BIFF 2019: Ten Movies to Watch

It is the 20th anniversary of the Bergen International Film Festival in Norway, and from September 25th to October 3rd, the festival will screen more than 150 movies from around the world. As usual, the biggest festival in Norway can boast of a huge selection of both documentaries and feature films, as well as programs dedicated to short films and music videos. Over the past few years, the festival has become known for its focus on climate and human rights documentaries, and this year is no different. From The Climate FestivalInternational Ocean Film Tour, and their human right’s program Checkpoints. Last year’s human right’s program included brilliant titles such as On Her Shoulders, telling the story of the immeasurably brave Nadia Murad on her own terms, as well as ¡Las Sandinistas!, which was one of the best movies I saw all year in 2018.

Looking to the feature films in the festival line-up, it is possible to find voices from around the world behind the camera, but it is easy to identify to main subjects this year in their Cine Latino and Cinéma français programs. Here you can find Gabriel Mascaro’s latest film Divine Love, as well as festival favorites like Bacurau, Monos and You Deserve a Lover. Other festival highlights include And Then We Danced, About Endlessness, A White White Day, First Love, Frankie, Her Smell, High Life, Honey Boy, The Lodge, Matthias & Maxime, The Nightingale, Parasite, Pain and Glory and many more. As per usual it is the hidden gems and secrets waiting to be uncovered that are the most interesting at film festivals, so check out the full program here to prepare yourself for the end of the month.

Below you can read about ten movies we think you should check out. It is by no means comprehensive in any way, but it is a small selection of movies that we believe deserve your attention for one reason or another.

We have not seen every movie mentioned below. Those that we have seen will be marked with an *

Documentaries:

Acid Forest*

In a forest that stretches from Russia to Lithuania, one can visit The Curonian Spit, a tourist attraction that is somewhat unusual as far as tourist destinations are concerned. It was once an ancient and green pine forest, but today it is almost completely dead; barren and bleak. This has been a gradual degradation, but not from any obvious causes. It has died slowly as a result of cormorant birds taking up nests in the treetops, and pooping… acid.

Director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė invites us into The Curonian Spit as observers. As her cameras are placed high in the tree trunks, we become observers of the observers. We are witnesses to tourist reactions, as they come from around the continent to observe this strange phenomenon. The film is not only a study of the absurd–acid bird poop as a catalyst for deforestation–but also of the people who appear in the frame. It is political, it is personal, it is strange, but most of all it is quite beautiful. In the midst of these dead trees, strangers meet and, through these strange circumstances, connect.

The Disappearance of My Mother

Marxist, model, mother. Benedetta Barzini is 75 years old. In 1963, she was discovered on the streets of New York, and quickly became a successful model and fashionista. She worked closely with a lot of famous and influential people, before leaving the modeling business in 1973 to become a Marxist and radical feminist organizer in Milan. She also joined the Italian Communist Party. She wanted to disappear.

In The Disappearance of My Mother, Barzini’s son, Beniamino Barrese turns the camera on his mother once again in an effort to confront her with this desire to disappear. The result is a conversation between a mother and son as much as between a subject and a filmmaker. In an interview from Sundance, Barzini says she did the project for her son, against herself. It is a film that deals with the consequences of images—of being captured and eternalized on a small canvas—as you age, but it is also about a mother and a son, and the life they’ve shared.

Searching Eva*

Almost a direct counter-point to The Disappearence of My Mother, Searching Eva is about being seen. For the digital generation, it is not uncommon to deliberately confront the idea of personas in the public sphere. Who am I? What are my values? How much can I share? How much can I show? Is “privacy” really a reality anymore? Eva Collé is someone who has spent most of her life online, but unlike most people, she attempts to erase any border between her online and offline lives. She’s a model and sex worker who couch-surfs through Berlin as she breaks taboos and challenges conventions of any kind; gender, sex, economy, etc.

One comment Eva receives in the film reads “I’m really nervous you are not a real person.” It’s a fitting sentiment and one that carries a lot of weight in the digital world. This concern is contextualized throughout the documentary, and as much as Searching Eva feels like an honest and authentic portrait of a young woman making her own way through the digital world, there’s a conversation to be had about this honesty and authenticity. Eva describes herself as an anarchist vagabond and feminist sex worker, and the documentary carries this same energy. It is eclectic, it is strange, it is beautiful and it is euphoric.

For Sama

We’ve seen countless documentaries from and about the conflict in Syria over the past few years. It’s covered in the news, it’s talked about on Twitter and other social media platforms, but it’s a conflict most people have a superfluous connection to, a vague understanding. For Sama is a different approach to telling a story from Syria. It’s a love letter from a young mother to her daughter.

For Sama tells the story of Waad al-Kateab, as she documents her life in Aleppo as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while this conflict rises around her. She captures it all: loss, laughter, and survival. For Sama became an immediate festival favorite earlier this year, and from reports, it seemed people couldn’t put into words how essential Waad’s point of view felt to the discussion of Syria. The documentary won Best Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival. It also took home the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the prestigious Hot Docs Festival, and it is opening BIFF’s Checkpoints program.

Woman

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s ambitious 263-minute long Human seemed to take the world by storm when it released in 2015. Its scope was enormous and vast—what it means to be human–but his approach was intimate and personal. The result was a moving look into individual people’s lives and experiences, looking for universal truths and ideas. With Woman, Arthus-Bertrand has teamed up with Anastasia Mikova (who worked as a second unit director on Human) for a worldwide project giving voice to 2000 women in 50 different countries.

“Woman will first and foremost reflect the state of today’s world,” it says on the official film website, and it continues to reflect on the questions posed by the filmmakers and the women in front of the camera. It’s a project that feels necessary, and one that absolutely deserves to be heard.

Features

A Dark-Dark Man

Adilkhan Yerzhanov returns to BIFF only one year after his magnificent The Gentle Indifference of the World, this time with a crime-story centered around a corrupt detective who is looking to put a murder case behind him as soon as possible. When a journalist arrives in town to cover the case, he is forced to follow procedure and conduct a real investigation. It’s a crime story with underpinnings of Montesquieu, according to BIFFs own websites.

Very little is known about A Dark-Dark Man, as it has yet to have its world premiere which will be at the San Sebastian Film Festival later this month. It is, however, worth your attention simply based on Yerzhanov’s previous feature mentioned above. From the few images that have been shared from A Dark-Dark Man, it looks to be composed with the same steady, clear-eyed vision Indifference was praised for, and that alone makes it worth your attention.

The Souvenir*

Joanna Hogg returns for the first time since Exhibition (which screened at TIFF 2013 in Norway) with the first part of a two-part autobiographical film project. The Souvenir has Hogg written all over it—improvisational dialogue, actors in conversation with non-actors, etc.—but when you consider how private the British director has been about her personal life in the past, it is also a radical departure from her earlier works. This openness brings with it an intimacy and subjectivity that breathes more life into this film than any that come before it, and while a lot of critics have called it Hogg’s most accessible film yet, it none-the-less might be her best.

It follows Julie, a young film student in 1980s England, played exquisitely by Honor Swinton-Byrne. Swinton-Byrne stars opposite the brilliant Tom Burke, who plays her lover throughout the film. As Julie makes her way through film school, her relationship with her lover and mother (played by Honor’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton) goes through turbulent phases and changes, for better and worse. In the end, we see a Julie who we can easily trace to Hogg through interviews the director has done for the film, and it is this deeply personal connection that ties the film together. It is painfully revealing at times, and as Hogg trusts us with her own life and experiences, it is hard not to be moved and open up ourselves.

Zombi Child

Bertrand Bonello, one of French cinemas many so-called enfant terrible, has been a controversial figure in the festival world for many years now, but it wasn’t until Nocturama released that the international press seemed to take notice (although House of Tolerance is considered by many—myself included—to be an all-time masterpiece). Once Cannes pulled the divisive film on terrorism in a contemporary Paris from its line-up, Bonello seemed to become a household name between the walls of film twitter and the likes. Now he’s back with Zombi Child, a film he apparently wrote, directed and scored in less than a year.

Zombi Child tells two parallel stories: one set in 1962’s Haiti, partly based on the true story of Clairvius Narcisse who was, allegedly, turned into a zombie through voodoo preparations. As the legend goes, Narcisse was put into a state of comatose and buried alive, before being “resurrected” with the use of a chemical compound and forced to work in a plantation. The other story sees Bonello contextualize this legend through the lens of youth and contemporary politics in Paris. It follows a group of girls at the Légion d’honneur boarding school as a new student arrives, who turns out to be Narcisse’s granddaughter. This sets the stage for a classic Bonello narrative, filled with his fascinations and obsessions: youth culture, the political climate, and legacy of France. It also introduces the world to a long-held fascination of Bonello’s, the zombie mythology.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma is finally back with a new feature film, for the first time since Girlhood in 2014. Sciamma has been an admired and highly recognized figure in film circles since her debut in 2007, but it seems Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a catalyst for her career to flourish onto a bigger stage than ever before. It is her fourth film to screen in Cannes, but it is the first that’s been in Competition—it didn’t win the Palme d’Or, but it did take home Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm. Now, one could easily argue that some (if not all) of her previous features deserved to compete for the Palme d’Or as well, but it is wonderful that the French festival is finally recognizing Sciamma’s full talent behind the camera.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire sees Sciamma reunited with Adèle Haenel, who starred in Sciamma’s debut Water Lilies. It is a lesbian love story set at the end of the eighteenth century, as a painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman to be used to elicit marriage proposals. For those of us who have been following Sciamma and Haenel for a while now, it is genuinely exciting to see them reunite. Haenel has, since working with Sciamma last, become one of the best actors working today, from her Lumiere Award-winning performance in House of Tolerance to the more recent The Unknown Woman and the Les Combatants.  

Too Late to Die Young*

Not to be confused with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, this Chilean drama from the quietly exquisite Dominga Sotomayor is easily one of the best films of the year. Sotomayor may be an unfamiliar name to most, but with a handful of terrific shorts and three feature films, two of which I can personally vouch for any day of the week, under her belt, it is time for people to take note. Too Late to Die Young has been doing the festival tour for over a year now, and it even secured Sotomayor the prize for Best Director at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2018, which makes her the first woman filmmaker to win that award.

Sotomayor engages with familiar tropes in Too Late to Die Young: family relations and the disconnects between childhood and adulthood. Set in Chile in the summer of 1990s, the year the country transitioned back into a democracy in the wake of Pinochet’s dictatorship, we meet Sofia, Lucas, and Clara, as they face their first loves and fears. Newcomer Demian Hernández, who plays Sofia, is magnetic from the very first scene, and he possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that is reminiscent of early Anne Wiazemsky (maybe particularly in Au Hazard Balthazar). It’s nostalgic and sentimental, but it is also very aware of the time and place it depicts. It’s about first experiences, and it’s at once a beautiful time capsule and a universal mirror for you to discover yourself in.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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