A Diverse Range of Films Enliven This Year's Online Berlinale

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Peter Krausz

The 11 narrative films from around the world, all world premieres, that were part of our jury, demonstrated the usual eclectic range of stories. Many of these films traverse a challenging, or cutting range approach to filmmaking and storytelling, demonstrating the creative approaches to film used by filmmakers. Despite the pandemic’s impact on cinema, it was pleasing to see such an interesting range of films, and the online platform worked very efficiently.

The winning film in this Panorama section was: Brother’s Keeper (Okul Tiraşi, 2021). Set at a Boarding School for Kurdish boys in the Anatolian mountains, we discover the authoritarian rule enforced by the administration, which is internalized by the boys themselves. When one boy is injured, attempts to get help by his friend are treated with disdain bordering on severe neglect. Ferit Karahan’s compelling insight into power, control, and subtle cultural enmity, creates a metaphorical divide in a country fraught with social differences. These boys are the hope of their refugee families, and the pressure placed on them by family, school, and the power hierarchy is unbearable, as portrayed by this fine film. The freezing winter setting, and the natural performances by the cast, make this powerful tale with an inconclusive ending, a major highlight of this section.

Tony Stone’s energetic portrayal of the infamous 1980s Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, in the film Ted K (2021), focuses on his manic anti-humanity approach to living his life, filled with contradictions including environmental concerns, psychological issues, and amoral attitudes. Stone’s relentless camera style combines with a non-judgmental approach to the narrative to portray a man whose criminal activities seem perfectly justified, based on his view of the world. This biopic, replete with throw-away violence, complements the personality of the subject at hand. The film may wear out its style by the conclusion, but it nevertheless presents a startling view of an outlier in the human condition.

Copilot (Die Welt wird eine andere sein, 2021), is a relationship drama with a twist. Two students meet and fall in love; Asli is a middle-class woman with academic aspirations, while Saeed is a Muslim with interests in being an airline pilot. Through their complex and challenging relationship, she gradually discovers that he frequently disappears and may be involved in something awful. The film’s allusions to the 9/11 event in the USA and the gradual fomenting of terrorism is well observed in Anne Zohra Berrached’s film. Although the depiction of the relationship occasionally borders on cliché, there is a certain degree of power in the narrative as Asli gradually discovers her husband’s horrendous ulterior motive for their marriage.

Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living (2021), follows the travails of 4 Lebanese men who are on a journey to visit a sex worker. What appears to be a typical rites-of-passage narrative has an added frisson which sets this film apart. Using varying voice-overs as inner revelations, we discover the later fates of each of these men and others they encounter, imbuing the film with a melancholy that transcends the apparent lascivious nature of the plot. The cultural insights and the mobile cinematography give this film an urgency that reveals so much about hopes and dreams stultified by a repressive society. George Peter Barbari’s film is a clever combination of ordinary lives and extraordinary circumstances.

The World After Us (Le monde après nous, 2021), continues the sub-theme of cultural exploration, as a recessive Tunisian man aspires to be a writer, and meets a young woman. Their relationship forms the basis of the film as he attempts to write about his life for a publisher who treats him disdainfully. The Algerian war forms a key influence on the writer’s experience, revealing a torpor in his life which is hard to overcome. Lauda Ben Salah-Cazanas’ film uses aspects of the nouvelle vague in telling his story, while expensive Paris itself becomes an important signpost to the couple’s relationship. The film’s resolution neatly combines all these factors in a glib, but rewarding, conclusion.

In cinema, there is always a fine line between revelation and exploitation, and I think the line was crossed in Theo and the Metamorphosis (Théo et les metamorphoses, 2021). Damien Odoul’s film, about a Down Syndrome man who lives a secluded life in the forest with his father, attempts to explore the thoughts and dreams of this man. However, the deliberately obtuse and occasionally unpleasant scenes veer towards a depiction that can be accused of negative representation of this affliction. Trying to startle the audience at times with some explicit scenes actually makes this film difficult viewing and demonstrates the need, by filmmakers, to be careful about dealing with an aspect of humanity which eludes many people.

Night Raiders (2021) is a Canadian/New Zealand co-production which represents an unusual approach to the usual science fiction dystopian tropes. In a world in conflict, where power and control are enforced, it is the indigenous population that provides hope for a better future. Children are trained to fight against invasion and become metaphors for political power with a Hunger Games approach to humanity. The premise of the film is quite intriguing and indeed for much of it, the narrative provides a distinctive frisson on a hackneyed theme. Danis Goulet’s film portrays First Nations and female empowerment in a positive way, yet I could not help feeling that it seemed perfunctory rather than well developed as a storyline, as if it was a way to make a futuristic film that has something that sets it apart. Certainly the film has an appropriately drab production design, and good performances from the cast including Amanda Plummer. A film worth seeing, despite its oddly compromised plot.

All Eyes Off Me (Mishehu Yohav Mishehu, 2021), is an Israeli film that mirrors my earlier comment about revelation versus exploitation. A young woman is in a relationship with a man that turns to violence when she requests to be slapped and treated in a nasty way. Despite her pregnancy, she wallows in fantasies of malevolent behavior. She then visits another man whose repressed nature seems a perfect parallel to her unusual views of sex and relationships. Hadas Ben Aroya’s film concerned me, especially the depiction of sexual violence and the approval the filmmaker seems to give the occasionally challenging, explicit scenes. A sub-genre in Israeli cinema has adopted a free-from-the-shackles approach to cultural and sexual representation, which some audiences may see as uncomfortably exploitative rather than revelatory. I watch this space with interest.

On the other hand, sexual liberation as metaphor for an insight into a fractured society that is coming to terms with new political and social behaviour, is demonstrated in the film Celts (Kelti, 2021). This Serbian film, set in the 1990s, uses a child’s birthday party as a symbolic event where a large group of family and friends gather; their respective attitudes and lives permeate the narrative. Milica Tomović’s astutely observed film sets in motion a wild ride for various disparate characters, including the birthday child’s mother, whose disaffection with her life is resolved by leaving the party and having a chance encounter. I was impressed by the complex creation of character and time period, informing the audience about a country trying to find its way after a fraught history.

Bliss (Glück, 2021) is a straightforward tale of two women who work as sex-workers at a Berlin brothel and strike up a friendship that culminates in a romantic relationship. The usual depiction of prostitution as a normal element of society takes the extra step of introducing lesbian attraction as counterpoint to standard heterosexual experiences. The depiction of the men as clients is largely dismissive and elevates the attraction for an alternative lifestyle. Henrika Kull’s film is emotionally powerful and presents a world where love can be found under extraordinary circumstances. The film reminded me of Bertrand Bonello’s 2011 film The House of Tolerance, where life in a bordello became a cathartic experience for the women involved.

Souad (2021) is an Egyptian film which continues the sub-theme of culture and identity found in many of the films in this section. A young woman, Souad, is about to marry but has a secret life of online encounters and experiences, which her younger sister finds difficult to understand. When Souad suddenly commits suicide, her sister seeks answers to this event, especially through the eyes of Souad’s Tunisian boyfriend. This is another view of dealing with a repressed society and the impact it has, particularly for women. Ayten Amin’s film is a carefully observed insight into a culture that is emerging, despite many issues, from a cloistered existence, and serves as a signpost for the treatment of women.

Peter Krausz
Edited by Robert Horton