7-11 November, Eden Court Theatre and Cinemas
In the 21st Century entertainment industry, “On Demand” is sold as a self-gratifying concept. We’re fed the idea of how powerful we are, handed a remote control to watch what we want, when we want, in the confines of our individual homes. Armed with devices we use daily to take endless shots of ourselves, we can even shape our own content. But ‘on demand’ can also mean the desire to see alternatives, driven from the ground up, joining a collective audience and driving change. In that respect, independent cinema has never had a more vital role to play in our world.
As IFF Director Paul MacDonald- Taylor suggested in his introduction to this year’s festival, ‘some of the greatest films come from countries that don’t have English as their primary language, we just have to be open to the idea of subtitles and an entire world will open up to us.’ This year’s IFF programme was the perfect antidote to the ‘divisive’ state of current affairs, a powerful, celebratory reminder of all the ways we share experiences through film. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once said that ‘relating a person to the whole world… is the meaning of cinema’ and I felt that so strongly this year, more so than any other. Standing back and reviewing what I’ve watched over the last five days, my IFF18 highlights seem to reflect an urgent need for a sea change in how we relate to Nature, the world and each other. Whilst I was thrilled by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Browns’ 1920 Silent Film The Last of the Mohicans, laughed along with Canadian teen comedy Don’t Talk to Irene, was incredibly impressed by Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife, and completely dazzled seeing Powell and Pressburgers’ The Red Shoes on the big screen, new world cinema features Capernaum/ Capharnaüm, Namme, Foxtrot, Sunset /Napszállta and Sidney and Friends had the most significant impact on me. This year’s IFF Audience Award winner Capernaum would seem to indicate that I’m not alone in taking the cinematic road less travelled and appreciating the ride.
Lebanese Director Nadine Labaki’s third feature Capernaum / Capharnaüm (Chaos) is a film for our century and essential viewing. It’s without doubt one of the most powerful, heart-breaking and strangely life affirming films I’ve ever seen, a reflection of undocumented lives lived by millions around the world, channelled through the eyes of a young boy living on the streets of Beirut. The premise of the film works as a contemporary fable. Zain, a 12-year-old boy, is suing his parents for the crime of giving him life, raising him in an environment devoid of any basic human rights. Although this impossible legal action calls upon the viewer to suspend their disbelief, Capernaum is completely grounded in the life experience of non-professional actors, intensive research and Labaki’s intelligent direction. The result is an extraordinary blend of ‘documentary, fiction and poetry.’ What affected me most, though I didn’t realise it fully at the time, was all the subtle ways that the main characters’ performances draw on lived experience. At her Cannes press conference in May 2018, which I watched after the screening, Labaki stated that although there was a story and a script from the start, ultimately the film was led by the ‘characters’ being themselves. Labaki and her crew filmed improvised scenes with children and in documentary mode in detention centres, resulting in ‘500 hours of rushes’ and a ‘12 hour first cut’ of the film. The care and balance achieved in the final version will emotionally floor you, almost as much as Zain Al Raffea’s enduring presence in the lead role.
The displacement of “home” and everything that word means to human beings, as the place where we ought to feel safe, sheltered and loved, lies at the heart of Capernaum. This isn’t about what has been branded “the refugee crisis”, it’s a film about failure to thrive inside one’s own family and society, fuelled by extreme poverty, the failure of governments to act and the systematic reduction of human beings to commodities. The ethical and moral position of bringing children into the world is questioned throughout. There are many times when the understanding of complex emotions, injustice and abdication of responsibility by “adults” surfaces in this film, levels of chaos which children should never have to live through but do every day. The film moves beautifully between intimate closeup on individual lives and aerial footage, giving the viewer a sense of the sheer, overwhelming scale of human beings caged by circumstances they are unable to escape without intervention. ‘Undocumented’ persons take many forms, as we see with Zain and his siblings in the “care” of their parents and in the friendship between Zain and Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant worker without papers. Zain’s interactions with Rahil’s baby Yonas reveals the stark difference between a loved child raised in poverty and one which has never been exposed to care, or even kindness, from his own parents. That scarred development at an early stage of life, with the child having to assume adult responsibility in an environment where they have no agency is devastating. As an unwanted child, Zain carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s not just sadness in his eyes, but incalculable loss. Despite this, we see the character develop a bond with his adopted baby brother. We see a glimpse of the young man he might become, if only given an opportunity for stability. This telling maturity, of witnessing chaos that cannot be unseen, is palpable in Al Raffea’s performance, acknowledging his experience as a Syrian refugee in real life. Fortunately, he and his family have now resettled in Norway. Literally living her story on screen, his Eritrean co-star Yordanos Shiferaw was arrested during the shoot, while the child playing her baby son has since been deported. I knew nothing about the cast or how the film was made before watching it, but after finding out more, I understood why I had such an extreme emotional reaction. Since the screening, uncontrollable sobbing has given way to anger.
Admittedly this is a hard film to watch, but the final frame of Zane’s face having his picture taken for his identification papers brings something we haven’t seen him do before into the frame and it’s a still moment of hope. The freedom of having our basic needs met and human identity acknowledged is something that most of us take entirely for granted, not even as a right- but an assumption, coming from a position of privilege. If this sounds like an unrelentingly grim watch, I can assure you that there is enough humour and compassion to not give up on life! Hopefully in years to come, this film will be a marker and a reference, so that the heartbreak we feel for these characters and their predicament, translates into anger and appropriate action in the real world. There isn’t a country on earth not affected by the widening gap between rich and poor and the mass displacement of people, within families and across borders. A mere piece of paper admits or excludes you from a system that demands proof of existence. If we do not care for our own children, how can we continue to reproduce or assume any right to do so? It’s the question of our age. Socially, economically and environmentally, this human chaos is unsustainable. As Lebaki suggested in her Cannes press conference, ‘politics need art to perceive things differently. If art doesn’t change something, then it can open the debate as the first step. What’s missing is the will, the desire to change things- we’re not effective… we feel helpless and stick our heads in the sand.’ Laws and conventions exist on paper… so adults can sleep better at night’, meanwhile ‘children are born, live and die’ invisibly, with no one taking responsibility for their basic needs are met. The anger in this film comes from the children Labaki and her film crew worked with, asking ‘Why am I here?’ Collectively we need to answer the question.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival 2018, Samuel Maoz’s Isareli/ Swiss/ German/ French co-production Foxtrot is a startlingly beautiful film, dealing with a different kind of state-imposed trauma. When a young soldier is reported dead, his family are instructed in mourning by the military, providing the catalyst for a circular chain of events involving their son, stationed at a border outpost. An absurd dance of life that keeps returning to the same position, Foxtrot is a wonderfully surreal, sharply observed drama. Giora Bejach’s cinematography is stunning, utilising the human figure in relation to abstract patterns and architecture, often shot from above, to reflect psychological states. There is also a graphic novel dimension to the film, punctuated by drawings, lighting and composition as the story unfolds. Foxtrot is a brilliant film about inheritance of trauma, halted by an embrace. In the context of an oppressive regime that controls, orchestrates and makes unfortunate events disappear, ‘Everything you see, the mud, the roadblock, is all an illusion.’ It’s a landscape of mind and an examination of the national psyche that feels ground-breaking and incredibly humane.
Humanity leads creative process in Black Isle based filmmaker Tristan Aitchison’s award-winning feature documentary Sidney and Friends. Like Nadine Lebaki’s Capernaum, this is a vital film shaped by voices we don’t usually get to hear, examining identity, prejudice, ignorance and self-worth. Focussing on the lives of trans and intersex people in Kenya, it exposes the hateful, annihilating treatment they face within their own families and society. However, the resilience and strength of individuals makes this an inspiring and hopeful film to watch. The level of trust involved in making such a documentary is huge and I’m so glad to have seen this film. It really opened my eyes to the experiences of trans and intersex people, not just in Africa, but the rest of the world. As the film travels the festival circuit and beyond, I hope that many more people will see it, regardless of their identification, and have their perceptions altered as a result. It’s easy for injustice to remain invisible when those most affected by it are systematically pushed to the margins of society. Cinema is an essential bridge in that respect, a window into the lives and experiences of people all over the world who we would not ordinarily meet. Ultimately what shines through this film is how friendship and love can transform horrific experiences- it’s written all over Sidney’s face in finding acceptance, love and creating his own family. Dealing with a taboo subject and shooting guerrilla with no budget, Aitchison’s committed persistence in bringing this film to fruition is an outstanding achievement. It’s a truly international production that came about because the filmmaker saw something he couldn’t turn his back on. Because some interviewees chose to remain anonymous in fear for their lives, black screen and the voiceovers of actors are used for some of the testimonials. Like the still black and white portrait photography that punctuates the film, there’s a strong sense of the essential relationship between the director/ photographer based on congruence, dignity and respect. The style of visual communication remains open, giving deeper insights into the interviewee’s lives. Although forged by necessity, the blank black screen succeeds as a contemplative, non-judgemental space where the viewer can actively listen to these voices, make their own connections and come to terms with what they’re hearing. There is another level of empathy too, in watching the film as part of an audience. There is a greater sense of witnessing something terrible and equally transformative, gaining understanding which we carry with us into the world outside the cinema, our daily lives and interactions.
There was so much to see at this year’s festival across multiple strands, including New World Cinema, Altered States, Documentary, World War I on Screen, Highlands and Islands Film Guild, It Came to a Cinema Near You, a centenary tribute to Margaret Tait including the world premiere of her restored feature Blue Black Permanent, Short Cuts, Cladach and the Films of Margaret Salmon, Demystifying Screen Dance, Cashback for Creativity featuring films made by young people in the Highlands and Moray, Young Critics Seminar and Young Programmers. It’s great to see the Young Programmers group develop at Eden Court with each successive festival. Their choices for IFF18 included ‘Scottish High School zombie Christmas musical’ Anna and the Apocalypse and Canadian comedy/drama Don’t Talk to Irene. Directed by Pat Mills, starring Michelle McLeod, Anastasia Phillips and Geena Davis as herself/ God, this is a smart, funny and thoroughly entertaining film about not having to fit in and defying expectations.
The It Came to a Cinema Near You strand, programmed by Film Historian Lawrence Sutcliffe, included a sell-out talk on ‘the three cinemas that once called Academy St, Inverness, home: The Empire (originally the Central Hall Picture House), Kelso’s La Scala, and The Playhouse,’ together with a selection of films that were screened there in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There is nothing like watching historical films on a big screen as intended, and the selection of The Red Shoes (1948), Bonjour Tristesse (1957) and Hammer Horror The Devil Rides Out (1968) gave an intriguing glimpse into what local audiences were watching. I’d only ever seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes on television before and it was spectacular to see it projected in all its visual glory. I felt strangely connected to audiences who saw the film for the first time on its release in 1948, that sense of wonderment and possibility, fuelled by imagination. Mainstream commercial cinema boxes genres, but this film splices them together in unforgettable ways, combining different disciplines to push the boundaries of film. Based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a dazzling merger of dance, theatre, cinema and dreams. Moira Shearer stars as ballerina Vicky Page, torn between her essential need to dance, the demands of her mentor/ director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) for her to be the greatest dancer and her love for a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). It’s a film about the cost of a creative life, reaching the professional/ artistic top of your game and what is sacrificed in the process. I think what appeals to so many artists watching this film is the pure truth of fiction, the imaginative state communicated in the dance and on film. Although a tragic story, filmed in the aftermath of WWII, there is so much innovative magic in The Red Shoes, it is easy to see why generations of directors including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Damien Chazelle have been so influenced by it. The haunting, dreamlike clarity of Powell and Pressburgers’ vision, captured by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The African Queen) is completely captivating. This interplay of colour, light, shadow and reflection, dissolving slow motion, stage performance and live action montage is unique in cinema. That departure from traditional realism, creating a new language in the process, will never cease to be revolutionary.
A quiet revolution in progress would be one way of describing Zaza Khalvashi’s, Namme a stunningly beautiful elegy for the disappearing countryside. Whilst the location is culturally specific, the story is universal, addressing the dilemma faced by younger generations in rural areas the world over; whether to follow traditional ways of life, adapt or surrender to industrial scale progress. Namme unfolds in a magnificently understated, observational style with little dialogue, following the daily life and rituals in a Georgian village. We are introduced to Ali and his family, entrusted for generations with the task of looking after the local spring, which has healing properties. Ali’s sons have abandoned the mission, so his daughter Namme (Mariska Diasamidze) assists her father in maintaining the water supply and in the pastoral care of the whole village. Namme is part of an unbroken line, keeping the well torch burning through the night, distributing the precious water, visiting and healing the sick. The water itself is an agent, not of the supernatural but of Nature and belief. Natural sound and images, composed with pure artistry by cinematographer Giorgi Shvelidze, are themselves like a cleansing, clarifying and meditative balm. Human activity and the individual figure are seen in relation to the surrounding mountains, water, mist and sky, framing our understanding of place and our collective human predicament.
Diametrically opposed but also seen in gentler parallel, a view of the valley cut in half by industrial development on one side, agricultural grazing and forest on the other, sums up the tone of the film, which is show don’t tell. Nearby a hydro power station is being built and things start to change, white toxins enter the stream, fish begin to get sick and the ancient water supply starts to dry up.The central female character is significant in finding her way through this changing landscape, in taking responsibility and symbolic action. On the cusp of sacrificing her own happiness for the good of the village, Namme is faced with the depths of her calling, the sacrifice of inherited tradition and choosing to lead her own life with a man she loves. This is a compassionate and unforgettable film, filled with breath taking images. It’s a vision that equally applies to the Highlands and Islands, as much under cultural and environmental threat as this small Georgian village.
If there was an award for the most intriguing film of the festival, then I’d have to nominate Sunset /Napszállta by László Nemes. His directorial debut Son of Saul (IFF 2015), brought the human horror of the Holocaust into sharp focus and won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His second feature Sunset /Napszállta is filmed in an equally compelling way, following the character at intimate distance, living each breathless second in closeup, while fate turns on a dime and the world around them crumbles. There’s a powerful sense in Nemes’ vision, of people swept up in events beyond their control, here in Budapest in the early 1910’s, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing and the impending sunset for civilization, culminating in the trenches of WWI. The ambiguous central character in this tale, Iris Leiter, returns to the fashionable department store once owned by her deceased parents and begins to uncover her family’s scandalous past. I use the word ‘tale’ because the film reads very much like a fable. Iris (Juli Jakab) appears as an ethereal character, rather than a literal one, her movement through the world, discovering her history, feels like a vehicle for examining human agency in the wider context of history. The intensity of moving through this swirling social milieu, which encompasses place, time and declining century, is enhanced by superb cinematography and exemplary sound design. I can only describe the sense of immersion like a visceral sound cloud, where the exclusion of whispers, anxiousness and panic escalate in response accelerating threat. Life’s breath and guttural sounds are sharply contrasted with the entire corseted world of propriety. I could spend an entire article unpacking this film, there are so many potential layers of interpretation. You just have to surrender to the labyrinthine nature and rhythm of this film, entering a suspended reality, bordering on a traumatic state between life and death. This obsessive, cathartic processing of collective memory is what Sunset and Son of Saul are essentially about in terms of creative process. The female central protagonist is such an interesting figure, intensely vulnerable in a male dominated environment, strangely distant from the action and yet wilfully stepping into situations that might change the outcome for individuals Iris is like an angel testing the character and resolve of those around her. She courts danger to gain understanding, side stepping the violence around her, dons her brother’s clothes and moves through a chaotic world, somehow surviving unscathed. It’s a film you are drawn into, as Iris’s backstory and the underbelly of society is slowly revealed. Like the exquisitely crafted hats Iris makes as part of her inheritance, this is a beautiful film, punctuated by violence and a seething undercurrent of corruption. Sunset is a film about unmasking facades ‘that horrors of the world hide behind’ and unlike most period dramas, you’ll still be thinking about this one long after the credits have rolled.
I love short film screenings and wish they could become a more integral part of regular feature screenings. Festival shorts selections are a great place for exposure to different stories, realities and for spotting emerging filmmakers. In Scotland there is a significant gap between short film production and transitioning to features, which hopefully the proposed building of production facilities outside Edinburgh will help address. This year’s selection featured over 40 short films and I attended three curated screenings, including the Margaret Tait 100 centenary presentation Margaret Tait: Film Poet, a selection of her short films introduced by Peter Todd. Amongst my IFF18 Short Film highlights were Tait’s Aerial (1974), which for me best exemplifies her poetic approach to the medium, Alex Harron’s The Racer (13 min), John McFarlane’s Tony and the Bull (16 mins), Danny Cook’s The King and I (30 mins) Eva Riley’s Diagnosis (17 mins), Isa Rao’s Crannog (15 mins), Simon P Biggs’ animated short Widdershins (11mins) and Niamh McKeown’s Good Girls (10 mins).
Alex Harron’s 13min film The Racer was part of the Scottish Documentary Institute’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ selection from Filmmakers based in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The relationship between Fife based motorcycle racer Jodie Chalk and her Dad Garfield is inspirational, based on unconditional love and support that transcends the race track. Breaking down barriers in what is predominantly a male sport, Chalk’s talent and unwavering commitment deserves sponsorship and I hope that this film will raise the profile for equality and future investment. Isa Rao’s Crannog (15 mins) which explores the idea of sanctuary, kindness and dignity in death drew some interesting post screening responses from the audience. The film centres on a young woman, with her own terminal diagnosis, providing end of life care for rescued animals, based on the belief that regardless of the species,’ no one should die alone.’ I couldn’t help but feel that the central relationship between species was a projection of her own situation, raising interesting moral and ethical questions. John McFarlane’s Tony and the Bull (16 mins) was an absolute crowd pleaser, a portrait of ex-butcher Tony, who lives in a dilapidated farm house with Scrunch, a Highland bull he hand-raised from a calf. The need to care for something, or someone, and have a stable place to call home is highlighted by a film where the well-being of man and bull are completely dependent on each other. Funny and tender, Tony and the Bull refreshingly strips life back to essential relationships, what we need to overcome difficulty and gain contentment.
Danny Cook’s 30 min gallery work The King and I was an interesting inclusion in the IFF Shorts programme. As a form of portraiture using split widescreen, the viewer enters the world of Edinburgh resident Graham Croan Bee. Unlike many of the SDI films heavy on telling documentary through dialogue and voiceover, this is artist film meets documentary, with the storytelling evenly split between dialogue and visuals. The film successfully evokes a state with ‘no distinction between the imaginary and the real.’ Cook creates a sense of metaphorical twilight amongst the memories, dust and aging flowers. Dialogue between Graham and his friend Juliet defies the notion that ‘there’s no worse pain than an empty life’, with footage of still life objects in his home providing some of Graham’s imagined backstory in the mind of the viewer. Just as there is kindness and dignity in the subject, there’s equal empathy in the filming, visually raising a toast in the final sequence, when live footage of Graham and Juliet is spliced with a banquet scene from King and I.
What a year 2018 has been on so many levels. It’s wonderful to see filmmakers local, national and international, so engaged not just with their craft, but with the wider world. The quality of films and of range voices heard at IFF18 have been truly amazing, enlightening and humbling. This year’s audience award makes me hopeful too, that there is an appetite for ‘on demand’ in a way we haven’t seen before. This world of expanded awareness, hope and possibility we’ve watched together in the dark, flowing back into the world outside.
Inverness Film Festival Website: http://2018.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/