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On Programming Content and Context: 73rd Edinburgh International Film Festival in Review

Aleksi

Aleksi

By Mina Radovic.

A lady patiently cleans her house. The yellow lights of Athens peer in through the windows as her husband smokes a cigarette and between puffs complains to her about his job situation. Her daughter walks past, asking for something new, and complaining about her brother. The family has little money and the husband is on the border of desperation. The lady stays quiet but listens. She rarely speaks but her kind eyes and small gestures reveal her person. She crosses herself, makes the beds and sets off to her job in the new city mall. This is the story of Panagiota, played ever so gently by Marisha Triantafyllidou and directed by Nikos Labôt, Her Job is the kind of film that made the heart of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In its 73rd edition Edinburgh went down many of its traditional avenues, but it also presented fresh surprises, both in terms of content and context. On the one hand, watered out strands including ‘American Dreams’ presented little innovation in terms of programming, and many films, even far beyond this strand, kept their specific quality as festival stock, including a series of conventional coming-of-age dramas and road films about family reconciliation. Jarmusch’s zombies were on the radar and Pixar unsurprisingly continued its collaboration with the Festival, though even that animation giant has lost much of its weight in the last decade. On the other hand, select strands had a great deal of edge and necessity with them, including the ‘Best of British’ and ‘European Perspectives’ sections. In the former bitter comedies like Love Type D (Sasha Collington) and Hurt by Paradise (Greta Bellamacina), though visually transplanting the style of British Hollywood or Woody Allen, reveal the ways in which contemporary British filmmakers attempt to rationalize emotional isolation and parental anxiety in a metropolis, namely London, which with Bellamacina starts to look like any rainy European town. In the latter we find gems like Her Job, as well as a variety of revealing films including French period piece The Emperor of Paris (Jean-Francois Richet), German history voyage Werk Ohne Autor (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), and Croatian romantic comedy Aleksi (Barbara Vekarić) that is more about a serious social immigration issue than the sex written on the tin. I will devote here a little more to these three films as they bring out different aspects that really go beyond the remits of each one’s chosen subject.

The Emperor of Paris is perhaps more interesting in terms of form rather than content itself. A somewhat familiar arc about an infamous criminal (Vidocq) who escapes captivity and years later rises through the ranks of the Parisian police world, hunting down the same criminals he once knew and falling in love with a feisty young woman of the street (Annette). The strength of the film lies in the ways in which it adds a visceral taste to the events that unfold. Case in point: the opening shot jolts the viewer, like the prisoner in the film, awake as an extreme close-up of a rat skewering around and then being clobbered by a metal rod sets the bloody tone for the rest of the film. As the film progresses, whether we speak of Vidocq plunging off into watery depths, amplified by a string orchestra, or Anette being chased through overcrowded Parisian streets of the 1800s, infested with the blood of animal organs and the dampness of wet clothes, the film constantly makes each frame abundant in detail, making even small objects come to life. The brevity of its camera movement, the pinch of loud melodrama, as a house burns down Vidocq’s love, and the vileness of the whole Parisian underworld, as everyone eventually becomes each other’s enemy, make the film a rabid spectacle that challenges the formal language of the mainstream while producing its own sense of stench (for degraded human nature and the decadence of nineteenth century Parisian society) which like-minded spectacles flinch from showing. Its ending is highly questionable nonetheless, as the representation of total decadence coincides with the propagandist waving for French warfare.

While The Emperor of Paris excels mostly on formal grounds, Werk Ohne Autor does pretty well to combine form with content, though even that representation is rife without intertextual dilemmas. For purposes of clarification the film is roughly dividable into three parts: the film takes us through the life of a boy Kurt as he grows up in Nazi Germany, matures in East Germany and goes on to live and work in West Germany. The first part focuses on his aunt who gives him his love for art and who is murdered in the euthanasia programme as the war comes to an end. The second part focuses on his teenage to adult years in East Germany as he grows up, becomes a student and then beloved (though unsatisfied) painter of social realist murals, and meets a beautiful girl, Ellie, who becomes his wife. The second part reveals that Ellie’s father is the same doctor who ordered the killing of Kurt’s aunt, though this knowledge is unknown to all parties. The third part shows the emigration of Kurt and Ellie to the West just as the Berlin Wall is about to go up. The third part details the maturing married life of the couple together with Kurt’s student days at art school and his constant search for true artistic expression, marred as he is in the West by the meaninglessness of abstract painting as he was in the East by the rigidity of social realism. Amidst the three-hour running time and the constant narrative development, the film has three primary strengths. First, the representation of Kurt’s search for true artistic expression, which leads us through his unsatisfaction first at the bland collectivist then the rampant individualist approach to art, yields fruit when he is pushed to vocalize that internal and somewhat unconscious burden he has carried the whole film. Though the depiction is somewhat compressed the truth of it is found in the moment when Ellie’s father discovers Kurt’s painting. A suffocating amalgamation of his own face with that of Kurt and his aunt and the leader of the Nazi euthanasia programme pushes Ellie’s father, the hard-line Nazi who never expresses a shred of compassion, to become uncomfortable, to stutter, break up and leave without a word. Though the film never closes the arc (never shows Kurt consciously finding out the truth about his aunt’s murderer) this moment reveals a two-fold virtue of art, its ability to express something deeply unconscious (on the part of Kurt) and its ability to awaken the most buried conscience (on the part of Ellie’s father). Second, the film shows the relationship between Kurt and Ellie in a remarkably beautiful way with a mix of shared emotion and muted connection. Intimate scenes portray sex in a way rarely seen today while others show them simply lying against one another, breathing and listening. Instead of its outdoor camera swoops, inside the camera marks out elements of rooms, of their bodies, of their gestures, with movements of shadows and tinges of colour being a subtle way of externally reflecting their internal bond. The most convincing and beautiful part of their relationship is that despite all the circumstances stacked against them, including the familial and social context in which their relationship occurs, they come together and remain together only because of what they have with each other. They also, unlike all their well-known Romeo and Juliet counterparts, remain living with the pain and burden of their circumstances. Third, the film shows the differences in mentality between East and West Germany, which beyond obvious cultural reference points and the divergent attitudes to art, appears most revealing when the film openly states, through Kurt, that while former Nazis were almost entirely locked up in East Germany many continued to occupy high positions in West German society, as seen in the example of Ellie’s father. The controversy the film seems to have in Germany today appears to lead down the wrong trajectory, with much of what is said relating to issues of politics rather than intertextuality. If anything, one of the main problems of the film can be found near the beginning: a Russian officer’s wife is saved by the Nazi doctor, Ellie’s father. The Russian officer thanks him, paraphrasing the line ‘whoever saves one life saves the world entire’. Though in character context this line may be redemptive, in production context the appropriation of a Jewish verse, already made well known by Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg), in the context of National Socialism is highly inappropriate in the least.

The two films I discussed in some detail above revealed two trajectories of the Edinburgh Festival: on the one hand the concern with showing spectacle outside the domains of Hollywood and on the other the apprehension about the writing of history via film. The third film I would like to mention in this discussion is Aleksi. The film follows a Croatian youth as she goes to stay on the coast with her parents, wandering what to do with her life as she waits to hear whether she received an internship in Germany. While she does drugs, goes to concerts and has sex with a series of different men two aspects of the film’s structure reveal tendencies that go beyond its surface narrative. The first is cultural and fits with many modern films produced in the Yugoslav successor states, namely the maintenance of a connection with Yugoslavia by the use of famous actors from the Yugoslav period in parental roles, here Aleski’s parents as played by Aljoša Vučković and Neda Arnerić. The second is socio-political and seemingly the chief concern of the film underneath its surface antics: Aleksi decides to stay in Croatia, not leaving for Germany, and finds peace at home practicing the occupational practice inherited from her family. In an economically turbulent time, when Germany has openly opened its borders for guest workers from the Yugoslav successor states, Aleski is affirmative in where its youth should stay, no matter how lost. The film’s inclusion in this year’s Festival proves important, though it may remain an anomaly, for turning a story about youth despair into a point for socio-political critique.

Outside the cinema screen the Festival continued and one of its great surprises it brought in terms of context, the way in which it was organized, was that it felt much more culturally planned out and much more welcoming across its venues. The red and blue artistic design that decorated the Filmhouse headquarters and the adventurer statues and buildings covering much of the city brought lively colours into the still somewhat cool Edinburgh summer. Where in previous years films screened in multiplexes unfamiliar with world cinema would end and little platform was given to conversation, many films this year had directors and actors present straight after the screening. Conversations with filmmakers like Nikos Labôt created more potential for dialogue between audience and industry, as well as greater insider understanding for viewers unfamiliar with socio-political contexts beyond the British Isles. At the same time seeing films which would otherwise rarely if ever appear in multiplexes induced some hope for the future of film exhibition in Britain, though much work remains to be done down that road.

The Festival had its ode to Agnès Varda, a section on documentary cinema which included a film on the life of Ziva Postec (Shoah’s editor), and a well-due retrospective on Spanish filmmaker Icíar Bollain, by now an Edinburgh native. Spanish cinema was to be found beyond Bollain’s work with a whole section on modern Spanish cinema as well as cult cinema. In addition to such retrospectives there was a plethora of short films to be found and with them the space of new filmmakers. Among a series of British shorts three proved most outstanding. Stitched (Siobhan Smith) presented one of the most innovative uses of string animation to study mental health and the need for reforming UK benefit policies on disability. Short Changed (Zoë Hutber), also the winner of the St Andrews Film Festival earlier this year, used copper animation to show the despair of two parents living in a world where everyone, including them, is made of monetary coins, only to be brought a surge of joy when they receive new life in their child. Finally, Lucky Star (Russell Davidson) managed to balance a bleak look at familial deterioration with an affirmative take on single motherhood in 1980s Glasgow that comes close to Mike Leigh’s early work. When it came to international shorts Espedizio Handia/The Great Expedition (Iban Campo) was perhaps the most cinematic, with its use of still frames, archives, satellite imagery, and pseudo-documentary aesthetic imbuing it the right mix of irreverence, sweetness and apocalyptic uncertainty that one should experience when finding the remnants of a space voyage. It was like seeing something out of 1960s Czechoslovakia.

One aspect that should and needs to be addressed in the programming of the Festival’s future editions is with the expansion of the ‘Unlocking the Archives’ strand, opening it up more to exhibiting restored films done by the wider restoration community beyond the UK, including the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). This would allow the strand to go beyond its one special event and screening of a British silent, as was the case this year, to include restored masterworks from across the world, from restorations of classic films from Italy and Yugoslavia to Iran, Japan and the Americas. It may also be worth checking up on the open-air

‘Film Fest in the City’ programme and opening that up to include films beyond Hollywood.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival had one of its most colourful renditions yet, exceeding in bringing a variety of European films, giving space to some unseen gems, expanding its shorts collection, and challenging the city with its ever increasing cultural appropriation of the same during the time of the Festival. When the archives, its traditional and open-air strands actually begin to be ‘unlocked’ and a larger variety of film personnel begin to be invited to hold masterclasses and to speak with the public there is promise for the future.

Mina Radovic is a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. He holds a Master of Arts in Film Studies and German Language, Literature, and Linguistics from the University of St Andrews. A FIAF-trained archivist and filmmaker, he regularly contributes to international film and academic journals and runs the Liberating Cinema Project.

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