at the 47th
London Film Festival
(22 October - 6 November)
by George Clark
The 47th London Film Festival came on strong this year. It commenced two weeks earlier than in previous years. Now it runs parallel with the London- based independent film festival, Raindance, with whom it aims to elevate the profile of the capital on the festival circuit (1). The London Film Festival traditionally showcases work that has played in other festivals during the previous 12 months.
Part I: World Cinema
The Middle East
The Middle East
Following the pioneering work of their father, Moshen Makhmalbaf, Samira and the teenage Hana Makhmalbaf have recently made films exploring post-Taliban Afghanistan.
At Five in the Afternoon/Panj é-Asr (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003) (Iran/France) concentrates on a woman, Noqreh, who hopes to become president now the Taliban has fallen. Her ambition, however, is hindered by the repression of women that continues to grip the country. Assembled as a series of vignettes exploring the themes of hope, freedom and power, At Five in the Afternoon creates a poetic picture of a country without direction. One scene, for instance, sees Noqreh secretly walking through an abandoned mansion, her forbidden high heels creating an echo. The scene works as a powerful symbol for a culture alienated by its figures of authority. A fascinating companion piece to this film is a documentary about its making, Joy of Madness/Lezate Divanegi (Hana Makhmalbaf, 2003) (Iran). Shot on DV under the noses of Samira and her crew, we follow the struggles the 'House of Makhmalbaf' face when casting their film with local people, revealing the deep routed paranoia, fear and prejudice within the society.
The most bombastic film at the Festival was Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2003) (Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands); shot in English and with an international cast led by Nicole Kidman. The entire film takes place in the town of Dogville, in the Rocky Mountains, USA, represented on a huge soundstage by chalk lines and occasional furnishings. The poor man's theatre style, as dubbed by Von Trier, is the only allowed bit of strangeness, meaning the rest of the film (performances, lighting and sound) must be normal. It is everything you would imagine, formally innovative, emotionally harrowing (Kidman joins the list of humiliated heroines in Von Trier's work), subversive and cynical in its examination of American politics small and large. The whole project though is deeply ironic, an attack on America as much as an attack on the pretensions and hypocrisies of cinema (the casting of Kidman is a particular coup).
Also from Denmark was Per Fly's Inheritance/Arven (2003) (Denmark), a spare but highly accomplished drama. Inheritance, part two of his proposed trilogy on the class system in Denmark, focuses on the ruling class. The film's execution is clear sighted and helped immensely by Ulrich Thomsen's central performance as Christoffer, a man forced to take on the family firm after his father's suicide and who is subsequently is thrown into a world of incredible responsibility and an alienated lifestyle. The firm's slow economic progress, paralleled by the decline of Christoffer, is presented with subtle political and ethical insight. The burden of the class system is powerfully exposed in this understated portrait of a vicious circle.
The selection of French films revealed few of real interest this year, but two stood out for vastly different reasons.
Bruno Dumont, the self-appointed priest of French art-house cinema, is back with his film Twentynine Palms (2003) (France). Following on from Dogville, Dumont sets his film in the America of the mind the potent, myth-filled desert. We follow Denny (debutant David Wissak), a photographer scouting for locations with his Russian girlfriend (the excellent Yekatariova Golubeva). These two outsiders
In a manner reminiscent of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) (USA), the film is dominated by stark images of landscapes and architecture, for example, the predatory scenes in the swimming pool and the field of windmills seen through a passing train. Twentynine Palms builds a sense of strangeness through formal adjustments of the American Landscape such as an interaction with a three-legged dog, the blurring of outside and inside as shop musak plays in the streets, etc. that eventually breaks out into psychological horror. In a similar vein to Gaspar Noé, Dumont seems determined to make profound statements about humanity through horror. It is hard to tell what his real direction is but I believe he has gained on the lugubrious L'Humanité (1999) (France) by overtly playing with troupes of art film and popular culture without grasping for Bressonian profundities.
The other stand-out French film was Eugène Green's Le Monde Vivant/The Living World (2003) (France/Belgium), a lovingly handcrafted fairytale, completely devoid of pretension. We follow the adventure of Nicolas, a knight in modern dress, as he travels through a forest, meets a fellow knight with a lion (played by a Labrador), rescues a princess and helps to liberate the madam of a beast and two boys he captured for dinner. This fantastic story is told with great economy and is imbued with a childlike sense of play. The narrative is laced with rich and often ironic dialogue, full of quips and asides, and fuelled by an absurd logic. The style has been compared to Bresson, and even to Straub and Huillet, but Eugène himself claims he's closer to Ozu. This is primarily in the director's sense of the varying connotations of silence and grasp of the power of the inanimate in film. But La Monde Vivant, which was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the Festival, remains an abnormality, a unique treat that quietly signals an unassuming but deeply individual director in European cinema. Why shout when you can whisper.
The issue of cultural identity is an increasingly complex one in today's unified Europe. For example, former Soviet East European countries are now looking to reclaim their historical place as central European. But what is lost or gained by such cultural redirection is still to be seen. The Hungarian debut, Forest/Rengeteg (Benedek Fliegauf, 2003) (Hungary), is an excellent continuation of the documentary fiction tradition that emerged from the Budapest School, established during Soviet rule. The film is a series of tableaux involving a cross section of contemporary Budapest society. At times humorous and tragic, Forest is always vivid and unpredictable. It is dedicated to the late György Fehér, the underexposed icon of the Budapest school, a group of filmmakers dedicated to renewing cinematic language through a combination of documentary and experimental techniques. The scenes in Forest are all built upon conflict, engineered but not scripted, forcing characters (and actors) to break their roles and reveal something new.
The tension between formalism and realism permeates the Turkish film Distant/Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2003) (Turkey). Exploring the clash between rural and urban Turkey, we follow Mahmut's trip to Istanbul to find work where he stays with an old friend, Yusuf, a disillusioned photographer. The city itself is a complex character; full of wandering strangers and hidden beneath a layer of snow. The clash between the two men exposes tensions at the heart of Turkey during its recent economic crisis. Director Ceylan, acting as writer, producer and photographer, draws intimate performances from the leads. Together with Zeki Demirkubuz, he is ushering in a new auteur cinema in Turkey.
At the same time as new directors emerge, old ones disappear. Such is the case for the iconoclastic João César Monteiro who died in
Films from Southeast Asia were strong again this year. South Korea was well represented with several features as well as a new port-mantau film, but the most fascinating was Mutt Boy/Ddong-gae (Kwak Kyang-Taek, 2003) (South Korea). We follow the dim-witted son (whose nickname is Mutt Boy) of a chief inspector whose wife died giving birth to the protagonist. The film is a perfectly conceived coming of age myth. Mutt Boy is quiet but prone to violence; he is surrounded by the world of men, local gangs and thugs as well as the institution his father represents. Kyung-Taek's film explores various themes in relation to the protagonist's evolving masculinity, such as peer pressure and exclusion, sexual identity, the domination of the father and authority, in addition to growing social consciousness. The finale, in which Mutt Boy fights his nemesis, is an incredible set piece, moving from testosterone-fuelled kinetics to a brutal lazy fistfight and eventually to the protagonist's cathartic breakdown.
Last Life in Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003) (Thailand) is a more relaxed film than Monrak Transistor (2002) (Thailand). The film stars highly regarded Japanese actor, Tadanobu Asano, who plays the serene but suicidal Kenji, a Japanese librarian working in Bangkok, who is thrown together with the wayward Noi when he witnesses her sister's death in a car accident. Kenji accompanies Noi to her rural home and through each other's company (communicating in Thai, Japanese and broken English) the pair discover an unlikely harmony. This meticulously designed film perfectly evokes the lazy Thai climate, with the mood shifting from mellow to mourning. It is aided by the excellent cinematography of Christopher Doyle.
Japanese cinema, reportedly having a bad year, was the strongest and most interesting at the Festival, providing spectacle with Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003) (Japan) as well as various experimental features and shorts. Two films tackled the generation gap in Japan exploring the invisible generation (5): dispossessed and alienated youth. Border Line (Lee Sang-Il, 2002) (Japan) is a complex debut, interweaving a variety of characters to give a multisided portrait of contemporary Japan. We follow a boy fleeing after murdering his father, a girl reduced to prostitution, a mother who turns to robbery and a Yakuza who realises that his wish to go straight will end in death. The grainy hues and intense performances give Border Line a raw edge, although it is occasionally let down by weaker sections.
One of my real discoveries was Bright Future/Akrui Mirai (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003) (Japan), an incredible film as well as an introduction to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director mid-career with a mature style and a back-catalogue to discover. Opening with the protagonist, Yurji's (Joh Odagiri), admission that he no longer dreams, we delve straight into the transparent generation. This highly elliptical film, with bleached out images and realistic photography, reveals little of the characters' inner workings. Yurji follows his friend Mamoru's (Tadanobu Asano) directions and begins work with his father Shin-inchiro, repairing
Part II: Experimental Films
Two Japanese features were placed in the Experimenta section this year, one was the unfortunately clumsy 815 (Shoichi Chugoku, 2002) (Japan) and the perverse but clever The Letter/Tegami (Saski Yusuki, 2003) (Japan). 815 suffered from a lack of clarity and made weak by its sloppy DV photography. The Letter on the other hand is entirely original being the first ever text message movie. The film is shot by the teenage Saski Yusuki using domestic equipment and is a perplexing experience. Except for the brief parting of two school friends at the opening, The Letter revolves entirely around the text messages sent and received from one phone. The frustrated dialogue unfolds in real-time, forcing us to watch the composition of the texts (written, deleted, changed, etc.) but primarily to place us in the dependent state of the protagonist, awaiting a crucial reply to an unseen text (only revealed later). What is most unnerving about the film is its ironic conceptualism, drawing us into the absurd, depersonalised teenage world of its neurotic conductor.
My favourite Japanese film in the Experimenta section though was the bizarre animation A Feather Stare At The Dark (Naoyuki Tuji, 2003) (Japan). Employing a hand drawn technique that leaves the faint traces of each drawing in a sequence. The film imagines a pre-world, where angles fly and fall, and where our world is created. Good and evil fight as the universe grows and decays; bodily processes are invoked in order to depict the conception and eventual birth of the world. Pregnant with symbolism, A Feather Stare At The Dark is enigmatic and mysterious but saved by the fluidity of its imagination.
Unlike the feature films at the Festival, Britain was well represented in the Experimenta program, with local directors sitting alongside the international selection. John Smith presented his new film Worst-Case-Scenario (John Smith, 2003) (UK), a study of a street corner in Vienna, made up of thousands of still photographs. With the spectre of war hanging over the project, the film elaborates a mini opera of near collisions between people and vehicles vying for their lives. The use of photomontage allows the exaggeration of small movements into violent but often rhythmical actions.
Guy Sherwins' series of films that make up Animal Studies (1998-2003) (UK) is an impressive achievement. Sherwin chose animals as his subjects to retain spontaneity but avoid performance. The films are largely composed in-camera on a single reel of 16mm film, and use the animated subjects (a sleeping cat, swans swimming, etc.) to explore the effects of fine adjustments in exposure and shutter speed, as well as in-camera editing and superimposition. The sequences are simple but incredibly rich, the black and white printing is solid and luminous and combined with the ingenuity of the shooting technique they are often astonishingly beautiful.
In a similarly handcrafted vein was Jimmy Roberts' Embers (2003) (UK), composed of lovingly detailed images, balanced at extremes of exposure and visibility. Roberts' film was the only one at the Festival shot on 8mm; he is a lonely discipline of the most intimate film gauge. Unlike the Sherwin piece, this film is more overtly poetic than formal. Images range from a young man boxing shirtless, a magical urban skyline to a pair of sparkling shoes being admired as light glistens off their surface. Such images are separated by black leader, allowing them to stand-alone and linger in the viewer's mind. The film is a glimpse, a cinematic haiku, perfectly balanced between personal diary, poetry, and narrative.
Canadian experimentalist Guy Maddin has overcome a recent break from feature films and, as the two features at this Festival show, has
Also from Canada was the feature length Imitations of Life (Mike Hoolboom, 2003) (Canada), a series of ten meditations on the influence of media and the proliferation of image making on our conscience and culture. Hoolboom aims to find the future in the past(7) and collects a history of images both universal and personal, focusing his ruminations on the possible future for his young nephew. The film is a hybrid of techniques, from found footage to diary to abstract film. Evocations of science fiction sit alongside personal history in this complex and arresting treatise.
A regular staple at festivals are films about filmmakers, with varying degrees of accomplishment, from the fanzine to the essay film. This year there was the insightful but lightweight Film As a Subversive Art (Paul Cronin, 2003) (UK) focusing on Amos Vogel and his pioneering film society Cinema 16, and the suitably eccentric and joyous Jonas at the Ocean (Peter Sempel, 2002) (Germany), the director's second film on the doyen of American avant-garde, Jonas Mekas. Jonas at the Ocean embraces Mekas' free flowing style and philosophy. It interweaves various guest speakers with documentary footage of Jonas dancing in his native Lithuania in addition to a recreation of the Mekas brothers' arrival in New York, the city Jonas has been in love with for 50 years. The film is both insightful and passionately constructed, but such eulogising of the joys of life, at times seem like a thin veil on a melancholy man.
As well as films about icons of the American avant-garde, there were also new films from Pat O'Neil and Ken Jacobs. The Decay Of Fiction (Pat O'Neil, 2002) (USA) is set in the grounds of a derelict luxury hotel, a former meeting ground for Hollywood's finest. The film is a virtuoso mixture of material exploring the hotel, often using time-lapse photography that is overlaid with transparent black and white figures wandering through the rooms, engaged in enactments from their personal lives and film careers. This project shows the fruits of O'Neil's own special effects workshop, allowed free reign in this film like the ghostly effigies released from the archives of the golden period of Hollywood in a brief, disturbing, excursion into the present.
Alongside such grand works from established directors were lots of signs of current vitality in America. Julie Murray's films are often linked to the school of visionary film, as exemplified by the late Stan Brakhage. Her new film, Untitled/Light (2003) (USA), delivers on this promise with incredible artistry. Without titles, it begins in the dark; faint lights seem to be moving in the distance, glowing shafts illuminate some sort of precipitation; as the exposure increases, forms become visible but rarely identifiable. Untitled/Light is a tender film full of mystery and grandeur. As the film progresses we realise that the absence of a centre to the images is exactly what it is about. It is a film of mourning for what was lost in the attack on the world trade centre.
Phil Solomon's Psalm III: Night of the Meek (2002) (USA) is similarly mysterious and evocative. The indescribable images seem to be formed from sparklingly degraded silver and black material; forms appear in relief and shapes move to describe themselves. The film is a variation of the Jewish legend of the Golem; set at the outbreak of World War II it describes (opaquely) the summoning of the creatures made from the earth, by the Rabbi of Prague, and the ensuing night of gods and monsters. Solomon's own poetic statement I'm looking at the river, but I'm thinking of the sea describes the despairing hope of this evocation of the plight of the Jews and the plague of fascism.
The tradition of landscape in American art and film was a powerful component at this year's Festival. Figures In a Landscape (Thomas Comerford, 2002) (USA) is shot with an archaic pinhole camera distorting a Chicago suburb. Comerford's images are grainy and unfocused, polemically eschewing the use of lenses for a more primitive technique. Quoting texts describing how suburbia has replaced the primitive settlements of Native Americans and European pioneers, Figures in a landscape bemoans the loss of the relationship to the land and environment in modern America.
The Geosophist's Tears (Peter Rose, 2002) (USA) puts into effect the stratagems of early geosophists, who believed that through the operation of a mysterious instrument landscapes might be placed together in an emotionally meaningful correspondence(8). Using video technology this film combines landscapes by overlapping strips (vertical or horizontal) of one image over the other. The technique is applied to barren landscapes seen in transit, the horizons in the images often link creating a harmony between the two locations.
The eccentric The Secret History of the Dividing Line (David Gatten, 2002) (USA) is an ironically dry exercise that takes the splice marks between filmstrips (glued together not taped) as an avenue into the exploration of boundaries and division. The film contains no exterior footage, instead it is composed of text (describing the history of the dividing line in relation to the Byrd family of 18th Century Virginia) and abstract black and white patterns created from the damaged conjoined film ends. The austerity and simplicity of the images and material form a vivid meditation on the meaning of division (of people, landscapes, objects, and ideas).
Finally the most challenging and ambitious new experimental work from America was the two-part film by Michele Smith. Her last film, the celebrated but rarely screened Reguarding Penelopes Wake (2002) (USA) challenged the most dedicated audiences with its abrasive editing style, evasive subject and two hour duration. Smith's new work, the two films Like All Bad Men He Looks Attractive (2003) (USA) and They Say (2003) (USA), lasts just under 75 minutes and are silent. The films are huge tactile found footage collages
Her editing technique involves cutting back and forth between two or three film sequences at such a rapid pace (varying between different rhythms of 2-6 frames of each) that they are scrambled together. This has the effect of superimposing the various different films together in the viewer's mind, making it impossible to concentrate on a single sequence. This is the real radicalism of Michele's work, the films are so overloaded with stories, narratives and possible readings that the viewing experience is full of tiny epiphanies in which fascinating, new connections between familiar material are discovered before the next burst of images and associations. The effect is a truly revelatory cinema, utterly rhythmic, non-linear, associative, and exploratory. A fitting conclusion to the cacophony of delights at this year's London Film Festival.
© George Clark, January 2004
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