US abortion drama among favourites at Berlin filmfest

Kit HOLDEN
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(L-R) US film director Eliza Hittman, US actress Sidney Flanigan and US actress Talia Ryder highlight their film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" screened in competition at the 70th Berlinale film festival in Berlin

(L-R) US film director Eliza Hittman, US actress Sidney Flanigan and US actress Talia Ryder highlight their film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" screened in competition at the 70th Berlinale film festival in Berlin

A US film about a teenage abortion is among the favourites ahead of awards night at the Berlin film festival on Saturday, as the annual event came under scrutiny over the issue of female representation.

An international jury led by British Oscar winner Jeremy Irons will dish out the top Golden and Silver Bear prizes at Europe's first major cinema event of the year.

The 70th anniversary edition of the Berlinale, its first under new leadership, after former director Dieter Kosslick ended 18 years at the helm last year.

Of the 18 films in the running, Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" has emerged as a favourite among critics.

Sidney Flanigan plays a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania forced to travel to New York in order to abort an unplanned pregnancy.

Hailed for its empathy and emotion, female solidarity is at the heart of the film, in which male characters are marginalised and often predatory.

Audiences and critics were particularly enthralled by an intense, single-shot scene in which Flanigan's character answers personal questions at a clinic.

The film's success comes in the wake of a controversy earlier in the festival over Irons' past comments on abortion and women's rights.

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Irons had said abortion "harms a woman" and that the church was "right to say it was a sin".

At his opening press conference, the jury head was forced to clarify that he supported "wholeheartedly the right of women to have an abortion should they so decide".

- #MeToo murmurs -

If she were to claim the Golden Bear, Hittman would be only the seventh woman to win the Berlinale's top prize, and the first US director to do so in 20 years.

This year's festival has seen simmering debate over women's representation and the #MeToo movement, fuelled in part by news Monday of Harvey Weinstein's conviction for rape and sexual assault.

New festival directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek also came under fire for picking one fewer female-directed film than in the previous year.

One competition film, "DAU: Natasha", was widely slammed for an interrogation scene which included a graphic sexual assault.

The makers of the film, part of the sprawling, controversial Russian art project "DAU", were also forced to deny rumours of abuse on set.

Local newspaper Der Tagesspiegel said "DAU" was a "low point" and called for an "end to the same old male fantasies" in the portrayal of women.

Yet online film magazine IndieWire claimed that the 70th Berlinale had "empowered women and hinted at a better future for Europe's festivals", pointing to several female-directed films which had made waves in Berlin.

Argentinian director Natalia Meta is in competition with "The Intruder", a film about a choir singer who begins to lose her voice, while US filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is in the running with modern Western "First Cow".

- Nazi scandal -

British director Sally Potter provided the most star-studded line-up with "The Roads Not Taken", featuring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning and Salma Hayek.

The tear-inducing film portrays a Mexican immigrant in New York fighting deteriorating mental health, and his daughter's struggle to balance caring for him with her own career and happiness.

Yet Hittman and co. also face stiff competition for the Golden Bear from their male counterparts.

French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh's "Irradiated" is a poetic reminder of the atrocities of the 20th century, while Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's is also in the running with his dialogue-free film "Days".

German-Afghan director Burhan Qurbani's modern-day reimagining of Alfred Doeblin's famous 1929 novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz" recasts the protagonist as an undocumented West African migrant played by Bissau-Guinean actor Welket Bungue.

German media hailed the film as a favourite for the Golden Bear, but industry critics bemoaned a missed opportunity.

Whoever wins the Golden Bear, one award will not be on offer this year.

The traditional "Alfred Bauer Prize" has been removed from the list of "Silver Bears", after it emerged that Berlinale founding director Bauer was a high-ranking Nazi.