Bright Lights Film Journal

From a Line of Ancestors: Talking with Doris Dörrie and Natasha Arthy

“We in the West trample on them.”

A conversation with two absolutely different directors at the Berlinale — German Doris Dörrie and Danish Natasha Arthy — surprisingly began with the same passionate declaration: people in the West are living cut off from their ancestors, pursuing their individual lives as if not part of a continuum of generations. What made this common outburst especially provocative is that neither director’s film is apparently centered on that particular theme.

Natasha Arthy’s Fighter, premiering in the 14+ division of the Berlinale (films for adolescents), tells the story of a young Turkish-Danish girl, Aicha, who resists her Turkish family’s influence and dedicates herself to learning kung fu rather than studying to go to medical school. The film has the predictability of an After School Special: Aicha will, by film’s end, dazzle spectators with a show of kung fu moves as she whips out her legs and arms and defeats her love interest, a fellow kung fu expert. The final scenes are spectacular: a dance choreographed by the renowned Xian Gao (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and almost make up for the overdetermined scenes of family conflict and the numerous close-ups of Aicha’s resolute (and unsettlingly bloodshot) dark eyes.

“Yeah, maybe I have a bit too many close-ups of her eyes,” said director Arthy, as we sat together in the lounge. “There are always things I would change.”

She spoke with an enthusiastic breathy voice, as simple and open in her jeans and brown sweatshirt as the film itself. She herself could relate to Aicha because as a girl, she was not much for books and had to convince her parents to not continue her studies but instead follow her dream: write TV stories for children. She was glad to have made a film that would be a role model for young girls today — as they have few others in the Scandinavian culture besides Pippi Longstocking — although she also observed that today’s girls are so strong that she already felt sorry for the boys.

Yet when asked what the film was about for her, the answer was surprisingly not the determination of a girl to make it but respect for the family. “Notice that she honestly tells her father that she is going to pursue her own path. She doesn’t just cut off ties. That kind of extreme family — so popular on Danish television — isn’t very normal and doesn’t interest me. This girl respects her father, and he ends up respecting her.”

In the old days, the director continued, children pursued lifetyles based on their parents’ dictates. “Our parents were told what to do and did a lot for their parents. Perhaps it made them bitter, but in some respects it made life easier, to have constraints. Today’s adolescents experience so much fear, because the world is so open. When children have rules, the world is smaller, but they feel better. This generation, however, thinks only of themselves.”

It is telling, then, that in a world of potential fear, Arthy’s fictional lead chooses a combat sport: kung fu.

Doris Dörrie had a more spiritual take on the family theme. On the wild side, what with her pink shiny ballet shoes, bubble blue-glass earrings, blonde punk hair, and pink scarf — and a way of imparting her wisdom as a secret, speaking in an undertone — 52-year-old Dörrie told me she believed that today’s individuals erroneously assume too much responsibility for who they are, forgetting — and here Dörrie outstretched her palm — that even the lines of our hands have a genetic history. “We in the West are trained to see ourselves as individuals, and we do everything ourselves. Asians see themselves as one continuation.”

Dörrie’s film Cherry Blossoms takes place in Asia. A man follows his wife’s dying wish to go to Japan , and then, upon her death, turns to the Japanese culture to get solace for his inconsolable grief and depression. Or rather, Japan turns to him. An 18-year-old living in a tent in a park gaily and spontaneously performs a Butoh dance for him, replete with white paint mask. This dance awakens the widower’s lethargic spirit, and the two become fast friends, traveling off to realize his dream of seeing Mount Fuji. “The Butoh dance,” Dörrie explained to me, “is a modern hippyish Japanese dance that expresses emotions in a stylized way. It’s radical, wild.”

It is also, the girl tells the widower, a way of dancing with the dead. The girl’s dance becomes a medium for him to gain contact with — or at least relief from — his wife’s spirit. In so doing, he himself comes back to life — becoming more alive in his post-mourning moments (literally, moments, as this widower, in a perhaps unknowing tribute to Death in Venice, suddenly dies, dressed in clownish fashion, wearing his wife’s small blue sweater, his eyes fixed on the mythic Mount Fuji coming through the clouds). He dies, awakened.

“Grief is not so bad,” Dörrie explains to me — alluding to how she recovered from her own husband’s death 15 years before when she turned to Buddhism. “Grief connects you to the person who has died, with yourself, with the path you walk on, the flowers of spring. It can be an exhilarating time. Great pain makes you incredibly alive. My character was fast asleep before, drowning. He didn’t even see his wife. Fuji is just another mountain. He’s a stone.” Cherry Blossoms insists on poetry as the way out. While the film is also flawed (much as her outfit revealed a hodgepodge assortment of flashy color, the film seems pasted together with random scenes), the integrity of her vision is clear, and her film offers many sincere images. The best is of delicate cherry blossoms dropping from a tree, symbolizing, in Japanese style, the evanescence of life — the point being that one should cherish the present moment — something Dörrie herself attempts but also, she admitted with a chagrined smile, continuously fails to achieve.

One of the most memorable, albeit banal, images in Dörrie’s film is the final shot, when the young dancer opens her lunchbox to show the dead widow’s son two identical eggrolls. “This is your dead father and your dead mother,” she explains giggling. “Together, united, happy.”

One must respect the dead as everpresent, as part of us. As Dörrie confided: “The Butoh dancers say, ‘we dance on the backs of our ancestors.’ We in the West trample on them.”