Our Film Programmers Isabel Moir and Heather McIntosh totaled up almost 40 films at this year’s Berlinale. Read on for their highlights from the festival and those titles to watch out for in 2020!
Isabel Moir, Film programmer
First Cow, dir. Kelly Reichardt
Director Kelly Reichardt returns to the rural American landscape and life on the frontier, showcasing the variety of characters that inhabit this environment in ways which feel reminiscent of her earlier work in Meek’s Cutoff (2010). First Cow played in this year’s Official Berlinale competition, and seemed to be a common festival highlight with audiences. Therefore, I was extremely happy that Reichardt’s latest work met my already high expectations. Although First Cow features Toby Jones, the rest of the cast is not as well-known as actors in some of her previous works, such as Certain Women (2016), which included Kristin Stewart, Laura Dern and frequent collaborator Michelle Williams.
First Cow is a tender tale of human connection between a lone Cook and Chinese immigrant both seeking their fortune, beautifully showcasing the unlikely friendship between the two travellers. John Magaro and Orion Lee play the main protagonists; both actors give charming and infectious performances, displaying a natural chemistry between the two characters. Cookie Figowitz (Magaro) and King Lu (Lee) soon collaborate and start a profitable business selling baked goods, although their good fortune is often at risk as they rely on the secret use of a landowner’s prized dairy cow. First Cow pays tribute to those on the margins of society as well as exploring the beginnings of capitalism in America.
First Cow carries a lot of warmth which is mostly due to the friendship at the heart of the film, featuring much humour as well as lightness and joy amongst the everyday tasks that the characters perform. The gentle tone and pace of the film proves to be a compelling watch, demonstrating a director at the top of their game whose work comes across as completely effortless. At the time of writing, there is no confirmed UK distributor for the film. That being said, this is an A24 release, and Reichardt’s past releases have been picked up by Park Circus and Thunderbird Releasing.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, dir. Eliza Hittman
Following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it was exciting to see Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Always Sometimes play in this year’s Official Berlinale competition. It very quickly topped the Screen critic’s jury grid and deservedly won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. This is Eliza Hittman’s third feature after directing It Felt Like Love (2013) and the critically acclaimed Beach Rats (2017), which was distributed by Peccadillo Pictures. Hittman’s third film fits well within her body of work, forming a loose trilogy exploring American youth culture and the pressures that young people face in today’s society. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an intimate portrayal of two teenage girls based in rural Pennsylvania who are faced with an unintended pregnancy. Without support and viable alternative options in their home state, they’re forced to take a fraught and arduous journey to New York. Audiences are taken on this traumatic journey with them, witnessing the obstacles and potentially dangerous situations that Autumn and Skylar both face along the way.
Hittman’s approach is extremely naturalistic and nuanced as the two girls often communicate through small gestures and limited dialogue. Newcomers Talia Ryder and Sidney Flanigan offer powerful, minimalist performances, creating a quietly devastating portrait of their situation. Hittman has previously worked with non-professional actors and has a proven track record for finding new talent. Eliza Hittman focuses on the female perspective, subtly highlighting the constant threat women face from the men in their lives while also imposing governing laws. Hittman shows a clear affection for her characters and a solidarity for the many young women who find themselves in this situation. There is currently no UK release date for Hittman’s latest, however the film has been acquired by Universal’s Focus Features. Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like it will have crossover appeal, catering specifically to art house crowds as well as being a great title for younger audiences.
The Woman Who Ran, dir. Hong Sangsoo
Director Hong Sangsoo’s past work has already featured in the festival’s Official Competition, most recently with On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). Sangsoo’s latest feature The Woman Who Ran earned him much praise and also the Silver Bear for Best Director. Despite being highly prolific and popular amongst international cinema fans, UK distribution hasn’t followed. This absence led to the Independent Cinema Office working in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre in 2010 to bring a selection of his films to UK cinemas and audiences.
The Woman Who Ran is an incredibly charming and often humorous portrait of everyday encounters exploring the friendship between the female characters. The story follows Gam-Hee who finds herself apart from her husband for the first time in five years whilst he is away on a business trip. During his absence, we see her catch up with old friends on the outskirts of Seoul over three separate encounters. The interactions often leave many unanswered questions as their conversations seem to suggest something much deeper, forcing the audience to try and piece the puzzle together. The poignant meetings amongst the women are often interrupted by the men that come into their lives who seem to be outsiders in the world that Sangsoo has created. Kim Min- Hee gives an effortless yet compelling central performance after previously being cast in Sangsoo’s On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) and Hotel by the River (2018).
The film’s aesthetic and performances are minimalist and pared down, which lets the witty script shine as we watch these often complex characters interact on screen, reflecting on their thoughts and feelings whilst drinking wine. I was lucky to attend the premiere of this screening, which was met with a lot of laughter and even a mid-film applause at a hilarious subplot involving the neighbourhood cat.
Heather McIntosh, Film programmer
Always Amber, dir. Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen
Always Amber had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale, playing in the Panorama strand. The long-term observational documentary spans 3 years, following Swedish teenager Amber, from the age of 17 , the age that they begin to explore their gender identity. Amber is non-binary, using they/them pronouns, or ‘hen’ as it is in Swedish. Near the beginning of the film, we see them at the gender identity clinic where they explain the feelings they’re having around their gender to see if they can get a diagnosis which will enable them to get top surgery.
You so rarely get films that centre non-binary people’s experiences, which makes Always Amber feel especially important for audiences to see. That said, it does not mean to offer Amber’s experiences as universal nor definitive. It is an intimate film, and Amber is such a unique individual that I think it’s implicit that no two experiences would be the same. Alongside gender identity, the film also looks at the typical life of a teenager and their friends, who drink, smoke, endure heartbreak, fall out, have fun, dress up, dye their hair, get piercings, etc. Through getting to know Amber and seeing what is quite often a typical teenage experience irrespective of their gender identity, the film helps to normalise and humanise non-conforming gender identities for those audiences who may not be familiar with them.
A sequence which has stayed with me involves Amber discussing their potential top surgery, remarking that if they lived with their friends on a desert island where there were no gender norms, they probably wouldn’t be thinking of getting top surgery. They felt they had to change their body because the world refuses to change the way it views people. Their dysphoria didn’t come from the fact they had breasts, but that the world couldn’t view them as non-binary while they still had them.
The film is as much about their transitioning as it is their relationships, an especially important one being with their best friend Sebastian. They go from inseparable, supporting each other through their transitions and helping each other feel less alone, to falling out after Amber’s first partner and Sebastian fall for each other.
There’s a punk/DIY aesthetic to the film, influenced by Amber and their friends’ style, as well as the film being pulled together from lots of different types of mixed media – some digital film shot by the directors, interspersed with more rough footage captured by Amber and their friends, sometimes in selfie mode or through a Snapchat filter. The fragmented collage effect of this edit ties into the theme of shifting and changing identities.
The Q&A with the directors – Lia Hietala & Hannah Reinikainen – afterwards was very illuminating, as they talked through their process working with Amber. There were a couple of questions from the audience which still misgendered Amber, though, highlighting the importance of this film and the need for it to be seen in terms of education, and making it all the bigger shame that it probably won’t get a traditional release on UK screens.
Shirley, dir. Josephine Decker
Josephine Decker’s Shirley was my favourite film of this year’s Berlinale, playing in the Encounters strand of the festival. As ICO distributed her first two films in the UK, Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), I was really looking forward to seeing Decker’s latest work.
A biopic of sorts set in the 1960s, Shirley is based on the lives of the horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman; a literary critic and college professor, played brilliantly by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg, respectively. In a more conventional biopic, you might expect their relationship to make up the main thrust of the story, but there is another relationship of equal – if not greater – importance at the heart of this film. Young lovers Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) move in with the couple, so that Fred can study with Stanley, a professional partnership which allows the relationship between Shirley and Rose to blossom.
Shirley suffers from agoraphobia as well as a host of other mental illnesses, conditions which had previously caused many to write her off, but Rose is fascinated with her from the outset. Rose can’t wait to tell the indifferent writer that she finds her short story The Lottery “thrillingly horrible” after having an intense reaction to reading one of her stories on a train. It’s a potent sentiment, embodied by Shirley herself, and the film’s tone – a complex and often messy exploration of female desire.
Though Shirley and Stanley are the most developed characters, it’s the relationship between Shirley and Rose which is the film’s most moving and vital. Both women feel like they’re living in their male partners’ shadows to some extent – both of whom move freely through the world as Rose and Shirley are largely confined to the house. In this very patriarchal world, how could women not turn ‘crazy’? Her agoraphobia becomes a physical device to show how suffocated she is, how the imposed confines on her life are making her unwell.
The film makes clear that these women outshine their partners, allowing the audience to be in on that secret – to be part of the inner circle – which the men are never privy to. The more the two women become entangled, the more the lines blur between reality and fiction. The more Jackson’s time with Rose reflects (and is, in turn, reflected in) her writing and characters, and the more the women are given agency in the film’s narrative.
There is a subtle queer edge to the film, though this is only hinted, rather than made explicit. It’s about two women who see each other’s full potential when others underestimate them, and through this relationship they save each other. I found the film to be smart, funny, surprising, and deeply moving.
Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name by screenwriter (and the film’s producer) Sarah Gubbins, Shirley is Decker’s first feature to use a script she didn’t write. It’s a hypnotic and atmospheric film, and Elisabeth Moss’ turn as the eponymous lead could well become a career-defining performance. She’s utterly transfixing, even when she’s being purposefully provocative or abusive – sometimes cruel, always complicated, never boring.
Welcome to Chechnya, dir. David France
Welcome to Chechnya is David France’s third feature documentary, and played in Panorama at Berlinale. This is the first documentary to expose the abhorrent coordinated and state-sanctioned violence against LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya.
This is currently carried out without any repercussions, as the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, backed and supported by Putin, denies all accusations, claiming that there are no queer people in Chechnya. Though the film is often harrowing and heart-breaking, there is an uplifting story threaded throughout; those who have come together under the Russian LGBT Network in order to try and save people’s lives.
This isn’t the first time David France has documented the crucial work of radical LGBTQ+ activists. His Oscar-nominated How To Survive A Plague (2012) dealt with the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) explored the work of transgender activists. In Welcome To Chechnya, France hasn’t had to rely on historical archive for footage. It is horrifyingly present – more a call to arms than a tool of reflection.
It’s been described as a docu-thriller, as it’s often extremely tense. You’re aware of what’s at stake for these people if their families alert border authorities before the activists can help them escape. If caught, they are taken to illegal prison facilities, where they experience torture and are forced to out others. After this, they are either executed or released to their families where they are often subjected to “honour killings”. Found phone footage of some of these attacks are shown in the film, and make up some of the most distressing viewing.
The reason this story is now able to be told in documentary form, is in large part due to the face-altering technologies utilised by the film, as exposing people’s identities would put their lives in danger. Maxim (initially introduced as ‘Grisha’) is the only character whose digital mask slips to reveal his actual face later in the film, as he becomes the first survivor to testify about the Chechen purge.
Even if they manage to get to safety eventually, the LGBTQ+ Chechen community have to go through unimaginable upheaval in order to simply live their lives. If they manage to cross the border in the first instance, they then have to go through the seclusion and isolation of staying in a safe house, as well as long, complicated, and drawn-out visa applications, sometimes involving the uprooting and relocating of their families. Some don’t make it through this process, such as 21-year-old Anya, who flees her safe house after long periods of isolation (even a walk outside risks her safety), which she finds intolerable.
There was a Q&A after the screening which welcomed David France, two of the main activists – David Isteev and Olga Baranova – and the first survivor to go on record with his experiences, Maxim. There was deservedly a long and heartfelt standing ovation.
For many – myself included – the gravity of the situation in Chechnya will be a shock. While people are aware of the troubling human rights situation in Russia, we’re rarely confronted with the level of violence that is taking place there. For this reason it feels like a vital film for audiences to see, engage with, and act on. At the time of writing, the film doesn’t have UK distribution, but is due to air on HBO in June. The film closes on a grim statistic: that of the 151 survivors rescued by the Russian LGBT Network and granted refugee status in other countries, the Trump administration has accepted zero. This locates this issue as part of a larger global trend of intolerance, and something we all have a collective responsibility to find solutions to.