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Berlinale 2017: The Teddy Awards

The Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) put a closure to its 67th edition on the 18th February with the announcement of this year’s winners. It is worth mentioning that Ildikó Enyedi became the fifth woman in the festival’s history to win the Golden Bear for Testről és lélekről (On Body and Soul) (2017). Despite how discouraging this gender split is, it is important to remain positive and trust that as more films directed by women get produced more will be programmed in major festivals, therefore rectifying this uneven trend. In fact, according to Wieland Speck, curator of the Panorama section, over 40 per cent of the films in this year’s programme were directed by women, and in the Competition section four films out of eighteen. However, besides its famous Golden and Silver Bears, the Berlinale counts with quite a few of official awards which are not as frequently discussed but equally important. Among them, the Teddy Awards, where women directors have made a strong impact this year, winning the majority of awards. The festival also honoured Monika Treut with the Special Teddy Award and the screening of, in the director’s words the "80s feminist punk film”, Die Jungfrauenmaschine (The Virgin Machine) (1988). The German filmmaker has continuously explored gender identity and is considered a pioneer of depicting trans identities in her films. The opposition to heteronormative notions and the investigation of non-conforming identities has had a tremendous weight in this year’s programme across continents and film genres.

The first Teddy Awards were presented in 1987: Best Feature Film went to Almodóvar’s Law of Desire and Best Short Film to Gus Van Sant for Five Ways to Kill Yourself and My New Friend. Back then, both filmmakers were only starting their careers; having already produced several films this was Almodóvar’s first film prize whereas Gus Van Sant had made his first film (Mala Noche) (1985) only a year before. German filmmakers and curators Wieland Speck and Manfred Salzgeber launched this initiative to recognise high quality LGBTQ-themed films at a time when the AIDS crisis was posing a tremendous challenge to the LGBTQ rights movement. Over the years the award has grown in prominence, recognising first film features of directors that are today renowned, for example, Todd Haynes who received Best Feature Film for Poison in 1991. The Teddy Awards have become so influential that other major film festivals have followed this initiative: Venice’s Queer Lion (2007), Cannes’ Queer Palm (2010) or Guadalajara’s Premio Maguey (2016), to name a few.

Even if the Teddy awardees do not get as much press attention as winners of other more established categories of the festival, the Teddy Award is by no means a small distinction, a whitewashing prize of an A-list festival like the Berlinale. In fact, the festival has a strong presence of queer-themed films across all categories: from Generation (the films for the younger audiences) to Panorama (the opening film, The Wound, narrates the story of Xolani, a gay man living in a very patriarchal environment) or Competition, the Teddy Award nominees come from all areas of the broader line-up and compete for different prizes also . This has been the case of Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) directed by Sebastián Lelio, shown in Competition this year and recipient of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay as well as the Teddy Awards Best Feature Film.

The Chilean film co-produced by Komplizen Film (Maren Ade’s production company) follows a transgender woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), who is forbidden from mourning the sudden death of her partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Lelio’s film has two main accomplishments: it allows us to walk in Marina’s shoes, offering us her experience in a respectful way, and it encourages us to envision transgender identity as not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures. By focusing on this particular episode of Marina’s life, the audience immediately empathises with her. Since she is not only prohibited from mourning but is also looked at under suspicion by Orlando’s family, the spectator can clearly picture the many struggles and oppressions she undergoes on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Marina shows a resilient and elegant approach to the ongoing abuse from Orlando’s family and the institutional forces. It is this extraordinary character composition and magical moments that emanate throughout the film which frees the narrative from becoming a manipulative melodrama.

From Chile we move to Japan with Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki Wa (Close-Knit) (2017) by Naoko Ogigami, which received the Teddy Awards Special Jury Award. The film also tackles trans identities and how these are received by society. As opposed to Lelio’s film, Close-Knit does not cast a transgender actor and the narrative focuses primarily on Tomo, a 9-year-old girl who is taken in by her uncle, Mako, and his transsexual partner, Rinko after her mother leaves. Tomo’s encounter with Rinko gives her the maternal love she has been longing for and helps her understand difference. Apart from tender affection, Rinko also shows Tomo how through knitting she can channel her anger and sadness. In this sense Close-Knit, like A Fantastic Woman, shows trans characters who have found idiosyncratic ways to deal with oppression. The knitting in the film becomes almost a character of its own and a constant source of entertaining moments. Unlike A Fantastic Woman, the persistent remarks about penises and breasts as signifiers of gender could make us think that the film does in fact support society’s predominant view in which gender equals sex assignation. However, the fact that these all appear as colourful knitted objects gives them a playful, laughable symbolic nature that makes us see them more as harmless, exchangeable parts. All in all, the film raises questions about family structures and supports the fact that good parenting goes beyond the parents gender. Despite the general light-hearted tone, the film also introduces serious topics as seen in Tomo’s relationship with her best friend whose homosexual identity cannot be accepted by his mother.

The Teddy Award to Best Documentary went to Ri Chang Dui Hua (Small Talk) (2016). Here, Taiwanese director Hui-chen Huang explores her relationship with her mother, trying to learn about her mother’s past, who has been a tomboy all her life yet has talked very little about it. The mother’s introverted character does not stop the director from approaching her subject in a courageous and genuine way. The result is an intimate portrait of a mother-daughter relationship where we see that her mother’s traumatic past- a person who had to fulfil stereotypical gender roles (woman, mother) which she could not identify with and suffered domestic abuse- had not prevented her from fully enjoying her sexuality. The director also presents three different generations of women in Taiwan and their views on gender identity and sexual orientation. By talking to the young girls in the family, this film reminds us that children everywhere are still exposed to heteronormative codes which they conform to from an early age.

For this we need to see more films like Min Homosyster (My Gay Sister) (2017), winner of the Best Short Film and shown in Generation Kplus, the section devoted to young audiences. The film follows Cleo, a ten-year-old girl, on a trip to the Norwegian fjords with her older sister Gabbi and Gabbi’s girlfriend Majken. Young director Lia Hietala succeeds in presenting different ways of talking to children about emotions: while Gabbi almost seems to demand an answer from Cleo about whether she likes boys or girls, Majken helps Cleo to understand her feelings and doubts. My Gay Sister is a delightful and refreshing short film about a subject-matter in films which deserves more exploration: children’s sexual orientation. In an interview the director was asked whether she thought Cleo was a little bit forced to start defining her sexuality at ten years old, to which Lia Hietala intelligently responded: “we just assume children are heterosexuals, (…) so what we tried with the film is to normalise being a lesbian and asking if you’re in love with a girl, so we then start to realise what kind of system we’re in where we just assume kids are heterosexual.”

As expressed on the Berlinale website, the Teddy Award “is a socially engaged, political honour presented to films and people who communicate queer themes on a broad social platform, thereby contributing to tolerance, acceptance, solidarity and equality in society.” As wonderful examples of this statement, this year’s winners reveal the different conversations about trans and gay identities currently taking place around the world. All of these films focus on families as microcosms reflecting society’s changing attitudes towards human sexuality and gender identification.

Words byAmaya Bañuelos Marco

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