Female Directors Make A Strong Impact at This Year's Berlinale

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Bettina Hirsch

The 65th Berlinale opened with a female-focused adventure story, directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. In Nadie Quiere la Noche (Nobody Wants the Night) Josephine Peary (Juliette Binoche), courageous wife of famous American arctic explorer Robert Peary, follows her husband on his path to the North Pole. The grand backdrop of dangerous polar exploration at the turn of the 20th century frames what is at heart a rather intimate story of discovery, love and survival between two very different women. In languid style, Coixet draws out the slow-burning friendship between these protagonists, bonded by their love for the same man–who, by the way, is never seen in the film but nevertheless plays a central role.

In the whole Competition section only three films out of 23 were directed by women. Italian Laura Bispuri’s Vergine Giurata (Sworn Virgin), tells the story of a girl growing up in an archaic, mountainous environment in Albania, where old codes and traditional gender roles prevail. Poland’s Malgorzata Szumowska who (jointly) won the Silver Bear for best director with her film Body, which is mainly about the loneliness of the heart and the conflict between reason and the belief in a supernatural universe.

In the Berlinale Special section, veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta presented Die Abhandene Welt (The Misplaced World). British director Sam Taylor-Johnson presented Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the best-selling novel about sadomasochistic desires. American director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-winning Selma also shown in the same section. But compared with other sections of the festival, women were rather under-represented in the Golden Bear competition itself.

Noticeable was the large share of female directors in the Panorama (14 out of 52) – several of them emerging among the better-received films in that section. Que Horas Ela Volta (The Second Mother) by Brazilian director Anna Muylaert won the Audience Award for best feature film, and is a subtle portrait of society as well as a study of burgeoning emancipation.

So what do all these films by female directors have in common? One answer might be that they do not fully appeal to the “market”, because of their supposedly female-oriented topics. My personal favourite cinematic experience in the Panorama Section was the film by Swiss director Stina Werenfels entitled Dora oder Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern (Dora or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents). It is a rather strange story about an 18-year-old who is mentally disabled and discovers sex – her libido shocks her parents, who feel that Dora is allowing herself to be abused.

It is surprisingly difficult for the audience to take sides here: do parents have the right to decide for their children on sexual matters? To what extent can society make decisions for others? The film is not just about the mentally disabled. It is rather a discussion about who is deciding what for the so-called “benefit” of others and about reconsidering a topic like self-determination. Stina Werenfels’ adaptation of Lukas Baerfuss’ stage-play is a fearless and moving drama about letting go.

At the Q+A after a screening of her film Hedi Schneider steckt fest (Hedi Schneider is stuck), presented in the Forum section, director Sonja Heiss said “the market for what are often considered female topics is quite small and still a niche.” She added that, that according to her experiences as a director, an “alpha-male style” is needed to succeed in the film business.

In Germany a group of female directors recently founded the ProQuote initiative, focussing on the perception that the film industry is mostly male-dominated. During this year’s Berlinale they organized panel dicussions and happenings in a pavillon in front of the Hotel Ritz Carlton at Potsdamer Platz. Their motivation is to point out the imbalance in the numbers of successful female and male directors. Film-festivals, especially the Berlinale, are an important platform to showcase cinematic diversity, beyond the narrow confines of box-office considerations.

Edited by Neil Young