Dieter Kosslick's Film Festival for Women

in 63rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Christoph Schmitz

Directors of film festivals first plug a few thematic gaps with a full program so that the audience can orientate itself easily. This is something that Dieter Kosslick, Head of the Berlin International Film Festival, particularly enjoys doing. His cinematic jungle is, after all, the biggest festival in terms of square footage. Later on, these cinematic jungle dwellers go out to seek and find their own paths. This year, Kosslick not only appears to have made a clearing as much as a genuine beaten track. Women, alongside Eastern European film, are supposed to be the theme of the 63rd edition of the Berlinale. And indeed, it was dominated by films about women until the end of the competition neared.

It began with a strong female Kung-Fu fighter, who is at least as good as her male counterparts, setting the tone in Wong Kar Wai’s opening film The Grandmaster. Then, in Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung), Ulrich Seidl guided us through the hopes and mostly sufferings of overweight girls at a weight loss camp. The following day, we accompanied German gold miner Emily Meyer through the Alaskan wilderness in 1898 in Thomas Arslan’s film Gold. After all the men on the trek have either given up or died off it is down to Emily to make it on her own. On Sunday, we were introduced to Gloria, the nearly 60-year-old heroine in Chilean Sebastián Lelio’s competition entry of the same name, as she majestically takes control of her work, family and sex life after getting divorced. With Gloria the competition which, at the beginning, had been shockingly mediocre from an artistic point of view, finally started to get into gear. The Sunday itself was a very feminine affair. After Gloria, Susanne fought for her freedom after being forced to take her vows in Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun. And straight after, the two lesbians and ex-jailbirds Vic and Flo went looking for peace in the countryside in Canadian Denis Coté’s film Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (Vic + Flo Ont Vu Un Ours).

However, it is far from being the case that these women are always just valiant heroines. They can be domineering, conniving, dishonest and cruel in the pursuit of their own interests. Take, for example, the elderly Cornelia in Child’s Pose from Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer. Cornelia, made up to the nines with Golden jewelry, mink and an air of superiority, attempts to save her son from jail using all manner of bribery and corrupt tricks of the post-socialist bourgeoisie. Or take the endearing yet murderous Emily in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, who is as bewitching as she is unscrupulous. Furthermore, Juliette Binoche showed in Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 the insanity and sufferings of an artist in the throes of mental illness. When the women in these films don’t suffer some form of psychological breakdown, as befell Camille Claude, you’d best be very afraid of them. And nobody shows more heart and soul in matters love than these women do — such as Bosnian Roma mother Senada. Senada cooks, cleans and looks after the children and does not stop fighting even when she has a miscarriage, but she cannot find a doctor to operate on her due to a lack of money. This is the story told by Danis Tanovic in An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, who details the struggle to save Senada.

Child’s Pose was, in the end, one of the few aesthetic highlights of the festival. It was the correct decision to honor Calin Peter Netzer’s film with a Golden Bear. The fact that Paulina Garcia was given the prize for best actress for her leading role in Gloria by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio can also be seen as a tribute to the numerous actresses in numerous films about smart women who struggle and suffer; from Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, to Juliette Binoche and Nina Hoss. Furthermore, Child’s Pose characterized further aspects of this year’s edition of the Berlinale. On the one hand, it was the directors, some of whom were very young indeed, who presented their films. It was the new blood and not the old guard who took center stage and brought something to the table at this festival. Netzer is in his late 30s, Emir Baigazin from Kazakhstan in his late 20s. Baigazin’s film Harmony Lessons received a Silver Bear for its excellent artistic qualities; it is a schoolboy’s tale of violence and learning to survive in the society and a lesson for human beings in general. On the other hand, the Golden Bear for Child’s Pose showed the qualitative and quantitative strength of the presence of Eastern European Cinema. Dieter Kosslick’s thematic prediction should be deemed correct.

Two Silver Bears were awarded to the Bosnian Film An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. Director Danis Tanovic received the Jury Grand Prix and amateur actor Roma Nazif Mujic, was awarded the prize for best actor. This culminated with the ubiquitous calculating, almost documentary-style realism with a concise, analytical acerbity and wonky hand-held camerawork. And, after all, as much as the women attracted us to the cinema at this Berlinale, there were very few female directors in the competition, just 3 from 19 films, in fact. To attract more of them, Kosslick still has considerable work do to clear the way for more of them. And that will be difficult, with men clearly dominating as film directors just as they do as festival directors.

Among the unerring jury votes, there were two slip-ups. These were the wishy-washy half-comedy Prince Avalanche from the US and the half-crime mystery Vic and Flo Saw a Bear from Canada. They weren’t as deserving of their Silver Bears for direction and opening new perspectives on cinematic art as Jafar Panahi and the eastern Europeans would have been. But the jury’s job, as it has been in many of the previous years (apart from 2012) was not an easy one. The competition program did not reach a level above satisfyingly average. Mediocre, run-of-the-mill cinema was the overriding characteristic of the 63rd Berlinale, with the jury filtering out the few good films. As a consequence, the Berlinale confirmed its position in third place, behind the film festivals of Cannes and Venice. It is questionable whether that will be sufficient for the future. An event for a local audience is a long way from being fit to stand up to global competition, something festival head Dieter Kosslick, perhaps, doesn’t even want to get involved in any longer.

Edited by Steven Yates