Growing Pains and Angst

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

Since 1978, the Berlinale Generation section has devoted itself to children and young people with no conventional limits in its selection and programming. In two separate competitions: Generation Kplus and Generation 14plus, young people are integrated into the festival’s film-aesthetic discourse with the most outstanding films being awarded the Crystal Bears and the Prizes of the International Juries.

In regards to its themes and aesthetics, Generation has always focused on films that deal with the growing pains of children and young people. Also, in its cross-section, Generation encompasses relevant films from other Berlinale sections which are suitable for audiences under 18 years old. The three films under the microscope here are linked by how the director foregrounds a lead character that is slightly awkward in appearance, unassuming and quiet, yet inside deeply determined and single-minded, not least with an emotional maturity and altruism far beyond their years. Their innocence doesn’t get lost, it merely adapts to new environments or situations.

The Australian entry Paper Planes is a film that focuses on the challenges and pressures of two very different boys who want to be the best in a very particular sport. Young Dylan is more obsessed in making and controlling a paper plane than the magic of conventional flight and is determined to take part in the Australian junior championship for distance flight. But he has to scale the greater heights before he is ready. In order to acquire the necessary skills Dylan needs to develop his powers of observation and his scientific curiosity as well as an unshakable belief in his own abilities. His inexorable enthusiasm and determination even re-energizes his loving but depressed father, who has so far not come to terms with the tragic death of Dylan’s mother.

By entering the Australian paper plane contest it means that there is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Dylan to progress to the world championships in Tokyo. Dylan has never been overseas, but his father will need to raise the funds for him to go, involving much altruism, will power and sacrifice. Meanwhile, Dylan’s nemesis is another insecure boy with an absent mother but sympathetic and, in this case, more stable and patient father (played by David Wenham). The boy even psychotically tries to stop Dylan from competing in the final round. However, help and affection comes to Dylan in the form of a Japanese girl he meets called Kimi.

At the 2013 Berlinale a short film director from Sweden called Sanna Lenken screened a remarkable short called Eating Lunch in which she explored the subject of young people with eating disorders. For My Skinny Sister (Min lilla syster), her first feature-length drama, the heroine is Stella an overweight, quiet and seemingly stubborn young teenager who is secretly in love with the figure skating teacher, a man almost four times her age. However, it is her older sister Katja’s increasing problem that becomes much more of a concern. Though Katja is a talented figure skater and dedicated to her training, at home she is doted on at the expense of Stella, even though Stella looks up to her older sister. She tries to emulate her and, instead of mutual conflict or jealousy, the two sisters get along well, despite Katja occasionally being distant and mean. Stella’s sensitivity also means she starts to notice something very wrong and discovers her sister is suffering from a severe eating disorder that could kill her. Katja temporarily persuades Stella to keep it from their parents but eventually the parents find out. Subsequently Katja’s illness will slowly drive the family to a very real and helpless despair.

This powerful film is comparable with the work of another Swedish director, Lukas Moodysson. It certainly has a bleakness, even scariness, at times which is comparable to the mood of Moodysson’s oeuvre to date (with the possible exception of his black comedy Together (2000) and suggests there is a certain anxiety and unease to be found beneath the veneer of Swedish society, one which appears to be civilized, content and progressive to much of the outside world. The acting by the family, particularly the two young girls, is first class and makes My Skinny Sister a most memorable and worthwhile festival entry from this or any other year.

The mood and location changes once again to a secluded part of the Netherlands for Confetti Harvest (Dorsvloer Vol Confetti), a film more focused on the generation gap between children and adults in a very religious rural family. Though she lives in a glorious countryside farmhouse, surrounded by meadows full of colorful flowers, young red-haired Katelijne, one of seven children of a strict Protestant family, wants to escape to where the grass may be greener, namely the big city. Katelijne’s brother Christiaan, her favorite sibling, plans to go to Canada and she hopes to go with him. However, Christiaan is forced into marriage because, by community rules, he got too close to his girl. Therefore, there is no escape for Katelijne. Her mother is inflexible, strict and dour and while her father is friendlier, he can also be traditionally stern. When Katelijne’s loving grandfather dies in an accident it devastates the young girl.

Director Tallulah Hazekamp Schwab’s engaging and hypnotic portrait of the family and community describes how Katalijne gradually breaks away from her environment and celebrates her independence at her brother’s wedding. There is an original pacing to this film which makes it breezy and hypnotic, despite what others may consider a slow-paced melodrama about family life. Confetti Harvest is saved from any possible mundanity by plausible characters and a rural setting which looks at unusual aspects of Dutch living. The cinematography is no less than beautiful, bringing out all the rich colors of nature splendidly. For what is her first feature film, it underlines a unique talent in this director.

These three thresh and excellent examples underline how films need not be either thrill-providing for passive consumption, nor obscure, to be fully enjoyed.

In the prizes of the Generation Juries, The Grand Prix of the Generation KPlus International Jury for the best feature-length film went to Rainbow (Dhanak) by Nagesh Kukunoor. Special Mention (or, loosely, “Runner-Up”) went to My Skinny Sister. However, in a reverse scenario, and underlining how both films stood out in the competition, the Children’s Jury awarded the Generation Kplus Crystal Bear for the Best Film to My Skinny Sister and gave a Special Mention to Rainbow.

Steven Yates