I'd been in Berlin last year during the Berlinale, but I'd made a conscious decision to avoid it. I was there to meet with the publisher of a German language novel by Ronald M. Schernikau, und als der prinz mit der kutscher tanzte, wären sie so schön daß der ganze hof in ohnmacht fiel. ein utopische film, which I was adapting into what would become my second feature, So Pretty. In 2019, that film was completed and accepted into the Berlinale's Forum section, so this year I arrived in Berlin with a very different set of priorities. I don't watch much in the way of films when I'm actively at work on a project, so arriving in Berlin represented a sort of a reentry into the ecosystem of film spectatorship. What follows is a festival diary from the perspective of a fellow filmmaker, and so any impressions I have of the films there are inevitably tied to my relationships with their filmmakers and others I met or saw there. Cinema is, in its constituent phases of production, distribution and reception, an unavoidably social practice. It becomes a solitary practice for exactly one moment, if it all, as we sit in the theater. These notes will attempt to live in that gap, to let the films I happened to see at this year's festival sit in both a general world and in the world particular to me.
Stressed out and confused upon arrival, the first film I wandered into was Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Erde (Earth), partly because it was easier to get into a press screening than to try to figure out the public screening ticketing process in a jet-lagged haze, but also because, having followed and appreciated Geyrhalter's films for quite some time, there was little doubt of what I was in for—elegantly distant takes of contemporary industrial work as viewed from a globe-spanning perspective. With Erde, Geyrhalter's focus is on the restructuring of geology by human labor processes, an inverse of the depopulated spaces of his previous film Homo Sapiens (2016), which explored industrial spaces abandoned by humanity, their reorganization was left up to nature itself. The film's last act, which follows two indigenous people in Canada seeking to reclaim their extraction-wrecked land, provided an interesting wrinkle to my sense of Geyrhalter's aesthetic, but it stumbled slightly in its integration of humanism into a gloriously ahumanistic career. In a film of large machines with impersonal goals, the integration of two humans with clear goals counter to those of the superstructure is exciting, but the film simply follows them to the edge of the oil-ruined expanse they seek to save but cannot enter, their earnest care for an environment stymied and the film itself stymied along with it, unclear as to what these two individuals represented. Nevertheless, this film is a worthy entry into this master filmmaker's oeuvre. Its magisterial static drone shots, also a first for him, logically pushed his style to a place of being able to watch work processes play out over a huge geographic plane. Its inclusion of interviews with workers brought humor, their concerns butting up against the cold logical concerns of the industrial process of capital that have largely interested him. It seems odd to describe such a generally pessimistic and probing film as delightful, but starting off a hectic festival with a calmly predictable work by a reliable favorite felt comforting.
I stepped into Heinz Emigholz's Years of Construction the next morning, after premiering my own film the night before, again seeking and finding calm in the space of industrial work. The film follows the demolition and construction of Kunsthalle Mannheim, a German art museum, between 2013 and 2018, portraying the extended process through a swift succession of static shots and the occasional card to mark the year. Emigholz, another favorite of mine, has been been making films about architecture for years, and Years of Construction is marked by one of the most direct approaches he has taken yet, quite literally showing us a process of construction reshaping a space, echoing the restructuring of geology in Erde. He allows the artwork of the museum to sit among the various stages of the process, a dialogue of art and architecture taking place as much through their status as heavy objects that have to be moved and built by workers with reference to the aesthetic conditions of light, space and art history. The film left me feeling purified, freed. Perhaps there was a desire to remind myself that these films and works and bodies we share with the world do not have to achieve a plane of transcendence in order for them to "work." They and we cause changes in perception simply by being in our presence. Or maybe I was just responding to the film's general quietude, a virtue that perhaps is enough in itself.
Later that day, feeling readier to dive into the social fray of the festival, I caught Daniel Hui's Demons, an experience that was inevitably colored by spending a great deal of time with him throughout the festival. His tonally unhinged surrealist feminist horror film begins with an unseen sexual assault by a director on an actress that launches the film into a succession of abuses of power and half-aborted revenges within a surreal, looping structure. The mental instability of its characters merges with sexual desire and sexual fear in vivid blue-and-red-lit 16mm images that reached for an intensity many of the Forum films avoided. This yearning for intensity, aesthetic and emotional, provided a crucial spin on the Forum's stated goal of programing films that "search for new forms." Demons was also funny and invigorating in much the same way that Hui's presence had become for me, best embodied by a particularly memorable scene involving a fish that absolutely must be worn as a hat and the indelible line, gleefully delivered by Hui himself, who appears in a supporting role: "So, now you're going to have to tell people that you eat people!" The film is funny, slyly unnerving and difficult to place within any genre or tradition, even as its antecedents in genre horror and filmmakers like Luis Buñuel were clear. It will be exciting to see where Hui does next; his is an emphatic and expressive vision that tugs at the very limits of the forms with which he works.
I caught Angela Schanelec's lovely new film I Was at Home, But…, awarded the Silver Bear for Best Director, which was marked by a sort of intensification of the characteristic drift of her previous features. Suffice it to say that the film pushes her style in directions that are unmistakably characteristic of her work and yet still quietly unexpected. It will be exciting to see what the more visible platform of Berlin's Main Competition does for the film's reception and exhibition futures. I also saw Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell's MS Slavic 7, which takes a Harvard library catalog number as its title and the associated text as an increasingly totemic figure at the center of the film. If my own film begins with a text and attempts to move both within and through it, this film was a gentle rejoinder, taking the logarithmic approach of ever-nearing a text only to find that it can never quite be entered, even as literal images of text often overtake the screen against a dramatic backdrop of interfamilial squabbling. With this film and Schanelec's, I'd returned to the quiet, exploratory cinema that came to typify my experience, but, tellingly, both films foregrounded bodies, even if those bodies are often overtaken (by their environment in I Was at Home, But… and by text in MS Slavic 7). In the case of the latter, one finds oneself caught up in the game, torn between following the contours of the story of an author hinted at in poems and letters and the story of its onscreen protagonist, without an equivalence being drawn between the two.
Over the last few days of the festival, I happened to come across two films that were pleasant surprises.The first, I Often Think of Hawaii, was a 1978 documentary of the performative variety—plenty of staged and set-designed sequences here—by the previously unknown to me filmmaker Elfi Mikesh, who I learned got her start as Rosa von Praunheim's cinematographer. Screening in the Berlinale's retrospective section, "Self-Determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers," surveying the work of German female directors between 1968 and 1999, this film was something I slotted in at the urging of one of my actors, Thomas Love. I left it feeling that we'd stumbled upon a missing piece of feminist film history that anticipated not only current concerns around gender non-conformity and the performativity of the everyday, but also the lingering effects of American postwar neocolonialism. A joyful, energetically paced film, it follows Carmen, the child of a Puerto Rican American GI and a German woman, who dreams of leaving her dull life (and the foreclosed future that her mother represents) for Hawaii. The setup is simple, and the follow-through is narratively just as simple, but the film locates a luminous trajectory that binds together consumer products, menial labor and comically idyllic vacation imagery. This arc is expressed in the circular rhythms of work, study and little rebellions, in visions of Hawaii conjured by lo-fi but not quite campy sets that echo and extend indelible images of Carmen's punky, defiant, androgynous but decidedly femme visage. Carmen reworks and challenges both her heritage and implied destiny, as Mikesh treats gender, race and class as powerfully real constructs that nevertheless offer opportunities. Was I so astounded simply because I'd seen it with little context or expectations? Perhaps, but then the joy of discovery seems a central reason for having a retrospective sidebar in the first place.
I closed out the festival with Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's astonishing Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You. This essay-film pairs a tape-recorded voiceover of an anonymous person who begins the film by stating the film's title as a mantra with little more than stark black-and-white 16mm images of a woman bearing a cross and a feminine person wearing Halloween-costume angel wings as they trudge through the director's home country of Lesotho. The film's narrator rages against their "mother," which is both Lesotho and an actual mother, in ways that seem uncomfortably like an embrace of internalized racism, but the director's craft complicates any easy readings. His images contradict, emphasize, and rework his text in increasingly difficult but affecting ways as the beauty of Lesotho butts up against the increasing furor of the soundtrack. A melancholic scores ascends and retreats. Moments of voices on the radio speaking cruelly of migrants arise but are quickly abandoned, oddly evoking a UFO conspiracy doc and heightening a sense of perverse unreality. Faces are blurred in a manner reminiscent of reality TV, the blur also extending to animals and images on t-shirts, effacement inscribing itself upon the image without ever quite overtaking it. The angel, who could be transgender or a queen, is thankfully never given an identity and is allowed to live in the fullness of her materiality. (I'm constantly seeking to momentarily achieve the same, either in my films or my life.) Reinvigorating a stale form of experimental cinema through a simple dedication to craft that results in endlessly evocative and polyvocal images, and reaching towards new perspectives on the horror of the global present, the film left me in tears. I cried for the beauty of the angel, who looked a bit like me but remained herself. I cried for craft and purity alongside pain and complication.
It was an emotional and difficult festival in many ways, but there was a certain reassurance to be found in these films that echoed or undermined my concerns and fears, comforted me or made me forget myself. A few days later, my cast and crew went to see a DJ whose music I had used in my film, Eris Drew, perform at Berghain. I began to relax, to look back at my body and my movement through the festival in that materialist fashion that some of the finest works I'd seen had urged. I felt displaced and present at once.
Premiering a film tends to leave me oddly despondent and agitated regardless of how well it goes, inevitably failing to provide the proper release of stress and emotion that one hopes for after years of work, and I left the premiere of So Pretty in precisely this state, though the film seemed to be well-received. The film is unbearably personal and features my hormonally restructuring body, thus merging my fears of reintegrating myself into the festival world in a different gender than when I was on the circuit with my previous film with the standard fears one harbors about its reception. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that I gravitated toward films that sought to reframe standard relationships to human bodies, be it through Schanelec's evasive formalism, Emigholz's architectural foregrounding, or otherwise. As my physical body felt all-too-present, on-screen and off, these films offered new perspectives on bodies that gave me hope and solace.