Berlinale Summer Special 2021: Reviews Part 3

By Sascha Krieger

The Scary of Sixty-First (Encounters / United States / Director: Dasha Nekrasova)

Actor Dasha Nekrasova’s directorial debut is a wild ride. The story of two friends moving into an apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side and discovering the place’s dark history is a feast for fans of the horror genre. Mixing influences from, among others, occult horror, psychological thriller and the Italian „Giallo“ subgenre of the early 1970s, The Scary of Sixty-First is full of the various influences‘ esthetics, the restless camera, the distorted images, the unsettling soundtracks, the grainy fuzziness, a descent from clean day to the blood-red night, a rich palette of instruments straight from horror’s toolbox. The story dives right into politics, feminism, crimes against women and children. We learn that notorious Jeffrey Epstein was the apartment’s previous owner. As a young woman investigating Epstein’s death joins, mysterious things happen, signs are discovered, nightmares reign, conflicts arise, demonic possession and murder follow. The film is entirely over the top as the genre demands but it is efficient in marrying its conventions with the suppressive circle of power that is patriarchy. Constantly, notions just established are deconstructed, expectations thwarted, the film plays with conspiracy theories until they almost make sense leading to an ending as bitter as cynical, as sarcastically ironic as disturbing, as satisfying for genre fans ands it is unsettling for everyone else.

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The Scary of Sixty-First (Image: © Stag Pictures)

Ste. Anne (Forum / Canada / Director: Rhayne Vermette)

A woman returns home after an unexplained absence. She meets and reconnects with her daughter which causes friction with her brother and sister-in-law who had brought up the girl until now. Or at least this could be a summary if this were a film that cared about a „story“ or some sort of stringent, even linear narration. Ste. Anne, filmed with director and actor Rhayne Vermette’s own family and acquaintances from the Métis nation living in rural Manitoba, is more of a kaleidoscope (the director’s word), a scenic collage full of almost documentary-style miniatures, pale empty landscapes, feverish dream and ghost scenes, visual irritations, a succession of half-forgotten stories patched together, pulled from visions or lost in the sea of unreliable memory. The result is a willfully fragmented mosaic, intentionally hermetic, a little too much in love with itself but occasionally opening glimpses into the tender fragility of human relationships, a community’s struggle to marry tradition and modernity, the power of heritage and stories as well as the joy in them. The mosaic is broken, too many parts are missing but those that remain reveal a collective as well as individual histories that are fraught, troubled, not so easy to deal with but worth taking a closer look at. At times, Ste. Anne manages exactly this, at others it refuses to do so.

Beans (Generation Kplus / Canada / Director: Tracey Deer)

The winner of this year’s Glass Bear award is a growing up tale with a twist. Clearly targeting a younger audience, the coming of age part of the story is a little on the more simplistic, even clichéd side. Tekahentahkhwa, called Beans, is a girl of Mohawk descent who is scheduled to attend a renowned private school before she falls in with the rough neighbourhood crowd, rebels against her loving and only slightly overbearing mother before she lovingly comes around to reason in a final sequence the message of it is not quite so easy to stomach. Characters, including Beans‘, are a little two-dimensional in what would be the ten millionth rehashing of a tried and trusted story were it not for its setting. For Beans is set against the backdrop of the Oka crisis in which, in 1990, a Mohawk protest against a planned golf course erupts into a violent standoff and racist attacks. In a mixture of fictitious scenes and TV footage the violent mob attacks and the racist hate are drastically depicted, giving Beans’s story an added element of growing up also meaning finding her place in and an attitude towards a hostile socielty that regards her as second-class. The film carefully depicts this gradual process of understanding what had been hidden from her in a more careful way than her initial struggle with puberty, the private and the political remaining a little at odds in this uneven film that is a haunting portrayal of what it means to search for an identity in a world that has chose to deny it. As a coming of age story, however, it is a much lazier effort.

Una escuela in Cerro Hueso (Generation Kplus / Argentina / Director: Betania Cappato)

Ema love shapes. She traces them with her fingers: the outlines of the stuffed animals in the science institution her mother works in or the cut-out pictures on her classroom wall. Ema is autistic, she cannot speak, she does not seem to interact with anyone. After being rejected by every school they applied to, her parents move with her to a tiny village whose school in willing to take Ema. In a series of clearly separated documentary-like scenes, we are allowed to visit their worlds, Ema’s as well as her parents. As the girl is integrated in a school life not built but gently adapted for her, her father tries to become a villager while her mother investigates the mass death of fish in the nearby river. Evolution is a leitmotif and as the fish evolve and adapt so does Ema. The gentle love of her classmates, the tender care of parents and teachers begins eliciting smiles. In her, in her mother, in her father. The soundtrack is a bridge that allows the film wander carefully between the realities – that of Ema, symbolized by a distancing soundscape of music and exaggerated sounds of nature, and that of the others, enacted in a style, visually and in acting, that reminds the viewer of a documentary. The camera is never still but always gently flowing, the evolution a common experience of learning that connects protagonists and audience. Not much happens and in it, everything as we witness, no, become part of a beginning, togetherness, the real power of love. A quiet miracle of empathy in its truest form.

(Updated: June 20, 2021)

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