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Selina Robertson: Berlinale 2018

Selina Robertson is a freelance film programmer and writer. In 2007 she co-founded Club des Femmes with Sarah Wood – a queer feminist film curatorial collective. She is currently a film PhD candidate at Birkbeck researching the curatorial and film programming histories of London’s feminist film collectives of the 1980s.

The 2018 Berlinale concluded last Sunday with the Golden Bear being awarded to Hungarian female director Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not , an experimental drama about the fear of intimacy and journey towards sexual liberation.

Only the sixth woman in the festival’s 68-year history to win the top prize, this was a stunning victory for Pintilie as this her debut feature length film.

Malgorzata Szumowska (Body) took home the Grand Jury Prize for Mug (Twarz), a razor sharp farce exploring identity in contemporary Poland.

The festival came out in favour of the #MeToo campaign and there was plenty of grassroots activism circling around Potsdamer Platz. Discussions as to whether the opening night’s red carpet should be turned black out of respect, materialized with festival director Dieter Kosslick’s decision to change his signature red scarf to black. Meanwhile, German actress Anna Brüggeman launched a social media campaign #NobodysDoll as a red carpet fight back on the pressure for women to wear low cut gowns and high heels.  She arrived in a statement black sweater, however the online campaign did not seem to have much legs beyond the opening night buzz.

Panels and discussions about gender parity, 50/50 quotas, how to prevent sexual assault at work, whistle blowing and how to make the film industry more inclusive and family friendly were led by feminist film campaigning groups and organizations such as Germany’s Pro Quo Film, Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute (we wish her blog was in English) and Hope Dickson Leach founder member of Raising Films from the UK. The festival also took the unusual step of announcing that it would make anonymous, free counseling support available to all festival attendees who experience or witness discrimination or sexual violence.

While there might have been female trouble with the Competition wins, the Berlinale programmers and curators were bountiful in their selection of a strong line up of seasoned and early career female directed films across all sections. Here are some of my highlights (in alphabetical order):

3 Days in Quiberon (Competition)

Berlin writer/director Emily Atef delivers an intimate portrait, part biopic / part re-imagining of European cinematic icon Romy Schneider’s final major interview and photo shoot before her early death at 43 in 1982. Filmed in black and white and set on the coast of Brittany, Marie Bäumer is spellbinding as Schneider, uncanny in resemblance and perfectly capturing her coquettishness and vulnerability. This is an absolute must see for fans of Schneider (Sissi, Maëdchen in Uniform, La Piscine) and audiences who care about the lives of actresses. No word yet on any UK distribution deal but the film will surely pop up at some UK film festivals over 2018-19.

“1968 – Red Flags for Everyone” (Berlinale Shorts, curated by Maike Mia Hoëhne)

The festival marked 50 years since 1968 with a long memorable night at the Arsenal cinema.  The programme included Antigone (1964) by Ula Stock, Fundevogel (1967) by Claudia Aleman and Tap and Touch Cinema (1968) by VALIE EXPORT. How special it was to listen in person to these pioneers of post war German + Austrian feminist cinema recollect how and why their films were part of the liberation struggle for women.

Evidentiary Bodies (Forum Expanded)

Lesbian feminist artist filmmaker and activist Barbara Hammer flew into to festival for a couple of days to present her latest work, a 3-screen installation comprising of analogue, digital and photography complete with live cello accompaniment. This was a deeply moving meditative and haptic encounter with the materiality of film and the body: Hammer has been living with cancer for 12 years. As always, Hammer urged the audience to leave the cinema and be the agents of change. A fixture on the international queer film festival circuit, Hammer’s film, which is part of a wider multifaceted project and New York retrospective of the same name, will surely be coming to the UK in 2018.

Figlia mia (Daughter of Mine) (Competition)

Italian director Laura Bispuri’s Sardinia-set maternal melodrama is an intense exploration of motherhood. Citing American writer A.M Homes’ memoir “The Mistress’s Daughter” as source of inspiration, the film wins out on the utterly convincing performances from a superb cast. Starring Alba Rohrwacher, young newcomer Sara Casu and the legendary Italian actress Valeria Golino, the story follows a 10-year-old girl’s relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers. The film is a wonderful glance back to those much-missed Italian island melodramas such as Stromboli (1950) starring Ingrid Bergman or more recently Respiro (2002) with a younger Valeria Golino.  A passionate and beautifully photographed film, it should find its way to UK festivals and possibly more niche indie distributors looking to offer audiences a strong female POV melodrama.

Game Girls (Panorama)

Filmmaker Alina Skrzeszewska grew up in Germany but has been living in LA since in 2005. Game Girls is her second feature focusing on her local neighborhood of Skid Row; an area of downtown Los Angeles considered to be the homeless capital America. Observational in style, the film follows lesbian couple Teri and Tiahna as they try to turn their lives around. At times stark, Skreszewska’s camera never shys away from to the women’s perpetual cycle of prison, poverty, mental health, alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness, but it also has light and love and laughter. Social protests or Black Lives Matter are part of their day-to-day lives, but so are weddings, parties and having fun. A tender, raw and emotive film that will appeal to queer POC and WOC audiences as well a documentary and feminist/women’s cinema enthusiasts. Look out for the film at a UK queer film festival and fingers crossed it will get a limited theatrical/VOD UK release.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. (Panorama)

“How do you manage an artist that in unmanageable?” activist, trouble maker and pop icon M.I.A. asks her agent towards the end of this fascinating film about the British/Sri Lankan artist M.I.A. The daughter of the founder of the Tamil independence movement, Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulprgasam (M.I.A.) has politics in her blood. Although directed by her old St Martins’ friend Steven Loveridge, M.I.A. should have had a co-directing credit because she is definitely calling the shots. Politics, art and commerce converge in this riveting and intimate documentary that unpicks the complexities of identity for this modern day political activist, pop singer and mother. A must see for fans of M.I.A. but don’t expect a hagiography. Dogwoof will be releasing the film in the UK.

Madeline’s Madeline (Forum)

American indie filmmaker/performance artist/actress Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch, Thou Was Mild and Lovely) returned to Berlinale to premier her third feature length experiment. Decker is fast developing a wholly distinctive signature style that mashes narrative, performance with the dark continent of horror. Principally about mental health, a teenager and motherhood, the film features Miranda July, Molly Parker and a breakout role for newcomer Helena Howard. Shot by Decker’s regular collaborator Ashley Connor, this is a willfully anarchic, inspiring, feminist, human film part improvised, part scripted, part turtle/part pig. The ICO presented a nationwide tour Decker’s first two films in 2015, would a UK distributor dare to pick up her third?

Yours in Sisterhood (Panorama)

Ms. magazine was America’s first mainstream feminist magazine, launched in New York 1971 by co-founders Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, mirroring Spare Rib in the UK, it quickly became the pioneering feminist voice in journalism for women by women. Yours in Sisterhood looks back at the magazine’s first decade and invites us to collectively remember the exhilaration but also the homogeneity of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Filmmaker and archivist Irene Lustzig elevates the art of letter writing through a fabulously smart intersectional oral history project, as she asks hundreds of strangers around the U.S. to read aloud and respond to some of the unpublished letters Ms. received in their early years. The film reveals surprises and delights, possibly none more than when the project began in 2015 Hillary Clinton looked like she might be the first female President yet when it ended Trump had taken The White Office. As a social movement, the stories we tell ourselves matter, Lustzig’s participatory film responds to this challenge brilliantly.

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