It’s been an astonishing programme at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival. It was also the year when Dieter Kosslick bid farewell after a successful 18-year cycle as festival director. But his legacy has marked the festival’s paramount reputation and transparency regarding gender distribution in the Berlinale programme. In 2019 this encompassed direction, production, screenplay, cinematography and editing and it broke free from binary classification and in addition to “male” and “female”, “non-binary” genders were sanctioned.
I was especially absorbed by Derek Jarman’s 1990 ecstatic film The Garden, a vital work by the maverick radical of British cinema that screened as part of the Forum section of the festival’s programme. Timely for the 25th anniversary of Jarman’s death from HIV, The Garden is a hallucinatory work digging into the ecology of images, their texture and sound, cut-out animation, queer bodies, a very young Tilda Swinton and Jarman himself fighting a man while shooting with his camera and mending his garden. It’s a collage of iconic frames with no beginning or end.
Images of fierce bright colours paraded on the big screen at Deborah Stratman’s Vever (for Barbara) screening, which brought Barbara Hammer’s abandoned images back to life. Hammer shot these images during her 1975 trip to Guatemala but she never did anything further until she handed the footage to Stratman with the wish to make a film out of this and connect it with Maya Deren’s reflections and gaze during her ethnographic research in Haiti.
Half way through the festival and prior to the world premier of her new film Varda par Agnès, the legendary contemporary filmmaker Agnès Varda was honoured with the Berlinale Camera 2019. On this remarkably emotional evening, the Berlinale Palast erupted with a standing ovation to celebrate the social realist-feminist filmmaker whose latest film is an affectionate journey of her work, inspirations and cinematic viewpoints.
The powerful nature of film was once again highlighted by a cheering crowd and the international media when Agnieszka Holland and her crew protested on the red carpet to free Crimea Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentzov. A rightful prelude to the opening curtains of her marvellous new picture, #freeoleg aptly engaged with Holland’s exemplary Mr. Jones starring James Norton in the role of Gareth Jones (1905-1935), the Welsh journalist who exposed Stalin’s Ukrainian secret in the West.
Documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto presented her new work, the inspiring story of Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, the first photographer to document Sicily’s devastating mafia murders. Made with her long-standing editor Ollie Huddleston and the support of Laura Poitras, Shooting the Mafia is a far cry from any other stories documenting art and artists today. It’s an exemplary work, a filmic composition from the streets of Corleone with archive and TV news footage edited with Battaglia’s powerful and traumatic photography that helped mobilise people to demand the anti-mafia trials.
Wagner Moura’s deeply moving Marighella was a highlight that hopefully gets a distribution in UK this year and around the world. Moura’s powerful camera highlights an astonishing performance by lead Seu Jorge alongside a talented crew of his co-stars. The result is an eye opening enactment of the story of little known Latin American revolutionary Carlos Marighella who fought for his child’s future and freedom during and after Brazil’s military coup d’état of 1964 that overthrew President João Goulart.
Admired by Jean Paul Sartre, who also translated his books, Marighella was a powerful figure whose ideas challenged a brutal regime. Moura’s film superbly demonstrates the relevance of Marighella’s story in our politics today. With the use of exemplary photography, sound and eulogy to the tape recorder and duct tape, Moura highlighted how Marighella and his comrades blocked censorship to air a significant reading of their manifesto to the people of Brazil.
Also from Brazil came Armando Praça’s debut Greta in which a compassionate Marco Nanini and Denise Weinberg succumb to advanced age and ill health. Nanini’s Pedro is passionate about Greta Garbo and it’s how he likes to be called in bed. But a new encounter with fugitive Jean, which occurred due to his transgender friend’s (Weinberg’s Daniela) admission to the hospital (where he works), pushes Pedro to possible unpredictable dangers. Greta wonderfully tells the sweet and affectionate story of a romantic Brazilian.
A surprise and delightful discovery was a modern film poem by 16mm filmmaker (and devotee), Ute Aurand. Filmed between 1999 and 2018, Rushing Green with Horses is a complex, subtle and original work. Its complexity relies on the elements of life itself and the sounds that surround it. Aurand deliberately edits her own sound recordings onto her silent film as a response to her observation and communication with her surroundings and creates a filmic poem of social rituals and life in nature, at home, by the sea or on the street with friends and family.
Opening with black and white images of a London long past, Joanna Hogg’s latest achievement The Souvenir gets right to the core of filmmaking as a state-of-the-art practice. As Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie tells Anthony, “I film real people but I want to make something new about it”. Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film tells the story of an overwhelmingly difficult relationship many of us would have experienced at some point in our lives. A superb and supportive Tilda Swinton’s mother of Julie (Swinton’s real-life daughter) adds an extra layer to this ingenuous, soft and alluring picture tinged with Hogg’s grainy lens and its extreme observational close cuts.
This year’s Think Film symposium, which took place under the umbrella of the Arsenal project Archival Constellations, in the Forum Expanded programme, presented Yugantar collective’s powerful Tobacco Embers (1982). This document from the feminist Indian film group, whose members Abha Bhaiya and Deepa Dhanraj were present for a post-screening discussion, sparked unity among the female factory workers that mobilised action against exploitative working conditions in the 1980s. Tobacco Embers screened together with Yugantar’s ‘hit’ film Is This Just a Story? (1983), an improvised fiction film about domestic violence.
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You, which screened to a full house, is a testimonial to the people who face up with the hard decision of leaving their homeland. The director’s adieu to his own country, Mosese shot on square ratio in black & white with frozen frames reminiscent to Chris Marker’s work. With sound externally recorded, Mosese makes striking contrasts between ska music and church bells and uses slow-motion shots accompanied by a robust narration about modern-day slavery to arousing effect.
Angela Schanelec took home the prestigious Silver Bear for Best Director award for her film I Was at Home, But, an intelligent account of comforting each other. Opening with shots of wondrous nature where a rabbit, a wolf and a donkey take centre stage, Schanelec tenderly unlocks and walks through the doors of our perception while seizing her frame with extraordinary beauty. I was at Home, But is a wonderful treatise on the importance of human emotions.