Wednesday, 6 April 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival Final Post: Including Two in the Wave, 13 Assassins and film of the festival LiTTLEROCK

(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 final weekend seemed a stark comparison to the weekend prior. I pretty much crammed as much into the Saturday last weekend as I did for the whole of this weekend. One reason was that half of the films that fell in midweek slots convenient for me, were repeated over the weekend, which is a great opportunity for those not fortunate to have seen them through the week, so I can’t disagree with the move, but on a personal (selfish) level, it left me with less to choose from. Add to this that the Widescreen Weekend had started, taking up the whole of the Pictureville cinema. This strand generates quite an atmosphere, with most showings packed out by delegates hailing from all over Europe as well as Australia and the US. What it doesn’t do though, is help with my search for uncovered independent films. Having said that, what the weekend lacked in quantity it really made up for in quality, as I saw my film of the festival. LiTTLEROCK is another one of those inspiring examples of why it’s so important to scour these festivals looking for the roots of cinematic excellence taking shape. I will come back to this masterpiece after a quick rundown of what else the weekend offered me.

Friday was the busiest day, with three varied films/events lined up. First up, as part of the CineFile strand (dedicated to documentaries specifically about film) I saw TWO IN THE WAVE (Emmanuel Laurent). The film charted the personal and professional collaboration of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard throughout the origins of what has come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague, throughout the sixties, culminating in May 1968 and then the ensuing strains between the two thereafter. The film was focused enough to give great insight, whilst also being broad enough to cover quite an expansive subject without losing momentum in any particular area. For me, having an understanding of the origins (albeit a limited one), the film didn’t really come to life until it charted the post-68 fallout, as Godard broke convention to new degrees, completely eschewing the mainstream and becoming critical of Truffaut for doing quite the opposite, seemingly embracing his place in the establishment. This split reaches far wider than these two and speaks of France on the whole, or even the whole of the West; the energy and solidarity generated throughout the sixties fractured, with factions going off in all directions or being subsumed by the mainstream.

Speaking only of what the film had to say, their ensuing post-68 directions were in contrast to their early lives. Truffaut, coming from a relatively deprived background seemed happy to be part of this comfortable mainstream. Godard on the other hand, seemed to me, to be suffering from a certain amount of middle-class guilt, having received quite a privileged upbringing, only to reject this bourgeoisie lifestyle completely.

The film should be a perfect balance of entertainment and insight, in order for students and film fans alike to get a sense of this Nouvelle Vague movement, with plenty of inspiration to do more digging themselves, should it spark the interest.

The next event was a controversial one; it was the Amos Vogel event. As opposed to the week prior where one of Vogel’s programmes was recreated, this was an attempt to construct a contemporary programme of ‘film as subversive art’. I can only commend the festival and the programmers for ambition and effort, but I was a little underwhelmed with the end product. I hadn’t read the details for the event and therefore didn’t realise that it was in the form of two relatively short films followed by an hour long documentary (of sorts) set in Bradford called THE BOWL (Peter Ward).

Before justifying my ‘of sorts’ remark I would just like to say that the first short, FLESH (Edouard Salier) was a great find and worth going just for that. It’s an animation which sees a detailed virtual model of New York, complete with twin towers, only with pornography projected onto every building (Sleazy nature of western decadence perhaps). The 9/11 planes then hit, cueing hundreds more planes that bring the whole city down, only for it to rebuild into an even more imposing, mutated structure with the same prominent pornography towering into the sky. I.e. fight an ideology by force and it will simply amplify what you have attacked. This parable would work both ways in the contemporary post 9-11 narrative of conflict.

As for THE BOWL, while watching it, I was increasingly frustrated at the flashes of brilliance as it dug itself right into the underbelly of white, working class Bradford. All too often though, it came across as a senseless, pointless mockumetary with ridiculous characters. I was told in the following days that there was no mock about it and everyone was real - which I am still unconvinced about - but even if this is the case, the film presents it in such a zany, stylised manner that it cannot be taken seriously. Apparently, the post film discussion raised some blood pressures and therefore perhaps it worked as subversive art, but it didn’t particularly offend me, it just seemed pointless.

The reason I didn’t stay for the Q&A (besides just being happy to get out of there, and that I’d be able to catch some of the Bradford Bulls game on the radio) was because I was pushed for time in order to get up the road to Cineworld for Takeshi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS . Following from my experience at the Bradford After Dark horror day, the multiplex setting once again - despite lacking the technical near-perfection of the Media Museum - harboured a much more exciting atmosphere than most screenings down the road. It was well attended and there was a Friday night Samurai film excitement in the air.

The film itself is pretty much what you would want out of a samurai film: old Japan, stock characters, big build-up, even bigger showdown (oh and isn’t it just), hacking, slashing, decapitating, etc. One distracting feature though, is that it doesn’t quite know whether it wants to take itself seriously or if it wants to be a spectacle-laden genre-heavy bloodbath. The first half built up very slowly, creating a mature approach to death, giving it the gravitas it deserves as a sincere concept. The second half - the showdown half – in stark contrast went nuts, becoming a sort of blood-bath version of Home Alone, only with a village instead of a house; with thirteen samurai (ok, twelve, along with the mischievous, jungle dwelling thief-fighter) as opposed to one annoying kid and 200 royal guards as opposed to the two ‘wet bandits’. Either approach would have been fine separately, but they seemed a little out of place next to each other in the same film.

My natural instinct couldn’t refrain from trying to make some sense of this dichotomy using clues handed by the film itself. The fact that it takes itself so seriously, only to descend into a decapitating farce (albeit a thoroughly entertaining one) seems allegorical of the pointless nature of samurai in general and possibly even Samurai fiction by extension. They’re always held by history and popular culture in such high esteem, but this film shows how they lead such a pointless existence. The film is set in a time of relative peace, toward the end of the Shogun-centric system of control; a time that has little need for these obedient, trained killers. Taking themselves so seriously is their denial of this, as they constantly train in the secret hope that war, or some kind of conflict could break out. A poignant comment cemented my feelings on the matter, coming from the almost ethereal, jungle dwelling Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who is the silly, camp character that injected some life into the group and into the film. He begins, wanting to join the samurai, this elite group, only to remark later “I thought samurai would be fun but you bore me”. I couldn’t help reading this as a meta-message from Miike, saying that samurai are pointless and a little boring, as is this formulaic Samurai fiction; we should leave them alone as historical relics, possibly even “jump ship to America” (another comment from Koyota). This is why the film never tries to be more than a straight genre spectacle; it would defeat the point.

Literally saving the best for last, Sunday morning brought me my final film, and film of the festival. It was between this and TRACES OF A DIARY, but after a week of reflection it is this beautiful narrative that has stuck in my mind most vividly. LiTTLEROCK is directed by Mike Ott, whose earlier film ANALOG DAYS also played in BIFF’s 2007 Uncharted States of America strand. LiTTLEROCK is written by the lead actress Atsuko Okatsuka, who plays herself, or at least a character of the same name, closely based on herself and her own experiences with small town America. I didn’t know this until the end credits rolled, at which point it made perfect sense, justifying how the film can feel so intimate and sincere. Her brother Rintaro Sakamoto (also playing himself) is fascinated with American culture and is midway through a visit to the area his grandparents had lived up until the Second World War. Their bus breaks down in a small town called Littlerock. Atsuko, who is merely tagging along to keep Rintaro company, has no prior interest in the country and therefore doesn’t speak a word of English, yet she becomes infatuated with this town and its people (who similarly give her a fair amount of attention). When the brother is moving on, she insists on staying, despite not being able to verbally converse with anybody there. The film felt so honest and sincerely sweet, but without being sugar-coated, clichéd or in the slightest bit ‘Hollywood’. Despite its endearingly enchanting sincerity, I for one felt a certain amount of dread throughout, like the whole thing was balanced on a knife edge. This tense atmosphere, along with its charming naiveté and the symbolic inability to coherently communicate, combine to give a fresh and original, poignant and precise depiction of adolescence. When you are that age, going through those changes, communication is just as confusing as - or even more pointless than - speaking in different languages. It is all those other ways in which the film masterfully conveys emotion and the connections between characters that make this film stick in the mind.

It really is the reason I attend film festivals; to see a genuinely independent production carved out of pure heart and passion, then striving to be seen by an audience. Well I know I wasn’t the only one swept away by this film; another person at the same screening (known on twitter as @itv_digital) was seeing it here for the second time this week and subsequently gave it high praise on a local radio station’s festival roundup. I will be pushing this film on anybody I think will have an opportunity to see it and I commend the team at Bradford for getting hold of it.

For a few final words on the festival, one thing I haven’t mentioned a great deal (I didn’t want to dwell on it, but I feel I need to mention), is the atmosphere and attendance for the majority was a little deflating. The headline events, and a couple of other events drew full houses and excitement, but the vast majority of midweek films, especially the earlier screenings were pretty poorly attended and seen by the same people. The festival didn’t reach far in demographic terms, with the same umbrella of society attending the majority of films I saw. Living in Bradford and having a pretty wide reach, through family, friends and work colleagues (past and present), there were few that even knew what the festival was. The reason this is such a shame is that many would love the festival, or at least parts of it.

This doesn’t take anything away from the excellence of programming, with easily enough going on to entertain any varying degree of film fan, but I would be doing an injustice to free press and to Bradford was I not to mention my impressions.

The genre entries were much appreciated and did draw a different crowd, as well as giving the same crowd something a little different. The best thing the festival has done though; a thing I wish I could have seen more of, and that I hope is expanded, or at least repeated, is the Northern Showcase. My interview with the filmmakers behind INNOCENT CRIMES and the film I rate as third greatest experience of the festival, HAROLD’S GOING STIFF, should be in the next issue of Film&Festivals magazine. They are testament to true, self funded, independent films. They have had to beg, borrow, steal (OK maybe not steal, but you get what I mean) and use every ounce of ingenuity and innovation they can muster to get their films made, then have found an outlet for them. Inspiring and precisely what film festivals should be for.

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