Kisses, fairytales and why we need the Berlin Feminist Film Week (Review #3)

Mary Ocher performs at Berlin Feminist Film Week

“I wanted to kiss like they do in the movies”, says a Palestinian woman to her girlfriend in In Between. They amble through her home town, passing the spot where, aged 11, she kissed a boy.

The women’s budding relationship is beautiful but naiveté brings them down: with the complacency of city girls, they leave the door open while they kiss in the kitchen. Cue the villain – homophobia, misogyny, the works.

In between politics and art

In Between is the momentous feature that opens the Berlin Feminist Film Week, a tightly packed week of… well, exactly what it says. What does that label ‘feminist’ mean in this context? It’s not about pushing punky grassroots productions, although there’s a place for that. No – ‘feminism’ here is partly about imagining what a fairer world looks like, and partly about making that happen.

Accordingly, this festival balances more obviously political listings – documentaries, discussions and workshops – with an array of feminist-themed cinema. In Between is a perfect example of the latter, in that it brings comment on a lot of pressing women’s issues, but first and foremost it’s a successful work of art. The same goes for the compilation in Feminist short film Berlin-Tel Aviv.

Princesses are flimsy figures

Antonia Roeller talks at the Berlin Feminist Film Week (photo by indieBerlin)

The importance of quality feminist media can’t be overstated. Even Hollywood’s starting to come round, which is the subject of the talk Cakes and Fairytales. Screenwriting academic Antonia Roeller turns her expertise on fairytale adaptations old and new. Our old Disney favourites never used to provide much by way of strong, independent female role models. Princesses are flimsy figures. We knew that.

What you might not have known is that even the female villains are pretty one-dimensional. Worse, we’re taught to see them as evil, but for deeply misogynistic reasons. The evil queen, watched by her whole nation, is shamed for worrying about age and appearance; the stepmother, scoffed at for taking power from a hapless man; the witch, outcast for stealing an education. Luckily recent efforts like Maleficent, Frozen and The Huntsman, shine a happier light on these characters. Female archetypes are turning into feminist ones.

Roeller’s analysis is spot-on, but limited in scope. This enables her to go into the detail that the topic deserves: however, if she had given a bigger nod to the shameful race and class biases in fairytales (even modern ones) – even without addressing them – the talk would have come off as more inclusive.

The movies have failed us

Berlin Feminist Film Week closing party on indieBerlin

Punters at the closing party at ACUD take time off

Nonetheless, what Roeller gets across well is that the best tales actually tell it like it is. And the mainstream tales from the Hollywood movies have been failing us. They failed that 11-year-old lesbian in In Between, and countless other real kids like her. They also failed her two flatmates: an unmarried young barrister tailed by laughable Prince Charmings, and a quiet fiancée whose happy-ever-after is controlling and abusive. Cue the hero – the Berlin Feminist Film Week.

Of course, alternative and representative cinema has happened since cinema, but it’s usually shoved to the fringes. The struggle of any group other than white heterosexuals to achieve proper mainstream representation is a drawn-out battle. And while the BFFW isn’t mainstream like, say, the Berlinale, it’s far from the fringes. This was particularly obvious to me on opening night as I walked into Babylon’s vast main hall for In Between – and settled into my patch of carpet. You see, all the cushy steps in the aisle were already taken – along with every seat in the house.

DJ Ssoulbag at the Berlin Feminist Film Week closing party

All this is a tremendous compliment to the organisers, who must consider this week a success. Broad-ranging in style, inclusive in themes, the BFFW must surely have established itself as an annual fixture. But as much as anything, the event’s popularity goes to show that there’s a huge demand for diversified art. Let’s hope the next generation of fairytales catches on.

Student small fry, country boy in the big city, with inky fingers and a travel guitar.

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