Reading Up on the Berlinale

Sepideh Farsi’s The Siren (2023)

German critic Lukas Foerster, a frequent contributor to such publications as die taz and Cargo, has just quietly wrapped a typological project—in English—with eleven sets of notes on different sorts of cinephilia. “Film History Nerd Cinephilia,” for example, “Social Justice Cinephilia,” “Festival Jetset Cinephilia,” and so on. The very first category is “Cinema Scope Cinephilia,” the vortex of which, of course, would be Cinema Scope, the essential magazine founded and still edited and published by Mark Peranson.

“Auteurist-modernist, emphasis on form, subscription to an avant-garde canon, concept of director as artist, and primacy of individual expression,” jots down Foerster. “Focus on ‘our cinema’ vs. ‘their cinema,’ though ‘our cinema’ part is more important than ‘vs.’ part . . . Cheering for Weerasethakul wins at Cannes, etc.” These are casual observations, and they’re useful only up to a certain point, but it’s not uninteresting to keep them in mind when scanning the lineups for the Berlinale’s two main competitions, the big one, with its Golden and Silver Bears, and especially Encounters, the relatively new one that might be mapped aesthetically somewhere between the capital-C Competition and the Forum, the section programmed by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art since 1971.

Encounters was launched by Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian and his team—led by head of programming Mark Peranson—with their first edition in 2020. There’s a section of the festival’s site called Berlinale Topics that opens with Chatrian and Peranson discussing their selection for this year’s Competition. They note the balance between “fresh new voices”—there are three debut features in the program—and established filmmakers such as Christian Petzold, Philippe Garrel, and Margarethe von Trotta. “The emotional side of films seems quite strong this year,” they point out, “and probably there will be few dry eyes in the Berlinale Palast! In a very eclectic selection, melodramas are probably the most consistent thread.”

Further Berlinale Topics include interviews with the programmers of other sections, quick video guides to neighborhood theaters hosting screenings in various parts of the city, and of special note, videos sent in by filmmakers with work in the lineup discussing the moments when they decided to make cinema their life’s work. This collection opens with a moving presentation by Sepideh Farsi (The Siren, slated to premiere in the Panorama program).

Farsi looks back to 1981, when she was sixteen and growing up in northeastern Iran in the immediate wake of the Islamic Revolution. In a photography class that actually turned out to be a film appreciation class, her instructor, unable to screen banned films, drew shots on a chalkboard and described the sequences to his students. Farsi was arrested for her “dissident activities,” and when she was released a year later, “I was a totally different person. But I still wanted to make films.”

The Forum has been posting a series of essays tied to its 2023 program, beginning with Luciano Monteagudo’s survey of films focusing on Argentina’s military dictatorship. Monteagudo points out that Ulises de la Orden’s The Trial will premiere “forty years after democracy was returned to Argentina. There has perhaps been no other film about the Argentinean civilian-military dictatorship made to date that is so tangible, precise, and comprehensive at the same time.

Viera Čákanyová’s Notes from Eremocene and Jorge Jácome’s Super Natural have Simon Rothöhler peering ahead to possible post-human futures, and Fabian Tietke contextualizes two films made in the early 1980s by international students at a major East German film school. In the latest addition to the collection of essays, Devika Girish writes about three films in the Forum lineup that “explore how the disjunctive time experienced by immigrants can open up a new space—a heterotopia, if you will—that, though estranging, also holds radical potential for reimagining our bordered realities. The scholar Hamid Naficy describes works by exiled or diasporic filmmakers as ‘accented cinema,’ or cinema that dwells simultaneously in two worlds. One might call these films examples of ‘distended cinema,’ where time stretches out of sync with any one world in order to beget a third instead.”

The seventy-third Berlinale opens tomorrow and runs through February 26. Anyone looking for recommendations can turn to Cineuropa and IndieWire, where contributors write about the films they’re looking forward to most.

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