The feature length film “Saila” by Julia Ostertag situates in the industrial ruins of East Berlin a visceral enactment of post apocalyptic terror. The remnants, both broken people and destroyed environments, after the near end of the world are never given a reason for continued life, nor is it ever specified what catastrophes coalesced to become everyday life for the film’s protagonists. “Saila” can be viewed as an experimental project that attempts to critique film as a visual medium and standardized genre by doing away with traditional narrative strategies such as linear character development and causal storytelling.
The film viewer therefore breaks into a story that has no beginning nor end and is entangled in ‘uncovering’ the traumas both past and present that engulf the main female protagonist called Saila (Alias reversed) played by Kathryn Fischer. However, most attempts of the viewer to understand the reasons that lead to Saila’s depicted personality and past traumas (seen in flashbacks) are mostly refuted by the cinematic strategies of the director. The eliding of the viewer’s desire to have actions, feeling and events ‘explained’ through filmic narrative is what makes “Saila” engaging, puzzling and ultimately a statement on the inability to point to a single origin point of female desire, and means and possibilities of its fulfillment.
The director, writer, editor and producer Ostertag stated both in the brief Q and A session after “Saila” was shown at Brotfabrik Theater in Berlin on 23.4.09 and in other interviews that the film is a focused depiction of a “sexual active, violent and mysterious female character whose actions have neither moralistic justifications or explanations” (paraphrase). While the movie website purports to depict “one of film history’s bloodiest love scenes,” in fact the ‘violent’ encounter between Saila and her unnamed male lover (played by Nicolas Isner) is quite tame with little bodily harm nor hardly any sexually explicit (so called pornographic) shots, while the scene in which Saila forces her glam lover to go down on her at knife point barely overcomes the viewer’s suspended disbelief although not for lack of trying to project powerful pathos on the part of the actors. Nevertheless, it isn’t necessary for the viewer to be convinced of the actuality of Saila’s ferocity (or for that matter to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the personalities depicted as would be expected in viewer identification for Hollywood films), but rather to simply become submerged in the film as it spirals in and out of Saila’s present lust pursuits and flashbacks. While it is revealed through non-chronological flashbacks that Saila was directly involved in the death of her glam lover and also realizes the existence of her double or other self, the disjointed narrative does not resolve any of these issues nor offer even the slightest possibility for Saila to escape the brutal, hostile world. Saila is thus at every confused temporal moment left to the somewhat hapless pursuit of attempting to fulfill her desires and need for human contact by wandering through the maze of decimated buildings and into chance encounters with anonymous men.
While the main thrust of the film coalesces around the fragments of Saila’s experiences and memories, many of the sequences show roaming gangs of completely anonymous men inexplicably engaging in quick and violent acts such as destroying windows and buildings, spontaneous attacks against other masked men, or drunken mosh pit fights at the underground punk venue. The fact that in the film anonymous men dramatically outnumber women, who seem to (if I remember correctly) only include Saila, her double, and another woman in a gang that easily humiliates the glam lover, further propels forward the critical strategies disallowing the possibility for motivations or explanations for violence and anarchy. The mitigating aspect of this strategy however is realized as stereotypic, aggressive male violence and thoroughly one-dimensional characterizations.
While “Saila” can be viewed as taking place in the undisclosed future or parallel universe, the film is perhaps better read as reflections of the present recreated in an imagined dystopia. This is not only an attempt to question the operational imperatives of the genre of film, “Saila” is also a visual thematic of social-economic critique. While a functioning capitalist system seems mostly to be absent, a nascent barter system is shown when a man attempt to exchange his gun for food but is ripped off by the bartender and can only helpless protest by repeating “this is not enough”. Alienation, pervasive exploitation and value system still exist in this dystopia. The absolute necessity for the transformation of social relations in the present is vividly and emphatically demanded through the warning call of the refracted hell depicted as immediate experience by the characters of “Saila”.
“Saila” movie website: http://www.saila-film.de/main.htm
Julia Ostertag, director, website: http://www.julia-ostertag.de/