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83 min. English, German.

The lovers are reunited at the airport and soon they’re together in the white bedroom. The camera glides through the space, passing by desk, wardrobe, window and two bodies entwined, the first wonderfully languid pan in a film full of them. One reads to the other, in German, from Ronald M. Schernikau’s novel “So schön” and the passage could almost be describing this very scene, although it’s New York in 2018 rather than West Berlin in the 80s, and Franz and Tonio have become Franz and Tonia. The rest of the adaptation is in English and exposition is provided by other sections of the text, delivered at a reading attended by the modest cast, put on in the park beside the river, below the metal bridge. Between those events written down, life consists of nights out, political demonstrations, hopeful couplings, conversations at home or on the street, talk of translation, transposition and transition, in character or otherwise. Today’s battleground is gender, not sexuality and the target of protest has shifted accordingly, even as the problem of organising love persists. “And when the prince danced with the coachman, they were so pretty that the whole court swooned”. A utopian film. (James Lattimer)

Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli was born in 1988. She works as a film director, editor, colourist and critic in Brooklyn.

Radical gentle: Schernikau’s novella

When I discovered Ronald M. Schernikau’s novella from which this film is adapted, it slipped into my subconscious, quietly becoming a lynchpin I oriented myself around as I came to rearticulate my approach to both my body and politics as both became increasingly unbearable for me. Years later, it became clear that the way to repay this debt to the work was to continue this dialogue through a film, as a way of attempting to speak to an important figure I would never be able to meet due to his untimely death.
I chose to make a work that was a translation and a transposition rather than a traditional adaptation, both maintaining his written text and inserting my interventions into it. If the novel documents, roughly, the author’s life and loves and politics, I’ve done roughly the same, making a fiction that moves towards documentary, in a sort of opposite move to my last film, a documentary that moved towards fiction, taking the social and artistic practices of Schernikau and my actors as a site for continued investigation. I’ve tried to maintain the tensions of the contemporary US milieu and the tensions inherent in the novel and the process of adapting it, but the overwhelming approach was one that tried to maintain its stunning gentleness, prettiness, its attention to gesture and presentation, and its ability to locate these as a site of utopian practice in the here-and-now. Over the years, this has come to seem a fragile path forward.
And so I’ve made a deliberately ‘superficial’ film that stakes a claim to the capacity of sensuous community contained in that term, that takes that superficiality as an important, real and powerful aspect of a project of building new social relations written off by a dominant capitalist understanding of ‘depth’. I’ve attempted to make something open and inviting, taking the rhythmic looping patterns of dance music as my structure and the everyday choreography of bodies as my material, with the hopes of making a film that through a certain ‘prettiness’ can render possible a desire for new ways of being, to see the contours of new bodies and selves and relations.
In the end it is, of course, a love letter, one I hope others can share in. It is also, of course, a coming out film for me as a transgender woman, but I hope it can be more than that, that it can locate the utopian in diverse ways of being bodies and moving bodies, despite or within the horror of the here-and-now that Schernikau so radically posits, that it can open for others the political and personal doors that were opened for me. (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

Conversation with Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli: “To imagine the possibilities of utopia right now, not later”

Daniel John Johnsson: The film is actually based on the German novel “So schön” by Ronald M. Schernikau?

Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli: I discovered the novel while visiting Thomas Love, who plays in SO PRETTY. Thomas couldn’t understand the German very well, but somehow he knew it would resonate with me, and I bought it on a whim.

Has it even been translated into English?

It’s untranslated, but we’re hoping that this film might make a translation possible, as I think it’s remarkably contemporary in how it relates ideas of interpersonal style and posture with politics and queerness. In a way, making this film is just me trying to translate it myself. And in my own way, to my own time, place, and gender.

What was it about it that appealed so much to you?

There was something in the little descriptions that resonated with me, in how it describes very precisely the way someone stands in a doorway, holds their wrist, drinks coffee, wears their hair. There’s a very delicate interplay between these kinds of very small, very clear gestures and the interpersonal and the political that struck me, that resonated with how I try to move through the world, what excites me in my daily life. It’s very tender but still politically committed.
Something in those gestures stuck with me and gave me something to orient myself around in my personal life, and in those floundering moments trying to imagine a second feature, I kept returning to it. And again, I was just sad that it was untranslated and that my friends couldn’t read it ...
So this is my way of making it available to my community.

So for those who are yet to read it. What is it about?

The novel is incredibly simple. It’s just four gay communist men in West Berlin in the 1980s who go dancing, chat, organise, and have a little romantic drama between two couples, have an injury at a protest. Everything works out. It’s a very simple story, but those small moments resonate.

Will the film differ from the novel in any way?

We're changing it a bit, but not really in terms of plot, more in terms of approach and characters, adding people of colour and trans people instead of the white cis-gay cast of the novel, making it about femininity rather than homosexuality. We’re also including the actual book within the film, where it becomes perhaps a sort of icon, but an icon we still have to critique or pull apart a little bit. And of course, I’m making the artistic practices of my actor-participants very present, their music and visual art.

I’m thinking, for instance, that the original took place in Berlin. And I’m guessing you will shoot the film in New York. Won’t that change of scenery and contemporary setting reshape the story?

Yes, my film has just a few scenes in Berlin, and is mostly in New York. We just shoot it as it has to be now, in our proto-fascist moment, in the particularities of sex, race, and gender in New York City. I’m not a historian, I can’t tell you much about Berlin in the 80s save what the novel and the people I’ve met who lived there then tell me. For me, this film is about looking at how that history travels across the Atlantic, how it informs this moment and stays with us as one current of politics and queerness among many.
But there does seem to be this same desire to dance, to become, to imagine something better.

Do you still think it's an important story to tell?

Yes, so I’m telling it. It would be so easy to despair, I’m certainly in despair in a lot of ways, so it’s really meant a lot to cling to the book's subtitle ... “A Utopian Film”. Schernikau had written it as both a novelistic screenplay and as an image of utopia in the shit of here-and-now, and I’ve really clung to this in my personal life as things seem to fall apart. It’s very hard to do, but I’m trying to take his impulse seriously, to imagine the possibilities of utopia right now, not later. You can do this, really.
This film tries to do this. You can do this without discounting all the horrors, and in fact to do this you have to engage with how we deal with those horrors. It’s an exercise I’m forcing myself to do.

Did the novel play any part in your own gender transition?

Yes, because it didn’t matter to me that these characters were not trans women. It’s a bit hard to explain, because I am not and have never been a gay man, but a novel where femininity was something picked up freely seemed so joyful, gave me space when so much of the queer community was asking me to claim womanhood in a very specific way in order to be recognised. In a way, not mattering whether or not I was a man gave me space to finally stop being a man.
This film, too is about opening that space where what you look like and how you act and how you care is far more important than the gender you are, in the hopes that this will open the door to other girls like me.

(Daniel John Johnsson, www.qanda.nu/jessie-jeffrey-dunn-rovinelli-(eng)-40296465)

Production Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, Bill Kirstein, Judith Lou Lévy, Anne Coburn, Eve Robin. Production companies 100 Year Films (New York, USA), Les Films du Bal (Paris, France), Anne Coburn (New York, USA). Written and directed by Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli inspired by the novella by Ronal M. Schernikau. Cinematography Bill Kirstein. Editing Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli. Music Rachika S. Sound design Kenny Kusiak. Sound Anastasia Clarke. Production design Miwa Sakulrat. With Edem Dela-Seshie (Paul), Thomas Love (Franz), Rachika Samarth (Erika), Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli (Tonia), Phoebe DeGroot (Helmut), Arlene Gregoire (Gera).

Premiere February 10, 2019, Forum


2010: We’ve Loved You So Much (10 min.). 2015: Fuck Work (12 min.). 2016: Empathy (83 min.). 2019: So Pretty.

Photo: © 100 Year Films

Funded by:

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