EIFF 2013

EIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film

Following the making of his fifteen and a half hour epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a project that took six years to shoot – Mark Cousins made the poetic film essay What is this film called Love? in just three days, a film that was a meditation on the nature of happiness (among other things). What is this film called Love? functioned as a kind of creative palate-cleanser for Cousins and, unlike the herculean effort of The Story of Film, was spontaneous, unplanned. A Story of Children and Film (that indefinite article is important) feels, in more ways than one, to be a meeting of the two films, a historiography of cinema through a personal prism, prompted by a chance incidence of home recording.

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

The film was inspired by an unplanned recording of Cousins’ niece and nephew playing in his Edinburgh flat one morning and takes its structural queues from the themes he found in this ad hoc footage (and then some). These themes encompass shyness, social class, the strop, enacted parenting, conflict, dreams and adventure (among others). In his distinctive and captivating (captivated, even) Ulster brogue, Cousins leads us through fifty-one films from Denmark in the ‘40s (Palle Alone In The World), Iran in the ‘70s (Two Solutions For One Problem), Japan in the ‘90s (Children In The Wind) and the USA of the current decade (Moonrise Kingdom); his selection encompasses directors as diverse as Bill Douglas, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel to explore his chosen themes.

At one point the unnatural (actually somewhat creepy) performance of Shirley Temple in Irving Cummings’ Curly Top is contrasted with Margaret O’Brien’s bum note laden duet with Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis, Cousins remarks that "We are spellbound by [O’Brien]” – we are, but we’re spellbound by this film too, entirely apposite given its subject; we marvel with childlike wonder at both children in cinema and at cinema itself. This only serves to illustrate and underline the thrust of the film, “Could it be that kids are movies? That the movies are kids?” That would be an eye-rolling moment had these questions come at the end of a film that did not so subtly nudge us towards this conclusion all the way through, and it’s a very convincing argument, beguilingly executed. Cinema in its purest experience is open to the world and open to everyone, everything; it is egalitarian, simple, profound, honest, fantastical - these qualities only get disrupted when adults (or, perhaps, ‘adults’) get in the way.

Andrew R. Hill

EIFF 2013: Blackbird

Last Tuesday EIFF hosted an interesting lecture led by Scottish film scholar Colin McArthur; the talk was titled 'What Sort of (Scottish) Film Culture Do We Want?' and it was expected to build on what the Scotch Reels event had covered back in 1982. McArthur launched a bit of an attack on Tartanry, and used Murray Grigor's Scotch Myths to prove his point.  Scottish cinema has undeniably made a lot of progress on the international stage in the last 30 years, but the question of representation remains: what sort of image do you want to project? How do we see ourselves?

It is an issue which Jamie Chamber's Blackbird bravely tackled. It is a film enamoured with Scottish history and a certain type of traditional culture; it is also a film that asks questions about the role of these traditions have to play in a contemporary setting.

 

Courtesy of EIFF

Courtesy of EIFF

Blackbird follows the tribulations of Ruadhan, a young man living in a nameless fishing village in the South West of Scotland. He lives on a decrepit boat moored on a hill and is bewitched by found objects belonging to a seemingly distant past and by folk songs sang by the village's elders. Obsessed with preserving a culture that is slipping away as older people die and youngsters flee to the cities, he soon finds himself at odds with his neighbours and friends. He is saddened by what he sees as the intentional erasing of the past (perhaps exemplified by the belongings of deceased songbird Isobel being thrown in a junk shop) and by the inevitable advent of the new (in the form of a bistro selling hummus and olives).

It is a negotiation between the past and the present, the local and the global that reminds us of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, although Chambers' approach is definitely less whimsical. The Edinburgh-born director is clearly fascinated with traditional songs and with the village's culture; his camera lovingly lingers on symbolic items like seashells, and captures the sad beauty of something that is about to disappear.

Blackbird is not only pleasing on the eye, but also features some great performances from the supporting cast – chiefly from Norman Maclen, who plays the unsentimental and very witty Alec with tantalising enthusiasm.

 

Courtesy of EIFF

Courtesy of EIFF

Unfortunately, the film's merits are somewhat muted by a script that at times relies too much on moments of 'high drama'; Ruadhan's character becomes defined by constant bursts of anger (his stubbornness is maybe admirable, but blinkered, and his attitude is questionable at best) and loses the subtlety that might have helped the Blackbird live up to its initial promise.

Nevertheless, it is a film that should be praised for a memorable and vivacious portrayal of a village caught between fondness for a strong tradition and willingness to find a place in the modern world. It doesn't provide any easy answers (the resolution feels rushed and unbelievable), but it is a timely reminder that folk culture deserves to be safeguarded and carried into the future.

Erika Sella

 

EIFF 2013: Avanti Popolo

Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa trionferà.

 

Avanti Popolo didn't need to do much to capture this writer's imagination. From the very first sequence, director Michael Wahrmann defies his audience's expectations – we are inside a car, investigating a run-down neighbourhood of São Paulo, and we get a chance to hear fragments of  1960s and 1970s Latin American music coming from the radio. Suddenly a man appears in the middle of the road; he doesn't seem hear the car honking, he doesn't move. Is he drunk, or maybe just lost?

 

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

As it turns out, that man is our protagonist, André , a man returning to his paternal home after breaking up with his wife. His father, played by the recently deceased Carlos Reichenbach, is pretty much a recluse living with his curiously named dog Whale. We soon learn the family has suffered a loss in the shape of Andre's older brother, who disappeared in 1974 after returning from the Soviet Union.

The notions of memory, loss and family trauma permeate everything in the film: the two main characters' stilted conversations and long silences, the Super 8 films André finds in the house, the old scratched vinyl the absent brother used to own. They are intrinsic to shot composition and mise en scène, to the muted, faded colour of wallpaper and furniture, to the pacing of the action. André tries to connect with a withdrawn father figure who won't (or maybe can't) deal with the past; in his attempt he gets a Super 8 projector mended - all technological devices in the film don't seem to work, perhaps hinting at the impossibility of ever really relating with something that is no longer present.

The positioning of the spectator is also something important and interesting; we unearth the family's history little by little, through glances, comments and small details. The camera is usually static and the direction intentionally undynamic, but we can't help but feeling involved in the quietly unfolding father-and-son conflict.

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Like real life, Avanti Popolo also has its moment of light and humour. When André meets the technician who tries  to fix his projector, he indulges in a light-hearted and at times sardonic conversation after he finds out that the latter is the only exponent of the semi-ridiculous Dogma 2002 movement. Indeed, references to recording, representing and cinema abound in the film: even the other Avanti Popolo (a 1986 bitter-sweet  and surreal Israeli comedy) gets discussed.

After the father refuses to watch a film featuring his missing son, we get another Super 8 clip, this time of a theatre in complete ruins. A narrator (the director? the protagonist? his brother?)  tries to play Avanti Popolo (the Italian song) for our benefit, but realises his record is scratched, so starts singing it himself. His voice is somewhat atonal, and soon cracks as the man is overwhelmed with emotion. It is an apt ending for a formally complex yet very moving work that deals with recent Brazilian history and its lost left-wing legacy in a non-didactic and completely personal manner. 

 Erika Sella 

EIFF 2013: Leviathan

A documentary that is prefaced with a quote from The Book of Job rarely creates anticipation for a light-hearted romp. Leviathan begins with such a quote in white text on black, an extract from chapter 41 regarding the titular beast. We fade to black; deep metallic groaning as water laps in surround sound, light leaks in, red and then an image forms: waves, the deck of the boat, a fisherman’s gloved hands – our hands in fact, as the camera’s eye is the fisherman’s. We’re hauling in a catch, an enormous net, the trawler leaning toward the sea. We could go in those waves at any moment and then, apparently, we do. Have we gone overboard? No – this camera moves about as it pleases, possessing fishermen, swimming in the wake of debris, climbing nets, writhing among gawp-mouthed fish, defying gravity. The camera is our narrator. From that slow fade in, we plunge into a semi-psychedelic miasma of images and sounds, edited into a practically seamless hallucination. This is no ordinary documentary.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In acid-droppers’ parlance, this is a bad trip. The fishermen live on a knife edge, everything is poised on the brink of destruction at all times, it’s dark and it’s wet and it’s choppy as hell. The camera eye, our eye, is unflinching: fish writhe and suffocate, and are beheaded and gutted with ruthless efficiency by the fishermen – in this initial sequence – mostly faceless, sou’westered automatons. The physicality of their job combined with the harshness of their environment makes it hard to believe they’re human sometimes. In one grimly hypnotic sequence, two fishermen remove the fins from stingrays, hooking them through the eye, hacking off the fins and then throwing the three dismembered pieces into buckets - hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck – a (presumably) routine process in their day’s work, a routine of metronomic brutality. Later, we see blood and slurry pouring from the side of the boat, back to the sea.

The unsettling horror sequence of the first hour is abruptly interrupted and the film turns round into a more human affair. The fishermen, below deck for the most part, are now human; they still conduct their business in a well-worn manner but we can see their bare faces: physically and emotionally exhausted, damp and hollow eyed. Fish are processed, cranes are operated, incomprehensible New England gutturals exchanged. A hefty, moustachioed man in a vest blankly watches television beneath deck, he doses off and we’re in another frame of consciousness again. A slow-motion, woozy drift, the camera floats in and around the ship, in and out the black water - is this the fisherman’s dream? Is it ours?

To call Leviathan a documentary is in many ways inadequate, a convenience of categorisation. But while it does so in an extraordinary, hypnotic, hypnagogic manner, it actually cuts to the heart of its subject matter by simply showing us, unencumbered by narration or a narrative. In among the viscera of the operations of the boat, we feel the brutality of nature and the brutality of industrialised human consumption. To call Leviathan a horror film is something of an exaggeration too but it might be just as accurate as calling it a documentary: like the best horror films, one is relieved when it’s all over - but the pull of the dark currents, the impulse to plumb those depths again, recurs too.

 Andrew R. Hill