Latent identity: Who are we?

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Nicolás Medina

It can always be tempting to pigeonhole and label films into genres, subgenres and predefined categories. And if we go by the facts, it can be a really useful tool for certain purposes: to academics and critics, it offers a conceptual framework that facilitates analysis by comparison, allowing us to identify trends and patterns within the history of cinema; for audiences, it is something that has become almost necessary in terms of navigation and orientation in the vast catalogues offered by film supply. In an era of mass exploitation of pre-existing intellectual properties and pre-sold franchises, audiences are more or less consciously trained to resort to familiar territories.

But the truth is that this classification tends to become restrictive and limiting. It leads to a restrictive and limiting attitude. To enclose a work, a film, means to limit its potential and suffocate its capacity to expose and explore diverse narratives and aesthetic styles. Without realizing it, this leads us to reduce its wealth and complexity to a series of superficial attributes. We ignore its true depth and originality. This simplistic approach can result in a narrow and limited view of cinema, where works are evaluated purely on the basis of how well they fit into the established conventions of a given genre.

And in that sense, at the 74th Berlin International Film Festival, the Forum section was probably one of the sections that fought the hardest against this almost imperceptible but lethal threat.

This year’s Forum section – especially the debut works of directors – constantly challenged both press and audience to reconsider our perceptions of cinema, of substance, of form. These films do not fit easily into conventional labels, resisting from their conception to be typecast. And in doing so, they invite us to question our own perceptions of cinema and to open our minds to new creative and expressive possibilities.

However, the curation of a film selection, or, in this case, of one of the parallel sections of a festival, does not consist of simply bringing together an amalgam of disparate works. The value of this meticulous work lies in generating, as imperceptibly as possible, a sort of invisible thread that connects and gives coherence to why these films are, precisely, framed in the same section. If done correctly, this – far from limiting the potential of the films in any sense – will greatly improve our overall experience, as we cease to see them as isolated entities, but as parts of a larger and more complex ensemble.

As we go from cinema to cinema, from seat to seat, this intertextual network allows us to delve deeper into the themes, motivations and filmic devices that make up each of these works.

And, in the case of this year’s Forum section, this invisible thread is revealed in a delicate yet insistent and penetrating way: identity. An abstract and elusive subject that manifests itself in different ways in most of the films, and that, without a doubt, is one of those few cases, where trying to decode and define these underlying connections becomes really challenging and attractive.

As we move on to some of Forum’s outstanding films that bring this topic to the table and reflect the complexity and diversity of identity, it is inevitable to first mention Shahid, directed by Iranian filmmaker Narges Kalhor. Of all the films to be mentioned, it is perhaps this one where the idea of identity emerges most clearly. Kalhor sets out (and succeeds) to tell a story that comes almost as an auto-biography, her middle name, “Shahid”, literally translates as “martyr”. This is how the director, today called only Narges Kalhor, generates a hybrid story between documentary and fiction, which includes musical passages and theatrical performances. During the process of transformation of this chimera, the filmmaker directs an actress who plays herself, but at the same time creates her own identity. From repeated sequences that portray the absurdity of legal bureaucracy over one’s own identity, to tense sequences where the line between director/character and actress/director is blurred. Shahid reflects on the concept of identity: is it something imposed? Is it something that is constructed? How much can someone expose their identity without blurring the identity of the other?

Another example that deals quite explicitly with the issue of identity through the gaze of the Other is Reas by director Lola Arias. Following Shahid’s line – in terms of a playful proposal that escapes from being labelled as one thing or another –, the Argentine director generates another hybrid between documentary, fiction, and musical. The film is a sort of collage about different real experiences that women and transgender people lived while deprived of their freedom. In this case, Arias experiments with generating, from the experiences of her actresses and actors (all of whom play versions of themselves), an irreverent dramatization of the prison life of these actresses-turned-characters in a film that moves completely away from the marginal porn-misery that has spread like a disease in recent Latin American cinema and raises another question: Who really are these marginalized beings that we see so much, but know so little about?

Geographically close to Arias, two other Latin American films left their identitary mark at the Forum. On the one hand, Skin in Spring (La piel en Primavera), the debut of Colombian Yennifer Uribe Alzate; and Oasis, from Chile and directed by Felipe Morgado and Tamara Uribe in collaboration with MAFI Collective. Uribe’s film attempts to explore the identity of a woman in a mid-life crisis; a woman who, despite dedicating her days to working as a security guard in a shopping mall, seeks to rediscover herself and, to a certain extent, free herself from certain ties that deprive her of enjoying life. Half-heartedly, the film fails to show a real transformation in its protagonist, Sandra, who by the end shows some traces of being an empowered woman but who, mainly due to the construction of the character in the script, fails to define her identity completely – something that, through its mise-en-scene, the film tries to underline without success. In the case of Oasis, the story speaks of a much more global identity: not of an individual but of a nation, which begins in 2019 and ends in 2022, gathering original and stock footage about an attempt of the Chilean people to make a new constitution. If there is something to recognize in this choral portrait about the impossibility of identifying a single Chile in the whole country, it is its good editing work and the use of certain oxymorons in the articulation of different pieces of material that make it sadly funny. Who is Chile, or rather, is there really only one Chile? Unfortunately, despite its short length, the film ends up looking more like a montage exercise, or simply a cleverly edited newsreel report.

A very interesting offer at the Forum, and one that would possibly have been much more effective a couple of years ago, in the ‘screenlife’ boom during the pandemic, was Faraz Fesharaki’s What Did You Dream Last Night, Parajanov? Fesharaki recorded for ten years the exchanges with his family via webcam: with his parents in Iran; and his cousin in Austria, while he was studying film in Germany. There is something extremely intimate in the use of the cinematic device for the story that Fesharaki seeks to tell. The intermittent, pixelated image and the messy sound generate an effect of pure realism which, accompanied by a certain impunity granted by the distance and the screen, enables the director to reveal the psyche of his family but, above all, of himself, who today cannot hide a question we all ask ourselves: Are we the same person we think we are from the someone else’s point of view?

Outside of the Forum section, there were also outstanding films where one could more or less explicitly detect certain approaches to identity: Alonso Ruizpalacios’ La Cocina takes the already recurring kitchen nightmare scenario to a much more chaotic extreme that explores the lives of a group of immigrant kitchen workers in a Times Square restaurant as they struggle with maintaining their identity but yearn for the American dream. Victor Kossakovsky’s Architecton (in competition) mesmerizes us with and sentimentally mobilizes us with, literally, immersive sequences of rocks and stones being quarried, buildings being destroyed, an old architect seeking to immortalize, through a work of art, what the circle of life means to him. In the meantime, the director asks himself: Why do we do this? Why were our constructions beautiful and lasting millions of years before, and today we are building concrete blocks that last only a few decades? While all these films were completely ignored by the official juries, Pepe by Dominican Nelson Carlo de Los Santos, took the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale, with his film that entangles fantasy, comedy and melancholy. It is a story that transcends the anecdotal in order to delve into the depths of human experience, questioning our preconceived notions about life, death and sense of belonging.

Meanwhile, Mati Diop took the top prize at the award ceremony for Dahomey, which screened in competition. A documentary about the repatriation of 26 treasures originating from the Kingdom of Dahomey, from Paris to the current Republic of Benin. A rather weak proposal both in form and content, where its greatest merit is probably the incorporation of brief passages of fiction giving voice to one of these treasures. The rest consists of exposing, for 67 minutes, in a pretty indicative way the problem that the context of repatriation of these treasures means symbolically for Benin and its identity as a nation.

And last but not least: especially for the Forum, the FIPRESCI sub-jury unanimously decided to give the award to the Spanish film The Human Hibernation, directed by Anna Cornudella. The film not only works as a reference of the profile of films exhibited at Forum, with a risky aesthetic and narrative proposal, but also for fully trusting the viewer, and not only that: it does not seek under any circumstances to be an indicative tool, or to expose the fascinating universe it creates. The film reflects on life, on our place in the world, our relationship with nature, and even on language itself. And if each of the aforementioned films could be a trigger for an existential question about our identity, The Human Hibernation sows the most important of all: Who are we?


Nicolás Medina
Edited by Birgit Beumers