A Western-stye tale of female empowerment that sees two women, Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) and Poppie (Izel Bzuidenhout) ride across the South African Karoo in search of adventure and self-fulfillment, Flatland was chosen to open the Berlinale Panorama Section. We talked to director Jenna Bass all about her landmark feminist film.
Italian documentaries had a field day at Berlinale this year. Whether it was the innovative Selfie, allowing its subjects to become the cameramen themselves, or the harrowing depiction of Cosa Nostra brutality in Shooting The Mafia, the Southern European country asked hard questions of its society this year. The standout was Normal, the latest documentary from Adele Tulli, which takes a fresh and innovative look at gender stereotypes. Allowing its images — whether it’s boys riding motorbikes, or girls dressing up as princesses, or mothers exercising in the park — to truly speak for themselves, Tulli pushes the absurdity of fixed gender norms to their very limit. We sat down with her to discuss her unique documentary.
Cinema does not need to be coherent to be understood. Some art is not made to be chronological, or easily understandable, or accessible to a wide audience. Equally, however, criticism has the right – or even the responsibility – to dismantle the layers of a film and peer at what’s underneath, so that we may debate the meaning which lofty imagery may convey. The problem with I Was at Home, But, is that this meaning never really appears, leaving nothing but frameless minimalism masquerading as a greater film.
Twenty-four year old Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) wants for nothing in life, bar artistic inspiration. As a film student, she avoids the starving artist stereotype by calling up her parents every time she needs supplies – “Mummy, I need two hundred pounds again!” – in order to continue treading water on multiple fruitless projects. Her airily considered ideas trace working class struggles that she will never experience, exemplifying the voyeurism of rich filmmakers for whom the dying towns beyond the Watford gap represent nothing but artistic potential. Through her character, Joanna Hogg has created the perfect representation of the precocious young woman, for whom opportunities will be created via wealth, rather than talent or work ethic. When the arrogant and manipulative Anthony (Tom Burke) comes swaggering into Julie’s life, however, she is soon forced to learn the heavy weight of adult responsibility, in the most painful way possible.
To watch this relationship develop is unpleasant to say the least. Each grotesque leer that Anthony throws in Julie’s direction is enough to make bile rise in the throat, and the feeling only worsens as the film continues to expand on his true nature. Hogg is careful never to romanticise the abuse that our heroine suffers, casting a largely negative light on his actions through an incredulous gaze: as Julie returns to Anthony again and again despite his behaviour, we despair for her, and collectively long for her to escape his clutches. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but Hogg’s refusal to counteract Anthony’s exploitation with any redeeming qualities thankfully precludes any kind of apologism.