Berlinale Summer Reading

The Daily — Jun 10, 2021
Alice Diop’s We (2021)

On sixteen outdoor screens located throughout the city, the Berlinale is now presenting all the films it streamed to the press and industry back in March. This includes all the award winners, starting with Radu Jude’s outrageously of-the-moment Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which took the Golden Bear; all the critical favorites, such as Alexandre Koberidze’s subtly magical What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?; all the promising young German filmmakers, such as Jonas Bak, whose Wood and Water went on to screen at New Directors/New Films in May; and all the winners of the latest round of awards announced over the past few days.

Belarusian-American writer, actor, and director Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First—the story of two young women who score a suspiciously affordable apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side only to discover that it’s haunted by the spirit of its previous owner, Jeffrey Epstein!—has won the GWFF Best First Feature Award. Reviewing this “brash, gutsy, morbidly funny” directorial debut for Variety, Guy Lodge notes that “underpinning the edgelord provocations and cheerfully cheap B-movie stylings of Nekrasova’s film is a dark, roiling rage that’s no joke: As a reflection on the abuse that powerful men mete out without due consequence, it’s without filter or apology.”

Alice Diop’s We (Nous), a personal journey along the RER B, an urban train line that runs from the northern to the southern outskirts of Paris, won the award for best film in the new Encounters program in March. It’s now taken the Berlinale Documentary Award as well. “A documentary filmmaker who has explored French societal dynamics and life in the banlieue where she grew up in three features and two short films,” writes Caitlin Quinlan at the top of her interview with the director for Reverse Shot, “Diop offers a particular insight into communities familiar to her and, in placing her own history in front of the camera, firmly declares herself a proud member of the ‘nous.’”

The documentary jury has given a special mention to Avi Mograbi’s The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation, which brings us to a bountiful collection of summer reading. Mograbi’s ninth feature, which gathers statements from Israeli soldiers stationed in the the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, premiered in the Forum, a program established fifty years ago to stand “between the barricades and the ivory tower,” as the title of one book puts it.

The Forum has always provided excellent supplementary material on the films it screens each year. A little over a week ago, the program’s organizers relaunched the site, opening up vistas of clean, white space for new writing, such as Ela Bittencourt’s essay on The First 54 Years. “An Israeli subject himself,” she writes, “embedded in his culture and home town of Tel Aviv (though he’s also lived in New York), Mograbi engages Arab friends and Palestinian citizens to abolish the idea of a historical record as one predicated on a unison voice, or vision. Mograbi’s films are always asking, ‘Whose history, for and without whom?,’ pointing us back to the often revisionist nature and utilitarian usage of historical figures and events.”

Today it was announced that Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces has won the Caligari Film Prize. On the film’s page, we find links to James Lattimer’s audio interview with Zhu, a statement from the director on the film’s relationship to her hometown, Wuhan, and an essay by Elena Meilicke, in which she writes that “Zhu allows voices that are otherwise marginalized in the Chinese media landscape to surface, and she does it . . . in a way that hybridizes the images, rendering them visible as a break or tear in the cinematic form; tellingly, those are exactly the places where the pandemic finds entry into the film.”

You have to do a little fishing to find these essays. On the front page of the new site, there’s a section labeled “Magazine,” which might be a good place in which to spotlight some of this writing. But if you poke around, you’ll find two pieces—one by Jochen Becker, the other by Bert Rebhandl—on Vincent Meessen’s Just a Movement, a documentary that approaches Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise (1967) from an array of disparate angles. There’s material on nearly every film in the program, and it isn’t always presented in the form of a written essay. For The Inheritance, for example, the Forum team has put together a playlist of spoken word albums that appear in Ephraim Asili’s first feature.

In a deeply considered piece unrelated to any one specific film, Cristina Nord, who took over the leadership of the Forum in 2019, writes about current debates throughout film culture sparked by the challenges of the present moment. She never uses the word “quotas,” but she does counter those who argue that calls for greater and more diverse representation throughout the industry threaten the autonomy of artists and the art they make. “There is a certain irony here,” she writes, “that the need to hold on to the known is being projected onto a medium that is totally inconceivable without movement and without the ability to unfold over time.”

The Berlinale summer special, in the meantime, runs through June 20, when two audience awards, one for a film in the main competition and the other for a title premiering in the Panorama program, will be presented live, on stage, and of course, outdoors.

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