By Alex Ramon.
“You need an independent spirit if you’re going to go into film or music: so many people will tell you that you can’t do it,” said Diane Warren, on stage at Łódź’s EC1, a former power station now transformed into a vibrant cultural and exhibition centre in Poland’s prime cinema city. “Independent Spirit” was not only the name of the award that the popular songwriter was receiving at the Closing Ceremony of this year’s Transatlantyk Festival. It was also, in part, the theme of the entire 7 day event which, under the title “Independence Now: Myself, Freedom, Rebellion, and Homeland,” took the occasion of the centenary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the spur to create a programme that would explore these issues in a range of contexts far beyond those of the nation’s own history, from the personal to the political to the artistic to the complex interstices between.
As I noted in my coverage last year, such inclusivity has been a characteristic feature of Transatlantyk since its inception. Reflecting the stewardship of its acclaimed composer founder Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, it’s a “glocal” festival in which music and film are equally important elements, and in which screenings and concerts are supplemented by a city-wide selection of events: master classes, political discussions, and special film-related foodie evenings presented in the “Culinary Cinema” strand.
The festival’s range was evident in the diversity of winners at the aforementioned Closing Ceremony, which, alongside Warren, included Joanna Kulig (Best Actress winner for her performance in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War); the critic and professor Annette Insdorf; composers Dario Marianelli and Radzimir Jimek Dębski; and the astronomer and humanitarian activist Janina Ochojska, recipient of this year’s Glocal Hero Award. Emerging artists were also celebrated in the exciting Instant Composition Contest and the Polish Short Film Competition, where it was pleasing to see a preponderance of female directors, including the top prize for Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzała’s elegant Wolta. Meanwhile, an icon of feminist film, Sally Potter, received the FIPRESCI +93 prize, and gave a characteristically eloquent, engaged and inspiring master class at the beginning of the festival. Retrospectives dedicated to Miloš Forman, Andrzej Barański and Lucian Pintile were also highlights of the event.
With new American features such as Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Steven Soderbergh’s Insane, Joshua Leonard’s Behold My Heart and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’sThe Endless consistently underwhelming, it was left, as often, to world cinema to provide more compelling visions. Freedom within familial and domestic contexts was the focus of a number of films presented in the “New Cinema” section, with both Guillaume Senez’s likeable Our Struggles (Nos Batallies) and Tinatin Kajrishvili’s superb Horizon (Horizonti) depicting, from opposite perspectives, parents absenting themselves from their families. Horizon was part of a strong showing for the blossoming new Georgian cinema, which included Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede and Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Sashishi deda). Khatchvani’s handsome Caucasus-set drama focuses on a young woman’s struggle for self-determination against prevailing cultural traditions, while Urushadze’s taut film evokes the challenges involved in women’s claiming of creative space, as the heroine (striking Nato Murvanidze) pens a lurid roman a clef that her family react to negatively. Already awarded at several festivals, Urushadze’s movie suggests a companion piece to her compatriots Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s similarly patriarchy-challenging My Happy Family, one of the highlights of Transatlantyk last year.
The influence of the Dardennes brothers’ brand of social realism was evident, with varying degrees of success, in some productions, including Jean-Bernard Marlins Sheherazade, Sebastian Schjaers The Omission, Shin Dong-Seok’s Last Child (Salanameun Ayi), Dario Albertins Manuel, and Meryem BenmBarek’s popular Sofia, which won the Kamera Akcja award, voted for by the jury of young film critics. But other filmmakers ventured into odder terrain. Isabel Prahl’s Different Kinds of Rain (1000 Arten Regen zu Beschreiben) explores a family’s increasingly wayward attempts to communicate with a son who’s locked himself in his room and refuses to leave, while Ulrich Köhler’s similarly opaque In My Room offers a lo-fi take on apocalypse, as its protagonist (excellent Hans Low) awakens to find himself seemingly the last man left on earth.
More immediately accessible was Pernille Fischer’s Christensen’s Becoming Astrid (Unga Astrid), an exceptionally sensitive and absorbing account of the early life of the children’s author Astrid Lindgren. At first – in a church scene that finds a bored Astrid subverting the priest’s rhetoric and geting chided by her mother for blasphemy – it looks like Christensen is going to be too obvious and single-minded in presenting the heroine’s transgressiveness. But the film’s feminism deepens and complicates as it progresses, and Lindgren enters into a relationship with her married boss. Becoming Astrid doesn’t fall into the typical biopic trap of elevating the heroine above all the other characters, and there are lovely supporting performances from Trine Dyrholm as the sympathetic woman who takes care of Lindgren’s baby, and Maria Bonnevie as the apparently uptight mother who proves to have reserves of acceptance and playfulness. In the main role, Alba August is radiant; at times suggesting Carey Mulligan or Maggie Gyllenhaal, but with a delicacy and fortitude that’s all her own, she keeps us attuned to the character’s feelings all the time. Christensen’s film was a deserving winner of this year’s Distribution Award, voted for by the festival audience.
At the less reputable end of the scale was Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari, a broad and rambunctious satire on 70s Australian suburbia, which presents the interactions of a group of (would be) libertine patents and their perplexed offspring. As usual, Elliott throws too much into the mix for everything to stick, and a lot of promising elements – such as Kylie Minogue as a dog-menacing boozer – are squandered in the film’s excessively manic approach. Still, there are some amusingly tasteless set-pieces, as well a few surprising moments of lyricism, and at its best the film suggests John Waters remaking The Ice Storm.
African settings yielded several distinctive films. A French, Greek, Italian, Polish and South African co-production, Etienne Kallos’s The Harvesters (Die Stropers) starts out looking like a fairly standard gay coming-of-age story, but ventures into darker, more disturbing territory as it concerns itself with the exchange of identities between two teenage boys. There are some narrative inconsistencies but the film remains engaging and provocative, with seductive, burnished cinematography by Michał Englert that sometimes recalls his work on Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name Of (W imię…).
In contrast to the intense and brooding tone of The Harvesters, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis’s blissful Djon Africa is the most joyous, open and relaxed of Daddy-quest films, following its ambling protagonist as he leaves his home in Portugal to seek out his unknown father in Cape Verde. Loose, digressive and fluid in its structure, and completely unpretentious in content, the film carries the viewer along on its buoyant lightness of spirit. A similar breeziness characterises Jhonny Hendrix’s Candelaria, which finds a cash-strapped elderly Cuban couple accidentally turning amateur pornographers when a video camera falls into their hands. Affectionate, funny and deeply moving in the end, the film blithely transcends the potential tackiness of its premise, creating a portrait of a couple that’s also a portrait of Cuba itself. A Sundance favourite, Gustavo Pizzis Loveling (Benzinho) charmed too, in its generous depiction of a large Brazilian family dealing with a son’s prospective departure for Germany.
Finally, documentaries were particularly well-served in the programme, with two artist portraits standing out. Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen may follow the now-patented methods of recent doc hits such as Asif Kapadia’s Amy and Nick Broomfield’s and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston films in its approach to the talented, troubled icon of “Cool Britannia” culture but it offers a lucid, often insightful account. The main drawback is the over-use of Michael Nyman’s score, a cut and paste affair that jarringly incorporates bits and pieces of the composer’s most well known soundtracks to emphasise every emotional beat in this take on McQueen’s story.
Structured, like McQueen, in chapters, Kuba Mikurda’s much-anticipated Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Love Express. Przypadek Waleriana Borowczyka) offered one of the most potent explorations of the festival’s theme in its presentation of the confounding career of the Polish provocateur who shook up cinema with his avant-garde animations and transgressive live action features before sinking into the tawdrier reaches of the porn industry in the 1980s. Avoiding the portentous, ceremonial tone that characterises McQueen and its ilk, the film is sharply focused rather than comprehensive, making no mention of Borowczyk’s childhood background and instead picking up from that most turbulent of years – 1968 – when Borowczyk made Goto, Isle of Love and embarked on his most fertile creative period. A good range of interviewees (Terry Gilliam, Peter Bradshaw, and Andrzej Wajda, among them) offer funny, engaging insights, and Mikurda incorporates some pleasing, unstressed ludic touches (watch the cutting go into overdrive when a twitchy Slavoj Žižek appears). Given the dominance of male speakers, the film’s engagement with the sexual politics of Boro’s output feels a bit limited (despite interesting contributions from the writer and psychotherapist Cherry Potter and The Beast’s Lisbeth Hummel). But Love Express remains a terrific, overdue exploration of one of the oddest career trajectories in contemporary cinema, as well as an intelligent inquiry into the shifting meanings of artistic freedom during the sexual revolution and beyond.
Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire brings us up to date with a sobering portrait of the seductions of online celebrity culture as experienced in a Chinese context. The film focuses on the ups and downs in the experiences of the singer Shen Ma and the comedian Big Li, as they compete for viewers and “gifts” in the increasingly crowded market of webcam live-streams on the YY.com network. During a period in which upward mobility in China has dramatically decreased, such platforms offer people a way to get rich, but, as the film broadens its scope to incorporate the perspectives of fans and, briefly but tellingly, the CEO of YY, it becomes apparent that it’s the networks themselves that are the ultimate beneficiaries.
If People’s Republic of Desire offers a disquieting take on the consequences of a life spent in front of a computer screen, then Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces, Places (Visages, Villages) provides a counter: this is a film about the pleasure and necessity of venturing out into the world, of making contact with people and places in a sensory, tactile manner. A close attention to the haptic symphony of senses and perceptions that make up real, lived interactions has always distinguished Varda’s documentary and essay films, and this time she and her collaborator are on the road through France in the latter’s “photography van,” interviewing people that they meet and then pasting large portaits of them on to the sides of public spaces. Miners, the wives of dockers, and a woman refusing to leave her home despite pressure from developers are among the subjects of the film’s gentle, considerate and loving gaze. Varda and JR prove delightful sparring partners throughout, their affectionate bond a subversive one in a period in which divisions between genders and generations are being widely stoked.
As usual with Varda, the structure of Faces, Places is fluid and associative, constantly teasing out connections and patterns between film and life, the quotidian and the cosmic. The context is, of course, entirely – and delightfully – French, as a gleeful homage to Bande à Part and a painful non-encounter with that film’s director attest. But in its unassuming way the movie’s reach is much broader, as Varda once again sharpens our perception of the world, heightening awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and loved within it.
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.