Phew! Now, that the overall excitement of the Berlinale has settled and there is finally some time, I want to take a personal and selective look back at some of the islands in the festival stream. Here are the first three filmmakers (of four films) that impressed me endlessly and –what a coincidence- all three are female first-time directors who made great and unusual art and hopefully have a long and exciting career ahead of them.
Unquestionably one of the biggest joys of the festival was the discovery of young female director Josephine Decker who had both her debut film and her second feature shown at the Forum. From the first blurry shots of Butter on the Latch to the wonderfully insane ending of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Decker gave her audiences two thrilling cinematic rides that were refreshingly unconventional and often experimental, all in all shamelessly wild and almost bursting with energy and artistic dynamism.
Butter on the Latch starts with an out-of-focus horror scenario of a young woman waking up naked in a garage in New York not remembering how she got got there and who the people she is surrounded by are. Cut. Her and her best friend (amazing screen presence and great improv skills: Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence) are in the middle of a Redwood Forest hide-away joining a Balkan culture festival while an elliptical story of friendship, love, and death ensues. Mixing documentary techniques with elements of performance art and a good portion of horror ingredients, Decker investigates the questions of sexuality and solidarity in a film that feels simultaneously raw and sophisticated. Not concerned with a greater narrative logic, Butter on the Latch leaves many questions unanswered. Some audience members might have finally realized that a constant “What the fuck?” feeling can a be a brilliant strategy to dare the viewers to make sense of a film on their own instead of having a story explained and narrated to death (pun intended).
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is set on a midwestern farm and is maybe less open in form but equally surprising in storyline and content. Decker’s second film starts with the arrival of a nerdy and horny seasonal labourer at a secluded farm in the US and ends with the violent destruction of all things sacred, above all patriarchy and the nuclear family – hurray! Small parts of the film are told from the perspective of a cow (!) and filmed through the beautiful and enigmatic camera eyes of Ashley Connor who seems to share a mind with Decker when it comes to translating the unexpected and the uncanny into mesmerizing images. I’m such a fan that I could write a book about all this, but in all fairness, there are still a few others I want to mention. Just one more thing: though never waving the flag of feminism at any point, Decker and her almost all-female team (including equally great performer Sophie Traub and associate producer Artemis Shaw) gave a great and encouraging example of how female solidarity, friendship, and unbound creativity can fight the flaws of independent funding systems (both films are basically no-budget). And lastly, what a relief to see a new and uncompromising filmmaker with the courage to trust in her own artistic vision instead of obeying narrative logic or filmic conventions.
Taking about solidarity, it was a sweet gesture of Josephine Decker to congratulate her friend and colleague Anja Marquardt on her film debut on Facebook when Marquardt’s She’s Lost Control won the price of the international association of art house cinemas this year. She’s Lost Control is a poetic and increasingly eerie exploration of sexuality, urban life, and loneliness. A young single woman in New York (amazing: Brooke Bloom) works as a sexual surrogate for men with intimacy and sex issues. She meets her clients for private sessions at their homes or in hotel rooms and talks about their problems before the physical begins. Marquardt cleverly interweaves the professional with the personal situation of her protagonist Ronah and manages to combine them to some sociological observations.
The topic of female sexuality and the female body (as a powerful commodity or a site of self-determination) is re-established in a subplot in which Ronah has some of her eggs taken out and frozen so that once she decides to have children, she won’t have to rely on time, biology, or men. Secondly, the personal isolation of both Ronah and her clients is retold through the architectural aura and general living situation in Manhattan. With no friends and scarce social contacts outside work, Ronah seems more and more alienated and isolated. Her apartment becomes but a precarious refuge from the concrete world outside and little by little, Ronah seems to loose control.
Finally, the young Japanese director Ayumi Sakamoto blew my mind with her daring 2,5-hour debut, Forma. Learning her craft through assistance jobs on films of Shin’ya Tsukamoto (A Snake of June, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man), Sakamoto presented a film of such focus and power that it was hard to believe it was her first time behind the camera (also writing the screenplay). Narrated through long, austerely framed and mostly immobile images, Forma tells the tale of two women whose friendship is poisoned by competition and hierarchal work situations.
Ayako (jaw dropping Nagisa Umeno as the manipulative superior) offers her old friend Yuraki (Emiko Matsuoka as the unpredictable victim) a job at her firm. Instead of integrating and encouraging Yuraki, Ayako patronises and criticises her friend until she finally starts operating against her behind her back. When the film has already reached feature film length, we realise that some of the scenes are suddenly repeated, but framed differently and told through a slightly different perspective. A postmodern nightmare scenario ensues and culminates in an almost 30-minute single shot taken by a hidden surveillance camera. Supervision, surveillance, voyeurism, envy – Forma combines all these things and at the same time makes a few great statements about film as a medium – that sometimes invisible things matter, that images require attention and that film can be a beautiful enigma, and a masterfully artistic one at that.