Meet Adina Pintilie, the director of Touch Me Not
She just won the Golden Bear in Berlin. What have you done this year?
Art by Franziska Barczyk
Romanian director Adina Pintilie worked both behind and in front of the camera on her debut feature, Touch Me Not, joining her mix of professional and non-professional cast on what she calls a “cinematic dialogue” — less a film than a research project on intimacy. Whatever you choose to call it, Touch Me Not impressed at this year’s Berlinale, taking home both the GWFF Best First Feature Award and the Golden Bear, making Pintilie only the sixth woman to win the Golden Bear in its 67-year history and the only person to have won both awards for the same film.
Blurring lines between fiction and documentary, the project invites viewers to re-think intimacy, sexuality, and the body — both ours and others’. The result is a deeply empathic experience that has already been slated for distribution in over 35 countries.
TIFF is proud to be screening Touch Me Not at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival September 12, 14, and 15.
How would you describe Touch Me Not, in your own words?
Touch Me Not is, before everything, a personal research on intimacy. When I was 20, I thought I knew everything there is to know on this subject, on relationships, attraction, beauty. Today, after years of trials and tribulations, all those ideas, which used to be so clear back then, seem to have lost their definition and grown more complex and unsettlingly contradictory. Touch Me Not was triggered by this self-reflective process, led by my curiosity to discover how people live this experience — often so difficult and full of contradictions — of intimacy.
Born out of a long-term research process, the film grew on the fluid border between reality and fiction, working with a mix of professional and non-professional cast. A wonderful group of gifted and courageous characters ventured together with me in this research, existing in the blurred area between their real biographies and their fictionalized ones. We explored procedures such as family constellation, video diaries, re-enactments of memories and dreams, and staging reality. We created a sort of "laboratory" in which fiction often functioned as a protective space, which allowed us to safely explore some of the most vulnerables areas of our intimacy with an authenticity we may not have otherwise accessed through the usual approaches of documentary or fiction. The shape of the film changed organically along this complex process of self-exploration.
Touch Me Not refuses labels like "fiction," "documentary," "experimental." It doesn't fit into any of these categories. It's a "strange animal," as Tómas Lemarquis (one of the protagonists) called it. It's a cinematic dialogue that invites the viewer to question their own preconceived ideas about intimacy, sexuality, and the body.
Have your views on intimacy changed after the Touch Me Not experience?
Many of my views have been reshaped in the process of making the film — for example, the ones on disability and sexuality, on sex work, beauty, and corporeality. There are lots of types of bodies that differ from the classical norm of beauty.
For me, Christian, the protagonist with spinal muscular atrophy, is a superb human being and a beautiful body, even though he’s different than the norm. As it is a film about intimacy, it is implicitly a film about the body, about the subjective experience of your own body and the way you perceive the bodies of others. Christian has one of the most harmonious relationships with his own body, even if he’s mostly unable to move. And his relationship with Grit, his partner, their progressive views on intimacy (which you can follow further on their blog), the way they explore their sexuality, have been a permanent source of joy and inspiration for all of us.
Christian had a strong emotional motivation to be part of our journey, which he shared with us from the very beginning: “I’m not afraid of this film or myself being attacked. Just know the people screaming are precisely those who have no idea about disability, about what us disabled people feel, need, desire. They have their own false concepts about disability. They look at us as vulnerable beings that need to be protected and can't have a sexual life. But that’s actually a patronizing, disrespectful attitude. In fact, it's them who disrespect us, not the film. Like anyone else, I do have the right to enjoy my body, to explore my sexuality and express myself as a sexual being. I believe it is important to show that we, people with differently-abled bodies, have the same desires, dreams, responses to stimuli, like everybody.”
Do you think cinema can effect change?
Our initial intention with the film was to liberate ourselves from the ideas built into us by our family, society, education, and to discover with openness how people truly relate to each other. Inevitably, when you start to explore the real world, reality reveals itself in all its complexity and diversity, which is so different from our normative fictions. As Touch Me Not explores life as it is, unavoidably the difference from the norm reveals itself as just as "normal" as any norm.
This self-reflective exploration — the personal, the intimate — implicitly become political, because this opening up of your inner world has an impact on how you relate with the Other at community level. I think our movie invites you to look at the Other with openness, to accept their being-different as just as humanly valid as yours. It invites you to make an exercise in empathy, to put yourself in this Other’s skin and look at things from their different perspective. That's why I think Touch Me Not is a very necessary movie, especially in today’s world, where there is so much aggression and intolerance, so many negative emotions that lead to conflict and discrimination.
This movie divides the audience between people loving it and hating it. What were the reactions that you have experienced from audiences around the world?
Immediately after the Berlinale, there was a surge of divisive feedback, mainly from film critics and journalists, covering the entire spectrum, from outright praise to very negative. But "there's no good or bad," as Christian says in the film. We understand and respect all the reactions the film triggers. It's very interesting to notice, though, during the past months of travelling with the film around the world, that the reactions of the regular viewers are not so divided, that we encounter a very warm, emotional reception everywhere we go. And it's fascinating and heart-warming to see how people open up emotionally after the screenings and start to share with us their own personal experiences and feelings.
Touch Me Not asks you to open up your perspective, to explore ways of seeing that might be different. We hope the film and the dialogue it proposes will have an impact, will change something in terms of perception. As Christian says: "I hope to change your perspective as a viewer. It's about freedom. Don’t let society tell you who you are, how to live your intimate life! Feel your own feelings, and go your own way."
Tell us what winning the Golden Bear meant for you and the film.
The recognition offered by the Berlinale meant a lot for us all and proved to be crucial for the future life of the movie. Through the intense controversy it raises, ever since its world premiere at the Berlinale, Touch Me Not is reaching beyond the cinema space and into the public debate forum. An essential contribution to this development has been the committed involvement of the key film's protagonists — who are, themselves, outspoken activists — in an active direct dialogue with the audiences within an open debate format called Touch Me Not - The Politics of Intimacy. We've already had several intense encounters with the audience within this format at several key festivals, and we're already planning coming debates for cinema releases this autumn.
Touch Me Not is an invitation to dialogue. It challenges you to take a look inside yourself and question or reconsider the way you see and feel about things. I believe this kind of dialogue makes the film function as a mirror in which you, the viewer, can see yourself, and you can glimpse some of your own possibilities that maybe haven’t crossed your mind or that you might be afraid to accept. It prompts a self-reflective process which is not always comfortable. It takes you out of that comfort zone by offering you new, surprising perspectives which destabilize yours.
Adina Pintilie was born in Bucharest, where she studied at the Ion Luca Caragiale National University of Theatre and Film. Her work includes the documentary Don’t Get Me Wrong (07) and the short documentary Oxigen (10). Her debut feature film, Touch Me Not (18), won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
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