Intro Essays

• Business of Being Alive
by Amarsanaa Battulga

• I am a citizen of a country called Film
by Dora Leu

• With Reason And Love
by Gayle Sequeira

• Dream of Pygmalion
by Han Tien

• Searching for my favourite memories in a box of nostalgia
by Jerry Chiemeke

• Introducing Myself
by Lorenna Rocha

• True/False
by Luise Mörke

• Something got me started
by Teresa Vieira

Business of Being Alive
by Amarsanaa Battulga

The transnational nature of film has fascinated me from a young age. I spent my childhood days in front of our large CRT television, which weighed more than me. Because Mongolia didn’t produce enough ‘content’, the local TV channels often broadcast foreign films and shows, which often had neither dubbing nor subtitles. I was left to my own devices in a world of sight and sound, trying to cling to whatever shred of meaning I could find. Even if the words were of no use, relying on the cinematic was enough to keep me glued to that spot in front of the TV, where the carpet became thinner and thinner over the years.

But it wasn’t until my master’s programme in Chinese language and culture that I took an academic and professional interest in cinema, especially in Sinophone films. The journey since then hasn’t exactly been smooth. Last year I wrote a thesis about Mongolian ethnic minority cinema in China, which was rejected twice due to my ‘lack of attention to the environment of Chinese political discourse’ and ‘lack of correct understanding of the Communist Party’s policy on religion’ (the latter was an especially damning indictment given that I didn’t write about religion). Thus, I had to press pause on my PhD programme after one month in and turned to film criticism to make a living. Clearly, what I really lacked was an understanding of an economic, not ideological, reality.

In Mongolia, my home country, cinemas and streaming services have a never-ending supply of subpar domestic commercial fares that fade away as quickly as they are churned out. The occasional art films tour the international festival circuit but remain largely unknown and inaccessible to the locals. Film publications are non-existent and other outlets often expect the critic to pay in order to write for them. If a review is positive, audiences think the critic was paid by the studio; if it is negative, the cast and crew hurl insults online.

In China, my host country, patriotic or nationalistic blockbusters reign supreme. The best places to watch other Chinese titles are arguably film festivals outside China. Cinephiles are by definition ‘pirates’, since the vast majority of films made elsewhere never find a respectable passage into the country. The line between film criticism and PR can be alarmingly blurry. Box office and online review manipulations are commonplace. The word ‘independent’ has increasingly little meaning. Add idol culture and militant fans to the mix; and did I mention censorship?

Such are the systemic circumstances in which I find myself: a freelance film writer and doctoral student raised in Ulaanbaatar but based in Shanghai. I say ‘film writer’ because, on the one hand, I’m hesitant to assume the title of a journalist (unless I’m applying for a festival accreditation), especially in China. On the other hand, as an established film critic once said, “you become a critic when you start getting paid for it”, a definition to which I would add the word ‘decently’. Like many other new film writers, I don’t yet have a comfort zone to step out of, only restrictive bubbles to burst. Writing in English and participating in programmes such as the Berlinale Talents have been my hit-and-miss attempts at circumnavigating the lack of access and opportunity, as well as joining a fraternity of fellow writers who are overcoming similar hurdles.

Heading to the Berlinale soon is still that kid in front of the TV, only that he’s now fascinated and frustrated with cinema, writing, and the business of being alive.

I am a citizen of a country called Film
by Dora Leu

It’s Jean Renoir who said these words in some form or another, but they came to me through Nagisa Oshima. I can’t help but think how far this quote has travelled. “The true essence of film is this sweetness, it has no national boundaries”, is what Oshima added to the quote.

I’ve always felt like I belong somewhere else. Never really sure exactly where, just not where I’ve grown up. Film was the country I’ve fled to in order to escape a silly little industrial city in Romania, whose cinemas all closed down early in my childhood. For that reason, my cinephilia began online. I am part of this bastard generation who started their film lives in front of the small screen of their computers, aided by clandestine CDs and obscure websites. The cool trick this online thing allowed me to do was to connect to these ‘somewhere else’ places that I suspected would resonate with me more. And so I discovered Japanese cinema. And then Hong Kong cinema. And then I went on to study film–first film direction and then film studies, with a bit of an extra detour through a second degree in history of art. I’m sure this sounds like the moneymaking combo in the current cultural climate.

For me, film and writing about film are essentially about creating connections between people. ‘There is a human at both ends’, is what I try to remind myself of when I write. Someone once came up to me after our cine-club at the cinematheque in Bucharest and said that they like coming to our screenings because my voice sometimes gets warmer when I talk about the films I love. I think that’s one of the highest forms of praise you can get as a critic. I very much enjoy these traces of subjectivity we can leave in our work – our tiny mistakes, our imperfect souls. That’s what I look for in films as well: the vulnerabilities and the imperfections. I suppose this has often led me to lean towards experimental cinema, essay films or amateur films, where there is always some curious kind of subjectivity to be found, some ‘mistake’ committed against what is conventionally ‘proper’. But, judging by the Berlinale line-up in recent years, I’m happy to see that cinema as a whole, perhaps because of the pandemic, has more readily embraced these themes.

As someone who has come to film criticism via an initially more practical programme, I’m not fond of the segregation some insist on making between ‘people who make films’ and ‘people who write about films’ as if they were mutually exclusive, if not antagonistic things. Sure, some may choose to be writers or theorists specifically, but I think this rift needs to be amended in today’s industry. People often think of film criticism as some sort of dainty, wordy field of work, that is professed from somewhere far behind the barricades. But film criticism, under its many guises, can be an actively creative practice. This is how I see the role of the film critic moving forward; reclaiming even more creative power and responding proactively to the shifts that are happening in how we interact with images nowadays. Many are doing it already through video-graphic criticism, for example, which is something that I am extremely enthusiastic about. But I think everyone, from journalists to programmers, to archivists, video essayists and others, could become more proactive and engaged. I count myself here as well – I, too, should be more engaged. That’s what I’m hoping to learn at Berlinale Talents, how to shake off the inertia and how to find the courage to yell just a bit louder for the things I believe in.

“Okay, kindred spirits – we are taking off”, also said Nagisa Oshima to end one of his articles.

With Reason And Love
by Gayle Sequeira

Reason appears as the antithesis of love. One is the result of measured consideration. The other is rooted in unfettered, unconditional emotion. One springs from the heart, the other requires careful thought. To be a film critic, however, is to do both — to approach from a space of curiosity and love, and then attempt to articulate why. It’s a contradiction inherent to the medium itself: Consider the neat, rectangular dimensions of the screen, which still contain the sprawling messiness of human life. 

Since I joined Film Companion as a reporter and features writer in 2018, some of my most rewarding work has involved talking to industry professionals, particularly underrepresented groups, about the thought processes and practical difficulties that their jobs entail. I launched two series, First Shot Last Shot, in which writers and directors broke down the first and last shots of their films, and The Hardest Thing, in which film technicians spoke about their most challenging assignments. I was fascinated by little-known aspects of India’s film and television history, which led to stories such as one on the 2002 show Aryamaan, created as the country’s ‘answer to Star Wars’. I hadn’t considered a career in film criticism — it seemed to me so much more fulfilling to talk to the people who had created art that I’d loved, rather than attempt to explain why I loved it to begin with. I found joy in foregrounding the artists’ voice; my own had yet to develop.

The pandemic, and the wave of streaming content it produced, is what prompted my plunge into reviewing. The daunting experience of refining emotion into insight gradually gave way to the joy of discovering how a director evolved over their films, how certain themes recurred over their work and whether their films spoke to the current moment or contained ideas that were simply timeless. Affection burnished curiosity, which aided understanding. A few years later, I now write a pop-culture column, in which I look at trends, themes and even trivial bits of information that I think have larger resonance in the cinematic landscape. I’ve branched out into video essays and even a podcast. Within those contours of the screen, I’ve found a place for myself.

Given that film journalism, and particularly criticism, is an underdeveloped, under-funded field in India, and is often disregarded as a viable career choice, it’s a profession characterised by self-study and insight that can only be gleaned through experience. What I hope to gain from the Berlinale Talent Press programme is mentorship, an invaluable asset to anyone hoping to not only better their own work, but also contribute to the growth of a more nuanced film culture in their home country. The enrichment that comes from being exposed to a broad range of international cinema can only be intensified if it’s shared with peers who are as passionate about film writing as I am.

It’s hard to think about how the profile of a film critic can evolve beyond the shadow cast by the pandemic, particularly since smaller films and shows could, now more than ever, benefit from our attention as mainstream productions continue to dominate theatrical slots and public awareness. A critic’s role as a curator has never been more important, hinging on the ability to provide depth and perspective on either new releases or retrospectives to help them stand out from the glut of content. 

I hope that we continue to operate from a place of curiosity rather than cynicism. I hope that we continue to challenge ourselves and our views. And I hope that the next film that helps us meld reason with love is just around the corner. 

Dream of Pygmalion
by Han Tien

While I was working on my ‘pseudo-memory trilogy’ article on Little Fish, The Father and Archive, I was once again drawn to the similar topics of memory, time and love in L’année dernière à Marienbad. The latter also played with repetition and variation to draw the audience into a maze of the consciousness and the mind. All of these films conveyed a nihilistic view on memory since, when taken to the extreme, there are no ‘definite versions’ nor ‘universal truths’. The very action of recalling and forming associations with memory would at the same time alter and reshape it, a concept resonating with the neuroscientific and psychiatric training I received while working as a general physician, shortly before I devoted my life to cinematic criticism. While illusionary, their fictional cores nevertheless remained powerful since they were constructed in such a self-reflexive and self-referential way.

Marienbad, with its radical usage of audio-visual relations, the frame-within-frame compositions, the match cuts, flashbacks, mirrors and reflections, was designed to be a perpetually-running game set for the audience to perceive and interpret. For me, encountering this film was an apparatus of self-reexamination, initiated by nothing more than a trivial error, a misplacement, an unevenness or a contradiction. The mechanism of consciousness in Marienbad dropped into the sea of my own reflection, sending waves and ripples through which I could oscillate, intervene or even contrast, forming new patterns to transmit, a process of unlimited possibilities.

This endless vacillation between a tangible medium, such as a film, an apparatus, a machine, and something intangible, such as a fleeting emotion, a transcending feeling, a capricious memory, has been rooted in me since the days of my medical career, when I tried to see the intricacy of a human mind and the warmth of love through the cold surface of a machine or a chemical mechanism. As a film reorganises the otherness of the other, the composition becomes organic, animated, and is therefore alive, ready to correspond to a very human experience, which has drawn me into the realm of critics.

Human experience, in turn, requires a sense of logic, by which I, as a critic, hope to transform a cinematic work into a discourse intertwined with both rationality and sentimentality. In my expression of a film, a reader is to experience a mathematical precision and simplicity, which comes from the process of condensation from an originally complex and multilayered experience. Meanwhile, my experiments range far and wide: from essay, poetry, video essay, to a screenplay with a self-reflexive theme on creating art. The concept of ‘form is its content’ indoctrinated me and is also reflected in the basic yet miraculous structure of DNA, encoding everything about life with conciseness and accuracy in its form.

To reproduce my view of a film unilaterally had become something of an obsession until my encounter with Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, which inspired me to further consider the concept of intersubjectivity. Petite Maman is a profound piece that wilfully unties the seemingly unchangeable order between mother and daughter, predestined by human reproductive activity. I found you, as you let me find you at a certain time and place. You define ‘I’, as I define ‘you’ in two ways of you-and-I simultaneously. Could this simultaneity and double-definition regarding the act of finding and being found be applied to such relations between the creator and the created? While I was wondering, Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Series came to mind.

Asimov advocates throughout the whole series that what a creation (i.e. a robot or a cyborg) could do for its creator is a perpetual mechanism of ‘creating’. He describes how in an evolving dual system, even when two systems merged, there would always be an emergence of a new ‘other’ to maintain the existence of two systems. It was later revealed that the agent maintaining such ever-creating/re-creating conditions was a robot, so that paradoxically, the puppet master itself was originally designed to be a puppet. I love paradoxes. For I believe that the most unique and fascinating fact about minds that create is the self-referential loop of self-perception and self-invention, a loop that inherently contains numerous paradoxes.

Such is the reason I created a film commentary podcast: not only for it to be a puppet pulled by the figurative strings of my subliminal thoughts, but also for it to be a duet, a trio, or a quartet of dancing dialectical conversation; a conversation that, if there is always a new facet of ‘you’ and ‘I’ to find and be found, it would be perpetually functional, thereby possessing the agency of the puppet master. By achieving this, I hope that there will be something similar triggered in our audience that is more than the thoughts and critiques transmitted. Or perhaps the discourse I just made was also retrospectively reshaped by the act of making the podcast?

Presently, before Berlinale Talents, I am writing this essay, fumbling around trying to decipher the logic of English writing. English is quite different from Mandarin, which Freud compared to the language of dreams for its ambiguous character. Ambiguity is basically given constantly as a comment on my writings. ‘Form is its content’ seems too weak an excuse, for I am still tiptoeing, trying to represent the tempo and rhythm of me wandering through my crystal maze of a mind, aspiring to put out something with perplexed form but straightforward content. By writing and creating, I long for something to thrive on itself, including the ‘me’ that is writing, rooted from but roaming away beyond the fictional core of the creator. Maybe one day, from the written and the created, from the self-referential loop, a mind could emerge. Could that be you?

I aspire not to invent new flowers and new stars but invent you instead. I am what you see, what you do and what you expect about what I am and what I do.

Searching for my favourite memories in a box of nostalgia
by Jerry Chiemeke

I haven’t lived very long on earth – I have vivid mental images of only seven editions of the FIFA World Cup – but my earliest memories include seeing Sean Connery in all his suaveness and charisma as the lead protagonist of the 1964 classic Goldfinger, the second instalment of the 007 franchise (at least according to official accounts). When I was growing up at Warri in Southern Nigeria in the early 1990s, we owned a VHS player and whenever my elder brother ejected that video cassette to insert No Retreat No Surrender, Red Scorpion or any of the other B-movies that he acquired from movie rental stores, I would slot Goldfinger right back in. Loren Avedon and Brandon Lee had special places in our young hearts, and on holidays we would draw our unsuspecting peers into reenacting our favourite fight scenes from King of the Kickboxers and Rapid Fire.

By the early 2000s, VHS players had given way to 3-disc changer CD players, as well as DVD players. Movie culture changed too, as people became less obsessed with foreign movies and more invested in local content. In one section of a rental store you would see posters of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3, and in another section you would spot pictures of Nigerian movie veterans like Ramsey Nouah, Pete Edochie and Zack Orji gracing the front of DVD sleeves. I consumed local movies but I was always curious about the quality of the sound and video editing (or lack thereof), as well as the shoddy nature scene transition and storytelling.

The picture and sound have significantly improved since the early 2010s, which coincided with the revival of cinema culture in Nigeria, but certain aspects of filmmaking in one of the world’s largest movie industries still leave much to be desired.

I have been actively critiquing Nollywood films since late 2016. Starting with long Facebook posts, I have since had my movie reviews and essays on film published in multiple platforms. I have enjoyed contributing to conversations surrounding filmmaking and cinema in Nigeria, but I am looking to expand my horizon. I am curious to explore what obtains outside mainstream cinema, not just in relation to the diverse nature of the stories that are being told, but also with regard to all the intricacies that characterise the entire process of filmmaking. I am looking to compare notes with film critics, as well as other movie enthusiasts around the world. And I am looking to improve my perspective on what to look out for when analysing the nuances of film.

Storytelling in Nigeria is evolving rapidly, we are churning out films that (albeit imperfectly laid out) are different from the norm, and I am interested in bringing these conversations to the fore. I hope that I get the chance to exchange world views at a film showcase that is as rich in diversity as it is in history.

I am also bringing a tote bag’s load of questions with me on the flight from London to Berlin: what does the word ‘representation’ fully connote? Who are we performing for? Does a movie enthusiast in Bern or Bratislava really care about stories from Nouakchott or Lagos? Why are filmmakers from my home country so sensitive about critical reception? Does my opinion as a film critic count in the grand scheme of things, or am I just screaming into a large intellectual bubble? I do not expect answers to all (or any) of these questions, but I’d love to send them out of the tote bag and into the air.

Introducing Myself
by Lorenna Rocha

My name is Lorenna Rocha. I am a historian, researcher, film critic, and curator. I also have experience as a theatre critic. I started writing film reviews  at the end of 2018, when I participated in a film criticism workshop at the Recife International Film Window. During the workshop we took some classes on film criticism and then wrote texts based on the festival programme. In 2019 I joined the Sessão Aberta, an independent blog dedicated to young black film critics. The same year, I was selected to participate in Talent Press Rio as part of Rio Festival.

During the pandemic, I kept working as a film critic and began collaborating with online festivals, commenting on film screenings and participating in panel discussions on black Brazilian cinema. In addition, I started publishing articles through different channels including Cine Festivais and Verberenas.

In 2021, after leaving Sessão Aberta, I started writing for Cinética, one of Brazil’s most notorious film magazines. However, it was only in 2022 that I could create a greater identity through my work, when together with Gabriel Araújo, I founded INDETERMINAÇÕES; a platform dedicated to investigating black Brazilian cinema and film criticism. Later, I created my own site for cinema and audiovisual studies, camarescura, through which I cover a lot of film festivals and publish articles.

Film criticism is a very important tool to broaden our perceptions of the world and our sensibility. During my time at the Berlinale, I intend to learn things I don’t know yet and learn from the city and the people I will meet. Watching films in the context of a festival outside of my country will be an enriching experience. As part of the Berlinale Talents programme, I am interested in being in touch with archival filmmaking and gaining insights into restoration and preservation in cinema. I would also like to engage into discussions on cinema and race from a global perspective.

Participating in the Berlinale Talents programme is a great opportunity for me to share my knowledge about black Brazilian cinema and to learn more about discussions on cinema in foreign countries. This will be my first international trip, so I feel a little apprehensive about the language and how to communicate my ideas, but I will do my best!

by Luise Mörke

This text is supposed to be about myself. A written portrait as supplement to the photograph which you, the reader, will see alongside it. This is how we meet: a version of you, in front of a screen, at home, on a train, wherever. And a version of me, reflected in a mirror in Venice a few months ago, positioned between an artwork and a prohibition.

What follows will be true, but so may be its opposite. I have learned to be suspicious of anyone who thinks they have themselves and their opinions figured out for eternity – that delusion usually makes for unpleasant company. Here is one thing that feels true as of Saturday, 2 pm: I often turn to films as a respite. Staring at a screen or an image on the wall offers relief on days that my body aches or my mind is tired, when I want to be engaged and absorbed without being forced into presence. Let someone else’s exposure relieve me of my own! Film people, I’ve always thought, like to sit in the dark and be alone together. But then there’s the red carpet and awards, tuxes and ball gowns, the glamorous aspect of cinema that is a side effect of its production costs and mass appeal. Somewhere in this double-bind, between darkness and exposure, reclusiveness and self-promotion, lies an insight about what it means to exist in a world that runs on the ‘M-C-M’ cycle. On days when films are more than a respite, when critical distance is a desirable stance to inhabit, that insight is worth chasing after.

Another objective: a form of criticism that strikes a balance between subjectivity (insofar as it makes the personal process behind the experience of a film, a painting, a performance transparent, insofar as it does not lay claim to the definite opinion on a film, a book, a performance) and the removal of the critic’s self. A form of criticism that lets the work of art speak in, or through, the critic, while also positioning her at a distance that permits lucidity, understanding, judgment. A critic who is self-aware, but willing to let go of that self; who listens and speaks back, but never over. This criticism would be anything but dead, because I imagine its source to be a most pressing question: How do I relate to another?

At Berlinale, I hope to start my days at a coffee shop on Potsdamer Platz, bearing witness to how even the most anonymous office architecture can come to life. I will watch people pass by, update my letterboxd account, jot down some notes. Afterwards, I plan to catch screenings of Christian Petzold’s Afire and Manthia Diawara’s AI: African Intelligence, two filmmakers whose respective work has been important to me over the past few years. I am also looking forward to Mary Helena Clark’s Exhibition, announced as “a meditation on the assertion and refusal of subjecthood”, routed through two women’s relationship to specific objects. Most of all, I am excited to spend time with fellow Talents participants, talk about what we have watched, hear their thoughts and stories. To be a critic also means to keep the conversation going, after all.

Something got me started
by Teresa Vieira

A heavy fog persists, brutally caressing these words. Hopefully it will now slowly start dissipating, while I confront myself with the materiality of the thoughts that have been running through my head. Thoughts that I was struggling to type down. As usual. I’ve made a promise to you, to myself. Something that I’ll try to keep in the next (real, actual) paragraphs (we’ve been assigned to write): to show who I am with no flourishes or poetic deviations (whatever that means).

Took me some time to get here.

I guess that always ends up happening: feeling overwhelmed, boycotting the things I feel like I connect with the most. It is interesting to see how, in the beginning, things were different. A dream was randomly shaped almost in the form of a confrontation against what the market expectations were and still are for me and people like me. I wanted to become something I (was indirectly told I) couldn’t be: a film critic. I could try and make up a story of how I’ve always felt connected with films, with the act of writing but that wasn’t the case.

All I can say is that after trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I ended up finding cinema along the way. I ended up finding this (scary but majestic and creative) gesture of writing along the way. After years of being unable to work on the field, as my first shot came up, I grabbed it by the hand and have never let it go since. I guess it relates more with what true love is or can be: something that slowly grows on you, that you keep building every day, brick by brick, for a long period of time. That you have to keep fighting for, no matter the hardships. My late start in this field might have doomed (or maybe even blessed) me: I’m not your typical cinephile. I’ve built my own erratic path, found my own peculiar interests that sometimes don’t quite align with what (once again) is expected of me. Maybe there’s something there but I don’t know: like all of you I’m still trying to figure it all out.

The fact that we’re now able to be part of this group changes things. Not only as a sort of stamp we all know we want and sometimes need to prove ourselves to others, especially in our domestic cis-male-dominated markets. But mainly as I feel like it is a space that will open the door of possibility to really delve into that thing we all love: thinking, talking about (and feeling with) films. A sense of place that can only happen in community, in this sometimes lonesome space. A sense of belonging that we can only feel through the act of sharing: the most sublime of all. There is no poetry in this (nor should there be). There’s a deep hope in that we can all experiment, fail, connect, discover things and bring ourselves closer to what we want to do, what we want to become. Together. To our final (but hopefully faraway) destination. Reminding ourselves that the drive that has led us all here, in this moment, is like an extinguishable fire. That might subside with our own personal or general fears, with our own personal or general frustrations, but will never cease to burn. It keeps us not only alive (alive!) but up (up!) and running (running!). So off we go.