A Journey into the Forum

in 73rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Susanne Gietl

Part One: From urinating Horses, flipping stones and harrowing realities

As a journalist I always like to expand my horizon. This year, I experienced the main section of the Berlinale’s Forum section by focusing only on debut features and second films. It was a wild journey of styles and genres, sometimes with promising ideas and filmmakers, sometimes pretty strange and disturbing. One film challenged me a lot. In the experimental work Horse Opera (2022), a narrator talks about a group of club kids in New York preparing for a party, taking drugs and dancing while the images on screen show pictures of nature and animals. What sounds like a poetic experience was pretty weird. The voice of the narrator, the film’s director Moyra Davey, sounded bored and monotonous. At the same time rumps of horses were seen, urinating. It was pretty disturbing. Fortunately, Davey decided to follow up those images with a Beatles song, and I swayed to the beat while more nature appeared in front of my eyes, for example, a fox. And I asked myself: Isn’t this a film that would fit more in the Forum Expanded stand? For those who stayed, the images and text merged into each other, and Horse Opera was interpreted as a pandemic, somnambulant work, but I could not relate to that.

What a relief, then, to watch Tatsunari Otas very light-hearted There is a Stone (Ishii ga aru, 2022). The film starts with a woman strolling through the wide landscape of a Japanese suburban town. She is looking for new places to discover. Then, she meets kids playing soccer, joins them, afterwards she stares on a river. There, she meets a man flipping stones, they flip stones together, play with stones and water and enjoy the simple things of life together. They forget time and work. It’s a story about the feeling of being one with mind and body, a man and a woman, and how society changes us. Unfortunately, we have forgotten how to do nothing or be unproductive, even at the cinema we always seek for meaning.

One big discovery for me was Myriam U. Biraras’s debut with the innocent title The Bride (2023). The film was shot in only eight days. It starts with a woman in Rwanda being raped by a man, who can’t pay the bridal price for her. Some of Birara’s aunts experienced this ‘Guterura’-ritual, and the director wants to remind us of this almost forgotten brutal reality. In The Bride, the woman’s dream of pursuing a medical education is shattered. She has to marry him. From now on they live together in a household. And Birara makes a pretty clever decision: She decides to focus on the woman’s face while he penetrates her, we can only sort of see the man, blurry, as he is out of focus. With great openness Birara shows how her aunts treat the young woman. They stretch her labia forcibly to make the sex more enjoyable, it hurts. The shade of the genocide marks a narrative thread: Her husband’s family was murdered, only the cousin who lives with them, has survived. They bond, but the bride still seeks to shape her own future. The film is shot in a very naturalistic, almost documentary style, but the way the story is told and played is very touching.  

Finally, a change of the setting: Jordan. ‘I am not the remains, I resist’, says one of three women in Helin Çeliks Anqa (2023). They share a traumatic past: Rape, assault, detention. Their apartments feel like prison cells, you see grids on windows, unexposed rooms and the camera comes relentlessly close while they speak about disturbing thoughts. In the same vein, Selma Doborac’s De Facto (2023) doesn’t show violence. In a very minimalistic setting, two actors in isolation from one another recite statements of perpetrators of indescribable cruelties and witness testimonies as well as asking philosophical and moral questions.

Part two: Playful science, weird science fiction and the sadness of little things

After recovering from the aforementioned disturbing film shots of pissing horses and shocking realities, I decided it was time to dive deeper into my Forum films experience, but maybe with something less moving. Very philosophical was Yoo Heong-juns black and white debut Regardless of Us (Uriwa Sanggwaneopsi, 2023). A woman recovers from a stroke in a hospital, little snippets of information sneak in with every visitor. Then, in the second part, we follow the same woman, but now all relationships have changed. A whole new plot leaves space for interpretation and speculation. However, the lack of knowledge is ultimately tiring.

Instead, I was pretty happy to discover two comedy films, both from Argentina: The first one was Martín Shanlys About Thirty (Arturo a los 30, 2023), about a thirty-year-old man in Buenos Aires and his misfortune: For example, he causes a car accident while sharing his joint with some guests from the wedding party, but the only one who is getting hurt is he himself. Whenever he takes action, he causes drama what makes his squirming existence pretty pitiable.

Melisa Liebenthal’s The Face of the Jellyfish (El rostro de la medusa, 2022) also uses tragicomic elements, but the story is told in a more philosophical way. A woman wakes up on a random day with a different face, some might say it’s more beautiful than before. She struggles with her new identity; her fingerprint is no longer recognized. She goes to the zoo to study faces. Inspired by a drawing she made when she was about two years old, Liebenthal’s film becomes more experimental. Simple geometric 2D-patterns cover a face, a beak, a nose and compare them with each other. In other scenes, Liebenthal combines different photo clippings of facial details, draws outlines of animals. They resemble each other. Are they the same? What defines a face? Does the face define the identity? The woman in the film invents a new name for herself as a different person. And then, her mother’s black cat runs away. When she finds the cat, she finds out a lot about herself. But it turns out that the animal she saw is not the right one. It’s very entertaining to discuss questions of identity in such playful way.

Now, could there be a spooky film in the Forum section? Sebastian Mihăilescu’s first feature film Mammalia (2023) is a completely surrealistic drama with elements of horror about a man whose girlfriend is part of a secret community of women dedicated to eerie fertility rituals. Disturbing images of never-ending floods of milk on a man’s head, a cross graced by male genitals and strange wigged women tell a feminist story in a very experimental way.

Looking for something more down-to-earth, I came across the drama Concrete Valley (2022) by Antoine Bourges. The director strings together everyday scenes about a Syrian family living in Toronto, but the unexcitement of the scenes feels random. Much more divers, but also full of longings, Luis Alejandro Yeros documentary debut Calls from Moscow (Llamadas desde Mosú, 2023) looks into an apartment of four young Cubans in Russia. They use their phones to stay in touch with their loved ones, organize their life, earn money and even use it for their leisure activity: lip-synched pop renditions. You never see them together; loneliness spreads and the images repeat themselves.

The Intrusion (O estranho, 2023) from Flora Dias and Juruna Mallon seeks for traces of indigenous identity at an airport which is built on former indigenous territory. A woman, who now works there used to play on the premises when she was a child. In the end, we see urging documentary scenes from indigenous tribes. The film feels unfinished, thoughts and ideas clash together and leave the viewer alone in their interpretation. On the contrary, Vlad Petri’s Between Revolutions (Între revolutiii, 2023) is a poetic documentary. Petri uses a lot of footage material about the correspondence of two women in Iran and Rumania. In letters they share their feelings and thoughts in between two revolutions in the 70ies and 80ies. The film was the well-deserved winner of the section’s FIPRESCI prize.

When you dig for gold you meet other gold diggers, but rarely a documentary about them. Boubacar Sangarés documentary A Golden Life (Or de vie, 2023) was filmed in a gold mine in southern Burkina Faso. Sangaré himself was a gold-digger child. In A Golden Life, a 16-year-old boy and his peers work in gold mines 100 meters underground using simple pickaxes while standing in the water for hours. Day after day they risk their lives as the lack of oxygen, the instability of the mines and the depth of the pits make their work unpredictably dangerous. On the surface, the relentless sun and dust burn into their clothes. The kids work to get money for food, and their dreams of new clothing or a motorbike keep them alive. A Golden Life simply shows the ugly face of capitalism without asking for attention.

Susanne Gietl
Edited by Pamela Jahn