Last week in Mitte, Berlin, hidden away from the detritus of the city's infamous nightlife, in a back courtyard, in a tiny cinema, mixed- media artist Christa Joo Hyun D'Angelo presented her ambitious and ambiguous film festival, Virtual Realities. For five nights the cinema was filled with the city's collectors, cognoscenti and cultural attaches. The directors Martin Lindeen and Ester Martin Bergsmark were in attendance, as was painter Sophie Iremonger, back in Berlin after showing in London and New York. Prominent collectors Ulrich and Nathan Köstlin were there to watch their friend, author Travis Jeppesen, onscreen in Hans and Grete. Sally McGrane of The New York Times was in high spirits, explaining that she was not in fact the eponymous Sally of Sally's Beauty Supplies, and model-actress Lukas V raised the glamor quotient by at least 25%.
At 21.30 each evening they filed in, picking up salted popcorn and casually saying hello to each other, a great nexus of the massive intermingled brilliance of Berlin. Though the snow was already heavy outside, the atmosphere inside was bright, approaching magical even. In fact the whole affair had the air of a midnight mass to it, mystical and revelatory, as is the power of cinema. We embarked upon a week-long series of rituals, akin to the undertakings of the ancient Mithraic mysteries, whose initiates descended into the darkness of a cave in order to have the truth behind reality illuminated for them. Together we entered the cinema and sat together in the inky blackness, as unexpected images gushed out of the darkness and washed over us.
The program spanned eleven works, in five languages, from around the world. The mission statement of the festival was to, "challenge normative ideas around the theme of identity," by showing films across genre (documentary, reportage, fiction) and films indeed which mixed media within themselves.
Two pieces by video artist Sue de Beer (including the aforementioned Hans and Grete) were shown. Exciting stuff, since they are pretty much never seen outside of the institutions (such as the Whitney and MoMA) which now own them. Also on the screen was To Die Like a Man, the 2009 release from João Pedro Rodrigues, which was selected as the Portuguese entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. As varied as the components of the program were, they were all of high quality, and their rarity of seeing them goes a long way to explaining the attraction of the festival to its crowd, who returned each night.
There was a strong bias towards an exploration of gender on the bill, which is what initially attracted me to the festival, and provided probably the stand out event of the week, in the form of the award-winning Swedish offering, Pojktanten. An intimate and magically expansive exploration of two beautiful creatures constructing their own genders (for the most part in a bathtub) the film opens up an endless tableau of erotic elegance, shot through at moments with palpable horror, and yet despite its contradictions, mounting a triumphant dreamlike conclusion. In its collage of scripted and unscripted scenes, its maddening beauty, its poetic grabbing of imagistic references as disparate as religious iconography, pornography and previous cinematic masterwerks, the film bewitched us all. Shown on the final night of the festival, She Male Snails (to use its English title) drew a crowd of devotees that filled not only the seats, and the aisles, but the ground in front of the screen itself.
Where does one go from here? I spoke to the curator Ms Joo Hyun D'Angelo herself, resplendent in all black, with her signature aubergine lipstick, looking every inch the high priestess of some cinematic cult. I asked her for her feelings on the success the festival. "It was a very special thing to do because it was a non-profit endeavour, featuring non commercial work." And will she remount the festival, will she call the coven again next year? Mysteriously she answers, "Maybe every two years...Let's see..."