9th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

20 – 24 MARCH 2019. HIPPODROME, BO’NESS

Forbidden Paradise (1924) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Above all else, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a joyful celebration of film and music. Speaking to other audience members, who had travelled far to Bo’ness for the unique atmosphere and live experience, it’s clear that the festival and this small town, delivers something very special. Home to the oldest cinema in Scotland, it is also a centre for national and international cinema heritage. This year’s programme offered thrills, chills, laughs, unexpected discoveries and truly memorable performances from some of the world’s finest accompanists. I arrived for the third day of the festival, staying until closing night and was delighted to see many films for the first time, introduced in the best possible way.

Hippfest’s traditional fancy-dress Friday Night Gala is always great fun, inspired this year by the glamour and military moustache twirling of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 Romantic Comedy-Melodrama Forbidden Paradise. This new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was vibrantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano), Roddy Long (violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion). The trio complimented the tone of the film brilliantly and heightened its pace, enhancing the tension of court intrigues and Lubitsch’s characteristic brand of knowing comedy. Channelling the passion of Pola Negri as vampish, authoritarian ruler Czarina Catherine, it was an enjoyable, crowd pleasing caper, well suited to the whole occasion. Pre-screening period music by The Red Hot Minute Band, accompanied by fizz and canapes, added to the party atmosphere.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) Directed by Paul Leni.

Following on the heels of last year’s riotous late-night screening Seven Footsteps to Satan, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley, set the stage for more ghoulish fun.  The story begins just before midnight, with scheming relatives of grand eccentric Cyrus West assembled for the reading of his will. Musicians Günter Buchwald (Piano, violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion) drew the audience into the eerie corridors of the West mansion with a startling variety of sound. The music mirrored the film’s high angle shadow play to great effect, in the hushed circular sweep of brushes on drumskin, the nervous tension of pizzicato strings, use of upper register violin whining like a cat and the spidery creep of piano. At one point, the reverberation of percussion, from drumsticks scraped over wooden notches, produced the most fantastic sound, like rasping, macabre human laughter. As Horror-Comedy, the tone of The Cat and the Canary ,reflected in the intertitles, is almost comic book and a relatively safe programming choice. With their range of musical expertise, I would love to see Buchwald and Bockius perform a darker psychological Horror/ Thriller in this late-night timeslot.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Hippfest Triple Bill.

Silent Comedies remain hugely popular and there’s nothing quite like watching them as part of a live audience. Visual gags hinge on anticipation and this is palpable in an auditorium, where laughter is immediately infectious. The circular architecture of the Hippodrome really brings you into the fold in that respect. This year’s Saturday morning Jeely Jar screening The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston was a great choice of film, appealing to the universal human desire to be liked and the imperative of being yourself. The transformation ‘from geek to cool’ is a trope which often lacks charm in more recent films. However, in Lloyd’s hands, the likeable innocence of the central character shines through, aided in this performance by John Sweeney’s adept accompaniment. Hippfest’s annual Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is always a sell-out and this year’s audience were treated to comedic pandemonium with Wrong Again, You’re Darn Tootin and With Love and Hisses. Sadly, there was no horse on the piano (see Wrong Again), but Jane Gardner’s wonderful accompaniment more than made up for it.

Although I thoroughly enjoy events like the comedy triple bill, what I really come to Hippfest to savour is reinterpretation of film in performance and seeing cinema I’ve never seen before. Friday afternoon’s Cuppa Talk, Peace on the Western Front was one of those highlights. Dr Toby Haggith (Senior Curator of Second World War and Mid Twentieth Century from the Imperial War Museum’s Film Department) introduced the film and provided live narration, accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano. Seeing film restoration work in progress is a rare privilege and this deeply affecting film about what war really means, told father to son, stayed with me. With 2014-2018 centenary events concluded and those who lived through the conflict no longer with us, the question remains of how we continue to commemorate international conflict and warn future generations. Like many members of the audience, I was surprised to discover such a hard hitting and compassionate battlefield pilgrimage film from 1931. ‘The role of film in
memory’ is extremely significant, not just for survivors of the Great War who saw the film on its release, but in the present act of reconstruction.

In addition to seeing Peace on the Western Front for the first time and the important questions it raised, what I loved about this event was insight into decision making process, the complex negotiation of restoring film from different archival sources and re-interpretation through sound. With the original sound discs lost from this “all talking picture”, two archival copies of the film and a variety of documents were used to reconstruct the narrative. The press book for the film provided the basis of the script, together with lip syncing interpretation, identifying locations using a Michelin guide to the battlefields and contemporary press accounts. Underpinning all restoration is the immense task of remaining true to the intent of the original, in this case, a directorial collaboration between two WWI veterans, Fred Swan and Hans Nieter, drawing on experiences from both sides. Peace on the Western Front became an unofficial film for the League of Nations Union, promoting the cause of peace and disarmament, something that I’m sure will continue through the current restoration. Like all archival film it lives before an audience, which is why festivals like Hippfest are so important, doubly so when the quality of music enhances perception to such a high degree.

 Although this was a read through and the final recorded version will employ an actor for narration, the balance between the voice of the film and its soundtrack was beautifully realised. Seeing abandoned war-torn towns, the determination to rebuild and reclaim the land for living, speaks of the timeless value of film as an agent of self-reflection and growth. It’s the drive that music is made of and all the ways that human beings find to out-create destruction. Compassion is the core of this film, which enabled veterans who could not afford to return to the battlefields, a virtual experience of validation through cinema. Peace on the Western Front acknowledges their experiences, while the current restoration honours these memories. The darkened auditorium is a safe space to collectively grieve and it is also a place for audiences, then and now, to see what is possible.

The union of sound and image led the audience into a landscape of ruins and bomb blasted hollows, resting tonally on objects of horror and remembrance. A trinity of bayonets emerging from the ground marked the final resting place of three soldiers, killed where they stood. The cross fallen over them, like a figure bowed in lament, is an image held long in the mind. What we see are the dead in absence, so many never found and the rubble of civilization, like Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World (1918). However, Peace on the Western Front is also a hopeful vision, of people re-working the land and rebuilding their lives. The narrative explains what happened in these fields and villages, however, it’s the way that sound alights on human objects, encouraging deeper reflection on what they mean, that leaves a lasting imprint. As Stephen Horne described during the post-screening Q&A, the music enters the ‘spirit in which the film was made, rather than recreating what might have been played.’ It is ‘abstracted, serving the narrative, not focus pulling.’ This approach creates a more intimate, visceral connection with the audience, because we can’t sonically relegate what we’re seeing to a bygone era, shrouding the film in nostalgia or sentimentality to distance ourselves from uncomfortable truths.

The Blot (1921) Directed by Lois Weber

That quality of accompaniment was also present in the screening of Lois Weber’s The Blot (1921), introduced by Pamela Hutchinson and accompanied by Lillian Henley on piano. Although the hidden history of women in film is gradually coming to light, what will enable neglected cinema to enter public consciousness (and move us closer to equality) is connecting films like this one with live audiences. Weber (1879-1939) was a writer/director who made over 40 features and hundreds of shorts. In her own time, she was the highest paid director in Hollywood, placing the myth of continuous human progress and the current gender pay gap debate into perspective. Part of South West Silents’ initiative Silent Women Film Pioneers, Henley’s skilful new score for The Blot unobtrusively merges with Weber’s vison. Her live performance wove itself into the film’s closely observed domestic spaces, complimenting the unfolding drama and serving the director’s intent perfectly.

Focusing on middle class poverty, so acutely relevant today, Weber understood film as an agent of social change and brought missionary zeal to her examination of inequality in America. Her call for a living wage is articulated through the experiences of mother and daughter, normally cast in supporting roles, but here placed centre stage. We’re all too familiar with women on film portrayed as silent agents of social cohesion and ironically, here in the Silent era, they have a greater voice than in many mainstream Hollywood films circa 2019. Seeing the Griggs and Olsen families, side by side in stark contrast, is immediately resonant, reflecting the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor on a global scale. Supplanting expectations of Romance with sharp, social critique, the collapse of Middle America is ongoing. Weber’s famed ‘feminine touch’ as a filmmaker begs closer scrutiny, as her energies were directed above and beyond her gender. What she stood for was human dignity, empathy and self- determination. There’s a tendency that goes with the whole “feminine touch” label, dismissing interior details in The Blot, like decorative elements, simply belonging to a woman’s domain and aligned with the designated role of homemaker/filmmaker.  However, I’d suggest that seemingly passive imagery such as a pet cat and kitten, are more potent inclusions by Weber, suggesting eternal cycles of child bearing, linked to grinding poverty.

An image (or “blot”) that particularly struck me was that of a little girl, just learning to walk, observed by the central character Mrs Griggs (Margaret McWade). Tottering at the base of the stairs wearing one high heeled shoe, a plaything and basic item of clothing that the Griggs family cannot afford to buy, this sequence felt metaphorical rather than observational. As Pamela Hutchinson suggested in her introduction, if Weber had been a man, we’d have been having discussions about the vision of the director long ago, rather than seeing her films as reductively female. I’m quite certain, given Weber’s moral and ethical stance, that this scene in The Blot is more socially/ politically loaded than just a child playing games. Those games shape how we move through the world as adults and you can’t walk, much less climb the stairs, in one ill-fitting high heeled shoe. Although Weber delivers a strong moral message, this tempered throughout by feeling and projection, rather than grandiose sermonising. The shame of ostracism in work, the pride that tries to keep up with the Jones’s or class-based cues of dress and body language that inform how characters are made to feel, are aspects of self, shared with the audience. This is part of Weber’s life experience and congruence as a filmmaker. It’s a telling indictment that so many prominent women working in the film industry during its early years have silently disappeared from its history. Film restoration is also about reclamation, reappraisal and reinterpretation, which is why I was so glad to have seen this film as part of a live audience.

The Parson’s Widow (1920) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Days of Wrath, Ordet) is best known for the profound seriousness and spiritual austerity of his work. The performance of a lesser known film, The Parson’s Widow (1920) demonstrated that there are many more layers to this deeply humane director, including a great sense of humour. It was an absolute pleasure to experience the sensitivity and understated brilliance of this film with an accompanist who equals it. John Sweeney has been accompanying Silent Film for over 25 years and I’m consistently moved by his ability to communicate the most vulnerable and subtle aspects of human behaviour in performance. In Sweeney’s hands, sound becomes a conduit for audience immersion in the emotional arc of the story and the predicament of the characters, rather than a simplistic trigger of emotive response. It’s why I love watching Silent Film live- it pares the art of film back to its most essential, universal language. As an audience we’re not reduced to manufactured cause and effect, but are presented with a pure, intuitive response to the film’s own trajectory in real time, that we can imaginatively project ourselves into. What Sweeney achieved in this performance was a revelation in terms of what makes Dreyer’s work so distinctive and timeless. Tapping into the human kindness, sparkling humour and humility at the heart of the story is his natural gift as an accompanist. As the relationships in the film become deeper and lessons are learned about the true nature of the main characters, Sweeney’s music embraced the lyricism, solemnity and richness of those connections. Dreyer’s conclusion of thanksgiving ‘for all the good days I have lived’ was expressed musically throughout. We begin with a story set in 17th Century Norway, where custom dictates that a young theologian must marry the previous parson’s widow to secure his position, finding a path back to ourselves by the end of the film. Deception, love, wisdom and human flaws are revealed as only Dreyer (and Sweeney) can. I can think of no finer introduction to this new Swedish Film Institute restoration of a Dreyer classic.

Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) Directed by Julien Duvivier

Another of this year’s great Silent discoveries and a festival highlight was the World Premiere of Lobster Films restoration Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930). The incredible virtuosity and rapport of accompanists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (vibraphone, percussion) continues to elevate every performance. Paired with an intensely moving film, they delivered a dazzling performance, driven by pure intuition and consummate artistry. Adapted from a story by Emil Zola and directed by Julien Duvivier, Au Bonheur Des Dames is an immediately relevant ‘modern parable’ for the 21st Century, as we now face the global, environmental and human cost of capitalist “progress.” The film is also a poignant memorial to the ‘final days of French Silent Cinema.’ The buildings we see being demolished on screen are those of the film studio, subject to the same ‘bulk buy’ attitude to branded entertainment as that of the “Ladies Paradise” department store. Small and independent gives way to retail empire in the film, something we see daily in every town and city High Street. Although the heroine Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) eventually succumbs to this corporate vision of progress, and annoyingly for love, the film’s imagery and musical accompaniment cuts through the plot to deliver a more critical interpretation.

The mechanisation of desire and accelerating drive towards mass consumption were communicated beautifully by the accompaniment. Vibraphone and cymbals created a mesmerising sense of being seduced by glitter in a retail cathedral. The “Ladies Paradise” is certainly an ironic title given the treatment of the shop girls by their male managers. ‘Paradise’ is a dualistic idea, which regardless of belief, is associated with a fall of biblical proportions. The association between lust and shopping projects wider social concerns. In one scene, we see a woman covetously touching her throat, surveying jewellery and another stealing a fur from the department store display. Sound conveys misplaced desire, in the use of piano strings and syncopated percussion, creating an unnatural slant on all the shiny things we might own, perfectly in keeping with the subversive imagery. Sharp intercutting during a sale scene or frenetic movements along a city street, accompanied by palpitations of percussion give us a bodily sense of being in the frame.

The cinematography by André Dantan, René Guichard, Émile Pierre and Armand Thirard is frequently poetic and clever editing juxtaposes the fate of the individual with towering corporate dominance. When Denise’s cousin Genevieve collapses, the piano guides us emotionally through the doorway, accenting her vulnerability- cut to an upwards camera pan of a demolition site and we immediately feel that she (her hopes, the family business and way of life) are being literally and metaphorically crushed. The rumbling depths of the piano and percussion are abstracted- as unconscious as breathing in that moment of absolute immersion. There’s a very special circuitry of energy in play, led entirely by the film, related to what is visually inferred rather than spoken. It’s a circle, fuelled by imagination, connecting the filmmaker(s), the art object, accompanying musicians and audience across time. Horne and Bockius understand the language of film so completely (and intuitively in tandem) that the tonal qualities of a film; visual, psychological, emotional, are translated effortlessly to sound, the most immediate of all our senses. This is Silent Film accompaniment on a whole other level of craft and sophistication. Like a sublime symphony, the beauty of the composition (or improvisation) lies in us being consciously unaware of it. Ideally sound opens a channel in the hearts and minds of the audience, which is exactly what art is for.

Au Bonheur Des Dames has a beauty that has nothing to do with Romance or glamour. We experience it in moments of human recognition, like Denise’s view as she stands alone in her uncle’s shop looking out onto the street, through a line of stripped mannequins. Outside dust and paper scatter in the wind and the sun feels like twilight. Piano chords anchor us to this moment of meditation on what is passing before our eyes. This scene reminded me very much of the early documentary stills photography of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who tried to capture the architecture and streets of Paris before they fell to modernisation. However, in Au Bonheur Des Dames, this melancholic, end of an era feel of Atget is realised with unbridled violence. As buildings are reduced to rubble by machinery, the shattering physicality of destruction was communicated in a frenzy of articulated blows from percussion. It was expression carried mindfully through the hands and body, informing the viewer’s perception not just of the action on screen but the overwhelming forces behind it. Throughout the film, imagery and music suggested a more questioning world view than the trajectory of the plot. That tension is part of what makes this film so interesting. Shots of the department store shop floor, seen from above, take a god-like view of what humanity has designed, later scattered in panic.

On many levels, Au Bonheur Des Dames is a very contemporary film and the highly sensitive accompaniment, reserving silence for moments of the greatest gravitas, played to those strengths. Most Hippfest films are prefaced by archival shorts and I love the way these can expand frames of reference inside the feature. In this case, the short film Out for Value from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive was the perfect companion piece, chosen by Hippfest student placement Maeve O’Brien and accompanied by Forrester Pyke on piano. Archival footage from Isaac Menzies, Aberdeen, an Emporium taken over by House of Fraser and purchased in 2018 by mega-discounter Sports Direct, brought themes in Au Bonheur Des Dames resoundingly home. Another Scottish connection made this screening possible, with sponsorship from the Falkirk District Twinning Association, paired with Creteil, outside Paris.

Moulin Rouge (1928) Directed by Ewald Andre Dupont

Building relationships with long term partners, such as the Confucius Institute for Scotland and China Film Archive, Hippfest is able to bring rare films to the UK, such as The Red Heroine / Hongxia (1929), the oldest surviving martial arts film, largely unseen outside China. International partnerships are also instrumental in commissioning new work, promoting artistic development and cultural exchange. Co-commissioned by the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, and Hippfest, the world premiere accompaniment for Moulin Rouge (1928) by Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion) and Johnny Best (piano) recieved stellar applause from the audience. The story centres on Parysia (Olga Tschechowa), an aging cabaret dancer, universally adored for her exotic onstage persona. Her daughter Margaret returns from finishing school with her fiancé Andre, who soon becomes obsessed with his future mother in law. Director Ewald Andre Dupont was one of the early pioneers of German Cinema, best known for Varieté (1925) and Piccadilly (1929), both screened at previous Hippfests. It’s gratifying to be able to explore the work of a director over several years, a rare gift of continuity, and to see the film performed live in a collaboration between German and British musicians. This was the first time the trio of Buchwald, Bockius and Best had performed together and hopefully not the last. Günter Buchwald has been accompanying Silent Film since 1978, collaborating with Frank Bockius for over 20 years and Johnny Best, who is Director of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and a PHD researcher, has been accompanying Silent Film since 2014. The opportunity for musicians to learn and be inspired by each other, across borders and a variety of musical styles, is essential in preserving and developing the art of Silent Film accompaniment for future generations. The lavish production and arc of impending tragedy in Moulin Rouge was handled with great panache and gusto, hurtling towards the climatic scene at a heart-stopping pace and carrying the audience with it.  

Hindle Wakes (1927) Directed by Maurice Elvey

This year’s Closing Gala Hindle Wakes (1927), accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, provided a world class conclusion to the festival, highlighting a largely unknown and strikingly progressive British Silent. Matching the right accompanist(s) with the right film is an art in itself and this performance illustrated what a skilled musician can bring to our perception of cinema. As Briony Dixon, curator of Silent Film at the BFI, London, stated in her introduction, ‘Stephen will accompany the film as only he can.’ Based on the 1910 play by Stanley Houghton and filmed by the UK’s most prolific director, Maurice Elvey, Hindle Wakes is a surprisingly radical statement of female independence. Set in a Lancashire cotton mill town, it’s a story of industrial slavery and ‘the ecstasy of freedom’, linking self-determination with a woman’s capacity to earn her own living. Accompanying the opening sequence on piano, stately, tonal pillars of expectation were contrasted with the excitement of heroine Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her best friend Mary, preparing for the annual mill closure and heading for the bright lights of Blackpool on holiday. Release from the drudgery of factory work into a fairy-tale world of leisure was captured by the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, fragile music infused with human vulnerability. This sound aligned with a poignant shot of the Blackpool ballroom seen from above, a swirling mass of couples and confetti falling, as if the entire scene were held in time, inside a souvenir snow globe. Sparks of Romance and unease punctuated the soundscape, reflecting the central character navigating her way from youth to adulthood.

Horne’s ability to express the inner life of characters on screen is exceptional. When Allan and Fanny take their turn on the dancefloor amongst thousands of couples, a lesser accompanist might have simply played appropriately rhythmic period music over the sequence. Horne takes his cues directly from the frame and its visual composition, in the way that sound melts away, out of focus, creating an emotional depth of field around the couple and making the rest of the world disappear. We enter into what the dance means in that moment, and in life, temporarily suspended in reflection. This delicacy, attention and care, is what makes Horne such a master of the art and a multi award winning accompanist. Without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion doesn’t deliver what we’re conditioned to expect. The ending left me wondering at what point did stories such as this one cease being projected on screen? How many others have been lost and how many more were waiting to be discovered? Once again, a film that would be classified as Silent, historical or vintage delivers an unanticipated roar, revealing itself as more radical than many contemporary films would dare to be. Class representation, coupled with expectations of gender, make Fanny’s ultimate decision a revolutionary act, then and now. Regardless of when a film was made, if we don’t care about the characters on screen then the film is dead. The nature of Horne’s accompaniment brought reappraisal of a forgotten film to a wider audience. Bridging this gap between film archive and public consciousness is a matter of national importance. Beyond academia and dedicated organisations, the UK is slow to recognise its cinema history and champion its immense cultural value. Performances like this make the case very powerfully from the ground up, without saying a word.

In addition to the festival screening programme, workshops, talks and commissioning of new scores, Director Alison Strauss and the Hippfest team have exported the live Silent experience from Bo’ness, touring selected shows in the UK. Over the last nine years Hippfest has emerged as a national treasure and essential resource, enabling international collaboration and consistently punching far above its weight. In 2020, Hippfest will celebrate its 10th edition and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film Website:
http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx Hippfest 2019 Programme: hhttp://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2019%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

Glasgow Film Festival

20 February – 3 March 2019

February means Glasgow Film Festival, the joy of connecting with the world on screen and joining some of the best audiences on the planet.  The opportunity to see retrospective classics, discover emerging filmmakers and cinematic rarities is always a draw, but there is a special buzz around Glasgow, a combination of people and programming that makes it unique. As a visitor, staff, volunteers and audiences make you feel welcome and the additional bonus of introductions and Q&As from filmmakers add considerable value to the whole experience. The Pioneer strand of films by first and second feature directors was particularly strong this year with Border, Complicity, Float Like A Butterfly, The Man Who Surprised Everyone, Woman at War and Werewolf among my overall festival highlights. Regardless of the subject matter, there was something about each one of these films that made me feel hopeful. It is always exciting to discover artists whose work you want to follow in future and seeing the ways filmmakers are responding creatively to man-made chaos, past and present, was thoroughly inspiring!

Woman at War directed by Benedikt Erlingsson.

Having loved Benedikt Erlingsson’s previous feature Of Horses and Men (2013), I was looking forward to his latest film Woman at War/ Kona fer í stríð. Erlingsson has a gift for tackling serious subjects with irreverent charm and great humour. In this case, the story of 50-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir), a seemingly ‘mild-mannered choirmaster’ secretly committing acts of eco-terrorism to save her beloved Iceland from environmental catastrophe. With a poster of Gandhi on her wall and a Nelson Mandela mask in the field, her extraordinary intelligence, practical skills and physical stamina debunk the Western myth that middle aged women are past their prime. Taking on saving the earth and motherhood by adoption, Halla is a fearless, thoroughly likeable heroine that you can’t help but root for, because her prime motivation is care. Tackling Icelandic history, ideas of democracy, mass media spin, industrial exploitation and the persecution of foreign nationals with shrewd comedy, Woman at War is an absolute delight, being both entertaining and highly conscious. The rugged Icelandic landscape is the ever-present star of the film and the way music functions as witness, chorus and emotional commentary is pure, quirky genius. Woman at War is a wonderful film from start to finish, a gentle push for individual conscience, collective responsibility and action.

Border directed by Ali Abassi.

Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abassi delivers a surprising take on human identity and our relationship with the natural world in Border / Grӓns, winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2018.  Eva Melander stars as Tina, an outsider and a border guard with the uncanny ability to smell fear, guilt and shame, enabling her to naturally detect illegal activity and solve crimes. When Vore (Eero Milonoff) crosses her path, she encounters someone from her own tribe for the first time, embarking on a path of self-discovery that calls into question who she was raised to be. Without giving too much away, Abassi explores boundaries of gender, animal and human characteristics, together with the nature of evil and the role of mythology in contemporary life. This supernaturalism is a brilliant way of interrogating human behaviour and finding humanity. I loved the unexpected, legendary elements of the story and the complexity of the female protagonist. The elation Tina finds in discovering who she is, is coupled with the ambiguity of that experience and a moral dilemma about how to live in the 21st century. Being cast between worlds, there is a cost in belonging which this film explores unlike any other.

Werewolf directed by Adrian Panek.

Writer/ director Adrian Panek’s Werewolf / Wilkolak delivers a new way of seeing its subject, emulating a deepening aspect of craft in contemporary Polish Cinema. Panek’s examination of the psychological effects of trauma on a group of children feels acutely relevant, not only in terms of the history of Poland and the Holocaust, but in the current climate of human displacement on a global scale. Werewolf questions the nature of Horror, liberation and instinct. It is one of the most fascinating and compelling examinations of the Holocaust I’ve seen, because it takes the view of child protagonists in a new direction, beyond sympathy or sentimentality, to a deeper level of confrontation with what makes us human. Panek asks vital questions about whether growth is possible in extreme (and every day) circumstances, transcends multiple genres and presents a story which is both culturally specific and universal. Set in the summer of 1945 in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, the advancing Russian army liberate Gross-Belsen, a site that was part of a complex of German concentration camps, then a German village and now situated in modern day Poland. This territory of conquest and fear is also the primordial forest of fairy tales in the tradition of the Germanic brothers Grimm. Aerial shots intensify that feeling of density beyond the physical, dwarfing the human figure or vehicles in a seemingly impenetrable dark canopy of trees.  Freed by fleeing SS guards, a pack of German Shepherds roam the forest, as ravenous as a group of orphaned children that have taken refuge in a derelict mansion. Held captive by the ever-present canine threat and the adult world outside, the children forge a path beyond survival.

The young cast including Nicolas Przygoda, Kamil Polnisiak, Sonia Mietielica deliver natural, nuanced performances that convey glimmers of hope as a counterfoil to terror and despair. Each character deals with their trauma in a different way, exposing the audience to degrees of empathy and the possibility of what they might become, either succumbing to the horrors they’ve experienced or eclipsing them. Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak) has survived the camp by being subservient to malevolence. Fuelled by adolescent desire, He’s a devious character willing to close the door while atrocities are being committed- equally seizing the insane routines of his captors to survive a moment of impending death. The question of whether he, and his fellow survivors, can experience liberation of a different kind is part of the underlying tension in every scene. I loved the way that seemingly small details of expression and action initiate change in the heightened confines of the mansion, a microcosm of the wider world.  Dolly is a minor character, a little girl, perhaps 5 years old and unable to speak until she initiates an act of kindness that enables the dynamic of predator and prey dominance to shift. Tellingly the dogs have been trained and rewarded by humans for brutally attacking anyone in a striped uniform. Discarding the uniform, the process of scratching away at serial numbered tattoos is a painful process of bloodletting that is significantly as real as it is symbolic. The introduction of red to what is predominantly a cool, blue palette, alludes to Red Riding Hood, a colour worn by the leader of the group, Hanke, who finds a red dress in a suitcase of belongings and becomes momentarily what she might have been without the Holocaust, simply an adolescent girl growing up. Her civilizing influence on the group, giving structure to shattered lives (including her own) and her ultimate choice to act with mercy implies redemption and deliverance from a life of mere endurance. It’s a path through the forest towards light that left me feeling hopeful- not just for the fate of Hanke and her band, but for a country and film industry that consistently delivers increasingly sophisticated confrontations with its own past. Acknowledgement of history and atrocity is necessary for a future beyond mere survival, or one in which history simply repeats itself. Werewolf is a beautiful example of cinematically out-creating destruction.

In an interview for CineEuropa (05/12/18), director Adrian Panek discusses the cultural and human resonance of the film:

‘I think that the figure of the werewolf, half-human, half-animal, is contemporary here. We as humans used to think that we were civilised and cultured, or that we had a divine origin that made us stand out from the rest of nature. After World War II and the Holocaust – the mass slaughter of one group of people by another, in the name of the battle of the species – we altered that perspective completely. Now we’re seeing that beastly, biological element of humans more and more; we perceive ourselves as animals with overgrown brains, and it’s a complete change of paradigm. Horror has always been part of our culture, but now it’s on a different scale.’

To his credit Panek deals in realism and never succumbs to making the inferred story of the title supernatural. He reminds us that Horror is, above all else, a human invention. If there is a fantastical element, it is the miracle of human survival in the face of desecration. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Dominik Danilczyk and edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski, who worked on Pawel Pawlikowski’ Ida and Cold War, Werewolf mirrors the truth in fairy tales, as life affirming self-reflexivity, rooted in all cultures. I hope that many more audiences will have the opportunity to see this film, experience its multi-layered tensions and essential light.

The Man Who Surprised Everyone directed by Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov.

Another highlight of GFF19 was The Man Who Surprised Everyone / Chelovek kotoryy udivil vsekh by writer /directors Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. Although it is a film about human intolerance and cruelty, it is also a story of how folklore can be an agent of healing. Tales can mask and reveal truths, especially in countries where visual traditions evolve in response to institutionalised persecution based on politics, gender, race or sexuality. As a contemporary adaptation of a Russian Folk tale, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is an important film that confronts hateful attitudes towards gender identity.

Egor, played with quiet dignity and gravitas by Yevgeny Tsyganov, is a forest guard who learns he is dying from cancer. Prompted by a local healer, he attempts to cheat death by assuming female identity, setting off a chain of events that reveal the depth of prejudice in his community. Whilst the sheer audacity, brutality and unquestioning right to judgement by his persecutors enraged me, the inescapable truth here is attainment of a state of being which shrinks the symbolic tumour, carried inside the individual in denial of who they truly are. Engagement with the fable is life, an alternative to a living death for the central character. Powerful and moving, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is a miracle of a film when one considers its origin. The director’s statement at the Venice Biennale described the film as “a parable about the resistance of the ordinary Russian man to death, which he is trying to deceive. The film is based on the personal memories of the director Natasha Merkulova, her Siberian childhood, the village in which she grew up, the people who surrounded her, the legends that were told in those places.” I think the real beauty and brilliance of this film lies in the story as a Russian doll.

Float Like a Butterfly directed by Carmel Winters.

Set in a travelling community in Ireland during the 1970’s, writer / director Carmel Winters Float Like a Butterfly is the uplifting story of a young woman finding her place in the world and defying expectations, within and outside her community. Hazel Doupe’s luminous leading performance as Frances immediately has the audience on side, rooting for a character with the odds stacked against her. The fighting spirit of the film is also collective, a meditation on prejudice and belonging that fortunately isn’t reduced to black and white morality. Though Frances identifies strongly with Muhammad Ali’s fight for his people, this is also a story about her fight for dignity and respect as a woman-ultimately to be called “the greatest” by her father. The relationships between Frances and her father, brother and extended family present comfort and conflict. Poverty, lack of access to education, the pressure to marry young, have children and serve a husband, compound the ever-present threat of misogyny. Coupled with unrelenting racial persecution from the outside world, Frances’s story could have been tragic, but it isn’t because of who she is- sensitively framed by Winters. Traditional folk music has a significant role to play in the richness of this film and in that respect, I find it interesting that it is set in the past. The vintage palette of passionate crimson and steely eyed blue defines the central character and the dynamics of her predicament. To conform to belong, against one’s own nature is to lose the fight completely. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and Best Film Audience Award at Cork International Film Festival, I’m sure this film will win hearts wherever it screens and perhaps present an alternative view of travelling life to a wider audience.

Complicity directed by Kei Chikaura.

Human relationships and the need to belong is also the subject of Complicity, a rare Japan-China co-production and feature debut from writer / director Kei Chikaura. Like the work of Ozu and Koreeda, Complicity is a beautiful, quietly observed portrait of everyday urban life addressing familial relationships and what we need to grow as individuals. It is also an important film for crossing borders, presenting a human face to economic migration with intelligence and compassion. Unable to find work in China, Chen Liang (Lu Yulai) buys a fake identity and moves to Japan, taking an offer of employment intended for someone else. Apprenticed to an elderly soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji) he slowly becomes part of the household, gaining skills and confidence. The relationship between master and apprentice gives the young man the structure, craft and emotional support to flourish in ways that would be impossible at home. Although built on desperation and deception, the connection is real and positively life changing. I love the way Complicity shines a light on the need for safe harbours in the form of human beings, willing to give others the chance and agency to make their own way in the world. If ever there was a need for such a humane statement on screen, it is now.

Her Smell directed by Alex Ross Perry.

In contrast, director Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell from the GFF19 Sound and Vision strand hits the audience head on with the unrelenting, narcissistic chaos of addiction. Ultimately, it’s a very sobering film about the cult of personality / celebrity that turns stratospheric talent into an inevitable downward spiral. Elizabeth Moss inhabits the role of Grunge star Becky Something so completely that there’s really no option as a viewer than to go with it. There are times when like her fellow band members, the audience is driven to the edge and you really want to get off the tour bus, but that’s precisely the point. Being spun in Becky’s orbit may be an excruciating, all-consuming vortex, but that is the nature of addiction and the insecurity that feeds it. Fortunately, due to Moss’s riveting performance and the examination of female identity/creativity, it is also an interesting ride. When the film does finally shift gear away from full throttle, the cost and repercussions of this life in the spotlight are revealed and like Becky, we have to grapple with what’s left. Effective use of hand-held camera follows her twists and turns of paranoia, delusion and heartfelt brilliance, so that as much as we may dislike the character’s ego and excess, we are compelled to stay with her to the end. Agyness Deyn and Eric Stolz ably support what is essentially a star turn for Moss/ Becky in unflinching closeup. Grunge music culture of the 1990’s wore a particular brand of nihilism, rock and roll excess and heroin chic, almost as a badge of honour. Tragic star personas aside, the raw honesty and vulnerability of Nirvana’s anthem Smells like Teen Spirit or Alice in Chains’ Down in a Hole is undeniable. The channelling of energy depicted in this film is certainly dark, however, it’s also an essential aspect of femininity that’s being let loose here, something that is potentially destructive, but equally pure in terms of expression. It’s not desirable or pretty to look at- but I can think of very few films which allow the same latitude to female protagonists and for that reason it was a dark highlight of GFF19.  

Prophecy directed by Charlie Paul.

Another interesting meditation on destruction and creativity is Charlie Paul’s documentary Prophecy, part of the Local Heroes strand of the festival, focussing on well-known Glasgow figurative artist Peter Howson. As an insight into Howson’s process it’s a fascinating watch, a journey into the anatomy of a painting from blank canvas to sale, shaped by the artist’s apocalyptic vision. Whether you ‘experience the creation of a Masterpiece’ as the trailer claims is debateable. Whilst I agree with Howson that ‘the veil of civilization is very thin’, I’ve always felt that his work succumbs to the testosterone fuelled, power hungry chaos he’s raging against. This film did nothing to convince me otherwise, however I found the excavation of mark and composition emerging out of the physical/metaphorical ground compelling. The artist’s commentary, decision-making process and choice of soundtrack are revealing, not just of an individual life and vision, but how creativity is perceived. The use of classical music adds gravitas to Howson’s art- like his glazing technique adding depth, but it’s slathered on too thickly- pushing emotional buttons of scale and awe. Music cues response to creative male genius suffering a little too often, rather than allowing the work to speak, stand or fall on its own.

The end of film statement that Howson has sold over 1000 paintings valued at $60 million, most in the hands of private collectors and therefore unlikely to be seen by the public seemed like a curious justification for the production. The real justification for the Howson cause is technique and conviction, he is who he is on canvas, whether you like his paintings or not. His distortion of the human figure, evolving from early experiences of Comic book Horror, Old Masters like El Greco and Griffiths’ Silent Film depiction of Christ, engages with a potent combination of fear and beauty, as he sees it. The atmosphere and intensity of the Prophecy painting is undeniable, as is Howson’s belief that he has an ‘important role to play’ in ‘warning people’ about human decay and depravity. Although there are elements of redemption and innocence, such as his daughter Lucie, a figure in many of his paintings, ‘pointing the way’, I’m not convinced that enlightenment or illumination are to be found in this work. In the end, unrelenting brutality and macho posturing comes to celebrate the very thing he’s protesting about. His Croatian and Muslim painting is a prime example. The strength of this documentary perhaps lies in portraiture, the flawed perfectionism that simply renders the artist human and makes this is an accessible documentary. There are many unsettling elements in Howson’s work, intentional and otherwise. I found the addition of the American and Isis flags in his focus work, described by the artist as intentionally controversial, rather an empty play towards the painting’s final destination, undermining the integrity of his process and biblical-style mission to educate.  US market receptivity and celebrity collectors are part of the framing of Howson’s work and its perceived value, however it’s the psychological elements in play as the artist completes the painting that are the most interesting aspect of the film.

This Magnificent Cake directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles.

This Magnificent Cake by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles was an innovative delight, screened with their wonderful short Oh Willy…  as part of the GFF19 Belgian Cinema: Both Sides Now strand. A fabulous dose of stop motion Surrealism and post-colonial critique, This Magnificent Cake is a triumph of ingenuity and imagination in five parts, using fibres, textiles and skilful sound editing to create a truly unique vision. The obtusely linked tales feature a dreaming king, a pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman, an expedition porter, an army deserter and an unfortunate clarinettist. Worthy prize winners at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (2018), Clermont-Ferrand International Short film Festival (2019) and Toronto International Film Festival (2018), Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles are distinctive talents in the field of animation, delivering so much more than amusing entertainment.  Their poignantly woven tales and absurd comedy examine history and human connection in ways that are strikingly fresh, crafted with exceptional skill and originality.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid directed by George Roy Hill.

The annual GFF retrospective strand is a champion of exposure to the back catalogue and accessible cinema, qualities often missing at other festivals. The GFF tradition of free morning films continued this year with the 1969: The End of Innocence Retrospective including screenings ofMidnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Medium Cool, Alice’s Restaurant, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Sweet Charity and The Wild Bunch. Festival co-director Allan Hunter’s introductions always add value, whether the film is familiar or previously undiscovered. Held in the Deco surroundings of GFT1, the thematic focus, added context and open, welcoming atmosphere of these screenings are one of GFF’s unique pleasures. Seeing Shirley MacLaine in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity for the first time and revisiting the legendary partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were thoroughly enjoyable, especially with Hunter’s lead-in commentary, exposing different layers in film-making, history and performance.

GFF19 has been a great cinematic start to the year, showcasing the many ways that filmmakers are using their craft to make us see, think and feel differently about the world around us and our place within it. Film Festivals and cinema in general has a significant role to play in making these imaginative shifts of perception visible, initiating self-reflection and positive change. The films that affected me most this year weren’t holding placards, they simply told their stories with conscience, beauty, artistry and hope. Promoted as ‘the perfect movie mix’ GFF is all that and more, intimately connected to the energy of the city, its people and the rest of the world, .https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival