Thursday, 24 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival Day 2 and 3: Hungarian political biopic The Last Report on Anna and Detroit documentary Deforce

(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)

The first couple of days were to be a steady start to the festival for various family reasons. I was eased in on the first day with the solitary screening of Márta Mészáros’ Hungarian THE LAST REPORT ON ANNA (UTOLSÓ JELENTÉS ÁNNÁROL), which was preceded by a short called MY LAD (Sami Khan). I love BIFF’s insistence on keeping the majority of the short films interspersed throughout the Moviedrome strand as show openers. It insures them a much greater reach, while there are still some focused and compelling short film programmes.

MY LAD is the spiritual journey of a grieving father, Abdul (Stewart Scudamore) on the day of his son’s funeral. Trying to remain in denial of the gravitas of the situation, he attempts to shut it out, but is haunted by visions of his son pleading with him to do this one thing for him: to be there in order to say goodbye. The aesthetics put you right inside Abdul’s head and Scudamore’s performance was fittingly emotional. What made it particularly strong in my eyes was its British-Asian identity. I feel like I am contradicting myself by highlighting this, as the point I liked about it is that by dealing with the universal issue of losing a child, it wasn’t overtly about being British-Asian. It reminded me of a comment made by Riz Ahmed at a FOUR LIONS Q&A, when asked on the subject of British-Asian portrayal on film he said - rightly so - that it will have come to a more acceptable point when a British-Asian character is not only defined by that one feature. In order to create even more significance though, the last shot flips this again, showing a photo of the boy and his father, which reveals that the son was a member of the armed forces, Union Jack prominent on the photo, and therefore we are led to believe that he was killed in action. Having naturalised the universality of the family’s situation, it then reiterates that this boy - having an Islamic burial - is as British as anyone else living in the country.

THE LAST REPORT ON ANNA felt personal; like it was coming from someone with a point of view, but Mészáros managed to achieve this without coming across too propagandistic or preachy, which is quite an achievement. It utilises real news footage and declares in the opening credits that the story is fiction, but could just as easily be fact. I always wince a little when something is declared to be 'a true story', when it has in fact warped fact to become a dramatic retelling. Well as this declares its position as fiction - as art - inspired by true events, it seems much more sincere. To capture emotion or a structure of feeling (which this film succeeds at) is all that a collection of facts can do anyway.

Within the narrative, Péter (Ernó Ferkete) is the nephew of a man that the influential, outspoken former president of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, Anna Kéthly (Enikő Eszeyi) was in love with. The Hungarian Communist regime attempts to exploit this relationship in order to gain access to her self-imposed exile, living in Brussels. The film opens in 1991 at the fall of the Soviet Union, with the bulk of the story taking place in Péter’s remembered 1973, and then further flashbacks to various points throughout Anna’s life - the majority of which during the 1956 revolution. She was an inspirational character and Eszeyi did this justice with an appropriately inspiring performance, capturing the passion and the fire in her belly when reanacting specific inspirational speeches in the earlier flashbacks, or getting on a political rant with Péter or the Hungarian ambassador to Belgium in 1973. While achieving this, she still came across human, compassionate and even fragile at times when spending time with Péter. The camerawork aided the latter by really drawing her wise and compassionate eyes out of the screen. Despite some of the speech recreations at times seeming a little like TV documentary recreations, overall it was a successful blend of historical insight and compelling character based drama. It didn't overstay its welcome and it felt genuine and worthwhile; a great way to start the festival.

The second day was similarly steady, again with only one feature and accompanying short. The short, FLUORESCENT GRAY didn't capture my imagination. It’s a conversation between a seemingly insomniac suffering couple. An insight into a relationship that is hardly going swimmingly, but also not full of melodramatic friction. It seemed well suited to a short stage production or a short story, yet there was something about it that didn't seem very cinematic. 

DEFORCE is Daniel Falconer’s Documentary about the complete absence of any kind of regeneration programme or cohesive city planning in Detroit, leaving it to have become a semi-derelict, crumbling landscape. The film goes back to approximately the turn of the 20th century and showcases Detroit as the poster boy for social cohesion through modernity during the first half of the century. It then shows how this influential city, emblematic of 20th century American dominance, has been ravaged by institutional racism and corrupt politicians through the latter half of the century.

The striking similarity with many cities around the world is clear, but the links with Bradford make it apt for this festival. Not only do you have to just walk through Bradford’s city centre to see the many giant craters (a point that Terry Gilliam remarked upon in a characteristically funny quip when I caught up with him on the Saturday) and the eyesore that is the old Odeon, which looked so majestic and grand in the centre before being neglected for the last decade to rot and decay. There aren’t just these instantly visible similarities; there are also historical similarities. Bradford, a formerly prosperous mill town has a similar lack of clarity regarding its identity, since the industry that made it what it was faded away, leaving only the remnants of inappropriately skilled working class families, but without the work. This leads to another similarity; the migration from the Southern states to work Detroit's globally influential car plants echoes the migration of sub-continent workers to meet demand in Bradford's mills. As the film rightly shows, this brings some fascinating cultural diversity, but not without certain racially motivated strains as the work disappears and competition for jobs becomes fierce; the segregated city develops a reciprocal animosity and blame culture.

Tracking more than a whole century did mean that it has to move at a pretty rapid pace. At times I wished it could slow down and dwell on certain instances, expanding on some of the headline statements and sensational facts and figures. I really felt that there could have been about five really focused documentaries in here. Yet having said that, it was the scope of the whole thing that gave it so much character.

The main reason that I wished the film could slow down just a little though, was to allow me to take in the film's most striking feature: the visuals. From high, expansive shots of the city to detailed visualisations of the internal decay of so many structures was enchanting and heartbreaking whilst being poetic and hauntingly beautiful. In comparison, the regimented composure of the photography used of old Detroit perfectly captures the structure and organisation of modernity. Yet when I wanted to just soak this beauty in, there was often the voiceover supplying even more information, while text simultaneously showed up over the image, giving related but different information. Maybe I have a simple mind, but I couldn't process all this information; or at least I couldn’t properly give all these aspect the attention they individually deserved.

An important documentary that embodies the capitulation of the American Dream.

Twitter: @destroyapathy

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