It took an open-air screening of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy – held in the courtyard of an abandoned castle in the middle of Transylvania, and with lead actor and megastar Nicolas Cage in attendance – to make me realise just how magical a film festival I was taking part in.
Spanning a little over a week in early June, the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) is held in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Pitted against the weight of other older – earlier – festivals (Rotterdam, Berlin and of course Cannes) and the pull of later – larger – extravaganzas (Karlovy Vary, Locarno and Venice), TIFF is ill-equipped to secure the amount of world premieres of the circuit’s glitziest cousins. But it is also mercifully spared from their red-carpeted buzz – something closer to a mid-year get-together between old-time friends than a cacophonous A-list fest, a feeling amplified by the relatively small size of Cluj itself, where screening venues and festival hangouts are seldom over a five-minute walk away (the castle in the outskirts of town where Mandy was screened under a starry late-spring sky being a notable exception).
For the discerning cinephile, TIFF offers a chance to keep abreast of the country’s cinematic output, and to catch up with the best from the first half of the year’s festival circuit. But the event – in a sea of other film fests struggling to engage with younger audiences – deserves a special mention for its youth-oriented programs. Headquartered in a city ripe with universities and home to an ever-growing student body, TIFF has sought to become a teaching ground in its own right, offering under the flagship program, Let’s Go Digital!, intensive workshops designed to teach teenage students all steps of filmmaking under the supervision of industry experts.
It was only fitting that a festival so attuned to the youth would also boast a terrific coming-of-age-themed selection. A good amount of the most interesting entries I saw in my first year at TIFF did not come from the fest’s official competition, but from its youth-oriented program – EducaTIFF – a testament to the festival’s interest in nurturing future generations of cinephiles, and provide a space for debates and growth that stretch far beyond the TIFF days.
Childhood: Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher
Nora Fingscheidt’s Systemsprenger (System Crasher) found a slot in TIFF’s main competition via the Berlinale’s. Among the most polarising entries in Berlin this year, Fingscheidt’s feature debut is a psychological drama chronicling the struggle of nine year-old Benni (Helena Zengel), a troubled girl from a broken home suffering from severe attachment issues and extremely violent, antisocial behaviour. Abandoned by a mother unable to cope with her tantrums, Benni is a “system crasher” in the very literal sense that the state’s child protection system is running out of facilities to host her, let alone ways to cure her – leaving the kid to hop from one foster home and emergency shelter to the other, only to be kicked out the moment she threatens to harm kids or social workers.
Directed and written by 36 year-old Fingscheidt, System Crasher is as much about Benni as the adult world around her, embodied in the triad of her fragile mother Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), the stoic, saint-like case worker doggedly working to find the girl a home, Mrs Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) and the young man who’s hired as Benni’s school escort, and eventually steps up to a more proactive, near father-like role, Micha (Albrecht Schuch). While the critical output from the Berlinale seems to have pivoted by and large on the ethics behind Fingscheidt’s message (the idea that one-on-one care may well be more effective than medication to help a kid as psychologically troubled as Benni), the problem with System Crasher stretches far deeper than its takes on child support – however controversial these may be.
Fingscheidt’s film rests on the clash between an uncontrollable child and an adult world that will never be able to grant the only cure for her ills – her own mother’s love. It’s a cacophonous ride that unfurls as a protracted, deafening shout, a maddening run after a girl who alternates (short-lived) moments of tenderness with others where she storms through the screen as a 150-decibel time-bomb, like Louis Malle/Raymond Queneau’s Zazie on steroids. Awash in Yunus Roy Imer’s saturated pink palette (from the opening titles to Benni’s hoodie to the blobs splashing onscreen anytime the emotionally disturbed girl erupts into her rages) and intercut with John Gürtler’s percussive score, System Crasher is – both aurally and visually – an unnervingly loud film. Admittedly, the overindulgence in Benni’s tantrums and the dizzying handheld camerawork that captures them serve to amplify the point-of-view vibe of Fingscheidt’s work. After all, this is, for the most part, a drama couched from the perspective of its deranged protagonist. But it is not in the uninterrupted outbreaks of rage that System Crasher achieves its best material.
There is no denying Helena Zengel is a force of nature to behold – mightily terrifying in her raging stare, anger constantly brewing on her face – but it is a pity System Crasher would overindulge in her shrills and skim over the moments she’s at her most vulnerable – and quiet. For it is here – in those scarce glimpses of peace intercutting the eruptions – that the drama really does hit some moving chords. There is plenty to be admired in the way Fingscheidt’s script handles the liaison between Benni and Micha – the educator (once a misfit himself) struggling to rescue the troubled child whilst resisting any sentimental (or worse, parental) connections with her. But these engrossing segments feel like corollaries in a drama that’s essentially interested in shouting its heroine’s pain. Regretfully, Benni’s tantrums do not add pathos to her tragic and frustrated quest for love – they end up detracting from it. For the fits of uncontrolled fury eventually lose their steam and turn into a repetitive, frustrating gimmick – holding one at an arm’s length from Benni’s drama. An unnerving feeling that stands in stark contrast with the heart-warming segments where the camera feels suddenly more affectionate, capturing Benni as a child looking for love in a world that’s billed her as a problem – a system error more than a system crasher.
Pre-Adolescence: Steven Wouterlood’s My Extraordinary Summer with Tess
Juxtaposed with the hysterics and cacophony of System Crasher, Mijn Bijzonder Rare Week met Tess (My Extraordinary Summer with Tess) feels like a tale from an altogether different galaxy. The debut feature by Utrecht-native Steven Wouterlood – whose children’s television film Alles Mag (Anything Goes) earned him an International Emmy Kids Award in 2013 – draws from a novel by Anna Woltz to conjure up a delicate coming-of-age tale, a pre-teen-boy meets pre-teen-girl where the latter helps the former open up to the world.
The boy is Sam (Sonny van Utteren), a ten year-old on a week-long holiday on an idyllic, dunes-filled Dutch island with his parents (Tjebbo Gerritsma and Suzan Boogaerdt) and older brother Jorre (Julian Ras). From the uplifting score by Franziska Henke to Sal Kroonenberg’s soft-edged, warm cinematography – the camera lingering on postcard-worthy beaches and cobblestoned towns populated by smiley locals and tourists – My Extraordinary Summer retains a resolutely light-hearted aura, but while Sam’s coming-of-age may well be spared from the aggressive tones that framed Benni’s, the boy is grappling with a few unresolved traumas of his own. The youngest in the family, he’s just woken up to the grim realisation that he’ll probably outlive parents and sibling, and so prepares for the looming solitude by submitting to an “aloneness training” that sees him disappear for hours of self-imposed exile around the dunes, with Kroonenberg capturing the sprawling loneliness engulfing the boy through skyward drone shots. But things change once Sam bumps into Tess (Josephine Arendsen), an 11 year-old island-native who sweeps the boy off his feet and fills his days with endless adventures – chief among them, to understand whether one half of a young couple that just rented Tess’ single mother’s holiday house is the father the girl has never met.
Still, however much she may strike as one at first, Tess is not a stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and while Arendsen’s character is unmistakably imbued with the trope’s trademarks – from the unbridled energy to the wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies – the label feels like a disservice. True, Tess does serve as catalyst for the sheltered Sam to embrace life as opposed to flee it – but there’s also a clear sense that she exists beyond him, and that life will continue to go on for her even after the boy and his family will leave the island. In this sense, the pronoun in My Extraordinary Summer feels somewhat beguiling; once the initial mystery around holiday house guest Hugo (Johannes Kienast) gains a clearer shape, My Extraordinary Summer becomes Tess’, and Sam turns into an observer of – and pivotal accomplice in – the girl’s efforts to reunite with her estranged father.
Written for the screen by Laura van Dijk, My Extraordinary Summer is a family-friendly drama – a film for and about the preadolescents it homes in on. Wouterlood taps on all the genre’s textbook tropes (including the figure of the Sage Elderly Outcast, who here materialises as a widowed beach comber who reminds Sam that life is only as good as the memories you’ve made along the way). And yet My Extraordinary Summer feels nimble on its feet, accruing in compassion and affection as it heads toward a finale of endearing, happy-ending delight. A testament to Wouterlood’s ability to narrate the story from the kids’ own perspective – both in the very literal sense that sees Kroonenberg’s camerawork always set at their eyes’ level, and in a far more ethereal, ineffable way, too: an ability to capture pre-adolescence as a liminal space, where child-like wonder teems with a growing awareness of one’s own place in the outer world.
On the verge of teendom: Geneviève Dulude-de Celles’ A Colony
A similar ability transpires from another EducaTIFF entry, Une Colonie (A Colony). French-Canadian Geneviève Dulude-de Celles’ feature debut homes in on a girl a year older than Tess, Mylia (Émilie Bierre), a Quebecois tween struggling to find her bearings as life skyrockets her into high school, and her family crumbles under the weight of an encroaching divorce. Again, it’s your textbook Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale that ticks all the genre’s leitmotifs (from first house parties to first hangovers, from sexual experiments to school bullying), and yet bursts with unhinged energy, compassion and intelligence, courtesy of Dulude-de Celles’ ability to fully understand and empathise with her lead, and to square her struggle in a larger history of resistance.
Pensive and introverted, Mylia is on the brink of adolescence, and the start of high school coincides with what is very possibly the first major rupture – geographical and symbolic – in the girl’s young life. The new school is an hour bus drive from the bucolic farmland her family lives in (a few minutes away from a First Nations reserve, incidentally) which means chances to hang out with her younger sister Camille (Irlande Côté) are poised to drastically diminish – a shock whose magnitude one begins to understand as Dulude-de Celles conjures a tale of sisterly love for the ages. Mylia and Camille are inseparable, and there is something genuinely harrowing in watching the two process the inevitable separation, and so much tenderness in the way Mylia tries to make up for her protracted absence by gifting the younger sibling her favourite clothes, and Camille politely and proudly refusing. Playful and carefree when Camille is around, Mylia careens through her first high school days like a pariah – at least until she’s granted access to the glitzy world of house parties, underage drinking and sexual experimenting by older student Jacinthe (Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier).
Cue Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoi), a classmate and Abenaki boy who lives in the First Nations reserve close to Mylia’s house, and whom the girl begins mingling with. Jacinthe and Jimmy act as each other’s polar opposites – where Jacinthe’s promiscuous world offers Mylia a short-lived escape from her insecurities, Jimmy encourages her to embrace her individuality in all its wondrous and unique idiosyncrasies, even if this means steering clear from the cool kids’ spotlight. Where Tess had helped Sam find his place in the world, Jimmy does something similar with Mylia, but much like labelling the volcanic Tess a Manic Pixie Dream Girl feels too short-sighted, Jimmy isn’t a First Nations version of a Magical Negro, a supporting stock character whose sole function and raison d’être pivot on the help he provides white Mylia. Dulude-de Celles pens the boy as an introvert, mysterious teen graced with a preternatural and self-effacing charisma, as well as a far more critical understanding of Quebecois society (and his place therein) than any of his white peers. To be sure, this doesn’t reduce A Colony to a dichotomy between enlightened “natives” versus dormant, sheepish white folks, nor does Dulude-de Celles stash Jimmy’s world with nativist delusions of man-nature symbiosis. But the way the boy gets incensed at a 16th century reading of indigenous people as “placid and innocuous” in the middle of a history class belies a history of deep-seated racism and marginalisation – and it is interesting to watch Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoi splinter his angel-faced, heartthrob-to-be aura into something belligerent and proud.
As the boy’s screen time expands, A Colony lays bare one of its most interesting offerings, an interest in the push-and-pull dialectic between core and periphery, which premises Mylia and Jimmy’s efforts to find their bearings. But in Dulude-de Celles’ script, said dynamic takes on a multilayered meaning. The distance between centre and margins is understood as a geographical one – after all, Mylia’s new core (her high school) is a long drive from the rural outskirts she lives in – but the core-periphery dialectic also translates into a struggle for acceptance – whether this is Mylia’s fight to fit in with the “cooler” kids, or Jimmy’s (and the First Nations of which he is a synecdoche) to enjoy full access in a society which has conveniently relegated them to the margins. In a sense, Jimmy and Mylia are both outcasts – and while I do not mean to suggest Dulude-de Celles uncritically drops both onto the same boat (A Colony is all too aware that the girl’s ostracism is markedly different – both in causes and effects – than the boy’s) the confined, homogenising place the title alludes to does seem to ring achingly close to both.
Still, A Colony is not a virulently political – and polemical – work. The subtle social commentary and jibes at Canada’s colonial legacy Dulude-de Celles disseminates throughout never feel heavy-handed or unnervingly preachy. At its core, this remains a moving coming-of-age tale, one imbued with the nostalgia of a memoir. A girl’s struggle to enter adolescence swells into an excursion into a country’s colonial legacy, and the ostracism that still pushes Canada’s First Nations into the periphery. What Dulude-de Celles understands so well – and what Mylia realises, in a cathartic finale – is that to come under the spotlight and be accepted into Jacinthe’s circle is to enter into another colony – and to give up all that makes her unique, beautiful and human.
Adolescence: Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin
Nowhere did the nexus between adolescence and political awakening feel more evident than in Hari Sama’s mid-‘80s Mexico City-set bildungsroman, Esto No Es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin). Homing in on two 17 year-old best friends whose journey of self-discovery grows parallel to the city’s underground art scene, Sama’s fourth feature understands his protagonists awakening and entry into adulthood as a small-scale allegory for larger changes shaping the society and zeitgeist they inhabit. Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) are high school classmates and next-door neighbours frittering time away a few weeks ahead of the 1986 World Cup. Summer is approaching, and the boys’ hormones billow to life through clumsy flirting, porn magazines and pointless macho fights with students from rival schools. But it’s a cauldron of cheap and short-lived thrills which Carlos (a teen graced with an androgynous, angelical beauty and a lion’s mane for hair) is indifferent to – besotted as he is with Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and the world of punk music and creative folks she belongs to.
Things change when Rita offers the two serendipitous access to the city’s underground club Azteca. It’s a safe haven where countercultures sprout and blossom, and people are free to indulge in their sexual proclivities (“Is this a gay bar?” Carlos and Gera ask Rita as they wade through a crowd of elated and intoxicated folks of all genders and orientations making out around them; “It’s an everything bar,” she tells them). Watching the boys tiptoe across a world of unhinged, unimaginable thrills, my mind was jolted back to Patrick Fugit’s own wide-eyed look as he waded into Almost Famous’s wonderland of rock stars and excesses – a Xanadu once locked and now beckoning you in. It’s a contagious wonder.
Part of the pleasure in Sama’s latest is to follow the boys as they enter an underworld of countercultures conjured with the nostalgia of a deeply personal tale (written by Rodrigo Ordóñez, Max Zunino, and Sama himself, This Is Not Berlin is, by the director’s own admission, a semi-autobiographical work). Sure, it’s a world of taboos and sexual promiscuity, but Afredo Altamirano’s widescreen cinematography (painting the Azteca with a seductive, warm palette) and a soundtrack stashed with the obligatory nods to the epoch’s classic (from Roxy Music to Meredith Monk) further add to the nostalgia. Inside the Azteca, the two friends split, and it is here that This Is Not Berlin becomes Carlos’, and we trail behind the teen as he bumps into Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), an Azteca resident and boundary-defying art prodigy who falls for the boy’s ethereal looks, and guides him into the city’s burgeoning countercultures. The journey sees the two best friends drift apart: Carlos entrenched in a thriving and politically militant arts community and its LGBT members, Gera incapable of diving into it just as seamlessly. It’s the mid-1980s, Mexico is waking up to the AIDS epidemic (a crisis that would be explored by Alfonso Cuarón in his 1991 Sólo Con Tu Pareja), and while Carlos joins Nico and fellow artists in their public performances, walking the streets of Mexico City covered in blood or attempting to sabotage World Cup matches, Gera retreats into the homophobic confines of their classroom – if only momentarily.
Echoing A Colony, This Is Not Berlin may well be stashed with protests, social struggles and marches – but touting it a political film seems somewhat misguided. Yes, politics does feature prominently all throughout it, but Sama gracefully steers clear from telegraphing this or that grand statement, just like his ode to the artistic underworld of 1980s Mexico City is way too fond of such microcosms and its beautifully flawed inhabitants to turn into a facile cautionary tale. What makes This Is Not a Berlin an impressive entry in the genre is its ability to capture adolescence through its protagonist’s own eyes – as that clumsy, stupefying time of exploration and self-discovery. What sets it apart from other coming-of-age stories is the way it interweaves a boy’s struggle to enter adulthood as a country’s own troubled path to maturity – here epitomised in Mexico’s refusal to confront its AIDS epidemic and the plight of sexual minorities. Much like Dulude-de Celles’ own, deeply personal bildungsroman, the wonder in This Is Not Berlin is to watch Sama capture an age – and a place – with unbridled, contagious affection.
Transilvania International Film Festival – TIFF
31 May – 9 June 2019
Festival website: https://tiff.ro/en