Saturday, February 21, 2009

Every Good Boy Deserves Teddies

Roundup of the 59th Berlin International Film Festival by Sophie Mayer

Only at the Berlinale could you buy a cuddly plush version of the film’s totem – the Berlinale Bear – dressed ready for the hanky code. Splendid in his black neckerchief, the teddy Bear sums up the festival spirit: queer and anarchic (yet family-friendly) on the one hand; and corporate horror on the other (25 for a teddy?!). Berlin, which is the first European festival of the film buying year, has become an increasingly important market venue for films small and large, and under its previous director was considered to have become a bit too Hollywoodised. But this year’s program has disproved that, with several politically challenging films such as Michael Winterbottom’s documentary of The Shock Doctrine and Udi Aloni’s Kashmir: Journey to Freedom which the Indian government asked to be withdrawn. There was also, delightfully, some good German old-fashioned New Queer Cinema from Monika Treut and Ulrike Ottinger. Still, the festival’s an odd compromise: you’re as likely to be given a free makeover by L’Oreal in the Potsdamer Platz as to bump into John Greyson in his luminous orange tartan bondage trousers.
Greyson’s new film, Fig Trees, is one of the highlights of a full and varied Teddy catalogue this year and I’ll sprinkle my glittering praise in a minute. Not a programme per se, the Teddy is an award given for the best film on a queer theme, including features, documentaries and shorts, across all the different programmes (which are also markets) at the festival. So, from the Competition – the most high-profile programme – there’s Sally Potter’s Rage. On the surface a satire on fashion, Rage is an indictment of the very market logic that forces stars to parade themselves on the red carpet in Berlin’s inevitable snow. It’s a reclamation of beauty from the bankers, and central to its ravishing struggle is Jude Law as Minx, a Russian-American supermodel. Minx refers to herself in the third person as “she” but the film leaves open the question of how Minx understands this pronoun for herself.

While not as centrally queer as Orlando, Rage is deeply concerned with that queerest of themes: what we say of ourselves and what (secretly) we cannot say but long to. Its compassion is amplified by its stunningly simple visual style; shot in tiny photographers’ studios using greenscreen, the film is also a message to budding filmmakers who think their projects are unlikely to get funding. Potter, a friend of Derek Jarman’s, is one of the few filmmakers committed to his mission of: make things with what you have. That ambition and excitement has been visible in a few other films at the festival, notably Kan Door Huid Heen (Can Go Through Skin), a first feature from Dutch director Esther Rots. Shot in a freezing dilapidated cottage in Zeeland, it’s not a Teddy film because its protagonists are straight, but its attention to bodily detail – both pleasure and disgust – and to the wayward paths of desire is definitely queer to me.

Of the other few Competition films with Teddy qualities, I was most excited about The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of her own novel. I loved Pippa in the book, the story of her self-invention as a perfect housewife to contain the chaos of her own desires, which include an SM relationship with her aunt’s girlfriend. Hearing that Julianne Moore was playing the saucy writer Kat, I was even more excited. But the film – conscious, no doubt, of the wider and more conservative audience that a film has to lay claim to in order to get a budget – plays that disturbingly erotic relationship for laughs, just one of the ways that the force of the book is blunted. Still, a newly-slender and shirtless Keanu is a pansexual delight.

But the most beautiful people on show, for me, were in two documentaries with a difference, my nominees for the Teddy. Greyson’s Fig Trees, a project eight years in the making, riffs on Gertrude Stein’s famous opera Four Saints in Three Acts to document the ongoing lives of two AIDS activists, Tim McCaskell from Canada, and Zackie Achmat from South Africa. Queering the idea of saints, Greyson weaves together an operatic meditation with an immense number of intellectual, philosophical, erotic, linguistic, and eccentric strands (something I loved in Rage as well). From the anal resonances of Stein’s “pigeons on the grass, alas” (helps if you say it in an American accent), through the resonance of TB-stricken opera heroines for PWA, to the astonishing beauties of the human voice and the body from which it emerges, Greyson’s film overflows with life that’s impossible to summarize. Sometimes the screen is split into five or six images to (not) contain it. Woven through the film, though, is a central contrast between community-based activism and its transnational connections, and corporate “social responsibility” as a kinder, softer, more fashionable globalisation. The film renames Bono’s (RED) campaign (PINK) and savagely and brilliantly attacks its hypocrisies. Another film for the sponsors to love.

Blame Canada! as someone once said so wisely. Also for the wicked five-minute short The Island by Albertan filmmaker Trevor Anderson. After an interminable shorts program (anyone looking for the new New Brutalist cinema, it’s going to come from Ukraine and it’s going to make The Death of Mr. Lazarescu look like Scrubs), The Island came as a brisk eye-refresher as Anderson walks across an endless snow prairie while his voice-over meditates on an email he received from the US suggests that he and all the faggots move to an island and infect each other with AIDS. Through animation, said island is duly imagined. Like Greyson, Anderson refuses the sentimentalities that would have him say, “Oh, and we’d never infect each other with AIDS!” Instead, he imagines PWA celebrated, feasted, and honoured. The fantasy collapses – “lonely” says Anderson, stranded in the snow – but the film still sent me out zinging.

But Fig Trees isn’t an amuse-bouche; it’s a masterwork. It echoes the pop-cult OutRageousness of Zero Patience but also the seductive aesthetic of the more recent Proteus, whose co-director Jack Lewis is Achmat’s partner. Co-incidences, resonances, echoes of earlier work, connections between McCaskell and Achmat: both the activism and the film are built on this connectivity, on queer community. That sense of an intertwinedness that keeps on growing and including other nodes, like Celtic knotwork, is also at the heart of City of Borders, a first documentary feature by Yun Suh. Drawing on her experience making news documentaries, including in Gaza in 2002, Suh documents the life and times of Jerusalem’s Shushan. A gay bar, and more than a gay bar, Shushan served as a rallying point and safer space in a city dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and also a meeting-point, a bar where Palestinians and Israelis mingled freely.

The film opens on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Ramallah, following a group of young guys climbing over. Risking their lives to go dancing, you could say. But they’re climbing over to be somewhere they can be their whole selves in public, with friends. That’s a rare space anywhere in the world, and Shushan was something of a miracle. Sa’ar, the city councillor who opened the bar, is one of the film’s six subjects, but the doc is balanced so that you don’t feel he’s more important than the amazing people who make up his clientele and community.

It’s clear that Suh fell in love with kohl-eyed, languid, gorgeous Boody, who leads his merry band from Ramallah to Shushan and performs there as Miss Haifa. A devout Muslim who has utterly reconciled his faith and his sexuality, he’s almost too perfect a subject to be true. The same could be said of Samira and Ravit, a Palestinian and an Israeli, living in lesbian doctor bliss. Utterly committed to each other (although both flirting with Suh behind the camera) but under no illusions about the complexity of their situation – in that Ravit wants children, and Samira doesn’t – Samira and Ravit win this Berlinale’s Lesbian Idol hands down.

The competition’s pretty thin. Wrassling it out for most disappointing films of the festival, for me, would be a reprise of the lesbian killer motif in Lucía Puenzo’s El Niño Pez (adapted from her own novel) and Julie Delpy’s The Countess. Delpy plays Erzebet Bathory, the Hungarian countess notorious for bathing in the blood of virgin girls. There’s an Ann-Marie Macdonald play that turns this legend into a passionate lesbian horror romance, but this is not that film. Delpy’s Erzebet is bisexual, forming a close relationship with Darvoulia, her apothecary – beautifully played by the luminous Anamaria Marinca – although the passion that counts is for men. But the film suggests, in its slightly inarticulate way, that that’s because of the patriarchal trap that pincers Erzebet as a powerful woman who can pick and choose lovers at will, but is dependent on them for her sense of self. Darvoulia is the only voice of reason once the murders begin – a refreshing change as the film initially suggests that she will kill Erzebet’s young lover (puppy-faced Daniel Brühl in the Keanu Reeves role) out of jealousy.
Jealousy’s the key to Niño Pez, a strange and fierce jealousy about the relationship between fathers and daughters. Puenzo clearly realises that she has the makings of a lesbian icon in actor Inés Efron, who scorched the screen in XXY. So you get Inés in the bath, Inés in a schoolgirl outfit, Inés in the bath, Inés kissing her girlfriend at a bar, Inés visiting her girlfriend in prison, Inés pulling a gun to save her girlfriend… It’s like the Inés Efron generic dyke thriller 2009 calendar. There is interesting stuff going on: Ailín, the girlfriend, is also Lala’s (Efron) family maid. She’s Guayani, from across the border in Paraguay. But class, ethnicity, illegal workers: these issues are never woven into the story to enflesh Lala and Ailín’s passion. We don’t really know what they know of each other.

The viewer knows little more about what there is between Hamburg-based artist Sophie and Ai-ling, a Taiwanese student visiting her family in Germany. Most of their relationship is expressed through videos made by Sophie, and shown in an exhibition in Taipei after Ai-ling’s death, at which Sophie meets journalist Mei-li, who pursues her to Hamburg to discover what happened to Ai-ling. Like Niño Pez, Ghosted is told by interweaving past and present, which should give intensity to Sophie’s grief, but Inga Busch’s performance is just not up to it. Huan-Ru Ke is lovely as Ai-ling, but has barely anything to do. Maybe I liked the film less than I should Ai-ling was my second lovely Taiwanese lesbian of the day, after Ai, played by Sadrine Pinna, in Miao-Miao. Cute as a handmade button, Miao Miao is directed by Cheng Hsiao-Tse but – more importantly perhaps – produced by Jet Tone Films, Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-Wai’s company for new Asian cinema.

If I were being as cute as the film, I’d say it was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Chungking Express. Miao-Miao is a lonely Japanese exchange student who befriends Ai at school in Taipei, then draws Ai into her crush on CD store worker Chen Fei. But – triangles will happen – Ai is falling in love with the affectionate and beautiful Miao-Miao, who is dangerously obsessed (in a cutesy way) with Fei, who barely notices she’s alive because he’s grieving over the death of his bandmate Bei. As long as you’re not averse to Little Prince metaphors for forbidden gay love, this film is a total sugar rush that, in its simplicity, also has more emotional profundity than Ghosted (a fact that makes me wonder more about me…) Lavishly dusted with canto-pop sparkles and full of adorable metaphors about cake-baking and stargazing, Miao is the queer film for progressive parents to take their kids to – the Babylon Mitte was certainly full of them.

Bizarrely, parents could also happily take their kids to Catherine Breillat’s latest, Barbe Bleue, but probably won’t because of Breillat’s reputation. And because it’s Breillat’s version of Perrault’s conte keeps intact the age difference between Blubeard and his barely pubescent last bride. This is the tale as told between young sisters, about the adult love that they crave and fear, that they don’t understand. The younger sister (Breillat herself is the youngest) tells the older that marriage is when two people become homosexual, a statement worth musing on as well as being amused by. Although the film follows the strict hetero priorities of the fairy tale, its focus on the passionate love and hate of sisters, and suggestively between Bluebeard’s wives as each other’s successors, is actually deliciously queer.

Which all raises the question: what makes a queer film? One of my festival faves from Toronto, When it Was Blue, is showing here this weekend. It’s a dual-projection 16 mm handpainted film with live music, an exquisite and breathtaking catalogue of the natural world – shot and edited by Jennifer Reeves, whose film The Time We Killed, a lesbian film noir, thrilled Berlin a few years back. So is When it Was Blue queer? Would it show in a lesbian and gay film festival? At Berlin, the question is rendered moot as every program from the Competition to the Expanded Forum (artists’ film and video) to Generations (children’s films) includes queer films. I’ve enjoyed that a lot, for two reasons: after a few films, the gender and sexuality of the protagonists isn’t paramount (as it can be at a LGBT film festival) and yet there’s consistent diversity; on the other hand, after Fig Trees, every film in the festival – every poster on the streets – every tree in the Tiergarten – seems touched by the network of queerness.

In the film, McCaskell quotes a young Montréaler who said to him that AIDS is a lens, through which things unseen become visible and look different. In the films that stood out for me, sexuality was that lens – as politicised by AIDS, by violence, by globalisation – and it brought into focus how all film can be queer because in all films there are bodies, and towards all films we feel something like desire. As Rage explores, there is a beauty other than the one (RED) tries to sell us (by playing on our fears that we don’t have it): a beauty that, like the woman in the Hebrew prayer read at the lesbian Shabbat Samira and Ravit attend, is beyond price or prize. These films aren’t trying to sell products, or ideologies, or even themselves: they want us to look and listen and be open. That’s what makes When It Was Blue a Teddy (although it’s not, officially), that it wants us to be totally permeable, infinitely changeable, ravished by the world. What could be queerer than that?

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



At 12:17 AM, Blogger Jane Holland said...

That's a helluva long post, Sophie. Very informative too. Why does no one cute ever take me to films like these?

Oh yes, I remember why. Because I've given up women. Honest, honest, honest.

Jx ;)

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Delirium's Librarian said...

Long and longing. Why do I never pick up anyone cute at films like these? Because I have to rush to the Journalist Typing Room (I love literalist Germano-English) and fire off my reviews -- hence the indulgence of this longer piece of reflection for Chroma...


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