Wednesday, 30 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival - European Cinema: Pushing the boundaries

(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)

My Wednesday started with an early screening of the NEW EUROPEAN SHORTS. I had heard from some reliable sources following a screening earlier in the week that these were a great collection and not to be missed. I was already down to see them anyway, but these words really did heighten the anticipation. There were six films from five different nationalities and it was an eclectic collection of shorts of all kinds; animation, documentary, straight narrative, avant-garde and some spaces in between. As always with such an interesting collection, there were films that I really liked, along with ones I really didn’t, but they all had something to say. To summarise all the plots would be a little too drawn out, so I will just note my impressions on each film, in order to give an overview of the day and with a hope that some will be accessible at some point, possibly through some kind of online distribution channel.

The first one, and my personal favourite, was a French animation called I WAS CRYNG OUT AT LIFE. OR FOR IT (Vergine Keaton). The film perfectly captures the cyclical repetition of nature. Change is always going to come, and it is only through change (revolution) that things continue. There isn't a narrative of progress, nor particularly of decline, just the recycling nature of things. The sinister mood captures the ferociousness of the wilderness. It is a beautiful and transfixing animation, with the rhythmic pacing aided by the perfectly fitting music.

The second film was the Icelandic Marteinn Thorsson’s PERMILL. This was the first time the film has played outside Iceland and follows a middle aged alcoholic dentist. The film subtly comments on current Icelandic socio-cultural issues and national identity. It does so mainly by casually dropping in anecdotal examples of things that are currently associated with the country. By chance, my sister had recently been to Reykjavik for a weekend getaway and the two things she said that resounded were the price of alcohol (due to Icelandic taxing policy) and the present awareness of the recent economic collapse and Iceland's role within it. Both these things are mentioned, but not dwelled upon, with our protagonist at one point stating that alcohol is getting so expensive that he cannot afford shoes. There is some kind of generational theme, as a younger and more exciting couple enter this alcoholic's life, yet they may or may not simply be a figment of his alcohol abused mind.

The third was quite long compared to the rest in the programme; a Portuguese film from Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt called A HISTORY OF MUTUAL RESPECT. The film featured two intentionally uber-pretentious teenage American boys in a foreign land, entering the jungle in order to find beautiful, ‘clean’ natives to impregnate. The exaggerated pretention and the way the two boys insist that they’re doing this for love, really poked at western hypocritical liberalism, continuing the kind of cultural imperialism that has in the past been taken by force.

The first of two films from the Austrian Johann Lurf was THE QUICK BROWN FOW JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG. It had the effect of seeing a whole film strip on screen, complete with soundtrack and perforations. On the film shown was a barrage of images either taken from different films, or possibly the same film, but the point was that none of the images could be singled out or deciphered as they moved at such a breakneck speed. A statement, I imagine, that the bombardment of images in popular culture makes it near impossible to focus on anything. Further, as there is some effort of a soundtrack for the first half, which is abandoned completely as the second plays out in silence; hence, it isn't even possible to listen as these images bombard.

The second of this Lurf double bill was the only one of all the films that didn’t really do anything for me. ENDEAVOUR shows the whole of a shuttle launch and the shell’s descent back to earth. There are three camera angles constantly switched between at a fixed pace, with a complete cycle of about a second. Each angle has a slightly different sound so a steady rhythm was created as the shuttle enters space then comes back through the stratosphere and lands in the ocean.

Possibly the most conventional and accessible of the bunch, THE END OF THE WORLD (Kres świata) ended the programme; a Polish short documentary showing a small village. It very much continues a theme I have seen in many films coming from Eastern Europe over the last couple of years (for instance, the excellent Lithuanian film DUBURYS (VORTEX)). This theme is the coming to terms with the ever changing landscape of an area currently going through the mass migration to urban areas, accelerated by events occurring over the last couple of decades, including the fall of Soviet Union and then followed by European Union expansion. The film featured a bread van that comes into the village periodically, which seems very popular with the villagers. The periodical visits though, become less frequent and there was no order to when it may show. This seems allegorical of the young that have left, maintaining faint yet diminishing ties with their rural roots. One line of dialogue from the film sums it up best: "the young people have all left and the old people are all dying".

The evening’s Polish feature fits in quite well with a morning of European shorts that challenge cinematic boundaries and in some cases express themselves experimentally. Well SAILOR is experimental (to say the least); a sort of avant-garde science-art film with hilariously sarcastic text narration. Not only was it the longest experimental film I’ve seen in quite some time, but there was an extra dimension added as the filmmaker, Norman Leto was in attendance for the screening with a Q&A to follow. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak to an experimental filmmaker about their work; I’m not entirely sure I like the idea, as the whole point is to create your own meaning isn’t it? But this didn’t stop it from adding a bit of spectacle to the event, making me pay even more attention to the mind bending film.

It was a late amendment to my agenda. I have already made clear how important a contribution Neil Young has made to my experience of the festival, as he personally introduced pretty much every film I saw midweek. In doing so, he constantly pushed this event; having seen so many of his other recommendations and in the process seeing some very thought provoking material, I decided I had to give it a go. Knowing that Meek’s Cutoff, the film I was due to see in that slot will be getting a decent distribution anyway, I decided it was worth the sacrifice.

For the first half, despite some of the science deriving from somewhere, and metaphorically making sense, it seemed mostly fabricated and appeared to be mocking the audience for taking this seriously. The provocative tone was accelerated by the miserable sarcasm of the narrator, who constantly broke the fourth wall, referring metatextually to the audience leaving half way through or having to cover certain themes in order to make it at least slightly eligible for film festivals.

Then around half way through, the film introduces the concept of - and showed full diagrams of - people's mathematical life portraits (see images above). They too, following the provocative nature of the first part of the film, seemed completely made up, but the narrator then went into some depth, convincingly justifying the concept by explaining what information is gathered in order to produce such an image. There is a relatively complex collection of questions that can be used to generate a mathematical life portrait for anyone from Stalin to your own relatives, to a man in a coma.

The Q&A following the film was quite informal and didn't reveal a great deal; the language barrier hindered any deep conversation. Leto is intimidatingly good looking and a real charismatic presence; it was cool to be able to chat to the creator of such a fascinating experiment. Although he featured in the film and narrated parts of it, he confirmed that the character in the film wasn't him; he was a fictional character. Most of the questions came back to the fact that the film accompanies a book written by Leto, which deals with the same issues but in much more depth. Unfortunately the book is only available in Polish. I specifically asked him about the science behind this concept of a mathematical portrait, to which he replied that it was all real and is actually how he makes his money; his day job is creating these mathematical portraits on commission.

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