Female Directors Show Women in Despair

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Beat Glur

“The issues that I am familiar with and I feel an urge to talk about primarily concern women”, says Turkish director Emine Emel Balci. While the lack of films by female directors is an ongoing issue in the competition program of the Berlinale – this year’s festival began with an artistic disappointment via Isabel Coixet’s opening film “Nobody Wants the Night” (Nadie quiere la noche) – the Forum section again programmed an interesting and wide range of works by (young) female filmmakers. Three of the new fiction-feature productions by women directors proved to be outstanding, all of them with strong female lead performances.

30-year-old Balci’s drama “Until I Lose My Breath” (Nefesim kesilene kadar), her debut feature, is set in her home town of Istanbul. Her main character Serap is a post-adolescent working long hours in a clothes-cleaning facility. She saves money to be able to afford an apartment together with her father, a long distance truck-driver who turns out to have a hidden agenda. She does not allow herself anything, and even sleeps at her work-premises since after circumstances mean she can no longer stay with her sister and abusive brother-in-law.

Serap (Esme Madra appearing in her first lead role) who hardly speaks to anyone and even ignores the handsome driver who takes interest in her, is constantly on the run – virtually until she loses her breath. She also is in almost every shot in this dark, sad story – where hope seems far away – permanently and closely followed by a hand-held camera: A breath-taking performance indeed.

Hedi Schneider, played by upcoming German actress Laura Tonke, also loses her breath. The happily married mother of a lovely daughter suddenly suffers a panic-attack while having sex with her husband in one of the first scenes of the film. Since neither doctors, therapists mor prescribed medicine seem to be able to help, she tries to accept the fact that she can no longer continue as before and decides to lead another life.

“Hedi Schneider Is Stuck” (Hedi Schneider steckt fest) – stuck not only in an elevator and thus late for work (in an early scehe) but also stuck in life. In the final section of the film the small family group is on vacation by a lake playing children’s games, pretending that everything is all right. 38-year-old director Sonja Heiss focuses, in her second feature, on her female lead and the understandingly perplexed reactions of the people around her. While “Until I Lose My Breath” is a thoroughly sad story in which happiness seems unreachable, “Hedi Schneider Is Stuck” includes elements of humour which making us understand that life, even with mental illness, may be that sad after all.

Another stunning performance is that of Dutch performing artist Wende Snijders in her first film role – as Nina in director Sacha Polak’s feature “Zurich”. The film follows, again with close-up hand-held camera, the obviously traumatised Nina who wanders along motorways and service stations in the truckers’ areas, her sole companion a dog. We learn at the end of the film why Nina is on the run: in the saddest moment of this stylishly shot film she abandons her own daughter after she realises that she is unable to cope with such responsibilities.

“We are probably more used to the idea of a man abandoning his children than a woman. I want to portray a woman who deeply loves her daughter but … simply wants to disappear because she’s been swept from her feet and can’t look after her any longer”, explains 32-year-old Polak. “Zurich” is split up into the two chapters – HUND and BORIS, starting with the second and ending with the first. “Hund”, German for dog, and Boris, her lover, both die in the film. Nina can no longer cope with grief, anger and probably also guilt, and simply runs away from these altogether too heavy emotions and her now highly uncertain future.

Three women in despair, thrown off balance, on the move and struggling with life, played by three extraordinary actresses in their first lead roles. Three female directors with outstanding new films, and three world premieres that hopefully will soon see many more silver screens in many more countries.

Edited by Neil Young