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Feminism and film curation: Outgoing Forum director Cristina Nord

After four years, Cristina Nord bids her farewell to the Berlinale Forum, but not without sharing her sharp take on canonical inclusivity and tipping us on her latest discoveries.

Photo: Yana Kaziula

From her days at taz to years spent at Brussels’ Goethe Institute, Cristina Nord’s work in the cultural sector has focused on film. Appointed as artistic director of the Berlinale Forum section in 2021, Nord has brought to bear not only a feminist but a sharper, interrogative sensibility on what to include – or exclude – from the festival’s most intrepid category. As she moves on to work in Nairobi, Kenya, she looks back at her time with Forum.

After four years with Forum, how would you say you influenced its programme? What’s the Nord legacy?

The programme we started in 2021, Fiktionsbescheinigung. 16 Cinematic Perspectives on Germany, was an attempt to reformulate the decision-making process in film curation in the Forum section and to show films that don’t necessarily belong to the film canon. It was something which had a lot to do with my experience in Brussels, which is a very heterogeneous place, as is Berlin. But I think the cultural sector there is more aware of this heterogeneity and is attempting to deal with it in a productive manner.

I don’t think the word ‘counterculture’ means much anymore

Heterogenous? As in, ‘diverse’ or ‘multicultural’?

Yeah, ‘multicultural’ is word you would have used in the 1980s. I’m also not using ‘diverse’ – because you can cherish diversity, but then in the end, it doesn’t mean anything. To a certain extent, it’s neoliberal lingo. Whereas when you say something like ‘heterogeneous’, it’s clear that there might be conflict, that there might be friction, etc. And Fiktionsbescheinigung was, and still is, about taking stock of Germany’s heterogeneity as a country of immigration. The other aspect is, of course, including people of colour, curators of colour in the decision-making. So it’s not only that we speak for somebody else, but it’s working with people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.

How is this curatorial diversity reflected in the Forum?

For instance, this year we are going to show a film by Sohrab Shahid-Saless, who lived in Germany for 15 years after fleeing Iran. And he made outstanding films. They’re not known because there are nearly no retrospectives, only one in Brussels and London, and decent prints were unavailable for a long time.

Still from Notre Corps. D. Claire Simon (2023), Madison Films, FRA 2023, Forum

Now – only now – a restoration project is starting. But he’s absent from the film canon. So, what we’re trying to say is that the 1970s and the 1980s are not just Herzog and Fassbinder. There’s also somebody like Saless who is a very important figure in German film history.

Forum always had this stamp of being ‘counterculture’. What does it mean nowadays?

I don’t think the word ‘counterculture’ means much anymore – it has been hijacked by the global right, so it’s progressive understanding belongs to a bygone era. But our predilection for films that ask political questions is still very current. And I’m emphasising the word ‘questions’, because I don’t think that it’s really about giving answers. I’m thinking about films that don’t just question society, but also consider potential alternative forms of society. Those are important films for us.

Do you have an example of a great, important film in this year’s programme?

I’m no longer interested in a world where male wish-fulfilment fantasies are portrayed everywhere. I think I’m too old for that.

We have a three-hour documentary by Claire Simon, Notre Corps, which she shot in a gynaecological clinic in Paris. What I’ve really found outstanding is that I had a feeling that for the first time in my life – and I’ve seen a lot of films – I saw something which really focussed on the ailments a female body produces, and the way they are treated. And this includes the kind of violence involved in becoming a patient and not being able to step out of this role. It’s not only cis women the film is speaking about, but also trans women and trans boys.

It starts with this pregnant 16-year-old. And it’s heart-wrenching to watch this teenage girl going through all this turmoil because the guy told her that he would pull out at the right moment, and of course he didn’t. And it’s not an individual issue – it happens over and over again, so it’s a structural problem in our society. And here we have this beautiful documentary addressing it, but also a lot of other questions related to women’s bodies I find highly important. I think the Forum is a fantastic place to show a film like that.

Still from Jeanne Dielman. D. Chantal Akerman (1975), Paradise Films. IMAGO. Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Do you see a shift towards re-assessing the film canon? Take how Sight and Sound’s aware for ‘Greatest Film of All Time’ went to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman last year, a film directed by a woman that takes a consciously, radically feminist approach to cinema!

I definitely think there’s some great new developments. But what I also found interesting is how debated it was. Of course, a lot of people felt like, “Oh, wow that’s great” – me included. But there were a lot of people who said, “Sorry, no, you can’t compare Jeanne Dielman to a film like Citizen Kane or Vertigo.” So I see a friction between different tendencies in worldwide cinephilia. My feeling is that a lot of people don’t want to engage in this discussion. It’s a very important discussion. Recently, the French César Awards announced that they won’t honour anybody who’s facing charges of sexualised violence. Five years ago that would never have happened. I think it is definitely an expression of change to do with reassessing our film history.

Last time we met you talked about how your approach to cinema evolved over time. Were you always so aware and active in reassessing film history – from a more feminist perspective, for example?

When you decide to show Polanski, what is it that you’re not showing? As a curator your need to remember that showing is always not showing.

It was something which was definitely on my mind while I was working as a film critic with the taz. I remember one key moment in Cannes when they had this series dedicated to female filmmaking. It was in a hotel on la Croisette and in the audience there were practically only women. And I was like, why am I interested in Claire Denis? Why am I interested in Agnes Varda? Where are my male colleagues? So, already back then I had this sensitivity, but I think that MeToo played a huge role. It made me more aware, which might also have to do with getting older, having seen more, being exposed to repetitions, which leads to a certain level of exhaustion when it comes to sexist visual language.

Does this mean that looking back at certain canonic films, you reassess them more critically?

I recently read about Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the question of racially constructed characters. Fassbinder always was one of my heroes. And I don’t know exactly what it would be like if I rewatched a film like The Marriage of Maria Braun and the way he depicts the Black character, and not only the main Black character, but also others. So I might be less enthusiastic about it. And that might be a euphemism, so yeah. I mean, there’s always some room for ambiguity. You can dislike and like something at the same time, and you can appreciate certain things about an artwork and then you can completely dislike others.

You once mentioned your reassessment of Thief by Michael Mann…

I remember that situation very well. The film is beautiful, there’s this amazing, very audacious opening. It’s fantastic. And then you have this classic male trope – the protagonist stalks a young woman and she falls for him even though he’s stalking her. And then there’s even a certain degree of violence involved, but of course she’s willing to take it and to accept it. And it’s such a male wish-fulfilment fantasy. I’m no longer interested. I think I’m too old for that. I’ve seen it too often, and I don’t want to live in a world where male wish-fulfilment fantasies are portrayed everywhere.

I Heard It through the Grapevine D. Dick Fontaine (1982), Forum, Courtesy of the Dick Fontaine Collection, Harvard Film Archive

Where do you draw the line – from re-assessing to cancelling?

I think the important part is the discussion, and I wouldn’t use a word like ‘cancelling’. I mean, films like Birth of a Nation are still shown and still part of the canon. I’m not really afraid that these films will be banned. I don’t see this happening.

What about Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films – should they be shown, should they be ‘cancelled’, or should people be left to decide?

I don’t want to live in a world where male wish-fulfilment fantasies are portrayed everywhere

For me, as a curator, I think the question is not so much about banning films. The question is about reasonable programming. I have a feeling that we have reached a moment where it’s very important to talk about films like the ones by Saless. Or that super beautiful, restored version of a 1982 film by Dick Fontaine, I Heard it through the Grapevine, about his trip with James Baldwin to the south of the US – they meet friends of Baldwin’s and they talk with figures of the civil rights movement, and talk about its legacy. So the question is: do I want to repeat what has been shown before, over and over and over again, or do I want to open up some new perspectives?

So the question isn’t: Shall I show films by Polanski? It’s a boring question. If you feel okay with it, so be it. If you don’t, don’t do it. The question for me is when you decide to show Polanski, what is it that you’re not showing? Because you don’t have unlimited space. There it starts to get interesting, because if you repeat the same films over and over again, you also block certain films. As a curator, you need to remember that showing is always not showing.