Berlinale 2022 Critic’s Notebook: Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Dry Ground Burning, Rewind and Play, Camouflage, Happer’s Comet, The Middle Ages
My favorite film of the Berlinale was Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Ashley McKenzie’s ambitious and otherworldly fantasia about a “queer friendship romance” between a suicidal young woman and a Chinese immigrant she meets while hospitalized. Inspired by two teenagers she befriended during the casting of her previous feature, Werewolf (2016), McKenzie first sketched out the central character, Star (Sarah Walker), whose everyday life is mediated by endless negotiations with social workers, doctors, guardians, landlords and the various bureaucracies that employ them. Star is aging out of child protective services and has been deemed unfit to live independently, so as the film begins she’s in an especially precarious state. The project blossomed when McKenzie met Ziyin Zheng, a neighbor who had emigrated from China to attend graduate school in Cape Breton, the isolated community in Novia Scotia where McKenzie lives and works, and also to more freely express their sexuality. In consultation with Zheng, McKenzie invented An, a volunteer at the hospital who is hoping to become a Canadian citizen. Star and An meet a few minutes into Queens of the Qing Dynasty—An has been assigned to her as an advocate and companion—and the remainder of the film isn’t so much a telling of their evolving relationship as a heightened, sensory-triggering experience of it. “We have chemistry, chemical connections,” Star tells An. “We’re mixin’ chemicals. I can feel it.”
McKenzie’s formal approach is to trap viewers immediately within Star’s subjective experience of the small and shrinking world around her. (When An scrolls through Star’s Instagram, they mostly see pictures of other hospital rooms.) The first cut of the film is to Star’s first-person perspective of her own hand, which is holding a bottle of activated charcoal; as a nurse encourages Star to drink it to counteract the poison she’d ingested, the electronic score overtakes the soundtrack, drowning out the nurse’s voice and stealing away Star’s attention. We observe Star mostly in close-up: Walker’s large round eyes stare without blinking or fully comprehending what she sees, but also without judgment or irony. One of the many pleasures of Queens of the Qing Dynasty is the emotional intimacy generated by a character who lives in a perpetual state of radical, reckless honesty. When Star and An visit the maternity ward and watch nurses swaddle newborns, pinning down their arms and legs with a knotted blanket (“I very much want to be one of those babies,” An confesses), McKenzie cuts from a newborn’s face to Star’s, reinforcing a notion I’d already become conscious of—that the film was actively situating me in a diegetic space untainted by ego. “You speak what’s in your mind,” An tells Star. “I like that.”
The only useful point of comparison I have for much of Queens of the Qing Dynasty is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and, in particular, the first encounter between Harper and Prior—the queered attraction between Star and An, the healing and liberation they both seem to experience only in each other’s presence, and the self-consciously symbolic/poetic/camp drama they occupy. The two-hour runtime allows McKenzie room to stitch together a patchwork mythology in which Star and An play epic roles. The title of the film refers to a story An shares, of ancient Chinese concubines who manipulated men to consolidate power and avoid manual labor. “They extend their empire while keeping their nails long,” An says. Star often becomes distracted by a series of grotesque and mesmerizing cartoons that seem to stream on every phone, TV, and monitor in their strange, self-contained world. And late in the film, when Star is granted a day pass from a mental health facility, An takes her to an arcade where they lose themselves in a virtual reality world. It’s a miraculous scene, with dialogue worthy of Kushner. (That’s the highest compliment I can offer McKenzie’s script—this is one of the biggest small films I’ve seen.) “I’m no longer trapped. I like your love,” An says, as the VR game’s sentimental score swells. Star lifts her goggles and smiles. “Maybe we should kiss. We are going to conquer empires.” To borrow Harper’s line: “This is the very threshold of revelation sometimes.”
The other standout of the fest was the equally ambitious and otherworldly Dry Ground Burning, Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s follow up to Once There Was Brasilia (2017). Queirós has said of the earlier film that its Afrofuturist, sci-fi design was, in part, a byproduct of refusing to work with the standard visual language and narrative codes handed down by traditional Western cinema. “If we follow such tropes, we’ll never have a chance to actually find our own selves in the film,” he told Ela Bittencourt. His comment came in the context of a larger conversation about “the sheer impossibility of representing Brazilian politics” in the months leading up to the election of Bolsonaro and the triumph of Brazil’s extreme right. Likewise, Dry Ground Burning is a ramshackle (in the most exciting sense of the word) mash-up of genres, equal parts Western, gangster film, Mad Max-like dystopia and documentary. Like Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacarau (2019), it instantiates a world that seems to exist outside of time, incomprehensibly cruel and unjust but also imbued somehow with revolutionary potential. Even if that potential is only aspirational—wishful thinking in cinematic form—it’s nonetheless a radical method of representing the “own selves” of Brazil’s marginalized poor.
In Dry Ground Burning, a gang of women from Sol Nascente, a sprawling favela on the western edge of Brasilia, have commandeered an oil processing facility and are selling gasoline on the black market. When Queirós and Pimenta first conceived of the story in 2015, oil was nationalized under Lula; by the time they went into production, Bolsonaro’s extractive profiteering seemed to the filmmakers to be an act of war against his own people. “All of this is federal land now,” Caca tells his sister Léa (Léa Alves), as they look out over the dry valley beneath his home. Léa has just returned from prison, like a time traveler discovering a new and different nation, and joined up with their half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc), who leads the gang. Dry Ground Burning pulls on a number of fascinating narrative and thematic threads—one woman runs for office, soldiers in an armored vehicle threaten to attack, there’s documentary footage from an actual Bolsonaro rally, Alves (either the character or the actress, I’m not sure which) is arrested for selling drugs, there’s music and dancing and a queer carnivalesque energy to much of it—but the film works primarily because of Alves and Darc, whose riveting screen presences reminded me of the thrill of meeting Ventura and Vanda for the first time when I saw Colossal Youth in 2006. Pedro Costa’s influence looms large here, not only in Queirós and Pimenta’s use of non-professional actors but also in their attention to the systemic exploitation of laborers who build our cities and cultural institutions, only to be excluded from them. Brasilia, which Queirós has called “a postcard city, a holographic projection,” is often visible on the distant horizon, like the museums and monuments of Costa’s Lisbon.
Dry Ground Burning premiered in Forum, which since 1971 has run alongside the Berlinale, with independent curation by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art (previously the Friends of the German Film Archive). From its inception, Forum has been committed to spotlighting smart and politically engaged work that pushes film form, with little regard for commercial potential. Alain Gomis’s new essay film, Rewind and Play, exemplifies the best of that tradition. While researching another, larger project on Thelonious Monk, Gomis discovered two hours of unused footage from the taping of Jazz Portrait, a television program recorded in-studio one afternoon in December 1969 before Monk’s Paris concert. In the aired version of the episode, Monk answers two mundane questions from host Henri Renaud, in between solo romps through a selection of songs, but the found footage reveals a tense and disturbing production. To start, Renaud, a bandleader and music producer by trade, wasn’t prepared for such a difficult interview. Within two years, Monk would leave public life due to increasing mental health problems; bassist Al McKibbon later recounted, “Monk said about two words [on the last tour]. I mean literally maybe two words.” The Monk we meet in Rewind and Play offers direct answers to Renaud’s questions—why did he put his grand piano in the kitchen? “That was the largest room in the apartment.”—but is unwilling or unable to engage in chat-show banter. It’s an old cliché, I know, but late-1960s Monk epitomizes the troubled artist who would rather communicate through art than words. And goddamn could he communicate at the piano. Rewind and Play would be worth recommending if only for the extensive footage of Monk performing song after song—flat-fingered, perspiring, humming to himself as he tears through his signature glissandos and reinvents harmony.
I suppose simply acknowledging my use of a cliché isn’t enough to let me off the hook. I’ve already fallen into the same rhetorical trap that Renaud and the makers of Jazz Portrait leapt into without conscience, framing Thelonious Monk as an exotic type, an Inspired Genius or Idiot Savant, and holding him up for display rather than engaging the actual man at the seat. “The archive is never neutral,” Gomis has said of Rewind and Play, and the brilliance of the film is the efficiency with which it exposes the racist power structures that framed much of Monk’s career, and by extension the careers of so many Black musicians. In take after take we watch Renaud finetune his telling of a story about the trip he made, a decade earlier, to visit Monk in New York. The point of the telling is that he, Renaud, is the true hero of the story, the elite tastemaker who recognized Monk’s talents before he found wider acclaim. (That Monk had already been playing in America for 20 years before being “discovered” by Renaud is one of many unspoken ironies running through the film.) When Renaud asks Monk about his first concert in Paris, Monk, who is patient and accommodating to a fault, becomes more talkative, explaining that he was frustrated at the time to see his face on the cover of local magazines, all the while knowing he was the lowest-paid performer on the bill. Renaud’s expression turns dour and he cuts him off. “That’s not nice,” Renaud says, every bit the stereotype of a paternalistic villain. Monk expresses a lifetime of canny disappointment with his whispered reply: “It’s not nice?” Gomis designs the sequence so that Monk’s line really lands—finally, fifty years too late—while Renaud and crew reset the shot for another take.
I saw only a handful of new films from the Forum program this year, but all are worthy of a quick recommendation. In Camouflage, Jonathan Perel documents author Félix Bruzzone’s investigation into the disappearance and murder of his mother during Argentina’s Dirty War. Rather than following the standard protocols of the genre—it’s easy to image a Netflix-friendly version with expert talking heads, an affected voiceover and montages of scanned photos and archival documents—Perel focuses, instead, on Bruzzone himself. The opening shot is of his bare, running feet, and as the film evolves the images of Bruzzone’s relentless motion and expressionless face come to embody the traumatic legacy he and so many of his neighbors have inherited. After buying a home nearby, Bruzzone began jogging around Campo de Mayo, a century-old, 20,000-acre military facility in Buenos Aires that, from 1976 to 1982, housed four secret detention centers. Still an active, walled-off base, Campo de Mayo is also an overgrown nature preserve in the heart of the city and an object of fascination for some in the community, while others seem resigned to its presence and unaware of, or uninterested in, its dark history. Much of Camouflage is built from staged conversations between Bruzzone and other locals, who share with him what they know of the base, rounding out his understanding of his mother’s final days. He wanders through the ruins of buildings where she likely lived and died. He and the crew have a brief, uneventful encounter with soldiers. And in the final sequence, he participates alongside a large group of runners in an obstacle race through the property. On paper, it reads as too on-the-nose, but I found myself overwhelmed by a point-of-view shot of Bruzzone firing at a target with a military-style rifle. The noise of the gun and the casual violence of the context make the shots physically present, and terrifying, in a way I don’t recall experiencing before in a film.
Not surprisingly, Forum included a few titles that could be loosely described as COVID films. During the first lockdown, Tyler Taormina, the writer and director of Ham on Rye (2019), returned for a few months to his family home in suburban New York, where he and cinematographer Jesse Sperling rounded up a cast of friends, neighbors, and family members to make Happer’s Comet, a 62-minute experiment in tone. And it really does feel like an experiment as if Taormina challenged himself to see how long he could sustain the strange sensation of walking around your home in the early morning hours, not quite recognizing long-familiar objects illuminated by passing headlights, or noticing for the first time the machine hum of your refrigerator. There’s no plot to speak of in Happer’s Comet; rather, the majority of the film is a montage of isolated night-time incidents that Taormina gradually assembles into a portrait of an isolating community. When his tonal experiment begins to strain, he wisely wraps the project with a subdued but satisfying and mysterious climax that suggests the necessity of human connection—or at least a good romp in a cornfield. I have a weakness for films in this mode. The sound design, which was constructed entirely in post, recalls David Lynch, and the observational style reminded me of José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia (2007) and Stéphane Lafleur’s You’re Sleeping, Nicole (2014).
In their directors’ statement, Alejo Moguillansky and Luciana Acuña emphasize that The Middle Ages is a film made during COVID lockdown but that it is not a film about COVID lockdown. I’m not convinced the distinction is as important as they make it out to be, but the film itself is tightly constructed, tenderhearted, and fun—another small movie with big ambitions. The co-directors and their daughter, Cleo, play versions of themselves, isolated in their two-story flat, getting by as best as they can. All three spend much of their time in front of screens: Alejo attempts to direct a play by Beckett, Luciana teaches dance classes, and Cleo makes some effort to keep up with school and piano lessons. Watching The Middle Ages in 2022 actually made me a bit nostalgic for the early months of the pandemic, when the madness of the situation still had an edge to it. Cleo wants to buy a telescope, so she begins smuggling items out of the house and splitting the profits with a friend who sells them. It’s a clever plot device that foregrounds the general anxiety of the moment, the very real fear that economic and social structures are collapsing, especially for people who make their living in the arts. The Middle Ages is a comedy concerned with life’s most persistent and absurd question: “How should we then live?” I told a friend after the screening that I enjoyed the film so much because Moguillansky and Acuña capture how overwhelming and joyful it can be to love a child, which is one approach, I think, to answering that question.