Berlin 2020 Empowered Women Directors and Hinted at a Better Future for Europe’s Film Festivals

As the entire film industry reacted to images of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein being led to jail in handcuffs, women at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival had much to celebrate. This year’s program, under the new leadership of Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, continued the trend among European festivals reaching for gender parity in its programming, with six films directed by women in the main Competition — many of them gaining upbeat reviews and global buyer interest — as well as many other strong stories by and about women throughout the sprawling Berlinale selection.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the progress in this year’s lineup.

1. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” broke out at the festival.

Brooklyn filmmaker Eliza Hittman found out that her third feature had been accepted in the Berlinale competition a month before Sundance in January, where her film won a special jury prize for “neorealism.” The teenage abortion drama (which Focus Features picked up before production and will release stateside on March 13) also played well in Berlin, shooting to the top of Screen’s critics chart, moving ahead of Christian Petzold’s watery romance, “Undine.”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is considered a strong candidate for the Golden Bear, even given the political views of the Berlinale jury president, Jeremy Irons, who distanced himself from past anti-abortion statements at the opening day jury press conference. (Other jurors include “The Artist” star Berenice Bejo and “Manchester By the Sea” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan.)

“I don’t think I make crowd-pleasing Grand Jury Prize movies,” Hittman told me ahead of the premiere. “Everything I do is a little off to the side. I didn’t come here with any expectations. Juries are always wildly unpredictable. I did not make the movie to preach to the choir either. This is an art film, but I knew at some point we would be met with people with different ideas about women’s reproductive rights. I didn’t expect it to be the head of the Berlinale jury!”

Eliza Hittman, Sidney Flanigan, and Talia Ryder arrive for the premiere of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” during the 70th annual Berlin International Film Festival


Hittman wanted to pursue the story of a young girl traveling to get an abortion soon after her first film, the micro-budget romance “It Felt Like Love,” but it was hard to find financing, and she moved on to make Sundance directing prize-winner “Beach Rats.” “It’s not been easy,” she said. “I’m an outlier. I’m not in the studio system. I’m still making work very much in my voice.”

For women directors making their way in the film industry, “it’s a step forward and a step backwards,” she said. “There is not a simple answer. Unfortunately, Academy voters can’t recognize that women are directors. [Hittman is a member of the Writers branch.] We have to tear down the patriarchy! It’s an issue not just for the Academy — they are in the public eye, more people are watching. It’s film schools. Other people get away with what they get way with because there’s no transparency about their policies. Things can change.”

One thing Hittman believes in is 50/50 film sets. “Because of the content, the movie naturally attracted a predominantly female production team,” she said. “But we can’t over-correct the problem. You end up with the same issues as an all-male set. A 50/50 balance is very holistic.”

As for the Weinstein verdict, Hittman was disappointed that he wasn’t convicted on all counts. “It unfortunately diminishes the enormity of the accusation,” she said. “The [possible] sentence of five to 25 seems too thin.” The limping mogul soon wound up in a New York hospital before heading to Rikers and his sentencing on March 11. “He’s milking it,” Hittman said. “It’s a bad performance and he should know it.”

2. Other strong films directed by women broke out at the Berlinale.

“The Intruder”

Argentinian competition film “The Intruder” (“El Profugo”) marks the breakout of an exciting director, Natalia Meta, who on her second go-round adapted a genre novel about a choir singer and voice actress (Érica Rivas of “Wild Tales”) who starts to lose her voice after a traumatic loss. “What really attracted me to this novel wasn’t presenting this genre in terms of the good and the bad,” said Meta at the press conference. “It was breaking the mold. I could get into this world. It’s about dreams and wakefulness, fiction, fact and truth.”

The movie plays metaphorically with the ways men control women by getting inside their heads, moving fluidly between reality and dreamscape, not unlike “Black Swan.” “This is linked to a new feminist wave, that is being felt in the countries where we come from,” said Rivas. “And that it is also important, that things aren’t just set in stone. And that there’s a malleability, something soft in-between, that can be the focus of a story.”

Oscar-nominated Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) returned to the Berlinale one year after “Mr. Jones” with another period biopic, “Charlatan,” in the Berlinale Special section. (It could have played in Competition.) This time the subject is dour Czech herb healer Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), who gets into trouble with authorities through three government regimes for using medicinal plants to heal patients. Later in his own popular healing practice, he’s attracted to his charismatic assistant Frantisek Palko, well-played by Juraj Loj. This sweeping but intimate epic explores the dark side of Mikolášek’s struggle to balance his conscience and his calling.

British director Sally Potter offered one of the starriest lineups at the Berlinale, “The Roads Not Taken” (Bleecker Street), starring Javier Bardem as Leo, a New York writer wrestling with dementia whose mind explores his past lives (Salma Hayek plays his first wife, Laura Linney his second) as his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) tries to keep him from flinging himself out of taxis and meandering alone into traffic in his bare feet. Potter delivers a handsome film on a low budget, but her aging father-caretaker daughter story is not as compelling as Sundance debut “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

Maïmouna Doucouré at a “Cuties” post-screening Q&A at the Zoo Palast Berlin

Anne Thompson

Three other well-reviewed American entries directed by women at the Berlinale were Sundance hits “First Cow,” a western from Kelly Reichardt which played well in Competition following its Telluride premiere, Josephine Decker’s Sundance carryover “Shirley,” starring Elisabeth Moss as horror novelist Shirley Jackson, which won raves out of the Encounters section, and Kitty Green’s Harvey Weinstein-inspired sexual harassment drama “The Assistant,” in Panorama, which already opened in the U.S. “I had 10 years when I couldn’t get a movie made,” Reichardt recently told Senses of Cinema. “It had a lot to do with being a woman.”

French Sundance World Cinema directing award-winner Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) was picked up by Netflix and played the Generations sidebar at the packed Zoo Palast. “The movie asks, ‘how do you become a woman in our society?’” Doucouré said at the film’s Q&A. Her well-researched script follows a Senegalese pre-adolescent (Fathia Youssouf) in Paris who rejects her culture’s rigid rules in order to dance sexy with “The Cuties.” Doucouré defended the degree to which the movie leans heavily on pre-teens shaking their booty, saying: “I must show reality.” Several festival programmers complained that while Netflix may book their content into a handful of top festivals, they often won’t play any others.

Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s surprising Berlinale Special documentary “American Sector” tracks various pieces of the Berlin Wall in the United States. Like “Faces Places,”  the filmmakers opportunistically put ordinary people in front of the camera to explain what these fragments mean to them with unexpectedly entertaining — and sometimes disturbing or even moving — results.

“My Little Sister”


3. Nina Hoss and Paula Beer are major German stars.

Petzold’s atmospheric romantic fantasy “Undine” stars his two leads from “Transit,” Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, who commands the screen with extraordinary poise for a 24-year-old, and has already starred in a French film from Francois Ozon (“Frantz”). She carries the title role of a mysterious woman who feels compelled, per mermaid mythology, to kill her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) when he dumps her. Rogowski is industrial diver Christoph, who feels unsettled by his new girlfriend. Picked up stateside by IFC, “Undine” proves that Beer could go far.

Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s Swiss family drama “My Little Sister” is also likely to win an American buyer. The film involves a pair of twins, Sven, a famous theater actor (Lars Eidinger) fighting cancer, and his playwright sister Lisa (Nina Hoss of “Barbara,” “Phoenix” and “Homeland” fame), who takes on his convalescence when her mother (a hilarious Marthe Keller) clearly can’t manage. Lisa struggles with trying to save her brother as well as her marriage to a controlling husband (Jens Albinus) as they raise two kids. Hoss gives a towering, intimate, awards-worthy performance.

Dame Heather Raddocks, Anna Serner, and Wendy Mitchell

Anne Thompson

4. The 50/50 movement will not end in 2020.

The EFM and the Swedish Institute hosted a seminar called “50/50 — A Roadmap for the Future” moderated by Wendy Mitchell that featured “one of the rock stars of gender equality,” she said, Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, who launched the 50/50 by 2020 initiative in Cannes in 2013 and insists the movement is far from over. “I am not afraid of quotas,” she joked, as she was able to insist on equal treatment for women filmmakers in Sweden, but has been fighting blowback from the white male establishment. And now more countries are taking the pledge, she said, adding: “Failure is not an option.”

Serner cited Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Patricia Arquette, and Emma Watson as among the red carpet women who have carried the gender equality banner forward in Hollywood. “These questions of who gets the big awards and who gets the money is something everyone is working on,” Serner said.

Dame Heather Rabbatts DBE is leading the charge in Britain as chair of Time’s Up U.K. “We are trying to align strategies globally and reshape the ecology of making films,” she said, “with more women directors and more diverse crews. Studios have adopted sexual harassment guidelines, and young actors are getting intimacy training. It’s all about shifting the culture. Harvey Weinstein is not the end of this [equality] issue. It’s not about win or lose. This movement is not going back in the box.”

And 50/50 for white women is not enough: fighting for equality for people of color and the LGBTQ community is also important as the movement expands. “People ask me, should we have a women’s award? Should we have a people of color award? No! Should we have a white men award?” Rabbatts said. “We have to look at who’s defining the other. We are not the other; we’re here.”

There is considerable progress being made. On the awards front, the Oscars are increasing the diversity of their voters, and both the BAFTA and Cesar Awards are under fire and cleaning house. On the film festival side, Sundance under Kim Yutani is more diverse than ever, while Cannes has more transparency and a majority of women on its selection committee (though still run by director Thierry Fremaux), and the Berlinale is certainly more open to women filmmakers.

“It’s the same bubble of people going to every festival,” said Serner, “and they are all agreeing on what is considered quality and what is not. You need to change the people and power, so that you can realize that others do find quality in other kinds of stories and expressions.”

IndieWire asked the two new festival heads how they are going about achieving gender equality in their program. “First of all, the industry is changing and looking more at women who make movies,” Rissenbeek said. “You can choose the films made by women making movies. But it’s a process.”

Chatrian agreed that change has to come slowly, with standards in place, and no quotas in terms of selection. “Then I’d be creating subsections: ‘I need nine films by women and I have to fill that,’ no matter the quality,” he said. “The quota of the 50/50 is for me a place that I want to reach, but it doesn’t have to be an obligation. Otherwise, the quality of the films will suffer and therefore the films will suffer. Of course we have to do better work of scouting and research.”

Eric Kohn contributed to this report.

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