Cinematic Dilemma: Can we begin something new?

69th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg Report. By Mina Radovic
Una promessa

Winner of the Ecumenical Jury's Prize: "Una promessa" (© Kash/Gabriele Torsello)

The 69th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg (IFFMH) asserted itself as a powerful advocate for discovering new voices in world cinema. In that way, the festival held true to its mission in a particularly turbulent time when the coronavirus pandemic presents itself as a threat to human health and whose repercussions seriously challenge cinema exhibition practices and not only festivals, but also the future vocation of filmmakers, particularly those who are finishing their first films.

The festival’s official competition ‘On the Rise’ comprised fourteen films from thirteen different countries, with the majority of films being debuts. Among a number of exciting sections, the festival held retrospectives. IFFMH honoured French cinema’s second generation, the successors of the famed French New Wave, through the retrospective Le Deuxième Souffle. Showing a range of films that toe the line between experimental aesthetics, leftist politics and genre cinema, the festival gave audiences a chance to see the key films of Jean Eustache, Chantal Akerman, and Philippe Garrel while introducing us to the early works of Jacques Doillon, Nelly Kaplan, and Paul Vecchiali.

The curators did their best work to engage audiences in running this year’s festival through a digital format. Alongside the films, the IFFMH-Gathering served as a new kind of virtual platform for people to meet and one which, almost surreally, combined a vintage video game appearance with more familiar satellite call interaction. As one of the oldest festivals to host the Ecumenical Jury, the Jury was honoured to participate at this year’s festival and looks forward with equal enthusiasm to becoming a part of the cityscape and film culture of our hosts Mannheim and Heidelberg again in future.


The Ecumenical Jury saw fourteen films in the main competition, having the opportunity to select the winner and offer a special commendation from a rich variety of films.

At the 69th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg the Ecumenical Jury of INTERFILM and SIGNIS awarded its Prize to the film Una Promessa/The Stonebreaker directed by Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio (Italy-France-Belgium, 2020). Una Promessa opens with a quiet scene of a family – mother, father, and son – as they spend time together one evening. Composed of shots which harmonize their movements and colours which subtly accentuate the visual warmth of the scene, the opening shows love binding the characters and the fabric of their everyday life. The quiet exchanges, gestures, and gentle embraces outwardly manifest this inner reality.

If we can say this scene opens the heart of the characters, the rest of the film acts as a test, as to whether that heart will survive the hard tribulations that follow. The mother does not return from work the next day. Upon receiving news of her death, the father and son are forced to move out and work as illegal farm laborers. The remainder of the film shows us the cruelty of the world in which they are forced to live. Living in run-down plastic shacks, with no electricity and water, and transported by their bosses in overcrowded camp-style trucks, the father and son work on, what appears, a no man’s land of endless fields and desert panoramas that more resemble an isolated prison island than anything we imagine to associate with southern Europe. Their companions are black immigrants, and the bosses are shown as merciless towards all, treating their workers like human meat, and using their power to sexually humiliate and even kill their workers.

What is most impressive is that the film allows us to experience the characters’ sense of entrapment rather than narrating it by means of exposition. We focalize with the father and son, seeing what they see, with hand-held close ups and disorienting tracking shots playing a major role in aligning our vision with that of the characters. The camera also limits our vision to simulate the limits of their vision. We see many scenes of them working but never reaping the fruit of their work. They tend to farmland but have no knowledge let alone control over where the farmed produce goes. They are paid scraps. They are constantly travelling but arriving nowhere, as every new location looks like the last one and entails the same kind of work and results. Thus, by showing hard work which results in no fruit, movement which results in stasis and repetition which results in monotony, we see the circle of exploitation and violence manifested in the aesthetics of the film.

While this makes the experience altogether suffocating, the personalized nature of the representation and the moments of compassion shown between the father and son, and also between the workers (as one worker tends to the wounds of the son), echoes the love felt in the opening scene. It shows love re-stitching the main characters through the most difficult moments and reminds us of the incalculable need to act lovingly in a world which calculatedly attempts to turn people against one another. While the father’s final actions are tragic, they show the need for breaking the circle of exploitation and violence. As his son escapes through the fields, we see him running alongside his mother, holding her hand. This closing shot functions rather symbolically. The boy who has lost everything gathers strength, breathing considerable hope back into the film.


The Ecumenical Jury also awarded a Commendation to the film Koshtargah/The Slaughterhouse directed by Abbas Amini (Iran, 2020). The film begins with the guard of a local meat factory who discovers three bodies in the company meat freezer during a night shift. Calling upon his son and also the manager of the slaughterhouse, they plan their next moves and refrain from calling the police given the guard’s fear he would be indicted and all too quickly given the death penalty. They decide to keep the discovery secret and to bury the bodies.

What follows is a no ordinary thriller. The film does not display the kind of clash with the authorities or police procedural that we expect, but rather works through an internal moral crisis of the characters, and, as is particularly unique to Iranian cinema, accentuates that internal crisis externally through the intrusion of ordinary aspects of everyday life. For instance, the kindness of the visit of the family members of one of the buried men intrudes against the violence of the men’s actions and poses the primary threat to their coverup of the crime. Their continuous return to the house of the guard and his son coincides with, and accelerates, the son’s moral reckoning with the evil they have committed.

As we discover the person who killed the three men found in the meat freezer, we see the culprit unexpectedly meeting the same fate. The image of the family member opening the cold storage truck in the last shot exudes coldness, as freezing air rushes out to meet the woman’s stunned face. If the ending of Una Promessa was left open, the ending of The Slaughterhouse is firmly closed. The character’s fate at the end is sealed by his actions at the beginning. By contrast the actions of the other two characters show integrity and remind us how to be human in inhuman circumstances. The film also pushes us to see the richness and variety of contemporary Iranian cinema, as we come face to face with a dark noir that stands in contrast to the cinema of poetry with which we are most familiar.

The Ecumenical Jury discussed a range of other films in the main competition in the process of making its decision. Lorelei directed by Sabrina Doyle (USA, 2020) was one film that left strong impressions on the Jury. Lorelei focuses on ex-convict Wayland returning home to rural America where he reunites with his high school love, now a single mother of three children. He becomes close with the family and rediscovers a life he once lost. Pablo Schreiber gives an especially powerful performance as Wayland, being able to merge despair and hope, weakness and strength, often through a single look. The film’s central theme is longing, and a sense of longing infuses the aesthetics and the development of the characters. Longing starts off as a kind of mourning for all things lost and as the film goes on is transformed into a form of reconciliation, whereby Wayland becomes at one with the family and the person whom he loved most, who, though so close, will always be a finger out of reach.

The Jury was also moved by the film Nasipse Adayiz/You Know Him directed by Ercan Kesal (Turkey-Serbia, 2020). You Know Him follows the life of Dr Kemal Guner over one day as he runs for election for mayor in Beyoğlu, one of the major urban districts of Istanbul. An unlikely candidate Kemal appears both as a bumbling and unsociable comic figure and an opportunist. In one scene he is in an elevator, awkwardly trying on different smiles in preparation for a meeting, while in others he takes all measures to gain supporters, including taking publicity photographs with a baby to make him appear family friendly and singing at formal social events. However, we sympathize with him because his attempts are overshadowed by or end in failure.

The film begins with a rather surreal sequence that takes place under the sea and sets the tone for Kemal’s story. In almost Kafkaesque style the lone individual stands before a jury of examining magistrates, or in this case Kemal comes before his superiors. As the film goes on, the shadow of the world of politics hangs over Kemal’s life, as he meets higher end politicians who mostly ignore or abandon him. One of the film’s greatest strengths lies with the development of the titular character.

Despite initially appearing as unlikable and opportunistic Kemal turns out to be sincere. This development is achieved through subtle dramaturgy, another formidable aspect of the film. The film interweaves Kemal’s life with the lives of a range of different characters whom he encounters during his campaign. His wife enters the narrative at most unexpected moments and leaves almost as quickly. However, she provides a breath of fresh air, as she acts as a shoulder of support who keeps Kemal going through all his commitments. The film’s dramaturgy works like a tapestry, which goes back to the very best of Russian literature and in more recent cinema recalls the masterpiece Dovlatov by Aleksei German Jr (Russia-Poland-Serbia, 2018). In the end Kemal becomes an unlikely hero, saving a girl from being violated by a colleague. As he sits in the basement in the film’s final scene, we are left with someone who really wants to do something good for other people and as such may just be the kind of candidate the world of politics needs. 

What seemed to permeate this year’s programme is an interest in characters faced with moral dilemmas of different orders. What connects them is the character’s desires to break away from their circumstances, creating a new beginning. While many films dive into despair, the films we chose present us with a new sense of hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances.