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.
Okul Tıraşı (Panorama / Turkey, Romania / Director: Ferit Karahan)
A boarding school deep in the Kurdish region of Turkey. The atmosphere is rough, the tone harsh, the authoritarianism relentless. When a boy gets sick his friend has a hard time getting help. Later the events leading to this point are unraveled, exposing a web of carelessness, a totalitarian education system, suppression, corruption and selfishness in which, in the end, the weakest will be the ones to blame. The camera is almost always on young Yusuf, his face, his bent body, the regid fear in all his demeanor. The images are as cold as the atmosphere, the winter puts an icy layer on the screen. The world we see is stifling, harsh, brutal in its inhumaneness. What starts as a social drama narrows into a micro detective story where everyone’s guilty, even the victims. The mechanisms of a system intent of suduing everyone are seen at work in the almost absurd failure to deal with an emergency but also in smal background scenes, glimpses of despair, miniatures of hopelessness. The brief moment of cheeky playfulness recede as everyone and everything, including family, is seen to be part of the system. As the focus narrows on the school’s cold sickroom, the world vbecomes smaller and amaller. A prison with no access to the outside world, a self-suppicient system of breaking souls. That end with devastating look, resign, accusing, defeated.
Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Competition / Germany / Director: Maria Speth)
Dieter Bachmann is a retiring teacher somewhere in the west of Germany. His class consists of a diverse mix of students with a broad variety of heritage, refugees, migrants, children and grandchildren of migrants. Everyone has a story to tell and Bachmann wants to hear them all. He gently coaxes and draws them out, encourages the pre- and early teens to reflect on their place in the world, prejudice, expectations, learned roles. He encourages community, helping each other, learning from each other. That doesn’t always work but his empowerment project, not entirely devoid of not completely modern teaching methods, has effect. In more than three and a half not at all long hours, director Maria Speth observes this collectiv learning process that always includes the teacher. Bachmann is the catalyst, the engine but he isn’t the main act. That can be found in his class, the young eople grasping for themselves, battling with each other, opening up to the reality of diversity. Surprising changes, perspectives and views come up, we witness learning, understanding, realising and accepting – not just with teacher and student but also within ourselves. And we see a miniature of society, an often denied one, multi-cultural, diverse, struggling and thriving, under pressure and willing to grow. A society with many problems the film acknowledges and never naively brushes away. An alternative, a way it could be, also a way education should and so often doen’t happen. This film is a lesson in the best sense, a lesson in, yes, of all things, life and living. Together, as it should be.
In Nous, Alice Diop moves along the RER B regional train route through Paris and drops in on the lives of people outside the public eye. There is the elderly caregiver, Diop’s sister whose clients provide glances into the struggles of old people no longer useful to society but also a richness in memories and generosity, society neds to make more use of. Diop films a Senegalese man repaiting cars, children sliding down a hill, groups of vong PoC chilling, interviews a writer reading from diaries. Juxtaposed in a church service celebrating the king executed in the French Revolution and a hunting party that seems to come from a different time. What starts almost like a naturalistic social study that is not immediately discernible as non-fiction turns into a calm, quietly observed mosaic of lives on the outside. Inserting footage of her dead father and an old Super 8 video with her long gone mather appearing, Diop includes her own history in what appears to be a warm, generous, patient picture of a society that only seems to exist on its fringes. What connect the monarchists and the immigrants wasting their lives away forgotten, what except the train running though all these lives? Alice Diop has no answer except her film in which all of this is connected through the power of the truthful camera eye. It tells its own story, benevolent, fragmented, honest, hopeful.
Una película de policías (Competition / Mexico / Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios)
In the end, they catch him. Agter a spectacular chase into an underground station, the two cops arrest the robber they started following several blocks away. The scene leading to theis is a mixture of hughly crafted genre fare and its own parody. Of course, it’s fake, a heroic as well as humorous look at police clichés. The reality is different and director Alonso Ruizpalacios comes at it from many angles. First he has to cops tell their story, quite convincingly until it turns out they’re just actors who are then shown rehearsing their lines as well as infiltrating police academies and departments to learn about being a cop, reflecting on it in video diaries, before the real cops appear, those they played and whose falling out with their superiors they have just enacted. Una película de policías is an elaborate dance of fiction and reality, of clichés and stereotypes and real experiences. In under two packed hours, the systemic problems are made clear, the corruption, the neglect, the utter cynicism of the statement in which cops are victims and culprits at the same time. But also the idealism of many shows, there is no black and white in the blue. It’s a wild ride in which acting becomes a metaphor for police work, where it is involved, too, though, as an actor says, whereas he acts within fantasy, they do so within reality. The levels mix, become almost indistinguishable. What’s real, what’s fake? Whatever it is, it’s serious as hell. And deadly. In many different ways.
Guzen to sozo (Competition / Japan / Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Two women meet on an escalator. They seem to recogniz each other as old friends or more. Even after noticing their mistake, they decide to continue to play, each taking the part of the one the other mistook her for. It’s the third part of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych about the what ifs of human relationships. And it#s a masterpiece in its light tone, it pale but bright and crisp images full of disappointment and hope, its exploration of what was and could have been as a gate towards moving on. It’s a masterpiece, too, in depecting women, the repressed feelings, lives as compromises, the strength of perseverence, the freedom an unexpected valve carries. All these are present in the other episodes, a love and friendship triangle with two alternative endings and a (rather weaker because of a more traditional stereotype of a woman coming to find herself through the tutoring of a man) failed and then ironically successful attempt at trapping a professor (with an ending that violates the rest of the film’s tone). Bound together by Robert Schumann’s piano music, these three miniatures composed of real-time scenes are glimpses into the eternal as well as very modern struggle to find a way in life and to other people that roles and expectations – society’s and those internalized – often handicap. The poetry of desire, emotion and self-determination and the ironic tragedy of the unknowable other creates a lightly treading, quietly intense gem that in the end, finds this elusive path in the irony of not recognizing who one thought one knew and getting to know if not them but at least oneself in the process. The viewer walks more lightly after the closing credits roll.
Petite Maman (Competition / France / Director: Céline Sciamma)
When her grandmother dies, 8-year-old Nelly gets to empty her old house with her parents. After the sudden departure of her mother, nelly finds a new companion with whom she has more in common than she expects. Paintes in gentle, slightly fading autumn colours, Petite Maman embarks on a quiet journey of self-discovery and the exploration of what it means to be a family, treading the awkward line between finding one’s individual identity and forging the connection with others. While the dialogue often appears beyond the years of those who speak it, it as well as the crossing of lines between the real and the imagines, the past and the present (or is it the future?) feels entirely natural, being narrated in a loconic, naturalistic way, the camera a close, but somewhat detached observer, a neutral eye, not wondering about what it sees but accepting it as a journey of discovery, a first step towards growing up. A keen observer of childhood, director Céline Sciamma brings tenderness as well as a sceptical distance to her story and protagonists. What blooms in the struggling light of the aging year, is not spectacular but it spans all ages, all lives while never abandoning the personal, individual stories it tells. A fleeting glimps, a deeply moving miniature, a great film in the best sense.
Inteurodeoksyeon (Competition / Republic of Korea / Director: Hong Sangsoo)
A young man, a young woman. In almost timeless black and white, a distant memory, a casual story told. By whom? Who knows. Three episodes does Hong Sangsoo build around the pair. Momentary glimpses the spaces between them the viewer has to fill. The stories remain sketchy, much to guess. It’s a film about the unknowable, the other person, that enigmatic being. As so often with Hong, the camera pretends to be a neutral observer but really shapes our view. Subtle zooms, slow moves from one face to the other, it accentuates, loneliness, distance. A film not directly commenting on but being informed by the pandemic. There is just one real physical touch, right at the end, a necessary one, almost apologetic. But it sets the screen on fire, highlighting what is missing in these lives dominated by the unspoken, the unspeakable, by a never-ending series of constant withdrawal. The other remains distant. Is she looking at us, two friemds wonder when spotting one of their mothers in the distance. They don’t try and find out. Don’t bother her, the son says. Just 66 minutes long, Hong’s film is an essay on the human condistion, a semi-abstract poem, a sketchy study on the lengths we go to not to bother each other. Until it explodes in an uncalled for embrace. Black and white magic, a sigh, a cry for love. A humble masterpiece.
Ich bin dein Mensch (Competition / Germany / Director: Maria Schrader)
Alma is a successful anthropologist who has given up on love and adopted a cynical facade following a traumatic event. She participates as an expert in an experiment to evaluate the ethical aspects of humanoid robots created to become a human’s perfect partner. Maria Schrader’s film is a quite entertaining back and forth as Alma struggles to stay aloof from Tom and not be enticed by his well-programmed affection which, of course, ultimately fails. It is to the film’s credit that it tries to address the wider-reaching ethical and philosophical issues of artificial intelligence and its drive towards becoming ever more human less in a preaching, dictactic way but as a natural part of the plot, of dialogue and interaction, by embedding the theoretical in the situational. It dows so by adopting feature of the romantic comedy, in a very Germany, a little rougher way. The taming of the shrew kind of stereotype isn’t too heavy-handed and the conventional storytelling has a light enough touch. In the end, however, the film opts for the easy way out, the lighter-hearted self-development slash romance angle. The friendly lighting conceals little but hides too much, the softening of the hardened woman cannot quite escape its sexist roots. Thus, the film falls short of the exploration of what it means to be human that it clearly tries to be but provides enough moments of hinting at it in a playful way to make it entertaining and reflective enough to send the viewer on their own train of thoughts – if they choose to embark on the journey.
When Benni and Katja finally embrace, after many fights, misunderstandings, accusation, we hear, faintly at first, then more pronounced, a heartbeat. Hers, his, theirs? We don’t know. But the entire film lies in this brief moment. The two are part of a group of teenagers in their final yer of school who form the core of Nackte Tiere, all of them with – mostly unexplained – parent issues, drifting, struggling through life on their own. Katja is a fighter, aggressive, unforgiving, a loner not easily compatible with others. Her on-off boyfriend Sascha is similar which is why they fit so well – and so badly. Schöller is the only one with what seems to be a more or less working family life, one who seeks warmth and closeness wherever it can be found. Laila, his girlfriend, has an abusive mother, and is still protective of her, while Benni is the one they all try to take care of, a lost soul sometimes wandering off on his own, one to be rescued but just might not want to be. The camera is close, moving with them, in an almost documentary-like naturalist fashion, it intrudes, doesn’t let go, stays too close for comfort as they fight, stick together, fall apart, go away on their own but always return to each other – until one of them doesn’t. The film does anything but romanticise friendship as it shows selfishness and the need for one another being constantly at war. And balancing each other out eventually as the desire to be independent and the care for the other remain both strong. Especially as grown-ups are hostile, ineffectual or simply absent. So they cling to each other because they’re all they have. Mentally, emotionally, physically. This fight to stay human, empathetic, committed can be found in every fibre of this energetic, often funny, at other times harrowing and always moving feverishly alive film.