Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

One of the highlights of the annual festival calendar is visiting Glasgow each February. GFF programming is always stimulating with imaginative twists in presentation in different venues across the city. The post screening Q&A’s are plentiful, the audiences are demonstrably enthusiastic and the combination of inspired retrospective screenings with the latest releases from around the world is second to none. This year there was a lot to savour including exciting new work by emerging directors, a wonderful showcase strand of Canadian Cinema and a delightfully Noirish focus on Dangerous Dames. I’m still thinking about many of the films I’ve watched or have rediscovered over the last week including Elle, Paradise, Zoology, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hounds of Love, Angry Anuk, Werewolf, Illegitimate, The Demons, The Levelling, A Quiet Passion, Berlin Syndrome, Lady Macbeth, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gun Crazy, Secretary and Little Annie Rooney. The immersive experience of Film, place and people that is uniquely GFF is always invigorating and the perfect interior winter escape.

Winner of the GFF17 Audience Award Lipstick Under My Burkha had two sell-out screenings in Glasgow, ironically in the same week that the film was banned in India. Unjustifiably it has not been granted a certificate in writer/ director Alankrita Shrivastava’s home country on the grounds that it is too “lady orientated”. What’s shocking isn’t actually the content of the film which follows the lives, loves and desires of four women in Bhopal, India, but the regressive attitudes towards equality exposed by this blatant act of censorship. Filmmakers have a duty to address such basic issues as freedom of expression and human rights through their work, enabling voices that have been previously denied, suppressed or silenced to be heard. That this is perceived as a threat by those who benefit from maintaining patriarchal power under banner of tradition, righteousness or religious doctrine isn’t surprising but deeply regrettable. The main complaint against the film appears to be that women are doing “unspeakable” things in the film- like making essential life choices; seeking education, jobs outside the home, love outside of arranged marriage, the right to use contraception and to have satisfying sex lives.  As Shrivastava suggests; “our films and governing bodies tell us that women can be object of desires but can’t have desires of their own. That needs to change.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha brings into focus the increasing conflict between traditions of power and conformity vs accelerated economic development, media consumption and changing attitudes in a digital age. Globalisation and increased access to information technology promote the idea of freedom of choice and expression for all, however these rapid advances in communication don’t necessarily translate to political or social reform on the ground. Having to live an emotionally, intellectually or sexually secret life actively denies those freedoms. All four characters face consequences of judgement, ostracism, punishment and exile from their family / community by daring to dream, love or in refusing to accept the limiting role imposed on them. In the end as the characters are brought together, the opportunity of potentially supporting each other through shared experience brings hope and validation. This is something that festival audiences should never take for granted while there are still places in the world where assembling to watch a film or the act of screening it are a crime. Whether it is denial of film certification, representation of women on screen or opportunities working behind the camera, there isn’t a national film industry on the planet that could claim gender equality in 2017, which is why alternative independent film production is so vital in terms of advocacy. These aren’t just “lady orientated” stories but human ones that have a right to be heard.  An appeal has been lodged against the ban in India and hopefully success on the international festival circuit will bring many more people to this film, raising awareness, ensuring its wider distribution and promoting positive change where it is most needed.

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

Transformation of a different kind is the subject of writer/ director Ivan I Tverdovsky’s  Zoology, a wonderfully original take on the universal theme of the outsider. The story centres on a middle aged woman Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) living with her devoutly religious mother in a Russian seaside town. It’s an unrelentingly bleak and confined existence. Natasha is a lonely, isolated figure, constantly mocked and bullied by colleagues at the zoo where she works. The only warmth in her life is her own compassion in caring for her mother and her interactions feeding and petting the animals at the zoo. Then she grows a tail and starts living! She experiences the liberation of being herself for the first time, attracting the loving attention of a young doctor, together with the prejudice, superstition and intolerance of her community. Whilst the story might sound bizarre it is very much a modern fable tempered by Pavlenkova‘s subtle and completely engaging central performance. The tail becomes whatever the audience projects onto it and feels pertinently real in the questions it raises about personal and political freedom in Putin’s Russia and beyond. It’s a contemporary fairy tale with heart, soul, irrepressible joy and deep sadness at its core, where difference is celebrated but ultimately suppressed. We are reminded that conformity and belonging to an established order often trumps pursuit of personal happiness. Natasha’s acceptance by her young lover is rendered as emotionally void as her mother’s rejection because the focus is on her difference rather than her whole self. Moments of intimacy as the character begins to open up to her feelings and to those around her are particularly moving, but there is also a lot of humour making the film both hugely enjoyable and critically illuminating. Zoology is a strikingly unconventional film, focusing on a middle aged female character rarely permitted to take centre stage in mainstream cinema, but I love it most for the universally radical human value of empathy at its heart.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

Following the screening of his latest work A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Nineteenth Century American poet Emily Dickinson, a Q&A with director Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) also provided a focus on the outsider and the empathic role of the director. A witty, articulate, sensitive and intensely passionate interviewee, Davies talked about the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and personality in his “most autobiographical film” to date. He described the way that she “guarded her soul” with ruthless integrity, but was also subject to the same creative ambitions, longing and desire for recognition that all artists crave. Discovering Dickinson’s poetry as a young man through readings by Claire Bloom on television, Davies immediately went out and bought a book of her works. What he found within her poetry was a spiritual quest parallel to the lapsed Catholic in him, each trying to answer the question of “What do you do if you’ve got a soul and there’s no God?” What is inspirational in Davies’ creative approach is his humane spirit in the face of adversity; “Actors open their hearts to you and you must do the same” as a director. “You have to be open, then wonderful things happen”. His latest film is testament to the enduring power of imagination and the creativity that saves us. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, even within the confines of four walls “we have to have a rich inner life or the soul dies.”

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

The death of the soul is one way of describing the murderous couple at the centre of Australian Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love, the most psychologically disturbing film to come out of Australia since Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998). Developed, filmed, produced and set in Perth, Western Australia, the blinding heat and light of Christmas 1987 fuels the oppressive atmosphere of a film which explodes the myth of suburban safety. Based on real crimes such as the infamous David and Catherine Birnie case, there is an unnerving familiarity of place and events in living memory entwined with the film’s fiction, together with a uniquely Australian masculine undercurrent of potential violence. Young’s exploration of women who kill as co-dependent partners of men able to emotionally control them is distilled in the character of Evelyn. Emma Booth delivers a performance of astonishing range, convincing cunning and innate vulnerability, reminiscent of a young Judy Davis. She is joined by Stephen Cummings who is absolutely chilling as her manipulative, predatory and sadistic boyfriend John. We learn that at the age of 13 Evelyn was simultaneously recruited and “saved” from a life of familial abuse by John for the sole purpose of satisfying his own twisted desire for control, sexual violence and murder. Physically slight and frighteningly unassuming to the outside world, we also see in a scene with local drug dealers demanding payment how emasculated he is, later distilled into fury. Evelyn’s ability to use identification with their female victims to control them is equally horrific in its mastered execution. Evelyn’s children have been removed from her care and the nature of the couple’s co-dependency is intensely driven with John’s constant promise of their return to her. Shaped by abuse, rejection and self-loathing Evelyn’s need to be loved is so strong and has become so powerfully deformed that the cost is irrelevant, whilst  John needs her to lure trusting teenage girls into their car in order to abduct, torture and kill them for his pleasure. When they kidnap schoolgirl Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party she must turn her captors against each other if she’s to have any chance of escape.

Use of slow motion, cruising through suburbia past scenes of every day family life, places the audience very uncomfortably inside the killer’s car looking for victims, playing on our deepest urban fears of random violence from strangers coupled with the hard truth of premeditated calculation. The framing of scenes through doors and barred windows creates an atmosphere of increasing tension which becomes concentrated even further in the confined, claustrophobic interior spaces of the couple’s house. Sound is the perfect tool to communicate terror over and above the visual depiction of brutal acts or gore. It’s the primal sense we fall back on in the dark, hard wired for survival and here it is used with brilliance and restraint to suggest the escalation of violence and the warped nature of the killers’ relationship. Songs of love and Christmas celebration are juxtaposed with opposing scenes of suggested violence and foreboding. Young’s film may be low budget but this is not a cheap slasher flick as it attempts to unravel and understand the motivations of its disturbing central characters, demonstrating great promise in terms of the director’s evolving skill. What Young deliberately chooses not to show the audience is pivotal in how this film communicates directly, viscerally and psychologically with the audience. Although the subject is harrowing and the suspended tension in some scenes is almost unbearable, I’m sure that it will be continue its momentum on the festival circuit, having already won Best Actress for Emma Booth and Best Director at the Brussels International Film Festival and the Fedora Award at the Venice Film Festival for best actress in a debut film for Ashleigh Cummings.

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

Another tough drama worthy of attention followed by a fascinating Q&A with writer/ director Ashley McKenzie was her debut feature Werewolf, part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand of the festival.  Her story of Blaise and Vanessa, two homeless junkies still in their early twenties on a methadone recovery programme will have resonance for many rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Crewed and cast locally with all non-actors bar one, McKenzie’s film highlights the lives of young people falling through the cracks, failings in government policy and the Canadian Health and Social Care system. She also addresses the void of displacement and despair experienced by so many people living with addictions, bound to each other in toxic relationships or fatally addicted to the methadone cure. The style of framing, pushing characters to the edge of the composition, amplifying their feelings of being trapped with intimate close ups or just showing their mouths speaking because that is all the person behind the counter is seeing captures their predicament beautifully. There is also the poetics of the everyday in play with improvised scenes evolving naturally, characters slotted into working shifts and the creation of spontaneous moments of reflection, like the image of the Oreo grinder in the ice-cream shop and its endless cycle of halted movement. Mckenzie commented on the Drama of addiction portrayed in films such as Trainspotting as something she wanted to avoid in terms of the mundane, deadening reality of the methadone cycle where there is a lot of waiting involved; at the pharmacist, the clinic or social security office, moving from house to house doing odd jobs to scrape together hand to mouth cash, waiting for the opportunity to leave for a better life that never comes. Although addiction comes in many forms and touches many lives in rural areas it is a subject which is not openly discussed both in Scotland and in Canada.  Werewolf is an important first step in acknowledging that struggle in many communities, asking why dependency exists and what the nature of “the void” triggering it actually is. The film doesn’t provide answers but is a very compassionate attempt to understand, opening up a dialogue based on trust and familiarity with the local community. My only criticism would be that we don’t learn the backstory of the two protagonists and what has lead them to this point in their lives. This is something which begs further exploration as projecting the substance of this local problem has global implications and also feels like the next logical step up for this promising young director.

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

Another talented director showcased as part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand was Philippe Lesage. His impressively composed examination of childhood fears real and imagined in The Demons/ Les Demons presented a different slant on a “coming of age” drama. Set in suburban Montreal the story centres on Felix, a sensitive ten year old boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) grappling with friendship, guilt, love, parental conflict and the insecurities of growing up. Lesage captures beautifully the state of childhood, separate from the adult world where the smallest detail or suggestion becomes magnified, taking on its own reality. It is a pre- internet world where information and reassurance comes from overhearing adult whispers and from peers or siblings. In spite of dangerous turns of the plot in many ways Lesage’s vision of childhood through the eyes of his central protagonist is a resoundingly gentle one, founded on innocence and the doubts we all experience in the process of maturing. The comforting conclusion of the film is that all will be well. We feel that Felix has escaped childhood relatively unscathed with the support of his elder brother and sister and the image of his parents together by the lake waving to him like a living remembrance also affirms this. Clearly the experience is autobiographically close to the director which is part of the film’s authenticity and winning sentiment. It is refreshing to watch a film that quietly explores its subject in such a measured way. Even though there is a seriously deadly threat within Felix’s neighbourhood, it does not become part of his individual story nor is it introduced for tear inducing dramatic effect. These events punctuate Felix’s world but his awareness is thankfully still that of a child sitting in the sun smiling in the final frame, an image that is reassuringly ordinary and stylistically poised.

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk exposes the damaging impact of the global anti-sealing movement on Inuit communities. Focusing on the diminishing economy and threatened way of life in director’s homeland on Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Territory Nunavut on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is a film about ancient knowledge, resilience and survival. Angry Inuk  is an important film on many levels, a positive statement about ways of being in the landscape that are traditional, sustainable and respectful, lessons that must be learned if human beings are going to survive on this planet into the next century. With the Arctic region rapidly becoming the latest international battleground for natural resources (ironically opened up by global warming fuelled by unsustainable industry, mass consumption and decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions) the understanding of indigenous peoples on how to sustain life and thrive in challenging conditions is of paramount urgency and global significance. This is a revealing, articulate and insightful film which offers a different type of dialogue between indigenous people, environmental and animal rights groups to address the overarching threats to all life on our planet. The Inuit way of resolving conflict, expressed face to face, de-escalated through song and resolved in laughter has something to teach us all.

Dependence on seal meat and skins to simply maintain communities living in some of the harshest conditions on earth, in the face of climate change, economic uncertainty and widespread poverty is not a luxury trade. The quiet anger of a people decimated by decision making outside their territory without dialogue or consultation demands a new kind of activism to challenge misinformation and the multimillion dollar anti sealing campaigns endorsed by celebrities. It is heartening that Angry Inuk is succeeding in reaching audiences, winning the People’s Choice Award from Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival in Toronto. The screening at GFF generated a lot of discussion afterwards and it was clear from audience comments that the film was actively changing perceptions. Angry Inuk provides evidence of a different way for human beings to exist in relation to the environment whilst also being part of a global economy and providing much needed leadership. What emerges is the inspiring and enduring strength, dignity and pride of the Inuit people, together with possible solutions for sustainable hunting, management of natural resources and environmental conservation that the world and its leaders simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

The 1925 Silent Film Little Annie Rooney starring the luminous Mary Pickford was an unexpected delight in the True North Canadian Cinema strand and one of the great joys of this year’s festival.  It is easy to see why Pickford was one of the most internationally renowned and best loved stars of her day. As tomboy Little Annie Rooney, Pickford’s superb comic timing, pure pathos and innate sensitivity is conveyed in every thought, gesture and expression on screen. As a pioneer of the Motion Picture industry she understood the power of film as an empathic medium, not just in her artistry as an actor but in her understanding of film as a screenwriter, producer, director and co-founder of United Artists with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. With all the debate about the lack of female representation in mainstream film both behind and in front of the camera, Pickford is an inspirational figure and a commanding presence in the history of Film in spite of the demure label of “America’s Sweetheart”. Her intelligence plays out on screen in scenes which take the audience on a journey from laughter to loss and uplifting celebration. Racial stereotyping aside, Little Annie Rooney’s heartfelt innocence and earnest sincerity may belong to an earlier and less cynical age, but it is no less relevant in terms of sentiment, Craft and cinematic storytelling. Representation of Silent Film at contemporary film festivals should never be absent or underestimated. The origins of Film and why we need it emerges in the collective memory of shadow play, illumination and entertainment. If we strip back the medium it is at base about emotional connection and audience investment in what is depicted on screen. When Annie receives news of her Father’s shooting we run the gamut of complex emotions from the child hiding under the table to adult realisation of loss and despair. It’s a deeply affecting and satisfyingly layered scene, testament to how much the audience has invested in the central characters, their relationship to each other and how we project ourselves into the frame. There’s nothing primitive about the mode of expression, nor can it be dismissed as “vintage fun” although it is that too in terms of the whole enjoyment factor.  Watching Silent Film always revives me and after watching Little Annie Rooney I think I understand why.  As a critic I come to Art to be stimulated, challenged and to understand the Craft behind it, but on a more basic level I come to it in order to feel and connect with something uniquely, perceptively human and as part of an audience I know I’m not alone. As many actors and filmmakers have suggested at recent awards ceremonies we need empathic cinema now more than ever. In that respect the Silent Era is a wellspring and I hope that the Mary Pickford Foundation www.marypickford.org will continue to make more of her extraordinary work accessible to future GFF and other festival audiences. There is so much inspiration to be found in her personal story and in what she so skilfully communicates on screen.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

One of the most confrontational and controversial films of the festival in its depiction of an exceptionally strong and equally unpredictable woman is Paul Verhoeven’s latest work Elle.  I must confess that Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man, Showgirls, Black Book) isn’t on my list of favourite directors! In seeing Elle I was very much putting my faith in lead actor Isabelle Huppert who clearly doesn’t suffer fools in real life and is a formidable presence even in her most subtle performances. The words “fierce” and “fearless” are often used to describe both her personality and on screen potential. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of playing the role of Michele in this film; the character is very much a vehicle for Huppert’s undeniable mastery of her Craft. Here she plays a thoroughly uncompromising, wilfully intelligent and beguiling woman, the head of a successful gaming company living in Paris. As a creative meeting makes clear it’s an industry and market she excels in, comfortably directing whatever content is necessary for maximum audience consumption. This typically male creative/ fantasy space is an interesting setting for a female character who by the sheer force of her personality and obvious skill commands respect, although not without resentment from younger male colleagues. She’s supremely confident in body and mind, unapologetically goes after what she wants, including having what she defines as a meaningless affair with her best friend’s husband and pursuing a neighbour’s husband, without any question of loyalty being part of the scene.

When she is raped in her home by a masked assailant who then stalks her, Michele’s response is to pursue him although not for revenge as we might expect. It is an incredibly rare and complex role in which the female protagonist behaves against type, refusing outright to become a victim of what has happened to her. Given the subject matter it’s a very fine line to walk and the reactions from male and female audience members around me were quite fascinating in that respect. I have no doubt that the film will create controversy, but I hope that on its wider release it will serve a more essential function as fuel for debate on what Femininity means, who our Female role models actually are on screen, the casting of women in particular roles and how in denial or acceptance we cast ourselves as well. The problem here is that neither the character or her backstory are in any way ordinary and this places a certain distance between the main character and the audience. As we learn Michele’s extreme history of childhood trauma the inference is that her strength is ironically borne of psychological damage which is a weakness the Drama demands. So when she starts to behave in an unorthodox way towards her attacker, actively seeking him out, confronting and stopping him in his tracks at one point, but also becoming a participant in his lived fantasy, she’s arguably exerting control, but only as part of a very highly developed coping strategy. Part of what makes Michele tick is the art of detachment, the ability not to make herself vulnerable or to surrender her powers of self-preservation to anyone. In this way she’s able to turn the tables on her attacker almost treating him like a case study, but there’s a disarming understanding between them, identified by his partner who observes that Michele fulfils a role that she cannot. Michele declares both herself and her attacker as “diseased” which to some extent taints her strength, resilience and truth as a character.

I’ve been debating the film’s many conflicted ambiguities in my head ever since and Bravo to Huppert because no other actress could manage believability and conviction within the same story line. This is a film that raises more questions than it answers and this is largely due to Huppert’s totally invested performance. Like all great artist/ collaborators I think she lifts Verhoeven’s game considerably and it didn’t surprise me to read a recent interview with the director in which he stated that this production was so far outside his comfort zone it generated real fear in him, which creatively speaking is a good thing. Elle is a psycho-sexual thriller set distinctly outside the Hollywood vein and surprisingly there is a lot of genuine humour in the film. Family scenes are hilarious and beautifully comedic, particularly those between Michele, her Mother, her son Vincent and their respective manipulative, gold digging partners. Michele delivers blunt summations of what the audience is thinking and so the truth like castor oil is down the hatch whilst our mouths are still open from laughing. Huppert’s naturally wry comedic turns are as sharp as her handling of the film’s most dramatic scenes and this brings welcome relief in a film dealing with very dark and loaded subject matter.    Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle (or She) is complicated, provocative, confrontational, iconoclastic and impossible to definitively classify- arguably all the things a satisfying work of Art should be. So why does it make me uneasy? Perhaps because one woman however feistily played by Isabelle Huppert still doesn’t feel like enough!

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

Another film etched into my mind is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and a well-deserved accolade. Konchalovsky delivers a beautifully crafted, intensely affecting and painfully relevant human response to the Holocaust. Sadly the misappropriated extremist ideal of building a paradise on earth is still creating Horrors around the globe and the director’s strength here is in choosing to bring the audience intimately face to face with three different characters that push the boundaries of resistance, acceptance and morality.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is a seemingly innocuous middle aged family man who we learn is an official with the French police and a Nazi collaborator responsible for the torture and deportation of prisoners to concentration camps. He is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” personified, a figure of pitiable mediocrity, part of the complicit Vichy administration, betraying fellow citizens for personal gain and carrying out his duties without conscience or ever getting his own hands dirty. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is a former Russian aristocrat accused of being part of the Resistance and helping to hide Jewish children, threatened with “interrogation” leading to inevitable confession and doing whatever she can moment by moment to survive. Helmut (Christian Clauss) is a well-educated, cultured and suitably Ayran nobleman selected by Himmler to audit the death camps. Prior to the war Helmut and Olga moved in the same privileged circles, dancing on the edge of an abyss in pristine, sunlit flooded oblivion. Whatever truths or lies each character has constructed in order to deal with the hell they find themselves in are laid bare in a way that resists simplistic readings of good or evil. Everyone is inescapably haunted by these events, even if a veil of delusion is drawn across their faces. The film brings the audience face to face with just how easy it is to reduce human beings to animals or machines in the service of a higher cause. For good or ill redemption and righteousness rest upon belief.

Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) immersed the audience as never before in the mode of survival of its main character, revealing the unhinged chaos of lives being systematically destroyed by Nazism. The emotional immersion of Paradise operates in a different way, in the confessional delivered to camera testimonials and memories of three characters whose lives are entwined by war and genocide. This quality of placing the audience in the position of counsellor, judge and witness is heightened by the use of film stock which provides seemingly time based edits. Film cuts out or dissolves into light, blurring the line between archive, documentary and fiction. Cleverly using a 4:3 ratio, 35mm and 16mm home movie type film stock Paradise recreates 1940’s historical authenticity. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one in terms of how the lives of the characters are experienced by the audience. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography is absolutely exquisite, fully exploiting the beauty and clarity of Black and White, weighing the soul of every frame, perfectly aligned with the film’s subject matter and mode of storytelling through disclosure. He uses the medium of photography as expanded light, creating breath taking compositions, from vivid dreams, aspirations and remembrances to the soiled sweat, filth and smoke of the concentration camp which invades every pore of your skin and stops your breath. The aesthetic is superbly poised on a knife edge, like a scene in Himmler’s office lit to perfection. It’s the blacker than black inner sanctum of the Reich with its Neo Classical sculpture consummately staged and illuminated. This atmosphere also links to the sound design. As Himmler welcomes Helmut to the SS we feel what the character feels, there’s a sickening presence in the room disguised as honourable authority. Helmut excuses himself and goes to the luxuriously appointed and spotlessly clean bathroom to vomit and hears through the ventilation system tortured voices floors below more animal than human. Although he doesn’t consciously recognise it having been blinded by Nazi doctrine, his gut response being in Himmler’s presence and to the SS brotherhood ring on his finger betrays his humanity in that moment. This is unlike any other cinematic treatment of the Holocaust I’ve seen, bringing history vividly and mindfully into the present.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past/ AKA Build My Gallows High.

One of the features of GFF I most enjoy most is the regular series of themed free morning screenings held in GFT1. This year’s focus on Dangerous Dames with a welcome dose of 1940’s Film Noir was outstanding and thoroughly enjoyed judging by the audience applause. Given my love of films from this particular era and even though I had seen them many times before, I timed my visit to include screenings of Out of the Past (1947) directed by the incomparable Jacques Tourneur starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Gun Crazy (1950) starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, looking forward to the added bonus of GFF Co-Director Alan Hunter’s magnificent introductions. How we think of the Femme Fatale and the actresses who played them, doubly framed by the studio system, is a whole other blogpost! It isn’t just the quality of retrospective films in this strand I keep coming back for. There is really nothing better that watching Vintage films with a packed house embraced by the equally vintage elliptical curvature of Glasgow Film Theatre or “The Cosmo” which opened in 1939. Waiting in line to go in or immersed in the comforting pre-screening half-light I often hear people’s reminiscences of the cinema emerging out of the chattering hum. Hearing how they met friends there- some still with them others passed away, how they courted their spouse, discovered a particular film, fell in love with a mesmerising star or simply escaped to a different reality.  For me the magic isn’t just in the story on screen but within the walls of the cinema, in all of the lives, hopes and dreams that have passed through it. It is always a privilege to be there on a weekday morning captivated by the action, romance, comedy and tragedy of what we all are. It’s the kind of connective experience that can’t be replicated on any technological device because people and place are such an integral part of the live cinema experience.  In that respect Glasgow offers something very special which is why I keep returning year upon year.

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival

14th Inverness Film Festival

Eden Court, 9- 13 November.

Thhana Lazović in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Thhana Lazović in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

“Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Every time I attend a film festival non film geek friends and colleagues look baffled when I tell them that I’m about to spend consecutive days and nights sitting in the dark watching films back to back, then an equal amount of time mentally unpacking them. To a lot of people films are just escapist entertainment and they certainly can be, but what I love most about film festivals- and IFF in particular, is that they expand my mind and understanding of what an amazing medium Film can be. In the hands of the best filmmakers, past and present, seeing is a multi-dimensional, active experience rather than a passive one and the same is true of the best curation. In imaginative terms we weave our own stories into what we see on screen and the shared theatrical experience of cinema-going is also part of that creative process of identification and discovery.

Napoleon (1927) Directed by Abel Gance.

Napoleon (1927) Directed by Abel Gance.

In the words of IFF Festival Director Paul MacDonald-Taylor; “One of the most magical aspects of cinema is that it opens up a window onto the world. It shows you sights and people that you might otherwise never get the chance to experience.” This year’s IFF was full of such magic, in a way that feels very responsive to the times we’re living in; expanding the world view rather than shrinking it. In exposing audiences to lives, cultures and places, unseen or unknown, independent cinema has a very significant role to play on the global stage. While debate in the industry rages about diversity, race and the under-representation of women in film, look no further than independent films and this year’s IFF programme for a lived experience of equality without the need for branding. Held over 4 days, as opposed to 10+ at larger red carpeted festivals, here there’s no room for mediocre padding. It’s about cherry picking the best films available, irrespective of where they’ve come from or who has made them. This year’s festival presented over 50 films including 6 shorts showcases, 26 Scottish and 3 UK premieres, with a thematic focus on The Roof of the World and timely celebration of women behind the camera. The presence of pioneering archival content, exciting debuts from emerging directors, outstanding performances and provocative subject matter made this a super stimulating festival and an encouraging year for women in film. There were many highlights including The High Sun, After the Storm, Paths of the Soul, The Handmaiden, United States of Love , The Eagle Huntress and Kevin Brownlow’s magnificent five and a half hour digital restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 Silent masterpiece Napoleon to name just a few. (This might be a good time to go make yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable!)

Valentina Herszage in Kill Me Please /Mate-Me Por Favor directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira.

Valentina Herszage in Kill Me Please /Mate-Me Por Favor directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira.

IFF has a fine tradition of introducing audiences to first feature debuts by emerging directors and also providing subversive alternatives to predictably crowd pleasing  opening night fare. Set in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut feature Kill Me Please/ Mate-Me Por Favor is driven by teenage curiosity, fantasy and a spirit of experimentation; grappling with self, sex and death. The story centres on Bia (Valentina Herszage), a 15 year old girl and her friends over a turbulent summer. A succession of young women have been found murdered and dumped in nearby waste ground. It’s a world of dark vulnerabilities and soulless apartment blocks in which adults are conspicuously absent. Bia and her elder brother Joao, are fending for themselves while their mother pursues her own life. Joao spends most of his time at home on the internet, constructing fantasy relationships, at one point turning the focus upon the screen/camera/audience as the object of desire. It’s a film that like the fascinations of its teenage protagonists is forever shifting in and out of focus, a style of storytelling which divided the audience, but totally fits the burgeoning awareness of the central character. This state of flux is also achieved by imagery grounded in light or its absence, dreams, folklore, hauntings, and the intense ebb and flow of teenage attractions/ obsessions. It’s meant to be uncomfortable because adolescence is essentially a kind of death and particularly dualistic for young women; “Blood is life” and mortality simultaneously. The director draws upon the Giallo Horror tradition, merging that voyeuristic genre and palette with You Tube generation mobile phone selfies and music video in your face sexuality. Often the camera/ viewer is placed in the position of the killer or voyeur which is uneasy territory, but an interesting confrontation with the passivity of seeing we’ve come to expect from mainstream “coming of age” dramas. In accordance with every B Grade Horror film ever made the sex=death trope is invoked, but the heroine Bia goes out to meet that idea, challenging the concept of victimhood and objectification by actively seeking experience, which in conclusion feels like bravery on the part of the director and her heroine. In a traditional role reversal Bia’s boyfriend, who takes her to prayer meetings and wants to slow things down, isn’t demanding or aggressively masculine. Although not unmasked completely, the potential for sexual violence is tested by the female character instead, against the backdrop of local serial killings. Sometimes the imagery is disturbingly contradictory; female assertiveness VS teased out slow motion dance numbers, the female pastor in gaudy makeup and sequins preaching purity through pop music or the camera moving in and out of darkness whilst a woman is being murdered, the identity of the attacker and victim remaining hidden. In the midst of this ambiguous exploration of adolescence are the threads of an inconclusive thriller, which I suspect may have frustrated some viewers, but the serial crime here is part of an atmosphere of fear, rather than driving the narrative. The girls tell each other stories; conflate and amplify the circumstances around them, fixated on the gruesome details of the attacks and how Bia looks exactly like one of the dead girls, which in psychological terms she is. Kill Me Please is a plea to release her mature self, to find what that is on her own terms, which for young women living in the 21st Century digital age means wading through unreal realities, just like the film does. Overall Kill Me Please is an interesting twist on the coming of age genre and gender stereotypes from a promising director, seen in poetic moments such as the final emergence from the waste ground. However this first film is also too immersed in a state of immaturity to feel completely satisfying. In terms of the director’s vision, visual language/ grammar, editing, structure and the central character’s path to herself, it lacks certain cohesion and is episodic in nature; an observation rather than a criticism given the subject matter and the professional stage of development.

Garance Marillier in Raw, Directed by Julia Ducournau.

Garance Marillier in Raw, Directed by Julia Ducournau.

Julia Ducournau’s first feature Raw delivers another psychological twist on Femininity and the Body Horror genre, giving a referential nod to the excellent Canadian chiller Ginger Snaps and Brian DePalma’s Carrie in its exploration of sexual maturity and awakening hunger. Justine (Garance Marillier) goes to join her older sister at veterinary school, leaving her parents (who are also vets and vegetarians), her middle class home and the influence of her apparently cold and domineering mother. During the first week of hazing rituals Justine is forced to abandon her principles and conform; subjected to humiliating ordeals by older students including having to eat raw meat, triggering an insatiable appetite within.  It’s an institution of learning that looks more like an abandoned hospital, a cold, empty and increasingly hostile place, where figures of adult authority are almost permanently absent, allowing the students to rule each other. It’s a place to effectively lose yourself in drink, drugs and house parties, rather than find yourself- especially as a young woman. Justine’s tutor hates her because she’s top of the class, stating that her intelligence will only make the other students feel inadequate. Conformity is pitched against self-discovery, denial against freedom, in increasingly extreme ways and as the plot unfolds there are many red herrings to keep the audience guessing. Apparently paramedics had to be called to the Toronto Film Festival screening to deal with viewer feinting and wrenching, but that strikes me as the ideal marketing ploy off the back of two weak stomachs, rather than an accurate reflection of the content. The gore is actually more sparing than I expected and realistic rather than graphic. This is a refreshingly smart film where the most effective moments of tension and unease are also the quietest; like a sheet coming off a dog on a mortuary slab in slow motion, heightening our sense of something internally being unleashed. The female line of the family are contained within a polarity of behaviour and the intentional blurred lines between human and animal instinct. This isn’t a story which pivots on the physical onset of sexual maturity, but feminine psychological/ sexual maturity, so in evolutionary Horror terms Raw definitely feels like a step up from the norm. As Justine’s metaphorical hunger takes hold of her and the violence escalates, we’re shown the consequences of an environment that does nothing to feed or nurture the Female psyche. Without giving away too much the final reveal is intelligently satisfying. Ultimately Ducournau suggests that whilst we have to find ways of living with our needs and desires, denial isn’t much of a life choice! Whilst Justine is at war with conflicting aspects of herself she’s not cast in the traditional female horror role of a fleeing, helpless victim, pursued by forces more powerful than her. Although she is victimised and in spite of an inheritance that threatens to overwhelm and isolate her, she holds power within herself.

Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep Directed by Rosemary Myers.

Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep Directed by Rosemary Myers.

In complete contrast the confusion, fear and momentous change of adolescence is tackled with comedic effect in the Australian film Girl Asleep. A first feature for director Rosemary Myers and playwright Matthew Whittet, based on their acclaimed Windmill Theatre production, I’ll admit that my critical assessment of this film is somewhat clouded by my background. Being born in 1971 Australia, into a suburban middle class world of corduroy brown and lurid canary yellow, this is a film full of cultural references and triggers of childhood memories. In the late 1970’s Australia was a land of exotic pineapples and tooth picked finger food stuck in half an orange, patios paved for entertaining, the throb of disco music closely followed by electro synth-pop, all in one leisure suits with synthetic material engineered to make you sweat, panel vans with custom painted side stripes, wood veneer and shag pile carpets.  Like the central character Greta Driscoll, (played with perfectly understated bewilderment by Bethany Whitmore) I too fastened my pigtails with brown bobbles, was equine obsessed, content not to socialise (much to my mother’s dismay), had a rebellious, outgoing elder sister, refused to have significant coming of age related parties and could count my friends on less than half a hand. In consequence this film naturally resonated with me and I clearly found it laugh out loud funnier than the rest of the audience. The challenge in adapting a stage production for the screen is creating suspension of disbelief in the cinema. Whatever the viewer’s background or life experience, to enjoy this film I think you need to be prepared to be like Greta, able to access the imaginative child within; the self that you never want to say goodbye to completely, in order to stay with Girl Asleep once it starts to get weird! The problem is, unlike Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which is a fully realised cinematic vision of bright retro innocence, humour and absurdity, Myers’ film gets a bit lost in translation. I suspect that it didn’t quite work for the audience I was watching it with as it is too anchored in its recreation of a particular time and place; which isn’t really a problem if you were there, but significantly less entertaining if you weren’t. The film’s aesthetic path; following Greta Driscoll into a forest dream state of mind with strange costumed beasts, felt comfortingly familiar having grown up reading the very popular Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There are moments of pathos and recognition; Greta meeting her leafy, decaying forest Dad reciting bad jokes that she is on the cusp of not finding funny anymore or being confronted by her younger self who she needs to integrate into the young woman she is becoming. However there aren’t enough of these universal touchstones in the film as a whole, even though the performances are heartfelt. Ultimately Girl Asleep is a positive fairy tale fighting its way out of a ground of 1970’s cultural kitsch. (I’ve had Sylvester’s disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) stuck in my head for days!) The best thing about Girl Asleep is that the girl in question is able to save and find herself, without the intervention of parents, peers or prospective romantic partners. It’s an uplifting film about letting go of your plastic horses and dancing to your own tune.

Another nostalgically packaged period piece is Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, although sadly it reduces its complex subject to a conservative love story pitched to a Merchant Ivory audience. Asante’s previous feature Belle was much more subtle and affecting in its exploration of race, class and gender. The story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, a London office worker he married in 1947 (with powerful opposition from the British, South African, South Rhodesian governments and both their families), is frustratingly narrow as depicted in this film. As always David Oyelowo is a wonderful screen presence and lights up every frame, but Rosamund Pike has nothing to do within the confines of the script other than look besotted, bewildered and fulfil the traditional function of giving birth. The story revealed during the closing credits of the couple’s whole life together and how their lives actively challenged racism is a thousand times more interesting than the saccharine romance we are served. The film is very pretty to look at, but I intensely disliked the quintessential Britishness of the language; cloaked in politeness, which feels like a double betrayal of its subject. Seretse’s treatment is reduced to quips about sherry and British government officials are portrayed for their pomposity, rather than brutal calculation, commercial exploitation and greed.  It’s a film made for a mainstream audience that doesn’t feel true to the urgency and relevance of the issues it is trying to address. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the script than sourcing authentic  tea dress fabric. To be fair I suspect that the film is a victim of politics, production values and box office marketability rather than a lack of integrity on the part of its director. It also feels like a very engineered, neat policy statement by backers in the face of industry criticism, which seldom creates great Art. My feeling is that the world is ready for a more progressive telling of Seretse and Ruth’s story than what this film delivers. Undeniably it is a great love story, but it is also significantly more than that. Critically the clue is in the title as to the sentimental tone and genteel delivery of the film’s message. When I compare A United Kingdom to outstanding independent films which dominate the rest of the IFF programme, its faults are amplified. It isn’t a bad film, just a well-meaning one and that isn’t enough to satisfy.

Have You Seen My Movie? Directed By Paul Anton Smith.

Have You Seen My Movie? Directed By Paul Anton Smith.

You Tube generation mash ups, or appropriating historical or found film footage and reimagining it, has become a very popular genre on the internet in recent years. There’s a whole lot of it floating out there in cyberspace, ranging from the most rudimentary splicing of favourite film moments to music on bedroom laptops, shared with friends and occasionally going viral, to Artist Film with a greater emphasis on Craft and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of the medium. Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? assembles clips from hundreds of films from different eras and all over the world. It encapsulates the experience of cinema going, the cinema audience beholding itself and triggers memories in the mind of the viewer; not just in terms of films/ titles seen, but acknowledging cinema as a theatrical and essentially social environment. Photography and film are inexorably entwined with human memory and although the film is loosely structured around a linear path; from buying a ticket to emergence from the cinema, its meanderings and final sequential comment on film are thankfully a bit more complex. The dovetailing of several different clips overlaid with singular pieces of dialogue effectively expands the viewer’s frame of reference and range of associative meanings. Arguably we go to the cinema communally to experience some kind of journey and self-reflection, whether that is escapist or confrontational. Cinema is a space where we grow up, fall in love, are entertained, educated, participate in social etiquette and where we go to immerse ourselves in projected dreams, hopes and desires. There are plenty of stars and iconic screen moments in this film that film geeks will love, but the focus here is really on the audience and the human face; the interactions with what is on screen and audience members with each other. Have You Seen My Movie?  doesn’t have the editorial rhythm or thrilling momentum of György Pálfi’s Final Cut- Ladies and Gentlemen (winner of the 2012 IFF Audience Award), but moves in and out of time more loosely, allowing moments of connection to surface within the viewer. Having worked on The Clock, (video artist Christian Marclay’s looped 24 hour montage of scenes from cinema and TV which operates as a clock through real time filmic references) Smith’s composition is less fully formed in terms of his ideas and technique equalling each other. There are glimmers of something less dependent on personal association and more universally poetic emerging in the final sequence; which for me is a meditation on the so called “death of film” in our century and the increasing loss of picture houses in cities around the world. We lose film and we lose ourselves because our memories are bound up in that decaying, celluloid world, however Smith’s parting visual statement also contains a glimmer of hope. The final montage sequence begins with a child stealing promotional photographs from Citizen Cain through the caged grill of a movie theatre entrance, followed by a masked, dance like scattering of dreams from Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, the snow globe falling to the floor to the mute utterance of “Rosebud” in the final moments of Orson Wells’ Citizen Cain, Moira Shearer’s feet in spiralling pirouette in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes ,dancing herself to death,  a scene of a graveyard and finally we see the child running off into the night with the stills before the projector stops. Whether the films these clips are taken from are known to the viewer or not, the director’s final commentary in this concluding sequence speaks of death, regret and loss. Equally the figure of the child coveting still images from a timeless film and running away with them feels like a reflection of Contemporary Art; an ever increasing Net of visual material, scoured for breadth of content rather than depth of retrieval, until the child grows up and learns what to do with it. It isn’t enough for an artist to simply appropriate and reassemble. For a film or art installation to timelessly stand on its own, it needs an evolving foundation of Craft, integral to the film making process. I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? because at heart I’m a film geek. Movie-going has always been part of my life from a very young age and cinema is invested with my most intimate memories. Films like this are therefore a very rich source of visual, emotional, cerebral and sensual triggers and I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect. However in contemplating seeing Smith’s future work I’m reminded of Orson Wells’ comment about the “eloquence of cinema” being “achieved in the editing room”.

Movie going memories are at the centre of the three year Major Minor Cinema: Highlands and Islands Film Guild 1946-71 project www.hifilmguild.gla.ac.uk , a collaboration between the University of Glasgow and University of Stirling, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Highlands and Islands Film Guild grew out of the Scottish Film Council’s pre-war programme of making non-commercial 16mm films available to rural areas with the intention of improving leisure facilities and social cohesion. The project aims include “building an oral history archive of cinema audiences and operators” and “exploring the creative possibilities of memory and oral traditions” with an open call for anyone who would like to contribute to the project during 2016-17.  These aspects of collaboration, creativity and research were the basis for two events at IFF; a 16mm programme of screenings typical of those that would have been shown by the film guild in village halls, featuring Scott of the Antarctic (1948), a newsreel, cartoon, an information film and readings of “newly commissioned works inspired by memories of cinema going”, followed by a half-day creative writing workshop. Led by poet /writer Nalini Paul and writer /film academic, Sarah Neely this Saturday morning session included guided exercises with the direct stimulus of archival material, cinema memorabilia, filmic artefacts and 16mm projection, together with shared memories of cinema going from round table participants. It was fantastic to hear people’s perceptive experiences and kick start the creative process of writing about one’s own cinematic memories in such a supportive environment. It would have been great to further develop this work with the group over several days and I think everyone who participated thoroughly enjoyed it, giving us plenty to explore and refine on our own. Something that emerged from discussion and reminiscences were the connections with family, social interactions, communities and the cinema as a place not just of sight and sound experiences, but for smell, taste and touch as well. Significantly what was happening around us, our stage of life and who we went to the cinema with, were just as important as what was on screen. The session was much more than reminiscences in a warm haze of nostalgia. Creatively accessing our cinema-going memories was a way of coming to terms with those we’d loved and lost, reliving defining and sometimes comic moments from our youth, reassessing our relationships with home, family, community and nationality, all with cinema as the catalyst.

United States of Love United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości directed by Tomas Wasilewski.

United States of Love United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości directed by Tomas Wasilewski.

Human relationships come under an emotional microscope in Writer /Director Tomas Wasilewski’s United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości. His previous feature Floating Skyscrape screened at IFF 2013 and it is exciting to see such a leap of stylistic development in his latest film. Although the title suggests optimism it’s sharply ironic, an examination of states of love, united in obsessive dysfunction, the antithesis of life giving passion. From the opening shots the bleached emotional tone is set by hue; a chilled palette of blushed blue and green monochrome like a dead body with all the blood drained out of it or an aged, tinted photograph. Director of Photography Oleg Mutu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, In the FogIn Bloom) composes imagery perfectly in sync with the impossibility of love and doomed aspirations of the film’s protagonists. Sequences are framed with brilliantly expressive use of the human body, often cut off by the composition, leading the viewer deeper into the experience of the central characters. With experience written on the body at pivotal moments, instead of actor’s faces, it is easier for the viewer to project themselves into the frame in a way that maintains ultimate tension within a scene. We’re used to love stories told in deliriously absorbing close up flesh tones, what we’re given is perhaps something more honest, in terms of the annihilating disconnect of desire, love and passion when it is unrequited, a projected illusion or a lie.  Although this is a icy film in terms of its emotive pitch, the performances by its four lead actresses are astonishing, delivered with emotional intelligence that challenges what some audience members perceived as a misogynist film. Although what happens to his four female leads is brutal and unforgiving, I think Wasilewski’s focus is more expansive than gender alone. Very nuanced performances give his characters a depth of life that resists such a reductive interpretation. Admittedly these are undesirable depths and that we probably don’t wish to see or acknowledge. Like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, it is painfully raw, disturbing and ultimately full of despair. But in creating such a bleak vision of the human condition, identity and relationships, the director actively challenges our idealised aspirations of what love is and also very importantly acknowledges collective scars of repression. Whilst the story centres very personally on four women whose lives are entwined, historically the story is set at a very particular time; 1990’s Poland, with the promise of freedom from the newly established democratic government after years of repressive state rule.  It would be a naïve director who would portray such a period as a door of freedom and possibility simply being opened. The past always needs acknowledgment before a future is possible and sometimes scars are too deep to be healed, deforming the idealised love we crave, seen in the lives of Wasilewski’s four main protagonists. Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) is a school principal, whose six year affair with a married man comes to an end with his wife’s death. Still desperately obsessed with her lover she tries to get him back through his daughter, ending in circumstantial violence and tragedy. Her icy manipulation is matched by her lover’s, a doctor who in violation of his profession reacts to her pitiable cry of “I’ll do anything” (for you) with the suggestion of suicide. It’s a relationship in which neither side will ever attain what they need from the other, as each is a distorted projection of the other’s desires. Iza’s younger sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is a dance and fitness instructor and former beauty queen whose husband is away working in Germany for the promise of a better life. Desperately lonely but wearing a mask of cheerfulness her path crosses with her neighbour Renata (Dorota Kolak), a middle aged English teacher who becomes fixated on her and lives alone in an apartment full of canaries. Kolak’s performance is incredible; constrained in sadness, cunning, self-gratification and yearning. It’s a deeply disturbing performance in which Marzena’s unconscious violation at the hands of a predatory photographer is compounded by Renata’s pleasure in attending her naked body. It is a death to Marzena as we have come to know her throughout the film; as a kind and compassionate young woman, giving birth to something twisted and monstrous in the heart of her covetous older neighbour and changing her life forever. This subversion of female behaviour as innately nurturing, caring and giving is extreme and all the more shocking for its quietly considered, patient reveal. When combined with earlier scenes of Renata teaching poetry and speaking of “pure” love, Wasilewski raises the very awkward question of what love actually is. Throughout the film we see lives devastated by the promise of things which weren’t real to start with- which turned my mind back to the euphoric promise of of the Berlin wall coming down and to the current state of Europe. Although this is a film that will divide audiences it is not devoid of empathy. In Agata’s story line we see a woman, stuck in a loveless marriage and suffering from depression who becomes obsessed with a young priest as an object of unattainable, idealised love/desire. That idealisation is also reflected in a bible class where children are told that “love will be the most important thing in your life” with all the ironically attendant constraints of religious doctrine. Julia Kijowska’s performance conveys Agata’s longing and desperation, with clever sound design of dogs barking when beholding the priest a very effective conveyance of rabid, obsessive desire; the kind people try to fill the void at the centre of them with. She initiates sex with her husband that is ferocious in its intensity but devoid of any mutual feeling, expressing her need to connect in a sheer act of desperation as she pleads with him; ”touch me”, “look at me” , in what is an utterly heart breaking scene.  The United States of Love is a thoroughly engrossingly, deeply sad and affecting film, elevated by excellent performances from its four female leads.

Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, Directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, Directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Winner of 12 international film awards, Croatian director Dalibor Mantanić’s The High Sun/ Zvizdan is a humane, compassionate and ultimately hopeful story of forbidden love and the impact of war in the former Yugoslavia, told over three consecutive decades. The three couples in this trilogy of interlocking stories; Jelena & Ivan (1991), Natasa & Ante (2001) and Marija & Luka (2011) are all played by the film’s two astounding lead actors, Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković.  With breath taking intensity and poise, they inhabit their roles rather than playing them; from innocence to world weary experience. They convey shattering fragility and incredible strength with minimal dialogue, revealed in their eyes, facial expressions and gestures. We aren’t told or shown everything that has happened to Natasa/ Ante and Marija/ Luka but we resoundingly feel it, in the full emotional gravitas of the actor’s performances. In the points of connection between these three love stories, there is a sense of the randomness of fate, depending on the accident of which side of the border between two Balkan villages and which generation the characters belong to. The inference is that the story could also be our own in a different time and place. In the hands of this director the love that brings people together against all odds, circumstance and in spite of cultural difference is greater than the ethnic hatred that divides them. The High Sun is inspirational in that respect; love is hope, the one thing that enables us to survive and give our lives meaning. Mantanić acknowledges loss and suffering out of which the possibility of new life emerges and in so doing finds a path through history, memory and remembrance of human atrocity. This intelligence is applied equally to both sides as we see the motivations and inheritance of the characters, their families and communities. One of Mantanić’s great strengths is in what he chooses not to tell the audience. Natasa’s reactions to Ante tell us everything we need to know about her bodily experience of war and her profound need to connect with him in spite of that trauma in order to keep living. Such scenes are extreme tests of faith and trust, where characters clinging to life have to learn to live again, something they cannot do without each other. Mantanić’s vision as an artist is big enough to acknowledge decades of hatred and trauma without judgement, transcending national borders and ethnicity. He is also able to shine a light on the unseen experiences of women; Natasa who sinks down in the small dark gap between houses and the anguish of her mother who cannot be anything but strong, in denial of her own experiences, trying to rebuild their lives. The reverberations run so deep, through the body and into the soil. In spite of its daunting subject matter The High Sun is a beautiful film crafted with care, humanity and hope which I can be nothing but glad to have seen.

Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard in It's Only the End of the World, Directed by Xavier Dolan.

Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard in It’s Only the End of the World, Directed by Xavier Dolan.

The great unsaid of familial relationships is brought sharply into focus by French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes.  It’s Dolan doing what he does best; finely observed, cathartic explorations of relationships between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, absent fathers and conflicted male identity.  Following the critical triumph of his last film Mommy he has assembled an amazing cast including Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye. Adapted from the stage play by Jean-Luc Lagarde Dolan reveals a claustrophobically close unit of estranged individuals, brought together by Louis, (Gaspard Ulliel) a terminally ill writer who returns home to his family after 12 years in order to tell them that he’s dying. Cassel and Cotilard play their roles to perfection as husband and wife; he as a tightening coil of anger and resentment towards his brother, she the only one of the family ,as outsider sister/ daughter in law, who hears and sees through Louis’s defensive silence.  Reunited with a sister (Léa Seydoux) he hasn’t grown up with,  a brother  who hates him and a mother who sees what she wants to see in the assembled family, there is simply no room for Louis to speak or be heard. The food is prepared and arranged for hospitality, intimacy and sharing but there is no existing dynamic between the characters to feed any of them. The excruciating awkwardness of people belonging to each other without real contact or understanding, waiting for admission into each other lives and incapable of communication is heart rending in its truth. It’s Only the End of the World has the set focus of a stage play but the performances and Dolan’s writing, direction and editing make it a compelling film in its own right. The director provides his characteristic focus on lives and primary relationships in close up, thankfully easing up on borderline music video use of soundtrack in this latest film. Use of light and avian symbolism in the closing scenes bring a sense of resolution and closure for the main character, aided by Ulliel’s consistently understated performance, but what we are left with is a sad truth about how alone we can be in a room full of blood relatives, both reinforcing and perpetuating the foundation of Louis’s decision to leave. The action centres on a single day in these character’s lives and just like many family gatherings the focus and energy naturally implode with all the pent up histories between parents, children and siblings, coupled with the need for a perfect celebration of togetherness.  In consequence it is a film that viewer’s will either identify with or find completely unrelenting in the forced intensity and dysfunction of the interactions. Yes, these people aren’t particularly likeable and they probably don’t belong in the same room together, but they are also human; too frightened to engage in anything but habitual role play, extinguishing the possibility of change or finding the love, comfort and support which they each need, but are unlikely to find with each other. Although in many ways I prefer Dolan’s previous film Mommy which offers humour, acceptance and connection in greater supply, Dolan’s evolution as a director is something I will continue to watch with interest.

After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku, Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku, Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Written, edited and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku delivers a characteristically tender and knowing  vision of family life in contemporary Japan.  Consistent with the domestic focus of his previous work (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister) he proves himself a worthy successor of Yasujirō Ozu’s finely observed and sublimely subtle naturalism. Here Kore-eda delivers a resolutely quiet and equally revealing film about love, regret and waking up to find you’re not living the life that you’d hoped for. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a writer whose first prize winning book 15 years ago was also his last. He’s forced to work as a private detective; spying on cheating spouses and finding lost pets to support his gambling addiction, inherited from his Father and Grandfather. He’s estranged from his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) who he’s still in love with and desperately wants to reconnect with his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Taking refuge from a typhoon with Ryota’s mother (the brilliant Kirin Kiki) provides the catalyst for an unlikely reunion between them and acceptance of what has come to pass. The entire cast are wonderful with familial bonds, humour, tensions and truths between them perfectly realised. After arguably taking a slight creative dip in his two previous films, this is a lovingly crafted return to form and along with I Wish, one of the director’s best films to date. Like Ryota’s reply to his son’s question; “Are you who you wanted to be?” Kore-eda’s answer to the audience is; “not yet- what matters is to live to become what I might be” and in creative terms it feels like he’s almost there.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman /Forushande , Directed by Asghar Farhadi.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman /Forushande , Directed by Asghar Farhadi.

Another distinctive and accomplished director focusing on family centred drama is Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation, The Past), a cerebral director whose characters are typically constrained culturally, by circumstance or both. His latest film The Salesman/ Forushande brings together parallel stories, on stage and screen, with emotional points of intersection and recognition between them. A young married couple; Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced out of their Tehran apartment building by its imminent collapse, taking refuge in a recently vacated apartment managed by a friend from the theatre they both work in.  In the company’s latest production the couple are starring as Willy and Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, under the watchful eye of state censors. After moving into the apartment Rana is subjected to an assault when she mistakenly lets someone in, believing them to be her husband. Later they discover from neighbours that the previous tenant was a prostitute (or a woman who had a lot of male visitors- in this world the two are synonymous) and it is assumed that Rana’s attacker was therefore a previous client. In a climate of denial to friends, neighbours and family that anything has actually happened; and with guilt, fear and the impending threat of judgement, it becomes increasingly hard for the viewer to tell what the truth is. Clearly traumatised by what has happened, Rana is unable to function or to seek help as disclosure is too shameful and as several characters affirm, her fears that the police will not do anything and blame her for the attack are well founded. Not surprisingly when subjected to the extreme pressure of these circumstances, coupled with keeping face, maintaining honour and wearing a mask for the benefit of others, cracks start to appear in the marriage. Emad is consumed by finding Rana’s assailant and taking revenge, while his wife turns in on herself, doubting her own actions and assuming responsibility for what has happened to her. By the end of the film the identity of the perpetrator brings further questions about truth and oppression, as we begin to empathise with characters in ways we do not expect and doubt our own judgement. Farhadi is a master at reflecting universal human experience, magnified by a very particular cultural lens and effectively calling the audience’s beliefs and assumptions into question; “I believe that the world today needs more questions than answers. Answers prevent you from questioning, from thinking…If you give an answer to your viewer; your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it. In fact, your film will continue inside the viewer.” The artifice of the play, the deception and truth behind the fiction makes The Salesman a fascinating study of lives fractured by repression.

The Handmaiden / AH-GA-SSI , Directed by Park Chan-wook.

The Handmaiden / AH-GA-SSI , Directed by Park Chan-wook.

Male sexual repression is contrasted with burgeoning female sexuality in Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller The Handmaiden/ AH-GA-SSI which adapts Sarah Waters’ award-winning novel Fingersmith, relocating the story from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, an era of Japanese Colonialism. In keeping with the director’s previous films (Stoker, Lady Vengeance, Old Boy)  there are elements of sadism and pushing sexual boundaries in keeping with the director’s statement that; “Certain subjects may no longer be taboo in cinema. But there are ways to treat them that still create shock”. His last film and first Western crossover Stoker played with expectations of the feminine very successfully and introduced stylistic elements of Gothic, which are thematically and aesthetically refined in The Handmaiden. It’s a visually sumptuous and opulent film, written like a beautifully crafted puzzle box and with more humour than we might have come to expect from its director.  Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to Hideko ( Kim Min-hee), a Japanese Heiress who lives with her domineering and abusive Uncle, a collector of erotic antique scrolls and books which he has been forcing his niece to read at soirees/ performances for male nobles from a very young age. The new maid is a pickpocket recruited by the leader of a criminal gang to infiltrate the household and assist him in his plan to disguise himself as a Count, seduce, marry, rob the heiress of her fortune and have her committed to a madhouse. It’s a plot twisting story of subterfuge in the Film Noir tradition, a planned escapade which starts to unravel when Sookee and Hideko discover their feeling for each other.  There are scenes in which female bodies are arranged and displayed with unrealistic  symmetrically for a male gaze, which when coupled with the film’s overall aesthetic feels rather self-indulgent on the part of the director. However this is at base complex tale that restrains and releases its audience on multiple levels and is therefore satisfying to watch, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Park Chan-wook is a controversial director by nature but that doesn’t extinguish the eroticism or the political subtext of this work in terms of dominance / submission and independence / colonialism.  It is as much about Korea under Japanese occupation as it is a love story between two women or a crime thriller, we’re just not accustomed to seeing female desire explicitly depicted on screen and therefore it can appear shocking. Personally I think it’s one of his best films; audacious, well-crafted, more holistically distilled in its vision than previous work, an effectively telling combination of East and West, a compelling depiction of multifaceted Femininity, love and human sexuality in all its delight and darkness. It’s provocative rather than shockingly violent or extreme when compared to earlier films like Old Boy. Infiltration of the Feminine into his work on a variety of levels has enriched it considerably. (Male artists/ filmmakers take note!)

Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche Directed by Yang Zhang

Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche Directed by Yang Zhang

One of my favourite films this year and part of The Roof of the World thematic strand of the festival was Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche by director Yang Zhang. This exquisitely beautiful film follows the 2000km pilgrimage of a group of villagers across Tibet to Lhasa and the sacred Kang’s Mountain. From the opening shots a way of life is established in the rhythm of meditative song and prayer, which the viewer becomes progressively immersed in. In many ways this film is a gentle invitation towards a different way of being in the world, making Western values and pursuits seem absurdly trivial in comparison and expanding the idea of spirituality into the everyday. Regardless of the viewer’s spiritual or religious beliefs Paths of the Soul has universal appeal in being grounded in something very basic in terms of our existence- our connections with each other which is the key to sustainability. In accordance with tradition, the pilgrimage is “for others and for everyone” – a completely different trajectory of being that illuminates the rampant self-gratification of 21st century urban life. That is not to romanticise rural life in Tibet which like the pilgrim’s road is shown to be extremely hard, it is simply that the intention behind making the journey is fundamentally different to what drives our increasingly globalised, unsustainable consumption. Mobile phones have reached these mountains, but their primary use is communication with relatives who have remained at home during the extended period of pilgrimage. Shot over the course of a year this film is a thoroughly immersive experience, encompassing birth, death, joy and sorrow, accepted as part of life. The beauty of the landscape and humility of human scale within it put life into perspective. Pilgrims share goodwill, tea and rest, prostrating themselves to kowtow along the road with “a bump on the head” as “proof of piety”. There is a subtle, guiding presence of light throughout the film, not only in the natural environment but in people who for the most part seem happy and content with their lot in spite of hardship. When the road floods they kowtow right through it, smiling as they go, drenched and laughing, no one is excluded or left behind, encouragement is given from the youngest to the oldest member of the group. It’s a physical and spiritual marathon of tenacious endurance, made possible by faith and their care for each other. These qualities are openly shared with the audience and an absolute gift to a chaotic and conflicted world. At the film’s conclusion in darkness and submerged in the primal immediacy of sound, polyphonic voices transcend all belief systems or denominations, communicating the best of what we are as a species. It’s an invitation to join and carry that spirit of prayer and being out into the world. Above all else I loved the baseline of this film which is not ethnographic or religious but simply human.

Another delightful film in the Roof of the World strand was The Black Hen/ Kalo Pothi directed by Min Bahadur Bham, the first Nepali film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival. Set in a small war-torn village in Northern Nepal during a temporary ceasefire, two young boys; Prakash and Kiran are separated by class and caste but are determined to remain friends. They join forces to find a lost hen, a pet given to Prakash by his sister who has been recruited by Maoist forces. In spite of the obvious tensions, precarious circumstances of civil war and divisions within the community this is a charming film, full of warmth, humour and insight that often only a child’s eyes, or the child within the adult, can perceive.

The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell

The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bel.

Also from the same thematic strand The Eagle Huntress was the well-deserved winner of this year’s IFF audience award, designed by Isle of Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth.  It is a thoroughly uplifting, feel-good documentary for all ages, exploring humankind’s essential connection with Nature, the relationship between father and daughter, changing traditions, gender equality and identity, with a powerful message about realising individual potential. Set in the Altai mountains of North-western Mongolia 13 year old Aishol-pan is training to become the first female Eagle Hunter in a tradition handed down from father to son for over 2000 years. 12 generations of her Kazakh family have been Eagle Hunters; a mantle of responsibility, honour and bravery which “is not a choice” but “a calling in the blood”. One of the most touching aspects of Aishol-pan’s story is the relationship with her Father who is also her teacher and guide. As she descends on a rope to an eagle’s nest his parental fears for her safety is are palpable and when she has ascended with the 3 month old eagle chick whom she will raise, it is incredibly moving to hear her father’s comment; “it’s a beautiful bird that matches Aishol-pan”. The bond that she has with her eagle is based on reverence, care and love  and her radiant, determined character is very much the heart of the film. What we see is the proverb of “what a baby sees in the nest it repeats when it grows” in action. There is a family tradition illuminated here of equality from both her parents, a belief in a woman’s right to choose and shape her destiny and the essential equality of boys and girls. This environment and the influence of the natural world create such positive strength within Aishol-pan as a young, capable and very driven young woman. We watch her growing confidence in being loved and nurtured by her family, enabling her to overcome community elders’ opposition to her calling and equipping her to face life’s obstacles. As the Eagle Hunting festival competition approaches and when she undertakes the winter hunt to prove herself the audience is rooting for her all the way. Director of Photography Simon Niblett captures human intimacy and the breath taking expanse of the Mongolian steppes and mountain scenery in equal measure. It is an outstanding documentary which I hope that millions of young girls worldwide will have the opportunity to see. My only criticism is clumsily grafting the pop song by Sia “you can do anything” onto the film, which is unnecessary since that statement is so visibly present throughout its dramatic trajectory.

As this year’s audience award winner demonstrates, there is an appetite for the unknown and unseen which begs further development and investment. Film is a powerful communicator and we have never needed the Arts more to expand perception and connect with the world like we do today. When I look at the quantity over quality approach that seems to govern the country’s largest, most celebrated and heavily funded film festival and compare it with what this one consistently delivers on a mere fraction of the budget, IFF sets an amazingly high benchmark.  Funding/ resourcing constraints and the positioning of the Eden Court Cinema in the Arts centre venue as a whole has always meant that the festival emphasis is primarily on screenings, rather than education, discussion and debate- which is a shame because the content is so incredibly stimulating year upon year! Admittedly there’s strength in keeping the festival small, however people are drawn to cinema by communal experience and more opportunities (and time) for audience members to socialise between films, discuss what they’ve seen, participate in filmmaker Q&As, attend creative workshops, masterclasses, talks by industry professionals or academics would add to that essential dialogue, deepen the level of exposure and also increase engagement with EC’s year round independent film programme. Having attended this festival and many others around the country over the last decade, my expectations of IFF each November are always high and consistently exceeded. Thanks to the curation audiences can be assured in taking a chance on the unfamiliar; experiencing entertaining, profound and unexpected visions of the world.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com

The 12th Inverness Film Festival

5th – 9th November, Eden Court Cinemas.

PA

The Inverness Film Festival is an event I look forward to every November because it always reveals unexpected discoveries and emerging new voices. Unlike larger festivals such as EIFF, it doesn’t have an army of staff, a massive budget or stars arranging themselves on a red carpet. The vision is vital and creative, at times wonderfully left field and incredibly focused on quality. Each successive year I find myself being challenged, excited and changed by what I see on screen and IFF 2014 was no exception. Record audience numbers show that I wasn’t alone in enjoying a truly international and exceptional programme selected by Festival Director and Eden Court Cinema Programmer Paul Taylor. The 12th Inverness Film Festival featured 34 films from 21 countries, 5 UK premieres and 17 Scottish premieres and the top three films voted for by the audience demonstrate a very healthy appetite for independent world cinema. Designed by Harris based artist Steve Dilworth, the 2014 IFF Audience Award went to Norwegian film Kon-Tiki directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, closely followed by New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows by Jamaine Clement and Taika Waititi and Difret by Ethiopian director Zeresenay Mehari, exploring the plight of women abducted into forced marriages in sub-Saharan Africa.

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There were many highlights both in the short and feature film categories and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan screened on opening night was certainly one of them. Winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, this absorbing multi-layered drama set on the edge of the Barents Sea in Northern Russia is defined by breath taking imagery, rich characterisation and fine performances. Leviathan is the story of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) who lives with his wife IIya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son on ancestral land that is illegally seized by the local mayor, supported by an equally corrupt court system. Kolya’s old friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) travels from Moscow to defend him, fracturing the already failing relationship between Kolya and his wife. The opening sequence sets the tone of the film with the swell of the sea, the illumination of a distant lighthouse and music by Phillip Glass which expands and contracts in mesmerising waves. Michail Krichman’s magnificent camerawork lingers on a serpentine curve of wreckage, the ribs of marooned boats and a profound stillness of place. We immediately feel that this is a psychologically charged, inner landscape and throughout the film the natural environment mirrors the psychological and emotional state of the characters.

Interwoven with this human drama is a critique of Russian society; the corruption of church and state, together with the Old Testament story of Job who is tested by God and Satan. In one scene the camera focuses on a statue of Christ with the Latin inscription “Ecce Homo”, “Behold the Man”, the words uttered by Pontius Pilate before the crucifixion and are left in no doubt that Kolya is fated to suffer. We see from the initial hearing in the unfaltering recital of a court official an outcome preordained. A portrait of Putin in the mayor’s office, the priest’s complicit counsel and the way that the camera moves through the congregation during a righteous sermon all reveal the dominance of self-interest, greed and a society visibly in decay.

On a more personal level Kolya is tested with the loss of his home, family and declining health through drinking. He stands in the ruin of a church staring up into the hollow of the steeple, weathered, decaying icons around him and an overwhelming question of faith and truth rises from the depths to confront the audience. The sea monster or whale of the title is physically present when it surfaces before Ilya as she stands on a cliff and when Kolya’s son Roma sits perched on a rock beside a gigantic whale skeleton, we feel the enormity of his loss. Each character is contained within themselves and the camera brings the audience close to Kolya’s blue despair as the sea swirls beneath him. There is however light and humour in all this human misery; a succession of Russian presidential portraits used for target practice, the compassion of neighbours who adopt Roma and the exquisite natural light on land, sea and human faces. Leviathan is a superbly crafted, brilliantly perceptive and rewarding film and Zvyagintsev whose previous films include The Banishment and The Return is undeniably a major talent.

Mystery Movie La Distancia (The Distance) by Catalan Director Sergio Caballero visibly draws inspiration from Andrei Tarvoksky’s 1979 Sci Fi film Stalker, the films of David Lynch and the artist Joseph Beuys. Set in Siberia a trio of telepathic dwarves; Volkov, Baronsky and Schumeck are hired by an Austrian performance artist locked inside an abandoned power station to steal “The Distance” inside. Surreal, absurd and featuring a love story between a Japanese speaking, poetry reciting smoking bucket and a chimney, The Distance is an enjoyably different heist film which you feel compelled to keep watching because you’ve no idea what’s coming next. The incredible setting, placement of figures in the landscape and central figure of the performance artist provide the most intriguing aspects of the film. There are also more disturbing Lynch-like elements in the mix; the repeated playing of a cassette by the dwarves that sounds like a woman being raped and murdered simultaneously, the visceral dissection of a hare and some distinctly male humour that misses the mark. One gets the feeling that Caballero is trying too hard to be cryptically “out there”. Direct references to the action pieces of Joseph Beuys including his 1974 performance work I Like America and America Likes Me where he spent three days in a gallery interacting with a coyote and wrapped in felt and How To Explain Pictures to A Dead Hare (1965) where he coated his head in honey and gold leaf, whispering to the dead hare cradled in his arms and moving from image to image are consciously appropriated. Some details are altered, like the head of the artist covered in earth or mud instead of gold, but for anyone familiar with Beuys it is hard not to read him as a central character in the film- perhaps not as a person but as an action. Even the machine that the dwarves construct to break into the power station resembles Beuys’s sculptural work. For Beuys the hare, which he used repeatedly in his work, symbolised incarnation “which the hare really enacts-something a human can only do in the imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth”. When Beuys used fluid or unstable materials such as honey which like human thought can become a living substance he also alluded to the potentially  “stale and morbid nature of thought” and the human tendency to over intellectualise. (An irony not lost on me as I write this paragraph.) What the dwarves discover hidden within the vault and the artist’s somewhat insidious comment as he says goodbye to the hare; “They’ve got ‘The Distance’, I’ll get inside today” feels like an action. In the spirit of Beuys this to me would seem to be the point of The Distance (if there is one). Cabellero’s style in all its absurdity presents a stream of fluid ideas and was certainly one of the most talked about films of the festival, completely polarising the audience. A boldly perfect choice for a Mystery Movie -if there was a Marmite film award it would definitely win.

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Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a quietly assured and stylistically mature drama by the director of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Climates and Uzak. The story centres on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who runs a small hotel in Anatolia, living with his young, estranged wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), all of their paths “parted under one roof”. Like all of Ceylan’s films it unfolds at its own pace, gradually laying bare the tangled web of relationships between the three central characters and the wider community, their dependencies, resentments and flawed intentions. It is characterisation that drives the film and the three leads deliver superb performances. The landscape itself is also a dominant presence, a starkly beautiful expanse with human dwellings set inside mountains of earth. Ceylan cleverly frames the central character of Aydin in this place of retreat and revelation, his black coat set in isolation against the landscape. The opening sequence with Aydin’s silhouette seen against outside light through a window frame is telling and masterful. The camera slowly pans into the character’s dark headspace and during the next 196 mins we see his masks of intellectual and social superiority and his manipulations, particularly of his tenants and his wife. In many ways the relationship between Aydin and his recently divorced sister Necla is closest; “I wish my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours” she says wryly to her brother, although they too are entwined in their own power play.

Each of the characters is imprisoned in emotional confinement of their own making. Aydin uses his high ideals and morals as “virtues to crush and humiliate people”, however each relationship in its own way is dependent and neither of them are able to leave. His wife Nihal who has by her own admission wasted her best years withering away in fear is painfully attached to the idolisation of her husband and has bitterly grown to hate the person she has become. When revelations do come for Aydin they are in isolation, we hear through voiceover his self-satisfied thoughts that are never shared with his wife; they remain like the setup of an earlier scene, sitting on the opposite sides of the room beholding each other via a mirror which is both a truth and a lie. Ironically it is at this point that Aydin begins to write the book he has been unable to start. Ceylan is beautifully aware of the compositional power of the frame and often uses it as a window of the self, fractured, searching and illuminated. In one scene where Aydin enters a cave-like stable space, it is as if horse and man share the same frozen breath with reversals of positive/ negative space; Aydin in black, the horse which he eventually sets free in white. Part of Ceylan’s skill as a director is the investment in the psychological evolution of his characters on a purely visual level. There is extended dialogue between characters trapped within their own words but the most telling moments are largely silent, allowing the actors to fully inhabit their roles. There are big themes explored but in a characteristically quiet way; the nature of forgiveness, love, good and evil are played out in contemplative detail. As Necla suggests; “the product will match its maker”. Winter Sleep is a perfectly poised, complex drama and a worthy winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

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The UK premiere of Australian Director Craig Monahan’s third feature Healing was one of the feel good highlights of the programme; a sensitive exploration of the human capacity for rehabilitation and forgiveness set in a minimum security prison farm in rural Victoria. Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving), a prison guard and case worker, comes to the aid of an Iranian prisoner Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) who is reaching the end of his sentence for murder. Inspired by a raptor rehabilitation programme run by Victoria’s state prison authority and Healesville Sanctuary, Monahan and co-writer Allison Nisselle deliver a moving story of loss and redemption. Although the emotive symbolism of broken wings and flight is laboured at times, the film is a unique prison drama in its refreshing, compassionate treatment of both inmates and prison guards. The performances by veteran stage and screen actor Hugo Weaving and Don Hany (best known for his roles in Australian TV series Underbelly and White Collar Blue) are outstanding.  Oscar winning Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Bran Nue Day, The Lovely Bones, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is perfectly attuned to the natural light and wide open spaces of the Victorian countryside which is another star of the film along with the rescued owls, falcons and eagles.

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A Sunday afternoon Silent Film Double Bill with live music by Forrester Pyke was another great pleasure of the festival. Based on stories from the Arabian Nights Lotte Reinigers 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed was an utterly enchanting and joyful experience. Reinigers early animation in bold colour and black silhouette is brilliant example of pure simplicity and sophisticated, elegant design. This enthralling shadow play taps directly into the ancient origins of storytelling in flickering firelight and on cave walls. The characters are sublimely drawn, morphing before our eyes into demons, witches and fantastical creatures. In many ways magic lantern shows and early moving images were acts of conjuring; combining theatre, magic and illumination. The silent era is a wellspring of inspiration and innovation from a time when cinematic techniques were still being invented. There is no better way of experiencing this type of film than on a big screen with live music. The immediacy of improvisation, the building of tension and the enhancement of the emotional arc of the story and its characters are all qualities which came to the fore in Forrester Pyke’s  performance. The darkened space we enter into collectively allows imagination to take flight. Although no complete copy of the film survives, The Adventures of Prince Achmed clearly demonstrates the creative potency and pure visual storytelling of the silent era which continues to inspire contemporary audiences and filmmakers alike. This would have been the perfect opportunity to explore the craft of shadow play and animation through workshops as part of a cinema education programme.

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Reinigers magical tale was followed by Tod Browning’s equally engrossing feature The Unknown (1927)starring the great Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife thrower and shooter who falls in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus Ringmaster who despises him. Nanon, who cannot stand to be touched or held by any man, is pursued by Malabar the Strongman but Alonzo is determined to keep her himself with murderous consequences. It is one of cinema’s most bizarre love triangles due to Alonzo’s secret and how he ultimately tries to win her love. There are elements of fetishism, burlesque and a whole lot of Freudian symbolism going on which will no doubt continue to fascinate, making The Unknown an enduring cult classic. What remains above all else is the genius of Chaney “the man of a thousand faces” as a master of human expression. As the only 35mm film screened at the festival and with live piano accompaniment it was an absolute privilege to see and discover this film for the first time, presented in the best possible way. It is rare to see a 35mm print in most independent/ Arthouse cinemas and non-existent at multiplexes, but whenever I have the chance of seeing a film in this format it affirms the quality of light and depth of field that makes it truly unique and largely unequalled in the digital age. The marks on a print become part of its history and part of the collective storytelling. The film was thought lost until it was rediscovered at the Cinematheque Francaise in the late 1960’s, found in one of hundreds of cans of film in their collection marked l’inconnu ,French for “unknown”. It is an example of the enduring qualities of celluloid which is still the most stable cinematic medium we have.

IFF has a strong tradition of showcasing Scottish short films and those with a local connection, highlighting the need for increased national support to facilitate the transition from shorts to feature filmmaking. It was gratifying to see increased audiences for all three selected short film screenings. Some of the highlights from the shorts programme included; Monkey Love Experiments directed by Ainslie Henderson and Will Anderson, Ian Waugh’s As He Lay Falling, Cara Connolly and Martin Clark’s Exchange and Mart, Douglas McDowall’s A Time For Freedom, Adam Stafford’s No Hope For Men Below, Rosie Reed Hillman’s Caileach, Jamie Magnus Stone’s Orbit Ever After and A Film Is A Film Is A Film by Eva Von Schweinitz.

Director Adam Stafford’s No Hope for Men Below (UK, 2013, 11mins) is a stunningly composed short with poetry in Scots dialect by Janet Paisley commemorating the 1923 Redding Pit disaster.  The opening black screen and anguished female voice is immediately compelling and as the story unfolds the imagery is superbly edited with sound in a way that sharpens our senses and flows with the rhythm of the spoken word. Shot in heightened black and white, we see pit black water sparkling with light, then turbulent and threatening as we move underground to claustrophobic chambers; a group of men illuminated eating their last bread, the face of a man who has written his final words to his family and bodies compacted together in a last embrace. The sound of breath in the dark brings the audience closer to the reality of the pit and the grief of those left behind. Stafford’s film is an incredibly muscular and compact 11 mins where poetry is created verbally and visually in perfect synthesis.

Rosie Reed Hillman’s Caileach (UK, 2014, 13 mins) is a wonderful and inspiring portrait of 86 year old Morag and her life in Licksto on the Isle of Harris. Hillman’s sensitive direction conveys the spirit and character of her subject, together with an acute sense of place.  “I can’t describe myself” Morag says, “I am me”, however the camera succeeds in capturing her spirited approach to life; through her everyday routines, interactions with her beloved sheep and contemplation of family photographs in the house she was born in, belonging to five previous generations. Whatever fears we hold about aging and death, in Morag we see not a Caileach (Old Woman) in decline, but a strong, independent and fearless individual facing her remaining years and mortality with assurance, grace and dignity. “It is a privilege to grow old” she says. “Many are denied it”. “I’m not afraid, perfect love casts out fear.” A single shot of a winding Harris road meeting a rainbow conveys visually, in perfect symmetry, that eternal optimism and an acceptance of being part of an essential cycle of life and death.

In Jamie Magnus Stone’s delightful and imaginative Orbit Ever After (Ireland/UK, 2013, 20 mins) Nigel, who lives with his quirky family on a ramshackle spaceship, sees a girl spinning round the earth the wrong way through his telescope and is instantly smitten. Trapped in different orbits they must find a way to communicate and reach each other. Stone’s inventive, whimsical and ultimately Romantic mediation on the need to leap into moments of connection and happiness to be truly alive (even if there’s a chance that you will burn up on re-entry) is positively brimming with warmth and humour.

Directed by screenwriter and filmmaker Douglas McDowall A Time of Freedom (UK, 2014, 20 mins) examines the tradition of the Boujloud, a pagan festival held in the Souss Valley in Southern Morocco. The three day ritual celebration of dancing, singing and masquerading has ancient roots in the Berker tradition and the central figure of the goat man or Bilmawm. Participants wear sheep or goat skins to invoke the power of the sacrificial animal, touching or hitting members of the crowd to impart good omens.  Although the role of the festival has changed over time, coexisting with Islam and becoming an economic driver in the area as a carnival, what is communicated in interviews with participants is the enduring need for ritual in contemporary life. Masks allow people to be and do what they wouldn’t ordinarily as part of a highly regulated society. McDowall’s editing, cinematography by Mike Webster and original music by Omar Afif and Joost Oud are skilfully interwoven as we follow individual stories, then move through the crowd as spectators and participants. What is fascinating and encouraging is the passionate, joyful embracing of this tradition by the younger generation as a connection to the ancestors, an affirmation of identity, social cohesion and perhaps most importantly in a modern context, the individual and collective release of suppressed emotion. The felt sense of participation in the Boujloud is very much linked to the health of the individual and society, with several of the interviewees commenting that if they didn’t wear the skins they just didn’t feel right or had physical symptoms.  Although the festival is culturally specific, it has global implications in terms of what we chose to embrace and what keeps us whole, individually and collectively. There are moments when Webster’s camera lingers on groups and individuals in the crowd, where time is slowed and we see glimpses of the Bilmawn as something deep within us. Since McDowall’s first short film The Wishing Well, screened at the Inverness Film Festival in 2008, there has clearly been significant development in the filmmaker’s style and process, resulting in this very promising short.

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Directed by Eva Von Schweinitz A Film Is A Film Is A Film (USA, 2013, 16mins) is a thoughtful meditation on the disappearance of celluloid film and the takeover of digital projection worldwide. Drawn to becoming a projectionist by the “Romantic notion” of “making magic” as a “backstage performer”, “secret agent” and “master of the booth”, Von Schweinitz gently and playfully considers the link between how we watch films and how we see. A decade of experience as a projectionist and her work as a filmmaker; experimenting with bleaching, scratching, burying and painting onto film reveals the nature and true value of celluloid.  The “precision”, “attentiveness” and skill of the projectionist which is so dependent on a tactile relationship and understanding of film has been largely replaced by the push of a button. With DCP initiated by the major studios forcing the abandonment of making and watching 35mm film the “Death of Film” has been proclaimed by many. In New York City there are about 40 film projectors left in cinemas. Von Schweinitz doesn’t offer a didactic case for the preservation of film as a medium; however her own creative approach as a filmmaker succeeds as a powerful argument for why we need it. Inspired by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) who placed the wings of moths and files between film, explored handheld camera techniques, painted directly onto film, used collage , multiple exposures and in camera editing Von Schweinitz asks a pertinent question; “how could you put the wings of a fly on an SD card?” The physicality of film, the way it ages, the way every print is scarred during its life, speaks to who and what we are as human beings. The flickering light of the projector, what Von Schweinitz describes as “moments of unknowingness” in the dark, like the natural process of a human eye blinking takes us  into the unknown, “embracing the unfamiliar and the now”. This isn’t simply nostalgia for a vanishing Art; Film, like digital media is a choice and to lose it completely would be an incalculable loss. It’s like not making oil paint anymore, simply because watercolours are cheaper and earn the warehouse a higher profit. There is sadness in this film visiting old mausoleum-like theatres, the camera focusing on what feels like a human stain on the floor where an old projector has been ripped out to make way for the latest digital model, but this is equalled by love and passion for the medium which is the best possible argument for why we still need it as part of contemporary culture.

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“Is there anything greater than to do the things you are passionate about until the end of your life?” asks Director Binder Jigjid in Byamba Sakhya’s wonderfully uplifting and thoughtful documentary Passion, following Jigjid across the vastness of Mongolia as he tries to distribute and screen his latest film Human Traffic.  The challenging, magnificent landscapes of Mongolia aren’t simply a backdrop but a vital element in the expansive creative vision of both directors and the dialogue between them provides a window on the world. As we travel with them from village to village the fascinating history of Mongolian cinema is revealed including the work of Jigjid’s Father, a pioneering director. We visit the abandoned film studios that once employed hundreds of people during a time of national film production and distribution through state run cinemas under Soviet control and censorship. Jigjid reflects on contemporary society overwhelmed by the increasingly global free market to the point where it “cannot distinguish between what is art and what is business” and where “Success {is} dependent on promotion not quality”.  The beauty of this film lies in Sakhya’s gentle insistence that “this film is about you” and in the sparkling eyes, humility and profound understanding of Binder Jigjid as a director and as a human being. “Where is the boundary between passion and greed? he asks of himself as a filmmaker and of the audience as consumers. “Creating good Art means you have to be truthful with yourself”. This beautiful documentary brings that core question of human intention and aspiration brilliantly into focus.

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IFF continued its strong tradition of showcasing the work of the world’s most promising first feature directors and this year’s selection presented some significant highlights. Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature The Tribe is a powerfully arresting and thoroughly immersive experience set in a boarding school for the deaf. Performed in sign language without any subtitles, voiceover or music, the film completely subverts the default position of mainstream cinematic storytelling; namely to tell the audience everything. Typically dialogue and musical cues tell us how to read and feel about the characters and their story. Here Slaboshpytskiy makes us watch film differently; denying sound (apart from naturally occurring actions like footsteps) and heightening our visual/ gestural readings of tension, tenderness and violence. For the majority of the audience who don’t use or understand sign language, what we are left with is something purer in terms of human expression through cinema, but also something harsher; a cold and uncompromising vision of an alienated world where you either exploit others or be exploited yourself. Like all gang cultures the code is silence and the need to belong, especially amongst adolescents, is painfully universal. The Tribe transcends its own subcultural language by making the viewer feel as viscerally raw and isolated as its characters. Editor and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych first keeps the audience at a distance, then moves to handheld immediacy as we follow a new pupil’s induction into an underground world of prostitution and organised crime. Often our view is that of another student sitting at the back of a class or following behind with the pack like a new recruit. The untrained acting is intensely physical and there are scenes that are unflinchingly honest and emotionally alienating in their depiction of sex, prostitution, violence and abortion. But that’s exactly the point. By far the most unsettling element is the world that Slaboshpytskiy’s depicts; the institutional microcosm and its decaying walls reflect a wider reality. Although there are glimmers of innocence and intimacy in the main character Sergeu (Grigoriy Fesenko) this soon turns to possessive, explosive rage. Winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize, the France 4 Visionary Award, the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution and the Golden Camera award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival this is a bleak but intensely promising first film for both the director and cinematographer.

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Maya Vitkova’s strikingly accomplished first feature Viktoria was another extraordinary highlight of the festival. The whole question of nurturing, the central relationships between mothers and daughters over three generations and the rise and fall of communism in Bulgaria are examined in a complex story which is as epic as it is personal. Dedicated to the director’s Mother and semi-autobiographical, Vitkova’s story is infused with political satire, absurdist humour and a deep sense of loss – not just for the individual but for an entire country. Librarian Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) is determined not to have children and dreams of escaping to America. Despite all her efforts at thwarting pregnancy she gives birth to a baby girl (Viktoria) without a belly button or umbilical cord, a symbolic lack of any real connection between mother and child. This medical miracle on Victory Day draws unrelenting attention from the authorities. She becomes the Socialist regime’s “Baby of the Decade”, with a direct line to the Party leader making it impossible for her mother to flee the country. Played at age 9 by Daria Vitkova, then later by Kalina Vitkova, Viktoria grows up spoilt by Party indulgence, universally applauded by those in power and those who have none, her entire self-worth determined by the state. With the collapse of Communism in 1989 the child’s entire world comes crashing down, she is no longer special or adored, remaining unwanted and resented by her mother and increasingly isolated. The lack of a belly button that once singled her out for special treatment only serves to alienate her further. As she matures as a young woman in a new post-communist state Viktoria becomes a nurturing influence on her grandmother Dima (Mariana Krumova), a Party faithful who is presented initially as a judgemental, draconian force in the home, destroying her daughter Boryana’s contraband Coke bottles and statue of liberty cigarette lighter with a mallet. In Dima we see that freedom is relative and exacts a price; loss of certainty, purpose, meaning and identity result in her mental breakdown. It is only after Dima’s death that the tortured figure of her daughter Boryana, so distant and painfully unfulfilled, finds some point of connection as she tends her mother’s lifeless body. There is hope however amongst all the sorrow communicated by a new dawn and in the postcard Boryana receives from her daughter. It seems that for Viktoria the future holds more promise of human fulfilment than was possible for preceding generations.

Vitkova’s treatment of her subject is political and poetic. The director cleverly utilises news footage, juxtaposing world events; acts of revolution, conflict and resistance for historical context and to suggest an ever expanding field of reference. But the most significant stylistic development is the director’s ability to explore her characters’ psychological and emotional states through eloquent, dreamlike imagery. It is in this visual language that the Vitkova really finds her voice. The most beautiful, insightful and memorable images in the film are universally the most poignant. Trapped by a child she never wanted Boryana is unable to produce milk, a recurrent source of symbolic imagery throughout the film; a nipple exploding with milk she can’t express, unwanted rations of milk from Dima spilt on the ground and bubbling in the soil like acid, milk flowing from the body and finally a torrent like tears in cleansing rain. One of the most affecting sequences in the film is a dream of the child and her mother in a swimming pool, Boryana cradles Viktoria in her arms and for the first time they really see each other. The look they exchange is of unconditional love and acceptance, a state denied in waking life. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez works from a subdued, clinical palette to convey a sterile environment, punctuated by red with all its political, cultural and emotional associations. A display of drawings and photographs in Viktoria’s bedroom reads as a red tree collage of party allegiance rather than a display of familial connections or imaginative play. In another sequence an umbilical cord grows like a tree root out of the sleeping Viktoria, becoming the line to the Party leader’s telephone. Elements of the surreal in these sequences achieve a heightened sense of reality and emotional truth. High crane shots are used to great effect in relation to the human figure, particularly to delineate the relationship between the individual and the collective. But the camera is equally attuned to the intimacy of relationships and their powerful estrangement in close-up. At the time of writing Viktoria does not have UK distribution, an example of the important role film festivals have in bringing the work of emerging artists/directors wider attention and attracting future investment in their evolving work.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com

Finding Vivian Maier

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In an era of the selfie and social mass media where every moment of daily personal life is on public display in an endless, narcissistic parade of mediocrity, the photography of Vivian Maier is a dazzling discovery. The fascination with a woman who by reputation led a life closed to others, did not seek to share her work with the world and had no interest in courting fame isn’t how we expect a Great Artist , or even the average Joe with a Smartphone to behave. The story of John Maloof Finding Vivian Maier in this documentary is an unfolding puzzle; a detective story and journey of fortune we would all like to project ourselves into. The chance find of a box filled with negatives at an auction, the global platform of Flickr and the democracy of Google searches made finding Maier possible and seemingly within the reach of everyone. Maloof’s tenacity and obsession to uncover the artist’s life and work is the driving force of the film, working through storage lockers of her life, chasing leads through receipts and images, trying to piece together the woman and the artist. Establishing the Maloof Collection which now contains 90% of her archive, touring exhibitions, producing publications, prints, and sharing her remarkable images with the world online has no doubt saved the artist’s work from obscurity and potential destruction. The commercial aspect of sharing the work is also essential in revealing the vast collection of undeveloped film Maier left behind. A letter to a French film developer found in her possessions reveals that she did want to print the vast “pile” of material and that she recognised her work was “good”. Maier was intensely prolific, leaving behind 2000 undeveloped Black & White films, 700 undeveloped colour films, 100,000 negatives, 8mm and 16mm films, audio recordings and collectibles. The reluctance of major museums to acknowledge the artist as part of a canon of Great Artists/Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank or become involved in the archiving process is perhaps due( as Maloof suggests) to the vast amount of undeveloped material that she never had the chance to see and edit herself. Even though many photographers don’t print their own work the choice of what to print usually lies with the creator of the image and is part of the authenticity of the edition. It is thrilling to contemplate the scanning of negatives and development of film that will one day reveal the full breadth and depth of Maier’s oeuvre. Whether she intended it or not, her work is now in the public domain on a scale that in the 20th Century would have been unfathomable.

The enigma of the artist is a central preoccupation in John Maloof and Charlie Siskels’ documentary and in the public imagination. The testimonies of former employers and childhood recollections of Maier as a nanny are frequently contradictory, as memories often are; a complex and fluid narrative of perceived facts, remembrance, imagination and embellishment, becoming legend. By the end of the film I was craving more of the insight offered by the beautifully perceptive Joel Meyerowitz (the only Artist/Photographer interviewed in the film) and a return to the primary source of Maier’s images. This insistence on Maier as an unknowable enigma is something of a red herring when we return to her original work. Like all Great Artists/Photographers and unlike the average Joe with a Smartphone she didn’t just take photos. She needed to make images and was compelled to do so, honing her grasp of the frame, time, herself and the outside world in the process, grappling with what it is to be human. What makes her work so extraordinary isn’t the visible absence of human connection but the abundance of connections within it. Maier’s compositions demonstrate acute awareness of self and human relationships; she made people on the margins of society resoundingly visible, had a conscience in relation to social inequality and the courage to confront her own shadow self. As Joel Meyerowitz suggests, she was seeing how close she could get with every shot. In her work there is beauty, deprivation, humour, irony, delight, moments of trust, genuine exchange and always a wellspring of curiosity.

The universal human need to document, commemorate, celebrate and memorialise moments of recognition in our lives has always been entwined with the transience of human life and mortality in the Art of Photography. Describing herself as “sort of a spy” Maier recorded off guard moments; people with all their artifice and vulnerabilities, including her own. Her image of Audrey Hepburn at the Chicago premiere of My Fair Lady at the Palace Theatre, October 23, 1964 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM19XXW02129-11-MC) reduces the world around the star to a blur, her expression wishing herself away from the limelight and capturing a universal human experience of levelling loneliness. Maier was a master of composition and her self-portraits are amongst the most complex and revealing of the genre. Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00130-07-MC) is an image of multiple reflections and framed layers of association. At first we are drawn to the gaunt reflection of Maier’s face and torso in a silver tray, part of a store window display; the cold heightened tone of metal and held gaze, like a prisoner behind bars, immediately drawing the eye to the centre of the image. The security mesh across the window presents a psychological dimension, the certainty of the foreground out of focus and the core of the image/self in sharp reflection. Her expression is blankly penetrating and melancholic; a hint of resignation in the downturned corner of the mouth, aiming for steadfastness but plainly vulnerable. Maier’s Rolleiflex camera held at chest height is just visible; a lens, within a reflection, within a window within the still frame. Another reflection of her torso in the store window with her head cropped off presents a disembodied and dispossessed, but arrestingly calculated image; a line of closed black curtain providing the evasive ground for the exploration. The image is uneasily direct, the polished silver at odds with the thin face we see contemplating herself and fortune’s wheel in reflection. In framing this shot, Maier also simultaneously holds the gaze of the viewer, caught in a moment and for all time. In this moment the artist records and transcends herself. In the act of seeing the viewer becomes aware of the universality and the intricate layers of intimacy and defence that make us human.

Self Portrait May 5th, 1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio) is an image of incredible depth which lays bare the act of seeing through the eye/lens. The artist stands confidently, hands on hips, directly meeting the viewer’s gaze with the piercing precision of mirrored perspective, extending the reach of the shot to a heightened state of awareness. The alignment of mirrors creates a scene which is brilliantly focused and simultaneously flooded with expansive, illuminating light. The tonality in Maier is the light and dark of the human soul. The presence of the shadow self as observer perhaps reflects Maier’s occupation on the edge of family life and the isolation pursuit of seeing can bring. It reminds me of a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George where the painter Seurat reflects on the emotional state of creativity, watching the rest of the world through a window as “the only way to see”. In Self Portrait 1955 (The Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W02784-03-MC) Maier’s distinctive silhouette in a dated hat and oversized coat are part of the shadow bisecting the composition, part of the city largely unseen. Human presence in absence or in psychologically framed objects is a fascinating element in Maier’s work. In New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXW04205-09-MC) the artist captures still drifting smoke from an abandoned chair blackened by fire, charred but standing defiantly on the street corner beside a neighbouring trash can. It’s a moment of truth and unexpected beauty in discarded found material, the detritus of people’s physical, emotional and psychological lives.

In Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00106-05-MC) a horseshoe crab is positioned at the centre of the artist’s shadow torso, a carapace of hardened protection where the heart should be. In Undated (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM19XXW03470-06-MG) we see a pile of fallen leaves occupying the same position, an acknowledgement of cycles of growth and decay which affect us all. Maier’s reputed aversion to physical contact, insistence on padlocked rooms where she stayed and hoarding behaviour; accumulating boxes and boxes of material, creating rooms stacked with newspapers like padding with narrow walkways between, suggests Obsessive Compulsive and lifelong coping behaviours in response to loss and trauma. Although much is spoken of Maier’s aversion to human society and relationships, she is described as “a loner”, “a spinster”, “childless”, a distinctly feminine figure of loneliness; her images reveal many points of connection between the artist and the human subjects she photographed. The absence of marriage, children and romantic relationships is a fixation unique to discussion of female artists and obscures consideration of the true value and depth of their work. Examining Maier’s original work in detail is infinitely more insightful and revealing than the multiple testimonies of people who thought they knew her. Maier was a defiant survivor, fiercely intelligent and visually literate; this is abundantly clear in her work. She managed to carve out an existence through an occupation that gave her a roof over her head and the relative freedom to continue to take photographs. The relationship with her employers was always precarious, dependent on the benevolence and understanding of the families she worked for; her contribution to family life, largely invisible and poorly paid. Her identification with people on the margins of society and in poverty is incredibly articulate and true. Typically shot from chest height the human figure in the Street Portfolios of the Maloof Collection elevate the human figure from a position of disadvantage and dispossession to a position of dignity, self-possession and power. There is the sense of the artist meeting the gaze of the subject and acknowledging the presence of the other that is immediately tangible. In those moments Maier wasn’t hiding behind her camera, there is an openness and warmth communicated in her work that is absolutely invested in life and human empathy. The Street Portfolios are filled with examples of the artist meeting the gaze of her human subjects with equality; acknowledging the unique qualities of the individual, regardless of class, age, race or circumstance. Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXWO3160-03-MC), an image of a young woman leaning out of a car window is illuminated by the warmth of her smile in exchange with the artist and the viewer. May 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W03398-08-MC) communicates a moment of intimacy, poignancy and exposure, an elderly man’s life experience written in his eyes meeting the photographer’s. Composed with arresting grace and radiating inner dignity Maier’s image of an elderly woman; May 16 1957, Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1957TW03435-10-MC) is another beautiful example of the connection made primarily through the eye and then the lens. Her image of a young girl Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VMPIXXW03160-05-MC) standing with her arms folded in a defensive stance; dirty face, tousled hair and tears in her eyes is an image of youth, age and streetwise experience reflecting the human subject and the photographer. In the background a store window full of lifeless adult sized gloves are juxtaposed with the stature of the young girl, her expression and demeanour strikingly assured beyond her years, defiantly strong yet emotionally fragile.

Maier had a highly observant and ironic eye for framing the relationships between human beings in all their complexity. There are moments of tenderness such as April 7, 1960 (Maloof Collection, Street 1 Portfolio, M196W03443-04-MC) where she captures an elderly couple who have fallen asleep on a bus; his hat sheltering her face which is nestled in the hollow of his shoulder, an image of habitual comfort and unconscious affection. In July 27 1954, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3,VM1954W03415-04-MC) we see only the patterns and textures of clothing and the entwined hands of a couple from behind, the contrasting skin of their forearms revealing their relativity to each other. In terms of a public display of affection caught on camera the image subverts expectations. Another image of a couple in what is presumably a Central Park horse drawn carriage; March 27, 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W00564-03-MC) is ironically pristine in its framing. In close up it could easily be a fairytale scene from a Vogue photo shoot, an immaculately dressed young woman inclines her head towards her handsome companion, listening intently to what he is saying. The view however is at a distance, Maier pulls back so that we see the confines of the black carriage and the company sign on the door that reads; “Safety”, “Comfort” and “Service”. In December21, 1961, Chicago, IL. (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1961W00847-03-WC) we see a group of bystanders gathered around a woman who has collapsed on the street, being tended to by police officers. Within this group one woman puts her hand to her face in shock, her brow furrowed with concern, another looks down and seems to see herself in the fallen figure. Two others look away into the distance, thinking of something else. The emotional trajectories in this work are fascinating, complex and contradictory. Maier was drawn to such scenes on the street like a journalist or war photographer. Like all great Street Photographers she simultaneously achieves necessary distance and human connection.

Maier captured human tragedy, accidents, violence, abject poverty and people, especially children in states of emotional distress; visual headlines for all that human beings are capable of. But there is also undeniable humour, delight and joy in her images. In Jan 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1,VM1956W03408-10-MC) a pair of shoes amongst a line of canned sliced peaches peek out from beneath the curtain of a shop window, 1960. Chicago,IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1968-9W03408-10-MC) captures the expression of an expectant poodle seemingly waiting for a call beneath a payphone and the colour shot Undated (Maloof Collection, Colour Portfolio, VM19XXZ06928-20-MC) of someone half disappeared into a hedge is comically surreal. The wonderful Self Portrait, New York, February 3 ,1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W03420-50-MC)of Maier smiling in the reflection of a tilted mirror being placed onto a removal truck is another shining example of her imagination, playfulness and wit. Even with the human subject removed Maier’s compositions are filled with beauty, light and dark. 1963. Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1963W00765-11-MC) is a supremely balanced composition; a central elongated puddle reflecting neon signage in the distance, drawing the eye into its depth and luminosity. Framing the image at the top of photograph is a sign that invites the viewer to “Come Fly With Me”. Maier’s compositional skills are richly evidenced in more abstract works such as September 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1956W03430-06-MC) where her eye framing the side of a building with its exposed brickwork delivers a perfect composition of line, tone and texture that would be the envy of any painter. There can be no doubt when looking at her work that she deserves a place alongside the world’s greatest Artists/Photographers. When we return to her images we see not a closed person or a crazed personality, but someone who understood her medium and human beings equally with conscience and awareness. Unfortunately ownership of Maier’s estate is currently being contested by a long lost relative in France and the question of who owns copyright could mean years of litigation, preventing her work from being reproduced or shown in galleries. Whoever gains possession of Maier’s estate, the preservation and restoration of her work must continue. Although the story of Finding Vivian Maier began as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as more of Maier’s undeveloped film is revealed we must begin to reassess its value, quality and depth in the context of world Art History rather than the limitations of fame and fortune that the define the Contemporary Art World.

www.findingvivianmaier.com