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Berlinale 2018. Dying Worlds and Kyrgyz Heroines

A report from the festival on Kazuhiro Soda’s "Inland Sea" and two strong debuts, "The Heiresses" and Aminatou Echard's "Jamila".
The Heiresses
The first few days of the Berlin International Film Festival have provided the kind of bounty of compelling premieres—whether just intriguingly idiosyncratic or genuinely good—that makes a festival an experience of rejuvenation, even amid grim or difficult subjects. A great example of the latter is Kazuhiro Soda's Inland Sea, a bountifully patient portrait of the dying margins of the old Japanese fishing town of Ushimado. It paints a humane but forlorn portrait of a town seemingly populated almost exclusively by the elderly and a cast of beautiful stray cats. The filmmaker and his wife interject themselves into the proceedings of this compassionate documentary often, so the presence of the camera soon becomes not ambivalent and analytic but rather a sweet-natured, deeply-interested observer. Invited along with his characters as they go about their often-lonely work of diminishing returns or show him the local sights, Soda creates a transitory sense of a visitor saddened but also fascinated by and resolutely sympathetic to the normal lives of Ushimado that have been ebbing away for a long time.
Also subsisting in a liminal existence but in a competently other context is Chela (Ana Brun) in The Heiresses, an impoverished Paraguayan aristocrat in Asunción living with her middle-aged female partner, and settled into a stupor of melancholy as they slowly sell off their belongings. Amplifying the conflicting sense of stagnation and crisis, her lover Chiquita (Margarita Irún) is sent to jail for fraud (she claims it’s merely debt), leaving the vaguely helpless, vaguely housebound Chela to manage alone—alone in this case also implying hiring a maid and regular access to the couple's aging Mercedes. We’ve seen before in cinema the constricted, oneiric world of the cloistered rich in their slow decline (it seems to be taking forever!), but the almost entirely female-only world of Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature, as well as its focus on rich women segueing (if they aren’t already firmly entrenched) into their elderly years, offers a modest but beguiling keyhole view into a specific and rarely filmed milieu.
In collaboration with cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga (who, with Eldorado XXI and Ixcanul, has now shot three of the most stunning recent movies from Latin American), Martinessi has crafted a beautifully textured and carefully constrained drama that bares the influence of Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel. The cloudy atmosphere common to Martel is here evocative until it's not: The gayness and female desire that hums underneath the story—and, along with excursions in her car ferrying rich old ladies here and there, pushes Chela out of her inertia—starts as bracing, but by the end feels under-developed. Specifically, while Martinessi’s feel for the moment is exact, emotionally potent and swims in atmosphere, The Heiresses is unable to create a sense of context to this woman’s financial ruin and how her clearly long-term relationship is viewed by those around her. Plausible in the moment, and driven by Ana Brun's mannered but movingly doleful performance, The Heiresses’s only real trouble is creating a sense of the history that Chela is now, sadly, inheriting.
Stifled women are also the protagonists of Aminatou Echard’s tender and beautiful Jamila, an intimate yet ambitious documentary survey of Kyrgyz women about their opinions of a national literary heroine, the eponymous Jamila. In Chingiz Aitmatov’s 1958 book, this young Kyrgyz is kidnapped and forced to marry—but subsequently falls in love with another man, with whom she elopes. It is this transgression that Echard puts to her many women, asking how they relate to this emblematic but taboo rebellion, in turn allowing them to talk about who and how they married (often involving being kidnapped), and what their lives and hopes or sorrows are now. We hear these women only in audio interviews; the images, shot in blotchy, warm Super 8mm, were made separately, out of sync, yet are tied to the words and sounds, offering portraits of the women and their surroundings in a manner akin to a personal diary or home movies.
The effect are images that seem at once of the present—these are the women, often brazenly open and confessional, who said these things—and of the past, as the celluloid hue feels remembered or historical. The women we see are thereby not just documented but casually mythologized, the images of each acting as her own version of Jamila, a newer one for a newer time. (Many of the comments speak to the differences in attitude between the USSR era and that of independent Kyrgyzstan, often revealing an increase, rather than decrease, in social constraints.) The film thus organically re-imagines Jamila as a figure transmuted into many Kyrgyz women who are living out their own variation—fulfilled, denied or, most common, some conflicted mixture in between—of this remarkable story of oppression, marriage and love, and through the film’s images, making Aitmatov’s story theirs. The final scene, and a rare moment of sound/image synchronization, ends with a young generation of girls almost militant in their avid feminism and hopefulness. It is a sweetly bracing ending for a debut film that is at once, remarkably, both delicate and powerful.

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