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A Tool for Travelling: Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź (14 – 21 July 2017)

A Ciambra

A Ciambra

By Alex Ramon.

Now in its seventh year, Poland’s Transatlantyk Festival remains a spearheading festival in a country that, despite its current volatile political climate, doesn’t yet lack for dynamic, high-profile cultural events: these range from Wrocław’s New Horizons to Gdynia Film Festival to Bydgoszsz’s Camerimage. Relocated from Poznań to Poland’s prime film city, Łódź, the novelty of Transatlantyk is that it’s an event in which cinema and music are equally central: this year’s special guests, for example, included Edward Norton, Jean Michel-Bernard, and Lucrecia Martel (who received the FIPRESCI 92 prize).

That combination of film and music is doubtless due to the vision of the festival’s founder Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, the acclaimed Konin-born composer whose soundtracks include his compatriot Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995) and Washington Square (1997), the Oscar-winning Finding Neverland (2004), and, more recently, Aneta  Kopacz’s Joanna (an Oscar nominee for best short documentary in 2015). Explaining the festival’s name, Kaczmarek has stated that it’s meant to evoke the idea of “an intellectual and artistic journey, a tool for travelling.”

Inclusive and wide-ranging (“glocal”, to use Kaczmarek’s preferred term), Transatlantyk makes the most of both the historical and the freshly revitalised areas of Łódź, with screenings, concerts and quirky sidebars (such as “Culinary Cinema” and the outdoor “Cinema in Bed” section) taking place across the city, from the Cinema Museum to the new EC1 complex and from the Grand Theatre to the essential hipster hangout OFF-Piotrkowska. The programme is divided into clear, easily navigable sections, including docs and shorts, with the “Panorama” strand (where I spent the most time) showcasing a selection of new films screened at the most recent editions of Venice, Rotterdam, Cannes and Berlin.

Under the stewardship of its new Director of Programming, Joanna Łapinska (previously of New Horizons), the festival also boasted an overriding theme this year: “the power of women.” That topic was immediately emphasised at the Opening Gala, where, following a sensational performance of Kaczmarek’s “Emigra – Symfonia bez końca”, the evening was given over to “The Women’s Grand Reading.” This was a music-scored performance of selections from Polish and world literature by a range of female speakers. A slickly choreographed spectacle, the performance didn’t avoid some dips into kitsch, such as a “clapalong” finale, which two guys near me sat through with stony-faces and arms stubbornly folded.

Films by male directors weren’t absent from the programme, of course. Among the best was Jonas Carpignano’s Scorsese-produced A Ciambra, a sequel of sorts to the director’s terrific debut Mediterranea (2015) which focuses on the coming-of-age of that film’s precocious tearaway (Pio Amato) in the Roma community of Gioia Tauro. Also notable were Gustavo Rondón Córdova’s intense father-and-son on-the-run drama La Familia and Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo, a striking, unsettling rotoscope animation that focuses on a group of interwoven characters engaged in illicit or illegal activities in the Iranian capital.

The Beksińskis: A Sound and Picture Album

The Beksińskis: A Sound and Picture Album

In the documentary strand, Marcin Borchardt’s The Beksińskis: A Sound and Picture Album offered a vivid portrait of the artist, his wife and son drawn from the home movie footage that Beksiński obsessively made; the film works both as a great companion piece to Jan P. Matuszyński’s dramatization of the same material in the superb The Last Family (2016) and as a compelling documentary in its own right. More local still, Piotr Szczepański’s DOM/ Łódź offered insight into one of OFF-Piotrkowska’s most popular clubs, the film’s approach as rough and lively as its subject.

Among the weakest films, on the other hand, was Taylor Sheridan’s execrable Wind River, which features an extremely unappealing performance from Jeremy Renner as a philosophising hunter investigating the murder of a Native American girl alongside Elizabeth Olsen’s hapless FBI agent. Volker Schlöndorff’s latest, Return to Montauk, also disappointed, squandering the talents of Stellan Skarsgaard and Nina Hoss on a love story marred by an extremely poor screenplay by Colm Tóibín.

There’s no doubt that the biggest audience draw was Edward Norton who received a warmly enthusiastic welcome at a relaxed and genial master class in the Grand Theatre, before being awarded the Festival’s “Glocal Hero” award at the Closing Ceremony. In conversation with Michał Oleszczyk at the master class, Norton spoke of his collaborations with David Fincher and Wes Anderson, of working with Brando and De Niro, and of his passion for environmental activism, placing his positive perspective on the latter in the context of the mass Polish demonstrations against moves by the government to undermine judicial independence: “It is a weird and frightening moment now, but there are also lots of signals that a global citizenry can make things happen… I think we are going to win.”

Given the festival’s theme, it feels appropriate to spotlight some of the female-directed films featured, a selection that ranged from romance to horror to slapstick comedy to intimate, personal dramas. Not all of them were good by any means: witness Blandine Lenoir’s Aurore (aka Fifty Springtimes), a witless foray into Nancy Meyers-esque midlife uplift featuring Agnès Jaoui. (Unaccountably, this limp concoction ended up receiving the Audience Award.)  But the films added up to what Sophie Mayer, in her great Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (2016), calls “a refutation of scarcity” (Mayer, p.15) when it comes to female filmmaking, revealing women to be working “across every mode…, every budgetary scale, every medium and every genre” (Mayer, p.4) – if one looks beyond the US for examples.

Sally Potter has been an important figure for feminist film since her bold rethinking of female representation in the short Thriller (1979) and her long-unavailable first feature The Gold Diggers (1983), which was made with an all-female crew. It was exciting to see the latter (screened in the new “Cinema Debuts” strand) alongside Potter’s new film The Party, receiving its Polish premiere. Potter is to be praised for always trying something new in terms of film form, and the similarities between these two works end with their black-and-white photography.

Compared to the dash and daring of The Gold Diggers, with its associative, dreamlike structure and subversive take on women’s place in capitalism and film history, The Party looks pretty conventional. Opening with a low-key version of “Jerusalem” under the credits, the film takes a barbed, blackly comic approach to state-of-the-nation examination via that most familiar of staples: the dinner party going awry. Here the hostess is Kristin Scott Thomas’s Janet, who’s holding a party to celebrate her election as Shadow Health Minister. The guests include her strangely distracted spouse (Timothy Spall), a highly-strung “wanker banker” (Cillian Murphy), a New Age pacifier (Bruno Ganz) and his cynical wife (Patricia Clarkson) and a lesbian couple expecting triplets (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), most with secrets to spill.

The Party

The Party

Well-acted and moderately enjoyable across its brief 70 minute running time, the film finally feels insubstantial and theatrical in a limiting way, with characters serving as mere mouthpieces for particular positions and too much dialogue of the “I’m a materialist-atheist” variety. Potter has called The Party “a light and loving look at England”; “light” the film certainly is, but in no way is it loving: in fact, its spiteful, ungenerous tone makes it a decidedly unusual work for this director. The film builds to an unexpected punchline that brings laughs and gasps in equal measure, but a little later you may find yourself questioning just what it was that you’ve been chuckling at.

At the glossier end of the spectrum was Paris Can Wait, which finds Eleanor Coppola making her fiction-feature directing debut at age 80, while also following Potter’s method from The Gold Diggers by using a predominantly female crew. The resulting film suggests a midlife companion piece to daughter Sofia’s Lost in Translation (2003): here, it’s Diane Lane who’s the neglected wife (of Alec Baldwin’s preoccupied Hollywood producer) and who’s revitalized by taking an impromptu road trip from Cannes to Paris with her husband’s business partner Jacques (Arnaud Viard ). With Satie on the stereo and an endless stream of cultural and historical facts at his fingertips, Jacques is an effortlessly charming host, the kind of Frenchman for whom a car breakdown is not an occasion for panic but simply an excuse for a lakeside picnic. (Though Viard’s shrewd performance adds some intrigue by keeping us a little uncertain about the character’s sincerity.)

With its gorgeous landscapes, and excess of food porn sequences and wine-quaffing scenes, Paris Can Wait will be sure to incite scornful cries of “Privilege!” from many. It’s true that Coppola is not above shamelessness (such as some blatant promo for her son-in-law’s band Phoenix.) But Lane’s luscious performance glides the movie smoothly through some clunkier moments, and I for one found it difficult not to be seduced by the film’s charms.

North American/French relations are explored in loonier style in Lost in Paris, the latest from the acting/screenwriting/directing team of Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel. The movie serves up blissful Tatiesque silliness as it recounts the misadventures of a Canadian teacher (Gordon, looking like an adorably awkward cross between Tilda Swinton and Olive Oyl here) in the City of Light where she goes to track down her errant Aunt and keeps running in to an enterprising tramp (Abel). With some inspired slapstick sequences (an impromptu restaurant bop takes the prize), the McGarrigles’s version of “Swimming Song” clucking away on the soundtrack, and Emmanuelle Riva belatedly proving herself a comedy virtuosa in her penultimate screen role, the movie is a joy.

Paris Can Wait

Paris Can Wait

Combine Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette (2015) and Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (2015) and the result would be something like Petra Volpe’s Divine Order: a crowd-pleasing take on the belated Swiss fight for women’s voting rights in the early 1970s. The film’s focus is on the consciousness-raising of a meek-ish housewife, all-too-aptly named Nora (the compelling Marie Leuenberger), who, as the vote looms, spends a night devouring feminist literature and emerges newly radicalised, much to the consternation of her family and the wider community. Subtlety isn’t the film’s strong suit (exhibit A: a makeover sequence scored to “You Don’t Own Me”), and the cosiness of the conclusion is hard to swallow.  Still, the film remains likeable, with some sly humour as it presents Nora finding her voice within a supportive sisterhood and renegotiating her family relationships.

The obviousness of Divine Order was a rarity among the work by women that I saw at Transatlantyk, most of which tended towards obliquity, abstraction and restraint in their approaches to issues of gender identity (Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s They), a problematic step-father situation (Elina Psikou’s Son of Sofia), a pregnant woman’s attempt to find information about her missing father (Milagros Mumenthaler’s The Idea of a Lake) or a family’s gradual fragmentation under economic pressures (Teresa Villaverde’s Colo). The best achieved was Carla Simón’s Summer 1993, a Catalonian film which charts the struggles of  the orphaned Frida (Laia Artigas), as she settles into living with her Aunt and Uncle following her mother’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia.

Alert to the rhythms of childish play and the casual cruelty that can underpin it, Summer 1993 is a sensitive, discreet and involving debut that captures the contours of a grief that’s been barely comprehended, let alone assimilated. Simón has made a deeply personal film based on her own experience, but one that never feels self-indulgent or that locks the viewer out. Her handling of the child actors is beyond praise, with Artigas and Paula Robles (as her little cousin Anna) creating a girlhood double act to rival those in Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos (1975), Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) [a clear intertext for the film], and Dorota Kędzierzawska’s  Crows (1994).

“It’s a privilege, a blessing from the universe, to be born a woman,” says Chavela Vargas in an interview featured in Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s new documentary, Chavela. “My songs are dedicated to all the women in the world: the mothers, daughters, lovers, friends.” Chavela is a rich and loving tribute to the iconic singer who shook up Mexican music with her extraordinary voice and challenging persona, before going through wilderness years of alcohol addiction, and then emerging to be effectively “adopted” by Spanish audiences in the early 1990s with a series of sensational shows.

Chavela sketches that arc in a lucid, unfussy manner, combining interviews and footage of the singer’s staggeringly intense performances. Those who witnessed her Madrid shows in the earlier 1990s are still visibly moved, with Pedro Almodóvar describing the experience in characteristically subversive religious terms: “She was like a priestess: she saw that you’d made mistakes in love, and she saw your deep torments. You felt that she’d absolved you of your sins – and then encouraged you to commit them again.”

Working against the strident, finger-pointing, doomed-female-artist mode of Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) and Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? (the latter also screened at Transatlantyk), Chavela is a triumphant rejoinder that, without sanctifying its subject, offered perhaps the purest encapsulation of the festival’s theme. “When you’re true to yourself you win in the end,” Vargas says. “You might suffer a lot. But you prevail.”  Often frankly feminist, the finest films at Transatlantyk 2017 were secure in their identities in precisely this way, offering viewers subversive insights, great humour, and encouragement to face the many challenges of our contemporary moment, both within and far beyond Poland’s borders.

Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to film adaptations.  He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends.

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