Negotiating Unfamilar Places: Girls Respond to Programming @ Berlinale 2015 – Essay by Monty Majeed

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Snip, snip, snip. Her golden hair falls like frail autumn leaves. Downstairs, her family and friends await the arrival of her brother and his bride. Katelijne, ready to make her entrance at the wedding, steps out with her head held high and walks up to the aisle confidently. The height of her white boots and the length of her freshly chopped hair turns many heads. They are too showy and too short to be digested by the conservative Protestant women gathered there. The 11-­yea r­old returns her mother’s shocked stare with a smile and hops over to the other end of the aisle, where she pulls a long rope. A bucketful of confetti, which Katelijne has painstakingly punched out of old newspapers over the last few days, rains down on the crowd. Puzzled at first, they soon pick up on her celebratory mood and twirl around, soaking in the joy that these little pieces of paper give them. The wind takes the confetti over the yellow cornfields and green meadows and even to the sun­kissed highways beyond, throughout the rural Netherlands of the 1980s, carrying all those little bits of happiness with it.

Mumbai-based film critic, Monty Majeed

Mumbai-based film critic, Monty Majeed

As Katelijne finds her voice and teaches her family that happiness lies inhaving the freedom to lose yourself in these little things, the audience at the Berlinale screening I attended, largely filled with German girls around the same age as the protagonist of Tallulah Schwab’s CONFETTI HARVEST (DORSVLOER VOL CONFETTI, Netherlands), applauded loudly.

Screened as part of the Generation Kplus competition­­s section programmed for viewers under 14­­, the film was one of the many that introduced girls in the audience to the challenge of identifying with protagonists from distant cultures and uncommon spaces.

BROADENING GIRLS’ HORIZONS

To the girls watching Katelijne’s story, the space that she inhabited was indeed unfamiliar. Born and bred in a city like Berlin, they did not know what it felt like to walk through fields or milk cows on a farm. And, of course, they had never been forced into doing housework.

But what 10­-year ­old Ezgi Tatas, who had come to watch the film with her classmates from the city’s Hunsruck Primary School, could best relate to was Katelijne’s quest for independence. “I know what she went through,” said Ezgi. “I also feel that I want to take my own decisions and I want to do things on my own. I am glad she went away, otherwise she would have ended up like her mother: ­­stern and morose.”

Tired of watching films with “shy, shallow, cry­sissies wearing pink all the time, and interested in boring things,” girls like Ezgi have been deeply disappointed by the way girls have been depicted on­screen for some time now. “If there is a girl in a film, she always has to be dumb, or has to make a mistake, which later the boy has to fix,” says Ela Maria Borsetzky, 10. “I think it is always the opposite in real life.”

INTRODUCING NEW SPACES AND PLACES

berlinaleThis year’s lineup of films with girl protagonists, however, seem refreshingly different. They push into broader, less restrictive territory, thus opening up new ideas of “space” when it comes to the lives of young women. They are no longer portrayed as little damsels in distress, waiting for a parent or a helpful elder to lead the way for them.

This year, says Ela excitedly, she has seen many films with strong­willed girls in the lead, who take charge in times of crises. While she adored the love and concern Pari had for her blind brother in Nagesh Kukunoor’s RAINBOW (DHANAK, India), she was impressed by little Rocio’s courage to overcome her fears in Ana Bojorquez’s debut feature THE GREATEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD (LA CASA MAS GRANDE DEL MUNDO, Guatemala).

Helene Zshaubitz, 10, adds other films to the list: MY SKINNY SISTER (MIN LILLA SYSTER, Sweden), in which the protagonist Stella guards a huge secret about her sister’s eating disorder, and Mark Noonan’s YOU’RE UGLY TOO (Ireland), in which the lead character “acts pretty mature” while dealing with the untimely loss of her parents.

THE REAL LIFE IMPACT OF REEL CHARACTERS’ LIVES

The magic of movies lies in the fact that they evoke in children, much like in elders, a horde of strong emotional responses to the images that flash in front of them. The situations the protagonists are faced with need not bear any resemblance to their own lives, but the journeys they set on could expose these girls to frightening, dark spaces they would have otherwise not encountered in their home Evironments. “At first, it is hard to even believe that some of what we see in films from other countries are even true,” says Alanza Schmidt, 12, who is a member of this year’s Kplus Children’s Jury. “For instance, there are films that show girls being abused or mistreated.”

Violence, in any form, against girls disturbed Alanza when she was younger. It took her sometime to realize that she lives in the luxury of a universe that is far removed from the realities of what so many girls in the world experience. Her first reaction was to feel grateful for the life she had. That feeling then turned into sympathy, and finally now empathy.

“These films gave me a taste of what it is to live in a different world and inspired me to stand up for myself if I ever were to face the same fate,” she says. “It made me think, ‘No! I am strong, I will not let anyone abuse me!’”

GIRLS ABSORB FORMIDABLE ONSCREEN IMAGES

In the many conversations I had with girls at the festival, they all admitted that although the spaces that these films brought to them­­both geographical and cultural­­appeared alien at first, it was how the girls on­screen dealt with trauma, loss and alienation with courage and conviction that fascinated them.

“We saw films in which girls had no rights at all. It was awful,” says Johanna Gosten, 15, one of the reporters in the Young Journalists Programme at the festival. “They had no say over their own bodies, on who they wanted to marry or if they wanted to study. All this affected me when I was younger, but they taught me to be more open, tolerant and respectful of people coming from different cultures.”

Johanna’s words mirror those of many others who agree that dramatic storytelling start working on our minds at a very early age. Films being, undoubtedly, the most accessible form of visual art, can reach us all in ways that we cannot always predict or explain and can be absorbed by anyone, however young they may be, with no grasp whatsoever of film history or theory.

HELPING TO BREAK GENDER STEREOTYPING

This is where the study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media seems relevant. The way girls are portrayed on film, the study says, tends to solidify existing gender stereotypes. “Children learn to accept the stereotypes represented in these films. What they see affects their attitudes toward male and female values in our society, and the tendency for repeated viewing results in negative gender stereotypes imprinting over and over,” according to the study.

Although films like RAINBOW and THE GREATEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD show little girls taking up maternal roles and sometimes trying to stand in for the absent mother figure, those depictions work when viewed as part of the bigger picture of telling stories that strive to keep hope and courage alive. In other films like CONFETTI HARVEST, YOU’RE UGLY TOO and MY SKINNY SISTER, girls break free from conventions and see that it’s possible to bust open the boxes they aresupposed to fit into. Being exposed to films that have strong female protagonists who tackle real­life issues from such an impressionable age then becomes crucial in cultivating a new generation of viewers who are more discerning of their expectations from cinema.

MONTY MAJEED is a Correspondent with THE WEEK, a political newsweekly based in India. She covers entertainment and lifestyle for the magazine. A post-graduate in Economics, Monty took to writing on film because of a deep-rooted interest and love for the form sowed very early in her childhood, which was spent in Kerala, a state in south India known for its rich cultural history. Currently based in Mumbai, she was selected as one among the top 8 young emerging film critics from the world for the Talent Press programme at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, 2015.

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