Eden Court, 9- 13 November.
Every time I attend a film festival non film geek friends and colleagues look baffled when I tell them that I’m about to spend consecutive days and nights sitting in the dark watching films back to back, then an equal amount of time mentally unpacking them. To a lot of people films are just escapist entertainment and they certainly can be, but what I love most about film festivals- and IFF in particular, is that they expand my mind and understanding of what an amazing medium Film can be. In the hands of the best filmmakers, past and present, seeing is a multi-dimensional, active experience rather than a passive one and the same is true of the best curation. In imaginative terms we weave our own stories into what we see on screen and the shared theatrical experience of cinema-going is also part of that creative process of identification and discovery.
In the words of IFF Festival Director Paul MacDonald-Taylor; “One of the most magical aspects of cinema is that it opens up a window onto the world. It shows you sights and people that you might otherwise never get the chance to experience.” This year’s IFF was full of such magic, in a way that feels very responsive to the times we’re living in; expanding the world view rather than shrinking it. In exposing audiences to lives, cultures and places, unseen or unknown, independent cinema has a very significant role to play on the global stage. While debate in the industry rages about diversity, race and the under-representation of women in film, look no further than independent films and this year’s IFF programme for a lived experience of equality without the need for branding. Held over 4 days, as opposed to 10+ at larger red carpeted festivals, here there’s no room for mediocre padding. It’s about cherry picking the best films available, irrespective of where they’ve come from or who has made them. This year’s festival presented over 50 films including 6 shorts showcases, 26 Scottish and 3 UK premieres, with a thematic focus on The Roof of the World and timely celebration of women behind the camera. The presence of pioneering archival content, exciting debuts from emerging directors, outstanding performances and provocative subject matter made this a super stimulating festival and an encouraging year for women in film. There were many highlights including The High Sun, After the Storm, Paths of the Soul, The Handmaiden, United States of Love , The Eagle Huntress and Kevin Brownlow’s magnificent five and a half hour digital restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 Silent masterpiece Napoleon to name just a few. (This might be a good time to go make yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable!)
IFF has a fine tradition of introducing audiences to first feature debuts by emerging directors and also providing subversive alternatives to predictably crowd pleasing opening night fare. Set in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut feature Kill Me Please/ Mate-Me Por Favor is driven by teenage curiosity, fantasy and a spirit of experimentation; grappling with self, sex and death. The story centres on Bia (Valentina Herszage), a 15 year old girl and her friends over a turbulent summer. A succession of young women have been found murdered and dumped in nearby waste ground. It’s a world of dark vulnerabilities and soulless apartment blocks in which adults are conspicuously absent. Bia and her elder brother Joao, are fending for themselves while their mother pursues her own life. Joao spends most of his time at home on the internet, constructing fantasy relationships, at one point turning the focus upon the screen/camera/audience as the object of desire. It’s a film that like the fascinations of its teenage protagonists is forever shifting in and out of focus, a style of storytelling which divided the audience, but totally fits the burgeoning awareness of the central character. This state of flux is also achieved by imagery grounded in light or its absence, dreams, folklore, hauntings, and the intense ebb and flow of teenage attractions/ obsessions. It’s meant to be uncomfortable because adolescence is essentially a kind of death and particularly dualistic for young women; “Blood is life” and mortality simultaneously. The director draws upon the Giallo Horror tradition, merging that voyeuristic genre and palette with You Tube generation mobile phone selfies and music video in your face sexuality. Often the camera/ viewer is placed in the position of the killer or voyeur which is uneasy territory, but an interesting confrontation with the passivity of seeing we’ve come to expect from mainstream “coming of age” dramas. In accordance with every B Grade Horror film ever made the sex=death trope is invoked, but the heroine Bia goes out to meet that idea, challenging the concept of victimhood and objectification by actively seeking experience, which in conclusion feels like bravery on the part of the director and her heroine. In a traditional role reversal Bia’s boyfriend, who takes her to prayer meetings and wants to slow things down, isn’t demanding or aggressively masculine. Although not unmasked completely, the potential for sexual violence is tested by the female character instead, against the backdrop of local serial killings. Sometimes the imagery is disturbingly contradictory; female assertiveness VS teased out slow motion dance numbers, the female pastor in gaudy makeup and sequins preaching purity through pop music or the camera moving in and out of darkness whilst a woman is being murdered, the identity of the attacker and victim remaining hidden. In the midst of this ambiguous exploration of adolescence are the threads of an inconclusive thriller, which I suspect may have frustrated some viewers, but the serial crime here is part of an atmosphere of fear, rather than driving the narrative. The girls tell each other stories; conflate and amplify the circumstances around them, fixated on the gruesome details of the attacks and how Bia looks exactly like one of the dead girls, which in psychological terms she is. Kill Me Please is a plea to release her mature self, to find what that is on her own terms, which for young women living in the 21st Century digital age means wading through unreal realities, just like the film does. Overall Kill Me Please is an interesting twist on the coming of age genre and gender stereotypes from a promising director, seen in poetic moments such as the final emergence from the waste ground. However this first film is also too immersed in a state of immaturity to feel completely satisfying. In terms of the director’s vision, visual language/ grammar, editing, structure and the central character’s path to herself, it lacks certain cohesion and is episodic in nature; an observation rather than a criticism given the subject matter and the professional stage of development.
Julia Ducournau’s first feature Raw delivers another psychological twist on Femininity and the Body Horror genre, giving a referential nod to the excellent Canadian chiller Ginger Snaps and Brian DePalma’s Carrie in its exploration of sexual maturity and awakening hunger. Justine (Garance Marillier) goes to join her older sister at veterinary school, leaving her parents (who are also vets and vegetarians), her middle class home and the influence of her apparently cold and domineering mother. During the first week of hazing rituals Justine is forced to abandon her principles and conform; subjected to humiliating ordeals by older students including having to eat raw meat, triggering an insatiable appetite within. It’s an institution of learning that looks more like an abandoned hospital, a cold, empty and increasingly hostile place, where figures of adult authority are almost permanently absent, allowing the students to rule each other. It’s a place to effectively lose yourself in drink, drugs and house parties, rather than find yourself- especially as a young woman. Justine’s tutor hates her because she’s top of the class, stating that her intelligence will only make the other students feel inadequate. Conformity is pitched against self-discovery, denial against freedom, in increasingly extreme ways and as the plot unfolds there are many red herrings to keep the audience guessing. Apparently paramedics had to be called to the Toronto Film Festival screening to deal with viewer feinting and wrenching, but that strikes me as the ideal marketing ploy off the back of two weak stomachs, rather than an accurate reflection of the content. The gore is actually more sparing than I expected and realistic rather than graphic. This is a refreshingly smart film where the most effective moments of tension and unease are also the quietest; like a sheet coming off a dog on a mortuary slab in slow motion, heightening our sense of something internally being unleashed. The female line of the family are contained within a polarity of behaviour and the intentional blurred lines between human and animal instinct. This isn’t a story which pivots on the physical onset of sexual maturity, but feminine psychological/ sexual maturity, so in evolutionary Horror terms Raw definitely feels like a step up from the norm. As Justine’s metaphorical hunger takes hold of her and the violence escalates, we’re shown the consequences of an environment that does nothing to feed or nurture the Female psyche. Without giving away too much the final reveal is intelligently satisfying. Ultimately Ducournau suggests that whilst we have to find ways of living with our needs and desires, denial isn’t much of a life choice! Whilst Justine is at war with conflicting aspects of herself she’s not cast in the traditional female horror role of a fleeing, helpless victim, pursued by forces more powerful than her. Although she is victimised and in spite of an inheritance that threatens to overwhelm and isolate her, she holds power within herself.
In complete contrast the confusion, fear and momentous change of adolescence is tackled with comedic effect in the Australian film Girl Asleep. A first feature for director Rosemary Myers and playwright Matthew Whittet, based on their acclaimed Windmill Theatre production, I’ll admit that my critical assessment of this film is somewhat clouded by my background. Being born in 1971 Australia, into a suburban middle class world of corduroy brown and lurid canary yellow, this is a film full of cultural references and triggers of childhood memories. In the late 1970’s Australia was a land of exotic pineapples and tooth picked finger food stuck in half an orange, patios paved for entertaining, the throb of disco music closely followed by electro synth-pop, all in one leisure suits with synthetic material engineered to make you sweat, panel vans with custom painted side stripes, wood veneer and shag pile carpets. Like the central character Greta Driscoll, (played with perfectly understated bewilderment by Bethany Whitmore) I too fastened my pigtails with brown bobbles, was equine obsessed, content not to socialise (much to my mother’s dismay), had a rebellious, outgoing elder sister, refused to have significant coming of age related parties and could count my friends on less than half a hand. In consequence this film naturally resonated with me and I clearly found it laugh out loud funnier than the rest of the audience. The challenge in adapting a stage production for the screen is creating suspension of disbelief in the cinema. Whatever the viewer’s background or life experience, to enjoy this film I think you need to be prepared to be like Greta, able to access the imaginative child within; the self that you never want to say goodbye to completely, in order to stay with Girl Asleep once it starts to get weird! The problem is, unlike Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which is a fully realised cinematic vision of bright retro innocence, humour and absurdity, Myers’ film gets a bit lost in translation. I suspect that it didn’t quite work for the audience I was watching it with as it is too anchored in its recreation of a particular time and place; which isn’t really a problem if you were there, but significantly less entertaining if you weren’t. The film’s aesthetic path; following Greta Driscoll into a forest dream state of mind with strange costumed beasts, felt comfortingly familiar having grown up reading the very popular Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There are moments of pathos and recognition; Greta meeting her leafy, decaying forest Dad reciting bad jokes that she is on the cusp of not finding funny anymore or being confronted by her younger self who she needs to integrate into the young woman she is becoming. However there aren’t enough of these universal touchstones in the film as a whole, even though the performances are heartfelt. Ultimately Girl Asleep is a positive fairy tale fighting its way out of a ground of 1970’s cultural kitsch. (I’ve had Sylvester’s disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) stuck in my head for days!) The best thing about Girl Asleep is that the girl in question is able to save and find herself, without the intervention of parents, peers or prospective romantic partners. It’s an uplifting film about letting go of your plastic horses and dancing to your own tune.
Another nostalgically packaged period piece is Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, although sadly it reduces its complex subject to a conservative love story pitched to a Merchant Ivory audience. Asante’s previous feature Belle was much more subtle and affecting in its exploration of race, class and gender. The story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, a London office worker he married in 1947 (with powerful opposition from the British, South African, South Rhodesian governments and both their families), is frustratingly narrow as depicted in this film. As always David Oyelowo is a wonderful screen presence and lights up every frame, but Rosamund Pike has nothing to do within the confines of the script other than look besotted, bewildered and fulfil the traditional function of giving birth. The story revealed during the closing credits of the couple’s whole life together and how their lives actively challenged racism is a thousand times more interesting than the saccharine romance we are served. The film is very pretty to look at, but I intensely disliked the quintessential Britishness of the language; cloaked in politeness, which feels like a double betrayal of its subject. Seretse’s treatment is reduced to quips about sherry and British government officials are portrayed for their pomposity, rather than brutal calculation, commercial exploitation and greed. It’s a film made for a mainstream audience that doesn’t feel true to the urgency and relevance of the issues it is trying to address. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the script than sourcing authentic tea dress fabric. To be fair I suspect that the film is a victim of politics, production values and box office marketability rather than a lack of integrity on the part of its director. It also feels like a very engineered, neat policy statement by backers in the face of industry criticism, which seldom creates great Art. My feeling is that the world is ready for a more progressive telling of Seretse and Ruth’s story than what this film delivers. Undeniably it is a great love story, but it is also significantly more than that. Critically the clue is in the title as to the sentimental tone and genteel delivery of the film’s message. When I compare A United Kingdom to outstanding independent films which dominate the rest of the IFF programme, its faults are amplified. It isn’t a bad film, just a well-meaning one and that isn’t enough to satisfy.
You Tube generation mash ups, or appropriating historical or found film footage and reimagining it, has become a very popular genre on the internet in recent years. There’s a whole lot of it floating out there in cyberspace, ranging from the most rudimentary splicing of favourite film moments to music on bedroom laptops, shared with friends and occasionally going viral, to Artist Film with a greater emphasis on Craft and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of the medium. Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? assembles clips from hundreds of films from different eras and all over the world. It encapsulates the experience of cinema going, the cinema audience beholding itself and triggers memories in the mind of the viewer; not just in terms of films/ titles seen, but acknowledging cinema as a theatrical and essentially social environment. Photography and film are inexorably entwined with human memory and although the film is loosely structured around a linear path; from buying a ticket to emergence from the cinema, its meanderings and final sequential comment on film are thankfully a bit more complex. The dovetailing of several different clips overlaid with singular pieces of dialogue effectively expands the viewer’s frame of reference and range of associative meanings. Arguably we go to the cinema communally to experience some kind of journey and self-reflection, whether that is escapist or confrontational. Cinema is a space where we grow up, fall in love, are entertained, educated, participate in social etiquette and where we go to immerse ourselves in projected dreams, hopes and desires. There are plenty of stars and iconic screen moments in this film that film geeks will love, but the focus here is really on the audience and the human face; the interactions with what is on screen and audience members with each other. Have You Seen My Movie? doesn’t have the editorial rhythm or thrilling momentum of György Pálfi’s Final Cut- Ladies and Gentlemen (winner of the 2012 IFF Audience Award), but moves in and out of time more loosely, allowing moments of connection to surface within the viewer. Having worked on The Clock, (video artist Christian Marclay’s looped 24 hour montage of scenes from cinema and TV which operates as a clock through real time filmic references) Smith’s composition is less fully formed in terms of his ideas and technique equalling each other. There are glimmers of something less dependent on personal association and more universally poetic emerging in the final sequence; which for me is a meditation on the so called “death of film” in our century and the increasing loss of picture houses in cities around the world. We lose film and we lose ourselves because our memories are bound up in that decaying, celluloid world, however Smith’s parting visual statement also contains a glimmer of hope. The final montage sequence begins with a child stealing promotional photographs from Citizen Cain through the caged grill of a movie theatre entrance, followed by a masked, dance like scattering of dreams from Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, the snow globe falling to the floor to the mute utterance of “Rosebud” in the final moments of Orson Wells’ Citizen Cain, Moira Shearer’s feet in spiralling pirouette in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes ,dancing herself to death, a scene of a graveyard and finally we see the child running off into the night with the stills before the projector stops. Whether the films these clips are taken from are known to the viewer or not, the director’s final commentary in this concluding sequence speaks of death, regret and loss. Equally the figure of the child coveting still images from a timeless film and running away with them feels like a reflection of Contemporary Art; an ever increasing Net of visual material, scoured for breadth of content rather than depth of retrieval, until the child grows up and learns what to do with it. It isn’t enough for an artist to simply appropriate and reassemble. For a film or art installation to timelessly stand on its own, it needs an evolving foundation of Craft, integral to the film making process. I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? because at heart I’m a film geek. Movie-going has always been part of my life from a very young age and cinema is invested with my most intimate memories. Films like this are therefore a very rich source of visual, emotional, cerebral and sensual triggers and I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect. However in contemplating seeing Smith’s future work I’m reminded of Orson Wells’ comment about the “eloquence of cinema” being “achieved in the editing room”.
Movie going memories are at the centre of the three year Major Minor Cinema: Highlands and Islands Film Guild 1946-71 project www.hifilmguild.gla.ac.uk , a collaboration between the University of Glasgow and University of Stirling, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Highlands and Islands Film Guild grew out of the Scottish Film Council’s pre-war programme of making non-commercial 16mm films available to rural areas with the intention of improving leisure facilities and social cohesion. The project aims include “building an oral history archive of cinema audiences and operators” and “exploring the creative possibilities of memory and oral traditions” with an open call for anyone who would like to contribute to the project during 2016-17. These aspects of collaboration, creativity and research were the basis for two events at IFF; a 16mm programme of screenings typical of those that would have been shown by the film guild in village halls, featuring Scott of the Antarctic (1948), a newsreel, cartoon, an information film and readings of “newly commissioned works inspired by memories of cinema going”, followed by a half-day creative writing workshop. Led by poet /writer Nalini Paul and writer /film academic, Sarah Neely this Saturday morning session included guided exercises with the direct stimulus of archival material, cinema memorabilia, filmic artefacts and 16mm projection, together with shared memories of cinema going from round table participants. It was fantastic to hear people’s perceptive experiences and kick start the creative process of writing about one’s own cinematic memories in such a supportive environment. It would have been great to further develop this work with the group over several days and I think everyone who participated thoroughly enjoyed it, giving us plenty to explore and refine on our own. Something that emerged from discussion and reminiscences were the connections with family, social interactions, communities and the cinema as a place not just of sight and sound experiences, but for smell, taste and touch as well. Significantly what was happening around us, our stage of life and who we went to the cinema with, were just as important as what was on screen. The session was much more than reminiscences in a warm haze of nostalgia. Creatively accessing our cinema-going memories was a way of coming to terms with those we’d loved and lost, reliving defining and sometimes comic moments from our youth, reassessing our relationships with home, family, community and nationality, all with cinema as the catalyst.
Human relationships come under an emotional microscope in Writer /Director Tomas Wasilewski’s United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości. His previous feature Floating Skyscrape screened at IFF 2013 and it is exciting to see such a leap of stylistic development in his latest film. Although the title suggests optimism it’s sharply ironic, an examination of states of love, united in obsessive dysfunction, the antithesis of life giving passion. From the opening shots the bleached emotional tone is set by hue; a chilled palette of blushed blue and green monochrome like a dead body with all the blood drained out of it or an aged, tinted photograph. Director of Photography Oleg Mutu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, In the Fog, In Bloom) composes imagery perfectly in sync with the impossibility of love and doomed aspirations of the film’s protagonists. Sequences are framed with brilliantly expressive use of the human body, often cut off by the composition, leading the viewer deeper into the experience of the central characters. With experience written on the body at pivotal moments, instead of actor’s faces, it is easier for the viewer to project themselves into the frame in a way that maintains ultimate tension within a scene. We’re used to love stories told in deliriously absorbing close up flesh tones, what we’re given is perhaps something more honest, in terms of the annihilating disconnect of desire, love and passion when it is unrequited, a projected illusion or a lie. Although this is a icy film in terms of its emotive pitch, the performances by its four lead actresses are astonishing, delivered with emotional intelligence that challenges what some audience members perceived as a misogynist film. Although what happens to his four female leads is brutal and unforgiving, I think Wasilewski’s focus is more expansive than gender alone. Very nuanced performances give his characters a depth of life that resists such a reductive interpretation. Admittedly these are undesirable depths and that we probably don’t wish to see or acknowledge. Like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, it is painfully raw, disturbing and ultimately full of despair. But in creating such a bleak vision of the human condition, identity and relationships, the director actively challenges our idealised aspirations of what love is and also very importantly acknowledges collective scars of repression. Whilst the story centres very personally on four women whose lives are entwined, historically the story is set at a very particular time; 1990’s Poland, with the promise of freedom from the newly established democratic government after years of repressive state rule. It would be a naïve director who would portray such a period as a door of freedom and possibility simply being opened. The past always needs acknowledgment before a future is possible and sometimes scars are too deep to be healed, deforming the idealised love we crave, seen in the lives of Wasilewski’s four main protagonists. Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) is a school principal, whose six year affair with a married man comes to an end with his wife’s death. Still desperately obsessed with her lover she tries to get him back through his daughter, ending in circumstantial violence and tragedy. Her icy manipulation is matched by her lover’s, a doctor who in violation of his profession reacts to her pitiable cry of “I’ll do anything” (for you) with the suggestion of suicide. It’s a relationship in which neither side will ever attain what they need from the other, as each is a distorted projection of the other’s desires. Iza’s younger sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is a dance and fitness instructor and former beauty queen whose husband is away working in Germany for the promise of a better life. Desperately lonely but wearing a mask of cheerfulness her path crosses with her neighbour Renata (Dorota Kolak), a middle aged English teacher who becomes fixated on her and lives alone in an apartment full of canaries. Kolak’s performance is incredible; constrained in sadness, cunning, self-gratification and yearning. It’s a deeply disturbing performance in which Marzena’s unconscious violation at the hands of a predatory photographer is compounded by Renata’s pleasure in attending her naked body. It is a death to Marzena as we have come to know her throughout the film; as a kind and compassionate young woman, giving birth to something twisted and monstrous in the heart of her covetous older neighbour and changing her life forever. This subversion of female behaviour as innately nurturing, caring and giving is extreme and all the more shocking for its quietly considered, patient reveal. When combined with earlier scenes of Renata teaching poetry and speaking of “pure” love, Wasilewski raises the very awkward question of what love actually is. Throughout the film we see lives devastated by the promise of things which weren’t real to start with- which turned my mind back to the euphoric promise of of the Berlin wall coming down and to the current state of Europe. Although this is a film that will divide audiences it is not devoid of empathy. In Agata’s story line we see a woman, stuck in a loveless marriage and suffering from depression who becomes obsessed with a young priest as an object of unattainable, idealised love/desire. That idealisation is also reflected in a bible class where children are told that “love will be the most important thing in your life” with all the ironically attendant constraints of religious doctrine. Julia Kijowska’s performance conveys Agata’s longing and desperation, with clever sound design of dogs barking when beholding the priest a very effective conveyance of rabid, obsessive desire; the kind people try to fill the void at the centre of them with. She initiates sex with her husband that is ferocious in its intensity but devoid of any mutual feeling, expressing her need to connect in a sheer act of desperation as she pleads with him; ”touch me”, “look at me” , in what is an utterly heart breaking scene. The United States of Love is a thoroughly engrossingly, deeply sad and affecting film, elevated by excellent performances from its four female leads.
Winner of 12 international film awards, Croatian director Dalibor Mantanić’s The High Sun/ Zvizdan is a humane, compassionate and ultimately hopeful story of forbidden love and the impact of war in the former Yugoslavia, told over three consecutive decades. The three couples in this trilogy of interlocking stories; Jelena & Ivan (1991), Natasa & Ante (2001) and Marija & Luka (2011) are all played by the film’s two astounding lead actors, Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković. With breath taking intensity and poise, they inhabit their roles rather than playing them; from innocence to world weary experience. They convey shattering fragility and incredible strength with minimal dialogue, revealed in their eyes, facial expressions and gestures. We aren’t told or shown everything that has happened to Natasa/ Ante and Marija/ Luka but we resoundingly feel it, in the full emotional gravitas of the actor’s performances. In the points of connection between these three love stories, there is a sense of the randomness of fate, depending on the accident of which side of the border between two Balkan villages and which generation the characters belong to. The inference is that the story could also be our own in a different time and place. In the hands of this director the love that brings people together against all odds, circumstance and in spite of cultural difference is greater than the ethnic hatred that divides them. The High Sun is inspirational in that respect; love is hope, the one thing that enables us to survive and give our lives meaning. Mantanić acknowledges loss and suffering out of which the possibility of new life emerges and in so doing finds a path through history, memory and remembrance of human atrocity. This intelligence is applied equally to both sides as we see the motivations and inheritance of the characters, their families and communities. One of Mantanić’s great strengths is in what he chooses not to tell the audience. Natasa’s reactions to Ante tell us everything we need to know about her bodily experience of war and her profound need to connect with him in spite of that trauma in order to keep living. Such scenes are extreme tests of faith and trust, where characters clinging to life have to learn to live again, something they cannot do without each other. Mantanić’s vision as an artist is big enough to acknowledge decades of hatred and trauma without judgement, transcending national borders and ethnicity. He is also able to shine a light on the unseen experiences of women; Natasa who sinks down in the small dark gap between houses and the anguish of her mother who cannot be anything but strong, in denial of her own experiences, trying to rebuild their lives. The reverberations run so deep, through the body and into the soil. In spite of its daunting subject matter The High Sun is a beautiful film crafted with care, humanity and hope which I can be nothing but glad to have seen.
The great unsaid of familial relationships is brought sharply into focus by French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. It’s Dolan doing what he does best; finely observed, cathartic explorations of relationships between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, absent fathers and conflicted male identity. Following the critical triumph of his last film Mommy he has assembled an amazing cast including Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye. Adapted from the stage play by Jean-Luc Lagarde Dolan reveals a claustrophobically close unit of estranged individuals, brought together by Louis, (Gaspard Ulliel) a terminally ill writer who returns home to his family after 12 years in order to tell them that he’s dying. Cassel and Cotilard play their roles to perfection as husband and wife; he as a tightening coil of anger and resentment towards his brother, she the only one of the family ,as outsider sister/ daughter in law, who hears and sees through Louis’s defensive silence. Reunited with a sister (Léa Seydoux) he hasn’t grown up with, a brother who hates him and a mother who sees what she wants to see in the assembled family, there is simply no room for Louis to speak or be heard. The food is prepared and arranged for hospitality, intimacy and sharing but there is no existing dynamic between the characters to feed any of them. The excruciating awkwardness of people belonging to each other without real contact or understanding, waiting for admission into each other lives and incapable of communication is heart rending in its truth. It’s Only the End of the World has the set focus of a stage play but the performances and Dolan’s writing, direction and editing make it a compelling film in its own right. The director provides his characteristic focus on lives and primary relationships in close up, thankfully easing up on borderline music video use of soundtrack in this latest film. Use of light and avian symbolism in the closing scenes bring a sense of resolution and closure for the main character, aided by Ulliel’s consistently understated performance, but what we are left with is a sad truth about how alone we can be in a room full of blood relatives, both reinforcing and perpetuating the foundation of Louis’s decision to leave. The action centres on a single day in these character’s lives and just like many family gatherings the focus and energy naturally implode with all the pent up histories between parents, children and siblings, coupled with the need for a perfect celebration of togetherness. In consequence it is a film that viewer’s will either identify with or find completely unrelenting in the forced intensity and dysfunction of the interactions. Yes, these people aren’t particularly likeable and they probably don’t belong in the same room together, but they are also human; too frightened to engage in anything but habitual role play, extinguishing the possibility of change or finding the love, comfort and support which they each need, but are unlikely to find with each other. Although in many ways I prefer Dolan’s previous film Mommy which offers humour, acceptance and connection in greater supply, Dolan’s evolution as a director is something I will continue to watch with interest.
Written, edited and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku delivers a characteristically tender and knowing vision of family life in contemporary Japan. Consistent with the domestic focus of his previous work (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister) he proves himself a worthy successor of Yasujirō Ozu’s finely observed and sublimely subtle naturalism. Here Kore-eda delivers a resolutely quiet and equally revealing film about love, regret and waking up to find you’re not living the life that you’d hoped for. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a writer whose first prize winning book 15 years ago was also his last. He’s forced to work as a private detective; spying on cheating spouses and finding lost pets to support his gambling addiction, inherited from his Father and Grandfather. He’s estranged from his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) who he’s still in love with and desperately wants to reconnect with his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Taking refuge from a typhoon with Ryota’s mother (the brilliant Kirin Kiki) provides the catalyst for an unlikely reunion between them and acceptance of what has come to pass. The entire cast are wonderful with familial bonds, humour, tensions and truths between them perfectly realised. After arguably taking a slight creative dip in his two previous films, this is a lovingly crafted return to form and along with I Wish, one of the director’s best films to date. Like Ryota’s reply to his son’s question; “Are you who you wanted to be?” Kore-eda’s answer to the audience is; “not yet- what matters is to live to become what I might be” and in creative terms it feels like he’s almost there.
Another distinctive and accomplished director focusing on family centred drama is Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation, The Past), a cerebral director whose characters are typically constrained culturally, by circumstance or both. His latest film The Salesman/ Forushande brings together parallel stories, on stage and screen, with emotional points of intersection and recognition between them. A young married couple; Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced out of their Tehran apartment building by its imminent collapse, taking refuge in a recently vacated apartment managed by a friend from the theatre they both work in. In the company’s latest production the couple are starring as Willy and Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, under the watchful eye of state censors. After moving into the apartment Rana is subjected to an assault when she mistakenly lets someone in, believing them to be her husband. Later they discover from neighbours that the previous tenant was a prostitute (or a woman who had a lot of male visitors- in this world the two are synonymous) and it is assumed that Rana’s attacker was therefore a previous client. In a climate of denial to friends, neighbours and family that anything has actually happened; and with guilt, fear and the impending threat of judgement, it becomes increasingly hard for the viewer to tell what the truth is. Clearly traumatised by what has happened, Rana is unable to function or to seek help as disclosure is too shameful and as several characters affirm, her fears that the police will not do anything and blame her for the attack are well founded. Not surprisingly when subjected to the extreme pressure of these circumstances, coupled with keeping face, maintaining honour and wearing a mask for the benefit of others, cracks start to appear in the marriage. Emad is consumed by finding Rana’s assailant and taking revenge, while his wife turns in on herself, doubting her own actions and assuming responsibility for what has happened to her. By the end of the film the identity of the perpetrator brings further questions about truth and oppression, as we begin to empathise with characters in ways we do not expect and doubt our own judgement. Farhadi is a master at reflecting universal human experience, magnified by a very particular cultural lens and effectively calling the audience’s beliefs and assumptions into question; “I believe that the world today needs more questions than answers. Answers prevent you from questioning, from thinking…If you give an answer to your viewer; your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it. In fact, your film will continue inside the viewer.” The artifice of the play, the deception and truth behind the fiction makes The Salesman a fascinating study of lives fractured by repression.
Male sexual repression is contrasted with burgeoning female sexuality in Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller The Handmaiden/ AH-GA-SSI which adapts Sarah Waters’ award-winning novel Fingersmith, relocating the story from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, an era of Japanese Colonialism. In keeping with the director’s previous films (Stoker, Lady Vengeance, Old Boy) there are elements of sadism and pushing sexual boundaries in keeping with the director’s statement that; “Certain subjects may no longer be taboo in cinema. But there are ways to treat them that still create shock”. His last film and first Western crossover Stoker played with expectations of the feminine very successfully and introduced stylistic elements of Gothic, which are thematically and aesthetically refined in The Handmaiden. It’s a visually sumptuous and opulent film, written like a beautifully crafted puzzle box and with more humour than we might have come to expect from its director. Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to Hideko ( Kim Min-hee), a Japanese Heiress who lives with her domineering and abusive Uncle, a collector of erotic antique scrolls and books which he has been forcing his niece to read at soirees/ performances for male nobles from a very young age. The new maid is a pickpocket recruited by the leader of a criminal gang to infiltrate the household and assist him in his plan to disguise himself as a Count, seduce, marry, rob the heiress of her fortune and have her committed to a madhouse. It’s a plot twisting story of subterfuge in the Film Noir tradition, a planned escapade which starts to unravel when Sookee and Hideko discover their feeling for each other. There are scenes in which female bodies are arranged and displayed with unrealistic symmetrically for a male gaze, which when coupled with the film’s overall aesthetic feels rather self-indulgent on the part of the director. However this is at base complex tale that restrains and releases its audience on multiple levels and is therefore satisfying to watch, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Park Chan-wook is a controversial director by nature but that doesn’t extinguish the eroticism or the political subtext of this work in terms of dominance / submission and independence / colonialism. It is as much about Korea under Japanese occupation as it is a love story between two women or a crime thriller, we’re just not accustomed to seeing female desire explicitly depicted on screen and therefore it can appear shocking. Personally I think it’s one of his best films; audacious, well-crafted, more holistically distilled in its vision than previous work, an effectively telling combination of East and West, a compelling depiction of multifaceted Femininity, love and human sexuality in all its delight and darkness. It’s provocative rather than shockingly violent or extreme when compared to earlier films like Old Boy. Infiltration of the Feminine into his work on a variety of levels has enriched it considerably. (Male artists/ filmmakers take note!)
One of my favourite films this year and part of The Roof of the World thematic strand of the festival was Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche by director Yang Zhang. This exquisitely beautiful film follows the 2000km pilgrimage of a group of villagers across Tibet to Lhasa and the sacred Kang’s Mountain. From the opening shots a way of life is established in the rhythm of meditative song and prayer, which the viewer becomes progressively immersed in. In many ways this film is a gentle invitation towards a different way of being in the world, making Western values and pursuits seem absurdly trivial in comparison and expanding the idea of spirituality into the everyday. Regardless of the viewer’s spiritual or religious beliefs Paths of the Soul has universal appeal in being grounded in something very basic in terms of our existence- our connections with each other which is the key to sustainability. In accordance with tradition, the pilgrimage is “for others and for everyone” – a completely different trajectory of being that illuminates the rampant self-gratification of 21st century urban life. That is not to romanticise rural life in Tibet which like the pilgrim’s road is shown to be extremely hard, it is simply that the intention behind making the journey is fundamentally different to what drives our increasingly globalised, unsustainable consumption. Mobile phones have reached these mountains, but their primary use is communication with relatives who have remained at home during the extended period of pilgrimage. Shot over the course of a year this film is a thoroughly immersive experience, encompassing birth, death, joy and sorrow, accepted as part of life. The beauty of the landscape and humility of human scale within it put life into perspective. Pilgrims share goodwill, tea and rest, prostrating themselves to kowtow along the road with “a bump on the head” as “proof of piety”. There is a subtle, guiding presence of light throughout the film, not only in the natural environment but in people who for the most part seem happy and content with their lot in spite of hardship. When the road floods they kowtow right through it, smiling as they go, drenched and laughing, no one is excluded or left behind, encouragement is given from the youngest to the oldest member of the group. It’s a physical and spiritual marathon of tenacious endurance, made possible by faith and their care for each other. These qualities are openly shared with the audience and an absolute gift to a chaotic and conflicted world. At the film’s conclusion in darkness and submerged in the primal immediacy of sound, polyphonic voices transcend all belief systems or denominations, communicating the best of what we are as a species. It’s an invitation to join and carry that spirit of prayer and being out into the world. Above all else I loved the baseline of this film which is not ethnographic or religious but simply human.
Another delightful film in the Roof of the World strand was The Black Hen/ Kalo Pothi directed by Min Bahadur Bham, the first Nepali film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival. Set in a small war-torn village in Northern Nepal during a temporary ceasefire, two young boys; Prakash and Kiran are separated by class and caste but are determined to remain friends. They join forces to find a lost hen, a pet given to Prakash by his sister who has been recruited by Maoist forces. In spite of the obvious tensions, precarious circumstances of civil war and divisions within the community this is a charming film, full of warmth, humour and insight that often only a child’s eyes, or the child within the adult, can perceive.
Also from the same thematic strand The Eagle Huntress was the well-deserved winner of this year’s IFF audience award, designed by Isle of Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth. It is a thoroughly uplifting, feel-good documentary for all ages, exploring humankind’s essential connection with Nature, the relationship between father and daughter, changing traditions, gender equality and identity, with a powerful message about realising individual potential. Set in the Altai mountains of North-western Mongolia 13 year old Aishol-pan is training to become the first female Eagle Hunter in a tradition handed down from father to son for over 2000 years. 12 generations of her Kazakh family have been Eagle Hunters; a mantle of responsibility, honour and bravery which “is not a choice” but “a calling in the blood”. One of the most touching aspects of Aishol-pan’s story is the relationship with her Father who is also her teacher and guide. As she descends on a rope to an eagle’s nest his parental fears for her safety is are palpable and when she has ascended with the 3 month old eagle chick whom she will raise, it is incredibly moving to hear her father’s comment; “it’s a beautiful bird that matches Aishol-pan”. The bond that she has with her eagle is based on reverence, care and love and her radiant, determined character is very much the heart of the film. What we see is the proverb of “what a baby sees in the nest it repeats when it grows” in action. There is a family tradition illuminated here of equality from both her parents, a belief in a woman’s right to choose and shape her destiny and the essential equality of boys and girls. This environment and the influence of the natural world create such positive strength within Aishol-pan as a young, capable and very driven young woman. We watch her growing confidence in being loved and nurtured by her family, enabling her to overcome community elders’ opposition to her calling and equipping her to face life’s obstacles. As the Eagle Hunting festival competition approaches and when she undertakes the winter hunt to prove herself the audience is rooting for her all the way. Director of Photography Simon Niblett captures human intimacy and the breath taking expanse of the Mongolian steppes and mountain scenery in equal measure. It is an outstanding documentary which I hope that millions of young girls worldwide will have the opportunity to see. My only criticism is clumsily grafting the pop song by Sia “you can do anything” onto the film, which is unnecessary since that statement is so visibly present throughout its dramatic trajectory.
As this year’s audience award winner demonstrates, there is an appetite for the unknown and unseen which begs further development and investment. Film is a powerful communicator and we have never needed the Arts more to expand perception and connect with the world like we do today. When I look at the quantity over quality approach that seems to govern the country’s largest, most celebrated and heavily funded film festival and compare it with what this one consistently delivers on a mere fraction of the budget, IFF sets an amazingly high benchmark. Funding/ resourcing constraints and the positioning of the Eden Court Cinema in the Arts centre venue as a whole has always meant that the festival emphasis is primarily on screenings, rather than education, discussion and debate- which is a shame because the content is so incredibly stimulating year upon year! Admittedly there’s strength in keeping the festival small, however people are drawn to cinema by communal experience and more opportunities (and time) for audience members to socialise between films, discuss what they’ve seen, participate in filmmaker Q&As, attend creative workshops, masterclasses, talks by industry professionals or academics would add to that essential dialogue, deepen the level of exposure and also increase engagement with EC’s year round independent film programme. Having attended this festival and many others around the country over the last decade, my expectations of IFF each November are always high and consistently exceeded. Thanks to the curation audiences can be assured in taking a chance on the unfamiliar; experiencing entertaining, profound and unexpected visions of the world.