Julia Ostertag is an underground filmmaker from Berlin on a mission to challenge representations of female characters in film, particularly those that are violent and sexualised. Coming from an art school background and finding her early influences in the cinema of transgression, she is a filmmaker whose work elicits a love or hate reaction from the audience. She delights in provocation, and her first feature Saila is further proof of this.

Ostertag recently screened Saila at Schnarup-Thumby, a tight-knit Berlin squat with a strict ‘no photography’ policy – a somewhat different venue to those chosen for the L’Oréal-sponsored 59th Berlinale which opened a few weeks later. The squat provided a particularly intense and appropriate atmosphere for a chat with Ostertag about the film and her intentions. The screening brought together the voluntary and largely amateur team that comprised Saila’s cast and crew for a manic and rewarding evening, which for Ostertag ‘mirrored the two-and-a-half-year filmmaking process itself’.

Saila centres on the title character, a dreadlocked outsider searching for a ‘lost memory’ in an increasingly violent ‘Berlin punk dystopia’, where time and space no longer appear to obey conventional rules. Through a bewildering cycle of psychosexual visions and phantasms, Saila discovers her own violent truth. As Ostertag explains, it could be described as a ‘female revenge film without a specific reason for the revenge’. One of the most dynamic elements of the film is its unpredictability. Ostertag feels that this may come from the challenging method in which it was shot: ‘neither the actors nor myself knew where the journey would take us’, she explains. ‘It was a total challenge and very different from the other shorts and docos I’ve done’, she says, referring to the spontaneous performances and to the unstructured nature of the narrative.

Saila was shot guerilla-style within urban Berlin, in abandoned warehouses, decrepit apartment blocks and industrial wastelands. This shooting style was only made possible through working with a team that knew this side of Berlin from experience – the film’s locations are situated in parts of the city that are completely off the radar for the majority of the Berlin film industry. Ostertag’s choices have paid off handsomely: although set for the most part in a fantastical post-apocalyptic future, the film displays an authenticity and genuinely punk sensibility that is impossible to feign.

The film has been described as ‘probably the Berlin Punk film right now’ and a must-see ‘if you care about the Berlin D.I.Y. scene at all’ (Andreas Michalke, 26 November 2008, Through Saila and her previous films, particularly documentary Gender X (Berlinale 2005) and experimental short Sex Junkie (2003), Ostertag has placed herself at the dark, pulsing heart of Berlin’s underground film scene. Her bold representations of female sexuality and the unashamed insertion of her own personal concerns within these representations (including the decision to perform in the self-sexploitative lead role in Sex Junkie) certainly deserve our attention.

The filmmaker proclaims passionately that Saila and her other films aim to ‘question civilisation’, and that they could possibly provide some answers for ‘middle-class audiences coming to a crisis’. Her films represent characters who willingly thrust themselves at the fringes of society. Ostertag wants her work to provide an alternative in an industry which to her is all about ‘creating films for TV stations’. This ability to question and to challenge through her filmmaking shines through boldly in the complexity of her female characters.

Saila contains one of the bloodiest love scenes in cinema history. It is visually harsh and yet erotically charged, its intensity heightened through the awareness that we are watching local punks on screen, not professional actors. Ostertag points out that at no point did her non-actors feel that things were going too far: ‘Not everyone’s up to rolling around in broken glass. But my actors completely slipped into their roles and the broken glass and the filth never stopped them.’ In spite of the unpredictability of the journey she took her actors on, Ostertag did attempt to prepare them for their roles by showing them films such as Richard Kern’s Submit to Me Now (1987), chosen especially to help her actors discard any assumptions about acting ‘narratively’. Although there is no conventional narrative thread to guide us through the decaying dystopia, we feel compelled to continue through the dark by Saila herself, a damaged and fascinating female character, both fragile and vampy in equal amounts. It is Saila’s predatory side that ultimately wins out, which for Ostertag is the focal point of the story as well as what drove her to make the film.

Ostertag intended the character of Saila to represent a strong female identity, a female sexual fantasy even. Many women in the audience have told her that they find Saila’s character and her sexual encounters a strong turn-on. ‘It’s especially interesting that girls are getting turned on by the aggressive sex’, she says. ‘The way I picture sex is still an important thing for me. But I like it when girls also see the romantic side of the scenes and connect to them on a very strong emotional level.’ Ostertag points out that she has also heard the opposite point of view: some women find her approach to sexuality offensive and believe she is pushing things too far. This is the filmmaker’s response: ‘I can never figure out exactly what it is that they mean by “too far”. Maybe they think that girls are not allowed to have fun in that way, even when it is depicted from a girl’s point of view.’ Ostertag concedes that as a female director it is easier to push these kinds of representations of women further, that as a female you can generally ‘get away with more’. That said, Ostertag also admits that there are very few female directors working with these concerns, particularly in such a visually provocative way.

Siouxzi Mernagh

Want to find out more about the DIY cinema scene in Berlin? Read Siouxzi Mernagh’s article about Berlin squat cinema in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. Our spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kí´ji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!