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BERLINALE 2020 Panorama

Review: Always Amber

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- BERLINALE 2020: Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen are among the first filmmakers to explore the world of transgender teens without focusing on their gender identity or sexual orientation

Review: Always Amber

Always Amber [+see also:
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interview: Hannah Reinikainen, Lia Hie…
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, the first feature-length documentary by Swedish filmmakers Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen, has just world-premiered in the Berlinale Panorama. Judging by this fresh, punky picture, the time has come to treat the least understood sexual minority, trans people, like any other human being, with their own everyday problems. This is both the strongest asset of the film and a risky approach that does not fully pay off.

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Amber is a non-binary teenager, and in the first scene, they are talking to a doctor at a transgender care clinic, whose first question is: which pronoun to use for Amber? They reply “they”, but of course, it is hard for a viewer not to perceive them as a girl. This is one of the things that Always Amber tries to get the audience to adapt to.

Amber's best friend, who they say helped them come to terms with their own sexuality, and who came out as trans, is Sebastian. Sebastian, on the other hand, looks more like a girl. And they are really close, hanging out together all the time, sharing baths, drinks, joints, friends... Their community does indeed feel like an island of freedom in the super-progressive city of Stockholm, where queer kids with fluid identities do not take themselves too seriously – at least no more so than other teenagers. Actually, exactly like other teenagers.

When Amber falls for Charlie (whose face is blurred in the couple of scenes they appear in), Sebastian is no longer number one, and a kind of rivalry begins. But soon enough, allegiances shift, and Sebastian and Charlie are now a couple, with our hero falling out of the picture.

Amber starts down a spiral of self-destructive behaviour, and keeps going to the clinic in an attempt to get diagnosed as non-binary, which would qualify them for a mastectomy. But they also meet Olivera, another trans person (a very good-looking young man who dresses as a girl), and this relationship gives Amber new confidence.

The film has a definite punky vibe, with its angsty, alt-rock score by Stockholm-based artist ShitKid, the occasional use of Amber's own voice-over, and the fact that it is put together from different kinds of footage – ranging from normal, digital camerawork by Hietala, but also by Amber and their family and friends as they film themselves, to smartphone recordings and Snapchats. These are edited together into a coherent, but somewhat nervous and jerky, whole by the co-directors as well as Anton Hemgren and Charlotte Landelius. This fits the story and the protagonists, and the “punkiness” is strengthened by the way Amber, Sebastian, Olivera and others dress and make themselves up – this subculture borrows heavily from punk, emo and goth fashions... Or was it the other way around?

A lot of the documentary takes place in Amber's bathroom, where they are dying their hair (or their mother's), experimenting with a multitude of piercings, and sharing it with Sebastian or Olivera. So intimacy is one of the primary qualities of the co-directors' approach, but the fact that these teenagers do just what teenagers do – smoke, drink, fall in and out of love, and make life-changing resolutions that they never follow through with – means that the film, as a viewing experience, is in the end not particularly engaging. But it is certainly one of the first stepping stones on the path to being accepting of young trans people who refuse to be defined just by their gender identity or sexual orientation. And for this, Always Amber should be applauded and shown beyond specialised festivals and thematic one-off screenings.

Always Amber was produced by Swedish company Story AB, with participation from Swedish Television, and is sold internationally by Wide House.

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