Influential Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi has a track record of blending together elements of documentary and fiction film form. His last major festival success No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) was a part-documentary upon the subversive underground music scenes within Tehran. His latest effort, AFlag Without a Country, is a Kurdish-Iraqi production, featuring the Kurdish pop star Helly Luv (aka Helan Abdulla) and the news media sensation known as the Kurdish Icarus (aka Nariman Anwar). These two individuals are effectively the protagonists of a split narrative, scripted from material to do with their actual lives. Ghobadi seeks to further blur the boundaries between the documentary and fiction feature by asking both Helly Luv and Nariman to play themselves within the film. The result is an interesting but rather problematic film about recent Kurdish history, as seen through the prism of two prominent Kurdish celebrities, who have both developed public personas that draw attention to the Kurdish independence struggle.
Nariman Anwar is a plane enthusiast and amateur aviation engineer, who garnered a degree of internet and news media celebrity by piloting planes that he had made from welding together scrap metal and waste products. The local government within Kurdish-Iraq supported Anwar in his development of small prototype planes for internal flights within the Kurdish territories of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. They also helped to back his flight school that has the aim of training a young generation of airline pilots who will operate a Kurdish domestic airline service. Within the film there is a degree of tension between Anwar’s supposedly peaceful reasons for pursuing a career as a trainer of pilots, and the accusation that he is in fact training his young charges to be future fighter pilots for a Kurdish armed struggle. Helly Luv, by comparison, is an Iranian born Kurd who grew up in Kurdish Iraq before seeking refugee status in Turkey and then Finland. Growing up in Scandinavia, Luv has become an international pop sensation, who has repeatedly exploited her Kurdish roots for the kind of pop-shock imagery associated with other European-based refugee figures, such as MIA.
Ghobadi has essentially created a fantasy film, which uses the pretence of a documentary form examining the two protagonists’ dreams of a homeland. These highly individual dreams of flying and pop stardom are then neatly interwoven into the fabric of Kurdistan’s own dream of nationhood. The Kurdistan that is presented within the film is one of refugee camps and bombed out towns, yet it is writ large, with a sense that Ghobadi is indulging his two co-creators by imbuing their individual struggles with the power and force of a national struggle. Jafar Aslani’s camerawork seems to glide through this intensified reality as if the world of the two protagonists had been slowed to a point where it is more sensitively received. Colours and textures are enhanced and foregrounded throughout, with surprising overlaps between the film’s dominant aesthetic and the inserts of Helly Luv’s frenetically edited pop videos. The judicious and shocking use of news footage and web content covering the Kurdish conflict with ISIS in Syria and the civil war within Northern Iraq are an added documentary layer to the film, with both protagonists interacting with this media at some stage. Helly Luv’s pop videos actually incorporate much of the military paraphernalia and hardware from this news footage, making a hipster combat fashion out of fetishised flak jackets and Kalashnikov rifles. Personally, I found this aspect of the film most jarring, as it seemed only to serve the purpose of promoting Helly Luv’s brand.
Despite the fact that both protagonist’s stories are compelling, the film has a number of flaws in its structuring and approach to subject matter. The existence of Nariman’s flight school is never fully explained, with many of the townspeople that appear in the film being mistrustful of the Kurdish Icarus’s motivations. The idea that Nariman is only training young men to be commercial pilots seems even more preposterous when you consider how he decides to become involved in military service at the film’s end. Ghobadi is also guilty of taking a near wholly uncritical approach to Helly Luv and what precisely she is hoping to do in Kurdistan. The overwhelming sense that I had is that she is, at best, merely engaging in the kind of ‘humanitarian’ press junket that the likes of Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga pursue. At worst, she is simply using Kurdistan as an edgy backdrop to enhance her pop profile. The end of the film, as already hinted at, brings the two protagonists together as recruits to a military struggle against ISIS. This seems very much like Ghobadi advocating and promoting armed combat in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Frank Capra’s Hollywood of the 1940s.
Despite the weighty subject matter that Ghobadi has chosen to engage with AFlag Without a Country generally conveys a light and breezy approach to its material. There are plenty of instances within the film of tongue-in-cheek humour. In fact the film opens with a scene that makes a mockery of the predominately masculine world of guns and bombs. Helly Luv visits a munitions dump where she engages in a fairly knowledgeable conversation about the best kinds of military hardware and asks to be shown various items. There is also the way in which Nariman’s students look out for the now disabled pilot – he had a serious accident that features in web footage at the start of the film – by assisting and affectionately mocking him at the same time. Ghobadi has also managed to capture some moments of pure cinema the like of which I haven’t seen in any other film. There is a mesmerising sequence in which soldiers help to bring a piano into a refugee camp so that the kids auditioning for Helly Luv can have musical accompaniment. The manner in which the piano wends its way through the makeshift city of tents is weirdly dignified. In the same passage of the film a little girl called Hoda sings a ferociously defiant Kurdish song which even managed to send a shiver down my spine, and I was only reading the subtitles. It feels like Gobadi has created two films that don’t fully cohere. There is a film about individual dreams and aspirations, and there is a film about the dream of a country. When Ghobadi is in pursuit of the latter this film soars, yet Nariman and Helly Luv bring the whole thing back to earth with a crash.
Icelandic actor turned director Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson does a very curious thing in his debut feature The Homecoming (2015). Having chosen to utilise one of the most melodramatic and taboo topics as a key plot point (namely, incest), Haraldsson then rather artlessly explores this theme in over an hour of ploddingly paced drama. Hilmar Jonsson’s Gunnar is the patriarchal figure whose misdeeds have come home to roost in the most unlikely of fashions. A frustrated author of a hugely popular series of self-help books, Gunnar lives in a degree of complacent middle class luxury with his waspish wife Herdis (Harpa Arnardottir). Gunnar’s comfortable existence is punctured by two family dramas. The first involves the slow death of his brother, Gestur, from brain cancer. The second is to do with his son’s whirlwind romance of a young Icelandic woman called Sunna (Dorunn Arna Kristjansdottir) who has been living in Denmark for the past eighteen months. The incestuous act takes place between Gunnar’s son Davio (Hilmir Jensson) and Sunna, as unbeknownst to them both they are connected by blood; although the precise blood link is left precariously balanced over the edge of a devious narrative precipice. Gunnar quickly works out that Sunna’s mother was in fact a woman that he had an affair with whilst living away from Herdis when his wife was pregnant with Davio. This affair has remained a family secret, the revelation of which provides one of the film’s many bombshells. Played as a straight drama the film is ridiculous, but as Haraldsson progresses through the narrative he begins to inject an unsettling level of black comedy into proceedings, much of which is derived from the gap between what Gunnar wants to happen and what has actually taken place.
The fact that Haraldsson begins with a virtuoso sequence set around the luminescent dining room of the family’s summer home, only to not utilise the power of this sequence again until close to the film’s end, is perhaps the most frustrating feature of a very uneven comedy of manners. The opening scene is a rigorously framed non-conversation between Gunnar and Herdis in which Haraldsson uses camera angle and proximity to suggest things about this marriage that are only really confirmed until the film’s final half hour. The breakfast table smartly divides the couple, Herdis reading her tabloid newspaper and Gunnar perusing a more serious read. Their conversation is driven by Herdis’s sniping and gossiping about the delinquent marriage of one of their near neighbours. Gunnar is responding to Herdis’s remarks, but Herdis seems barely aware of him. It is only when Gunnar unexpectedly breaks the repetitious monotony of this breakfast encounter, by declaring he is off for a swim that Herdis responds directly to her husband. The response is an excellent piece of writing, with Herdis enquiring as to whether her husband had already talked about going swimming or is it something more spontaneous.
What becomes apparent about this opening scene is how it marries up to a central theme of the film, a theme that is best articulated in Gunnar’s facile self-help idea of ‘talking and listening’. Both characters do a fair amount of talking in this opening scene, but it is talking that comes with the inbuilt complacency of many years of seemingly somnambulant marriage. In effect, the rest of the film is about this couple progressing to a point where they talk directly to one another and listen to the painful things that each one has to reveal. It is quite telling that the only relationship within the film that evidences a high degree of honesty and candour is that of Gunnar and Gestur. The two brothers can talk openly about almost anything, yet the one thing that is skirted around by both of them is perhaps the most important. Gestur’s final conversation with his brother is marked by a particular sentence in which the dying man advises his troubled brother: “There is nothing more difficult than asking for forgiveness”. The events of the film’s close suggest that Gestur knows precisely how true this statement is.
Icelandic cinema seems to be in an increasingly healthy state. Last year’s Rams (2015) was a pitch-black work of deadpan humour that I thoroughly enjoyed. There are similarities in The Homecoming, especially the admirable degree of discomfiting comedy throughout. Despite the dull opening hour the film has a real ear for little moments of caustic and cutting humour that reveal the malformed shape of a long relationship. When Gestur removes himself from the hospital to attend a choir practice, his friend, the choir leader, states: “We were going to sing ‘Hardy Men’ but maybe we should change it for a eulogy”. The dining table of the opening scene is also deployed as the site of probably the most masterful sequence in the entire film, a moment of family revelation that is played with such precise and blackly comic timing that it immediately raises the film out of the doldrums. Each frame of this sequence seems to capture and isolate the characters in a moment of enforced introspection. The length of shot is just long enough to draw the truth, kicking and screaming, from their lips. When the scene is finally punctured by a thoroughly inappropriate laugh The Homecoming has somehow managed to reward this viewer’s patience.
One other way in which the director egregiously misplays the subject matter of his film is to do with the way in which he chooses to frame incest. The idea of incest is planted by Gunnar’s theatrical reaction to Sunna’s description of her mother. Within a scene this idea has taken root and grown into clear confirmation of Gunnar’s worst fears. The film seems to suddenly take an extremely serious approach to its melodramatic theme, yet simultaneously frames the interactions of the young lovers as if the camera were now freighted with Gunnar’s loaded gaze. This, in itself, would possibly work as a visual strategy if deployed consistently in relation to Gunnar alone. However, during a scene in which Davio and Sunna have sex, with Gunnar able to hear them from the kitchen downstairs, the camera continues to deploy this queasy, loaded gaze in a way that heavy-handedly underscores the weird stance that the film itself seems to be taking toward the idea of incest. On the one hand the film is attempting to convey the genuine horror of Gunnar’s unspeakable knowledge, yet it is also using the idea of incest as a crude comic prop. What I found myself left with in this scene was a troubling sense of voyeuristic agency that verged on the pornographic, without ever justifying this. Haraldsson’s film is certainly flawed, seeming to stumble around blindly groping for the significance of its melodramatic central contrivance, but the craft of the comedy in key sequences suggests there may be genius at work here, if only the director could resist the overreach of pathos and crude sensationalism.
Starr: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill
Viewed: 70th EIFF Opening Gala Event, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Jason Connery has presented the EIFF with an opening film that is simultaneously a crowd-pleasing sports drama, a picture postcard portrait of the Fife coastal town of St Andrews (and its love affair with golf) and a curious study of father-son relationships. The competent nature of the production should assuage any concerns that Connery Jr had used Connery Snr’s relationship with the EIFF to promote this feature above its station.
As gala opening festival films go this is a safe and comfortable choice. It appeals to the culturally nationalist proclivities of the present Scottish government, whilst having little of the alienatingly parochial that has burdened some previous Scottish film productions. It is essentially a biopic of Tom Morris Jr (played with gusto by Jack Lowden, looking like a blue-eyed Simon Pegg) and the tragic golfer’s relationship with his legendary father Old Tom Morris (another stolid turn from Mullan). It is adapted by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook from the latter’s book of the same name, and effectively details the first tentative steps toward the professionalisation of golf as a competitive sport. The quality of the writing is often rather cumbersome, seeming to already be consciously reaching for immortality rather than finding the natural cadences and rhythms of ever day speech. However, Mullan’s laconic portrayal of the elder Morris manages to normalise many of the more overly portentous passages of dialogue (“A man has to use every club he has”).
An enmity and respect between father and son is what underpins the drama of the film. Mullan’s father has managed to improve the lives and prospects of his family significantly within a generation, yet he is still the caddie, the greenkeeper, the club manufacturer. The likes of Sam Neill’s Alexander Boothby still lord it over Old Tom Morris, and he in turn shows due deference to their aristocratic status. By comparison Morris Jr wishes to use his skills at playing the game of golf to stride upward within the claustrophobic British class system. Unlike his father he sees no need to ‘serve’ the likes of Boothby. The film’s opening sequence succinctly captures the core of the drama by showing how Morris Snr’s career of service to the aristocratic club members of St Andrews has given his son an opportunity to hone his singular talents at the game of golf. One of the wealthy onlookers comments upon Morris Jr’s penchant for an audaciously risky shot with a degree of approval: “Gambler’s spirit. Duly noted”.
Undoubtedly much of the film’s potential cross-over appeal stems from Connery’s use of location shooting within Fife (St Andrews and Falkland), as well as the film’s ability to connect this story of golfing derring-do to more universal concerns. The director’s decision to keep things neat and straightforward, particularly with regard to the increasing social difficulties that Morris Jr experienced, could be one of the reasons why the film lacks a degree of tension. St Andrews is depicted as a place of wealth and propriety, whereas Musselburgh is the preserve of the Park Brothers (Willie and Mungo) and their boisterously boorish nouveau riche ways. A similarly blunt dichotomy is observed with regard to Morris Jr’s love affair with Meg Drinnen (ably played by Ophelia Lovibond despite the underwritten nature of the role). Meg’s past before she came to St Andrews is shown as the pitiable poverty of a BBC Dickens adaptation, all perfectly placed soot, muck and grime. Such stark divisions make for lukewarm drama, especially when the young protagonist of the film is doing his utmost to navigate a new path between them. Another problem of the dramatic narrative is the unavoidable fact that Morris Jr died ridiculously young, aged just 24. Even taking in to account his sporting achievements and the tragic circumstances of his family life, their really isn’t much room for character development. The film is left with a deeply unsatisfying design because it has so little to explore beyond the tragic hero.
That said Connery’s decision to focus most attention upon the relationship between the brash and brilliant young Morris Jr and his stubbornly traditional, and yet highly innovative, father, manages to create a highly affecting final sequence. It is intriguing to consider just how much of this aspect of the narrative Connery himself identifies with. The degree of self-interest that drives Morris Snr to withhold a vital piece of information from his son until after they have completed a golf match in which the older man had rediscovered his former glory, smacks of the kind of truthful insight that can only come from intense experience. Are the audience to read something of the Morris’s into the Connery’s? There is assuredly an understanding and empathy throughout the film for the younger Morris’s need to move out from his father’s considerable shadow. In the case of Jason Connery it seems this may have been achieved by a sidestep into film directing, rather than film acting.
The 70th edition of the longest continuously running film festival in the world sees Mark Adams, Diane Henderson and their team put together an eclectic blend of British film, US Indie fare, Experimental works and a variety of European and World cinema. The festival, as was the case last year, is bookended by two feature films with strong Scottish roots. Jason Connery’s ode to golf and famous fathers Tommy’s Honour (2016) receives its world premiere as this year’s opening night gala presentation (20:55 Wednesday 15th June, Festival Theatre). Whilst Gillies MacKinnon’s remake of the much loved Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! (2016) draws down the curtain on proceedings (17:15 Sunday 26th June, Festival Theatre). Whereas last year’s pairing of The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015) and Iona (2015) seemed somewhat unconventional gala screening fare, this year’s choices seem far more conservative and safely crowd-pleasing. Connery’s movie has the always dependable Peter Mullan taking on the role of Old Tom Morris, St Andrews most famous local hero. Whilst MacKinnon has assembled a strong comic cast for his adaptation of the Compton McKenzie book, headed by Gregor Fisher and Eddie Izzard.
The main festival programme consists of some tried and tested strands. The Best of British section showcases twenty new British features, including twelve world premieres. Attention will be grabbed by Mercedes Grower’s relationship drama Brakes (2016), which features a wealth of British comic talent, including Julia Davis (Jam, Nighty Night) and Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh. Scottish theatre director Graeme Maley has two Icelandic-based features screening. Pale Star (2015) was the director’s feature debut and is a grimly violent noir thriller about a woman trying to escape her abusive husband. A Reykjavik Porno (2016) is Maley’s latest release and once again plumbs the dark depths of strained Icelandic relationships. It is reassuring to see a number of British filmmakers working in European contexts and another film worth a mention in this regard is Ben Sharrock’s Pikadero (2015). This Basque romantic comedy with an absurdist bent sees Sharrock make good on the promise shown in his short film works, such as The Zealot (2012). The trend toward Europe as a location can also be found in Rita Osei’s debut feature Bliss! (2016), in which a teenage girl escapes her messy family situation in South Shields by boarding a ferry bound for Norway. There also appears to be a concerted effort to promote the strange and unusual among British cinema’s 2015/16 offerings. The world premiere of Henry Coombes Seat in Shadow (2016) seems to epitomise the festival’s embrace of a more avant-garde cinema in 2016. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are films that will certainly have popular appeal in the form of Rachel Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills (2016) – which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival – and Philip John’s slinky coming-of-age Scottish road movie, Moon Dogs (2016).
The best of American independent cinema is showcased in the American Dreams section of the programme. There are a number of UK and European premieres here, including Greta Gerwig’s latest vehicle Maggie’s Plan (2015) and Paco Cabezas’ quirky dance comedy Mr. Right (2015), featuring Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick. Among the handful of world premieres in this section Amanda Sharp’s feature debut Sticky Notes (2016) pairs Ray Liotta with young Scottish actress Rose Leslie, as father and daughter. Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016) is another US feature receiving its premiere at Edinburgh. Steven Lewis Simpson has put together an intriguing adaptation of Kent Nerburn’s bestselling novel. It is a road movie, but one that takes an unusual route through Native American lands. One of the refreshing aspects of this year’s programme is the strong presence of female filmmaker’s, particularly within this programme strand. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015) is a fascinating study of gender and performance that explores the life of an 11-year-old tomboy caught between the worlds of boxing and dance. Whilst Hollywood star Meg Ryan makes her directorial debut with the period drama Ithaca (2015) and Rebecca Miller directs Gerwig and Ethan Hawke in the aforementioned Maggie’s Plan.
For those filmgoers who map the cinematic landscape through the deceptively well-defined promontories of contemporary auteurs there are a number of features within the Director’s Showcase section that should intrigue. Thomas Vinterberg’s latest effort The Commune (2016) is set to receive its UK Premiere. Whilst Mexican eccentric Arturo Ripstein brings us another twisted, nightmarish vision in the form of his 2015 work Bleak Street, which focuses on the rivalry of two diminutive wrestlers. Cinema Paradiso (1988) director Giuseppe Tornatore sees his latest The Correspondence (2015) receive its UK Premiere. The film was shot on location in Edinburgh and stars Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko. Taika Waititi follows up the critical and commercial success of What We Do in the Shadows (2014) with the quirky odd-couple black comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), which looks set to be one of the most popular films of the festival. There are also new works from Ira Sachs, Isabel Coixet and the unique Bahman Ghobadi. The festival has Kevin Smith making an appearance for an ‘In Person’ on Wednesday 22nd June at 20:30 in the Traverse Theatre. He also has two films at this year’s festival. One of them, Yoga Hosers (2015), is a major entry in the Director’s Showcase section.
The section that turns a spotlight upon European film production, European Perspectives, has pleased me no end by selecting Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s dementedly entertaining and entirely distinctive debut feature The Lure (2015). This film received great word of mouth at both last year’s Gdynia Film Festival and this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is an unusual blend of comedy, horror and musical that manages to dance to its own peculiar rhythm. By no means a perfect film, it is nonetheless one of the most bracing debuts to have come out of Poland in recent years and is well worth greater attention. The Irish-Dutch co-production Mammal (2016) from Rebecca Daly is a film that benefits from an incredible performance by the underappreciated Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under, Jude). It has been a very good few years in the Hungarian film industry what with the likes of Son of Saul (2015), White God (2014) and Lily Lane (2016) all drawing awards and varying degrees of critical acclaim. Balazs Juszt’s debut feature The Man Who Was Thursday (2015), inspired by a G.K. Chesterton novel, is set to further this trend; it is also one of the few films in this strand that is receiving its world premiere at Edinburgh. Some attention should also be given to the Estonian director Kadri Kousaar’s jet black murder-comedy Mother (2016), one of the darkest and funniest films of the year. Finally, there is a lilting family drama called Sparrows (2015) that in its own quiet way will surely win over a festival audience to its humble delights.
Looking at the wider global trends in cinema this year’s World Perspectives section has done a very good job of picking up a decent array of films from production hotspots such as Argentina, Iran and India. Pan Nalin’s Indian independent Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), about a group of young women getting together for a friend’s wedding in Goa, has bags of cross-over appeal, being both a highly provocative examination of a woman’s lot in contemporary India, as well as an entertaining and energetic comedy. Ariel Rotter’s sublime character study Incident Light (2015) is another film from this year’s programme that deserves as wide an audience as possible, if only to bear witness to a tremendous central performance from Argentine stalwart Erica Luis. There is also a UK Premiere for the Sundance winning Israeli feature Sand Storm which examines life in a Bedouin village community through the eyes of a wilful young college student called Layla. Finally, after Johnnie To’s appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival World Perspectives showcases a trio of the director’s protégés (Jevons Au, Frank Hui and Vicky Wong) in the UK Premiere of Hong Kong noir-actioner Trivisa (2016).
Two prodigiously gifted individuals are subjects of major films in this year’s Documentaries strand. In Becoming Zlatan (2015) Fredrik and Magnus Gertten put together an examination of the breakthrough to global prominence of Swedish superstar footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With such a charismatic and difficult figure at its centre this is almost certainly going to be a fascinating watch. Likewise, Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016) has the electronic music innovator falling back in love with music after years of decline. Alexandru Belc’s delightful documentary Cinema, Mon Amour about Viktor Purice, one of the most ardent defenders of film projection in Romania, is definitely a must for the bona fide cinephile. The festival is also giving us another important World Premiere in the form of Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer’s gripping documentary about a culture clash between traditional values and progressivist ideals. Santoalla (2016) is a film well worth earmarking as a ‘must-see’, as it uses the documentary form to execute an intense real-life thriller.
Although the bulk of the festival screenings occur during daylight hours there is a strand of late night entertainment called Night Moves which seeks to inject a little of J. Hoberman’s Midnight Movie spirit into proceedings. There is a World Premiere for Nirpal Bhogal’s British supernatural horror First Born (2016), in which a young child is able to channel the forces of darkness with terrifying consequences. The Love Witch (2016) is Anna Biller’s homage to the 1960s occult sexploitation films of the likes of Jess Franco, but with a distinctly feminist twist. Even more provocative is Sion Sono’s daft Japanese sex comedy The Virgin Psychics (2015).
This year’s festival has chosen to focus upon contemporary Finnish cinema as the subject of a showcase. As well as a collection of Shorts there are six feature films screening, including the European Premiere of Christy Garland’s cheerleading documentary Cheer Up (2016). The Black Box series of experimental works this year comes with particularly high expectations, mainly because of the sheer quality of the selections. Central to the strand is the fortieth anniversary screening of Lizzie Borden’s essential work Regrouping (1976). This major event is accompanied by a retrospective collection of experimental films from the sixties and seventies, as well as a panel discussion upon the impact and legacy of Borden’s work. It is also worth noting the one-off screening of Lewis Klahr’s fascinating film collage Sixty Six (2015), which is receiving its UK Premiere on Tuesday 21st June at 18:00 in Filmhouse 3.
This year’s Shorts programme compiled by Lydia Beilby and her team is split into six themed sections (Sign Language, Fragments of the City, Flaming Creatures, Other Planes, Radical Transmissions and Voices from the Wilderness). Each section focuses upon how film engages the body and the senses in apprehending the world that surrounds us. The films come from as far afield as Brazil and Haiti, showcasing the very best in global short film. There is a separate presentation for Scottish Shorts, as well as a collection of Student Shorts, and a collection of films that focus attention upon female short filmmakers.
Film Fest Junior gives a UK Premiere to Finding Dory (2016) on Saturday 18th June at 14:00 in the Festival Theatre. There is also a UK Premiere for the children’s fantasy epic The Shamer’s Daughter (2015) which is a highly impressive Danish film based on the best-selling series of novels by Lene Kaarberbol. On the same day as the premiere of Finding Dory there is a 30th Anniversary screening of the cult 1980s fantasy film Highlander (1986), this is showing at Cineworld Fountainpark at 19:30. There is a retrospective strand looking at 70mm classics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the rarely seen Kurosawa epic Dersu Uzala (1975). French Cinéma du look of the 1980s and 1990s is also given a seven film retrospective, the highlight of which is undoubtedly the Leos Carax double-bill of Mauvais sang (1986) and Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991). Finally, there is a wacky series of live action comic strip adaptations called Pow!!! which gives festival audiences an opportunity to see the likes of Flash Gordon (1980) and Popeye (1980) up on the big screen again.
The 70th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival seems to be trying to once again to carve out some kind of space for the festival within the increasingly crowded and competitive international film festival calendar. By celebrating previous festival triumphs, like the anniversary screenings of Regrouping or Highlander, or offering greater exposure to experimental and short filmmakers this year’s programme clearly demonstrates a willingness to pursue, with genuine curiosity, the many facets of film culture. Here’s hoping that it enables you to find your way toward something new. Throughout the next eleven days of the festival I will be frequently posting reviews and comment pieces on screenings and events.
Cast: Andrzej Chyra (KACPER), Arkadiusz Jakubik (Wiktor), Urszula Grabowska (Ewa), Tomasz Ziętek (Madejski)
Screenwriter: Jacek Lusiński
DOP: Witold Płóciennik
Editing: Jarosław Barzan
Production Design: Marek Zawierucha
Sound: Artur Kuczowski & Filip Krzemien
Viewed: 20:40, Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3), Tuesday 20th October 2015
This is a both a very safe Polish film production (based upon a headline grabbing news story, set in a public institution and dealing with a potentially tragic central protagonist) and also one that exhibits all the peculiar elements that Poland brings to standardised genre forms. British audiences will be well versed in the mechanics of the ‘disease-of-the-week’ drama, most often a television movie of US provenance aimed squarely at provoking maximum emotional response from the viewer. Carte Blanche doesn’t play by those rules, even if it is operating within the genre. It’s a grittier film, which constantly undercuts the clichéd dynamics of its characters with a particularly blunt attitude towards the disease itself. Perhaps, the hardest thing for a non-Polish audience to get their heads around will be the central dilemma of Andrzej Chyra’s quietly resourceful history teacher. Whereas in Britain a debilitating disease would only be of issue to a person’s employment prospects if it meant their abilities to do the job were grievously impaired, in Poland it is a more awkward issue. This is due to the social stigmas that are, at the very least, implicitly attached to any person who clearly exhibits a disability. Visible disabilities are still very much the stuff of the periphery and margins in Polish public life, with families often overly-insulating disabled relatives from the world, out of fear or embarrassment. Feliks Falk tackled this issue head-on in his melodramatic thriller Enen (a film that deserves greater recognition), and Lusiński does something similar here, only with a more optimistic outlook.
Chyra is one of my favourite contemporary Polish actors. His azure blue eyes are all too bewitching and Lusiński’s decision to focus attention upon them at every possible moment in the movie is a sensible one. Playing the middle-aged history teacher Kacper, based upon real-life Lublin teacher Maciej Białek (who appears in a brief cameo as Kacper’s sarcastic neighbour), Chyra is playing against type as a generally decent man stuck in a situation that requires him to lie. At the beginning of the movie, after the sudden death of his mother, Kacper is made aware that he has a medical condition that has been passed down maternally and will ultimately lead to his eventual blindness. From here on in Kacper is trying to come up with as many solutions to the problems of his disability that will enable him to continue in his teaching position. This complex cover-up ropes in Kacper’s closest friend, played by Arkadiusz Jakubik, who acts as a confidante and sounding board. However, it is only really through the complicity of his students that Kacper is ultimately able to pull the wool over the authorities of the school for long enough to make them question passing any rash judgement on his capacity to carry out his duties of work.
Lusiński and DOP Witold Plóciennik come up with a visual representation of the effects of Kacper’s disease that gradually narrows and distorts the camera lens’ field of vision. As well as limiting what it is Kacper can actually see, the image is further degraded by a switch to a progressively more monochrome colour palette. By the end of the film Kacper is barely able to make out anything and the images that the viewer are exposed to from Kacper’s POV are a murkily indiscernible swarm of motes and dots. It is as if the retina is quite literally raging against the dying of the light. Even though director and DOP do a good job of working out this issue of displaying visual deterioration, they are often prone to overly ostentatious shots of their Lublin locations. This is partly understandable as Lublin is a striking city that has gone somewhat underfilmed in the past. Yet the heavy-handedness of a few of these ‘artful’ shots undermines the otherwise modest and unassuming nature of the film. This is particularly obvious with one overhead shot of the staircase to a work colleague’s flat, Ewa (played by Urszula Grabowska), which forces the visual identification of this ornate spiral stairwell with the contours of the human eye. A shocking accident sequence is far more effective and arresting, as the camera placement suggests the blind spot that Kacper is hitherto unaware of, and does so in a way that barely draws attention to itself.
Another strength of the film is in the dialogue subversions of the script. Seemingly lifeless classroom sequences, in which it is unclear what exactly Kacper is teaching, are suddenly enlivened by a pointed remark from a student, usually Tomasz Ziętek’s cocksure Madejski. Staff meetings point up the petty grievances and jealousies of the teachers. When Kacper is forced to reveal his secret to a character he has come to care about a great deal, he is met with the cold anguish of a remark describing him as a cripple. At times Lusiński overplays the rapport between students and teacher, and there are baffling moments like when it is revealed that Kacper and one of his colleagues don’t even know each other’s names, but the director generally manages to navigate effectively between maudlin sentimentality and cool detachment.
In recent years there have been a number of Polish films tackling the issues related to disability within Polish society, among them the aforementioned Enen, Jacek Bławut’s intense docudrama Born Dead and the technically stunning international co-production Imagine directed by Andrzej Jakimowski. Carte Blanche doesn’t bear comparison to the best of these films, but within its own modest means and buoyed by an excellent central performance it is a light and engaging social drama worthy of a wider audience. Moreover, it is that rarest of films in Poland, namely a feel-good film.
Cast: Marko Nikolic (DEJAN STANIC), Misa Tirinda (SLAVKO)
Screenwriter(s): Bakur Bakuradze, Ilya Malakhova
DOP: Nikolay Vavilov
Editing: Ilya Malakhova, Ru Hasanov
Set Design: Nikola Bercek
Sound: Saulius Urbanavicius
Aspect Ratio: 1.85
Viewed: 12:15pm, Pathe 7, Rotterdam, Thursday 28th January 2016
Synopsis: General Dejan Stanic has been on the run from the European Courts and the new government regime in Serbia, post-Balkans conflict, for almost fifteen years. Wanted for war crimes he is holed up in the hills with an old army friend Slavko. Whilst Slavko diligently attends to his bees, the General is moved from location to location in a desperate attempt to get him out of the country before the police, or his many enemies, catch up with him.
Review: Bakur Bakuradze’s remarkable film is a monumentally oppressive dirge of a character study. As off-putting as that may sound the film’s great strength lies within the carefully constructed air of wounded fatalism that seems to stalk the central protagonist at every turn. Bakuradze is banking upon his audience identifying with a person who has perpetrated war crimes, yet the director isn’t willing to make this identification trite or easy. Frequently in the film, including most memorably during one of the closing shots, the camera frames Stanic in a close-up headshot from the rear, making the back of his head the clearest possible obstacle to understanding. This repeated visual motif, almost always satisfyingly well framed, comes to embody the certitude with which the film answers the question how well we can really know anybody.
From the opening scenes of the film the audience are made aware of the way in which General Stanic is at the mercy of various different interested political factions within Serbia. Bakuradze’s further imposition of the rehearsal footage adds a meta-layer of meaning to this all-pervasive idea of management and mediation. Not only is the General being moved around his country like a harried and imperilled king on a chess board, but Nikolic’s performance is likewise being carefully handled by Bakuradze’s exacting notion of narrative. In a very real sense the General cannot escape himself, he cannot transcend his past, he is cursed to embody the war criminal he has been condemned as. Likewise, Nikolic cannot break free from the strictures of Bakuradze’s narrative and the insistent demands of the director’s blocking. The revelation of rehearsal footage at key moments within the film effectively blurs together performer and character, forcing the audience to experience the fixedness that relentlessly traps both within a narrowly proscribed framework (the film and the law).
Bakuradze is a Moscow-trained Georgian filmmaker with two well-regarded previous feature films Shultes (2008) and The Hunter (2011). It is interesting to consider how the filmmaker came to shoot a project so rooted in recent Balkan history, and so well aware of the nuances of the conflicts of the 1990s. Bakuradze has mentioned in interviews that the germ of an idea came from the fate of the Bosnian-Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who was arrested in Lazarevo, Serbia on the 26th May 2011, having spent fifteen years on the run from an arrest warrant issued in 1996 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is tempting to draw parallels with Bakuradze’s own homeland, which has been riven with civil war and secessionist conflicts since the dissolution of the former USSR. The factionalised nature of Balkan politics does have a mirror within the Caucasus, where competing nationalisms and ethnicities stake their claim for sovereignty. What is more despite being inspired by the events of Mladic’s fugitive life, Bakuradze has been at pains to detach Brother Dejan from oblique biopic status. This isn’t a film that seeks to document an individual existence, but rather one that is attempting to imagine (and reimagine) that existence. Again, the director’s inclusion of rehearsal material as a key constituent of his finished film is a formal decision that reinforces this notion of working and reworking a narrative and a character.
In competition at Locarno in 2015, Brother Dejan was received with a degree of disappointment by a number of critics. A central criticism of the film seemed to be the opacity of the character of General Stanic. Supposedly there is an absence of access to the inner world of this character, which has been interpreted as a failing of the film, especially in the light of Bakuradze’s interview comments about seeking to explore whether or not a man accused of ‘war crimes’ is in fact capable of change. I am not so convinced of these perceived ‘failings’. To these eyes Bakuradze has chosen to intricately construct a near wordless central performance that is consistently drawing attention to both past ‘glories’, present circumstances and future projections, all of which are connected by a nexus of disillusion, guilt and foolish pride. Nikolic’s richly ambiguous passivity as the General neatly vacillates between arrogance, insecurity and stoicism. It is a model of minimalist acting, thoroughly convincing in its minor detailing.
There were three sequences that stood out as exemplars of the tactics deployed by both director and star. The first of these sequences occurs early in the film when General Stanic is first housed with Slavko, a former soldier turned farmer and beekeeper. Slavko (played guilelessly by the non-professional actor Misa Tirinda) is also the caretaker for a hilltop site that includes a dilapidated radio station and radio mast. The General accompanies Slavko on one of his clean-up trips to the site. Wandering around the decayed, and decaying, structure of the radio station the General comes to a collapsed outer wall that allows him to survey the rolling hills up which he has just struggled to climb, the implication being that he had once scaled them with far greater ease at the head of a military outfit. Bakuradze switches from handheld camerawork that has stalked behind the General as he journeys through the building, to a wider shot that shows the building in profile, balanced precariously overhanging a precipice. In this wider shot the General is shown to be right at the edge of this precipice, looking first outwards and then downwards. The radio station is both a testament to the destructive impulses unleashed by the conflict – for which the General must take some responsibility, at the very least, for channeling – as well as a first potential site of self-destruction for the General. The peripheral presence of Slavko, working away on some wiring and completely oblivious to the General’s activities, only further enhances the concentrated remoteness of the General’s predicament. He literally cannot move forward, and no amount of mundane activity will help him to lose himself. It is striking just how little the General actually does throughout the entire film. Labour offers no succour, no respite, no escape. What is more, where once the General forcefully shaped the world around him, now his actions don’t even impact upon the one person forced to endure his company.
The politics that swirl around the General are perfunctorily outlined by a meeting with former colleagues. These men in the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts have since become mainstream opposition politicians, looking to manage the General’s situation for maximum populist publicity domestically and minimum negative consequences on the international stage. It is because of the General’s affiliations with this group of powerbrokers that he is being consistently moved from one location to another and prevented from showing his face in public. Midway through the film, having eluded his minders, the General goes down into Sarajevo simply so that he can eat a sandwich on a busy city street. This impromptu appearance in public makes headlines and thwarts the political campaign to have the General officially recognised as ‘dead’. Prior to this appearance he had not been seen in public for almost a decade, making it legally possible for his wife to have him declared ‘dead’. As a result of the political fallout from this ‘sighting’, including further demands for Serbia to take a more active role in pursuing the war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal, the General is moved to a villa in the north of the country in an attempt to smuggle him over an international border.
In the villa, that is decorated in an obscenely baroque fashion, the General decadently drops into drunken dissolution. A bravura sequence shows him, framed in a wide shot once more, sat by an empty swimming pool, like some squalid king surveying his own inner desolation projected outward into the physical surroundings. Bakuradze then cuts from this external shot to a similarly composed and framed internal shot, showing the General alone in the palatial drawing room of the villa. Sat upon a throne-like chair, surrounded by garishly ornate works of art and sculpture, the General appears to be drunk. Staring into space, his face assuming the vacancy of a stroke victim, he is suddenly animated into an incongruous fit of laughter, before he drifts off into slumber and drops his glass upon the floor, which brings one of his minders into the room to check upon him. What Bakuradze achieves within this sequence is an impressive compression and conflation of memory and fate. The film has opened with the director rehearsing a seizure. The General’s posture and attitude evokes a memory of this opening scene. Simultaneously the sequence also foreshadows what will occur to the General later on, an event that is directly linked to that earlier rehearsal. There is no obvious indicator as to what the General is laughing about, yet this isn’t necessarily opacity. The manner in which this scene has been edited, with each shot being very carefully composed, brings to the surface the absurd emptiness of the General’s present existence, as well as the manner in which it is so tightly controlled and managed. Although ostensibly a free man, he is a prisoner of political circumstance, a ruler without subjects.
Perhaps, the single most troubling and disturbing sequence in the entire film is one that seems at first to be incoherently related to the whole. It adopts the raw, unvarnished camerawork of other rehearsal scenes within the film, but operates more like a fantastical and nightmarish projection of the General’s inner fears and insecurities. Whereas the sequence at the radio station can be viewed as a first approach toward self-annihilation, this sequence in which an execution is rehearsed, seems to represent the General’s horror with the idea of divine retribution. What is implied throughout this sequence is that the actions of the militia are predicated upon the belief that they are exacting an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. This sequence is framed by the General having earlier in the film overheard the news broadcast of another war criminal being captured. With the proposed crossborder escape becoming a rapidly approaching reality the General is shown to be experiencing an inability to sleep, whereupon the rehearsal footage begins. It depicts in claustrophobically close handheld camerawork the stopping of an elderly destitute looking man by a self-appointed militia. The militia are very clearly of the opinion that this man is a war criminal, despite his protestations to the contrary. The militia men force the man to stand up against a wall, at which point they spray him with a round of bullets. The man slumps to the ground apparently dead. The home video quality of the footage enhances the sense of witnessing an ‘authentic’ execution, with echoes of that chilling Saddam Hussein footage. It makes the manner in which the bullets pierce the body seem somehow more visceral and terrifying. The fear exhibited in the elderly man’s features give way to a deathly emptying out of consciousness as the body slumps to the floor – vacated. However, this ‘authenticity’ is immediately shown to be constructed manipulation, as the director verbally intervenes in the sequence and demands that the executed man fall more convincingly. This imposition of the rehearsal technique here foregrounds that central idea within the form of the film that the General’s life is manipulated and mediated, worked and reworked, for meaning, for message, for the benefit and agendas of others. It actually situates Bakuradze as a filmmaker attempting to approach the idea of the General and his life in a manner that actively seeks to sabotage the grand political narratives that can be attached to such a figure. It also plainly points up the crafted and fictive nature of the film by showing the processes and craft of this fiction.
It is rare to come across a work that so seamlessly marries together two conflicting realms of action and activity as Bakuradze does in Brother Dejan. The filmmaker is effectively making a film about the listlessness and lassitude of an old man who has become absolutely fed-up with the present circumstances of his existence. Yet by aggressively pursuing this sense of inertia and inaction, by demonstrating the utter lack of significant agency that the General has over his day-to-day affairs, Bakuradze imbues this character study with a contrary desire to survive, and continue surviving, that makes Stanic such a tragic figure worthy of our empathy, if not necessarily our understanding.