A Trip to Berlinale and Back


Making “small steps” as the long queue at International Kino meandered, I had the feeling that they were “giant leaps”! And indeed, wasn’t Berlinale a kind of lunar expedition for me, both into cinema (since all my life I had stubbornly passed it by) and into Berlin itself (in other words, Berlinale as Berlin-aller)?

What’s more, I had in mind, among other films, Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” that is, a true (or rather 3D?) expedition into the Chauvet Caves, in which one can see the oldest known cave paintings.

So, with all senses gaping, ready to see every detail hyperbolically, with the feeling that my life was entering a new order, ready, so to say, for the multivalent expedition, after one and a half hours I finally reached the blessed box office, with the feeling that I was going to buy the very ticket to the moon. And, suddenly, the verdict: sold-out. Yes, for all the screenings. For all the prices. For all the venues. I, the excited neophyte, was being left behind. I felt betrayed (as some would say, wasn’t even the great adventure of Armstrong & Co. a clumsy film-hoax?).

I had lost the “contest”… I looked around. I looked blank. I looked at the great screen on which the crowd was projecting all its hopes (next to the title of each film you could see a small semaphore indicating whether the tickets had been sold-out or not) and checked again my rumpled schedule. All this within seconds. After all, I told myself, no expedition without technical problems! So that… no, this text is not going to be “about nothing” (to cite Howard’s Nemerov “Style”).

The next on my list was the no less exciting “Utopians” by Zbigniew Bzymek (USA 2011), part of the Forum competition (i.e. experimental films, not designed for “mass consumption”). I remember that, after hours and hours of searching for the titles to watch at Berlinale, no other film had promised to be so psychedelic. And indeed, I was not mistaken.  “Utopians” ultimately gave me the feeling of weightlessness I had been looking for (enough to say that, on my way back to the dorms, getting off the tram at Platanenstrasse, I wandered for a couple of minutes around the street sign trying to understand where exactly I had “landed”).

The ingredients were a truly minimalist cast and setting, a story of the hopelessness of humans in general, grounded in a medical story –- one of the three main characters (Lauren Hind as Maya) is a schizophrenic, and the fact that the film was partially inspired by a dog bite (unless the confession of the director himself, in the talk following the screening, was not a grotesque continuation of the script).

If it wouldn’t be an offence to the aerial-abstract creation of Zbigniew Bzymek to talk about “plots,” let me try to give a very brief summary: Maya (Lauren Hind) is released from medical observation, and meets again Zoe (Courtney Webster), her girlfriend who has recently come back from military service. They both seem to rely on the support of Zoe’s father, Roger (Jim Fletcher), a failed Yoga teacher who gradually loses all of his students as the two young women destabilize his already unstable life (he seems to have no home; together with Zoe and Maya he camps in the woods).

Things take a radical turn when Morris (Arthur French) asks Roger and co. to help him with the renovation of his house (so that the three temporarily move in, being “provisional masters” and, at some point simply barricading themselves, to the owner’s desperation). Ironically, no “renovation” happens: the three seem to obsessively move tools and materials around, in a strange eternal postponing, as if “renovation” of the psyche and identity were more important.

But, tragically, nothing changes (even if Zoe symbolically burns Maya’s medical certificate).  On the contrary, now the three of them, in their triangular relationship, all seem to show signs of schizophrenia. Disparate elements “invading” the main plot(s) only make things more complicated (for instance, an aggressive dog that Roger rescues and brings to his Yoga class literally chases away his last students).

All of this is rendered in a hallucinatory, perfectly non-linear manner (with parallelisms and breaks in the …collage, perhaps echoing psychoanalytic dream-theories). Rather than being a perfectly tightened canvas, the film deals with innumerable dead-ends, all the “threads” joined in an irresolvable, murderous Gordian knot: the disease itself. The only structuring “devices” are leitmotifs, such as isolation (Maya is isolated for medical care; the three lock themselves up in Morris’ house; Zoe locks Roger in a “room” at the strange location of the Yoga classes) and height (one of the most important objects to be renovated is an old wooden staircase; a moment of tension is when Maya climbs a tree, escaping from Zoe; Roger’s literally upside-down vision of things as he is in the “upward bow” Yoga position and sees his students coming to take their belongings).

Beyond this, there are the dead ends, the real ambrosia of abstraction, the zero-gravity of cinema: the image of the dog biting the air stream of the vacuum cleaner with which Roger is trying to clean a brand-new but useless mat is simply my favorite.             

Before people left their seats, I tried to understand if ultimately there was something that had brought us together to see “Utopians” on that cold Saturday night. All my attempts at statistics failed. Perhaps it was just the need to make this expedition to an unreal / surreal world. Perhaps the title explains it all.

 by Aurelia Cojocaru (1st year BA, Moldova)

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