Consider this a "special edition" of the Berlinale 2017 Diary, an entry written for the Berlin Critics' Week blog.

"How could a film be unfinished?" asked artist and filmmaker Margit Schild early on in the discussion following the Berlin Critics' Week's presentation of the world premiere of Mike Ott's California Dreams. And Ott himself interjected, "Yeah, I thought it was finished, too." Sunday night's program, "Unfertig / Unfinished," may count as the shortest yet in the BCW's three-year history, but somehow it felt just right.

Moderator Nino Klingler suggested discussing improvisation as a means of revealing the process of a film's making. Film critic Violeta Kovacsics proposed that open-ended films, as opposed to those left unintentionally unfinished, such as Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México! (Klingler's example), are a conscious break with classic Hollywood's penchant for closure. Schild's point was that, in whatever form we find a film, whatever its current state, that is the film as it exists, hence the very idea of an "unfinished film" is "impossible." One thinks of the various versions of films that go out into the world—director's cuts, versions edited for television or airlines and so on, or even films that their makers considered finished once but were then undone (Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Erich von Stroheim's Greed)—and one realizes that, if Schild's argument holds water, there can be many "finished" versions of the same title at any given moment, co-existing like parallel universes unaware of each other.

Thing is, none of these ideas, once floated, really took off on Sunday night, and it wasn't long before the discussion was thrown to the audience who wanted to talk about the nuts and bolts of the making of the film they'd just enthusiastically applauded. And they wanted more Cory Zacharia, the captivating star of California Dreams, who did eventually take to the stage. When asked how Ott works, Zacharia answered with an anecdote: Once, he asked Ott if he might direct a scene, just to try it out, and Ott replied, "Cory, I let you direct nearly every scene in the film." Ott jumped in to add, "Cory makes my ideas better." Given a direction, Cory will "fuck it up, but make it better."


California Dreams is built on top of a previously shot short, most of which appears well into the 85-minute feature's second half. It's smartly placed, this intimate interview with Zacharia in a car in which he talks about some of the most private moments that have left their marks. Better to be introduced to Zacharia as most first experience him, as one of several aspiring actors in Los Angeles called to a highly informal audition. Each of them has come prepared with a scene from a favorite film, and the range is wide, from The Outsiders to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

The hopefuls are shot full-on, Errol Morris-style; Gates of Heaven comes to mind, as does the attendant question, Are these people being exploited? On the one hand, it'd be difficult to deny that Ott hasn't edited the auditions for comic effect. On the other, he does give them an opportunity to realize their dreams—to a limited extent. Kevin Gilger AKA K-Nine the Dog Impersonator, for example, is given the opportunity to perform his persona, to go all out in scenes staged for an actual movie, California Dreams.

The collage of interviews, most of them in cars, scenes of Zacharia and his mother working (and frankly, failing) to fill out his application for an entry-level job at Taco Bell, quiet interludes taking in the beauty of southern California (impressive work by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis), phone calls from Henning Gronkowski instructing Zacharia to somehow come up with $900 for a flight to Berlin where Gronkowski has a few roles lined up for him, all meandering from one to the next and back so marvelously—this collage is interrupted for a deus ex machina ending that doesn't sit quite right. But Ott then throws in a coda hosted by a philosophizing taxi driver and all is well again. As Robert Greene and so many others have argued, "hybrid" films incorporating elements of both documentary and fiction are as old as the movies, and California Dreams is one of the loveliest entries in the genre.

More from Ryan Gilbey (Guardian, 3/5), Giovanni Marchini Camia (Filmmaker), Michael Pattison (RogerEbert.com), Viktor Sommerfeld (Jugend ohne Film), Sarah Ward (Screen) and Bradley Warren (Playlist, D). And the AFI interviews Ott. California Dreams screens once more in Berlin on Sunday before it heads to SXSW in March.