Berlinale 2021: Céline Sciamma, Jacqueline Lentzou and the other women who competed for the Golden Bear
Five of the 18 titles that competed for the Golden Bear, are directed or co-directed by women. A look at Petite Maman, Moon, 66 Questions, and Ballad of a White Cow.
I’ll begin with a shout-out to the web site womenandhollywood.com. It was founded in 2007, and it “educates, advocates, and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry.” It’s where I read the news about the female-director representation at the Berlinale.
Womenandhollywood.com noted that five of the 18 titles that competed for the Berlinale’s highest honour, the Golden Bear, are directed or co-directed by women, amounting to about 28 percent of the slate. (Last year, 33 percent of films in the Competition slate were helmed by women.)
No one, of course, wants a film selected just because it was made by a person of a particular gender, or belonging to a particular nationality, or any other representative criteria. Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux said, “Agnes (Varda) used to say to me, ‘I’m not a woman director, I’m a woman and a filmmaker – promise me you will never simply select a film because it’s made by a woman’.” Lina Wertmüller, too, said, “We are directors, not female directors. It doesn't make sense to me to mark differences between men and women filmmakers.”
But that said, it is equally important to ascertain whether the merit of the movie is indeed what makes it part of a festival line-up, and not just the fact that its (usually male) director is chummy with a “boys-only club” (which, frankly, is what many festivals are). Céline Sciamma proved her merit beyond doubt at Cannes in 2019, with her sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was the year Bong Joon-ho won the top prize for Parasite, and I would argue that – as much as I adore that movie – Sciamma’s is the film that will last longer, age better.
This year, Sciamma is the most high-profile female filmmaker at the Berlinale, and her Petite Maman is a gentle charmer. The first scene shows an old woman thinking with a pencil in her hand. Then, she lowers the pencil to a desk. We see that she is solving a puzzle. Then, through the most delicate of camera movements, we see that a little girl is beside her. The story revolves around this little girl – Nelly, who is eight and has just lost her beloved grandmother. She helps her parents clean out the grandmother’s home, and one day, she meets a young girl who resembles her a lot.
The film begins and ends with Nelly saying goodbye. In between, we see the cinematic equivalent of a “hello,” an introduction. Nelly – through a fabulous flight of Sciamma’s imagination – is introduced to her mother’s childhood. Imagine getting home-movie footage of what your parents were like as children. Imagine being able to interact with them (through these memories) from the vantage point of the present. Petite Maman is that act of imagination, rendered as pure poetry – and to reveal any more would be a spoiler. I will confess I found this slighter than Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But it’s immeasurably moving, and the most memorable evocation of childhood in a long time.
Due to the crammed online nature of the festival (so many films, so little time), I missed quite a few films made (or co-made) by women: like Maria Speth’s Mr Bachmann and His Class, and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box. But I squeezed Jacqueline Lentzou’s Moon 66 Questions, which is about a young woman, Artemis, who returns to Athens to take care of her ailing father (he has multiple sclerosis) and understands him for the first time.
This is not a personal drama, despite an outburst of angst where Artemis re-enacts a traumatic childhood scene in the privacy of her room, playing both her father and her own self. (The father is apparently one of those men who could never show affection to children.) The film is, as Lentzou describes it, a dream – “not the ones we make, but the ones we have. Dark, memorable, tender, intimate, private, striking, open, absurd. A collage of emotions shaped in images and memories transformed into present.”
This sentiment is echoed by the protagonist. Artemis says that ever since she returned to Athens, she doesn’t see dreams. At least, she doesn’t remember them. It’s as though reality mixes with the dream, which may explain why Tarot cards seem to function as chapter titles. Artemis wonders if the iced water that runs through her father’s veins can be thawed by the warmth of love, and therein lies the film’s secret. It is revealed through a faded photograph, which is another way of saying it’s a dream from a distant past.
Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s Ballad of a White Cow tells the story of an Iranian factory worker, Mina, whose husband has been executed. It's been a year since he died. Her brother-in-law asks her to stop wearing black, to bring some “fun” back into her life. But that's easier said than done. Mina is struggling to pay rent. She has a hearing-impaired daughter to look after. (The girl thinks daddy has gone someplace far away to work. She also wants to quit school.) And then it gets worse. Mina gets to know that the murder for which her husband was executed was actually committed by someone else. There’s a hefty compensation in store, from a contrite establishment, but is that going to make her life whole again?
You need to find a way to forget, a kindly neighbour says. “Some use drugs, some get drunk, some like me watch Turkish series.” But if Mina did any of that, there would be no movie. She demands an official apology for the slander on her husband. Meanwhile, a mysterious benefactor appears, and begins to help her. We’ve seen how death can affect the living. Here, we see how the death penalty can affect those who condemn people to die. There’s an excellent point made by a judge: If you think the death penalty is irreversible, then what about life imprisonment? Can someone get back 20 years he spent in jail? Chew on that for a minute. Ballad of a White Cow does what Iranian films do best. Without abstracting itself into Great Art, it tackles life’s big questions with disarming directness. It is simple. It is profound.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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