Originality in Dystopian Films

in 73rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Marcelo Janot

Known for being one of the most political of the world’s major film festivals, the 2023 Berlinale lived up to its reputation by featuring a live video appearance from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during its opening ceremony. Zelensky was also the subject of a documentary co-directed by Sean Penn. In terms of the films themselves, many of the titles in the main competition focused on personal stories, intimate and familial dramas. Politics, when not absent, appeared between the lines, as a backdrop, or metaphorically.

It’s worth noting that this is the first “normal” Berlin Festival after the COVID pandemic. If many of these films were created during a period of seclusion, isolation, and uncertainty, it makes sense to imagine that their directors’ focus is inward, on our individual existence, and how we can deal with the past to think about the future.

An excellent example is the thought-provoking Australian production The Survival of Kindness (2022), written and directed by Rolf de Heer – the winner of the FIPRESCI award in the main competition. Although he was born in the Netherlands and only migrated to Australia with his family at the age of eight, de Heer is best known for films such as The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (20139, in which he gives voice to Australian aboriginals, the issues surrounding their relationship with the land that originally belonged to them, and the conflicts arising from colonization.

Shot during the pandemic, The Survival of Kindness is the most radical and abstract of the director’s films. He says he was inspired not only by the apocalyptic scenario suggested by COVID but also by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and its reflections around the world.

In other words, his dystopia is strongly anchored in contemporary reality, and social criticism comes packaged in an original and poetic approach that gives it strength and freshness in relation to the many films and TV series that have dealt with similar themes in recent years.

The first images show a group of white people wearing gas masks fraternizing around a cake decorated with the scene of blacks being killed by white supremacists. It’s unsettling, especially because outside the house, in the midst of the desert landscape of the Australian Outback, a black woman is trapped in a cage and left out in the open without water or food. The starry sky rotating over her at high speed accentuates the notion of the passage of time, and hyper-realistic details, such as ants in super-close-up fighting each other, convey the sensation of a distorted reality that at the same time seems so close and uncomfortable.

After Black Woman (the character has no name, that’s how she is presented in the credits) manages to escape, she sets off on a journey without a defined direction. How does one survive in a world devastated supposedly by a virus (which seems to affect only white people) and dominated by supremacists? Somewhere between the aridity of the desert and the mountainous region of Tasmania, Black Woman encounters situations that will highlight the various elements that make up the metaphorical diagnosis promoted by Rolf de Heer in the film.

It’s a world where dialogue has become superfluous. Throughout the entire film, the characters communicate through incomprehensible murmurs, highlighting a barrier that is difficult to overcome. At one point, Black Woman stops at an abandoned museum where she comes across an exhibition of life-sized dolls dressed in military clothing. The “confrontation” with one of these dolls and Black Woman’s appropriation of its clothing and rifle shows the desire for a kind of reckoning suggested by the film.

She is not alone in this world controlled by racists/exploiters who enslave indigenous peoples, forcing them into labor. Black Woman realizes that there are those who can escape by disguising themselves with gas masks and, in an unsubtle analogy, painting their faces white. This is the case for Brown Boy and Brown Girl. Even without speaking the same language, they communicate through the desire to join forces to confront the system.

Unlike any of the other titles selected for the Berlinale competition, The Survival of Kindness is one of those films that tends to grow upon the audience after repeated viewing, where the richness of Maxx Corkindale’s photography, Adam Galea’s elaborate sound design, and the nuances of the brilliant performance by newcomer Mwajemi Hussein can be acknowledged in greater detail. But watching the same film twice during a festival is a luxury that few critics can afford. Therefore, the great impact that Rolf de Heer’s film caused at first glance amongst us FIPRESCI jurors, only adds value to a work that probably still has more layers to be discovered underneath.

Marcelo Janot
Edited by Pamela Jahn