A Report by Rob Dennis.

Judging from the selections in the International Competition, boundless cheer was never likely to be a hallmark of the 10th Era New Horizons Film Festival, held in the welcoming and lively Lower Silesia town of Wroclaw. Festival director Roman Gutek promised a programme highlighting the ‘difficult and controversial’, so it was clear from the outset that nobody was going to be in for an easy ride. Jean Luc Godard was the first casualty, an early no-show despite his much pre-publicised trip to accompany an impressively rigorous retrospective and the Polish premiere of Film Socialisme. And whilst his presence was undoubtedly missed, the 120,000 odd who packed out the screenings didn’t let this untimely disappointment get in the way of the serious business of film watching, after all there were 240 features to get through, and about as many shorts.

Dialogue was at a premium in the main competition, with roughly a quarter of the films being all but word-free. In the end, two of these titles: Le Quattro Volte and Mama, went away honoured (with an audience award and FIPRESCI prize respectively) and Adam Sikora the maker of Expelled, the sole Polish entry in the International Competition was awarded for his work on Ewa (co-directed with Ingmar Villqvist), screened as part of the Polish competition.

Arriving from Directors’ fortnight with plenty of encouraging word of mouth, Le Quattro Volte was justifiably held in high esteem for its hypnotic account of the rites and rituals (animal, vegetable, mineral) of Italy’s rural Calabria province. Finding unexpected growths in the much-ploughed field between documentary and fiction, Michelangelo Frammartino’s audacious and touching film is the kind of philosophical crowd pleaser that should have a very long festival life. Yelena and Nikolay Renard’s Mama was perhaps more representative of the programme as a whole. Clocking in at 71 minutes (brevity, like quiet reserve, is clearly a virtue here) the film begins by following a mammothly fat young man as he goes about his wheezy business, but later focuses on his middle-aged mother, bathing and feeding her incapacitated offspring. The lack of narrative momentum allows the audience plenty of time to ruminate on this loving but clearly destructive relationship. The two (presumably non-professional) performers are remarkable, and the film shows moments of tenderness with a clear-eyed matter-of-factness that should be saluted, but quite where it all lead is another question entirely.

Expelled, the only world premiere in the official programme, was the feature debut of Adam Sikora, Lodz film school alumni and cinematographer of Jerzy Skolimowski’s fine-looking Four Nights with Anna (2008) among others. This unashamedly Beckettian tale dealt with expulsions and discharges of varying matter. An unnamed man, shut out from an unnamed institution, finds some kind of solace in an unnamed woman, who takes him in despite the frankly shambolic state of his wholly jumper. Occasional moments of wit and intrigue enliven the mostly tedious affair. And the film’s visuals were surprisingly prosaic for such vaulted cinematographer.

Two of the more vocal entries, The Mouth of the Wolf and Putty Hill, joined Mama and La Quattro Volte in their intermingling of documentary and fiction, each producing oddly-formed cross-breeds that certainly weren’t lacking in originality. The Mouth of the Wolf was a city symphony cum Fassbindian docu-melodrama, tracing the movements of a local Genoa hardman released from prison into the arms of his transsexual life-partner. Scenes of voiceover reflections (letters from the inmate to his love) are intercut with stock footage of Genoa’s past, attempting to create a synchronization of protagonist and place, and offering an elegiac portrait of the working-class backstreets of the famous seaport. (The film would make an excellent companion to Michael Winterbottom’s underappreciated outsider’s view Genova (2008).) The second part of the film consists of an interview with the disarmingly honest couple, and offers a warmly comic celebration of finding lasting happiness in the most unlikely of places.

Matt Porterfield’s second feature Putty Hill was an ambiguous look at blue collar Baltimore life. Structured around interviews with the ‘cast’ by an unseen interrogator (the director himself?), the film gradually revealed itself to be formed around an absence – the death by overdose of local addict Cory – an event clearly of little surprise to his friends and family, who mourn in a subdued, orderly fashion. Some scenes work a lot better than others, such as the final pre-funeral sequences, which remain in the mind well beyond the closing credits. Porterfield’s style owes as much to Pedro Costa as it does to Larry Clarke, combining elegant static compositions with measured, purposeful camera movements. The film’s insistence on improvised dialogue successfully creates a somewhat unnerving, volatile atmosphere, inviting the audience to question the film’s fictitious status.

Shit Year showcased the most memorable performance of the festival, with Ellen Barkin playing a self pitying, self loathing actress the wrong side of a certain age, aching for her toy boy love. Cam Archer’s baroque sensibilities will perhaps be too much for many audiences, but if you can forgive the camp excess there are plenty of intriguing ideas about sex, age, family and friendship. Estonian Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St Tony divided audiences with its Roy Andersson-esque tale of the gradual decent into hell of middle manager Tony. Occasional moments that come close to self-parody, and a slight misogynistic streak, mar what is undoubtedly a visual triumph.

Jurors including Jonathan Caouette (who’s doc All Tomorrow’s Parties screened out of competition) and sleep furiously’s Giddeon Koppel awarded the 20,000 Euro Grand Prix to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History, a distinctive but frustratingly vacant debut feature, full of laboured metaphors for Thailand’s political plight. With regular Apitchatpong collaborator Lee Chatametikool taking on editing duties, comparisons would be inevitable, but in fact Suwichakornpong’s more immediate (but sadly less rewarding) style owes very little to the Cannes winner.

I travel because I have to, I come back because I love you was an exceptional fictive travelogue through North-eastern Brazil. As we listen to the off screen voice of a lonely geologist, sent on the road to find possible routes for a soon to be constructed canal, the camera maps the landscape of small desert towns and outposts. Less unworldly than Jia Zhangke’s similarly themed Still Life (2006), Karim Ainouz and Marcelo Gomes find their poetry in rather more immediate matters. As the unseen narrator struggles to get over his failed marriage to Blondie, his mind drifts towards more libidinous concerns and he begins to engage (if that’s the right word) with local prostitutes. Unsentimental and non-judgemental, the film is a bold experiment in first person filmmaking, and a satisfyingly singular study in heartsickness and the pursuit of happiness.

Brazil also offered one of the highlights of a separate strand devoted to documentaries on the arts. Bruno Safadi and Noa Bressane’s Belair took quite a lyrical approach to what could have been a rather straightforward account of a short lived Rio based production company (the sardonically luxurious sounding Belair of the title). The film recounts how filmmakers Rogério Sganzerla and Julio Bressane (father of Noa) set up the company which, in a few short months in 1970, churned out a string of low budget ‘chanchada’ inspired works that were as politically potent as they were sexually charged. From the clips on display here, these films (with terrific titles such as Betty Bomb, The Exhibitionist, Copacabana mon amour and Carnival in the Mud) are clearly deserving of wider exhibition, and the doc itself leaves you with your appetite thoroughly whetted.

Elsewhere, the world cinema panorama section offered a much needed respite from the main programme’s uncompromising ethos. Highlights came from opposite ends of the maturity spectrum, with almost 80 years separating the birthdates of Xavier Dolon and Manoel de Oliveira. Heartbeats was a cocky, crowd-pleasing ode to the perils of infatuation, whilst The Strange Case of Angelica mused on life, death, work, photography and impossible love with a grace and effortless ease that will be familiar to admirers of the Portuguese centenarian.

Another intriguing item in the panorama was Martijn Maria Smits’ It’s Already Summer. Smits could (and probably will) be accused of taking reverence a little too far by setting his docu-realist family drama in Seraing, Belgium, the filmic home of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The set up involving a jobless single dad and his two children, describes a milieu not all together different from that of Rosetta (1999) or L’Enfant (2005), but the film’s mostly non-professional cast do a good job of diverting the audience from any unfortunate sense of déjà-vu. A deterministic final act, instigated by a laughably improbable piece of plotting, leads to a strange finale uniting the family members in a tableau the director himself referred to as ‘hopeful’. This seemed to be an altogether more conservative vision than the Belgian brothers favoured transcendence.

The absence of JLG allowed the other retrospective guests to step up to the spotlight. The Brothers Quay were in town with two exhibitions and numerous sold out screenings; and a youthful audience, sustained on free coffee and ice cream, did not seem put off by queuing for any possible last minute seats. Even more surprising perhaps, was the excitement generated by the first ever complete retrospective of the films of theorist and academic Laura Mulvey (largely made in collaboration with Peter Wollen). Indeed the films themselves were a revelation, the rarely screened debut Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) was a witty and invigorating audio-visual essay, hopping seamlessly between Heinrich von Kleist, the female suffrage movement and the Bazinian long-take; whilst Crystal Gazing (1982) was a very engaging dark satire of Thatcher’s Britain, including spectacular rants on ‘Puss in Boots’ as the founding text of modernism and the derisory nature of London’s public transport system.

And so, despite the rather modest rewards of the official selection, the 10th ERA New Horizons Festival could be judged a success solely for the enthusiastic and fearlessly open-minded young audience, whose continuing support was ample evidence to back up Gutek’s hard-nosed philosophy. Godard would have felt in good company.

Rob Dennis is a freelance writer and teacher of film and media based in London, UK.

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