The Quiet Revolution of Berlinale 2021

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Jelle Brans

Talking ’bout a revolution. As the first major European film festival, Berlinale 2021 went fully digital and online. One thing remained constant, thankfully. The quality of the selection was higher than ever. Small films, but grand in scope.

In this strangest of years, film festivals have been annulled left and right. Yet the Berlinale can boast not one but two editions in 2021. The second one—with an audience—will hopefully take place this summer. The first one happened the first week of March, just a year after COVID-19 hit. This once-in-a-lifetime online edition was more compact than usual—lasting only five days instead of the usual ten—with a broad, diverse slate of films, several juries, and most of all: prizes. This is crucial, as an award creates press and therefore visibility in these challenging times for (cinema) films. As for myself, I tried to recreate the experience of a theater as much as possible, by seeing most films at a friend’s house on a large screen with top quality sound design. A wise decision, given some of the absolute gems on show.

Language Lessons (2020) by Natalie Morales—a film solely made up of Zoom calls—was not the first film to filter our new reality through art, but it was definitely a fine example of this new genre. It explored themes like guilt and class difference, but never in a didactic way. Is true, deep human contact possible from a distance? Through its limitations, Morales has made a movie that is deeply rewarding, with comedy and tragedy on equal footing. It’s small, yet grand at the same time.

Same goes for Best Screenplay-winning Introduction (Inteurodeoksyeon, 2020) by Hong Sangsoo, a sumptuous black and white triptych from South Korea. This film shows seemingly banal scenes. Boy visits his father, a doctor. There he meets a famous actor. Boy travels to Germany to meet his girlfriend. Then we see the boy have lunch with the actor and with his mother. Some time has passed. These are the only building stones of Introduction. Yet the film is coherent to a fault, with a dramatic arc to rival the grandest family epic.

Another film that was intimate and sweeping all at once: Brother’s Keeper (Okul Tıraşı, 2021), a winner in the Panorama section. This Turkish-Romanian drama by Ferit Karahan takes place at a school for young boys, where everyone—including the headmaster, the teachers and the janitors—are being bullied and are bullying others. In this microcosm marked by poverty and fear, Karahan astutely registers the pervasive effects of cruelty and lack of empathy towards those less fortunate. The emotional coldness between the students and their teachers is symbolic for a society in which leaders of all sorts have proven, time and again, that the only way to assert power is to be loud and violent. Political undertones are presented in a subtle way. The quiet drama of a boy trying to protect his shy friend remains the heartbreaking center of this film.

Finally there was Petite Maman (2021), the newest Céline Sciamma (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), which was filmed entirely during the pandemic. How to make such a film safely—and therefore on a small scale—without making it look and feel hastily made? By going deep instead of wide. The French director uses only five actors and one location, but burrows deeply into the relationships between parents and children. The story is told through the eyes of eight-year-old Nelly. When her grandma dies, she accompanies her parents during cleanup of the house. It is here Nelly begins realizing that her own mother was also a daughter, and at one point even a child. Maybe they have more in common than they both think? Sciamma finds a literal yet poetic way to visualize this idea: one day around the house, Nelly meets a girl who is also eight years old, looks a lot like her. And she has the same name as … her mother. Céline Sciamma goes sci-fi? It sounds like a strange choice for the director of intimate coming-of-age dramas like Tomboy (2011) and Bande de filles (2014). But Petite Maman is more like these films than one would think. It’s fantasy, but in the most grounded way possible. Which struck a vital chord with me in this, of all years.

Jelle Brans
Edited by Robert Horton