15th Inverness Film Festival

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

8-12 November, Eden Court Cinemas

“Film was born of an explosive.” Bill Morrison, Dawson City: Frozen Time

Over the last decade Inverness Film Festival has become a primary source of inspiration and discovery in the UK cultural calendar. It’s a festival that shows me the world within worlds, where the curation is exceptional and my only regret in taking time off to be there is not being able to watch all of it!  This year’s IFF Audience Award went to The Disaster Artist, directed and starring James Franco. In second place was Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life, screened in association with the French Film Festival UK, and in third place Just Charlie, one of the debut selection of films chosen by the Eden Court Young Programmer’s group. I saw none of the above, but with over 60 screenings and events over 4 days and 5 nights, tough choices had to be made! As usual I gravitated towards the more obscure, because for me that’s what film festivals are for- exposure to World Cinema of all ages that you’re unlikely see anywhere else. This year’s highlights were many and varied, but they all had their own spark of ignition in altering my perception. Each of them in their own way reminded me of what I value most in cinema as a medium for expanded awareness and potential change. I very much hope that all of these remarkable films will be picked up by other festivals and distributors, so that many more people in the UK and beyond will have the chance to see them.

Dede Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

The Scottish premiere of Director Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede brought the audience face to face with the question of cultural traditions, “those we need to carry forward and others which need to be left behind”. The story on one level is deeply personal and intimately connected to the filmmaker’s family history, but it is also universal in its themes of gender equality, personal freedom, self-determination and human rights.  The film is set in a truly breath-taking landscape of cultural and historical convergence, filmed in the UNESCO heritage site of Svaneti, Georgia, within the southern Greater Caucasus mountain range, bordering with Russia. There’s a powerful sense that the “Mother” of the translated title is present in these mountains. Images of human scale in relation to Nature suggest alternative ways of perceiving and honouring power, contrary to traditional, patriarchal structures of dominance and control. The film follows the story of Dina, a young woman who courageously resists a forced marriage and the will of her male elders to elope with the man she loves. However, her rightful pursuit of happiness comes at enormous personal cost, in a community governed by masculine pride and entitlement, played out in vengeful blood feuds.  As the audience discovered during the post-screening Q&A with Assistant Director and Casting Director Tamar Khatchvani, although bride kidnapping is no longer practised, the film is based on a true story from the not so distant past. As result there is a real sense of experience within living memory, translated in the very natural performances of the entire cast of non-actors. Everyone on screen is from the same village and as the region has opened to tourism, there have been cultural gains and losses for everyone involved.

The Scottish premiere of EXLIBRIS: New York City Public Library, provides an extensive view of this community orientated organisation and its wide-ranging activities. Directed by honorary Oscar winner and documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film highlights inequality in contemporary America and the wider world. Rather than being a repository for books, it is a network of learning centres providing after school support, free access to the internet for thousands of citizens who cannot afford it, literacy and maths classes, English classes for immigrants, public discussions with authors, music concerts and performance poetry readings. The range and scope of activity is staggering. In many ways the library is spearheading the city’s response to social problems created by people falling through the cracks of government policy, or being left behind by an ever changing technologically driven world. At 197 mins long, it is an epic by mainstream feature documentary standards, but the wider implications of the link between knowledge, power and politics justify the exploration. Exposing universal social problems and working towards solutions through educational empowerment, both the library and the film are a means advocacy for the most vulnerable in society. Within the NYCPL collections are the words, actions and images of ancestors, leaders and artists, providing inspiration for new creative work and a space for reflection, thought and connection. It is a shame that many libraries in the UK that have been closed or are threatened with closure could not be perceived and utilised in such a vital way- as invaluable, enriching and ultimately money saving community resources.

Happy End Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s new film Happy End, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones, places a self-absorbed bourgeois family under the microscope. In typical Haneke fashion there’s gallows humour, the disquieting exposure of uncomfortable truths and familial disfunction, run through with the family’s total blindness to the refugee crisis unfolding in their home city of Calais. It’s a film revealing respectable middle-class indifference to the suffering of others and the luxury of pursing a Happy End in life and death. An even more extreme vision of family life came in the form of IFF’s preview screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth 2009, Alps 2011 and The Lobster 2015) has made a career out of eviscerating the traditional family unit, middle class respectability, aspirations and patriarchal power. Lanthimos excels in cinematic immersion, creating highly critical microcosms aided by his regular collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. The opening scene in close up of open heart surgery, with its bloody exposure of flesh juxtaposed with swathes of cold blue, sets the emotional and intellectual tone of this powerful revenge thriller. The cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are excellent, ably communicating the horror, absurdity and hypocrisy of a contemporary, upwardly mobile family, with its roots firmly planted in Greek tragedy. The visuals and sound design, from the classical exposition to increasingly visceral, blended sound effects, is highly effective in placing the viewer in a progressive state of unease. As we discover what lies at the heart of the characters, the veneer of the perfect family unit starts to dissolve. Notions of professional success, wealth and power are scraped at like bone until it shatters, transforming the story into a parable of the human soul. Teenage boy Martin’s (Koeghan) eye for an eye demand for justice from Farrell’s passionless, negligent surgeon gathers the momentum of a pact. True to form Lanthimos puts the morality, ethics, loyalty, family bonds of his characters and the very fabric of society to the test. In many ways Martin is a willful agent of chaos, much like the Devil himself in banal, seemingly innocuous contemporary dress. Whether you like or loathe Lanthimos’s vision, I guarantee you will be thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer long after you’ve seen it.

Dark River by Director Clio Bernard

The alternative opening night double bill of Dark River and Loveless (Nelyubov) delivered an incredibly strong first night. In Dark River UK director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) creates a world where human emotion and the natural world are essentially entwined.  Ruth Wilson’s central performance carries the film, bringing tremendous strength, vulnerability and subtlety to a character she inhabits completely. Following a 15-year absence and the death of her Father (Sean Bean), Alice’s return to the failing family farm triggers confrontation with an undertow of memory and with her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Bernard brings a real physicality to the experience of memory, carried in the body, effectively using sound design, elements of the countryside and flashbacks to humanely lay the familial backstory bare. She submerges the viewer in Alice’s lived experience, suspended in the cold, dark water of the swimming hole, buried in the deep, layered earth of the rain cleansed Yorkshire Moors and in knife-edged moments of conflict inside the emotional rabbit warren of the family home. As a filmmaker she’s a Master of the great unsaid, handling the most insidious of emotions, guilt and shame, with empathy, skill and compassion. It’s a film about betrayal of the worst kind, the pure bond between siblings and the fragility of rural life in decline. Although the plot does become a little stretched by the end of the film, it’s an impressive addition to Bernard’s work, cementing her status as an emerging voice in British Cinema.

Loveless (Nelyubov) Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my favourite films at IFF 2014, so I had very high hopes for the director’s latest release Loveless (Nelyubov). The film has won several awards on the European festival circuit already, including the 2017 Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival and Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival. The global scope, sheer artistry and potent relevance of this film exceeded all my expectations. Loveless is an eloquent, gut wrenching and highly observant film, examining the microcosm of a family splitting apart. It is also a reflection of increasing political, social and class divisions within Ukraine, a history of conflict and invasion from “Mother” Russia and indicative of a wider global crisis. Entrenched in the territorial battleground of a bitter divorce, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are instantly unlikeable characters, narcissistic, petty, spiteful and utterly indifferent to the child they have together. Their primary concern is injuring each other and tending their own needs. Still cohabiting while they try to sell their apartment, the tension and fighting escalate, with their 13-year-old son Alyosha caught between his parents, neither of whom want him. Despite their relatively comfortable lives and upwardly mobile status, their cruel behavior immediately calls into question the idea of advantage and their ability to nurture anything. Although they have seemingly moved on with different partners, whenever we see scenes of intimacy they are driven to negation by selfishness, insecurity, neediness and immaturity. This is visibly compounded by the reliance on self-validation through technology as part of the whole, relentless drive of getting ahead. During the film our sympathy shifts as we are shown that this isn’t because they are inherently bad people. As we see when we meet Zhenya’s annihilating Mother, generations of enforced conformity, the rigidity of church and dictatorial state control have also had a significant role to play in creating a collective state of misery, unrealised and unrecognized human potential.  The infiltration of Western capitalist values, widening economic divide between rich and poor and pitching the false dream of democracy as the freedom to buy things is just as emotionally hollow. Both Boris and Zheyna resent their life choices and blame each other for them, but having never learnt to love or be loved they remain in a childlike, reactive state, unable to grow.

However, the most urgent casualty in this disintegrating marriage is their son and the upcoming generation he represents. As his parents abdicate responsibility in earshot, loudly negating his existence as nothing but an inconvenient mistake, he seeks refuge in a woodland near their apartment block. There is a real sense in these natural images, becoming progressively colder and emotively snowbound, of Nature bearing witness to the unfolding human drama. The camera lingers in the hollows of trees and the earth like it is searching for an answer, not just to the boy’s disappearance but to the loss of self, identity and purpose in life.  Although he has little screen time, Matvey Novikov’s performance as Alyosha is heartbreaking, exemplified in his physical and mental anguish in a brief scene where his mother storms into the bathroom following an argument, not even registering that he’s been right there, the whole time, absorbing every poisonous, self-depreciating word. Although it is a bleak vision of human relationships, diminished capacity and 21st Century empathy deficit, the ambiguity of Alyosha’s disappearance and the small army of dedicated volunteers, who have no self interest in trying to find him, is a definite ray of hope. There is a sense of mobilisation in this group of people, who witnessing the all too common occurrence of children running away or going missing, step in when the police/ state fails to find them. We see compassionate, practical action as a counterfoil to the useless blind cult of “What about ME?!” in a crisis, seen in Boris’s pregnant girlfriend’s reaction to him prioritising finding his missing child above spending time with her. She’s yet another adult nowhere near being emotionally developed enough to support the child she’s carrying. We sense that seeking love and self-worth through vanity, shopping, social status and endless selfies will be what is passed on to the next generation, together with an empty hole in the heart that all those things, including having a child, are attempting to fill. I loved the honesty, tenacity and vision of this film in acknowledging what is a global/ psychological crisis of lovelessness. The film may be set in Kiev and center on a single family, but the dynamics of care and its absence are everywhere. This film is a brilliant touchstone to begin to examine and challenge the soul-destroying dominance of the latter. Loveless is a thoughtful, essential film scheduled for wider release in the UK early in 2018.

The Woman He Scorned (1929) Directed by Paul Czinner

Another festival favourite was the little known British Silent Film The Woman He Scorned (1929), also known as The Way of Lost Souls, with a live improvised score by one of the world’s finest Silent Film accompanists, Stephen Horne.  Channelling the film through piano, accordion, flute, Bereney thumb piano and imaginative silence, this was the best possible introduction to a film that I suspect none of the audience (including myself) had seen. What separates Horne from other accompanists is his emotional intelligence, understanding of film as a medium and great skill as a musician. The ability to faithfully serve the story and interpret its characters with care and sensitivity is comparably rare and the audience were treated to a unique performance of the highest calibre. Directed by Paul Czinner and starring Pola Negri, Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann, the story of a prostitute in a small coastal town and her relationship with a lighthouse keeper was reinterpreted for a contemporary audience in beautifully nuanced and unexpected ways. Although the title and brochure description alluded to puritanical morality and high melodrama, what Horne brought to the film was infinitely subtler, resisting cliché, drawing out the inner psychology of characters and illuminating the complexity, joy and anguish of what it is to be human. At the heart of the film is Pola Negri’s central performance which defies the stereotypical Vamp/ Femme Fatale in its range, a quality amplified with depth and feeling by the accompaniment. The ballsy bravado of Dance Hall solo piano, sharp, sassy Tango on accordion and its descent into chaotic dissonance, articulated beautifully that “the Vamp” is a performance. What we discover as the story unfolds is the heroine’s real vulnerability, due in no small part to how sound informs what we see in the moment. This musical elevation of character, above the narrow moral codes and judgements of the day, enhances our perception that this is a fallible human being we can all relate to. Horne excels at this kind of musical insight, exemplified in his score / live performance of Stella Dallas (1925), commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in 2016.

In The Woman He Scorned we see a female protagonist trying to take control of her life and rise above dismal circumstances, triggered by a single act of kindness. At base Louise (Negri) is a working girl under the violent control of her pimp and the ever-present threat of destitution, a pariah in the eyes of society. Although John (Rehmann) first judges and rejects her, he later intervenes on her behalf and then takes her in, in an act framed in his mind as Christian charity. Louise’s attempts to navigate care and kindness she’s never been shown before and escape her past are incredibly poignant, heightened by the instrumentation. As she starts to take her place in village life, these first fragile steps of acceptance are communicated in all their delicacy by the ethereal sound of the flute. She metaphorically removes her makeup, beholds herself in the mirror and begins to see herself differently. The musical interpretation of the scene articulates how vulnerable she is in that tentative, blossoming sound, created with life’s breath. Horne’s accompaniment succeeds in portraying the character rising above societal/ biblical branding of a “whore”, which the character herself has taken on board and musically frees her soul before our eyes. This audience investment in the central character intensifies the drama and emotional impact of what follows. We are not just watching, but feeling the character’s predicament, internalised through the immediacy of sound. We want John to believe Louise because we have come to believe in her, with no persuasion through spoken dialogue at all. What we experience as a contemporary audience isn’t Silent Film as a historical relic, but as a living, breathing, universal artform that crosses all borders of culture and language. In establishing that timeless connection with such consummate skill, you really could not ask for more from a live cinema experience.

The variety of sound and pairing of instruments in Horne’s performances are always a source of surprise and discovery. Instruments are often played simultaneously, one in each hand, and in this performance the isolated use of human voice, a sampled element introduced from the original film soundtrack, brought past and present together.  Fully embracing the cut to a mesmerising sequence of suspended time in the wedding scene, the strange, percussive echo of the thumb harp created a hollow for the audience’s imagination to fill. The full sonic range of instruments from the interior strings of the piano to the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, half way between dreaming and waking have a spatial quality, together with a sense of fluidity and movement. This is both physical and psychological, from the deep undertow of ocean waves, to the intimacy of John soothing Louise by stroking her hair, the accompaniment brought the audience closer to emotional core of each scene. The beauty of the Silent Film accompanist’s Art ultimately lies in being faithful to every compositional frame experienced in real time and achieving a state altered perception in the half light of the flicker, energy which translates directly to the audience’s live experience. It’s the difference between performing music on top a film and living it, both for the artist and the audience. As John stands on the shore in the final frames, sound divides like shards, mirrored by the accompanist’s hands physically divided between the upper and lower register of the piano. In that building temple of sound and consciousness we understand what has been lost, not just in terms of the individual character, but in the context of human judgement. Like the folkloric suggestion of drowned human souls, seen in the flock of gulls hovering over the sea in the very last frame, The Way of Lost Souls is collectively ours. The level of communication achieved with music and moving images as equal partners, created something truly magical and transformative, as only a live cinema experience in the hands of a master accompanist can.

78 / 52 Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Following his illustrated talk, the Last Silent Picture Show, Geoff Brown introduced The Woman He Scorned in the context of the British film industry circa 1929, during the changeover from Silent Film to Sound. Brown’s talk also gave valuable insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s development as a director in his discussion of the Silent and early sound versions of Blackmail (1929).  As an important precursor to the director’s mature work, Brown’s talk also had relevance to the screening of Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78 / 52.  This fantastic documentary explores one of the most revolutionary scenes in cinema history on multitude of levels. Breaking down the set ups and cuts in Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho (1960) might sound like the preserve of film students and cinema nerds, but there is infinitely more at work in Hitchcock’s films than just technique. 78/ 52 honors and celebrates that genre defining richness. At the heart of it all is Hitchcock the flawed human being, shaped by Victorian values, Catholic morality and his vision of a cruelly indifferent God, becoming the hand of the director. Today we take the crafting of suspense on film totally for granted as part of mainstream Popular Culture, so much so that it has become parody. What I loved about this film were the different perspectives on this watershed moment in cinema, the profound effect it had on audiences at the time and how it still affects and inspires filmmaking today. Even more than that, it made me want to watch the original film again, igniting the hope that post Scream franchise generations will perhaps find their way back to the original “master of suspense.”

Significantly Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth in the Silent Era and who he was is expressed in interesting ways through his films. 78/52 touches on his personal obsessions, the critical and competitive nature of his work and the wider political, social and cultural landscape of 1950’s and early 60’s America. Whilst it is an analytical film and we hear from many professional filmmakers, it is also a film about the psychology of fear, which in an age of the Trump administration feels particularly ripe for exploration. Psycho is a deeply subversive film on multiple levels and this documentary is a timely reminder of the value of artistic subversion. Made “in defiance of Hollywood” and its code of censorship, Hitchcock kills off the box office gold leading lady early, invades the sanctity and safety domesticity and transforms the concept of “Mother” into something truly monstrous, reflecting that which is carried within. Psycho also represents, as Director/ Interviewee Peter Bogdonovich points out, “the first time” that the naked “female body comes under attack” likening the effect of watching the film to an act of rape. It’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, saturated with images of violence to the point of anesthesia, can really appreciate the true Horror the film engendered, lessening the revolutionary nature of that moment. At the time of release people were viscerally screaming in shock, something I have yet to see in a contemporary cinema. Like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, we should never confuse a simple cinematic explosion wired for entertainment with the heightened anticipation of being told a bomb is going to go off, effectively placing the audience in the position of waiting for the inevitable. Hitchcock sets the audience up for confrontation with their own sense of death or punishment. His refined craft of suspense is a devilish, manipulative art and the “order and chaos” of that “magic act” is something Hitchcock understood completely. As an agent of the darker sides of human nature he is an extremely interesting director whose work will always have primal resonance. As the documentary commentary points out, he plays with audience expectation and makes us work, imagination infilling what we think we see projected on screen. The genius of the shower scene in Psycho in breaking rules, aligning natural sound, music, image and point of view remains breathtaking, affirming what a beautiful, terrible thing the human mind can be.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

Director Bill Morrison has a gift for transforming fragmentary archival material into visual poetry. In Decasia (2002) Morrison created a celebratory Memento Mori, crafting decaying film stock into a mesmerising, meditative vision of humanity attempting to outlive itself through Art. The purity of moving images and a symphonic score, with viewers free to make their own associations, was not only refreshing in its use of raw material, but created a sense of sublime beauty in physical decay. Our essential connection to highly fragile, combustible celluloid nitrate is explored on multiple levels in his extraordinarily moving latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time which had its Scottish premiere screening at IFF. Here Morrison moves into more mainstream documentary territory, with commentary delivered entirely in text form rather than voiceover. As in all great Silent storytelling, he creates connective space between the lines for the viewer’s mind to inhabit, exploring different thematic threads on their own terms. This is a film about the memory, history and dreams held in each precious frame of film as lived experience, memorial and portal. This documentary feels very timely in an age where technological progress increasingly urges us as a society to shed the old and embrace the new via the latest upgrade. The question of what we conserve, what we lose, who makes that decision (if it is even conscious) and why, in relation to the back catalogue of World Cinema, has barely been considered. The fact remains that film is still the most tangible, stable material we have, nobody has invented a means of digital storage that equals it in terms of conservation. Morrison subtly reflects that truth in a world that urgently needs to take stock of itself and reveals that film is the very stuff we are made of in the process.

The story of 533 nitrate film prints dating from the 1910s – 1920s discovered in 1978, buried as landfill beneath an ice hockey rink, encompasses forces at work in the wider world today that have never been more urgently relevant. The history of Dawson city as a Klondike Gold Rush town is about human displacement, the decimation and endurance of First Nations cultures, the rise of capitalism becoming corporate rule by the few, the destruction of the environment for profit and the perpetual lie that Film is, like everything else in 21st Century life is simply disposable, consumable entertainment. As the last stop on the distribution circuit and with distributors avoiding the expense of transporting out of date films back to their place of origin, films in Dawson were first stock piled under the administration of bankers. When storage ran out they were then destroyed, thrown into the Yukon River, burnt or buried, painfully echoing the wider estimate that of all the Silent Films ever created, Humanity has lost 75% of them. However, this isn’t a film that preaches, the intention and craft behind it is seeing the bigger picture and extracting the metal. Morrison is all about seeing the debris and the entire landscape from above, within and below the winter permafrost we’re currently living through.  As such he is an important documentarian of our age. Dawson City: Frozen Time achieves universality in the crafting of images, the spark and substance of what it means to make things, to out create destruction.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

The origins of film as an explosive material is a powerful metaphor and like the emotional aesthetic of Decasia, it is a double-edged sword as the truth often is. Significantly, film’s most profoundly moving and overwhelming moments are pure Silent sound and image. The morphing of Chief Issac’s face from that of an intensely proud, self-possessed young man, to an aged figure, eroded by exploitation expands into conscious awareness. Morrison is telling us nothing and showing us everything in that moment. In tantalising fragments of films we will never see in their entirety, countless archive photographs, faces and lives, many stories are woven together. The haunting closeup of Mary MacLaren in Bread (1918) directed by Ida May Park is a glimpse into many hidden histories. Through cinema Dawsonites saw the world, in a place that today appears as a last stop before wilderness and oblivion. The fortunes of a town which was born at the same time as the new media of photography and cinema, heralding the start of a modern age, is an excellent place to dig for what sustains and allows us to endure.

Although there were sequences when Alex Somers’ score felt repetitive and overbearing, the music connects emotionally with the imagery, evoking ghostly presences and the physicality of decay. The slowed tempo of human voices and strings operate like something holding on in the present tense of sound hitting the ear and not wanting to let go. The use of organ as an underpinning lament fading into recorded time and distant, echoing piano feel half submerged in the subconscious. There’s real pain in the ebb and flow of human fortunes and in the fate of discarded, abandoned material Culture. This is found footage filmmaking at a whole new level, over and above simple appropriation. As Writer, Editor and Director, Morrison brilliantly combines fragments of rare silent films, newsreels, archival footage, interviews and photographs, including Eric Hegg’s glass plate images which are a survival story in and of themselves. The final sequence of Dawson City: Frozen Time will be etched in my mind forever. Like “the salamander of the ancients [that] lived through fire unscathed”, everything which burns is not extinguished. We see a hand reaching out of the fluttering erasure of emulsion and a dancer, her head and eyes covered, unfurling her scarf in the flicker of free movement, hands raised, claiming and claimed by light. It’s a gesture that feels miraculous and far reaching in terms of human aspiration. It reflects the light, dreams and dust we are as human beings. Kinolorber’s description of the film as a “meditation on cinema’s past” really feels like an inadequate summation because like a lot of other Silent Film publicity it ignores the film’s universal thematic content. Like the image of Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917) in Morrison’s final sequence, this film is an awakening. Taking its cues and inspiration from original film stock, marked by human actions, neglected and resurrected in a different form, personal and collective loss is acknowledged in a film which is conclusively hopeful. I felt overwhelmed and enriched by watching it and as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to watch it again.

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

Another film of extraordinary beauty, artistry and substance is Rainer Sarnet’s November, based on the bestselling Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik and Arvo Kukumägi. Films like this one are the reason I go to film festivals! I hope that this Scottish premiere at IFF will be picked up by other film festivals and distributors so that many more people will have the opportunity to see it. Dredging the collective unconscious, Pagan and Christian mythologies are entwined with Estonian Folklore in this creatively striking, thoroughly immersive film. November is possessed of its own fluid logic and this dreamlike narrative is so visually stunning that you cannot help but surrender to it. Director Rainer Sarnet has created something captivatingly strange and magical. It’s a world cast between the physical and metaphysical, where the fantastical and irrational exist side by side with the hard, everyday grind of life, the reality of political oppression and centuries of class rule. True to Eastern European cinematic traditions of escape into fiction and fairy tale, masking social criticism, political and religious dissent, November is all about the human truth in fiction. At base it is a story of human yearning and unrequited love. Laced with black humour, national pride, observance of superstition, ignorance, greed and betrayal, this is a different kind of fantasy, grounded with roots that run deep within the human psyche.  In many ways it reclaims the primal forest from which all storytelling springs- some of the richest creative soil there is! Although I’m certain that there are many specific Estonian references lost on me and UK audiences in general, there are enough archetypal elements in this black and white vision of the living and the dead, found in cultures all over the world, which translate visually. In that respect November’s Director of photography, Mart Taniel was a very worthy winner of Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Jury comment about their decision that “one film was particularly audacious and showed supreme command of its visual language” is a very accurate assessment of the film.

November depicts “an ancient land” “where spirits roam”, a world frozen in solarised light and the deepest of shadows.  Villagers create creatures called Kratts out of discarded wood, farm machinery and domestic debris, who serve them in exchange for souls. A young woman Lina is in love with village boy Hans, but he is obsessed with the baron’s beautiful daughter. In the emotional context of unrequited love Lina turning into a wolf, metaphorically consumed by her emotions, inner drives, needs and desires, isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s a very apt manifestation of what the character is feeling and part of her journey, albeit in canine form. That felt sense, grounding what might appear at first glance as fantasy, is one of the most powerful elements of the film and there are many moments of human recognition throughout. The sequence where the cart and funeral procession cross and pass each other in the stark clarity of black and white is absolute poetry and devastation, as fate separates the living from the dead and a soul is paid for. Beneath its exquisitely crafted, labyrinthine world November suggests, “there is the soul we sell, the soul we long for and the soul we cannot live without”. The question of what human life is worth in alignment with these ideas goes beyond fantastical entertainment. Part of reclaiming our souls is reconnection with this ancient mode of storytelling and the masked wisdom the world has forgotten how to read.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat Directed by Fritz Lang

Aligned with the festival screening of new release biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Benning and Jamie Bell, IFF’s superb three film tribute to Gloria Grahame was a definite retrospective highlight. The selection featured her Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actress performance in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), her starring role as a sharp, sincere and sassy gangster’s dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and with Humphrey Bogart in the tragic anti-Romance In a Lonely Place (1950). Throughout Grahame demonstrates her stage experience, range and why she deserves to be better known. Hopefully the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will encourage people to seek her out her early film work. There is no device on the planet that can replace or simulate the beauty of black and white restorations on a big screen. IFF, together with the Eden Court Cinema programme generally, is committed to showing as many 35mm format films as it can. In the world of 21st Century cinemas this is a rarity and an absolute pleasure.

It is always exciting to see the work of emerging filmmakers and this year’s selection of short films were incredibly strong, diverse, refreshingly original and brimming with possibility. IFF has consistently championed the work of Scottish filmmakers and this year there were six collections of Short Films including two screenings of international shorts specifically for children. Two films in particular shone as part of the Bridging the Gap showcase in association with the Scottish Documentary Institute. Thomas Hogben’s Teeth (11 mins) cleverly combines archival footage, interviews with the director’s parents, Orthodontist and Dental Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Antoine, in a humorous and revealing story of how teeth express our fears, aspirations and ideals. It also poses important questions about the lengths we go to to try and achieve ideal Beauty. It’s an absorbing and entertaining film, charting the development of child to adult and tapping into the universal human need to belong. Hogben probes insecurities shared by the audience, exposing the horrors and unexpected healing powers of dentistry, with teeth as the mirror of Self.

Directed by Sean Mullen Inhale (15 mins) is an accomplished and sensitive story of family bereavement, grief and transformation from Northern Ireland. Working with horses provides the catalyst for transforming pain and outdoor drone photography is used very eloquently to express the interior life of the subject. Poignant and confessional, this is a film about enduring the loss of those we love and having the courage to let go, knowing that life will never be the same again. Faith is an important aspect of the film, conveyed in the voice of the central protagonist and the belief that “the infinite momentum of life via an energy never destroyed, only transformed.” Whatever your spiritual identity, it is a powerful and moving film. Other Scottish Shorts highlights included Flow Country (10 mins) by Jasper Coppes, beautifully shot using black & white 35mm and winner of Best Scottish Short at the Glasgow Short Film Festival, A Tail of Two Sisters (4 mins) by Lindsay McKee, part of the Edinburgh 48hr Film Project 2017, Selina Wagner’s captivating animation Spindrift (12 mins), Alison Piper’s timely political statement Free Period (6 mins) and Gordon Napier’s 1745 (19 mins) a story which highlights the largely hidden history of Highland slavery.

1745 Directed by Gordon Napier

It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to witness the creative development of local filmmakers over successive years and to see individuals making creative leaps, honing their craft and finding their unique voice. Director Mike Webster screened two films this year Eathie (9mins) and Coire Eilde (11 mins), both following gorge scrambles by Adventure and Wildlife Photographer James Roddie in largely unknown sites in the Highlands.  In the traditionally high-octane field of masculine/ mountain adventure films and festivals, it is refreshing and enlightening to see the process and care taken in approaching each pitch. The expectation of “adventure” is often in the spirit of man conquering the landscape, rather than “venturing into the unknown”. Finding your foothold and being fully conscious of your surroundings, to experience something beyond the everyday in the presence of Nature, is more akin to the idea of Slow Adventure. The idea of Nature as Culture in relation to how we experience the environment is only starting to be explored and there are some seeds of that ethos in Robbie’s descent of the Eathie Gorge on the Black Isle and Coire Eilde (the Pass of the Hinds) in Glencoe. As Roddie and Webster navigate their way into the natural environment, the path created by experience, skill and instinct is inspiring. Drone photography is used very effectively to broaden the viewer’s experience of this territory. It would be great to see more of the interior, psychological aspect of the adventurer in future films, enriching not only the conception of the landscape, but perception of what a masculine point of view in this genre can be. As Roddie states during interview what you really want from an adventure is “obscure” and “intimidating”, heading into an environment where you’re not too sure what you will encounter, equipped with the  tools and self-awareness to find your way through.

Eathie Directed by Mike Webster

The pairing of Webster’s films with those by another local filmmaker, Katrina Brown, were very complimentary in challenging preconceptions and prejudice. It is wonderful to see such a progressive leap in the space between IFF 16 and 17 in the screening of Brown’s two most recent projects, Woman Up (3 mins) and Riding Through the Dark (23 mins). Her natural ability to tackle difficult subjects, based on the trust established with interviewees and participants is a great strength for any documentarian. Making the voice of the subject the primary focus of the film and being led by it clearly drives her vision as a filmmaker. This authenticity aligned with stories that need to be told is a very promising and valuable combination. In Woman Up the stereotype of the “sporty woman” is challenged, following Eilidh, who discovered her passion for mountain biking, together with skills and confidence she didn’t believe she had. That sense of positive empowerment is further developed in Riding Through the Dark. It’s a film that juxtaposes the experiences of two groups of women, “one held in awe” and “the other in stigma”, asking the question of just how different they (and we the audience) really are. The individual stories of a group of elite female cyclists/ athletes and women taking part in a cycling to health and wellbeing programme are woven together and they are extremely honest, courageous and moving. Although the film tackles the issue of mental health and depression head on, it is ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  In revealing the insecurities, loneliness, pain and loss we all share as human beings, Brown and her interviewees shine a light on the possibility of regaining oneself when a safe space can be created, grounded in mutual respect and shared experience. In many ways the film creates that safe space for the audience, doing what cinema does best with the road and the world opening up, gaining understanding and projecting ourselves into the frame as viewers. Riding Through the Dark is also very realistic about the concept of recovery rather than cure. I’m sure that many people seeing the film will strongly identify with it, either in relation to their own experience or that of friends and family. Depression is the absence of hope and in telling their stories these brave women are a shining example of grasping that little bit of something in acute darkness, finding the strength to get back up and to keep going. Using cycling as a coping strategy and a means of being absolutely present in the moment is hugely inspiring, as both groups of women and individuals “create impetus” and “momentum” to move out of darkness, “ignit[ing] [that] passion into everyday life.”

As IFF 2017 drew to a close and I emerged out of the dark, the world appeared a good deal brighter. Outside the cinema it was pitch black and autumn chills, but I was carrying the sparks of everything I’d seen with me. In the cross fertilisation of fiction and documentary there is fire, hope and the possibility of positive change. The world needs imagination and the voices of independent filmmakers as never before, to find the truth, set things alight and make us see the world anew.

http://2017.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/

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.

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