Using Your Own Experience as Tool for Filmmaking

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Ieva Sukyté

It seems only a year ago the Berlin International Film Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary with moviegoer-filled theatres. As one of the last film festivals to take place in its physical form, Berlinale could not avoid the threat of COVID-19 and this year presented a hybrid edition – one for the professionals online in March and the other, for the public, taking place in June. Due to the special edition, most of the sections reduced the number of films usually screened at the festival. No exception was this year’s Panorama which welcomed only 19 films in comparison to last year’s 36. Nonetheless, the programmers stayed true to the programme’s core, bringing diverse films that were politically and socially charged.

In his debut film Death of a Virgin and the Sin of Not Living (2021), American-born Argentinian-Lebanese filmmaker George Peter Barbari explores masculinity in Lebanon by telling a story of four teenagers (looking more like men approaching their 30s) on their way to lose their virginity to a prostitute. Etienne (Etienne Assal) lies to his mother by telling her he’s going out with his friends to the cinema, while actually he joins his best friend Adnan (Adnan Khabbaz) and neighbours Jean Paul (Jean Paul Frangieh) and Dankoura (Elias Saad) to have his first sexual intercourse and be finally accepted into manhood. On their way to a motel somewhere far from their homes, they try to hide their nervousness by bragging or making insulting jokes about one another, ending in some minor fistfights.

The story, which seems already familiar and told in many films, is brought to a new light when the director decides to add the characters’ inner voices and revealing their truest selves. In one of the first scenes, Karim Ghorayeb’s camera—instead of following Etienne and Adnan outside the house—turns to the boy’s mother and later his sister Windy, who in voiceover reveals having had an abortion 8 months ago and that she will die at the age of 87. Similar stories will be told of all the people the four teenagers will meet, including themselves, on their way to the motel.

The film, which is based on Barbari’s own experience at age 15, showcases what it is like to be a man in today’s Lebanon by also revealing the culture around the characters. Just after leaving their neighbourhood, we’ll hear that Jean Paul won’t have sex with his girlfriend before marriage because he doesn’t want to marry the ‘ruined’ woman, while in his own words it’s okay for men to have sexual intercourse. There will be more prejudices held against people who don’t seem to fit the strict social norms, but it will be disclosed that the four teenagers themselves are far from what they make themselves look like.

In her film Celts (Kelti, 2021), Serbian director Milica Tomović goes back to the early 90s, when Serbia was involved in the Yugoslav wars which led to the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1992. Through three generations of a family, the director reflects on Serbia’s past, and life during the times where old identities were lost and new ones were ready to be born.

For Minja’s 8th birthday, her mother Marijana (Dubravka Kovjanić) throws her daughter a Ninja Turtles costume party. The girl doesn’t want to invite her whole class, especially one girl her best friend doesn’t like, but when told to do so by her mother she decides to comply. Family friends are also attending the party, which leads into drama between the characters. Ceca’s ex-girlfriend shows up with her new, younger lover, playwright Tanja (Jovana Gavrilović). Father’s brother, a former Nazi and now anarchist, throws some flames into a discussion about politics when asked what he’s protesting. And there are unresolved sexual problems between Marijana and her husband, who tells her brother it could be due to her starting to cut her hair short. But all of this—masterfully staged in one house—is not only the drama of one family but a much broader story of the whole of Serbia. The lack of food supplies leading the grandmother to buy margarine instead of butter, or the self-made birthday costumes because of poverty, reveal a much deeper portrait of the country. Some things will feel familiar to audiences coming from the former communist regimes; I myself began reminiscing about family gatherings or birthdays growing up in late 90s Lithuania, which looked very similar to Minja’s birthday.

The winner of this year’s FIPRESCI award for the Panorama section, Brother’s Keeper (Okul Tıraşı, 2021) by Turkish director Ferit Karahan, is yet another story in this year’s selection based on the director’s own experience. Six traumatic years spent in boarding school was the initial inspiration behind this second feature. Yusuf, an 11-year-old boy played by non-professional actor Samet Yildiz, observes his classmates in the shower when the teacher punishes his friend Memo (Nurullah Alaca) and two other boys by ordering them to shower in the cold water. This leads to Memo getting sick the next morning and Yusuf single-handedly searching for help, which results merely in getting aspirin from an older student in the sick room. By the time Memo lies unconscious in the sick room one of the teachers finally realizes the seriousness of the situation. But the snow in Eastern Anatolia is already making its way and no car can get through it.

Set in one location, the film tries to get deeper into the country’s system and politics by showcasing them through the lenses of the young boy’s life in the boarding school. Young Kurdish students are often being told they should be grateful for attending the school; the teacher in geography class points out that there is no Kurdish region in Turkey, only Eastern Anatolia. And the whole country’s relationship will go down to the hierarchy in school: corrupt headmaster, teachers using their power on students, which then leads students to bully each other. Despite the beautifully crafted story, not everything works in Karahan’s sophomore film. While Yildiz’s big, sad eyes are used by director of photography Türksoy Gölebeyi to reflect the actions taking place around him, his lack of acting skills results in broadcasting flat emotions onto the big screen. The revelation by the end doesn’t seem so satisfying as the build-up towards the climax of the film. Nonetheless, Karahan’s Brother’s Keeper touches on some important subjects close to him and the Kurdish community living in Turkey.

Ieva Sukyté
Edited by Robert Horton