Between Fiction and Documentary, Encounters Seeks Its Way

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Nicola Falcinella

One year ago Berlinale launched Encounters, a second competitive section alongside the international Competition, including big names such as Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog (2020). For this strange 2021 edition in pandemic times, director Carlo Chatrian chose fewer titles, 12, and less renowned filmmakers, composing a daring selection mostly of first and second features swaying between fiction and documentary—an interesting and perhaps uneven group of works for an experimental section that hasn’t yet got a defined aspect, or can’t have one. The Encounters jury assigned the Best Film prize to the French doc Nous (We, 2020) by Alice Diop, a journey in the suburbs to discover stories of immigration.

The Vietnamese Taste (Vi, 2021), by Le Bao, looks like a documentary, but it’s fiction; it won the Special Jury Prize. Bassley is a Nigerian footballer living and playing in Vietnam. Since breaking his leg, he’s lost his job and can’t make a living. So he moves with four middle-aged women into an old house where they share everything. They barely speak, but spend a lot of time chopping or cooking fish and chicken, while a pig moves around. The five chracters live in an intimate and dark world, partly a cage and partly a kind of utopia. Director Le Bao challenges the audience to understand this with very few words, but the very beautiful fixed images that look like paintings can say a lot.

A pure fictional work is Azor (2021), by Andreas Fontana, a Swiss-Argentinan co-production previously included in the Locarno 2020 list. In the beginning of the ’80s, during the dictatorship, Yvan De Wiel, a private banker from Geneva, flies to Buenos Aires in order to replace his partner Keys, who has suddenly disappeared leaving too many open questions. It should be a short holiday with his wife, but the protagonist meets clients and goes around with businessmen, military, and clergy, a society strictly connected to power. Impassive and ambiguous, De Wiel doesn’t reveal himself, he observes and listens, but becomes more and more involved in unspeakable affairs. An unconventional thriller, with actor Fabrizio Rongione very good at staying on the edge of different worlds. The title word “azor” is a bird of prey, but in coded language it means “be careful what you say”, which the cautious banker tries to do, while the movie invites us to discover what’s hidden and unsaid.

Quite well-known to Berlinale attendants, and already included a few times in the main Competition, Canadian Denis Côté was awarded as Best Director in Encounters, ex-aequo with Swiss Ramon and Silvan Zürcher for The Girl and the Spider (Das Mädchen und die Spinne, 2021). His Social Hygiene (Hygiène sociale, 2021) shows the failures of a middle-aged man confronted with different women, such as his sister, his wife, his lover, a tax officer, and a young student. The style, in seven fixed sequences—with a theatrical structure, a precise mise-en-scène, and very anti-naturalistic acting—might recall Straub-Huillet works, but Côté’s movie is an ironic portrait of a man unable to choose and take responsibilities. Less interesting were the two American fiction features, The Beta Test (2021) by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe and The Scary of the Sixty-First (2020) by Dasha Nekrasova.

Nicola Falcinella
Edited by Robert Horton