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Berlinale Bloggers 2023
A different take on Berlin school

Melia Kara in “Elbow“ (2024). Director: Aslı Özarslan
Melia Kara in “Elbow“ (2024). Director: Aslı Özarslan | Photo (detail): © Haydat Tastan, Achtung Panda!

Truly outstanding: Winners and Elbow, two very different films from Berlin’s “difficult district” of Wedding, featuring strong female leads.

By Philipp Bühler

“This school is a complete disaster!” Mona has recently fled to Berlin from Syria and has a very clear opinion. Past editions of the Berlinale have focused on romanticised depictions of schools, so perhaps it was time to paint a more realistic picture of the German education system. In Das Lehrerzimmer (The Teachers’ Lounge, İlker Çatak, Germany 2023), a film unjustly overlooked by the Competition but now on its way to winning an Oscar, all was still fine. Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, Maria Speth, Germany 2021) presented us with an exemplary teacher who helped students from diverse backgrounds form a tight bond.

But this doesn’t work at all in Soleen Yusef’s hilarious classroom comedy Sieger sein (Winners, Germany 2024), even though dedicated teacher Mr Che – known more for his quirky anarchist earring than any resemblance to the revolutionary – has similarities with Bachmann. He finds himself grappling with the same issues as Mona – apathetic students, inflexible staff and outdated teaching methods. The situation makes them want to scream.

Simplistic plot, cool language: Mona is a force to be reckoned with in Wedding

Located in Berlin-Wedding, Mona’s school is as multi-cultural as the district as a whole. As a Kurdish “refugee”, life is especially tough for 11-year-old Mona. But her talent on the football field is “truly outstanding”. The film follows a rather simplistic plot as coach Che turns the initially hostile female players into a cohesive team. What I especially liked about this film was its authentic use of teenage slang, with “safe”, “cringe” or “for real” peppering the dialogue. But amidst the banter, Mona delivers an important message about freedom, self-determination and democracy – values she considers “sick”. “Some die for them!” Her aunt is a fighter with the Kurdish resistance; she knows what she’s talking about.

Exclusion and escape to Istanbul: Hazal’s anger

The film Winner kicked off the Berlinale’s children’s section Kplus on Friday, while Ellbogen (Elbows, Germany/Turkey 2024) made its debut in the Generation 14plus programme for older teenagers. The festival’s focus on engaging audiences might explain this year’s prevalence of films that are set locally. Aslı Özarslan’s drama, for instance, also takes place in Wedding, although the district feels distinctly darker in this film. German-Turkish teenager Hazal struggles with the same challenges the characters in Winners may one day face: limited access to education, being turned away from clubs on her birthday and social exclusion. One night, Hazal’s simmering frustration erupts into violence, prompting her to run away to Istanbul. She stands out there because of her accent and naïve view of the plight of the Kurds, but she is also admired for her familiarity with Berlin (“Wedding? An interesting district.”) – not just from a tourist’s perspective.

German migration films deserve recognition for their portrayal of complex and resilient heroines. Part of an exceptional amateur ensemble, lead actor Melia Kara delivers an outstanding performance. With such promising talent showcased in the youth programmes, we look forward to the same standard in the adult sections of the festival!