The pre-eminence of women—both behind the camera, and also in front of it—reflects clearly in the Berlin main competition range. But if there is one criticism that could be levelled against the selection is that it hasn’t looked beyond the boundaries of Europe By Saibal Chatterjee
Naysayers have been stressing, not without reason, that Berlin has of late slipped a few notches compared to Cannes and Venice. Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick, who has been at the helm of the film festival since 2001, is due to step down after this year’s edition. He will make way for two heads, an artistic director and a managing director, as one the world’s leading festivals fights to sustain its pre-eminent position.
In one respect, however, Berlinale, under Kosslick’s stewardship, has done a hell lot better than its two principal European competitors: representation for women. Four of its previous 17 Golden Bears have been won by female directors, the last two of them in the past two years – Ildiko Enyedi for On Body and Soul in 2017 and Adina Pintilie for Touch Me Not in 2018. That apart, Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic won the festival’s top prize in 2006 for Grbavica and Peruvian Claudia Llosa took home the trophy in 2009 for The Milk of Sorrow.
Two other female directors have their names engraved in the Golden Bear hall of fame – Hungarian aut eur Marta Meszaros, whose film Adoption won the festival’s top prize in 1975, and Russia’s Larisa Shepitko (who tragically died in a car crash two years after the triumph) for The Ascent in 1977. The Berlinale 2019 jury, which is headed by French actress Juliette Binoche,will have the opportunity to add one more name to that list. As many as seven of the 17 directors vying for the Golden Bear this year are women. Not quite 50:50 but, at 41 per cent, pretty close. If a female director does win in 2019 too, it would be a dramatic three in a row.
But that will obviously not be a cakewalk. Among the ten men in the main competition are three past winners – Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, 1988), Fatih Akin (Head-On, 2004) and Wang Quan’an (Tuya’s Marriage, 2007) – and they cannot be written off. Zhang’s new film, One Second, marks a return for the Chinese veteran to his artistic roots following a string of big-budget productions, including last year’s Shadow. It has been described as an ode to cinema: it revolves around a film reel over which a fugitive and a homeless girl form a bond.
Fatih Akin, back in the Berlinale competition for the first time since Head-On, has The Golden Glove, a thriller about a real-life serial killer who murdered and dismembered four sex workers in Hamburg’s red-light district in the 1970s, in the fray, while Wang Quan’an, a Berlinale regular, is competing with his latest, the Mongolian production Ondog.
The women in the Berlin main competition range from the 70-year-old Agnieszka Holland, one of Poland’s leading contemporary filmmakers, to the German director Nora Fingscheidt, 36, whose narrative feature debut, System Crasher, has made the cut. If there is one criticism that could be leveled against the selection is that it hasn’t looked beyond the boundaries of Europe. All but five of the competition films are purely European. Three Chinese titles and one each from Israel and Turkey break the monotony a bit. Just as notably, Berlinale 2019 has no American film in competition.
Agnieszka Holland’s competition film is the Polish-British-Ukrainian production Mr. Jones, a period drama revolving around the early 20th century Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, played in the film by James Norton. The young journalist shot to fame as the first journalist to fly with Adolf Hitler. He turned his attention next to Stalinist Russia and laid bare the truth of the Soviet famine of the early 1930s.
Another German director – Angela Schanelec, known for her austere, uncompromising filmmaking style– is in the Competition lineup with her ninth feature I was at Home, But…, about a professor whose 13-year-old son goes mission suddenly and reappears a week later in equally mysterious circumstances. The event forces her to reevaluate her certitudes.
Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska’s fourth feature God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya, travels to a small town where a woman participates in an exacting ritual hitherto reserved for men. Her rebellion causes a flutter and threatens to upset the town’s equilibrium, but she stands her ground. Mitevska’s last film, When the Day Had No Name, was part of the Berlinale Panorama section in 2017.
Marie Kreutzer, a former Berlin Panorama participant (The Fatherless, 2011), is also in the Berlin competition with her fourth feature, The Ground Beneath My Feet.
The Austrian drama centres on a super-busy business consultant who runs her personal life with the same unwavering efficiency that she employs to maximize her profits. But when secrets from the past impinge on her present, the veneer of composure begins to crack.
The two other female directors in this year’s Golden Bear race are established names as much on the arthouse circuit as in a more commercial space – Denmark’s Lone Scherfig, who was involved with the Dogme 95 movement, and Spain’s prolific Isabel Coixet, one of Spain’s most independent-spirited filmmakers.
Scherfig, a Silver Bear winner for Italian for Beginners in 2000 and Oscarnominated for 2009’s An Education, competes with the star-studded English-language drama The Kindness of Strangers, set in a Russian restaurant in New York. The multi-national cast of the film, which opens the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, features Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Bill Nighy and Caleb Landry Jones.
Four years after competing in Berlin with Nobody Wants the Night, Coixet returns with the black-and-white Elisa & Marcela, Netflix’s third Spanish-language original film. Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of the first homosexual marriage ever registered in Spain.
The other films in the competition lineup are Francois Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a drama about a real-life sex abuse scandal involving a French Catholic priest; French-Canadian director Denis Cote’s Ghost Town Anthology, about a family hit by a terrible tragedy; Wang Xiaoshuai’s drama So Long, My Son, which follows two couples negotiating the economic upheavals China has witnessed since the 1980s; Nadav Lapid’s Israeli title Synonyms, a semi-autobiographical story of an Israeli man struggling for assimilation in Paris; veteran Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, starring the director’s frequent collaborator Stellan Skarsgard as a grieving widower who retreats to a remote forest house; and Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas, set in a Naples neighbourhood where six teenagers all played by amateur actors) seek power as they do the bidding of their mob bosses.
The Berlin competition also has Turkish auteur Emil Alper’s third feature A Tale of Three Sisters, about three siblings who return to their father’s home in an impoverished village after spending time as foster children with welloff families. With a shot at a better life now out of bounds, the trio seek solace in each other.
Berlinale 2019 is clearly not only about women behind the camera, but also about those in front of it.
Saibal Chatterjee is an independent New Delhi-based film critic and writer who has worked on the staff of several leading publications, served on the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s volume on Hindi cinema and authored a biography of poetfilmmaker Gulzar.