Mannheim-Heidelberg 2015: From a Selected Perspective

Festival report by Ylva Liljeholm, member of the Ecumenical Jury

Some weeks have passed since the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival where I spent a week in the very pleasant set of an ecumenical jury. I will concentrate on two reflections:

First of all – the vivid contemporary Mexican cinema with three films in the international competition. All very clever, beautiful and innovative films, although totally different from each other.

My colleagues in the ecumenical jury (including myself) agreed unanimously and with zero hesitation to give our prize to Walking Distance, directed by Alejandro Guzmán Alvarez. We all surrendered to this colourful, perfectly told story about Federico, a man so overweight that he can hardly move. He spends his life in a small flat, going through the same routine every day. Sometimes his sister and brother-in-law come for a visit, but mostly he is trapped alone in his small flat, as in his massive body. A change occurs when Federico finds a not yet developed roll of film, and laboriously walks to the local photo shop. This walk gives his life an unexpected turn – he will make new friends and discover a hidden passion: the camera. Most of all – his gentle mind and personality suddenly becomes apparent to people around him, and to us in the audience. A real person arises before us where at the beginning we just saw body fat and obesity.

Walking Distance is a cinematographic master piece, each frame like a painting, with deep and vivid colours. The story is sensitively told, with quiet humour and a lot of love for the main characters. Above all, it is a tribute to humanity and to the beauty of life – that kind of beauty that takes some time to discover.

The international jury gave it´s main prize to another Mexican film, The Thin Yellow Line by Celso R. Garcia. A group of five men are given the task of repainting the yellow line on the 217 km road between San Carlos and San Jainto. A tedious and dangerous job, but also life-saving. The film has a fantastique scenery, very good actors (led by Latin America’s indie-star Damián Alcázar who also appears in one of the other competing films, Magallanes by Slavador del Solar) and is at the same time a contribution to all roadworkers of the world who every day risk their lifes to save others.

Jeremy by Anwar Safa, the third Mexican competition entry, is a witty comedy about an 8-year old overintelligent boy who is misunderstood by everyone in the world, including his not so intelligent family. The story of a child that does not fit in has been told many times, but ”Jeremy” has a playfulness, charm and a wonderful cast that gives the genre new life. Anwar Safa won the audience prize – and it was well deserved.

Reflection number two has to do with the festival’s lack of gender perspective. Not that Mannheim-Heidelberg is worse than any other festival, it just reflects the state of world cinema, or at least the state we think world cinema has. Some of us started talking about the representation of different categories in film, for instance women. And after a quick flash-over (where we might have made some minor mistakes in our counting, but still got a general picture) we realized that out of the 22 films in competiton:

- 4 had a female director
- 4 had a female main character 

  • - 2 films had more than one main character including at least one woman
  • - 1 film had a female cinematographer
  • - 14 had male producers, 3 had female producers and 5 had mixed producers
  • - 5 made the Bechdel-test*
  • Is this OK for a modern film festival? Is it a problem? Is it not most important to select the film according to quality and nothing else? 

My personal answers to these three questions are No, Yes and Yes. 

It´s not OK for a modern film festival with such a bad gender representation. And yes, it is a problem because the world comes to us through the films, but here we only get restricted perspectives of the world. We see films from Bangladesh, Canada or Mexico, and learn about the people there (which is fantastic) – but again, we learn about the world of the men – not the women. If the story includes a woman – it is often as an object. I have to mention a beautiful exception from the end of  the Peruvian film Magallanes – a story about a man´s debt to an Indian women (also the story of a country´s debt to the Indian people in general and the Indian women in particular). The woman has been a quiet object in the whole film, not saying more than necessary, but in the end, at the police station, when everything has fallen apart for her and for the man who in vain tried to pay his debt, she bursts out in a tirade of words in her own language, Quechua. No one can understand her (and there are no subtitles). But it is her story and we understand it anyway through her face and body language. It is the story of an utmost pain, but it gives her a face, it makes her real to us. ”Magallanes” both passes the Bechdel-test and has a gender eye – although the film has a main male character and is directed by a man. 

The answer to the third question about quality is of course Yes. A film festival should seek for the best. And since the majority of films are made by men, the logic should be that it is there where we find quality. At the same time – it’s not wrong to put ones gender glasses on and look for films made by women or stories about women. One might be suprised by the range of quality films there is on the market if one looks just a little bit outside the box.

*The Bechdel test is a method for measuring female representation in a film (can be used for literature as well). It´s very simpel. To pass the test the film has to include 1) at least two women 2) who talk to each other 3) about something else than men.


Commentary of the editor: I do share Ylva's arguments but disagree about her evaluation of the festival. The numbers she observed witness that Mannheim-Heidelberg is much better than others, especially the big ones. Cannes, undoubtedly the most important, boasted of having one female director in the competition in past years. (KV)