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Movie Review: Saila

Sleeping woman with blood smeared on her face

Punk rock and the apocalypse go together like a hamburger and fries even, apparently, in Berlin.

Julia Ostertag shot her feature Saila in an abandoned, demolished and culturally forgotten industrial wasteland in East Berlin. The debris-strewn and crumbling structures in which the action of the film takes place looks as big as a city in and of itself, which I don’t know if this is a creative use of camera framing or reality. In either case, the movie looks like it was shot on another planet.

Into this world strides the eponymous Saila (Kathryn Fischer), a tall, lanky woman with a shaved-head punctuated by a few rainbow-colored strands of hair. While this wasteland is populated with roving gangs of destructive punks, prone to smashing windows and each others’ faces at a moments notice, Saila mostly keeps to herself and spends most of her time locked in her garbage-filled and water-drenched apartment.

The film doesn’t follow a linear progression and is instead a blurry swirl of free-form scenes and images. A narrative can be pulled out and pieced together from events, but it’s possible each viewer will craft his and her own causes and effects.

Saila does venture out to pick out lovers. A few are just random trysts in which Saila performs sexually with all the fierce joy of a prostitute doling out freebies. However, she does have two significant “boyfriends,” if we can call them that. One is an effeminate glam boy (Nicolas Isner) with a Harold Parker Chasen-like fixation on suicide. Upon their first meeting, Saila forces her boytoy to perform cunnilingus at knifepoint. Later, they have an extended bloody, dirt-encrusted romp on a bare concrete floor.

But the true love of Saila’s life, if we can interpret the images properly, is a good-looking, least punk rock attired dude (Sandro Piras) in this crusty society. Like any good starting reference in a cryptogram, this lover is the key to uncovering the proper chain of events. The two bond instantly and share a fiery make-out session during a punk rock show, but the relationship isn’t meant to last and Saila’s lover ends up battered, bloody and dead by circumstances that are never revealed.

My own personal interpretation of events is that this world we’re exposed to exists solely in Saila’s mind, which has fractured after witnessing the death of her beloved. Given her ruthless sexual aggression against the glam boy, the death is something she probably participated in, in an inadvertant manner. Fractured internal scenarios seems to be popping up with some frequency in the world of underground film. In the past year, I’ve also reviewed John R. Hand’s Scars of Youth and Carlos Atanes’ Proxima that also share the same technique of starring an unreliable main character.

Saila is the least sci-fi of all three films. It only really features a touch of the genre by having Saila tune in to radio stations reporting on cataclysmic atrocities occurring outside of the main character’s immediate landscape. These off-screen reports have the feel more of Saila devising excuses not to wander too far in the world, rather than actual newscasts. Hers is a harsh and brutal world where love isn’t allowed to flourish. Ostertag actually visited that theme in her previous short film, Sexjunkie, a film described as a drama, but shot and presented like a documentary. Maybe there’s a bit of the autobiographical lurking in both films.

Ostertag’s debut fictional feature is a puzzling film, but in a good way. While it’s easy to lay out a narrative that invites interpretation, just because a director is asking for that, doesn’t mean an audience is going to want to bother figuring things out. Saila succeeds for two reasons. One is that the post-industrial landscape that Ostertag has captured is so ugly and devoid of life that there’s an utterly grimy, otherworldly charm to them.

Secondly, the film succeeds because Saila herself is a very compelling figure. Although there is very limited dialogue in the film, Kathryn Fischer carries the burden of whatever it is she’s torturing her psyche over into each and every scene, making Saila into a fully realized, complicated character just through her physical presence. We want to figure out what her story is so that hopefully she can finally find the peace and tranquility that she deserves.

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