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Berlinale 2020: Child's Play

Standouts from the festival's section devoted to children's cinema, including a Nobuhiro Suwa drama and a film following a three-year-old.
Daniel Kasman
Tucked away from the limelight at the Berlinale is the diverse and well-attended Generation section, themed on films devoted to depicting children. This, it is clear, is not the same thing as movies for children, though the two categories certainly and frequently joyfully overlap. Here, naivety, wonder, play, and confusion can be pursued in a way that might seem foolish in the so-called adult cinema found elsewhere at the festival. 
Polina Gumiela’s nearly feature-length Blue Eyes and Colorful My Dress shows how radical children’s cinema can be, following the wandering play of Zhana, a three-year-old girl (the director's daughter), around chunky, labyrinthine apartment blocks in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Plotless in so far as the start-and-stop nature of a child’s play is plotless, and characterized by the several other self-minded children and animals—cats and dogs are half friends and half foes—Zhana encounters during her freedom, Gumiela’s hands-off approach allows the little girl’s half-formed consciousness and desires to fully express themselves. As easily fixated as she is distracted, and as often playing temporarily with someone as she is wandering empty corridors and stairways like Monica Vitti in an Antonioni picture, Zhana’s personality, curiosity, and fears are revealed by an observational cinema that bravely steps forward to match its heroine in guilelessness. What could have been overwhelmingly cute is more frequently subtle and fascinating, the girl’s thought and will obvious in one moment and impossibly distant from adult reasoning in another. Like Isild Le Besco before her, Gumiela has ingeniously intuited the affinity of the mobile camera for joining children at their level and in their own world.
Taking on a child’s perspective like this is no easy task, but Akshay Indikar makes it seem just as easy in his more interiorized and overtly poetic picture, Chronicle of Space. It takes the form of a young boy’s (Neel Deshmukh) diary after his mother leaves his father and their home in Pune with him and his sister, a disruption in his life that leaves him unsure what’s going on around him and what happened to his father, and unsettles his temporary new life living with his grandparents on the coast of Maharashtra. Indikar structures his story around simple, often melancholy and questioning diary entries, and between seeing mild anecdotes of brother and sister walking to school or learning lessons at night, the film crucially integrates fantasies and reveries of the boy, whose walks through his new environment influence his state of mind and his imagination. Thus he comes upon a father figure who accompanies him, sheltering the boy with an umbrella against a storm and playing with his toys, but who disappears as a figment; and thus we see manifold imagery of the landscape, foliage and water within which the boy’s new life is unmoored. Rather than express childhood loss or confusion with traditional psychological drama, Chronicle of Space vividly goes a more suggestive and perhaps even more respectful route, of plunging into the sensibility of a boy sharp enough to see what is around him but unsure of the powers that govern what he sees. 
Also in the Generation section is a little American picture that wouldn’t have been amiss at Sundance three decades ago. Indeed, its filmmaker, Alexandre Rockwell, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992 for In the Soup, and his new film, Sweet Thing, shot on glimmering black-and-white 16mm and about a broken family living on society’s edge, feels at once a throwback and refreshing conduit to that era of American indie cinema’s hard-scabrous qualities.
Filming his son (Nico Rockwell) and teen daughter (a luminous and commanding Lana Rockwell) as the children of alcoholic and broke father (Will Patton) separated from their mother (played by their real mother, Karyn Parsons), the film rarely hits a plot point or dramatic scene not filmed a hundred times since such stories of lower-depths dysfunctional Americana became acceptable on the big screen—or at least on the screens of art-houses. Yet Rockwell brings to the repeated cliches in the film an ever-present and frequently touching sensibility combining ramshackle earnestness, embraced naivety, and hope.
Beset by too many music cues, many of which, like Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” and Carl Orff’s’s “Gassenhauer,” are well associated with other movies, and frequently relying upon the atmospheric shortcut of montaging through kids play—especially after the brother and sister decide to run away from a dangerous family situation, hooking up with another semi-orphan questing for happiness—the film mostly exists in the zone of corny sentiment and convention. Yet its richly textured, well-lived world—cinematographer Lasse Tolbøll has made one of the best looking of recent films shot on celluloid and Rockwell has terrific decoupage, finding fresh and unexpected developments for most scenes—is a genuine pleasure to watch unfold. After catching King Vidor’s overwhelmingly sincere and wide-eyed fable of a rural cooperative, Our Daily Bread (1934), in the Berlinale’s welcome retrospective devoted to the director, these fragile but admirable qualities shared between the two films—and two that search for a certain kind of utopia—seems distinctly and honorably American.
Voices in the Wind
Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind was the strongest film seen in Generation, even if its teenage heroine Haru (Serina Motola) was the oldest kid in the four films. The film itself feels older and wiser as well, but that is because its scope is much larger, in fact encompassing a nation. Haru lost her parents and brother in the 2011 tsunami in Otsuchi, and as the film opens in the present, she’s now 17 and living with her sole surviving relative in Hiroshima. At the onset, Haru is already—or most likely, still—a reticent and morose girl, but when she returns home from school to find her aunt collapsed on the floor she is pushed to the breaking point that perhaps has been hiding since the earlier catastrophe. She wanders Hiroshima’s outskirts distraught, crying that everyone she has leaves her. When a local man kindly picks up the nearly-catatonic girl and takes her home, thinking she may be suicidal, the intervention initiates a road trip almost the entire length of Japan’s Honshu island, from Hiroshima to Otsuchi, through a series of encounters with others, many of whom have memories of similar pain.
On her journey Haru meets her rescuer’s grandmother, who had family who perished in the Hiroshima bombing; a pregnant woman on the cusp of being too old to have a child, and her brother; a man (Hidetosih Nishijima) who searches for his family lost in Fukushima; the family of a Kurdish refugee detained by the authorities; an old man (Toshiyuki Nishida) who returned to Fukushima to end his days where he was born; a woman who lost her daughter in the tsunami; and a boy who lost his father in a car accident. Haru is not alone: Suwa and co-writer Kyoko Inukai provide her an almost nonstop series of countrymen and -women kind at heart and laboring under grief, all intended to show that her sadness should not isolate her but rather connect her to a larger community. A teenage girl traveling alone in her school uniform, Haru is briefly targeted for abuse by a gang of aggressive young men, but in keeping with the film’s vision of a country-wide benevolence and  commiseration, she is again rescued by a kind and sad soul.
At two plus hours, Suwa approaches this journey with a tempo no doubt influenced by Haru’s aspect of concussed sorrow. Often this gives the picture a patient and respectful aura, emanating a compassionate appreciation of the time it takes to absorb sadness, and a desire to open that feeling to others and be aware of the world outside oneself. At other times, the film feels more plodding than empathetic, drawing a very approachable story told in a graceful manner out in a way that shifts, with no appreciable benefit, from the multiplex to the art-house. This feature is a kind of a return home for Suwa, who last shot a feature in Japan ten years ago, Yuki & Nina—not incidentally also about a wandering female child. Here he more subtly integrates long takes, occasionally improvised dialog, and documentary qualities to create a story you slowly sink into, admirably achieving a moving and humane resonance.


Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020Polina GumielaAkshay IndikarAlexandre RockwellNobuhiro Suwa
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