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Hello Out There! Can Anyone Hear Me?
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

As the pandemic spread its ugly wings across the world in 2020, I was sitting in many theaters attending the Berlinale in person, not fully aware of what was coming or of its impact. We met in person, ate, drank, took buses and subways just to get our fill of our usual overwhelming schedule of films. The Berlinale is one of my favorite film festivals, since its venues cover lots of ground. We have opportunities to go to press conferences, interview directors, actors, and other specialists working behind the scenes. We can ask all sorts of questions and usually we get answers. The films are the kind that make you think or ignite you into wanting to becoming a director yourself.

So when 2021 rolled along, the festival team assumed quarantine rules of lockdown would be finished. How wrong they were. It didn’t come to a shock to most of us journalists who kept hounding them to organize an online venue which finally happened very shortly before the festival was supposed to open. I was very thankful that I did not book a hotel room. I understood why they wanted so badly to do it in person since Filmfest Hamburg managed it, but somehow the timing was all wrong. Instead of one film festival, they split it into two; one in March and the other in June. After attending a lecture in Hamburg about the kind of film that would be produce during a pandemic, I was worried that we would be bombarded with dystopia or apocalyptic themes.

Sure enough there they were—HAN NAN XIA RI (SUMMER BLUR) set in the outskirts of Wuhan (our first view of the pandemic) where Guo, 13 years of age, witnesses the drowning of a friend. Han Shua’s debut film focuses closely on Guo’s feelings of grief and loss. Her neglectful and irresponsible mother abandoned her by placing her in the loveless home of her aunt. Fed up with voice messaging with her mother, this shy observer attempts to break out of her bitter circumstances to become a young woman. The atmosphere is oppressive with images of airplanes flying away, the summer heat, and the constant sounds of cicadas. This tender portrait was the Grand Prix winner for Generation kplus.

One of my worst nightmares came in the form of ICH BIN DEIN MENSCH (I’M YOUR MAN), a German film where a scientist needing funding for her research agrees to participate in a study. She is persuaded to disclose what her preferences would be in a perfect partner, which in turn is implemented in a humanoid robot. What does that really mean to have a perfect match for a partner? She is about to find out since she now has to spend three weeks with him. Who is a perfect person? Well, being in a forced lockdown situation, you learn very quickly about the people around you. It may not be just personality characteristics but there can be cultural differences which lead immediately to misunderstandings. The film was a perfect fit for the film festival since it was humorous and really hit the spot on finding that perfect partner who emotionally fits. I felt that director Maria Schrader must have thrown out John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus in order to create this cleverly written sci-fi comedy.

MEMORY BOX by filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige take us right down memory lane. The postman delivers a box filled with journals, tapes, and photos addressed to Maia. She refuses to open it since it means she needs to acknowledge that something has happened to her best friend in Lebanon. Alex on the other hand is curious about her mother’s past, something she never talks about to anyone. As she secretly goes through her mother’s memories, she finds how complicated her mother’s life was during the wartime in Beirut.

The two artists/filmakers use Hadjithomas’ own journals 1982 to 1988 and Joreige’s photographs to understand the role of memory and dealing with the emotional aspect especially when dealing with a trauma of war. Perhaps it is a way to heal and comes to terms with the past. With the current pandemic, this film hung heavy in my mind as I recently sorted journals, letters, and photographs of my in-laws and my parents. I never took that seriously but now the history has become significant even if some of the meanings are left undone or fractured with undeciphered meanings. They emotionally helped me in the grieving process.

XIA WU GUO QU LE YI BAN (DAY IS DONE) is an autobiographical portrait by Zhang Dalei. The setting is in his hometown Hohhot where the family makes a rare visit to their grandfather. The day moves slowly as they eat and talk. The young man will study abroad and tries to enjoy some of the last moments with his family. Although not much happens in this film it is very endearing; but one feels the time fleeting and there is sadness in the air. It seemed that many of the films dealt with loss or that we should enjoy every moment that we have. A festival that reflected our emotional situation during the pandemic, I wonder what next year will bring?