The Filmhouse

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: FRANCES HA

“This apartment is very aware of itself”. A throwaway comment; a not-so-casual insight into the realm of one of the EIFF's biggest films.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha has so far been received with glowing reviews – critics have even invoked the spirit of 'sacred masters' like Woody Allen's Manhattan (it's shot in black and white and deals with the emotional struggles of aimless pseudo-intellectuals), and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (the plot is episodic, the opening  montage has a light-hearted freshness that recalls the early work of the French director, and we even hear the work of much-loved composer Georges Delerue).

 

Image courtesy of Metrodome   

Image courtesy of Metrodome

 

Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who lives in New York and works as an apprentice for a modern dance company. She seems reasonably content with her life until her best friend Sophie decides to move on with her life and leave their flat. Frances soon realises that she is not equipped for dealing with the challenges of adulthood (“I am not a proper person yet”): she is clumsy, has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and is constantly defined by her closest male friend as 'undateable'. We follow her journey through five different locations – the film is structured in five chapters, all opening with a title card providing the new address Frances lives at: Baumbach seems obsessed with the concept of personal space and what it says about people. The protagonist's struggles begin when she can no longer afford the flat she shared with her best friend and end when she finally gets her own place and puts a label with her name on to her new post box (she can't quite fit her full name in the provided space – a visual gag that not only gives the film its title, but perhaps also a comment on her skewed attempts at being  a 'proper' adult).

Even if at times she seems a bit like a a stereotypical 'adorkable' lead character, it's hard not to sympathise with Frances, as she is surrounded by self-absorbed and narcissistic rich pseuds. Unfortunately this is when film's lightness of touch becomes a weakness.  Just as we begin to see our protagonist crack under the pressures she faces and we start scratching beyond the bitter-sweet hipster surface, Baumbach goes for the easy way out and opts for a lazy sugar-coated resolution. It's a shame, because the sequences that have real emotional depth could have conjured a much more interesting portrayal of what is like to  grow up and realise that your dreams might be unachievable. The sequence where Frances awkwardly describes her ideal relationship is genuinely moving as her idealised vision of love completely contradicts what we have seen on screen; her meeting with a disillusioned and drunk Sophie in their old college surroundings is also an impressive portrayal of the fragility of relationships.

 

Frances Ha will be distributed in the UK by Metrodome. It is an Audience Award nominee at the EIFF.

The Stoker


The Filmhouse adds another string to its bow with a foray into distribution. Its debut releaseThe Stoker, takes a cold hard look at the ashes of post-Soviet Russia. Erika Sella rakes through the soot and the dust.


It’s small wonder that the Filmhouse is a highly regarded institution is Scotland (and the UK): home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the world’s oldest film society, the Edinburgh Film Guild, it has recently expanded its remit to film distribution.

At a terribly competitive time, when ‘10 out of 127’ distributors hold ‘the monopoly on the theatrical marketplace’ [1], The Filmhouse have decided to step up to the challenge of picking up and releasing little-known films that quite often get left behind by the traditional commercial model. The choice for their first release is indicative of a relaxed yet highly selective attitude to the industry.

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

 

Aleksey Balabanov’s The Stoker was never going to be an easy on the eye art-house favourite. The film was made in 2010 and first premiered outside its native Russia at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2011, before quietly disappearing off the radar. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be something that was made with an international audience in mind: even though the film deals with universal themes such as isolation and bereavement, its director is relatively unknown outside his native land, and the plot presupposes that its audience will have at least a basic knowledge of Russia’s post-Soviet history, as well as a passing familiarity with the country’s culture.

At its core, The Stoker has got quite literally a burning heart - an oven, something that in Russian folklore represents life, vitality, the family milieu. Balabanov turns this symbol on its head: his protagonist, an ex-military Soviet hero of Yakut extraction (Major Skryabin), works all day and night by a furnace, often turning a blind eye to some local gangsters who use the facilities to incinerate their dead enemies.

Much of the film’s humour stems from the deadpan attitudes that accompany brutal acts - ironically, this is  a double -edge sword, as it is also one of the film’s most tragic aspects.

The Stoker is set in the early 1990s, right after the fall of Communism – a time when Russia was essentially run by oligarchs and the Mafia. In a way, it’s no wonder that the film rejects any sort of aesthetic pleasantry: there is something almost lurid about what we see on screen. St Petersburg looks like an anonymous industrial town; flats and houses look inhospitable; men and women (even the objectively attractive ones) seem repulsive; every shot has a grubby, almost ghastly quality to it.

On top of all that, we are also subjected to an extremely repetitive instrumental guitar score that almost drowns out key conversations. While it’s hard not to be irritated by this seemingly incongruous jaunty, folk-infused theme, one has to recognise that its cheapness ends up complementing what we see on screen. Some reviewers called the Balabanov’ s choice of music ‘suicidal’; it’s clearly something that will test an audience’s patience, but it’s also a very brave directorial move.

Actors behave like malfunctioning androids, hardly displaying any emotions at all; the main hitman, ‘Bison’, only utters one sentence throughout the whole film. There is a general sense of malevolence, as relationships and interactions are clearly based on nothing more than reciprocal exploitation. The only exception to this rule is Skryabin: a powerless observer, honest and clearly selfless (he gives all his earnings to his daughter even though this means he has to live by ‘his’ furnace day and night), he puts his head down and carries on in a world that has gone topsy-turvy. At one point, though, things really get too much, even for him.

It’s obvious that even the most basic rules human society is built on are out of the window. Balabanov disposes of most of his characters (the body count is rather high) with little remorse and occasionally in a tragicomic manner. Skryabin’s last lines in the film finally sum up the disarray we have been subjected to: “ This isn’t war. Was is different. There you have us versus them. But here, it is us against us”.  Skryabin is referring to his experiences in Afghanistan, but he could easily be talking about post-Communism Russia: gone are the old antagonists of Soviet propaganda, now it’s the time for an inner, and in some ways much more uncomfortable, battle.

For all its (admittedly quite dark) humour, The Stoker is a demanding watch, and it’s easy to see how the film could have disappeared if The Filmhouse hadn’t picked it up. However, its underlying savagery and ugliness feel necessary - the late Balabanov clearly wanted to provoke a reaction in the viewer. And ultimately, this is what elevates The Stoker from a mere gangster film to a striking and thought-provoking commentary of what his country looks like today.


[1] Harriet Warman, ‘Picking Up The Stoker, available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/picking-stoker