Northern films to feature at German festival

By Kevin McGwin, The Arctic Journal - January 18, 2017

Each year, Germany’s Berlinale film festival screens 400 or so of the world’s best films. The most coveted prizes handed out are modelled after the German capital’s heraldic animal, in the form of Golden, Silver, Crystal and Teddy bears.

Not all films compete for hardware. For films in the festival’s special presentation sections, as they are known, being included in one of the world’s most prestigious film showcases is deemed an award in and of itself.

Since 2013, indigenous film has been in this category, which also includes genres such as ‘culinary’ and ‘art-house’ film, as well as a homage series presenting the key works from a selected personality each year.

In its first showing, the NATIVe presentation offered an overview of films produced by indigenous filmmakers from Oceania, Australia and North America. In 2015, the next year it was included on the programme, the focus shifted to Latin America. This year, it goes polar.

Nine short and 10 feature-length films from around the Arctic will be on the program when the festival opens on February 9. Most are produced in the past two or three years, others are milestone productions made during the 21st century. There is also a palate of non-film events.

While the list, according to Emile Péronard, a Greenlandic producer and one of the advisors to the organising committee, is not a ‘greatest hits’ of Arctic film, it does give a good overview of the work that has been turned out in recent years.

The festival itself identifies a number of common threads running through the programme, including sustainability, climate change, delocalization and indigenous rights. Péronard agrees these exist, just as conflict between Northern and Western culture comes up a lot, but, he argues, it would be wrong to say this is what the films are all about. Nor is it the only things they have in common.

“Indigenous people will be able to recognise a lot of what is being portrayed in the films. But most of that will go right past non-indigenous people,” he says.

While the festival’s organisers play up the regional and indigenous nature of the films, Péronard says it is important to remember that they were chosen, first and foremost, because they were good films.

“Putting them into an ‘indigenous’ or ‘Arctic’ group gives them a label, but if being lumped together attracts attention to the artistic value of a film in its own right, then what’s the concern?”

The problem, says Amanda Kernell, whose film Same blod (Sami Blood) is on the NATIVe programme, is that being included in a genre, is, by definition, limiting.

“There is a point in doing something for Saami,” she says. “But it is also important to speak to Swedes. Some of my Swedish friends might not feel comfortable going to a Saami film.”

Kernell’s background, as well as her professional ambitions, illustrate the limitations of a category like NATIVe: she is half Sami, half Swedish, and went to film school in Copenhagen, giving her multiple identities.

And while this is her first time being included in the Berlinale, she is no stranger to major film festivals; her films have been included in Venice, Sundance, Tokyo and Toronto, and she prefers only to take part if she can be on the main programme, so she can reach the widest possible audience.

“Being in a special programme in Berlin will be something different, but I think also valuable, since it will be a chance to learn that we approach film as filmmakers in a different way, but, as indigenous people in a similar way, in that we feel a certain responsibility for keeping our heritage alive that Western filmmakers don’t.”

Like Kernell, Péronard also has his eyes on the wider audience, not just artistically, but also commercially. Succeeding at attracting attention to indigenous film, he believes, will have a knock-on effect that will also sell Greenland as a backdrop to mainstream filmmakers.

“This is a great chance for us to show off Greenland as a location,” he says.

Péronard need only look to Iceland to see this happening. Thanks partly to financial incentives to filmmakers, the island’s locations have stood in for foreign planets, fantasy worlds, Svalbard and even a tropical beach. This, Péronard believes, could also happen in Greenland, and last year he was involved with the establishment of Film.GL, which is to promote the country as a film set.

Exposing people in Greenland to filmmaking, his group reckons, will also benefit the local film industry by exposing aspiring directors and actors to professional productions from abroad.

“Berlin is huge chance for us. It is here we can get our break,” he says.