Glasgow Film Festival

17-28 February 2016

Evolution

Évolution directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović.

Every February I look forward to time spent in Glasgow, sitting in illuminated darkness rediscovering the collective joys of Cinema. There’s something unique about Glaswegian audiences and the Glasgow Film Theatre experience that always gives me a positive lift. Warm, friendly and irrepressibly vocal, Glasgow audiences are up for anything! It’s the ripple of audible excitement through the audience as the opening credits reveal the surprise of the sell-out Mystery Film, the enthusiastic, spontaneous applause after the fabulous Dream Team free morning screenings, the hum of conversation in the GFT lobby or CCA bar as people unpack what they’ve just watched with curiosity, humour and insight, which add significantly to the whole experience.  And of course there’s the consistently wonderful baseline selection of films year on year, exposure to new world releases and heightened appreciation of old favourites in excellent company. The city marketing board slogan of “People Make Glasgow” is actually, resoundingly true and it is equally true of how we collectively experience film.

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It fills me with joy that daytime screenings of timeless classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep can fill a cinema like GFT1 – proof that the appetite for seeing such films on a big screen is encouragingly healthy -perhaps because, or in spite of, the many ways we can now watch films; mostly at home, in isolation, in a reductive hand held / small screen capacity or ironically as part of a wider, unseen global community of fellow niche enthusiasts. With debates about the Hollywood gender pay divide and race prejudice currently ranging, it’s heartening to see the diversity that Independent Cinema has always offered , celebrated in a city historically aligned with the Socialist belief that Culture rightly, belongs to everyone. GFF has a markedly different feel to other festivals in that respect. It embraces being cinematically and artistically curious, not just in terms of programming, but also in the context of how the city sees itself.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)

Festival Co-Director Alan Hunter’s introductions to retrospective screenings always provide interesting pathways into film- another human element which like Director’s Q&As and the conversations you have standing in line about what you’ve watched so far, are part of a film festival’s value added appeal. That Barbara Stanwyck was paid the same sum as her male co-stars for Double Indemnity and was in 1944, the year of its release,  the highest paid woman in America made me meditate on just how backward mainstream popular culture has become. We think of gender equality as being a recent development and seem to be under the comforting Western illusion that it has already been achieved, with temporary Twitter outrage ensuing when we find high profile evidence to the contrary. But this isn’t just about conditions or pay, it is also about content; how we see or don’t see ourselves on screen and how power relationships are projected and enacted.

I can think of very few contemporary Hollywood films where equality of dialogue, presence and screen time is comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep- certainly a reflection of their personalities and undeniable chemistry on and off screen, but also significantly, the product of a well-crafted piece of storytelling where the male and female lead characters are resoundingly written as equals. Part of the delight in watching this film time and again is seeing that this is possible, especially in a Hollywood studio film from a so-called bygone era. It’s a source of inspiration that doesn’t date and the Dream Teams strand of this year’s festival celebrated not just winning on screen partnerships, but why they continue to be both inspirational and aspirational.maxresdefault

Isabelle Huppert in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs

Storytelling in the dark is as old as cave dwelling and on a deep, human level, fulfils a timeless need; to entertain certainly, but more essentially to make sense of ourselves. GFF 2016 gave me plenty to chew on in that respect; from the absurd projections of male ego in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier to Joachim Trier’s brilliantly complex examination of grief and human perception in Louder Than Bombs starring Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Devin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg. There were many highlights including Santiago Mitre’s uncompromisingly challenging drama Paulina, César Acevedo’s beautifully subtle, accomplished first feature Land and Shade, Thomas Bidegain’s  strikingly unexpected play on theme in Cowboys , the theatrically measured craft of Simon Stone’s The Daughter starring Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill, Julien Duvivier’s wonderful 1946 thriller Panique and the delightfully bonkers  Love and Peace by Japanese director Sion Sono.  But perhaps the film that captured my imagination most for its stunning visuals, painterly sense of composition, colourful symbolism, psychological depth and persistent ambiguity was Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Évolution.

The opening sequence sets the scene with light seen through water- are we above or below? It’s impossible to tell- just go with it. We see the curve of the world and hear the distant sound of the sea; the effect is immediately immersive, like a dive and in that filtered light with fiery orange seaweed wafting against blue, peaceful movement and more sinister auditory undercurrents; the natural and unnatural seamlessly entwine. We are introduced to the film’s main character Nicolas via his shadow; adrift, then diving and surfacing in awareness, dead boy and dead self, sunk at the bottom of the ocean. Accents of red and danger punctuate these scenes- attraction and repulsion within the same frame, chiming perfectly with the body horror of puberty and gestation.

The sensuous underwater world of fluid light as a primordial source of life is contrasted beautifully with the black volcanic beach and stark white geometry of spartan dwellings, which feel as though they have been reclaimed from natural disaster and human abandonment. The island is populated entirely by young sons and their “Mothers”, whose dark unfathomable eyes and culinary habits suggest an intriguing range of possibilities; perhaps evolution borne out of necessity in response to the natural environment, a Utopian society off kilter, an island lab experiment, an alien race or a Dystopian nightmare. The extreme beauty of this film is that the audience is left to fill the gap between the final scene and the previous 79 minutes on their own imaginative terms- exactly the kind of film that I love to watch and that stays with you.

Hadžihalilović skillfully presents the viewer with twisted familiarity, a community of women seemingly evolving as a single organism with propagation of their species aligned to biological determinism rather than the emotive qualities of Motherhood so revered in human society. Moments of ritualised behaviour, such as the washing of their children in the sea or the beach birth feel instinctively rooted in deep memory and strangely conflicting bloodlines. This dredging of the unconscious, submerging the viewer in ancient fears and human insecurities is all the more striking for its focus on male vulnerability. In contrast with his guardians Nicolas’s humanity is his memory and creativity. The drawings he makes of his Mother, are greeted with curiosity by his nurse- one species/ gender / generation beholding another. Her response is evolutionary in an emotional sense and is also a means and trajectory of survival. This is a fascinating film with little dialogue to disturb the visual storytelling and an exciting stylistic calling card from an emerging director. The co-writer of Gaspar Noé’s superb 2009 film Enter the Void , Hadžihalilović’s previous feature Innocence (2004) starring Marion Cotillard is definitely one I’ll be seeking to watch, along with her future productions.Definitely one of this year’s GFF discoveries, together with Manuel Dacosse’s exquisite cinematography.

www.glasgowfilm.org/festival

 

Mommy Directed by Xavier Dolan.

 

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* Warning- this review contains spoilers.

I’ve been recording forever. I’m a watcher. I’m a stalker. I love everything about people. It’s always been a passion for me to observe. Xavier Dolan.

Born in Québec, Canada in 1989, actor, writer and director Xavier Dolan made his first feature at the age of 19; the critically acclaimed I Killed My Mother (2009), followed by Heartbeats (2010), Laurence Anyways (2012) and Tom at the Farm (2013). Released across the UK in March 2015, Dolan’s latest film Mommy (2014) is an intense, visually accomplished, deeply compassionate film and a milestone in the career of its (then) 25 year old Director. Clearly it’s a film made with love and creatively striving towards light; remarkably without judgement about parenting or mental illness. Dolan’s keen observations of human behaviour acknowledge that “good people” don’t necessarily make “good parents” and he establishes beautifully, in visual terms, the complexity of individuals dealing with life the best way they know how. Although the premise of the film may sound familiar; a lone parent trying to home school her violent, disruptive teenage son after he has been expelled from a detention centre, from the opening sequence an unexpected vision is immediately drawn into view.

The 1:1 square aspect ratio creates a portrait orientation and shape of projection familiar to an entire generation as the Selfie. However André Turpin’s cinematography and Dolan’s writing/direction elevate the form beyond the merely self-referential. Although the film was shot in the district Dolan grew up in and the central character Steve is (by the director’s own admission) a projection of his own anger, what emerges is considerably more expansive than just a self-conscious framing device. We are first introduced via a black screen and text to the idea in “a fictional Canada” of an S-14 bill which allows parents to place their out of control children in the care of a public hospital without due legal process. In the opening shot Dolan introduces us to the child in question; clearly a male teenager from the comic book style boxer shorts hung out on the line; his vulnerability made clear by the intimate item of clothing blowing in the wind. In the background, out of focus, we become aware of presence of a woman reaching towards a tree, then plucking an apple from it in close up, her had grasping forwards, childlike, bathed in luminous warmth and sunlight. Before we see her face the camera pans up from high heels to sequined jeans; as Dolan has described in interview (the director designs costumes for all his films) “even before a character opens their mouth their costume speaks”.

When we do see her face of Diane ((Anne Dorval), the camera dwells on her, eyes closed, the character serenely framed in music, sunshine and dignity. In those first few moments we are made aware of her tending / harvesting fruit from the tree and of feminine duality; sensuousness and motherhood. The illumination of this scene resists defining the character stereotypically according to gender or class. Ironically the focus of the aspect ratio/ portrait orientation immediately presents a wider view of possibility in relation to the audience’s assumptions about the character. What we learn during the course of the film is that this single Mum, Diane (D.I.E.) Despres is a widow, devoted to her son Steve ( Antoine- Olivier Pilon)who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Attachment Disorder.  Dolan’s writing and Pilon’s amazing, subtly nuanced performance allows us to see infinitely more than the diagnosis. Steve is innately volatile, foul mouthed, aggressive, violent and provocative, but he is also childlike, tender, protective and undeniably exuberant; bursting with life, humour and undeniable energy. He is a character who in many ways is trapped inside his own head, unable to sustain relationships, moving from one reactive, explosive episode to the next. Dolan conveys this beautifully through sound, reduced to a bass beat of music and pure adrenalin or offered in contrast to the images we see as a psychological layer of experience and memory. The camerawork is instinctively empathic, it follows close to the characters, the viewer walks behind them, touching the hairs on the back of the neck, almost in their shoes and we gain a felt sense of their perceptive shifts in close up.

In one sequence, we see Steve shot from below in an elevated position on a bridge against bright blue sky, headphones on, with the distinctly minor key piano introduction of Counting Crows song Colorblind leading the audience. As he moves through the streets on his longboard (skateboard), the camera follows beside him like a companion and the viewer hears what the character does not, as he moves to the beat of a mute Rap track. The lyrics of the soundtrack against the confident movement of a guy we could pass in the street on a brilliant sunny day but never really see, convey the sadness and isolation within. He is a child; “Taffy stuck and tongue tied” and a young man on the cusp of adulthood; “I am covered in skin, no one gets to come in, pull me out from inside, I am folded and unfolded and unfolding, I am colorblind”… “coffee black and egg white”…“I am ready, I am ready, I am ready, I am fine.” Dolan consistently delivers more than just a Hipster soundtrack with a range of sound and music that informs our understanding of the characters and their predicament, not simply mirroring emotion or action on screen but revealing their emotional and psychological core. Dolan’s soundtrack is also significantly dominated by a mixed tape from Steve’s dead Father.

The cycles of life punctuated by inner cycles of emotional connect and disconnect are visualised in the poignant and poetic sight of Steve playing alone with a shopping trolley, spiralling into a destructive act. The adults in his orbit are equally prone to rage when pushed to the limit and there are times when the roles of parent/ care giver and helpless child are visibly reversed. When Steve and his mother Diane befriend their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément ) who literally and metaphorically cannot express herself, it is a catalyst for change in all their lives. Although we do not entirely learn Kyla’s backstory, it is clear that she has moved with her boyfriend and child away from some kind of traumatic incident. An ex- high school teacher on “sabbatical”, not yet ready to go back to teaching kids and with a portrait of a blonde male child, not unlike a younger Steve, absent from the home implicates loss. When Kyla agrees to help with Steve’s home schooling to allow Diane to go out to work she begins to blossom, her stutter improves and she begins to bond with the teenager and his Mother. We learn that when Kyla comes to dinner with Steve and Diane it is the first time she has been out since they moved and as they dance in the kitchen to Celine Dion’s On ne change pas, a perfectly pitched reference to our hidden selves, we see aspects of all three characters begin to unfold, in the acceptance of each other’s company. In this context Steve in nail polish and black eyeliner dancing with two older women harks back to a glance he exchanges with another boy in the street and removes the idea of seduction from the scene. Steve serenades Kyla and the viewer simultaneously, the camera and audience becoming a partner in the dance.

This intimate focus expands visually in a street scene where Steve’s hands and outstretched arms expand our physical and metaphorical view to widescreen and Diane, Kyla and Steve take a turn in the road, albeit temporarily. Hope is at the core of this film in spite of the raw and uncompromising exchanges between its central characters and the cruel inference of fate. One of the most affecting scenes is a time lapse sequence set to a cycle of syncopated string music, Ludovico Einandi’s Experience, increasing in tempo as Diane’s hopes and dreams for her son are visualised. At first we cannot tell if these are actual memories or aspirational dreams. Like Steve’s mother having taken the journey with the character we are conditioned to want the traditional happy ending; the graduation, the girlfriend, the marriage, Steve’s dream of getting into Julliard realised,eventually leaving his Mother to pursue his own life and freeing them both. Gradually we spin out of focus and reality hits, it’s raining and Diane is still stationary in the confinement of the car, driving her son to be committed to an institution. It’s an act which tears them both apart but also as Diane states; “I sent him there because I have hope- I am full of hope”… (and) “hopeful people can change things”-a statement by a director in a generation of uncertainty.

In the final frames as the institution guards release the straps on Steve’s straightjacket he bolts down the corridor, a range of expressions flit across his face from mischievous child to absolute determination and we follow in slow motion as he launches himself towards a a floor to ceiling window. Is he about to literally throw himself through it and fall to his death– or like the director transform that window into another self-referential frame? The black screen, all that we’ve witnessed and Lana Del Ray’s Born to Die invite us to draw our own conclusions.

All three lead performances in Mommy are exceptional and the quality of Dolan’s whole production make it a deserving winner of the Jury prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, France’s César award for Best Foreign Film 2015 and Canadian Screen Awards for Best Motion Picture, Achievement in Direction, Achievement in Editing and Best Original Screenplay. Mommy is a powerful reminder of the way that our world and individual horizons expand with hope and rapidly diminish without it. Dolan’s sixth directorial feature The Life and Death of John. F.Donovan starring Jessica Chastain is currently in pre-production and I know I won’t be alone in looking forward to its release.

Mommy- International Trailer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7rtSqI0ZeA

Interview with Xavier Dolan on Mommy, family and John F. Donovan – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNWxa3qsMqU

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC): Mommy – Interview with Xavier Dolan – The Film Book by Benjamin B.6th February 2015.

http://www.theasc.com/asc_blog/thefilmbook/2015/02/06/mommy-interview-xavier-dolan/

Listen to the Soundtrack For Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’- Film Stage, Leonard Pearce October22, 2014.

http://thefilmstage.com/news/listen-to-the-soundtrack-for-xavier-dolans-mommy-featuring-oasis-dido-lana-del-rey-more/

Silence is a Virtue- The Artist

Ahead of Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season screening at Eden Court Cinema in February/ March 2015 I revisited Michel Hazanavicius’ multi award winning film The Artist.

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The first time I saw The Artist it instantly became one of my favourite films. I’ve watched it many times since both in the cinema and on DVD and it never fails to lift my spirits. I have always believed that when an artist of any discipline is fully invested in their work, the audience will feel that energy and connect with it. In the Visual Arts this communication is predominantly silent and although mainstream cinema makes us forget, telling the audience the story through dialogue, Film is at its heart a visual medium. Its power lies in the audience’s felt sense of the unspoken narrative within the frame. All great Artists/ Directors regardless of the age understand this as an intuitive part of their creative vision. Perhaps what struck audiences and critics between the eyes with The Artist on its release was a language or visual literacy we intuitively know as human beings, but that mainstream TV, Advertising, Gaming and Studio Film product largely fail to awaken within us. There is a division in Cinema, mostly in the heads of film financiers, producers and studios, between Mainstream Film and Art House; a belief that you either have to make something “entertaining” for the masses, appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to generate as much profit as possible, or something “intellectual” and aesthetically driven that relatively few people will see and even fewer will appreciate. The Artist explodes this myth in its making and its global reception by both audiences and critics.

The success of The Artist doesn’t just lie in over 150 international film awards it has won including those at Cannes, the Golden Globes, BAFTAS and Academy Awards, or in its box office takings. Almost single handed it has been responsible for a resurgence of public interest in Silent Film. Following its award season success in 2012 LOVEFiLM, Europe’s largest subscription service, streaming films over the internet and sending DVDs by post, showed that “viewing of the 66 films in its Silent Film Collection significantly increased with as much as a 300 percent increase on some individual titles. Of the ten movies in LOVEFiLM’s collection that enjoyed the highest growth, four starred Buston Keaton- one of the greatest silent movie actor-directors of all time.”[1] From Roaring Twenties chic Fashion Design to DVD rentals and the growth of Silent Film screenings with live accompaniment, The Artist has raised awareness about a tradition of seeing the rise of digital technology had almost made us forget. It isn’t about nostalgia for an era of cinema long past, but a living Art, tapping into a wellspring of pure visual storytelling.

The late great American Film Critic Roger Ebert wrote;

“Is it possible to forget that ‘The Artist’ is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That’s what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. I’ve seen ‘The Artist’ three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much…” [It speaks] “to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time. I also love black and white, which some people assume they don’t like. For me, it’s more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details.”[2]

That sense of “reverie” and “enchantment”, the feeling of “dropping out of time” that Ebert describes is the essence of visual storytelling. We imaginatively project ourselves into the flickering illumination between each frame and The Artist consciously invokes that experience being shot at 22 frames per second. Before The Artist many considered Silent Film an obsolete Art Form; however the ability of filmmakers to silently communicate narrative is the foundation of cinema, originating in ancient shadow play on cave walls. Our need to make sense of ourselves and the world around us in visual terms is timelessly necessary and why we need Art in the first place. I first discovered the world of Silent Film in my childhood pouring over stills in my Father’s movie books. What immediately struck me, even aged 10, was the heightened clarity of black and white, the faces of actors and actresses alive with human expression, every tantalising image with a story to tell. That sense of wonder and immersion has never left me; it’s what I hope for every time I go to the cinema and what I found in The Artist the first time I saw it.

It’s true that it’s a charming and highly entertaining film, a winning combination of Comedy, Drama, Romance and a performing dog, but more significant (for me at least) is the Artist/ Director’s intention. Above all else it is a film crafted with love- a film it was thought nobody would want to watch. By the Director’s own admission, The Artist is a love letter to his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo and to a Golden Age of Hollywood founded on European artistry. For me it is a film resoundingly about the Art of filmmaking and what it is to be an Artist. There is love invested in every frame, in the meticulous crafting and sensuous attention to detail of Director Michel Hazanavcius’ entire creative team. It is seen and felt in the rich textures and tonal qualities of Mark Bridges’ costume design, the emotional layers of Ludovic Bource’s original musical score, in the extraordinary cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman and  the beautifully nuanced performances of actors; Jean Dujardin, as suave, charismatic antihero George Valentin, Bérénice Bejo as the young, effervescent rising star Peppy Miller, James Cromwell  as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris, Valentin’s long suffering wife.

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Modelled on Douglas Fairbanks Dujardin’s George Valentin is both masked, swashbuckling super star and fallible human being, marked by his own pride. Dujardin is an intensely physical actor who conveys all of George’s confidence, bravado and vulnerabilities, like Keaton and Chaplin before him. One of the most beautiful and immersive sequences in the film is a series of five takes where we see Valentin fall in love with studio extra Miller set to Bource’s theme music “Peppy’s Waltz”. We see the character evolve from playing his dashing on screen persona with intensely focused Silent eyebrow acting to the immense subtlety of expression which mirrors his awakening love for Miller. In cinematic and emotional terms it is a seamless fusion of historic and contemporary sensibilities.

In Dujardin’s acting and Bource’s music there is growing consciousness, bewilderment, intoxication and desire, evaporating quizzically in the moment. It’s an emotionally complex scene, a far cry from a clichéd swooning embrace or consummate screen kiss, which in The Artist we never see. Its Romanticism lies in creative possibility, expressed rapturously in the final dance sequence as the real beginning of the relationship between Valentin and Miller. Although this scene signifies the end of Silent Film it remains optimistic in tone, recalling the joy and glamour of big 1930’s Hollywood production dance numbers. The visual storytelling allows us to imagine a bright future as our two stars reinvent themselves; Valentin grounded in his craft from his days in Vaudeville and Miller the “It” girl of the moment with boundless energy, enthusiasm and good natured ambition. Miller’s rise as America’s Sweetheart, Valentin’s fall and their reinvention are a wry comment on the nature of fame in a media dominated age; “Out with the old, in with the new-make way for the young- that’s life!” declares a Miller in an interview with two eager newshounds.

The Artist isn’t just a homage or clever imitation of Silent Era moviemaking but a film very much of Now in its reinvention of the genre. I love the way it visually tips its hat to all the artists of European origin who created Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hazanavcius’ vision is informed by his understanding of the visual grammar of Silent Directors like Lang, Murnau, Vidor and Chaplin, but he is also very much his own man. The Artist was conceived visually and storyboarded in intricate detail by its Director, who went to Art School before working in advertising and then progressing to feature film. When long-time collaborator Ludovic Bource came to compose the music, although he listened extensively to the work of film composers of the era; Steiner, Hermann, Korngold and Waxman, what he achieves isn’t an imitation of those film composers, but a new voice grounded in their source material from Strauss to Stravinsky. The subtlety of the five take sequence is achieved because, as Hazanavcius has described in interview; “The script is the right hand and the music is the left.” Interestingly there have been screenings all over the world of The Artist since its initial release accompanied by a full orchestra, an aspect of live performance that was common during the Silent Era. Wonderfully this is becoming more commonplace at contemporary screenings and festivals worldwide as audiences rediscover the excitement of pure visual storytelling with the immediacy of live music.

At the end of The Artist George Valentin reveals his French accent and it is a telling moment on multiple levels. The advent of the Talkies extinguished the careers of many actors from abroad and behind the scenes advancement was often hindered by being an immigrant. As a Hollywood outsider, Hazanavicius takes the visual language of Tinseltown’s Golden Age and entirely makes it his own. It is ironic that Hollywood has accepted the film with open arms, most notably at the Oscars, perhaps not realising that its own visual inheritance is actually European in origin and that Hazanavcius is in fact reclaiming his cultural roots. In The Artist he takes us back to the early years of Hollywood with its origins in European cinema as a baseline of authenticity. Hazanavicius isn’t saluting the American Dream Factory in empty admiration but taking back language. He’s a visually literate Director and the fact that the film’s most dramatic moment is entirely silent speaks volumes.

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The Artist is a film made with love, respect and recognition of the Silent Era and the artists who defined it. Rapid technological change is upon the industry as a whole and the digitalisation of cinema puts us in danger of forgetting the history and crafting of moving images to our collective detriment. The Artist asserts the importance of acknowledging that (in the words of the late Scottish composer Martyn Bennett) “to be pioneers we first have to acknowledge that we are heirs”. The visual grammar referenced by The Artist is also a rallying point for film conservation and restoration. Of the films that we know of produced during the Silent Era it is estimated that 80% have already been lost. The Artist is the story of the rise of young starlet Peppy Miller, the “fresh meat” of a new age of moviemaking and the fall of aging Silent star George Valentin, who cannot accept the technological change sweeping the industry he helped to create. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between this and the transition from film to digital in contemporary Cinema.

It is perhaps for this reason that for me the most moving image in the film is the moment when Valentin is standing in the ruins of his apartment; the windows are smashed and the room has been ravaged by fire, the only movement is a slight breeze coming through the window, the light muted but illuminating- it feels very much like a fragment of very early film. He is literally and metaphorically standing in the celluloid ashes of his career. Everything seems hopeless and the grain of the image suggests that like nitrate, the film could burst into flames any second and be extinguished- much like the life of the central character. In that moment the personal becomes the universal, the mark of a true Artist/ Director and in a single frame it says everything about the vulnerability of film as a medium. The texture of the image reminded me very much of the work of photographers like Steichen and Stieglitz who in the early days of photography were a bridge between painting and the new technology. At the time photography was thought to herald the death of painting. Similarly many have proclaimed the death of film in recent years. The Artist is a film about film making in a time of great change and upheaval- that is what elevates it above and beyond mere entertainment. It speaks powerfully and resoundingly of Now and of the choices made by both Artists and audiences. In years to come it will become source material of our age.

The Artist 3

What I love about this film is the breath taking eloquence of its visual communication; the fanciful mime of the empty suit, the Surrealist cloud screen and dancing legs, the studio staircase sequence where Schiffman balances tone, movement and architecture in a composition that feels like pure music, the shadows of rain that fall down George’s face as he’s inwardly crying, George’s heightened dream sequence infiltrated by sound, his confrontation with his own shadow self and his world reduced to a pile of burning celluloid. I love The Artist it for its intelligence, humour and unashamed Romance, for the exquisite camerawork and its impeccable performances. I love that it has a brain and a heart- it makes me think, laugh and cry. But above all it makes me value those Artists who are told their film is one that nobody will want to watch, but toil to make it anyway  and change the way we see as a result. It’s the reason I feel renewed and invigorated every time I watch it.

Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season

The Artist Wednesday 25th February 7.15pm

Ed Wood – Tuesday 10th March at 7.15pm

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereTuesday 24th March at 7.15pm

All films will be followed by a post-screening discussion, all welcome.

www.invernessfilmfans.org

www.eden-court.co.uk

[1]  6th March 2012, www.Film-News.co.uk

[2] Roger Ebert, The Artist, December 21, 2011.  www.rogerebert.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