4 – 8 November, Eden Court Cinemas
For the 13th year of our festival I decided we would take a look at people who are brave enough to move away from their comfort zones and embark on an adventure, whether that be by choice or circumstance.
Paul MacDonald-Taylor, IFF Festival Director.
The Inverness Film Festival is always an invitation for adventure and discovery and this year’s programme had both in abundance.
Opening night the Scottish premiere of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria delivered an unexpectedly moving journey through the streets of Berlin, seen through the eyes of its female protagonist. Filmed in a single take of 138mins, the absence of editing and immediacy of real time effectively places the viewer amidst the unfolding narrative. The heart and soul of this film is Catalan actress Laia Costa’s remarkable performance, captured in all its expressive subtlety by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography. From the immersive opening sequence in a Berlin nightclub, the viewer is drawn into Victoria’s world through intimate close up and roving camera, taking the viewer along for the ride. Victoria’s chance encounter with Sonne (Frederick Lau), who just might be the love of her life, begins a chain of events that moves the story fluidly between heist movie, thriller and love story. The improvisation of the cast and faithfulness of the camera to the central character give the film a raw, visceral quality and an emotional density one might not expect from the synopsis.
Throughout the film Nils Frahm’s music tempers our reading of the accelerating action. Right from the start there is an underlying suggestion of melancholy in spite of the delight and excitement of Victoria’s first meeting. The film unfolds as real life unfolds, unpredictably, full of change and loss, testing our mettle and defining who we are. It is incredibly refreshing to see a film lead by a female character given the latitude to reveal multiple aspects of herself. By the end of the film we see Victoria emerge into daylight and isolation, a contradictory resolution in some ways but one that feels truthful and plausibly real. Winner of 11 international film awards including the Silver Bear Outstanding Artistic Contribution Berlinale 2015, Victoria is an audacious piece of filmmaking that never allows the potential gimmick of a single take to overshadow the unfolding drama or undermine the emotional journey the audience shares with its characters.
My pick of this year’s festival must also include George Ovashvili’s Corn Island, a beautiful and simply profound film about a young girl on the cusp of adulthood and her grandfather, tending their crop on a tiny island amidst the unstoppable flow of the Enguri River. It is an incredibly gentle film of multiple boundaries that unfolds according to nature’s laws, rather than the potential drama of human conflict we might expect. Although the sounds of an uneasy ceasefire between Georgia and Abkhazia are never far away, the story focuses upon eternal cycles of life, growth, harvest and inevitable decay. It felt restorative to become so absorbed in a film of such hushed stillness. Corn Island leads the viewer into that unique meditative state, found in Nature and in the case of this particular film, in Art. The water, sunlight and changeable weather (for good or ill) are tangible presences in the film, together with the main characters who are, as we all are, just passing through this life. The age old question of who owns the land is represented here as a state of being, rather than being defined by personal possession or the maintenance of geographic, authoritarian borders.
The skills of cultivating this precarious but fertile soil are passed from 70 year old Abga to his granddaughter Asida, creating a seemingly idyllic territory that can only be inhabited in a passing season and can at any moment be entirely swept away. The river brings life, change and patrolling soldiers- it also brings a stranger and the glimmer of a burgeoning relationship between the young man and Asida. As the island becomes a field it evolves as a place to explore human states of youth and age, innocence and experience. The film’s imagery is exquisitely composed, totally captivating and richly associative in meaning. We see Asida framed in relation to the golden, ripening corn or the girl and her grandfather lying on the ground and gazing into the sky, divided by a generational line of shadow. As the timber frame of their hut is constructed it creates an abstract frame against the sky which is also Abga’s window on the world. The peace and simplicity of living entirely as nature dictates could be romanticised but it isn’t. We are left in no doubt that the threat of poverty and potential starvation is what motivates staking a claim on such perilous territory.
The tentative, sometimes fearful vulnerability of adolescence is conveyed by Mariam Buturishvili’s strong, virtually silent performance, perfectly matched by Ilyas Salman as her grandfather Abga. Few words pass between them, yet the sense of connection and communication is effortless. Like building barricades against the rising tide, Abga tries to protect his granddaughter from the encroaching forces around them. Sound is used beautifully to convey Asida’s growing awareness of herself and the gaze of others, manifested in the recurrent cry of a bird. Her awareness of being seen, by the soldiers on the shore and the stranger in the boat is also the call of something within, an awakening or longing which we see transfixed by moonlight. There is a pervasive, comforting sense of natural order throughout the film which finds its resolution when Abga becomes one with the river, signifying an end but also a beginning. As we see an older man return to stake his claim in the final scenes, we are left to wonder; is he the young stranger? Has he married Asida and will they tend this island together? Satisfyingly the film leaves the human denouncement to the viewer’s imagination.
IFF has a strong tradition of showcasing emerging directors, both in its feature and short film programming and some of this year’s debuts proved to be highlights of the festival: Robert Egger’s The Witch, The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s wonderfully offbeat comedy/drama Qüeros (winner of Best First Feature Berlin International Film Festival, a well-deserved award for Best Cinamatography at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and winner of 5 Mexican Ariel Awards including Best Director and Best Film) and László Nemes’ harrowing but intensely powerful debut Son of Saul, awarded the Grand Prix prize at Cannes earlier this year.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch – A New England Folk Tale is a thoroughly intriguing film of unnatural forces and the man-made horrors of religious fanaticism. It is the ambiguities of what is seen and perceived by the central characters which make this film so psychologically interesting. Set in a 17th Century New England pioneering community, a devout family leave the relative protection of a colonial plantation to live in exile on the edge of a vast, unknown wilderness. The attendant spirits they bring with them are guilt, shame and the mantle of original sin, which define their relationships with the environment, each other and with themselves. Like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which explores the otherness of a threatening landscape in the context of colonialism and white European “civilization”, The Witch establishes in its opening scenes a palpable sense of mystery, menace and fear in the fecund imaginative ground of the forest. It is a place that even in the light of day provides a focus for the founding community’s subconscious fears and desires- a place which heightens the sense of alienation from the country of origin, from the body and the self. Belief in humankind’s “corrupt nature dwelling within” and the declaration that; “we will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us”, chart the demise of familial love and loyalty.
The adolescent central character Thomasin played by Anya Taylor-Joy becomes a scapegoat for the family’s ill fortunes, residing in the forest. Accused of witchcraft by her younger siblings, the family turns in on itself with devastating consequences. As supernatural elements suggestively and progressively infiltrate the film, hysteria collectively follows. The real horror of The Witch is a cauldron of grief, exile and puritanical self-loathing. There is an added element of alienation -the experience of loss through immigration, felt in Kate Dickie’s performance as wife and mother Katherine. Although packaged rather clumsily by its trailer as a Horror film, like Jenifer Kent’s The Babadook – which is about grief made manifest, The Witch is a film about the power and psychology of the human mind in response to extreme circumstances and beliefs. Those points of transition between belief, perception and reality provide all of the films high points, both literally and metaphorically. Belief is always extraordinarily real to the believer and The Witch successfully plays with this idea, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography moving beautifully between the illuminated darkness of Old Master candlelit interiors and the haunted natural light of farm and forest.
The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi is a story which feels immediately relevant in light of European social and economic crises. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a respectable teacher contained in a straightjacket of morality, estranged from her father and his trophy wife, distant from her selfish husband, who plunges them into debt and the threat of repossession and living beneath the ever present portrait of her dead mother. As debt and desperation take hold, her powerlessness is projected into the classroom as hard-line control. Authority is progressively eroded but scrupulously maintained by deadpan appearances. Nadezhda’s story feels like that of a nation. The rules keep changing, interest keeps getting added to the loan and the moral deficit just keeps growing. Forced to turn to loan sharks and crime to stay afloat, we see flickers of panic and anxiety in her eyes beneath an immovable mask of middle class respectability. Every encounter with public authority; the bank, police and the bailiffs reveals indifference to her plight as she fights to maintain her dignity, pride and righteous indignation. Interestingly her character isn’t entirely sympathetic, oscillating between adult responsibility and childlike jealousy; defacing her stepmother’s photograph with a black marker in protest at the displacement of her father’s affections. Wielding her powerlessness the only way she can, in the end the audience is left with a black screen/ board and the brittle, chalky sound of her continuing lesson.
Some of this year’s short and feature documentaries also had a significant impact on me. Among them Davis Guggenheim’s feature He Named Me Malala, a portrait of the activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Shot by the Taliban in 2012 for promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, she has since co-founded the Malala Fund, assisting girls around the world to access education. The public face of this exceptional young woman is inexorably bound to her cause. Who could forget her inspiring speech to the UN on her 16th birthday, campaigning for the right to education for every child? This documentary shows different facets to her character; her life in exile, at home and at school, her strong relationship with her father and her experience as one of millions of refugees fleeing extremist ideology. The film takes up Malala’s own statement that she is many and that her story is not unique. In having to flee the Swat Valley where she grew up, unable to return on threat of death, we are introduced not to her fame as a confident advocate of positive change, but to a schoolgirl -worried about fitting in, acutely aware of what has been forfeited in being in a foreign land and fighting for equality. When we see her standing on the border of Syria and Jordan asking the question of who is looking after the interests of child refugees, she asks one of the central questions of our age. Although the film is ultimately uplifting, it also made me incredibly angry. Angry that this young woman will probably never be able to return to her home, that equality has still not been achieved, that access to education is so taken for granted in the developed world and that all we appear to be teaching our children is rabid consumption. “Education gives you the power to question things, to challenge things” it seems that in the UK we don’t use it nearly enough for this purpose. When asked who shot Malala her father replies; “It was not a person, it was an ideology”. At the heart of Malala Yousafzai’s story is forgiveness and an entirely different vision of Islam to what we see nightly on the 6’oclock news. See this film if you can- it will probably make you angry as well, but it will also give you hope.
I always look forward to short film screenings. I am constantly amazed by the ingenuity and creativity sparked by little or no budget and that human experience humorous, dramatic or life changing can be communicated in an economy of minutes. It’s a direct platform for spotting emerging filmmakers which is always exciting, especially watching them hone their craft in consecutive years and seeing shorts in cinemas is such a rare pleasure. This year short documentaries Mining Poems and Odes and The Third Dad were definite highlights, together with David Lumsden’s post-apocalyptic vision of Scotland Boat (UK, 16mins, 2015), the visual pop-inspired assault of Rob Kennedy’s What are you driving at? (2013, HD video file, colour, stereo, ratio 16:9, 4m 13s), the mesmerising bias-cut of Duncan Marquiss’s Late Cinema (2013, 16mm transferred to SD digital, colour, ratio: 4:3, 4m 18s), both part of the CABAC/ LUX Scotland showcase and the work of local filmmakers; Scott Willis’s wittily accurate animation Guide to Fetal Development (UK, 1 min, 2015) and the innocent delight of Katrina Brown’s First Ascent (UK, 16 mins, 2015).
From the opening sequence of glowing sparks cascading in slow movement Callum Rice’s Mining Poems or Odes (UK,10mins, 2015) I was visually hooked. Immediately the viewer is immersed in an otherworldly state where poetic images, words and ideas are brought into focus. Robert, a poet and ex-shipyard worker addresses the camera / audience directly, aggressively punctuating the visual narrative in a way that mirrors the raw, energy and creative impetus of parallel trades; the “solitary” and “silent” worlds of welder and writer. Although “the helmet’s off now” and “words are the tools”, Robert’s life experiences and memories are inexorably entwined with his emerging craft and that of the filmmaker. He describes the fabrication yard as “the perfect thinking laboratory”, “looking into the darkness and seeing “your own eyes” in “the reflected glass”.
The clarity of this 10 minute documentary and its central protagonist are bracingly articulate and perfectly aligned with the creative process of “mining”; “going into the dirt to find the right word and elevate it to poetry”. What this short film conveys so powerfully is “the job of working on yourself” and “the production of the human spirit”, nurtured by others. The most poignant realisation is in Robert’s account of a subterranean great unsaid of male friendship and paternal influence; an almighty arm and an” alright son”, gentler and truer than the love shown in any other facet of his life. There is a strong sense in this film of human creativity in its broadest sense and of masculinity; a natural ability and societal tendency through brute force to do harm, coupled with the conscious unwillingness not to. In the living example of his mentor Archie, Robert sees and perhaps more importantly feels the authenticity of becoming his core self – the writer he needs to be.
Theresa Moerman Ib’s journey to find her father in The Third Dad (UK, 10mins, 2015) was at times unbearably poignant and confessional. Beginning with the words; “A man isn’t dead because you put him underground” from Graeme Green’s The Third Man, the act of filmmaking becomes an expression of grief, loss and self-awareness. Haunted by the decision not to have contact with her father until he stopped drinking, Moerman Ib’s film is a lament, a memorial and a creative act of redemption. She asks a question which resonates throughout the film; “How do you go to someone in their darkest hour when they haven’t chosen you?” It is a sorrowful echo of the absent father that permeates this film; “poet and photographer who abandoned his dreams” and “who gave [her] life but couldn’t survive his own.” The need to find him is as much a search for herself as for a lost parent, shifting through archival footage/ home movies of emotionally scarred celluloid, editing memories and feeling- the filmmaking process an act of self- preservation. Moments where the voiceover and images converge transcend the personal, we see “a shadow- an outline” that can never be “coloured back in”, a shadow which is also that of the director standing over her father’s grave. Perhaps it was my own Father’s death a few weeks before that prompted such a strong reaction to this film, coupled with the need to concrete over my feelings in order to keep watching- even in the womb-like protection of the cinema. I understood in that moment that for the director to project that intimate relationship on screen, shaped by guilt and loss, was no small act of bravery.
The most unusual cinematic experience at the festival this year was Carnival of Souls a stripped back sound adaptation of Herk Harvey’s 1962 obscure B/horror film in a production “inspired by adventure radio serials and sensory deprivation methods.” Donning a sleep mask and headphones the near dark experience was fuel for the imagination, with binaural audio giving a virtual sense of spatial depth, placing the viewer within the story. What excited me most about seeing this cinematic soundscape in my mind’s eye wasn’t necessarily the choice of film adaptation, but the heightened possibilities of sensory experience that removal of one sense could bring to the others. Having watched films back to back for consecutive days there was something very satisfying in closing my eyes and going down whatever imaginative pathways the soundtrack prompted. In some ways it was a safe choice of adaptation; the wonky, surreal amusement park music, larger than life accents and the familiarity of the breakdown arrival at an almost empty boarding house, placing the audience in relative safety of expectation. An opening projection taking the audience down to the end of the pier combined memories of the British seaside, carousels of spooky wide eyed, open mouthed horses and the faded paint of travelling sideshows with my outdoor Drive –in B film experience in Australia, all mixed in with Cocteau and Bergman inspired mid-west American horror! Like tabernacle organist Mary Hervy’s journey in limbo between life and death, this cinematic sound experience also felt like a kind of heightened bodily suspension in time. Commissioned by Film Hub North West Central with an advisory group of blind and partially sighted audience members and directed by Bren O’Callaghan, Carnival of Souls heightened my awareness of how the body reacts to sensory deprivation, the pleasantly weird state of being part of an audience but physically in your own auditory bubble and the exciting possibilities of sound design. Hopefully more of these productions will follow, exploring different aspects of the sound craft of cinema and making us see film differently.
Another special event screening Made in My Tounwww.madeinmytoun.com, part of the BFI Britain on Film tour curated by Shona Thomson, featured films from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive and a post screening discussion with panellists Shona Thomson, the Highland Council’s Stuart Black and Film Officer and Lawrence Sutcliffe, Highlands of Scotland Film Commission and Film Historian. My favourite short was Glasgow Trams c.1902, a silent, black and white, 2 min 50 second film attributed to Mitchell & Kenyon, an aged fragment of mechanised movement drifting through time. It was interesting to explore the context of each short film with the panellists and audience. Hopefully thematic tours of archive film screening in cinemas will become more frequent here. Although archival film content is becoming more digitalised and available online, there is no substitution for seeing it on a big screen and exploring different ways into film through face to face discussion.
The winner of this year’s IFF Audience Award, designed by Isle of Harris Based artist Steve Dilworth, was crowd pleaser Brooklyn by Irish Director John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen and Julie Walters. My own crowd pleasing pick of IFF 2015 would have to be Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our little Sister, although it was a shame that the director did not apply his characteristic understatement to the soundtrack. However it was an absolute breath of fresh air to see such a warm and optimistic film about broken families. Our Little Sister is a lovely, charming and intimate film about family bonds and feminine independence. Based on the graphic novel Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Koreeda gives cinematic voice to a story which revolves around three sisters and their half-sibling, who they take in following the death of their father. To a Western audience there is also a largely unappreciated aspect of Japanese culture at work in this story; the dominance of female Manga writers, who we don’t often see adapted for the screen, certainly not in terms of a realist family drama.
Having toured the world in the confines of a darkened room for four days and five nights I emerged from IFF 2015 exhausted, but significantly enriched.