20 February – 3 March 2019
February means Glasgow Film Festival, the joy of connecting with the world on screen and joining some of the best audiences on the planet. The opportunity to see retrospective classics, discover emerging filmmakers and cinematic rarities is always a draw, but there is a special buzz around Glasgow, a combination of people and programming that makes it unique. As a visitor, staff, volunteers and audiences make you feel welcome and the additional bonus of introductions and Q&As from filmmakers add considerable value to the whole experience. The Pioneer strand of films by first and second feature directors was particularly strong this year with Border, Complicity, Float Like A Butterfly, The Man Who Surprised Everyone, Woman at War and Werewolf among my overall festival highlights. Regardless of the subject matter, there was something about each one of these films that made me feel hopeful. It is always exciting to discover artists whose work you want to follow in future and seeing the ways filmmakers are responding creatively to man-made chaos, past and present, was thoroughly inspiring!
Having loved Benedikt Erlingsson’s previous feature Of Horses and Men (2013), I was looking forward to his latest film Woman at War/ Kona fer í stríð. Erlingsson has a gift for tackling serious subjects with irreverent charm and great humour. In this case, the story of 50-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir), a seemingly ‘mild-mannered choirmaster’ secretly committing acts of eco-terrorism to save her beloved Iceland from environmental catastrophe. With a poster of Gandhi on her wall and a Nelson Mandela mask in the field, her extraordinary intelligence, practical skills and physical stamina debunk the Western myth that middle aged women are past their prime. Taking on saving the earth and motherhood by adoption, Halla is a fearless, thoroughly likeable heroine that you can’t help but root for, because her prime motivation is care. Tackling Icelandic history, ideas of democracy, mass media spin, industrial exploitation and the persecution of foreign nationals with shrewd comedy, Woman at War is an absolute delight, being both entertaining and highly conscious. The rugged Icelandic landscape is the ever-present star of the film and the way music functions as witness, chorus and emotional commentary is pure, quirky genius. Woman at War is a wonderful film from start to finish, a gentle push for individual conscience, collective responsibility and action.
Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abassi delivers a surprising take on human identity and our relationship with the natural world in Border / Grӓns, winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2018. Eva Melander stars as Tina, an outsider and a border guard with the uncanny ability to smell fear, guilt and shame, enabling her to naturally detect illegal activity and solve crimes. When Vore (Eero Milonoff) crosses her path, she encounters someone from her own tribe for the first time, embarking on a path of self-discovery that calls into question who she was raised to be. Without giving too much away, Abassi explores boundaries of gender, animal and human characteristics, together with the nature of evil and the role of mythology in contemporary life. This supernaturalism is a brilliant way of interrogating human behaviour and finding humanity. I loved the unexpected, legendary elements of the story and the complexity of the female protagonist. The elation Tina finds in discovering who she is, is coupled with the ambiguity of that experience and a moral dilemma about how to live in the 21st century. Being cast between worlds, there is a cost in belonging which this film explores unlike any other.
Writer/ director Adrian Panek’s Werewolf / Wilkolak delivers a new way of seeing its subject, emulating a deepening aspect of craft in contemporary Polish Cinema. Panek’s examination of the psychological effects of trauma on a group of children feels acutely relevant, not only in terms of the history of Poland and the Holocaust, but in the current climate of human displacement on a global scale. Werewolf questions the nature of Horror, liberation and instinct. It is one of the most fascinating and compelling examinations of the Holocaust I’ve seen, because it takes the view of child protagonists in a new direction, beyond sympathy or sentimentality, to a deeper level of confrontation with what makes us human. Panek asks vital questions about whether growth is possible in extreme (and every day) circumstances, transcends multiple genres and presents a story which is both culturally specific and universal. Set in the summer of 1945 in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, the advancing Russian army liberate Gross-Belsen, a site that was part of a complex of German concentration camps, then a German village and now situated in modern day Poland. This territory of conquest and fear is also the primordial forest of fairy tales in the tradition of the Germanic brothers Grimm. Aerial shots intensify that feeling of density beyond the physical, dwarfing the human figure or vehicles in a seemingly impenetrable dark canopy of trees. Freed by fleeing SS guards, a pack of German Shepherds roam the forest, as ravenous as a group of orphaned children that have taken refuge in a derelict mansion. Held captive by the ever-present canine threat and the adult world outside, the children forge a path beyond survival.
The young cast including Nicolas Przygoda, Kamil Polnisiak, Sonia Mietielica deliver natural, nuanced performances that convey glimmers of hope as a counterfoil to terror and despair. Each character deals with their trauma in a different way, exposing the audience to degrees of empathy and the possibility of what they might become, either succumbing to the horrors they’ve experienced or eclipsing them. Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak) has survived the camp by being subservient to malevolence. Fuelled by adolescent desire, He’s a devious character willing to close the door while atrocities are being committed- equally seizing the insane routines of his captors to survive a moment of impending death. The question of whether he, and his fellow survivors, can experience liberation of a different kind is part of the underlying tension in every scene. I loved the way that seemingly small details of expression and action initiate change in the heightened confines of the mansion, a microcosm of the wider world. Dolly is a minor character, a little girl, perhaps 5 years old and unable to speak until she initiates an act of kindness that enables the dynamic of predator and prey dominance to shift. Tellingly the dogs have been trained and rewarded by humans for brutally attacking anyone in a striped uniform. Discarding the uniform, the process of scratching away at serial numbered tattoos is a painful process of bloodletting that is significantly as real as it is symbolic. The introduction of red to what is predominantly a cool, blue palette, alludes to Red Riding Hood, a colour worn by the leader of the group, Hanke, who finds a red dress in a suitcase of belongings and becomes momentarily what she might have been without the Holocaust, simply an adolescent girl growing up. Her civilizing influence on the group, giving structure to shattered lives (including her own) and her ultimate choice to act with mercy implies redemption and deliverance from a life of mere endurance. It’s a path through the forest towards light that left me feeling hopeful- not just for the fate of Hanke and her band, but for a country and film industry that consistently delivers increasingly sophisticated confrontations with its own past. Acknowledgement of history and atrocity is necessary for a future beyond mere survival, or one in which history simply repeats itself. Werewolf is a beautiful example of cinematically out-creating destruction.
In an interview for CineEuropa (05/12/18), director Adrian Panek discusses the cultural and human resonance of the film:
‘I think that the figure of the werewolf, half-human, half-animal, is contemporary here. We as humans used to think that we were civilised and cultured, or that we had a divine origin that made us stand out from the rest of nature. After World War II and the Holocaust – the mass slaughter of one group of people by another, in the name of the battle of the species – we altered that perspective completely. Now we’re seeing that beastly, biological element of humans more and more; we perceive ourselves as animals with overgrown brains, and it’s a complete change of paradigm. Horror has always been part of our culture, but now it’s on a different scale.’
To his credit Panek deals in realism and never succumbs to making the inferred story of the title supernatural. He reminds us that Horror is, above all else, a human invention. If there is a fantastical element, it is the miracle of human survival in the face of desecration. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Dominik Danilczyk and edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski, who worked on Pawel Pawlikowski’ Ida and Cold War, Werewolf mirrors the truth in fairy tales, as life affirming self-reflexivity, rooted in all cultures. I hope that many more audiences will have the opportunity to see this film, experience its multi-layered tensions and essential light.
Another highlight of GFF19 was The Man Who Surprised Everyone / Chelovek kotoryy udivil vsekh by writer /directors Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. Although it is a film about human intolerance and cruelty, it is also a story of how folklore can be an agent of healing. Tales can mask and reveal truths, especially in countries where visual traditions evolve in response to institutionalised persecution based on politics, gender, race or sexuality. As a contemporary adaptation of a Russian Folk tale, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is an important film that confronts hateful attitudes towards gender identity.
Egor, played with quiet dignity and gravitas by Yevgeny Tsyganov, is a forest guard who learns he is dying from cancer. Prompted by a local healer, he attempts to cheat death by assuming female identity, setting off a chain of events that reveal the depth of prejudice in his community. Whilst the sheer audacity, brutality and unquestioning right to judgement by his persecutors enraged me, the inescapable truth here is attainment of a state of being which shrinks the symbolic tumour, carried inside the individual in denial of who they truly are. Engagement with the fable is life, an alternative to a living death for the central character. Powerful and moving, The Man Who Surprised Everyone is a miracle of a film when one considers its origin. The director’s statement at the Venice Biennale described the film as “a parable about the resistance of the ordinary Russian man to death, which he is trying to deceive. The film is based on the personal memories of the director Natasha Merkulova, her Siberian childhood, the village in which she grew up, the people who surrounded her, the legends that were told in those places.” I think the real beauty and brilliance of this film lies in the story as a Russian doll.
Set in a travelling community in Ireland during the 1970’s, writer / director Carmel Winters Float Like a Butterfly is the uplifting story of a young woman finding her place in the world and defying expectations, within and outside her community. Hazel Doupe’s luminous leading performance as Frances immediately has the audience on side, rooting for a character with the odds stacked against her. The fighting spirit of the film is also collective, a meditation on prejudice and belonging that fortunately isn’t reduced to black and white morality. Though Frances identifies strongly with Muhammad Ali’s fight for his people, this is also a story about her fight for dignity and respect as a woman-ultimately to be called “the greatest” by her father. The relationships between Frances and her father, brother and extended family present comfort and conflict. Poverty, lack of access to education, the pressure to marry young, have children and serve a husband, compound the ever-present threat of misogyny. Coupled with unrelenting racial persecution from the outside world, Frances’s story could have been tragic, but it isn’t because of who she is- sensitively framed by Winters. Traditional folk music has a significant role to play in the richness of this film and in that respect, I find it interesting that it is set in the past. The vintage palette of passionate crimson and steely eyed blue defines the central character and the dynamics of her predicament. To conform to belong, against one’s own nature is to lose the fight completely. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and Best Film Audience Award at Cork International Film Festival, I’m sure this film will win hearts wherever it screens and perhaps present an alternative view of travelling life to a wider audience.
Human relationships and the need to belong is also the subject of Complicity, a rare Japan-China co-production and feature debut from writer / director Kei Chikaura. Like the work of Ozu and Koreeda, Complicity is a beautiful, quietly observed portrait of everyday urban life addressing familial relationships and what we need to grow as individuals. It is also an important film for crossing borders, presenting a human face to economic migration with intelligence and compassion. Unable to find work in China, Chen Liang (Lu Yulai) buys a fake identity and moves to Japan, taking an offer of employment intended for someone else. Apprenticed to an elderly soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji) he slowly becomes part of the household, gaining skills and confidence. The relationship between master and apprentice gives the young man the structure, craft and emotional support to flourish in ways that would be impossible at home. Although built on desperation and deception, the connection is real and positively life changing. I love the way Complicity shines a light on the need for safe harbours in the form of human beings, willing to give others the chance and agency to make their own way in the world. If ever there was a need for such a humane statement on screen, it is now.
In contrast, director Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell from the GFF19 Sound and Vision strand hits the audience head on with the unrelenting, narcissistic chaos of addiction. Ultimately, it’s a very sobering film about the cult of personality / celebrity that turns stratospheric talent into an inevitable downward spiral. Elizabeth Moss inhabits the role of Grunge star Becky Something so completely that there’s really no option as a viewer than to go with it. There are times when like her fellow band members, the audience is driven to the edge and you really want to get off the tour bus, but that’s precisely the point. Being spun in Becky’s orbit may be an excruciating, all-consuming vortex, but that is the nature of addiction and the insecurity that feeds it. Fortunately, due to Moss’s riveting performance and the examination of female identity/creativity, it is also an interesting ride. When the film does finally shift gear away from full throttle, the cost and repercussions of this life in the spotlight are revealed and like Becky, we have to grapple with what’s left. Effective use of hand-held camera follows her twists and turns of paranoia, delusion and heartfelt brilliance, so that as much as we may dislike the character’s ego and excess, we are compelled to stay with her to the end. Agyness Deyn and Eric Stolz ably support what is essentially a star turn for Moss/ Becky in unflinching closeup. Grunge music culture of the 1990’s wore a particular brand of nihilism, rock and roll excess and heroin chic, almost as a badge of honour. Tragic star personas aside, the raw honesty and vulnerability of Nirvana’s anthem Smells like Teen Spirit or Alice in Chains’ Down in a Hole is undeniable. The channelling of energy depicted in this film is certainly dark, however, it’s also an essential aspect of femininity that’s being let loose here, something that is potentially destructive, but equally pure in terms of expression. It’s not desirable or pretty to look at- but I can think of very few films which allow the same latitude to female protagonists and for that reason it was a dark highlight of GFF19.
Another interesting meditation on destruction and creativity is Charlie Paul’s documentary Prophecy, part of the Local Heroes strand of the festival, focussing on well-known Glasgow figurative artist Peter Howson. As an insight into Howson’s process it’s a fascinating watch, a journey into the anatomy of a painting from blank canvas to sale, shaped by the artist’s apocalyptic vision. Whether you ‘experience the creation of a Masterpiece’ as the trailer claims is debateable. Whilst I agree with Howson that ‘the veil of civilization is very thin’, I’ve always felt that his work succumbs to the testosterone fuelled, power hungry chaos he’s raging against. This film did nothing to convince me otherwise, however I found the excavation of mark and composition emerging out of the physical/metaphorical ground compelling. The artist’s commentary, decision-making process and choice of soundtrack are revealing, not just of an individual life and vision, but how creativity is perceived. The use of classical music adds gravitas to Howson’s art- like his glazing technique adding depth, but it’s slathered on too thickly- pushing emotional buttons of scale and awe. Music cues response to creative male genius suffering a little too often, rather than allowing the work to speak, stand or fall on its own.
The end of film statement that Howson has sold over 1000 paintings valued at $60 million, most in the hands of private collectors and therefore unlikely to be seen by the public seemed like a curious justification for the production. The real justification for the Howson cause is technique and conviction, he is who he is on canvas, whether you like his paintings or not. His distortion of the human figure, evolving from early experiences of Comic book Horror, Old Masters like El Greco and Griffiths’ Silent Film depiction of Christ, engages with a potent combination of fear and beauty, as he sees it. The atmosphere and intensity of the Prophecy painting is undeniable, as is Howson’s belief that he has an ‘important role to play’ in ‘warning people’ about human decay and depravity. Although there are elements of redemption and innocence, such as his daughter Lucie, a figure in many of his paintings, ‘pointing the way’, I’m not convinced that enlightenment or illumination are to be found in this work. In the end, unrelenting brutality and macho posturing comes to celebrate the very thing he’s protesting about. His Croatian and Muslim painting is a prime example. The strength of this documentary perhaps lies in portraiture, the flawed perfectionism that simply renders the artist human and makes this is an accessible documentary. There are many unsettling elements in Howson’s work, intentional and otherwise. I found the addition of the American and Isis flags in his focus work, described by the artist as intentionally controversial, rather an empty play towards the painting’s final destination, undermining the integrity of his process and biblical-style mission to educate. US market receptivity and celebrity collectors are part of the framing of Howson’s work and its perceived value, however it’s the psychological elements in play as the artist completes the painting that are the most interesting aspect of the film.
This Magnificent Cake by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles was an innovative delight, screened with their wonderful short Oh Willy… as part of the GFF19 Belgian Cinema: Both Sides Now strand. A fabulous dose of stop motion Surrealism and post-colonial critique, This Magnificent Cake is a triumph of ingenuity and imagination in five parts, using fibres, textiles and skilful sound editing to create a truly unique vision. The obtusely linked tales feature a dreaming king, a pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman, an expedition porter, an army deserter and an unfortunate clarinettist. Worthy prize winners at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (2018), Clermont-Ferrand International Short film Festival (2019) and Toronto International Film Festival (2018), Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roles are distinctive talents in the field of animation, delivering so much more than amusing entertainment. Their poignantly woven tales and absurd comedy examine history and human connection in ways that are strikingly fresh, crafted with exceptional skill and originality.
The annual GFF retrospective strand is a champion of exposure to the back catalogue and accessible cinema, qualities often missing at other festivals. The GFF tradition of free morning films continued this year with the 1969: The End of Innocence Retrospective including screenings ofMidnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Medium Cool, Alice’s Restaurant, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Sweet Charity and The Wild Bunch. Festival co-director Allan Hunter’s introductions always add value, whether the film is familiar or previously undiscovered. Held in the Deco surroundings of GFT1, the thematic focus, added context and open, welcoming atmosphere of these screenings are one of GFF’s unique pleasures. Seeing Shirley MacLaine in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity for the first time and revisiting the legendary partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were thoroughly enjoyable, especially with Hunter’s lead-in commentary, exposing different layers in film-making, history and performance.
GFF19 has been a great cinematic start to the year, showcasing the many ways that filmmakers are using their craft to make us see, think and feel differently about the world around us and our place within it. Film Festivals and cinema in general has a significant role to play in making these imaginative shifts of perception visible, initiating self-reflection and positive change. The films that affected me most this year weren’t holding placards, they simply told their stories with conscience, beauty, artistry and hope. Promoted as ‘the perfect movie mix’ GFF is all that and more, intimately connected to the energy of the city, its people and the rest of the world, .https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival