A Cinematic Expedition
In the first year after its inauguration at the 70th Berlinale, Encounters braves the pandemic with an eclectic selection of twelve films. Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian and head of programming Mark Peranson discuss cinema as an explorer, the cinematographic unconscious and striking a balance among the selected works.
Encounters, as the name already suggests, is about interpersonal exchange on several levels. The pandemic has deeply affected our means to connect. What consequences does that have for a section like Encounters and what did it mean for the selection process?
Mark Peranson: The premise of Encounters is some sort of engagement between the audience, the film and the section. We want to select films that provoke a reaction when we’re watching them – and hopefully this reaction is a surprising or unexpected one. The encounter, in a broadened sense, is something that happens between the screen and the recipient.
Carlo Chatrian: These films don’t show us just a picture of our time, rather they reveal the structures that lie beneath everything. They move beyond the present time and hopefully will still resonate with us in some years, maybe a decade. A film, for example, that is about human relations, the places they inhabit, about people disconnecting and reconnecting is Das Mädchen und die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider) by Ramon und Silvan Zürcher. Or a film like The Scary of Sixty-First by Dasha Nekrasova, which uses the genre surface of a giallo but develops it into something unforeseen. And also Mantagheye payani (District Terminal) by Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini, which is set in a near-future science fiction scenario during a pandemic in Iran, is not really about the pandemic but rather the way people cope with rules and how they try to make a living.
What about Denis Côté’s film, Hygiène sociale (Social Hygiene), do you see the pandemic reflected there, on a textual layer maybe?
MP: In a way Hygiène sociale can be regarded as a “pandemic classic”. It doesn’t deal with the pandemic on the content level, but in a representational, physical way, in terms of positioning bodies within frames – which is what cinema essentially constitutes. Côté is also referencing the language of arthouse cinema we’re familiar with, a language loosely based on Straub-Huillet’s works, for example. It is not a parody, more his way of using a certain type of filmmaking and placing it in a setting echoing the pandemic. I'm very curious to see people’s reactions to that. It's also very funny – and you need to find some humour in times like these.
CC: Every film by Denis Côté takes me to a place where the landscape is bigger than the human, which results in a sense of isolation. This is even the more relevant here because of the prevailing presence of dialogue. The amount of words, their wittiness, they almost seem to create a sense of claustrophobia. The other element that is always present in Denis Côté’s films is what I would call a gap. A little gap between the reality and the film. In this case the gap is even bigger, due to the theatrical act, the way the characters talk and costumes are deployed. The question of social distancing translates into the film via its cinematic form and takes shape not only on a physical level, but also as a moral, a sentimental distance – a distance that is multiplied. In a way what you see within the frame is mirroring the story.
Why was it important to you to create a new competitive section with Encounters?
MP: Sometimes films need a little push to stand out from the hundreds of films, which are at the Berlinale or any given festival every year. And the awards of a competitive section go a long way in giving visibility. More generally speaking, we felt like something was missing in the Berlinale selection, a certain type of film that operated on a particular level of production, which you didn't see in the Competition films. So when you compare these two sections, I think you're seeing films on different scales of production.
The interesting thing for me is when you look at this year’s Encounters selection, half of the filmmakers had some participation in other sections of the Berlinale before. With Denis Côté from Competition to Forum, or Perspektive Deutsches Kino with Julian Radlmaier, this year in Encounters with Blutsauger (Bloodsucker), with the Zürcher brothers who were in the Forum selection before or even Mantagheye payani, with two of the actors starring in the Golden Bear winning film Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil) by Mohammad Rasoulof last year. And Jacqueline Lentzou, the director of Moon, 66 Questions, was in Berlinale Shorts before. So that's half the section right there, which I think is pretty intriguing.
You have been engaging with film and cinema culture for at least your whole professional lives. How can films still surprise you, how are new approaches still possible – and which of the films in fact did amaze you this year?
CC: We always underline the fact that the Encounters films should not look alike. If we have two films, they're both very good, but they follow the same path, they work in the same way, the cinematic forms are similar – then we try to find a different place for these two films. This mechanism is a little different from how it would be in the Competition. The surprise originates in the unexpected element. In Vị (Taste) by Lê Bảo it is the way geometrical form is used in a bizarre setting with an odd story, it is how space is shaped. Also a seemingly classical documentary like Nous (We) by Alice Diop astonishes with two scenes at the beginning and the end that create an unreckoned sense of the “us” through their conceptualisation of what a collective, a community, means. After all I think for Mark, me and all the six members of the selection committee, the answer to this question would be diverging, because luckily film is a multitude of images, each one resonating uniquely within all of us.
MP: I think in terms of the question of surprise it's true, if you've been watching movies like us for whatever, 20 years, you really aren't going to be surprised often. But it does happen. And I'm sure it happens for the audiences as well. With a film like Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser for example, an experimental essay film. But it is not only a question of surprising the audience, since as a filmmaker you will bore yourself if you keep doing the same thing over and over again. We as programmers get often surprised when we watch first features – which we did a lot in this selection process. When watching first features you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes you’re in for an unpleasant surprise, but I see it also as a gift to watch a film without having any plot description, without any idea what is coming up. So there is that element, which, I think, keeps us a bit fresh in terms of approaching our jobs.
Speaking of the heterogeneous and eclectic way the selection is put together, how different forms, approaches and aesthetics are combined – do you feel like there still is something like a central theme to be found?
CC: I think it is up to the viewer to find his or her leitmotif. Especially in Encounters I don't think there is any need for unification. On the contrary, there is a desire to be as open, as diversified as possible. In a metaphorical sense I consider Encounters as a multitude of explorers. Navigators who were sent out in order to be mapping a yet unknown place. Not with the goal to conquer, but to come back with a vision – even if this sometimes takes the form of a myth.
MP: Interesting is also the aforementioned density of first and second features and in consequence the relative absence - if we exclude Denis Côté here for a second - of established filmmakers. Looking at last year’s selection, it was just the other way around. Not that this was our declared intention and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the selection represents the future of cinema, but somehow the voices of these mostly young filmmakers fit our idea of Encounters this year. It will be exciting to see how Encounters will develop and to be able to compare one year to the next, as opposed to comparing within one year’s selection, because the result will surely vary from year to year when one is programming primarily on the basis of form rather than content
But if we take a look at this year’s selection, do you come to think of some films bearing a special sort of urgency, films where it feels important that they were made at this particular point in time?
CC: I really believe that cinema, at least in an unconscious way, is a mirror of what is happening at a certain moment in time. In a way, I don't think I am entitled to answer this question, being in the position to have selected the films. Rather it is the audience or the critics, having a certain distance towards the works, who can contemplate this question. Or it is up to the filmmakers to answer this. But in relation to the general issue of urgency, I think it is intrinsic to all of the films in the selection.
MP: In a way The Beta Test by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe is an example of what is urgent for the people who made it. It's very specifically tied to the Writers Guild strike in the US, and the relation between agents and writers. I mean, films about agents have been made for a while, there have been books written about agents from the 1960s. But there is something about this film which I think is fairly contemporary in terms of depicting Hollywood. If it was made next year, it would be a period film. This year it is not, because what is being negotiated was still going on when the film was made. The form, again, is basically a horror film. So the film mirrors in its style a situation experienced by the filmmakers as somewhat horrific. It gets even more interesting when this mirroring unfolds rather unconsciously.
There are two films in the selection that can be considered documentaries in a stricter sense, Nous and As I Want by Samaher Alqadi. Why was it important to include documentary forms and these two works in particular?
CC: In Encounters it is not only the topic that is important, but also the way this topic is developed. Meaning, the form in which a certain subject is presented has to be significant. Nous does that by mixing the observational with the personal documentary and combining this approach with the use of archive material. As I Want also merges societal occurrences with the filmmaker’s individual experiences. Both films can be considered works with a first-person point of view and a distinctly female perspective. They enrich the profile of the section, not simply because they are documentaries, but because they deal with society or a community in a singular way. They master their themes less through the employment of a genre but rather via the images themselves, the content, if you will, that connects the recipient with what is happening. In this respect they are very different from a formalistic film like Vị or more structured fiction like The Beta Test, Moon, 66 Questions or Azor by Andreas Fontana. So, for Encounters, it is essential to find a balance within the section. Every film works in itself but together they also operate as a collective. Our hope is that the audience will feel attracted to and experience the selection as a whole.