German Novembers are a very unpleasant affair – cold, windy, and very, very wet. The November of 2017 turned out to be even more nasty than usual, and that may be one reason why, with 55 000 visits, attendance at the 66th International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg (Nov. 9th – 19th) was slightly lower than the average attendance of recent years.
Famous for focusing on first-time directors, the Mannheim-Heidelberg festival is notoriously selective. 32 films were running in the “International Newcomer” section of this year’s festival, only 21 of which were competing for Mannheim-Heidelberg’s main awards (“Competition” segment), awarded by the festival’s official jury (“International Jury”). Only the Audience Award, which might be counted amongst the main awards, was open to an additional 11 films (“Discoveries” segment).
As always, there were a number of screenings beyond those 32 films. Five films were shown in the section “International Independent Cinema”, and seven films in the “New German Cinema” section. In addition, there were also special screenings of short films by Jochen Kuhn and of Clemens Klopfenstein’s project Geschichte der Nacht which was recently restored by the New York Museum of Modern Art. Klopfenstein was also part of this year’s International Jury.
The festival line-up was completed by nine films for children (including a return visit by Mexican film El Jeremías, which at the 2015 festival had received the Audience Award), and by special screenings of three films by Oscar® winner István Szabó as he was the recipient of this year’s Master of Cinema Award at the festival.
All put together, this year’s festival has given actors, directors and producers from over 40 countries the chance to showcase their work.
Unfortunately, the question which films were shown with English subtitles (which most of them are), and which ones were screened with German subtitles only, was far more confusing than in previous years. This is something that the festival needs to address and which requires much better communication in the future.
Two major themes seemed to dominate this year’s festival entries. One recurring theme concerned crises experienced by female protagonists, as will be evident from the films discussed below. The other dominant theme was the topic of migration & identity. Examples include Unwanted [T’padashtun], Kososvo’s (unsuccessful) Foreign Language Oscar® submission; the German-Turkish film Zer, which received the award of the filmcritics’ FIPRESCI-jury at the festival; and the film Returnee [Оралман] from Kazakhstan, for which director Sabit Kurmanbekov was awarded the International Jury’s Special Achievement Award.
Popular story-telling approaches included generational conflicts, as well as setting stories in two different countries in order to tap the potential the cultural differences might offer.
Here are a few picks from this year’s festival, including the three films which received Honourable Mentions from the International Jury:
The Fantastic Journey to Oz (dir.: Fyodor Dmitriev, Darina Shmidt, and Vladimir Toropchin, 2017) is a Russian animated film based on one of the novels which Soviet author Alexander Volkov set in Frank L. Baum’s land of Oz. This film, which is also sometimes listed as Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers (in a near-literal translation of its Russian title), was partly funded by Russian state television. The computer animation used here is solid but has certainly more in common with a straight-to-video Barbie movie than a Disney or Pixar film. A few odd narrative choices aside, the writing is generally good. The story itself – which sees Dorothy’s granddaughter travelling from Kansas to Oz in order to aid the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin-Man as they have to face a big threat – is nice and entertaining.
International Newcomers – Discoveries
Imagine you are a young, struggling filmmaker using the spare-time between your paying day-jobs to scout locations for your independent film and over many years preparing a production which you have to try to pull off at a budget of roughly 100 000 Euros – only to see a Hollywood production with a 135 million dollar budget waltz in and take over your locations.
This is pretty much what happened to the team behind Escape from Patagonia [Fuga de la Patagonia] (dir.: Francisco D’Eufemia and Javier Zevallos, 2016), a historical drama from Argentina that is in some ways reminiscent of a traditional Western. The process of preparing for this on-location shoot took seven years, with D’Eufemia and Zevallos scouting for the ideal locations in Patagonia, amongst other things. During that time, they had to deal with the surreal experience of seeing scenes for Iñárritu’s The Revenant being shot on their turf, which the duo described as slightly disheartening as Iñárritu was making a thematically similar film with a budget more than 1000 times bigger than their own.
The story behind Escape from Patagonia is based on the diaries of famous explorer Francisco Moreno, and the film describes Moreno’s escape from a native Patagonian tribe that had imprisoned him and sentenced him to death. Moreno will see things and encounter people along the way – just as a hero in a fairy-tale often stumbles upon things or meets a number of characters in a deliberately meaningful succession. These almost allegorical encounters will make him reflect on his own actions and the unintended consequences they might possibly have.
Editor D’Eufemia and writer Javier Zevallos directed the film together, which marks their directorial feature film debut. Shot entirely on location with a very low budget, Escape from Patagonia is a remarkable filmmaking achievement, but in terms of the story was probably one of the weaker films of the festival. Attempting to address the suffering and the historical injustice endured by the indigenous population, the film’s didacticism is slightly too simple, too “junior high-school text book” for it to be effective in a cinematic environment. But the film offers good acting and great cinematography, with the Patagonian nature almost being elevated to a character in its own right.
The low budget and a gruelling editing process led to the finished film having a running time of only 78 minutes, which is in odd opposition to the epic character the film derives both from its source material and from the sweeping landscape shots.
Despite being a well-made and very good-looking film, Escape from Patagonia is – in the end – a film that is “merely” nice and interesting, rather than outstanding and memorable.
A strong entry from Sweden, Beyond Dreams [Dröm vidare] (dir.: Rojda Sekersöz, 2017) is a drama about a young woman from a difficult social background, who after her release from prison struggles to come to terms with life’s realities. She needs to take responsibility for her own life. And she has to take care of her younger sister. All this is increasingly incompatible with the lazy lifestyle and escapist dreams of her old gang of female thugs. And one of the film’s main themes is concerned with showing that the very difficult task of getting your chaotic life back in order is made so much harder if your immediate environment does not support you.
However, our heroine Mirja not only has to deal with the hostility of her old friends and the destructive behaviour of her mother. The world of “law-abiding citizens” with its red tape, hypocrisy, and social injustice is also rather disheartening for her.
It is here, in this attempted juxtaposition, that the generally strong writing in this near-perfect film loses its balance: somehow the film ends up wavering a bit in its overall message, and on the whole is at risk of painting “the thug life” in too positive a light.
The film boasts a great score by Lisa Holmqvist, strong editing and directing, and incredibly strong performances by the entire cast – especially lead actress Evin Ahmad, who had worked with Sekersöz before.
Although Beyond Dreams is mainly a drama, it contains a few traces of characteristically Scandinavian humour. And in spite of its social theme and message, the film is easily accessible and does have a certain mainstream appeal, so it is far more likely to find its way onto cinema screens and streaming services than many of the festival’s “artsier” films.
International Newcomers – Competition
Named after its antihero, Turkish drama Murtaza (dir.: Özgür Sevimli, 2017) shows us a few tragically significant days in the life of a very old Turkish man who lives with his blind and frail wife Sabir in a remote Turkish village. His children have moved far away to the city, as have almost all the young people. Echoing a problem that can be found in many corners of the world, and especially in Europe, we see a village that seems empty, except for a few old people. And since the young people are busy elsewhere, they visit the village very rarely. The children of Murtaza and Sabir barely visit them at all. “Nothing ever comes down this road”, Murtaza says, “except bad news.”
This Turkish film features some very nice shots and a very judicious choice of locations. Everything about this film, about these lives, feels absolutely authentic. This very slow-paced drama about lies, guilt, and responsibility has no real weak points, but might prove unsatisfying for people who expect films to have a clear message, or characters to have an arc. The directing and writing by Sevimli are as strong as the editing and the cinematography. But the film’s strongest element are the great performances by the two leads, Cezmi Baskin and Meral Çetinkaya. Baskin, who was the one actor at the festival being awarded an Honourable Mention by the International Jury, says he liked the script very much when he read it. And he immediately agreed to take the role, as Turkish cinema these days predominantly produces the sort of mainstream films which usually only have leading roles for young actors.
The Israeli comedy-drama Holy Air (dir.: Shady Srour, 2017) is a dark social satire about the commercialisation of religion. Telling the story of an Arab-Christian couple, the film follows the husband’s crisis of confidence and his attempts to make more money for his family. Surely the thousands of pilgrims and religious tourists that flock the streets every day and buy over-priced bric-a-brac will also have some money left over for him, if he can find the right product?
The writing (also by Srour) is strong, as is the acting, and the film has some nice shots of ancient buildings as well as the landscape. The underlying tone of the film, however, is too dark and pessimistic, which does undermine the humour more than once. This leads to a tonal and emotional roller coaster ride – and not necessarily in a good way. Still, it clearly was a favourite with the festival audience, and the International Jury awarded the film an Honourable Mention for Srour’s script, calling it a “brilliant satire”. Holy Air was also one of three films recommended for a wider cinematic release by a jury of regional cinema managers – and given its theme and the audience reception there is little doubt that this film will find its way into arthouse cinemas world-wide.
One of the stronger films of the festival, The Watchman [El hombre que cuida] (dir.: Alejandro Andújar, 2017) is a social drama from the Dominican Republic, ruthlessly exposing the country’s problems with racism, sexism, and class divisions. Juan lives as a caretaker (or: “watchman”) at the lavish holiday home of a rich family from the capital, who do not visit all too often as they own more than just one such place. Juan is facing a crisis in his private life. And when his employer’s son suddenly turns up with some irresponsible friends, Juan’s patience is wearing rather thin as the powerless nature of his position is becoming more and more clear.
Andújar, whose directing received an Honourable Mention by the International Jury, also wrote the film’s script. He says he wanted to create something that was different from the mainstream comedies which are usually produced for the Dominican Republic’s domestic market. And while the social satire entailed in The Watchman inevitably leads to a few acerbically comical moments, there is never any doubt in this film that it is a straight-forward drama.
This film features a lot of good performances – in particular by its leading man, Héctor Aníbal – as well as a very enjoyable Caribbean soundtrack.
Interludio (dir.: Nadia Benedicto, 2016) is a sweet drama from Argentina that deals with the aftermath of a life-changing decision. A woman has just been left by her husband, after he discovered that he is gay. She is traumatised by this turn of events and takes her two daughters to a beachfront house at a near-empty, off-season seaside resort. Her teenage daughter, who is dealing with issues of her own, clearly resents the fact that her mother is not telling them the truth; while the younger daughter lives in a fantasy world that becomes threatening from time to time. And the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality is something that the young girl seems to have inherited from her mother…
One of the more enjoyable films in the festival, Interludio is a very strong feature film debut from writer/director/producer Nadia Benedicto. The writing may have one or two minor weak spots when it comes to the presentation of the mother’s character development; but it does not really matter as in the overall dream-like nature of the film such things do not weigh too heavy.
The generally nicely sketched main characters, as well as the two major supporting roles, are filled by strong actors who are perfectly cast. The film also benefits from its nice location and great work by composer Wolly von Foerster.
Another very strong entry from Argentina, El Pampero (dir.: Matías Lucchesi, 2017) is a special film told in a special setting. A middle-aged man, who is suffering from a major health-issue, is trying to leave his life behind. And so he sets out for a long journey on his very small sailing vessel. He has enough food on board for a very long journey, and we can assume that he would not mind dying somewhere at sea. His plans, however, are interrupted by a young woman who asks for his help, and by a nosy acquaintance who keeps bothering him.
This story is a slow, yet at times dramatic, aquatic road-trip which has a lasting effect on all those involved. With less than a handful of characters, El Pampero lives off the very strong performances by its cast. Lead actor Julio Chavéz, in particular, carries the film with his perfect work in his many challenging non-verbal scenes. His was undoubtedly one of the best performances at the festival.
Although filming in inaccessible outdoor locations made life for director Matías Lucchesi rather difficult, the film greatly benefits from putting nature frequently centre-stage – like the labyrinthian coastal river-delta the boat ends up in, or the storm that gives the film its name.
Man Proposes, God Disposes (dir.: Daniel Leo, 2017) is a co-production involving creative forces from Canada, Poland, and Brazil. The film’s leading male character, Karol, is a small-time criminal from Poland who scoffs at the thought of regular employment. One-night stands seem to be a common element of his life-style, but one day a phone-call from the other side of the world unsettles him: Bruna, a Brazilian student, is pregnant, and Karol is the baby’s father. After a brief crisis and some indecision, Karol travels to Brazil and starts squatting in Bruna’s apartment. He wants to be supportive and he expresses his desire to be a good father. But since he does not speak the language and has neither money nor a job, he is just an additional burden Bruna could really do without. The performances in this film are strong, including those by lead actors Bruna Massarelli and Mateusz Nedza.
Man Proposes, God Disposes is a passion-project realised with a very small budget, and film students might benefit from watching this film and seeing what can be accomplished on a shoestring. Canadian director Daniel Leo, who also operated the camera, proves what level of professionalism can be achieved with little money in an era in which digital technology is making lots of things more and more affordable. The film may have its problems in the writing department, especially the dialogue, but the cinematography is very strong, and Leo might very well have a bright future in that field. Man Proposes, God Disposes is a very good-looking film that never shows its small budget.
Another film that bases its story on the geographical and cultural divide between Europe and South America is the emotional melodrama Life Beyond Me [Une vie allieurs] (dir.: Olivier Peyon, 2017) from Uruguay and France. The main character is a mother who has spent the past four years searching for her son who had been abducted by his father. Having travelled from France to Uruguay, she is determined to bring her son home. But the people around her – including those supporting her – are not entirely sure that this is in the child’s best interest.
According to press reports, the step-brother of writer/director Olivier Peyon had been the victim of such a parental abduction as a toddler, which served as an inspiration for Peyon’s work.
Lead actress Isabelle Carré delivers a very strong performance, especially when it comes to the difficult task of non-verbal acting. The rest of the cast is very strong as well, including male lead Ramzy Bedia. Life Beyond Me is not only a very well-made and enjoyable film, it is also one of the more “accessible” films of the festival – one which should have no difficulties to find its way into global arthouse cinemas or onto streaming platforms.
The film’s quality and appeal are also reflected in the fact that it not only received the award of the churches’ Ecumenical Jury, but more importantly also the festival’s Audience Award (which it shared with the German-Turkish film Zer).
New German Cinema
Naomis Reise (dir.: Frieder Schlaich, 2017) also chooses a transatlantic cultural and emotional gap as the basis of its story. Against her wishes, Naomi has to accompany her mother on a journey from Peru to Germany, where the killer of Naomi’s older sister – her German husband – is being tried in court.
Partially funded by German state television, this German-Peruvian co-production is an interesting experiment in filmmaking. In order to emulate a real German trial, the roles of judges, attorneys, etc., were all filled by real jurists instead of actors. And these are no minor roles in the film, but rather dominant ones. There is very little plot taking place outside of the frame of the trial. The film’s entire drama and tension stem from the fact that Naomi and her mother have to endure the German trial which is rather “cold” and extremely factual; and in general incompatible with their emotional state of mind.
Somehow this trial-centric approach seems not enough. The film is lacking additional elements and feels like a documentary or an re-enactment more than anything else. But it is an experiment worth watching for those interested in these kinds of things. And the acting of Scarlett Jaimes as Naomi and Liliana Trujillo as her mother is very good, even if they are not given the space they deserve.
International Independent Cinema
Some state television money from Germany also found its way into the somewhat difficult to grasp Kirghiz film Centaur [Кeнтавр] (dir.: Aktan Arym Kubat, 2017). The film’s antihero, nicknamed Centaur, works on building sites and lives a very simple life with his deaf wife (who is much younger than him) and his young son. He used to operate the tiny village cinema, we learn, but it has been shut for years and has since been converted into a mosque. The love for film never left him, but in his case it is probably less a love for cinematic art but more a love for fantasy and storytelling in general. This passion clearly shines through whenever Centaur tells his son stories from the ancient past, from the mythology of the Kirghiz people. Stories of warriors and of battles. Stories of horse gods and of the people’s almost religious connection with horses.
What makes Centaur an odd film is that we never really get a chance to understand what actually goes on inside the head of our lead character. When we see Centaur interact with his co-workers, his family, or others, he seems like a content man. He appears genuinely happy when he plays with his son, telling him those old stories. But later, when he speaks of the motivation for actions that riled up the village community, he appears to be a deeply unhappy man entirely disconnected from the life around him – spiritually and emotionally.
The film deals with some heavy issues along the way. Police corruption; the gap between rich and poor people in Kyrgyzstan; the way in which money and progress are threatening old values, traditional lifestyles, and the social cohesion of the community; and the way in which the new Islamic resurgence disrespects and endangers local traditions. The film contains a few satirical elements, but it is a drama, not a comedy. A drama that chronicles a man’s decline brought on by his refusal to adapt to the society around him, and by society’s failure to understand him.
The film features some nice shots of the Kirghiz landscape, and everything in this film appears to be of great authenticity, without ever slipping into false folklore. The acting is also very strong, and the story itself is written well, with the exception of the fact that we do not get nearly enough insight into Centaur’s psyche, as mentioned above.
Centaur had been put forward as Kyrgyzstan’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film section at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards®, but like Kosovo’s Unwanted it did not make the December shortlist.
Further Notable Films
To give you a fuller picture of the jury decisions, I will mention two films I did not see but which went on to receive the festivals two main awards:
Italian drama See you in Texas (dir.: Vito Palmieri, 2016), in which a young couple has to decide whether they should emigrate to the US or rather stay in northern Italy, was awarded the Grand Newcomer Award as the best feature film of the festival. While the Filipino story-telling project Wailings in the Forest [Baboy Halas] (dir.: Bagane Fiola, 2016) was awarded the Special Newcomer Award, which always goes to “the best unconventionally narrated feature film”.
New film festivals seem to be launched all the time, with many of them boasting more exotic locales or simply deeper pockets than Mannheim-Heidelberg. And by intentionally shunning any celebrity appearances or red carpet events, the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival is struggling to get noticed in a changing media environment. I think it might be fair to say that of the world’s top film festivals, Mannheim-Heidelberg is probably the one least known to the general public.
But Germany’s second-oldest film festival is successfully maintaining its unique voice in a crowded field of festivals by sticking to its core tenets of being highly selective and focusing on first-time directors. These are some of the reasons why film school teachers keep recommending this festival to their graduates; and why the festival that has helped to launch the careers of many famous directors – including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch, or Krzysztof Kieslowski – keeps attracting uniquely talented filmmakers.