London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

London Film Festival 2012, personal roundup

I do enjoy the LFF: interesting films, cinemas full of largely well-behaved audiences, and no ads or trailers. I went to five films this year, this is what I thought of them. Obviously.

Reality

An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.

Helter Skelter

A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.

The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.

Tey [‘Today’]

A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.

The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.

Midnight’s Children

The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).

It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.

Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.

Village at the End of the World

An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.

It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.

It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.

London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

The Monk

More from the London Film Festival. Le Moine is a film of the 1796 gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. It’s a long time since I read the book, but I remembered that it was an overblown, melodramatic, sensational novel, so naturally I was keen to see a film version of it.

It lived up to the melodramatic tone of the book, anyway, although it didn’t really try to be shocking by modern standards; they could easily have incorporated a lot more graphic sex and violence if they wanted to, especially since they were messing around with the plot anyway.*

It reminded me of Black Swan, actually: a fundamentally silly paper-thin melodrama masquerading as an art film. It even has Vincent Cassel. It’s set in [early C17th?] Spain, and it looks beautiful, with lots of medieval buildings, arid Spanish landscapes, winding back alleys, and even some gorgeous frocks. Plus an amazing scene of a religious procession through the streets of the town. And the broody Cassel holds the film together as the monk. But no amount of intense acting and beautiful camerawork can disguise the basic ludicrousness of the plot.

Now personally I enjoyed Black Swan, although I know a lot of people hated it, and I enjoyed The Monk. But I think in both cases you need to go in with appropriate expectations: I think a few people went into Black Swan expecting a serious psychological thriller and were irritated to find themselves watching an expensively made horror movie. Whereas I went in expecting it to be a piece of high camp, because I had seen the trailer, and I enjoyed it for what it was. And I enjoyed The Monk on the same terms.

* something I didn’t realise while watching the film — I don’t remember the book well enough for that — but while checking the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites reverential treatment, though.

On The Ice, London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is going on at the moment, and I went to see the first of the four films I’ve booked, which was On The Ice, set in Barrow, an Alaskan town which is the most northerly in the US. It focuses on a pair of Inuit teenagers, and in some ways it’s your classic conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity setup. The film equivalent of a lot of the books I’ve been reading for the Read The World challenge. So they’re living in a world of drugs and hip hop, but also seal hunting and whaling.

The plot revolves around a drunken fight which gets out of hand, and the unfolding consequences. And generally I thought it was very effective. There was a moment in the middle when I thought it was in danger of losing its way, but it pulled itself together and finished strongly.

There’s a particular appeal to these kind of films, made on a microscopic budget with no real prospect of making any money. Not that I have anything against commercial cinema; on the contrary, I tend to think that when an art form ceases to have a real popular following, it dies as an art and becomes a heritage activity, like calligraphy, or hand-weaving, or jazz. Nothing wrong with those things, but their golden ages are behind us.

But still, it seems like there’s a kind of clarity of purpose when a film isn’t even trying to be commercial. It can just focus very straightforwardly on the characters and the story. And while the lack of budget presumably brings its own set of compromises, at least it helps keep the director from being distracted by all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, worth checking out if you get the chance.

The London Film Festival

I went to the last of three films I had booked at the London Film Festival yesterday (notes on which at the end of the post). The LFF, for those who don’t know, is the antithesis of a festival like Cannes: instead of being a big jamboree for people in the film business and the media, it is aimed squarely at the public. Basically, it’s a lot of films being shown at a selection of London cinemas.

And it is a LOT of films; 197 features and 112 shorts this year, apparently. All kinds of films: new British films, world cinema, restored classics, documentaries, gala screenings of big forthcoming releases to provide a bit of glamour. Which is great, but what usually happens is that I think ooh, the film festival, I should book some tickets and then I forget to do it.

But this year, I remembered. My instinct was to look for the stuff which was unlikely to get a wide release, so I went to some fairly obscure films, and I found it interesting how full the cinemas were. You might think that showing nearly 200 different films in a fortnight would spread the audience a bit thin. After all, there are cinemas in London that show less commercial films all year round, and I reckon that normally on a Friday afternoon, a Kyrgyz movie would play to largely empty seats; but they had sold out a medium-sized cinema. I guess it’s similar to the way that in a big city, you often find a place where a whole load of, say, shoe shops are clustered together; the value of being somewhere where people go for shoes outweighs the disadvantage of the extra competition.

Anyway, the films; the first was The Light Thief. The ‘light thief’ is an electrician in a village in Kyrgyzstan who we start at the start if the film stealing electricity for villagers who can’t afford it. Without wanting to provide too many spoilers — what is the spoiler etiquette for a film I don’t actually think any of my readers are likely to see? — he gets caught up in village politics. And the film strongly implies that it is an allegory for the wider political situation in Kyrgyzstan, although that’s only an informed guess, given how little I know about the country.

The film looks beautiful; the dusty, windblown, mountainous central Asian landscape looks amazing in it. And there are some very nice embroidered felt hats and wall hangings and things. And it is funny and touching. So that’s a thumbs up.

Winter Vacation is a Chinese film about a group of youths killing time while waiting for their winter vacation to end in some battered, grimy, anonymous Chinese city. It’s well shot, and it has some genuinely funny dialogue, but it was a tiny bit soporific because it communicates the characters’ boredom and disaffection via the medium of long pauses:

Cut to shot of three people standing in the snow, looking at each other. Nobody speaks for a couple of seconds. Someone says something. Pause for another couple of seconds. Someone else replies. Pause again.

Which is quite effective, but it carries on like that for every scene in the whole movie, and it does wear a bit thin after a while. Slow is one thing, but actual stasis tests my patience. Still, there was a lot good about it, and it was listed in the ‘experimental/avant garde/artists’ films’ section, so I knew it might be hard work.

And finally I saw Draquila – Italy Trembles, which is a polemical documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009. I would strongly recommend you see this film if it comes to a cinema near you. It is funny and ferocious, and it paints a picture of a completely  acquiescent, neutered Italian media, largely owned by Berlusconi, of an increasingly authoritarian government abusing the law to run roughshod over normal legal processes and rights, and massive, widespread corruption linked to the mafia. It’s not just a damning portrait of Berlusconi and Italy; what I found scary is that it provides a real sense of how a modern democratic country like Italy could slide towards fascism.

I should be clear about that: I’m not saying that Berlusconi’s government is fascist, or is likely to become so. But it does provide a sense of the slippage of normality. Already there is the confluence of government with crony capitalism and (I guess I should say: allegedly) organised crime; there is the eroding of civil liberties, the declaration of states of emergency as a way of bypassing the law, the increasing militarisation of the response to normal events. It is scary stuff.

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