Now in its 9th edition, the Final Girls Berlin film festival is the city’s go-to event for transgressive, experimental screenings and conversations surrounding the horror genre, all with a focus on female-identifying and nonbinary directors and actors. The festival takes its name from the ‘final girl’ trope, a term coined in the 1990s for the last woman left alive at the end of a horror movie.
During the four-day annual series, founders Sara Neidorf and Eli Lewy screen features and short films by local and international filmmakers and host workshops and talks, facilitating an exciting and community-driven cinematic experience.
Scream queens Neidorf and Lewy talk with us about the inspiration behind the festival, industry challenges and what we can expect from this year’s thrilling, spine-chilling cinema.
How did you guys first meet?
We want to cultivate a positive atmosphere whilst watching dark things.
Sara Neidorf: I found Eli through her blog online, it was called Scopophilia. I don’t think it exists anymore, it’s somewhere deep in the interwebs now. I was searching for a top ten list of emotionally devastating films, and those exact words were the name of one of Eli’s blog articles! From there, I saw how we had really similar film tastes.
I started looking at her other lists, and there were a lot of my other favourite offbeat films. And then I looked up the contact and she was living in Berlin. So what were the odds, right? I had just moved to Berlin, early 2013. I contacted Eli, and we became fast friends, and film friends – going to festivals together, watching stuff together, and within a few years we’d begun collaborating on the festival.
When did you find out about the ‘final girl’ trope in cinema theory and how does Final Girls the event series build on that concept?
Horror is actually a very hard genre in Germany. By hard I mean difficult to find a place for in terms of wider cinema distribution
Eli Lewy: I think it’s a term that is very well-known in the horror world, so it’s kind of shorthand for saying, this is a horror festival or event and it’s about women. It’s used in this commonly known trope way. We don’t especially feel an affinity for the term, which was coined by Carol Clover in 1992 in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
SN: Yeah, it was a jumping-off point, I’d say. It was named by our co-founder Lara, who no longer works with the festival – but in any case it’s an apt name for the festival. We use it as a jumping-off point for women overcoming adversity in order to tell their story.
Clover named a lot of attributes included in the trope, such as being desexualised, being virginal or somehow having a moral purity, which is one aspect to these 80s slashers narratives that doesn’t need to be in the Final Girl character – it was just part of the inception of the figure. Of course, as horror has progressed over the years and more women have been behind the camera and in screenwriting and producing roles, now there are much more rounded, multi-dimensional final girl characters.
We’ve hosted a talk from a scholar on enduring women in the context of black final girls in horror. So there’s a whole lot that can be done with the figure, and that’s what Final Girls Berlin is trying to explore.
Does Berlin have a specific appetite for horror?
SN: I would say horror is actually a very hard genre in Germany. By hard I mean difficult to find a place for in terms of wider cinema distribution. Most larger horror films usually come in from other countries and are not given a cinema release here. Fantasy Filmfest has been the main purveyor of larger-budget horror films from across the globe, mostly in an Anglo context.
But in terms of niche festivals for marginalised filmmakers working in the genre, there’s not much here. Specifically for women and nonbinary people working in horror – that’s what we’re bringing to the scene. I feel our audiences are very mixed, perhaps skewed towards non-native German speakers and an international crowd. We use English subtitles and present the films in English, which seems like a no-brainer for our festival as the audience are mainly non-German.
EL: I agree, there’s not loads going on horror-wise, but there are cinemas like the Filmrauschpalast in Moabit and Z-inema in Mitte that are definitely curated by horror lovers and have a lot of cool stuff happening there. We don’t really show a lot of German horror. We’d love to get more and for this year’s edition we’ve actually gotten more than usual, which is nice. But yeah, somehow it’s not like France or Italy where there’s been big phases of horror being made.
How did you both get into horror, and cinema in general?
SN: I studied Film Studies alongside Comparative Literature in the US at a liberal arts college. So I had an academic background in film studies and also, my mother was a huge film fan. We were going to the cinema together almost every week, sometimes double, triple features!
From around nine, 10 years old she started showing me some of her favourite horror films, such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, and it was a fast affinity for me. I enjoyed connecting over those films, I’ve made friends through it and it’s been a steady part of my life and aesthetics since those early teen years.
EL: Horror has always been a big part of my life. I’d say it was more like an independent study. I discovered it on my own and enjoyed it alone for a long time. In the dawn of the internet, I spent a lot of time researching, and uncovering a whole world was part of the attraction for me. I wrote film reviews for my school newspaper and curated film nights for friends and, as we mentioned previously, ran a film blog, so it’s always been a big part of my life.
Not just horror, but especially horror, and just cultivating my film taste and being able to show it to people is something I love doing. I also notice that when a loved one is in a crisis, one of my go-tos is giving them a list of films that might help ease their mood or be a palette cleanser of sorts. Curating lists is a way of showing love.
Can you talk about Brain Binges, your series of film talks from women in horror that runs in June? How does it intersect with the films you screen?
EL: This component is important because not only do we want to watch films together, but we want to think about them together. It’s a nice way of analysing and letting things sit. It’s on Zoom, it’s free and everyone can access it. Sometimes people are discussing films we’ve just premiered, too, so it’s all fresh and on the mind.
SN: It felt kind of a no-brainer for us to get together and create something with these elements combined from the beginning. We realised how great it is to have international panels and workshops and talks. It can seem exclusionary to those not in academia, which is a shame, and it’s not crazy out of reach for people – it just needs bringing to the public in an accessible way.
What can we expect at this year’s festival?
EL: A lot of shorts. We’re very shorts-heavy with themed curations. And we’re grateful for the feature films we’re presenting, a lot of which are premieres that probably won’t get shown again in Germany. The talks we mentioned, and workshops, too – interactive workshops like self-defence or zine-making. And hopefully an open and friendly atmosphere. We don’t want to exclude anyone, and everyone is welcome. We want to cultivate a positive atmosphere whilst watching dark things.
SN: We also have a lot of filmmakers travelling to the festival from all over the world, often on their own dime. We have some funding, so we do what we can to support them and make that possible, but we’re still always amazed and moved by how many people come on their own dime.
There are Q&As with them, and we often have filmmaker panels where you can hear directly from them about their own experiences. They’re at the festival watching together with the audience, having conversations with each other, the specialists, the filmmakers. It’s an open, communicative environment. It feels like a community. People are having debates, conversations, and it’s exciting.
EL: When we started this, we felt there was a gap in the film world in Berlin, for example in something like feminist horror, and seeing the audience members and their reactions it seems like they felt that, too. People are excited to talk about it, and it’s invigorating to be around that.
Do you have any specific films to highlight for the 2024 edition?
SN: Filmmaker Laura Moss is one to watch. They’re a filmmaker we’ve been really excited about since we started showing their shorts. And then Jacqueline Castel with My Animal and Amanda Nell Eu with Tiger Stripes, a film and filmmaker we believe in so much. There’s so much!