Berlinale International Short Film Festival 2022 in Review

This year I had the pleasure of attending the Berlinale International Short Film Festival 2022. Here are 11 films that premiered at the festival that may make it to UK cinemas or streaming platforms in the coming months, so you can keep an eye out for them.

 

Bubble

dir. Tetsuro Araki, Japan

Bubble

Anime is a medium that often gets a bad rap, and is often mistaken for a specific genre. I believe it to be misrepresented by some of its most popular works and vocal fans, and strongly believe it is an artistically valid, thematically diverse and immensely enjoyable animation medium with some of the most creative ideas out there. Therefore, I was incredibly happy to see an anime film at Berlinale, especially one directed by Tetsuro Araki, who worked on Attack on Titan and Death Note, two flagship series of the medium that are massively responsible for the immense following it enjoys in the West.

Bubble throws us straight into its world of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, but it is not the setting we may be used to. Far from the neon lights and biker gangs of Akira’s Neo Tokyo or the grim realism of Attack on Titan, we find ourselves in a sunny, colourful and vibrant city that has succumbed to a rising sea level. Bubbles float around, decorating the scenery, and infrastructure seemingly affected by some sort of anti-gravity floats out of the water, giving a perfect world for our protagonists, a team of parkouring teenagers.

The opening scenes of Bubble are infectiously dynamic. We join team Blue Rocket as they traverse this dizzying landscape, rendered in eye-watering 3DCG. These parkour scenes are the action backbone of the film. As opposed to traditional combat, the characters race against each other in a capture the flag race in reward for vital provisions. This unique approach to the action sequences made Bubble an incredibly fun film to watch. It is easy to get tired of seeing people punch each other in increasingly flashy ways, so this core concept for the film was incredibly refreshing. Araki clearly took what he learned animating Attack on Titan’s aerial traversal scenes and applied it here with flair. The combination of 2D and 3D animation, while not being flawless, is certainly eye-catching, and makes for some impressive virtual camera movements.

The story of the film follows Hibiki, the loner ace of team Blue Rocket, and Uta, a mysterious girl who appears to be made of the same bubbles that caused the disaster. While this romantic subplot doesn’t give us much in the way of innovation, it is certainly executed very well. It is also an unsubtle retelling of The Little Mermaid (the story is read to Uta early on in the film), and does a good job of taking the familiar beats of the fairy tale and twisting them into this fantastic setting.

The film also does an excellent job of slowly introducing us to the wider cast of the parkour teams and drip-feeds us worldbuilding and expositional elements. I had questions throughout that were all answered in satisfying ways. The broad themes of the story felt fresh and interesting, although were often delivered in quite a heavy-handed way.

I devoted the majority of my review talking about the visuals of Bubble for a reason. The character dynamics are fun and the themes are interesting but by far the star of the show is the animation. Combining tried-and-true techniques with some new technologies, we are thrust into the world of the film in one of the most impressive blends of 2D and 3D I’ve ever seen. It is worth a watch for that alone.

Bubble is arriving on Netflix on 28 April, and is a great watch for all ages.

3.5 stars

Alis

dir. Clare Weiskopf & Nicolas Van Hemelryck, Columbia

Alis

Alis was one of the films I saw with everyone from my course, and the only one where the directors were in attendance (as well as the ambassadors from Chile and Columbia…), which definitely made this already deeply emotive film even more so. While doing documentary workshops at a facility for at risk girls in Bogotá, Columbia, the filmmakers asked them to create a fictional girl, Alis, who stayed at the facility with them. By getting them to use their imaginations and their own experiences to create this character who led a similar life to their own, it allowed the girls to open up about their experiences in a way they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

We see ten different girls over the course of the film, each of whom had dealt with unstable or abusive home lives, drug addiction, homelessness, and any number of other challenges. Seeing them in a space where they were safe and surrounded by their peers, it wasn’t immediately apparent what kind of lives they’d led. We see them, both in the single talking head shots that make up the majority of the film, but also in various pieces of B-roll that punctuate the storytelling. They come across as happy, healthy and strong individuals, and once they start talking, we see why. The filmmakers’ questions direct them across many different subjects; positive, negative and in-between. We get to understand each girls’ dreams, priorities and joys, as well as their fears, trauma and anxieties, all through the lens of Alis.

Clare Weiskopf, one of the directors, said after the film that ‘Alis doesn’t just live in Bogotá, she lives all over the world’, and it is this sentiment that makes the film so powerful. By extrapolating the girls’ experiences and making it into an exercise of imagination rather than confession, the story became more abstract, and therefore more relatable. Not only is the experience made more comfortable for the subjects, but for the audience as well, and it gives us a window into their lives where we feel like we have been invited. This method of storytelling allowed the girls to cast a wider net, drawing on not only their own experiences but those of their peers and communities as a whole, making for a much more effective and important piece.

The directors are using Alis as a springboard for a wider social campaign aimed at providing care and support for girls like the ones in the film once they leave such facilities. Often, once people who have spent time off the streets are returned to normal life, they go back to the only thing they know. The directors aim to combat this by not only raising awareness of the issue, but by helping to set up houses where young people can come for shelter and support during those crucial first 6 months. I have hope in their ability to achieve this. The care with which the subject matter and the subjects themselves were handles with was evident to see in the final piece, and the innovative and wide-reaching scope of their storytelling speaks to their view of the big picture.

Alis won the Crystal Bear at Berlinale as the best film in its category which means the directors can hope for success in their aspirations for the film. It is unlikely to get a cinema release in the UK but if you see it online, I highly recommend it. A heavy watch that touches on some delicate and traumatic themes, it is an ultimately tender and uplifting story that shines a spotlight on forgotten lives.

4 stars

 

The Apartment with Two Women

dir. Kim Se-in, South Korea

Apartment with two women

I have a soft spot for films that are uncomfortable to watch, be it the body horror of David Lynch or Julia Ducournau, or the excruciating social ramifications of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, I truly believe that any film that can draw a visceral reaction out of an audience member is successful. The Apartment with Two Women absolutely falls into this category, from an angle I’d never seen before.

The film follows Su-kyung and Yi-jung, a mother and adult daughter who share a small apartment. From the opening scenes we realise that their relationship is a deeply abusive one, with Su-kyung verbally, emotionally and physically berating her daughter throughout her life and the film. One of the opening scenes, and the crux of the film, shows Su-kyung hitting Yi-jung with her car after an argument in a supermarket carpark. This horrific family dynamic is only heightened throughout the film, as we learn more about each character and the people around them.

There are very few redeemable characters in this film (with the exception of Yi-jung, the daughter). I don’t remember a moment where anyone says sorry or thank you to anyone else and their behaviour undergoes little, if any, positive development over the course of the film. As we watch, we learn more about them as people which goes a little way to explain, not excuse, their actions. This is where the triumphs of this film come in. It takes an unblinking look at this cast of characters and does not judge them. We see them at their best and at their worst with no judgement for either, and realise that they all have hopes, fears and a light and dark side to them. This deep character exploration with little development did get a bit exhausting over the 139-minute run time and I do believe that the film could have benefited from a sub-two-hour run.

The film explores many themes; the cyclical nature of abuse, co-dependency, and the role of outsiders to help in an abusive situation. All of these are incredibly pressing matters, and the claustrophobia felt during the apartment scenes has to have been inspired by experiences during lockdown. While not a fun watch at all, it is an important one, and goes a long way to portray a reality that is often ignored or misinterpreted on screen.

Definitely one you’ll have to mentally prepare for but is the cinematic equivalent of a cold shower.

3.5 stars

Comedy Queen

dir. Sanna Lenken, Sweden

Comedy Queen

Comedy Queen was the second film I saw with my course, and was probably the most affecting. The film follows Sasha, a 13-year-old girl, in the wake of her mother’s suicide. Determined not to follow in her footsteps and deeply affected by her father’s depression, she sets out to become a comedian.

Sasha is an immediately engaging protagonist. Confident, chatty and funny, she is the opposite of how you’d expect a young teenager to behave after the death of a parent. Early on, her behaviour is explained. As part of her grieving process, she is determined not to repeat the ‘mistakes’ her mother made and so tries to be as little like her as possible. She writes rules for herself: shave my head; never read books; (most disturbingly) never look after a living thing; and become a comedy queen. The film follows her journey through these self-enforced rules, her refusal to cry, and her desire to make her dad laugh. This tornado of emotions summarises the film. We are careened between heart-warming levity and heart-breaking tragedy at a moment’s notice, making for an incredibly visceral exploration of grief.

Sigrid Johnson’s performance as Sasha is spellbinding. At once incredibly charismatic and deeply vulnerable, she brings the tumultuous emotions of Sasha to life in an incredible way. All of the performances in this are excellent, particular props go to Adam Daho and Iggy Malmborg, who play Sasha’s father and uncle. The cast are supplemented beautifully by a soft visual style and sound design that pulls the rug out from under us at key emotional moments.

The exploration of grief in Comedy Queen is one of the most unique and complex I’ve seen. Simply by virtue of having such a young protagonist, we are instantly put on edge, and once we see her warped coping mechanisms, this feeling only increases. It is impossible to feel nothing but sympathy for Sasha though. We see her bottled-up emotions explode in a variety of disastrous ways as she slowly learns the benefits of allowing yourself to feel pain. The message of the film is an important one, yet is delivered in a subtle way. You never feel like you’re being spoken to, the story and the characters are simply allowed to play out on screen and the themes present themselves naturally.

Joining the ranks of such bittersweet classics as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Life is Beautiful, this is a film that will make you feel. If you are in need of a good cry, or if you’re feeling especially fragile, you probably know whether or not you should watch this one. It is not a film filled with surprises or twists and turns, but it does what it comes to do incredibly well and I challenge anyone to walk away without a tear or a smile.

4 stars

 

Super Natural 

dir. Jorge Jácome, Portugal

Super Natural

I really struggled to think what to write about this film, if I can even call it that. Without any discernible narrative, we are guided through a series of relatively abstract shots by a robotic, subtitled voice that conveys, amongst other things, a deep happiness to see us. It is this relationship between film and viewer that really grabbed me when watching this, we are addressed directly, and are included in the creation of the meaning of the piece, a process we are normally excluded from as a viewer.

Meaning is a key word here, as the themes and message of Super Natural are complex and eluding. The robotic narration and inclusion of mechanical crabs suggests a commentary on technology and our relationship with it, a symbiosis confirmed by the more natural imagery. A key theme that is brought up again and again is bodies, and how we are bodies within bodies. This is further explored by the cast, a group of people with different disabilities who swim in the sea, relax by a pool, and explore an aquarium. The cast further reinforces the significance of bodies, and our relationship with them. Coupled with the allusions to technology and symbiosis and a hazy image starts to form.

I do not claim to have understood this film, and it did leave me feeling a bit stupid, but I am sure that it was not intended to be an intellectual experience. Instead, it felt more like a guided meditation, a rumination on many things that was intended to soak into the mind of the viewer through osmosis, and plant seeds for later thought. I will say that it was an incredibly relaxing experience, and one that almost sent me to sleep (not helped by the hangover I had while watching it), but again I feel this has to have been intentional. The satisfyingly unintelligible voiceover, ambient, ephemeral soundtrack and calming imagery wraps up the viewer like a warm blanket that is not meant to be understood, intellectualised, or even enjoyed in the traditional sense.

I love films like this, ones that challenge my perception of what film is or can be, and fully demonstrate the potential of the medium for incredibly transformative experiences. Something that belongs in an art museum rather than a cinema, this is a piece that will stick with me for a while.

4 stars

 

Au Revoir, Jerome! (dir. Chloé Farr, Gabrielle Selnet, Adam Sillard, France)

Au revoir, Jerome

I was unfortunately slightly late to this screening which makes up the first of six shorts that comprise the end of this review. However, I don’t think I missed masses. We follow Jerome, a grief-stricken man who journeys into the underworld in search of his late wife, Maryline. He embarks on a technicolour, psychedelic odyssey, encountering various strange creatures and characters who seem unable, or unwilling, to help him.

I am a huge fan of short films, and think that animation is a medium uniquely suited to it, not only because of the relatively high labour cost involved but because of the explosive imagery that can be conveyed over a short amount of time. This film is no exception. Bright colours, intricate backgrounds, and an infectiously brilliant 1970s-stlye soundtrack, this film oozes style. An Orpheus-esque tale of love persevering after death, the filmmakers gave themselves absolute creative freedom with their interpretation of the afterlife.

I don’t have much more to say about this other than I absolutely loved it. I’m sure it’ll be available online in the coming months so keep an eye out, it’s an absolute treat.

4.5 stars

 

Tinashé (dir. Tig Terera, Australia)

Tinashe

Tinashé follows the titular character in his journey to forge his own independence after being kicked out by his mum. He crashes with a friend, saves up some money, and they eventually move into a new place together. This deceptively mundane story is told with a beautiful voice, and incorporates stunning cinematography, some exciting editing choices and strangely ethereal performances to create the story of this young man.

Tinashé left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was taken away by the incredible visuals and strange tone, but on the other I felt it hard to get over the strange performances and meandering narrative. After sitting on it for a while, I now think that was a deliberate choice. Using these disorienting techniques to convey a very disorienting time in someone’s life made for an effective filmgoing experience. Also, unlike The Apartment with Two Women, all of the characters were really nice to each other, which may sound like a strange note but it is so refreshing to see healthy, communicative relationships on screen, especially between young men of colour.

This film felt radical in a very comfortable way, definitely not perfect but makes me excited to see more from this team.

3.5 stars

 

Meneath: The Hidden Island of Ethics (dir. Terril Calder, Canada)

Meneath

This film is truly bizarre and deeply affecting. A stop motion animation exploring multi-culturalism and colonialism through the education of a young girl by an indigenous woman and Jesus. These two figures battle each other for influence over the infant, contrasting the Seven Deadly Sins with the Seven Sacred Teachings. Brought to life with some beautifully grotesque imagery, we join the protagonist on her journey to discover herself and the world around her.

The treatment of indigenous communities in Canada is something that has resurfaced recently, with the uncovering of mass graves outside Christian schools shortly before writing. With this context, this film becomes all the more powerful. The generational trauma of being forced into a box that you don’t fit in can be felt through the screen, as well as the deep beauty of traditional teachings. The film switches back and forth throughout, with each of the girl’s teachers giving their wisdom to her, in very different ways. We see the inherent contradictions between teaching with negativity or positivity, threatening punishment or offering beauty. This back and forth culminates in a beautiful ending that offers hope for the protagonist and shines a light on the institutions and morals that we often take for granted in the West.

An arresting watch with some disturbing visuals, this is a wild ride through the labyrinth of ethics.

4 stars

 

Memoir of a Veering Storm (dir. Sofia Georgovassili, Greece)

Memoir of a veering storm

The topic of teenage pregnancy and abortion is one that is often handled with an intensity deserving of the subject matter, but can often feel overpowering to the human story beneath it. Memoir of a Veering Storm tackles the theme with a delicacy and tenderness that allows us to connect with the characters on a much more personal level.

Anna is a high school student who skips school with her friend and partner to get an abortion. At the beginning of the film, we hear over the radio that a storm is approaching, a storm that Anna sleeps through after the operation. It is the inclusion and mirroring of these natural elements that made this film feel so special to me. I always love pathetic fallacy and using the natural world to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the characters. We also see a deer, and a colony of ants, all of which seem to represent some aspect of Anna’s experience.

There is very little dialogue in this, the majority of the plot is conveyed through the performances and cinematography, forcing us to pay attention and keeping our focus throughout. This is paid off in the climactic scene where we see the procedure take place in a long, unblinking shot through a mirror.

Memoir of a Veering Storm tackles themes that may be troubling to some, but does so with a light, firm touch that makes for a highly emotive film-watching experience.

3 stars

 

Funkele (dir. Nicole Jachmann, Holland)

Funkele

Funkele is a Dutch dialect word that means ‘playing with fire’, and it is this idea that is carried throughout, as we join Robin on her journey to discover her sexuality. Much like the previous film, sexual awakening and understanding is often handled with a heavy hand that doesn’t allow the subject matter room to breathe. This did the opposite, approaching it with levity and charm, we see sex not as a thing to be feared or understood, but something that is felt and enjoyed.

Funkele conveys the feeling of teenage summer with an infectious joy, the cinematography, editing and colour all coalesce into a feeling beyond words that can probably be reciprocated by most. The characters and their journeys all felt completely authentic and made for some incredibly charming scenes. Again, much of the narrative is conveyed silently, and we are allowed to interpret the images and draw our own conclusions.

I really enjoyed this one, much more so than the friends I saw it with. It is these kinds of films, ones that don’t have a universal appeal but can speak to an individual on a personal level, that are why I love the medium so much.

4 stars

 

Lay Me by the Shore (dir. David Findlay, Canada)

Lay me by the shore

The second Canadian film of the bunch, and the second to use a ‘last week of summer’ story. Lay Me by the Shore follows Noah, a teenager about to finish high school in the wake of the death of one of his close friends. The film weaves between dizzyingly nostalgic scenes with stunning cinematography and heart-breaking moments of emotional vulnerability and confusion.

Much like the last two films, this one conveyed much of its narrative without dialogue, but I think it was the most successful. This is largely due to its use of music. Inspired by the music of The White Birch, there is a distinct music identity to this piece that carries the emotional weight excellently. Pair this with a charming editing style and beautifully authentic performances and you get a piece of work that can speak volumes without saying anything.

Lay Me by the Shore does an incredible job at approaching the exhilaration and melancholy that can come when facing down the end of your teenage years, a great watch for all.

 

4.5 stars

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