My Salinger Year Philippe Falardeau

Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year

Philippe Falardeau takes My Salinger Year to Berlin

The latest, Montreal-shot film by the Quebec director and a new film by Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke premiered at Berlinale.

The 70th anniversary of the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale for short, began with a minute of silence for victims of the anti-immigrant shooting in a German town of Hanau. Politics intertwines with film art and business more than usual this festival year.

A week before the opening, German newspaper Die Zeit revealed that Berlinale’s founding director Alfred Bauer had occupied a high post in the Nazi government, directing projects of the Reich Film Directorate. In response, directors chose to suspend the Alfred Bauer prize, the only monetary award at the festival.

Finally, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema, a side program launched in 1971 to promote anti-imperialist, feminist and avant-guard cinema left out of the main festival program.

This year, one can see the entire line-up of the Forum’s first edition, from anticolonial Monangambeee, shot in Algeria by Guadeloupean filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, to It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives by West German director Rosa von Praunheim. The time-travel effect of the series has been remarkable so far.

For the press corps, Berlinale began with a perfect pairing of films about literary ambitions and struggles. The opening film, My Salinger Year by Montreal director Philippe Falardeau, starts off as a literary Devil Wears Prada but in the end shows a far gentler side of the publishing business than is actually the case. In the mid-1990s, a young aspiring writer Joanna (Margaret Qualley) takes an assistant job in a venerable New York literary agency that favours typewriters over PCs and has J. D. Salinger (Jerry to his agents) as the main client. Joanna reads Salinger’s fan mail and informs each fan that Salinger does not respond to letters. Captivated by some letter writers, Joanna sends them her own advice instead of a stock response Salinger drafted back in 1963, jeopardizing her job but growing as a writer and a person in the process.

Based on Joanna Rakoff‘s acclaimed memoir, My Salinger Year is worth seeing for Qualley’s acting and for an honest attempt to depict bohemian poverty in pre-gentrification New York. The story unfolds between the agency’s exalted offices and Joanna’s scruffy apartment without a kitchen sink. Street scenes, shot in Montreal, convey well the nostalgia for the East Village of yore, before brands and chain stores took over.

Qualley delighted as a feline Charles Manson disciple in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In My Salinger Year she again pulls off a quintessential American girl-next-door, with more of a brain yet paradoxically less to do on camera than in Tarantino’s film. In countless flattering close-ups, Joanna cracks wan smiles or fights tears after another slight from her imperious boss (Sigourney Weaver). In the end, however, her boss turns out to be quite kind and fatherly Salinger mentors her by phone. Joanna succeeds much too easily and earnestly to believe her pain. Seeing her welcomed at the New Yorker offices in the triumphant finale, one longs for an exposé of the cutthroat publishing scene we all love to hate.

My Salinger Year Swimming out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Joanna’s trials will be put into much-needed perspective if you follow My Salinger Year with another Berlinale selection, Swimming out Till the Sea Turns Blue, by a veteran Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke. Inspired by a literary festival Zhang-ke founded in his hometown, Fenyang, in 2019, this documentary depicts several prominent writers who succeeded against waves of political turmoil in Communist China, from early independence to the violent Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. The opening shots examine a roughly cut marble sculpture of rebel workers to a soundtrack of revolutionary chants. Zhang-ke does not excuse nor explicitly condemn communist ideology. Shots of tractors harvesting in golden wheat fields recall films by Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko. So does the first story, where elders describe how writer-activist Ma Feng inspired their village to form a collective to de-salt their fields and make them fertile. Zhang-ke focuses on collective action and individual ingenuity against incredible odds.

Interviews with writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong form the heart of the story, told in 18 chapters exploring everyday issues such as food, love, aging, health and family. Each begins in close-up of a writer’s lined face, then jumps back to give a sense of the surroundings. Monologues interlink with scenes of everyday Chinese life familiar from Zhang-ke’s dramas: people loitering in the streets, playing cards or eating in the soup kitchen.

All the writers at some point went back to the rural Feynyang area to enrich their literary imagination. Swimming takes its title from a story from one of them. His childhood books said the sea was blue but at the local beach the water was yellow. He and his friends had to swim far into the sea until it became blue. This story represents the writers’ difficult paths. A child has to stand outside the classroom door day after day because her mother cannot pay for her education. A dentist longs for a privileged job at the Cultural Bureau — the job requires a publication record so he sends stories to lesser and lesser magazines to get them into print. A child of political prisoners fails background checks for one job after another, until he gets hired to paint signs. His literary career starts from there. These unsentimental accounts of writing amid poverty and state repression compel the viewer in the way Joanna’s New Yorker dreams cannot. ■

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