepest pool in the world. Gautier, who also stars as the dancer, held her breath for all the spliced shots – no CGI trickery here. Both music and visuals are simple, minimalistic and utterly lovely. And that’s the great thing about this festival: The chance to marvel at rare heights of artistry and captivating visual narratives that might otherwise escape your notice.

More photos (all images copyright Caitlin Hardee):

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