Berlinale 2019: ‘Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know’ is a Quiet Triumph
‘Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know’ is a tender documentary looking at Syrian refugees in East Germany.
The Valley of the People Who Don’t Know refers to the area near Dresden in East Germany that’s furthest away from West Berlin and the West German border. It was given that name because it was the only area in the German Democratic Republic that radio signals from the West could not penetrate. As the story goes, the people lived in ignorance, blissfully unaware about the world outside them. In short, it was the most GDR-like place in the whole GDR.
Things have changed since the Cold War. Saxony is reckoning with a new challenge: the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees. It is a political flashpoint for the mostly white, formerly industrial region, leading to the disturbing reemergence (or re-acceptance) of Nazis and other far-right fascists, most notably in Chemnitz. How can these Arabs, who would much rather be somewhere multikulti (multicultural) like Hamburg or Berlin, integrate into a society filled with so much hate?
The generously titled Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know has an imaginative approach to integration, tying the current struggles of the Syrian people to the issues once faced by the East German people. The result is a fascinating experimental documentary that says more interesting things about Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old regime) than the perils of emigration.
It’s set in the town of Neustadt in Sachsen. Lying on the border with the Czech Republic, it is a beautiful place, with houses built in the typical, pastel-coloured style, surrounded by rolling hills and meadows. Once the centre of the GDR’s agricultural industry — Fortschritt (Progress) refers to the brand of tractors produced by the GDR — it now has an unemployment rate of 10.5%. Older men who look back on these days with fondness are tasked with helping a group of young Syrian refugees integrate into German society.
German lessons are given in abandoned factories, with the portrait of Erich Honecker (leader of the GDR from 1971-1989) still lingering on the wall, Soviet-style. Things then take a surreal, The Act of Killing-like (in style, not subject matter) turn, as the young men reenact elements of GDR time, including attending classrooms and doing military service. Meanwhile, the old East Germans use their time as integration managers to reflect on how drastically Germany has changed in the past thirty years, and whether or not the GDR was a force for good or evil. The implication is that both Syrians and East Germans have struggled as a result of top-down leadership, and this common suffering could be the force that finally binds them.
The topic of racism towards refugees is constantly in the background here, yet Progress complicates obvious black-and-white conclusions about the former GDR being more hostile towards foreigners as a result of its unique post-industrial situation. Old footage reveals Erich Honecker meeting Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) in the early 80s, with Germans lining the streets to celebrate the friendship between the two nations.
Fascinatingly enough, these old images are not simply inserted into the narrative, but shown through film itself projected on walls, as if to create a deliberately artificial distance between the past and the present. Director Florian Kunert seemingly enjoys creating this kind of unresolved tension, providing no easy answers to the question of integration into a town that never recovered from the loss of its factories. Avant-garde throughout and containing no voiceover whatsoever, it simply asks the viewer to observe and come to their own conclusions. While undoubtably more interesting for those with intimate knowledge of German culture, its reflections on society, integration and nostalgia contain universal resonance. A quiet triumph.
Berlinale 2019: ‘Greta’ Is an Important Tale, Turgidly Told
‘Greta’, inspired by the famous performance by Garbo in ‘The Grand Hotel,’ shares its inspiration’s lifeless quality.
An old nurse and a criminal strike up an unorthodox relationship in Greta, a moody queer drama from Brazil. Coming at a time when the full ugliness of homophobia has reared its head in the Latin American country, it’s a gentle reminder of the humanity of LGBT people just when they need it most. Still, its repetitive dramatic conflict, uninvolved dialogue, and stagey camerawork render the subject matter rather inert, delivering a film ultimately lacking in hard-hitting emotion.
Pedro (Marco Nanini) is a man desperately in need of human contact; he’s old and irascible, but cares deeply for his friends. His transgender girlfriend, Daniela (Denise Weinberg), is in the hospital, but the doctors won’t put her in the women’s unit, and Daniela refuses to go in the men’s unit. Yet, after finally convincing her to take a room in the men’s section, Pedro finds that the bed has been taken by Jean (Demick Lopes), a wounded criminal awaiting the police. Pedro helps him escape in exchange for giving Daniela a bed, and later, Daniela refuses to seek medical help for her terminal condition while the police are hot on the tail of Jean. Pedro, stung by the rejection from his girlfriend, builds a new relationship with Jean, in the process coming to terms with his own life.
The key to his character is his fascination with Greta Garbo, especially her legendary performance as a reluctant ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932). Her famous line from the movie — “I just want to be left alone” — spoke to Greta Garbo’s own dissatisfaction with Hollywood, especially after the sound era reduced her immense fame. Pedro even gets turned on by associating himself with the star, asking lovers to call him by her name. The irony of Garbo is that she doesn’t really want to be left alone in Grand Hotel, and neither does Pedro, who believes that Jean may be the one to repair his broken heart. It’s a fitting reference; Grand Hotel is a so-so movie elevated by a great Greta Garbo performance, while Greta is a so-so movie with only one thing worth really celebrating.
Greta deserves credit for its explicit homosexual sex, which, with the exception of one scene in a brothel, is always tethered to the plot. Director Amrando Praca reveals so much vulnerability and strength through body language alone here, his long takes really absorbing us into the sexual lives of our characters. My issue is that these long takes are also deployed for nearly every other scene, and talky one-take arguments quickly lose their power as they drag on too long. While the initial scenes between Pedro and Jean haunt us in their seductive dance, later confrontations veer too much into conventional crook-on-the-run territory.
Additionally, considering that Pedro falls for a literal criminal, it would have been interesting to see the film explore the context of homosexuality in Brazil and its current issues a little bit more. We do see sweaty dark rooms and glittering bars, but outside of these moments Greta feels rather thin on the ground. Sweet, but underwhelming.
Berlinale 2019: ‘The Awakening of the Ants’ is a Fine Study of Personal Change
‘The Awakening of the Ants’ subtly critiques Costa Rican gender relations through one woman’s personal change.
Isa’s hair is very long. She braids it to stop tangling, and washes it outside with a large bucket of water. Despite her best efforts, however, her hair still finds its way into the unlikeliest of places, such as her sewing machine and her familial bed.
Her approach to hair is somewhat like her approach to life: constantly organising, cutting, and shaping things to her desire. Balancing looking after two kids with her job as a seamstress, Isa has to do a million things at once, while couching her wishes within a framework that is respectable for a woman in Costa Rican society. Suffering from exhaustion, Isa faces a crisis when her husband expresses a desire for another child.
He is not a stereotypically toxic man. He is not a brute, neither is he a layabout. He is a product of a patriarchal environment, simply expecting his wife to provide for him. The point the film makes is that any man can be like this if he doesn’t listen to his wife’s needs. Shaping herself to his comfort in the economic, gastronomic, and the reproductive departments is too much for Isa, who finds a novel way to undercut her husband’s best efforts to conceive.
The Awakening of the Ants is a fine study of personal struggle that doubles up as a critique of a society that expects women to have as many children as God can allow. One early scene tells us the way the film is going: after Alcida’s family constantly pressure Isa to have another baby, she imagines herself destroying the family cake, aptly decorated with the shape of a cross. It’s undeniably heavy-handed, but nonetheless effective.
This is one of many metaphors used to illuminate both personal and political change. Hair is one of them, as are the different fabrics Isa weaves together to create beautiful dresses. The ants of the title, which creep into Isa’s house against her wish, seem to suggest the incremental movement of progress while hinting at the broader struggle all women must contend against. Ants may not be powerful by themselves, but together they can achieve almost anything.
Much of the movie’s power resides in the quiet conversations between Isa and Alcida. Director Antonella Sudasassi has a great knack of framing these conflicts within the domestic space. Rarely is there a two-shot scene of the two bickering, but instead the director centres these arguments around broken lamps, money in the pot, and raising the children, all with the little ones constantly breaking into the scene. Like the Netflix show Tidying up With Marie Kondo, it reveals the extent some women go to in order to ensure a perfect household, while men are unable to acknowledge the physical and mental efforts expended. With a strong focus on objects and metaphor itself, the conflicts in Ants lead to very satisfying pay-offs later on.
The film’s success rests upon Valenciano’s performance. She does a great job of embodying this internal change, one that doesn’t even manifest at first in any obvious way. She is not a perfect domestic goddess — simply a woman trying to do her best for the man she loves. Coupled with the confident and calm direction of Sudassassi, The Awakening of the Ants is a strong portrait of womanhood undergoing fundamental change.
Berlinale 2019: Settlements are Suicide in Israeli Drama ‘The Day After I’m Gone’
First time director Nimrod Elder’s Isreali drama ‘The Day After I’m Gone’ can’t quite figure out what it wants to say.
A quiet bereavement drama with international overtones, The Day After I’m Gone uses the theme of suicide as a metaphor for the state of Israel. Slowly peeling layer after layer to reveal the darkened heart underneath, it argues that inaction can often be the worst sin of all. Smart and complex right up until the final act, its power lies in the strength of its two central performances.
Yoram (Menashe Noy) is a veterinarian at a safari park. An early scene indicates his non-committal approach to life: driving along the park, he notices a man standing outside his car. He tries to convince him to get back inside, considering the obvious dangers of hanging around wild rhinos. He talks in vain until a park ranger arrives, shouts angrily, and gets the man back to safety. This scene displays Yoram’s inability to convince anyone to do anything, especially his daughter, Roni (Zohar Meidan), who has been missing for two days.
Yoram files a police report, and they ask him if he knows any of her social media log ins. He does not. He seems concerned, yet she comes home the next day and he doesn’t bother trying to speak to her. The next day, she tries to kill herself, and is saved only by the intervention of the police monitoring online messaging boards. Yoram has no idea how to deal with any of this; he can’t ask his wife for help, as she is already dead — a possible reason why Roni feels so low. A call from his mother-in-law, however, gives him an idea for a road trip and a potential place to bond. They drive across the desert towards one of the most controversial places in the world: a Jewish settlement in Palestinian land.
It quickly becomes evident that first-time writer-director Nimrod Eldar has bigger things on his mind than mere family drama. He doesn’t use the occupation as a direct metaphor for Yoram’s inability to connect with Roni, yet the tension with Palestine creates a source of permanent sense of unease for the residents in the settlement, as well as their tense relationship with Yoram. If only it was incorporated into the plot in a more satisfying way.
A magician they meet on the way says that he can bend spoons, but when Yoram presses him, he refuses to show his trick. This is symptomatic of the film of the whole, which steadfastly refuses to reveal what it’s really about. Is it trying to make a deep statement about problematic elements of the Isreali state, or simply leaving things open to interpretation? This central mystery drives the movie right up until the point that it doesn’t, refusing to commit one way or another. The broader thematic elements eventually serve as a distraction from the serious issue of suicide, depression, and bereavement that The Day After I’m Gone is trying to tackle.
Menashe Noy is suitably subtle as the indecisive father, a man who evidently loves his daughter but cannot find the energy to figure out why she wants to die, and Zohar Meidan complements this performance excellently, digging deep to find real resentment and sadness behind the self-hatred. They make the film worth watching, even if it can’t quite figure out what it wants to say. No one would expect the filmmaker to make an outright criticism of these settlements, yet a little more confrontation seems to be in order.
Berlinale 2019: ‘Far From Us’ is a Tedious Experience
‘Far From Us’, now premiering at the Berlinale Forum Section, is a truly life-draining cinematic experience.
Far From Us starts with a farmer herding a group of bulls through the forest; savour this moment. Drink it in. Appreciate the ancient skill handed through the generations. This is the most exciting the film gets, with the final product qualifying as one of the most tedious experiences ever committed to celluloid. While intriguing from an ethnographic point of view, Far From Us (Una hermana) seems completely disinterested in its own source material, ultimately resembling the opposite of cinema itself.
The story concerns Ramira (Marcia Majcher), a young mother who has come back home with her three-year-old boy. She is known as the “runaway” by the German family her mother married into, as she left the farm to work in a hotel in the city. These are poor people, with the older farmer admitting he may have to sell a piece of his land to pay for a relative’s quinceanera (15th birthday party). Ramira’s mother wants her to come back home for good, but she cannot stand being back — leading to yet another “grand” escape…
It’s fascinating to learn that there are ethnic German farmers in the depths of the Argentinean rainforest! How did they get there? What kind of relationship do they have with the Spanish speakers? Are they Volga Germans, or did they flee Germany post WWII? Is there any tension? There are so many interesting questions, but none of them are answered. The film uses this contrast as a backdrop to Ramira’s disdain for home, but sadly it isn’t explored in any dramatically rich detail. While intriguing from an ethnographic point of view — a cursory Google search of Germans in Argentina reveals that 3.5 million ethnic Germans live in the South American country — the impact on the plot is cursory at best.
My main problem with Far From Us is that everyone acts every single scene in the exact same way, which begs the question: why should we be interested in characters who are so uninteresting? Why does Ramira want to get away so badly if she is exactly the same with and without her poor family? There is no energy, no contrast, and definitely no catharsis. Even the grand dance scene is completely bereft of energy, with both Germans and Spanish alike moving like they’re in a zombie movie. Perhaps this is the point — to show how life for these poor people has become so hard that they can’t even celebrate a young girl’s birthday properly anymore — but it makes for very dull cinema. I tried not to blink, worried that I might fall asleep within an instant.
I’m not surprised to find that one of the filmmakers also worked on So Long Enthusiasm, which debuted at Berlinale two years ago. Both films share a complete disdain for engaging plot lines, empathetic characters or even scenes of particular note. While the cinematography — roving shots of farmers herding cattle and catching snakes — is accomplished, it would’ve been much better as a short documentary than a feature-length film, especially one that stretches the very boundaries of enjoyability.
Berlinale 2019: ‘Retrospekt’ is Downright Irresponsible
‘Retrospekt’ is a non-linear domestic violence drama which unwisely suggests that women are sometimes responsible for the violence of men.
The perils of always trying to do the right thing are brutally examined in Retrospekt, a domestic violence drama with shades of John Cassavetes. Taking morally tricky subject matter and running it through the narrative ringer, it’s a complicated and provocative work that’s unlikely to gain many supporters. While excellently acted and ambitiously edited, its message leaves a sour taste in the mouth that is hard to shake off.
The story starts with the heavily pregnant Mette (Circé Lethem) trying on new trousers in a shop, when she hears another woman being physically abused in the stall opposite. She tries to comfort the woman, but the man returns and is verbally aggressive. Mette tries to tell her husband, Simon (Martijn van der Veen), about it, before suffering one of many mental breakdowns we will see throughout this movie.
This early scene tells you everything you need to know about Mette: she cares, and this will be her main downfall. Taking three months maternity leave to take care of her second child while her husband jettisons around Europe on business, she can’t stop thinking about one of her clients at the Domestic Abuse center, a Flemish woman named Miller (Lien Wildemeersch) who lives in constant fear of her estranged husband. Mette invites the unstable woman to stay over, but almost instantly gets into trouble when the woman tries to call her husband over. This leads to a devastating set of events explicitly telegraphed from the very start.
Told before and after this questionable decision (surely the Dutch authorities can organize a shelter?), the jerky narrative reflects Mette’s own mental state as she desperately tries to remember what led her to this unfortunate position. The editing helps to create a sense of mania, often cutting to events as they are happening. It creates a great sense of onward momentum, never letting the audience breathe, but this manic tone can be hard to sustain over an entire movie, especially as we know what will eventually happen to Mette. Retrospekt appears to take delight in its own cruelty; why bother, it asks when these women don’t want to get better?
This worldview is complemented by the strange soundtrack (featuring original tracks with baritone and soprano singing, tuba, timpani, and clavichord) lending an ironic, surreal element to Mette’s otherwise harrowing experience. Totally left-field, its a great example of how music can completely transform how one views a film. Additionally, the sound design, full of low-rumbling tones, sudden jerky noises, and high-pitched ringing, helps to stress Mette’s shattered mental state.
Nonetheless, we never really get into what drives Mette, as if she’s afraid to confront it herself. It’s evident that she has her own mental issues and maybe her own history of abuse, but these are never explored in much detail. Lethem goes for broke in the central performance, able to convey fear, resilience, and vulnerability often within the same facial expression. Yet, she deserves a story that empathizes with her character instead of setting her up for an artificial fall with a soundtrack that treats it as a lark. The discrepancy between performance and execution is disturbing.
What are we supposed to think of Mette’s behaviour? On the one hand, the illogicality of her actions speaks truer to real life than conventional decision making, as high-pressure situations can always cause people to act in the strangest of ways. On the other hand, certain events make it look like she is being blamed for her own goodness. Is this message — don’t try and stop domestic violence from happening because you could get hurt yourself – really worth promoting in a world where women are still killed daily by their aggressive husbands? Without offering any smart alternatives, Retrospekt crosses over into potentially dangerous territory very quickly. At its very worst, it’s downright irresponsible.
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