8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

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