Berlinale Shorts 2021

by Camilla Peeters and Jack Seibert

On the occasion of the 71st Berlinale, Camilla Peeters and Jack Seibert share their thoughts on selections from this year’s Shorts category. This year the festival is being held June 9-20 (instead of the usual dreary February) as a ‘summer special’, holding in-person screenings via various open-air kinos throughout the city.

A Thousand and One Attempts to Be an Ocean by Wang Yuyan

The pandemic shaped us into human minds without bodies. The mind without a body floats in abstract spatiotemporal vacuums. The mind sees faces without bodies on screens. It sees bodies without faces on the street — they’re hidden behind masks. 

In A Thousand and One Attempts to Be an Ocean we are confronted with precisely such a world. Yuyan compiles a digital archive of images that are in perpetual motion, unstoppable by human hands, like the force of an avalanche. She shifts between showing us the softest and stickiest avalanche — a slime video on YouTube — and the great fractured and fragmented avalanches — our accumulated plastic islands in the middle of the ocean and the icebergs on the poles, slowly, though uncontrollably in decay. It is a terrifying outlook on just how many things on this planet we humans do not have control over. Yuyan confronts us with a world’s temperature that is getting out of hand. And why can it never be just zero degrees on Earth? “If you don’t want to drown,” artist Wang Yuyan suggests, “be an ocean.” But I cannot be in perpetual motion, like a machine, the mind protests, I am more than that. I can dance the night away, but when the morning comes I need to lie still in bed, though my body’s breath might still be racing. The body is surrounded by sounds, which at some point start accusing it: “You’ve had this look on your face of like — ” Or is that only the music imagined by the mind? Wang Yuyan’s A Thousand and One Attempts to Be an Ocean is a loop of desire and disaster. It can be interpreted as the smallest despair of a single human being or it can be interpreted as the greatest power of the entire universe. If anything, this short film is a visual outcry: I have collected the world’s images and yet I cannot find the point of zero degrees, the point of stability, the point of stillness.


Motorcyclist’s Happiness Won’t Fit Into His Suit by Gabriel Herrera

Ten minutes of a motorcyclist revving his engine and whirring digital lights for a gaggling crowd—and therein lies the history of the conquistador, the carnival, and the movie camera. That crowd, made up of non-actors who share an easygoing intimacy, doubles as a sort-of film crew, holding up a makeshift red tent for our star. Slow pans introduce natural greenery to the narrow 1:1 frame as a voiceover contends issues of propriety and property. The image alternates between the reds of Godard’s Contempt and the blacks of Tourneur’s Wichita, both of which ask similar questions on the relationship between filmmaking and beauty—what does it mean to reinterpret someone else’s world through a movie camera? This 16mm wonder is worth visiting for the trouble it brings to the cinematic tradition of collecting “natural beauty,” and worth revisiting to take in all the natural beauty it manages to collect.


Strange Object by Miranda Pennell

Just like Chris Marker’s enchanting La Jetée (1962), Miranda Pennell’s ’Strange Object consists only of still images, its soundtrack an important vehicle for the storytelling, and a fictional Other is created to reflect upon the Self. From a micro- and telescopic perspective, images appear: a close-up of a red leather book, a bird’s eye view of forts and farms and many, many fields. An unknown narrator starts with a story, set in an unclear timeframe, an unclear space. Only sporadically do details get through to the audience. “We are told,” the narrator repeatedly states, making it clear that on both sides of the narrative, confusion reigns. This is why there are no pictures from our usual perspective, we cannot see eye-to-eye. In this short, wounded history of a coloniser and their Other, the narrator gives us a disordered alphabet of war. Around her an audible story unfolds of people quietly pacing hallways, ruffling through pages, in search of truth, right where it might be in its most inaccessible form.


Ventana (Window) by Edgar Jorge Baralt

An overexposed photograph of the titular ventana anchors this death mask in film form. Taken on a disposable camera by the filmmaker Edgar Jorge Baralt’s parents, its analog impurities contrast abruptly with the clean-cut digital tableaux that comprise most of the film’s 10 minutes. Baralt composes pale echoes of the photograph’s stained glass window out of now-commonplace laptops, monitors, and flat-screen TVs, with a careful eye for natural light and the reflective properties of such screens. In one telling cut, a nondescript TV screen, with its panoply of cables and soundbars hanging off the bottom, is turned from matte surface to bright mirror, also revealing that latter-day signifier of analog devotion—a record collection, with Big Star’s #1 Record on prominent display. The ghost of Edward Yang hangs heavy, and one sees in Ventana a hint of what the late master of reflections would have found in all the household glassware introduced in the two decades since his death.


Blastogenese X by Conrad Veit + Charlotte Maria Kätzl

In the opening of this short film, Blastogenese is defined as “sexual reproduction through budding”. ‘Budding’ is a term linked to plant life. Sure enough, the creatures in Blastogenese X sprout like flowers in a field, appearing onscreen out of nowhere. Life proves to be fertile in even the most desolate places. Over windy hills the creatures — sometimes evoking male, then female characteristics, sometimes resembling animals, then humans — find their way towards each other and merge in a messy mating ritual. Blastogenese X evokes the short films of the silent era; crackles and grunting sounds accompany the stains and imperfections of the images, proving that this work is above all alive, about life. And yet, it still slips through our fingers and the creatures seem to only move or grow in the moments when we are not paying attention. In this sense, the film again serenades the stubbornness of the floral world. We humans can stare at plants for hours and they will not budge, yet when we take our gaze away for just a momentary second, we are suddenly surprised: they have produced a new leaf.


More Happiness by Livia Huang

The comparison word in the title suggests the prominence of dualities in this documentary-hallucination hybrid. The short opens with a daughter talking to her mother, who introduces two off the bat—husband and wife, then the mother as a Chinese immigrant versus her daughter born in America—before cutting to the daughter’s dual life: a gay romance outside the purview of her mother’s insistence on a boyfriend. Desire-laden shot/reverse shot sequences study the question of secret-keeping on a cinematic level, where each cut between faces feels like watching a tender kiss. Those faces recall the multivalent expressions of Dovzhenko set against the homemade dreamscapes of Pink Narcissus, climaxing in a private dance scene worthy of Denis. The film’s greatest achievement might be the sympathy it brings to the old generation as well as the new—the kind of unconditional love possible only where mutual understanding is not.


Camilla Peeters is an MA student in Film and Theatre Theory at the University of Antwerp. She writes on fringe film and experimental music, contributing to photogénie, Indiestyle and Subbacultcha, and DJs under her own first name. She can be found on Instagram @_cam_cool.

Jack Seibert is a film writer who lives and works in Los Angeles.

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