I had the immense pleasure of being in Berlin while the Berlinale Film Festival was happening. I thought I'd write up my thoughts on what I was able to see, both as a reference for myself and a short hand for anyone who asks me about it.
Our first Berlinale film, kind of an auto-essay documentary. Rebecca Hunt (Beba), the filmmaker, speculates on her own complicated position in the world by interrogating her Dominican father, her Venezuelan mother, her rebellious middle sister, and her distant younger brother. She also investigates her own work as well as her history of growing up in New York and attending Bard College. The whole thing was quite moving. Hunt is cutting in her interviews with family and friends, not pulling any punches. You can feel the depth of every moment; how much mutual love there is with her dad, how much deep volcanic trauma there is with her mom, the care of her college advisor, and the political messiness of her cool, white, privileged social circle at Bard. It was also formally exciting. Mostly shot on 16mm, the texture of every shot was so intimate. It was assembled from so many different pieces; not just her own contemporary nonfiction footage, but reconstructed moments, associative imagery, work from her own archive, as well as other historic ones. It had a clear and unified voice across narration, diagetic action, editing, and concept. Obviously carefully, critically, lovingly worked and honed.
I saw this courtesy of a friend accidentally buying the wrong tickets, but what a happy accident! A calm and slow documentation of student protests in Bangalore. It was much less an explanation for an outsider than a collection of moments from the inside. I really appreciated how many shots gave so much time to linger. It was immersive and demanded a certain level of attention and intimacy, like if a friend was showing you a recording. I also appreciated its perspective and the space it gave to complexity of organizing. There is a moment where the filmmaker, Braggs, and some friends are buying cigarettes during a demonstration, and a guy comes up on a moped to do the same. They strike up conversation together, and the friends try to bring the guy into the protest, explaining casually how the Citizenship Amendment Act will effect him too. Earlier, there is a small meeting of non-men, and we get to hear from a trans/non-binary person about how none of their documents would be valid under the new law, and later we see them in conversation at a demonstration with a guy who has been doing some speaking. He misgenders them while trying to bring the whole group into comradeship. They defend their identity, but hold the solidarity. In another scene, we get a long, uninterrupted shot of a guitar player singing to the crowd. Nearer the end of the film, the student protests have grown into a very large event and some security people treat the organizers pretty badly, ignoring them in a moment of crisis. There are several long shots of the organizers trying to hold the security people accountable. It’s messy and it’s real.
We saw this the same day as Sab changa si, and they were an interesting pair. An experimental stitching of three different places, put together inside the early pandemic. The video was all from two lesbian friends of the filmmaker, living in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, and they talked a lot about Urdu poetry, multiple simultaneous temporality, and eroticism. The director and editor are based in Montreal, and the audio was put together by another collaborator operating on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Pieces from all three of these places are stitched together, underscoring this theme of quantum simultaneity. The audio is really delightful, and there are also extensive captions made with the help of Collective Text: rich, playful, queer, and rapturous. This was also the only film where we got to see the filmmaker talk and answer questions afterwards, and wow, this is how it should always be! I want films to be conversations, not atomized artifacts.
We went to this one because we managed to get day of tickets and frankly the overall feeling was one of discomfort, but in a way that was... quite nice? A fiction film where a young woman (who read to me as strongly neurodivergent, but I don’t want to diagnose characters) is put in a psych ward, and a gender non-comforming Chinese person comes to visit her. The film is really about this friendship that blossoms between them. You can feel the way that they don’t have people other than each other to be as direct and genuine with, and while that’s beautiful for the both of them, it doesn’t mean it isn’t also fraught sometimes. The form of the film was quite interesting too, kind of sparse and strange. Lots of long shots without too much dialogue, and when there was dialogue the two characters have this specific disorienting-at-first cadence, like a dialect that has developed between them. And for most of the film there wasn’t any soundtrack, but every once in a while there would be these little playful electric chirps. I really felt completely transported to a different headspace. I also did really have to pee by the end and (as I always do) I refused to leave the theatre because I didn’t want to miss anything! But, I bring it up because I was wiggling and writhing watching the last third of the movie or so, but it felt like the absurdity of my behavior was kind of like, welcomed by the film? It made me more comfortable being a freak. (There was also this scene where the friend has his boyfriend tightly swaddle him in cloth, and it was.. really nice..)
Such a delightful Finnish fiction film. Three girls: The first two are friends who work together at a smoothie bar. One, Rönkkö, struggling with not feeling pleasure during sex and the other, Mimmi, a lesbian who falls in love with the third girl, Emma, a competitive ice skater. Kind of similar lively-female-friendship energy to Booksmart (an energy I think we need more of (it even had that same lesbian enlightenment moment song (“Slip Away” by Perfume Genius)!)), but a bit more robust and less completely a comedy. Rönkkö goes on a series of dates with the intent of hooking up to solve her pleasure problem, but can’t seem to land a guy because of her strange sense of humor, and when she finally does, he’s not receptive to communicating toward to the goal of her pleasure. But there’s hope with the charming guy who asks her out at the smoothie bar. Emma pushes herself too hard with skating. She doesn’t have much of a life outside of it, so her whirlwind love with Mimmi completely derails her, leading to a lot of euphoric highs, then crashing into drama and upheaval. But through it all, everyone comes together as friends in the end. Just an absolute delight of a film.
-- These were three shorts together in a program that I went to see on my own.
Experimental in the many-shifting-images way, meditating on the relationship with the filmmakers mother and language (mother tongue). Beautiful to look at, rich and dense in it’s concepts.
The reason I came to see the program. A kind of collage documentary about a Vietnamese trans woman (Diva) who sells noodles in a rural town and is like, also a huge internet celebrity. I loved this short so much, one of the highlights of the whole festival, honestly! It has such an interesting frame, because the filmmaker was a gay man in the US, so all of the video is assembled from videos he’s found online. There is a kind of gentle looking from afar, admiring almost. And the fact Diva herself is such a vivacious living person comes through all of these layers.
Frankly, haha, I thought this one sucked! It felt vacuous and unsettling in that marble-hornets-before-slenderman-starts-showing-up-regularly kind of way, which I guess was the point, but I just did not like it, especially after the intimacy of Diva. That’s all I need to say about it!
A documentary road movie about nuclear missile silos in the inner Western US. A father, haunted by nightmares of nuclear apocalypse, takes his wife and two kids on a road trip to revisit the places his own parents had brought him to as a kid. The killer moment for me: I remember in my high school senior history class reading about how before testing the first nuclear bombs in the US the scientists were like “hmm this might set the atmosphere on fire and obliterate all human life on earth…” but they did it anyway, and I remember being so shaken by that fact. And this film brings up this point, then also clarifies how so much of US nuclear testing was animated and justified as a clamoring to figure it out before the Nazis did. And this fucking movie drops this fact, like, “We know now that a month before the US tested nuclear bombs that the Nazi scientists had come up against the same atmosphere-destroying concern in their research, and they brought it to Hitler, and Hitler was like “What, no, we should absolutely not take that risk.” And they didn’t move forward with developing nuclear weapons." And just the energy in the theatre, it was so intense for all of us be hit with that fact. I am certain this knowledge has changed my life.
Overall the film was quite jarring in it’s vivid clarification of the US’ deep-seated evil, plus I did have some enduring critiques of the cishetero perspectives and privileges of the film. The wife, Erin, is credited as a co-director but has very little noticeable voice in the movie, and at first we thought maybe it was a little self-aware moment. The film is called Nuclear Family after all, they seem to be making jabs at nuclear power and the normative family structure. But the way that the husband, Travis, dominated the supplementary interviews we watched seemed to support our critique. Plus, now being a person squarely working in the childcare field, I couldn’t help but imagine how much of the familial labor was being put on Erin, while Travis set up the tripod and the audio and all that. But! Still a very compelling film, the discussion Olivia and I had afterward went on for days. I would strongly recommend seeing it!
A wonderful documentary about two lesbians who fell in love in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, then managed to find each other afterwards and live a long beautiful life together. The frame of the film is through the eyes of an investigative filmmaker encouraging Sylvie, the granddaughter of the late Nelly, to fully come to terms with the things in Nelly’s archive she hasn’t been able to look at until now. I appreciate it as a way into the story of the archive. It’s nice to see Sylvie confront not just the depth of misery at Ravensbrück, but to acknowledge that the friend her grandma lived with was in fact her lover. We get to see other interesting perspectives too; Another relative, queer herself, feeling affirmed to have a connection with another person like her. An older woman who was a child at Ravensbrück, who remembers having her life saved by Nadine. Her daughter is with her, named Nadine to honor a swear she made all those years ago. And a historian who speaks to the importance of explicitly expressing these histories so that they can be realized as real in the social world. I was left wanting more about the story of how the film was made, because the filmmaker does insert himself at the beginning and explain how he was drawn to this story, but that was the extent of the meta-level storytelling. He seemed to haunt the film as a guiding force, but didn’t seem like a present character. Easily my favorite piece though was how Nadine loved cameras, so throughout the film we get to see so much touching footage of their normal life; having dinner parties with their gay friends, eating soup, things like that. There were so many shots she took of Nelly where you could feel that loving lesbian gaze in the old reels, vivid and just as alive as the day they were filmed. Such a touching film, we could hear sniffles and tear-wiping all around us in the theatre.
A delightful historical fiction set in a real place and based on real people: Pyotor Kropotkin visits a vivacious group of anarchist clockmakers in a small mountain town in Switzerland in the late 1800s. It is delicate and intimate, with beautiful detail paid to groups of people coming together as well as the careful careful manual work of clockmaking. Arguably the protagonist, Josephine, works in the town’s clock factory making the unrest wheel, which drives the motion of the timepiece. Near the end of the film Pyotor asks her to explain how it works, and I wish I could replicate her words here, but I haven’t got them. You’ll have to go see it for yourself! But what she says was rapturously beautiful in that way where if you think sincerely and deeply about anything, it reveals a softly gleaming truth. The whole film is suffused with this. There is a fascinating and playful take on this period of time when time was being standardized. Pyotor goes to the post office to send a telegram and they ask which time he’d like it sent from, Factory Time? Local Time? Municipal Time? Train Station Time? He’s flustered by the question, can’t you just send it from right now? Later, the telegram line to the Municipal office fails, so they are unable to adjust their local clocks to be in harmony. It kind of seems like, what’s the big deal if the clocks aren’t synched, but offhandedly and very briefly someone mentions that the trains won’t know how to follow the schedule, and might just violently collide. Which makes me think of the way that the expansion of train systems were the exact thing that forced the world to move from a local time to a standardized time! This is the kind of quiet film that sets the mind spinning, I cannot recommend it enough.
This and the next film were an unexpected surprise to see. I was planning on being out of Berlin, but thanks to some hurricane-force winds my trip was canceled. A big bummer, but a pleasure to get to see a few more films. And what a moving picture this was. It is a whole film composed of tender moments in rural Ireland (and was the first Irish-language film at the Berlinale). A quiet young daughter of a big poor family is sent to spend the summer with relatives. Succinctly put, she is able to feel safe and mutually loved for the first time in her life. She’s apprehensive at first about the couple she’s staying with, but gradually their relationships blossom into something deep and enduring. By the end of it I can guarantee there was not a dry eye in the theatre.
This was a transformative experience for me. Documentarian Jacquelyn Mills goes to Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia to film it’s only human inhabitant: conservationist Zoe Lucas, who has been living and working on the island for decades. It is another deeply intimate endeavor, and there were so many elements that were insanely affective to me. Not only is it all shot on film, so every image is strikingly beautiful on a visual textural level, but there are also these many intercuts of film that has been long-exposed in various earthy materials around the island. A lot of Lucas’ day-to-day work that we see is collecting and cataloging garbage that washes up on the shores. We get a few glimpses of her massive Excel spreadsheets. Because of it’s location its an interesting kind of barometer for seeing trends in not just what trash is making it out to sea but what things are being consumed and discarded globally. When she can, she pinpoints where the item has come from so that she can get a sense of the route it took and how long it takes to get there. The island functions as a kind of sieve.
There is also such a visceral sense of texture; Lucas stomping through the sand dunes and seeing the granules cascade off her boots, her hands on mesh plastic or deflated balloons or plush grass, or pulling a jar from her many pockets to catch a spider, or submerged in water, carefully cleaning her collected debris before sorting. And then there are the horses. A whole thriving herd lives out there, and there were so many shots of them that made me gasp. Of course, they died there too, and of course Lucas indexes these deaths. We see many corpses at various stages of returning to the land. For me watching, it was a late night in a new part of the city. I was moved to tears, completely transformed.
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Things to keep an eye on...
From here on it’s just a list of films I’d really like to see but wasn’t able to. More of a resource for myself, but you’re welcome to take notes if you’d like, but you're free to stop here too.
Nel mio nome (Into My Name)
4 trans mascs, executive produced by Elliot Page
Alle reden ubers Wetter (Talking About the Weather)
Charming, academic, slow
Calcinculo (Swing Ride)
Something something gender noncomforming experience at a circus
Nada para ver aqui (Nothing to See Here)
look more into these shorts…
One Big Bag
Death doula, looks rad as hell.
Indeterminacy of locality, starts in Graz, felt fated.
Terra que marca (Striking Land)
This one looked sumptuous in it's attention to land details
Rewind & Play
fun music documentary
really cool and conceptual looking
lived-in history of a hotel space
Keiko, me wo sumasete (Small, Slow But Steady)
Japanese boxer girl
Die leere Mitte
About Potsdamer Platz, from the 70s
It Began as a Holiday
behind the scenes making models for the French Dispatch. free to watch right now, just got to get around to it