By Yun-hua Chen.
This year’s EIFF feels very different in all aspects, not only led by the new producer Jimmy Mulligan but also affected by the general budget cut in the UK. It is thus an interesting occasion to observe how film festivals tackle restraining material resources. Instead of red carpets, there were more community-oriented events such as music events (“New Media Scotland Atmosphere” series), free open-air screenings at St Andrews Square and Festival Square, and education programmes (“Reel Science” series). One of the most interesting music events is the five Cinéconcerts organised by Institut Français d’Ecosse, in which five Breton bands play live new tailor-made soundtracks for cult films such as Lord of the Flies (1963), foregrounding the relationship between film images and music. From the education programmes we can see a strengthened cooperation between EIFF and University of Edinburgh. Academics of Neuroscience, Informatics and Clinical Brain Sciences, such as Prof. Stephen Lawrie, are invited to chair the Q&A after the screenings of Memento (2000), Brainstorm (1983), Electric Mind (2010) among others. The popularity of these events which combine the pleasure of film art and popular science, hints how academia is expected to have an impact on the public and how highly science is valued under today’s political atmosphere.
The most heavyweight arthouse film is arguably Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), which has been widely discussed since its success at the Berlin International Film Festival. Like the myth of Sisyphus, the film’s stylish black-and-white cinematography depicts the futile repetition of the day-to-day life of an elderly horse that was whipped by a farmer in front of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the desolate land against the backdrop of perpetual fog, we witness the horse’s gradual death as well as the increasingly rougher existence of the farmer and his daughter.
In tune with the Japan’s catastrophes this year, EIFF curates a selection of films from diverse geopolitical backgrounds set at an age of apocalypse, including the Argentine Nicolas Goldbart’s Phase 7 (2011) and the Scottish Perfect Sense (2011). Phase 7 has convincing performance, well-kept suspense, creative cinematography and subtle black humour, especially in the first half of it. Against the claustrophobic backdrop of a quarantined apartment block for a mysterious sweeping epidemic, the eccentric and inept Coco, played by Daniel Hendler, is trying to protect his pregnant wife Pipi, played by Jazmin Stuart, from both the chaos in the outside world and certain malicious neighbours within the building. When all measures fail, Coco is gradually transformed into a Rambo shielded by the fully encapsulated suits and armed with heavy weapons. In Perfect Sense, on the other hand, the apocalypse is set in Glasgow by the Scottish director David McKenzie, acclaimed for Young Adam showcased in 2003’s EIFF. The head chef and the epidemiologist are portrayed by the heavyweight cast Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, as we follow their sense-losing path, which starts from smell and ends with sight. With an ambition to reach out to the global audience, snippets of post-apocalyptic moments shot from different corners of the world are constantly inserted into the main body of the film.
The unsophisticated romantic comedy Fast Romance (2011), also set in Glasgow, showcases the cityscape of Glasgow and follows the Italian-Scottish character Nadine’s pursuit of love under family pressure, while interweaving narrative threads of six characters who meet at a speed-dating. Reflections on diasporic populations in Scotland and socioeconomic divides have been downplayed, but it brings in some subtle hints of a society where the care of elderly people becomes vital. The context of diasporic Turkish, brought to Germany in the late 1960s as Gastarbeiter, is brilliantly portrayed by the Turkish-German director Yasemin Samdereli in the comedy Almanya – Welcome to Germany (2011). After the grandfather announces a family trip to the holiday home he bought in his native Turkish village, the film starts to jump back and forth between the root-searching trip at the present time, and flashbacks to the grandfather’s initial journey from Turkey to Germany. With the elegant and humorous portrayal of intercultural encounter and shock in both directions, as Turkish go to Germany and as Germanised Turkish go back to Turkey, the economic immigrants’ journey is dignified without being melodramatic. In order to simulate the experience of not being understood, Samdereli intentionally makes the Turkish speaker enounces perfectly pronounced German words, at occasions when in fact they are speaking in Turkish, and is not understood at all by the German residents who speak an incomprehensible language in the film. This recreates the feelings of being foreign and losing all the familiar communication tools in a new environment for the German spectator, and puts them in the same position as the foreign newcomer. In a way this film de-exoticises itself, and renders the Turkish culture and language use approachable and identifiable.
The encounter with a different culture, however, is not so rosy in Agnieszka Lukasiak’s Between 2 Fires (2010) and Chris Weitz’s A Better Life (2011). Coinciding with the Refugee Week, the former follows the asylum-seeking of the young Belarussian Marta. In order to save her 12-year-old daughter Ania from being sold to prostitution, Marta smuggles her daughter and herself to northern Sweden. While waiting for the result, they are placed in a refugee camp with pitfalls but also genuine human connections. When Marta falls in love with the mysterious Algerian musician Ali, the film takes a drastic turn from a thriller to a melodramatic romance without any warning. Hence begins the struggle between her own desire for love and her daughter’s survival. Although it feels quite long, especially in the second half when Marta’s dilemma becomes all too obvious and sentimental, the film captures some complexity of the refugees’ plight and provides some reflections on the bureaucratic system. In A Better Life made by the director of About a Boy (2002), the pair becomes the illegal immigrant father Carlos and his U.S.-born troubled adolescent son in East LA. In this film which blends Bicycle Thieves with U.S./Mexican border films, the honest, hard-working but impoverished Carlos borrows a huge sum to buy a truck with equipments to tend to the gardens of the wealthy Los Angelinos, in hopes that with a stable job he can keep his son away from gang culture. When the truck is stolen, they start a trip in search of it. At the moment that the father and son are re-connected through the journey, the immigration officials separate them. This is a film about the amount of sacrifice that some are prepared to make for a better life, which is taken for granted for some others.
Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave (2010) is arguably the most explicit portrayal of the violence committed in the aftermath of the 2009 Islamic Presidential Election. At that time contrary to expectations, conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. Amidst accusations of election fraud, protestors demonstrate peacefully on the streets until government militia brutally attack them. The screening is supported by Take One Action, the organisation which supports the people and movies that are changing the world. The Green Wave is interwoven by the surviving footage recorded by simple devices such as mobile phones, interviews of the political exiles conducted outside Iran, election footage and animated images. As the film does not shy away from including the cruellest scenes in their undisguised form, at several occasions we see the shaky handheld camera possibly from a mobile phone showing demonstrators being beaten fiercely and lying on the street covered with blood and dust. Violence is sometimes reconstructed through animation, which visually represents the survivor’s verbal accounts in prison for which no footage can be acquired. The use of animation also cleverly protects the witnesses and victims who still remain in the country. In fact, the use of such a “virtual” media does not render the representation of the event “virtual” but actually makes the images even more “actual”, real and shocking while at the same time carrying a significant amount of emotional and aesthetic values.
On a lighter note, EIFF curates a wide range of music documentaries, ranging from Mama Africa (2011), Troubadours (2011) and Sound it Out (2011). Mika Kaurismäki’s Mama Africa is an uplifting documentary about the legendary South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba. Accompanied by Makeba’s music which sets the tone really well, it’s a story about her personal tragedy, being a political exile for decades, seeing her music banned from the nativeland and experiencing the loss of her grandchild and daughter. Extending from the personal trajectory, it is also about the historical context of apartheid and civil rights movement. Morgan Neville’s Troubadours focuses on the eponymous club in West Hollywood which was the cradle of the singer-song writer movement of 1970s LA. Starting from the reunion performance of artists such as Carole King and James Taylor, the film branches out to a collage of interviews, performance recordings and archival footage to depict the rise, fall and renaissance of Troubadour from different angles. At the same time the film is a touching account of age, aging, the lost era, and ephemerality of good things in life. Jeanie Finlay’s Sound it Out is a lightweight documentary on the last surviving vinyl record shop in Stockton-on-Tees of North East England, and the snapshots of its regular customers in the face of recession and changes in technology.
King of the Devil’s Island (2010), Albatross (2010) and Post Mortem (2010) are three impressive films of this year. Marius Holst’s King of the Devil’s Island, like the Romanian film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle of EIFF 2010, is a claustrophobic prison film set in a Norwegian island, but it is a lot bleaker and icier with its blue filter and blue uniforms of the inmates, with stunning cinematography of the island in the Oslo fjord. Based on a true story of the uprising at Bastoy reform school for young delinquents, the film follows the growing friendship between the two boys Erling and Olav, and the gradual revelation of the school governor’s hypocrisy, brilliantly played by Stellan Skarsgard. Niall MacCormick’s Albatross is a film about a family’s transformation after the young, beautiful, buoyant and rebellious girl Emilia, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, enters their life. Unintentionally, she becomes the best friend of the daughter of the family Beth, played by Felicity Jones, and the lover of the father Jonathan who is stuck in perpetual writers’ block, played by Sebastian Koch. This well-pace coming-of-age comedy depicts the encounter between elitism and street wisdom, two generations and two ways of life.
Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem is a calm, controlled and precise picture which depicts a lonely middle-aged bachelor Victor’s sexual obsession for the cabaret dancer Nancy Puelmas who lives opposite to his house, under the backdrop of the political unrest in Chile in the 1970s. While Nancy Puelmas’ family and lover, who are involved in Communist activities, organise more and more political meetings at home, the morgue’s reporting office where Victor works becomes more and more flooded with unnamed bodies killed by armed forces. It ends with a very powerful shot framing a door on the top-floor balcony right after Nancy masturbates him in contempt. The camera moves very slowly towards the closed door behind which Nancy and her lover hide from the military government’s execution, as Victor frantically piles whatever furniture he can find in front of the door. The pounding sounds of the couple trying to break through can be heard from the background. Political frustration and sexual frustration thus meet in the middle and the film ends with a tomb for both.
Yun-hua Chen is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at University of St Andrews.