Another year of outstanding Final Girls Berlin Film Fest programming is underway, and day one dazzled with the Social Ills short horror block.
The incredible Final Girls Berlin Film Fest kicked off with a bang on Thursday, February 3rd, as audiences were treated to three stellar short horror blocks along with the Berlin Premiere of the hotly anticipated feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Each of the powerful short horror blocks featured films centered around a unifying theme. The first 78-minute block featured films about social horror — films that explore some very meaningful real-world issues through a blend of humor, horror, and shared humanity.
From fears of motherhood and the ways in which becoming a mom — or being unwilling or unable to — can so often define a woman’s identity, to issues of racism, misogyny, depression, and abuse, this block packed a powerful punch and set the stage for another show-stopping lineup of festival programming.
(Content warning: assault)
1. The Goldfish (17 minutes)
Motherhood can be one of the most beautiful and positively transformative times in a woman’s life. But there’s another side of this life-changing experience that we rarely talk about. The truth is, for many women, this can also be a time fraught with fear, anxiety, and insecurity. It’s natural to question, worry, and agonize over the decision to become a mother — even if it’s one you’ve been planning for. But many women are forced to keep their worries private, even from their loved ones, which can be lonely and isolating — and only serves to further amplify anxieties.
There’s often a shame or stigma associated with women who don’t fit the societal expectation when it comes to bringing life into the world. Anything that deviates from the happy, glowing mother-to-be stereotype is met with judgment and even scorn.
In The Goldfish, a beautiful short film from writer/director Ashley Brim, we’re invited to explore the world of motherhood from the lens of a transracial adoptee named Olivia (Diarra Kilpatrick). She and her husband have decided they are ready to start trying to start a family. But her excitement is tempered by her fears she won’t be able to bond with the child, given her own birth mother’s decision to give her up when she was a couple of weeks old. Her fears are exasperated when she attends her sister’s baby shower.
The Goldfish is Ashley’s third short film and one she cites as her most personal. In an interview with The Drill Magazine, she explains:
“I am adopted but I didn’t ever think I would make a film about it. I was honestly surprised when I realized that was what I was writing about. And now I can’t stop. I’m actually in the process of developing THE GOLDFISH into a half-hour drama series now and writing a feature about another adoptee and a birth mother.”
Beyond explorations of motherhood and societal expectations on women, Ashley asks us to consider ideas about identity, race, and adoption in this moving 17-minute short.
Check out the film’s trailer here. Follow Ashley on Twitter and follow the film on Twitter here.
2. She Whistles (12 minutes)
Indigenous filmmaker Thirza Cuthand delivers a haunting tale based on the horrific true stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It is based on a feature script by Cuthand which is currently in development.
She Whistles (Kwêskosîw) begins with a young 2-Spirit nêhiyaw (Plains, Cree) woman named Stephanie (Sera-Lys McArthur) as she exits a club and is drawn to the Northern Lights shining in the night sky. The lights remind her of her mom who has gone missing, and she is overcome with sadness.
She hails a cab to go see her girlfriend. But her creepy cab driver (a chilling performance from Aidan Devine) immediately begins interrogating with increasingly invasive questions. The ride takes a dangerous turn when he suddenly speeds out of the city and takes her to a secluded area outside of town. As she faces a horrible fate at the hands of her attacker, Stephanie calls to the spirit of her ancestors to deliver karmic justice.
A deeply unsettling and powerfully acted short, She Whistles uses the prism of the genre to call attention to unspeakable real-life horror while illuminating the terror many women face when vulnerable and threatened.
Check out the film’s trailer here. Follow the film on Facebook.
3. Smile (6 minutes)
Joanna Tsanis is quickly becoming one of my favorite genre filmmakers.
I first fell in love with her clever and frightfully fun short Imagine a World, which is now available on ALTER (and I strongly encourage you to check it out). And her follow-up, Mourn (starring Lynne Griffin of 1987 horror classic Black Christmas), was absolutely riveting. Thus, I was thrilled to check out her latest film Smile, which had its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest (2021).
The film stars the incredible Konstantina Mantelos, who I loved in Anything for Jackson. It also features the iconic voice of Ashley Laurence (Clive Barker’s Hellraiser).
A woman struggling with crippling depression is burdened with the weight, not just of her own pain but of the guilt in knowing how her mental state is affecting her well-meaning loved ones. She desperately wants to be able to put on a brave face and hide her suffering from others — to just smile and pretend it’s all ok. But trying to suppress her feelings only causes the horror inside her head to take on a terrifying life of its own.
Smile is a short but memorable film with extraordinary makeup effects and an absolutely shutter-inducing climax that will leave you clamoring to see more from this brilliant premise — and from this very talented filmmaker.
Check out the film’s trailer here. Follow Joanna on Twitter.
4. Dedication (17 minutes)
By moving to Berlin, Martha Roseiro (Raquel Villar) had hoped for a fresh start. Soon she discovers that her nightmare is far from over. With the help of colleagues at her new job, Oktavia Zagomorova) and Mama Delorme, Martha resorts to the most unusual way to battle the demons of her past.
Austrian-born director Selina Sondermann wrote her first script at the age of 12, which was performed in 2005 at the Theater des Kindes Linz. In 2015, she graduated with honors from Kingston University London’s film school and attended a screenwriting Bootcamp at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She completed Met Film School Berlin’s MA Directing course with a Dollar Baby adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Dedication”.
DEDICATION first appeared in the June 1988 anthology, Dark Visions. It was reprinted in Stephen King’s collection of short stories, NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES. This story, which later became the inspiration for King’s Dolores Claiborne, is about a Black woman who escapes a violent relationship and goes to work at an exclusive hotel as a maid. There she meets a regular hotel guest. He’s a talented but alcoholic writer who likes to do his writing at the hotel. The maid is at first repulsed by him, but the two slowly develop an unlikely friendship.
The maid is pregnant and worried for the well-being of her child. Thus, she seeks help from a Bruja who casts a black magic spell.
Expertly shot and featuring a captivating performance from Villar, Dedication is both a drama and a mystery that builds up beautifully to a shocking finale a ste— a stellar adaptation of one of King’s most startling and original works.
Check out the film’s trailer here. Follow Selina on Twitter here and follow the film on Twitter here.
5. The Expected (14 minutes)
The Expected is a stop motion animated short film from Swedish artist and filmmaker Carolina Sandvik.
After a devastating miscarriage, a woman is left incapacitated — a literal shell of her former self. Her partner finds her catatonic in the bathtub and moves her to the bedroom, where she never moves. When he needs to take a bath, he transfers the tub full of blood into their aquarium, while uncerominously tossing out two goldfish and leaving them in a bag on the front porch. Soon, movement can be seen in the red liquid of the aquarium. Something new is alive and seems to be growing, but we never see exactly what that something is.
The couple never exchange a word of spoken dialogue, neither before or after the life-altering strategy. Even before the woman’s unraveling both physically and mentally, she seems to be lost in a fugue state of grief and loneliness, with the man remaining aloof and detached despite the visceral horror surrounding him. Exceptional sound design is used to ramp up the tension and create an atmosphere of oppressive unease.
Rich with deep symbolism and haunting imagery, Sandvik uses the language of both body and psychological horror to explore issues of identity and worth for women in a society that prioritizes motherhood and equates a woman’s value with her ability to produce offspring. She explains:
My work is influenced by genre film such as the psychological thriller, horror and giallo. The puppets are usually isolated characters in confined spaces, and violence is present as a looming threat or as a visceral reality. In my animations genre conventions merge with personal nightmares, daydreams and everyday observations.
With creative storytelling and stunning stop-motion animation, The Expected is a gripping short that effectively explores a woman’s bodily trauma.
Check out the film’s trailer here. Follow Carolina Sanvik on Vimeo.
6. Beta Male (10 minutes)
This is my second time watching Marianne Chase‘s ferociously fun short Beta Male (check out my colleague’s review of the short out of this year’s AxWound Film Festival here), and I didn’t enjoy it any less on my repeat viewing.
Shot in the iconic Curzon Soho Cinema in London, the film follows Audrey, who we meet at the end of another draining late-night shift in the cinema. Tired and jaded, all she wants is to enjoy the sweet reward of a slice of chocolate cake in the peace and quiet of a customer-free zone. Instead, she is surprised by an unwanted customer. It soon becomes clear this man has stuck around for the sole purpose of catching our female protagonist alone.
Full arrogance and ego, the man takes advantage of his position of power — both as a man and as a customer who can manipulate Audrey into staying in a situation she is not comfortable with. He asks her out but doesn’t seem to care whether she’s actually interested or not, or if he’s even remotely desirable. He simply assumes she couldn’t or wouldn’t possibly say no. While Audrey tries to remain as professional as possible, the man’s advances become increasingly aggressive and demeaning.
At first we think Audrey is vulnerable and in danger. But we soon learn she’s far more capable than she appears, and she’s only prepared to take so much disrespect before she cuts it off. Quite literally.
Written and directed by Chase alongside a crew of Curzon Soho staffers, Beta Male is a wickedly satisfying short about respecting boundaries that will leave you cheering.