If it’s tempting to see Donald Trump’s monstrous reflection in everything at the moment, then it’s especially easy to see it in the silver screen. He has taken such extreme, retrograde positions on so many issues that any film with a social conscience has the sound of a rallying cry against him, whether it’s about an unethical entrepreneur in the 1950s (“The Founder”) or institutional racism in the 1960s (“Hidden Figures”) – to cite two of the new releases in Britain this week.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable at the Berlin film festival. The Berlinale has always been more political than its two major rivals on the European film festival calendar, Cannes and Venice. Last year, for instance, the winner of its top prize was “Fire at Sea”, an Italian documentary about the island of Lampedusa, and the boatloads of migrants who risk their lives to sail there. But this year, America’s new President loomed over proceedings like Godzilla with a combover.
“Django”, for example, dramatises how Django Reinhardt, a great jazz guitarist, attempted to escape from Nazi Germany in 1943. It may not have been inspired by contemporary America, but its director, Etienne Comar, said that he “realised there were a lot of parallels: refugees, the way you can contain people from travel”. Similarly, “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov”, a documentary about a Ukrainian film director who was unfairly accused of plotting terrorist attacks against the Putin regime, was reviewed by “Variety” and “Screen International” in terms of how badly its portrait of Russia reflected on Putin’s buddy in the White House.
Meanwhile, Oren Moverman, the writer-director of “The Dinner”, told the “Hollywood Reporter” that he regarded his film as a “Trumpian movie”. Adapted from a bestselling Dutch novel by Herman Koch, Moverman’s overwrought drama has two brothers (Steve Coogan, Richard Gere) and their wives (Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall) debating whether or not to report a callous crime committed by their teenage sons. “It is about people of privilege who are basically locked into their world,” said Moverman. Does that make it “Trumpian”? Very vaguely, perhaps, although “The Dinner” wanders off on so many tangents, including a psychedelic trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield, that it’s tricky to tell what it’s about.
Other films seemed to be more specific commentaries on Trump’s America. “El Mar La Mar” is a poetic meditation on the Sonoran Desert between Mexico and the USA, soundtracked by the testimonies of people who have trekked through its hostile landscape; suffice it to say, no wall could make the crossing any harder. And “For Ahkeem” is a lyrical, tightly edited, grippingly structured documentary following Daje Shelton (pictured), a bright but troubled 17-year-old who is struggling to get her high school diploma in St Louis, Missouri. In one scene, Shelton is slouching on a friend’s bed, murmuring a roll call of all the people she knows who have been shot and killed. She points to a bullet-wound scar of her own. “What you got shot with, a 22?” asks her friend, as if the injury were no more remarkable than an insect bite. “A 38,” replies Shelton, with the same matter-of-fact weariness.
The people who keep pushing Shelton onwards and upwards are her tireless teachers, and so, as I was watching, I found myself fretting not just about gun control but about what Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, was going to do about American public schooling. It was only later that I realised how illogical it was to think of “For Ahkeem” as having anything to do with the Trump administration. The same went for “The Dinner” and all the other films at the Berlinale. As they were all completed months ago, it would be fairer to read them as indictments of Barack Obama’s presidency. In “For Ahkeem”, Shelton is shown watching reports of the unrest in Ferguson, near her own home in St Louis, Missouri, in August 2014 – and back then Trump was still firing wannabes on “The Apprentice”.
Maybe directors and reviewers should be banned from mentioning Trump for now – at least until they are talking about films which have actually been made during his presidency. It’s not as if we’ll have too long to wait. The first wave of genuinely “Trumpian movies” will debut at next year’s Berlinale – by which time it might all seem like the new normal.