The spectre of Donald Trump looms large at the 67th Berlinale, as the international film world convenes to celebrate art and artists who stand at odds with his brusque, xenophobic brand of patriarchy. A local taxi driver told me, “Germany has already been through this, obviously. You must fight back.” The arts have long been a way to do this, functioning throughout history as a bastion for inclusivity and progressive thought. If the films at this year’s festival are any indication, we are in good hands. Nearly all of the best selections from the opening weekend were by or about queers or women. Here’s some highlights:.
Occidental (France) Neïl Beloufa
French-Algerian director Neïl Beloufa’s second feature film feels like an entirely fresh cinematic experience, thanks to an intoxicating blend of artifice and intrigue informed by his work as a visual artist. Outside a Paris hotel protests rage, while inside the staff and guests watch political pundits debate the crowd size (too familiar? too soon?). The most notable guests are two men there together: Giorgio, an Italian who mercilessly flirts with the girl at the desk, and Antonio, a Muslim who arouses the suspicion of the hotel manager who thinks the men might be terrorists. Questions abound: Are the men a gay couple? Why does the hotel manager find them so suspicious? This social satire bristles suspense as well as comedy, thanks to its confined setting and giallo-like sound and color design (Beloufa constructed the stage from scratch in his Parisian warehouse workspace).
The Wound (South Africa) John Trengove
At an annual ritual in rural South Africa, boys become men thanks to the emotional counsel of their circumsizing mentor. This narrative feature’s all-male milieu gives rise to testosterone and tension in equal measure, particularly when an effeminate, wealthy city initiate threatens upheaval to the group’s presumed codes of masculinity. His inexplicable confidence confounds the men around him, particularly his elder Xolani, who returns each year for some furtive quality time with one of his colleagues, a married father whom he can only covet from afar. There’s much fascinating thematic discourse to wrestle with, of course, but what makes the film so exceptional is that director John Trengrove, in his debut, seems to understand the exhausting pain of longing and secrecy. The Wound unfolds like a thriller, one whose mission is to expose the past in an effort to set the men free. But at what cost?
God´s Own Country (UK) Francis Lee
One of the better gay romances ever put on film, God`s Own Country follows Johnny, a young farmhand (Josh O’Connor) who releases tension (and boredom) with anonymous sex and binge drinking. When Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), a strapping Romanian arrives to help run the farm, the two men find love and lust amidst the idyllic fields and grazing sheep. What distinguishes God’s Own Country from other gay films is its commitment to being both sexy and romantic, a pairing that too few gay films and characters are allowed to be (recently, Paris 5:59: Théo & Hugo succeeded in being both). Director Francis Lee shows sex and physicality without just referring to it in narrative ellipses (the most tiresome trope of so many gay films), usually opting for a simple two shot that enhances the steaminess rather than a sequence with a lot of cuts that leaves many gay viewers (including this one) wanting to see more. This choice heightens both the eroticism and the intimacy; when Gheorghe breaks down Johnny’s affected tough guy veneer and teaches him how to kiss, and when they have sex, the passion stirs. Think Brokeback Mountain but with more dicks and less tragedy. It’s a better film, too.
Spoor (Poland) Agniezska Holland
Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a retired civil engineer and astrology devotee, lives in the countryside near the Czech/Polish border railing against the local townspeople who hunt for sport. To her, animals are sacred in the cycle of life, an incompatible philosophy vis-à-vis the brutal patriarchy around her; the police, her neighbor, and the priest all treat her as a kooky nuisance. But what happens when woman and nature combine forces? Agnieszka Holland’s newest, a feminist ecological thriller about natural selection, pulsates with life thanks to a roving camera, lots of aerial shots, and strumming orchestration that underscores the power of nature. A delightful, unique film that juxtaposes humans against those which are being captured, bristling with the omnipresent threat of death and the staggering beauty of life and regeneration. Mandat turns in a sensational performance as the declarative, empathetic heroine who fights the good fight…and wins. It’s helpful to understand that the original Polish title, Pokot, roughly translates as the “display of trophies of the hunt.” As it all builds to a conclusion resonant with schadenfreude, this phrase takes on a whole new meaning: Don’t mess with mother, or mother nature.
Close-Knit (Japan) Naoko Ogigami
Following in the Kore-eda tradition of closely observed family dramas, Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit is a sweet film about a nearly orphaned girl, her gay bff, and a transgender caretaker, a miraculous queer update of this very Japanese genre. It goes without saying that there are virtually no films featuring transgender characters, let alone characters who are not only not distraught by their journey but completely adjusted to it. Ogigami, thankfully, has given us one such character in Rinko, who plays a de-facto mother figure for her boyfriend’s niece, Tomo, whose mother has ran off. Tomo’s journey towards adulthood mirrors Rinko’s former transformation, and the women bond immediately through a series of hilarious scenes where they compare breasts and bras. The film’s genius lies in Ogigami’s ability to reconstitute this traditional genre and approach so seamlessly, or, rather, to boldly posit that queer people are people.