4. Juni 2022


critique by Tomasz Raczkowski

Attending an event dedicated to young, aspiring filmmakers, genre movies are not something one usually expects, at least not primarily. The pictures that constitute the overwhelming part of this festival’s line-up are typically down-to-earth, artsy stuff that is expected to prioritize the social message and interpretative complexity above patterns of entertainment cinema.

Is it possible to tell an interesting story about gender and psychological fractures, crafted as a classical science fiction movie? Without a big budget and the prestige that support projects such as Dune or 2001 - A Space Odyssey, it is very unlikely. However, Steve Bache and Friederike Weykamp’s Supernova, a 30-minutes short presented as part of the 51st Sehsüchte Festival in Potsdam proves this very possibility.

The movie starts with a dynamic action. Somewhere – in some space – three female astronauts explore an unknown foggy yellow area. One of them makes a mistake, which from all we know, might be lethal or at least seriously damaging to her and her colleagues. Soon it is revealed that it was just a training exercise, meaning that no harm is done. Or so it seems. As we learn that the three women are in advanced stages of a Mars mission preparation, the misjudgment made in the opening sequence by our protagonist Nova casts a long shadow onto the whole program and the relationships between its participants.

After opening the narrative with a fair action sequence, Bache (the director) and Weykamp (the screenwriter) slow down to focus on emotional and psychological tensions it exposed. Nova, Ivy and Lucia, the astronauts set to pursue a pioneer space mission are simultaneously trying to shape a team and edge the others in a chase for mission leadership. To make it more complicated, in a claustrophobic, sterile and desolated space center, affection and desire are floating around just as much as reluctance and competitiveness. Stuck in a complicated emotional triangle, pushing themselves to succeed in a stereotypically male environment, the characters’ quivers intertwine with subtly suggested, broader social discourses of surpassing gender roles and balancing ambition with self-conscious evaluation of one’s capabilities.

Although Supernova is a student-graduate project, rather underfinanced than drowning in money, it is safe to say that it looks better than some big-studio sci-fi pictures. With close frames, logically tight spaces and regular close-ups on characters’ faces, Bache overcomes the shortage of high-profile scenery. In turn, the astronaut station is creatively animated with (usually warm) color filters that add the uniqueness to Supernova by breaking traditional pale-cold palette of space travel fiction. The degree to which filmmakers can use narrow resources for suggestive effect and turn limitations into advantages is a measure of cinematic talent. The creators of this film pass this test with distinction.

The title brings a clever, ambiguous play of meanings. Derived from the protagonist’s name “supernova” suggest her rising to becoming a true heroine (Nova earing prefix popcultural ‘super’), but with its literal meaning, it also refers to the burning out of the power/energy a star possesses, a cataclysm. This intriguing space for interpretations comes together with sharp narrative and visual cleverness to produce a great movie. It touches some important matters, but most of all it is just fun to watch. Fingers crossed for the future, hopefully cosmic achievements of the team. 


26. Mai 2022


Critique by Tomasz Raczkowski

Sehsüchte Film Festival provided unique moments. During a block of several variously crafted shorts from all over the world I discovered something that stands out. Without that occasion, I would probably have never known this work even existing. In Potsdam I experienced Ahmad Saleh’s Night.

The German-Qatar-Jordan-Palestine co-produced movie is barely 16 minutes long. It seems quite uneventful in terms of dramatic action as well. The title stands explicitly for the singular nocturnal moment taken from the life of a ghost-like Middle Eastern warzone. The whole thing takes place on a haunting, destroyed street, with ground covered in dust and eroding remains surrounded by the skeletons of buildings, that still serve as home to several people. The moon casts a cold, sorrowful light onto the street. Those people try to rest, clinging to the last remains of human closeness and safety in the presence of the other.

Despite there being no exposition or direct dialogue to explain the situation, it is quite clear that we witness the tragic existence of people deprived of their lives by shots, bombs, and terror, holding each other in the empty, unhuman ruins. Those derelicts probably could once have been a home for some, but most likely the old inhabitants share what they have left from the past with refugees and ghosts of those, who have been taken by the war. In this depressing setting, a lonely mother, longing for her missing child, performs the woeful, lullaby-like song that poetically comments on the world of tragedy represented by the scarred street. Melancholic and touching, the song empowers the film to be a sad, yet beautiful elegy for all those who suffer from the fires of war in Palestine, Syria, and everywhere.

Significantly, Night is an animation. Created in a stop-motion technique, the whole scene becomes even more dramatic. With artificial, yet very plastic and suggestive presence of puppets, Saleh achieves a unique balance between the story being staged and feeling like a direct representation of a very concrete situation. The movement of figures is very swift and natural to the point that it could pass as being done by real humans. At the same time, however, the objective identity of ‘actors’ is very stressed, creating an uncanny feeling of witnessing a symbolic reality, in which the real tragedies are transformed into liminal entities that evoke the traumatizing experiences within a semi-mythical, dystopian dimension. Maybe it is heaven. Maybe it is hell. Or purgatory. Maybe it is a mirror-dimension of our world, in which suffering souls inhabit tormented vessels put into sorrowful motion by the invisible (offscreen) powers.

Whatever interpretation we will go for, Night produces a haunting tale of tragic reality experienced by so many people at the same time when we sit in cinema. It is a voice from a distant place, with a song that seeks understanding and compassion throughout space, time and layers of reality. It becomes a truly unique work of art, that combines superb filmmaking craft from the whole team – animation artists, sound editors, writers to a very subtle director – with a powerful social message. With its beautiful, yet horrifying mourning incantation, Saleh’s touching piece reminds us, rather hurtfully, that in every place there are mothers and children, care and love. But it so happens, that in some places they are sentenced to torment, to eternal longing and separation as part of ‘global chess plays’ of the powerful.



12. Mai 2022

Cinema blooming in Potsdam

Impressions from Sehsüchte Student Film Festival

by Tomasz Raczkowski

Even though in Berlin there is no hibernation culture-wise – especially regarding cinema, as famous Berlinale traditionally takes place in February – you could say that this blooming spring is to some extent paralleled by an upsurge of cultural activity, with various festivals and events emerging more firmly throughout the city. This is perhaps particularly obvious this year, when calendar spring is accompanied by a significant reduction of COVID restrictions, giving enthusiasts of culture-consumption outside their own homes quite literally a fresh breath. Berlin hosts a fair number of film festivals and film-related events. One may sometimes find it a little cumbersome to navigate all of them, not to mention participating in everything interesting going on in Germany’s capital. There are more intriguing and worthwhile events going on than you can even register. While some festivals are more visible than others, when it comes to cinema, you can always find something really fascinating.

Among the variety of what cinema communities were offered this April was the 51. Sehsüchte Student Film Festival. Not even in Berlin, but in the historically cinematic neighboring city of Potsdam, Sehsüchte resides as a respectable event. As the name indicates, Sehsüchte distinguishes itself by being almost entirely organized by students of Film University Babelsberg “Konrad Wolf”, in whose annual calendar it has been deeply rooted for five decades. Run by students, it focusses on young (student) filmmakers and audiences. Local students can access the festival rather freely and the general atmosphere seems rather casual and cool than uptight. The event invites all cineastes with a taste for student works.

Unfortunately, the wordplay in the festival’s name is not quite translatable into English. The combination of “seeing” and “longing” work exceptionally well in a year, when the festival returns to a physical edition after the COVID disruption affected the whole industry and culture. Despite it being my first time at Potsdam’s festival, I could feel the subtle vibe of relief that filled the air of Film University in the opening ceremony. Surely it also had another meaning, as coordinating such a huge event always posits a challenge. Achieving actual inauguration must be a milestone relief for staff members. Especially, since Sehsüchte is traditionally managed by the senior media students of its host university. The festival crew changes annually. 51st Sehsüchte became a successful event without major hiccups (minor ones always happen, and they don’t really matter as long as they don’t spread too much). This festival boasted a solid planning and cutting-edge programming, all met within a comforting free-spirited student vibe.

Moving on to what is most important – Sehsüchte’s program was filled with interesting film offers and non-screening events, which build a context-oriented profile of the festival. Much effort was put into surrounding the standard film sections with interesting talks about contemporarily relevant issues such as diversity, (in)equality and other structural challenges that film industry faces right now. Adding to that, panels dedicated to certain movie-making elements (say, script) and the historical setting of the festival in ‘a cinematic city of Potsdam’ stressed the complexity of cinema culture. The festival motto was Radiance, that according to organizers was meant to emphasize the key-role of new generations and new, fresh perspectives brought by them gradually for the film culture and industry. And it’s safe to say that 51. Sehsüchte lived up to this promise, by creating a vivid festival space for a variety of voices, questions and interests, all converged within five days of intense cinematic experience.

Film-wise it offered fascinating propositions. Structured into multiple sections not only by traditional short/feature and documentary/fiction divisions, but also considering genre, production format and target audience (kids and teens to be precise), the program covered vast grounds. Screening blocks were curated thematically. That means, some movies fit into more than one category and/or slot. Although it might be a little bit confusing when navigating through different slots, this method created an impression of programmers caring more about the viewers’ experience than formal purism – which is always something to be appreciated at film festivals.

Pictures included in this year’s program of Sehsüchte covered broad areas both thematically and aesthetically. With over 20 movies under my belt, I am quite satisfied with the variety of what I saw – which means that the festival curators acted up to their promise of stressing the importance of diversity also in this area, beyond the statements and declarations. Spanning from classical story-driven documentaries, through engaging fictional stories, experimental blends between facts and fiction to evocative commentaries on contemporary, confronting voices from Europe with those from such distant places as Georgia, Ethiopia, Thailand, Brazil – there was plenty to watch. Although some cinephiles may carry rather ambiguous connotations with a term ‘student film’, there was nothing to be feared at Sehsüchte. The program contained something for almost every taste, regardless if you love slow-paced, grim social dramas, dwelling on challenges of identity or pure cinematic fun. Each of those (and more) were to be found this April in Potsdam.

From my personal notebook I shall mention five works that made the program truly great. This list includes the winners of the narrative short and animated film sections, Lili Alone by Jing Zou and Noir Soleil by Marie Larrivé. The first one is a really sharp and touching intimate drama depicting a woman undertaking a last-resort job as surrogate mother in order to provide for her family, while the second is an originally drawn, severely melancholic take on generation-spanning existential stress. Despite being from different scopes of the cinema, for me both films share similarities in reaching real human emotions in a subtle, yet powerful way, that feel just like having a deep, intimate conversation with the characters. On a different note, Supernova by Steve Bache (narrative short competition and special genre section) provides an intriguing mix of stylish sci-fi developed around unobvious dynamics within a small group of female astronauts, meeting high dramatic stakes with stunning visual craft.

Also competing in the shorts section, The King by Maria Claudia Blanco assembles a chain of brief episodes from the everyday life of a struggling Chinese immigrant in France, bringing several seemingly separate plots to a powerful ending that could be shown at courses as a perfect example of how cutting the story in the right moments makes a difference. But perhaps the most impactful thing I experienced on Sehsüchte screen was Night by Ahmad Saleh – an animated short that received a special mention in its category. In 16 minutes of perfect stop motion puppet work, it produces tearing lamentation to the tragedy of thousands affected by war and brutality.
Those are just examples of original, fascinating offers that 51. Sehsüchte presented. As a living event, it appears that the festival emerged from COVID-related troubles perfectly unscathed and just as impactful as I can imagine it used to be for last decades. For someone who attends quite a few festivals of different kinds throughout a (normal) year, it shall become an event to visit in the future. It should not be overlooked by either Berlin nor foreign festival and cinema lovers. I genuinely hope that its titular “picture longing” will last for many more years.

25. Februar 2022

Will My Parents Come To See Me

 Critique by Tomasz Raczkowski

Although it could seem that the genre of “last moments of death-sentenced detainees” is a worn-out narrative trope, it continues to provide filmmakers with a suggestive dramatic frame, which enables the visual story to dwell into the liminal states of consciously moving between life and death. Such is the case with Will My Parents Come To See Me, recently premiered at Berlinale Shorts during the 2022 edition of the biggest film festival in the world. Mo Harawe’s short is a plain yet meaningful, very concrete story of the life-exiting process as experienced by a young Somali man.

The movie remarkably starts and ends with a shot of a female prison guard sitting alone in her car. For a while we are tempted to suspect her as a main character of this story and in a powerful narrative shift, she indeed becomes one towards the end. This is not, however, about her experience, but in Harawe’s story she rather serves as a embodiment of the system, which acts through its representatives and remains after the story of a detainee dissolves. The system remains intact, but its human representatives must live with an inexplicable burden. In this manner Will My Parents Come To See Me resembles former Berlinale winner There Is No Evil, where the cold state machine also is an unshown phantom presence harassing those who are put within its tribes.

Unlike Mohammad Rasoulof however, Harawe makes the workers of the state prison system merely a context and focuses primarily on the detainee heading towards the end, which is his own apocalypse, while being another case closed in the reports. We slowly observe his final moments shot in static precise manner, without really exploring his feelings and hidden emotions – we see just a raw strain of situations, which come together as a softly touching case study. Despite learning virtually nothing about the protagonist, we are forced to look at just some randomly picked man sentenced to capital punishment. We don’t get to evaluate his guilt, reflect on motifs or remorse. We don’t even know what he is sentenced for. We must face the brutality of capital punishment without a benefit of justification. Therefore, this is not a moral tale posing questions of what is right or wrong – the issue here is a fundamental problem of lawfully destroying someone’s life. In Harawe’s vision it is significantly stripped of any context and brought to ethical essentials.

Build steadily within a frame of prison system, the film centers on the titular question, which is the only moment, where the protagonist expresses any kind of fragility in his situation. Those seven words contain all his fear, anxiety and vulnerability in the moment. Set in a slow narrative rhythm they become an invocation in what develops to be a story of a farewell ritual, leading towards the tragic climax. Like a ritual, the situation made into a film remains perfectly fit within social rules, but brings the significant load of unsettlement to its participants. Will My Parents… navigates this unsettlement to be the key experience for a viewer, who, despite his limited ability to immerse into the story and its contexts, leaves the screening somehow touched. 

 Mo Harawe achieves this effects with respectable economics of film language. He cautiously measures the pace and the amount of information the viewer gets to necessary minimum, so that Will My Parents Come To See Me would not become some exaggerated manifesto about a morally ambiguous situation, but rather a challenge with its stillness study of a universal problem. The director uses his 28 minutes perfectly, showing his maturity as a creator. His presence at Berlinale should be regarded as a successful one. His film is one to remember after the event – which is the main thing that it should achieve. After 50+ movies going through me within 10 days of Berlinale, half an hour with Will My Parents Come To See Me is one of the vivid moments I retain.