Berlinale 2021 Round Up: Ones to Watch

Posted on March 11, 2021 by Heather McIntosh, Isabel Moir

Categories: Festival Reports

We spoke to our film programmers Heather McIntosh and Isabel Moir about what they watched at this year’s virtual Berlinale Industry Event, and their top tips for titles to watch out for in the coming months.

Heather McIntosh, Film Programmer

Petite Maman, dir. Céline Sciamma

Two children stand close together in the middle of a wood, facing a small structure (resembling a tent) made out of tree branches in front of them. The one on the left wraps their arm around the other's shoulders.
Petite Maman (dir. Céline Sciamma)

Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature film, Petite Maman, played in competition at the 2021 Berlinale and has since been picked up by MUBI in the UK.

After the death of her grandmother, 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels to her mother’s childhood home to help her parents clean out her grandmother’s apartment. Nelly explores the house and its wooded surroundings – whose lushness is captured beautifully by cinematographer Claire Mathon – where her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), used to play as a child. After Marion leaves the house suddenly, stricken with grief following her mother’s passing, Nelly meets and befriends a young girl in the woods of the same age, whose name is also Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and who we learn is Nelly’s mother as a child.

Sciamma has long been fascinated with stories of adolescents making the journey from childhood into adulthood and has a proven track record of getting impressive performances out of young actors, as shown in both Water Lillies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). The same is true of Petite Maman, but there’s a new depth to the onscreen relationship between Nelly and Marion (twins in real life) that elevates the authenticity of performance beyond the already high standard present in her past work.

In the film’s opening scenes, Nelly and the adult Marion have a relationship which is tender but guarded. The wall between them crumbles when they meet and interact as children. They begin to explore each other on an equal footing, baring their souls to one another in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s an incredibly smart narrative device which intensifies the strength of the mother-daughter bond.

Many of us have wondered what our parents were like as kids, so getting to see this play out feels both satisfying and poignant. This dynamic allows the two to console one another at a time of intense grief.

One of the things I admire most about the film is its boldness in taking us to a place of magical realism without feeling the need to explain how we get there. There’s no time machine, no witchcraft, no demonstrable rip in the space-time continuum. Sciamma asks us to take a leap of faith, to leave our adult cynicism at the door, and for 72 minutes, to wander through the woods with a childlike openness that brings us out the other side renewed.

North By Current, dir. Angelo Madsen Minax

Four people sit at a table in a restaurant, looking agitated. On the walls are framed poster and other objects.
North By Current (dir. Angelo Madsen Minax)

In North By Current, artist and filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his hometown three years after the unexpected death of his two-year old niece, Kalla, for which his sister, Jesse, and her partner, David, were investigated. The documentary screened in the Panorama section of the festival.

Through a mix of essay-style documentary and informal interviews with family members, the film explores fractured familial bonds over the course of three years, with home video footage laced throughout. In exploring the death of Angelo’s niece, deeper-rooted family trauma comes to the surface, as we learn about Jesse’s long-standing battle with depression and addiction, as well as her troubled marriage.

Angelo’s transition is also an important theme of North By Current, with the process of the filming itself being used as a vehicle of healing for both him and his family. After including his father saying that Kalla wasn’t the only child they lost – referring to losing ‘Angela’, the name Angelo went by prior to transitioning – the film takes us on a journey through which the director explores his own difficult feelings of coming out to a religious family. In one of the final scenes, Angelo confronts his mother about a comment he found particularly painful, for which she apologises and explains, in what feels like a moment of reparative catharsis for them both.

It’s sincere and honest in its confrontation of subjects such as depression, grief, loss, motherhood, domestic violence, religion, transitioning and gender identity. It’s a deeply touching and personal work, often taking on the function of a group therapy session, as they air, discuss and try to repair old wounds.

North By Current has not yet been acquired for UK distribution.

Beans, dir. Tracey Deer

Two people (one adult, one child) stand on the middle of a large metal bridge with their arms folded, looking at something to the right. A line of cars is behind them, from which people have stepped out of their vehicles to look at something ahead.
Beans (dir. Tracey Deer)

Set against the backdrop of the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec, Beans is directed by Mohawk documentarian Tracey Deer whose first-hand experience of the conflict goes into the film. This is her debut fiction feature and it played in Berlinale’s Generation section.

The film opens with 12-year-old Beans (played by Kiawentiio) being interviewed for a renowned school that her mother is desperate for her to get into. We learn that she’s nicknamed Beans because of the difficulty people have with saying her real name, Tekahentahkhwa. The early foregrounding of this racist microaggression lays the foundations for what Beans and her community will go on to face later in the film.

The Oka Crisis was a 78-day armed standoff over a land dispute between indigenous Mohawk protestors and the Canadian government. The film doesn’t fully explain this historical context, we learn about it gradually through Beans’ eyes as the town she lives in becomes increasingly hostile and frightening. Seeing the aggression the Mohawk community face from a child’s perspective makes the senselessness of it even more bewildering, from them being refused food in a supermarket, to enduring a full-blown assault as their cars are pelted with rocks; an event the police barely acknowledge.

Beans explores all the conventional themes of a coming-of-age story: identity, belonging, alienation and feelings of being an outsider. However, because these issues are so bound to, and tied up in, her racial identity, which is under constant scrutiny and threat, she’s forced to grow up more rapidly than some of her white counterparts in films of the same genre.

While the cuts between the fictionalised narrative and archival footage feel a little clunky to begin with, as the film’s tone shifts into its more dramatic shape two thirds of the way through it evolves into something entirely engrossing, authentic and moving.

The performances from Beans and her onscreen mother (Rainbow Dickerson) are raw and powerful, placing the women at the centre of the community’s fight for justice. The film speaks to the real and ongoing situation of indigenous people all over the world who are still having to fight to protect what’s theirs. The archival footage in the film, though from the 90s, reflects a picture that’s still all too recognisable today. Through the character of Beans, Tracey Deer offers a face to the struggle of indigneous people and forces us to acknowledge the ramifications of colonisation. In engaging with her community’s struggles, Beans’ Mohawk identity becomes a source of great pride. She’s finally ready to let her nickname go. Her name is Tekahentahkhwa.

Beans has not yet received UK distribution.

Isabel Moir, Film Programmer

Moon 66, Questions, dir. Jacqueline Lentzou

A young person with ginger hair looks contemplatively down to the floor. They wear a yellow t-shirt.
Moon 66, Questions (dir. Jacqueline Lentzou)

This is the long awaited feature debut from Jacqueline Lentzou, who has already directed a number of acclaimed short films including Hector Malet: The Last Day of the Year. Playing in the Berlinale Encounters programme, Lentzou offers an unconventional portrait of a strained relationship between a father and daughter.

After hearing of her father’s ill health, Artemis must leave her life in Paris and return to Athens to take care of her father. The film documents the tough situation they have both found themselves in, as Lentzou describes it: ‘I wanted to make a film about unspoken love and it’s consequences’. Sofia Kokkali gives a fascinating, raw performance as a young woman who is faced with this heavy burden and the responsibility felt by an only child, as well as dealing with the boredom of returning to her childhood home. We observe Artemis balance such responsibilities in a child-like manner, whether that is dancing to ‘Freestyler’ or when she tries to understand her father by re-enacting scenes from their past using his cigarettes and glasses as props. Lentzou’s approach to the subject matter is playful, like when tarot cards are used as chapter headings, inserting home videos and excerpts from Artemis’s journal.

This style of storytelling gives the film a dreamlike quality and helps create a rich collage of images and memories while also evoking the passage of time. At film festivals, I am always excited to seek out first features and Moon 66, Questions was a highlight, establishing Lentzou as a unique new voice with this moving and daring debut.

Moon 66, Questions has not yet been picked up for UK distribution.

Censor, dir. Prano Bailey-Bond

A person with a blood stained face and long hair looks sadly on at something off-screen, in the background there appears to be dark red lava.
Censor (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)

Censor received acclaim when it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, therefore I was looking forward to seeing it in Berlinale’s Panorama Programme. This is the first feature by director Prano Bailey- Bond — some audiences may be familiar with her short films, including her award winning Nasty.

Set in the 1980s, we are introduced to Enid, a dedicated film censor who often has to make difficult decisions, knowing that recent events have left the censorship team under much public scrutiny. After receiving a strangely familiar video which invokes Enid’s personal trauma, she decides to try and solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, resulting in a feverish dream that blends fiction with reality. Censor plays homage to the ‘Video Nasty’ and slasher films of the 80s, creating a rich visual experience that questions the power of images. Margaret Thatcher can often be seen in the background, highlighting her presence, when the media debates about the effect of violent videos on society was at its peak. Bailey-Bond plays with elements of the horror genre to mirror society at the time, exploring moral panic and personal trauma. Whilst Censor has already received comparisons to the work of Peter Strickland and Ben Wheatley, Bailey-Bond is someone with her own fresh voice, making her a welcome addition to the British horror genre.

Censor has not yet received UK distribution.

The Inheritance, dir. Ephraim Asili

A person with braided hair stands against a bright orange wall, holding a small orange book open in one hand.
The Inheritance (dir. Ephraim Asili)

After seeing The Inheritance on many 2020 top film lists, I was happy to watch Ephraim Asili’s first feature in Berlinale’s Forum progamme. Asili’s previous work has long explored the different facets of the African Diaspora — his debut weaves together the history of the MOVE liberation group with his own formative experiences in a Black Marxist collective.

Set in West Philadelphia, Julian inherits his grandma’s house and with the encouragement from his girlfriend, turns it into a Black socialist collective. We closely observe the collective as they hold seminars and have informal talks about activists including Shirley Chisholm, with the use of archive footage. The inclusion of book jackets, magazines, poetry performances and jazz inflected jam sessions, creates a beautifully rich collage that presents activism through various different forms. Featuring performances and appearances from real life MOVE members, Asili allows reality to inform fiction, creating a personal portrait and homage to a lineage of resistance.

The Inheritance brilliantly explores the process of learning whilst showcasing the everyday complexities of running a collective. Asili uses much warmth and humour to explore these relationship dynamics as we observe house meetings where we witness discussions about bills and whether the house should have a ‘no shoes’ policy. Beautifully shot on 16mm film, the striking cinematography and vibrant hue of the coloured walls would look stunning in a cinema setting. Prominently featuring a poster of Godard’s La Chinoise, it playfully invokes the vibrant colour palette and structure to present an alternative focus on Black artists, platforming the collective’s engaging discussions.

The Inheritance has not yet been acquired for UK distribution.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 71st Berlin International Film Festival is taking place in two stages. The majority of the Film Selection was available for online viewing by industry representatives and accredited press during the Industry Event, which ran from 1-5 March 2021. During the Summer Special event, which runs from 9-20 June 2021, Berlinale audiences will be able to see the majority of the selected films in numerous cinema screenings.

Header image: Moon 66, Questions (dir. Jacqueline Lentzou)

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