All Around the World in Five Days

Reflections on the 67th International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

The Ecumenical Jury Mannheim 2018, from left: Annette Jungen-Rutishauser, Lothar Strüber, Sofia Sjö, Victor Kókai-Nagy, Ildima Nevelös-Forgács

Most of the films I watch are American or Nordic productions. The reasons for this are primarily practical. In my home country Finland, these are the most easily available films. They are the ones shown in the cinema and on TV and the ones accessible via the most popular streaming services. I do occasionally watch films from other parts of the world, but it does not happen that often. When it does though, it often reminds me that films are entertainment, but they are never only entertainment.

There is of course nothing wrong with primarily wanting to watch films for their entertainment value. I happily admit that after a long week at work, getting to watch an action-packed superhero movie is often just what I need. However, films can also open up windows on lives unknown to us, put new perspectives on things we take for granted and move us to reflect on our own positions, values and concerns. American and domestic productions can of course do this too – and so can superhero movies – but for me productions from other parts of the world, with their often unusual perspectives, alternative narratives and novel characters, do this more directly. Getting the chance to attend this year’s International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg, watch sixteen films from all around the world in five days, and being allowed to take part in interesting film discussions with a wonderful group of ecumenical jury-members, made this repeatedly clear to me.

Though the films at this year’s International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg were varied, bringing us many types of stories, characters and viewpoints, some themes reappeared. With its focus on new talents and first time directors, the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg naturally offers up films made by relatively young filmmakers. For this reason, stories about being young or being on the brink of adulthood, with everything that entails, can be expected. This was the topic of, among others, the two Canadian films in competition, The Fireflies are Gone, directed by Sébastien Pilote, and We Have Forever, directed by Paul Barbeau, and the Canadian and Uruguayan film Roads in February, directed by Katherine Jerkovic. All three films portray young people on the road to somewhere, but a somewhere that is not clear. Tazzeka, a Moroccan/French production directed by Jean-Philippe Gaud, and Socrates, a Brazilian production, directed by Alex Moratto, also deal with the struggle of growing up, but bring in social concerns in the form of poverty, discrimination and migration.

A recurring topic in many of the films in competition this year was also the portrayal of strong female characters of different ages. The Fireflies are Gone focusses on a strong willed young woman. Orange Days, which received the Grand Newcomer Award, The Film Critics Prize and The Ecumenical Film Prize, and is directed by Arash Lahooti, tells the story of a middle aged woman making her way in a male dominated field and never backing down despite the odds being stacked against her. In Dead Pigs, directed by Cathy Yan, we are introduced to a rather unusual image of China and the stubborn, resolved and never wavering beauty parlor owner Candy Wang. In The Queen of Fear, directed by Valeria Bertuccelli and Fabiana Tiscornia, the focus is on a successful actress who struggles with a fear of everything, but also a determination to do things her way.

Considering the young age of some of the filmmakers, there were also surprising themes to be found. Pure Land, directed by Zhenyu Sun, deals with the consequences of the Chinese one child policy and tells a story, partly based on real events, about a poor woman’s struggle to pay the fines to be able to deliver her third child. In Giants and the Morning After, the team of young filmmakers, Malla Grapengiesser, Alexander Rynéus and Per Bifrost, delivers a kind of documentary about life in a small community, focusing on the struggles and hopes of the head of the municipality, owners of a small factory and local youngsters. Finally, 7 Weeks, directed by Constanza Figari, deals with abortion. Considering the setting of Chile, where abortion is still illegal, the topic is brave and its presentation thought provoking.

Choosing whom to award the Ecumenical Film Prize among this array of moving stories was not an easy task, but an open discussion and reflections on the criteria helped the jury reach a decision and formulate a motivation that highlights the many strengths of the winner. The jury’s argument for awarding Orange Days the prize is that this is a film about having the strength to care for others when you risk losing everything and being a true partner and real family in the midst of adversaries. The jury was also moved by the films visually appealing images and by the many close-ups that highlight the actors’ talent. The fact that Orange Days is a narrative that includes suspense, tragedy and humor is also a merit, as is the fact that the film tells a moving and in many ways unique story about family, love and respect. And oranges – trust us, no one that gets to enjoy this film will ever look at oranges the same way again.