33rd Montreal International Film Festival

‘Doctors and medical personnel are the real heroes of the war in Iraq,’ said a surprised Lancelot von Naso as he accepted the Ecumenical Prize for his riveting first feature Ceasefire. Set during a twenty-four-hour truce, the drama recounts the journey of medical professionals and two journalists from Baghdad to Fallujah with blood plasma. Encountering fire from both the Mujahideen and US forces, they risk their lives in this humanitarian act.

‘The story is not based on a single event but on interviews with Médecins Sans Frontières and doctors working in the area’, says Von Naso. ‘We had a lot of trouble raising money from banks, and eventually raised capital from friends and family.’ Budgeted at €2.5 million, the film has the look of a more expensive production.

Presented jointly by the Protestant and Catholic Organizations, Interfilm and SIGNIS, the Ecumenical Prize salutes films ‘that explore the ethical, social and spiritual values that make life human. Director von Naso skilfully places the viewer into the situation of the protagonists through the cinematography. The film ‘challenges the audience to examine their perspective and responsibility in the face of human suffering’ said the jury. Though a final distribution deal has yet to be signed, Mr von Naso said there was ‘much interest’ from both European and North American companies. No doubt the Ecumenical Prize and the acclaim of the festival public will help.

Set in present day Afghanistan, Flugten (The Escape) compliments Ceasefire. Rikke Lyngvig, a Danish journalist, is captured by terrorists. After several days of captivity, Rikke befriends a guard named Nazir. The nineteen-year-old hates violence. He helps Rikke escape but says that if she does not assault and overpower him he’ll be executed by his comrades. On her return to Copenhagen the freed journalist becomes a celebrity. She even pens a book on her ordeal and following Nazir’s advice she fictionalizes certain aspects. A hostile colleague at her newspaper suspects a cover-up and begins an investigation. Meanwhile Nazir flees Afghanistan and arrives in Denmark. He contacts Rikke, who feels honour-bound to help him. Will she betray her captor/liberator or will she somehow help him find sanctuary? A suspenseful thriller plucked from today’s headlines.

Two Spanish films greatly impressed: Hoy no se fía, mañana sí (Forever Waiting) and Ramírez. Already winner of the Discovery Prize at Sitges Film Festival and Best Director at Malaga Film Festival, Ramírez, directed, written, and filmed by Albert Arizza, is the biography of an amoral sociopath. Sebastian Ramírez is an independent photographer who specializes in violent images with sadomasochistic undertones. He finds his subjects in Madrid’s nightclubs and quickly undresses and seduces them. Later, he murders and photographs them. Police are at first baffled by the number and severity of these crimes. Sebastian then makes an error and flees to Belgium with Interpol in hot pursuit. Director/writer Albert Arizza is a new star of Spanish cinema.

Set in 1953, the height of General Franco’s repressive regime Hoy no se fía, mañana sí (Forever Waiting) tells the story of naive Gilda Novas, an innocuous typist in an ultra-Catholic radio station. Gilda has one modest ambition – to read news copy on air. A devout Catholic, the orphaned Gilda is a member of a sodality (a form of the church expressed in specialized, task-oriented mode) called ‘The Nazareth Family’. Her guardians, a High Court Judge and Catholic Monsignor, are also leaders of this sodality. Gilda visits depressed areas of Madrid bringing food and religious consul. On one visit she’s challenged by an ill-clad man, who says that Christ’s ministry was especially to the poor and destitute. At a loss and confused, she reports this ‘socialist’ to her guardians. Later, on a visit to an imprisoned communist aunt, Gilda discovers that this social activist, a worker priest, has been captured, tortured, and emasculated by the authorities. Overwhelmed by revulsion at these events, the now socially aware Gilda plots her revenge.

First time writer/ director Francisco Avizanda brilliantly evokes the repression of the Franco era and how the regime contrived to use Catholicism to its authoritarian ends. He’s well served by his cast, especially the luminous Carolina Bona as Gilda. A timely film that should resonate with Irish audiences!

Acclaimed Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze) presented his latest work I skoni tou hronou (The Dust of Time) at the festival. A sequel to his monumental The Weeping Meadow (2004), the latest feature continues the saga of Spyros and Eleni, separated from each other at the end of World War 2. Spyros (Michel Piccoli) participates in the Greek Civil War and eventually emigrates to the US.

A Greek-German-Russian co-production, The Dust of Time has the epic feel of a David Lean film, however, several critics found the continuity weak. The story and the premise of how war makes havoc of human lives is engaging despite this and all the cast, especially Bruno Ganz (Downfall) as Jacob and Michel Piccoli are excellent. Cinematographer Andreas Sinanos is another Sven Nykvist. This beautiful film deserves a wide audience.

The Diaspora of Irish culture was celebrated in three fine productions: Van Diemen’s Land, Love and Savagery, and Child of the Dead End. Set in Tasmania in 1822, Van Diemen’s Land, a disturbing yet beautiful film, directed by Australian Jonathan Auf Der Heide, tells of the escape of Alexander Pearce and seven other mostly Irish prisoners from a penal settlement. Poet/linguist Éamon Ó’Neachtain contributed the Gaelic dialogue and narration. The escape took place while the prisoners were on a logging detail. They had axes but no real tools, guns, picks, fishing rods, or even rabbit snares. After many days, hunger got the better of them with disastrous results. Though beautifully shot and with poetic dialogue, the film is at times difficult to watch.

Directed by John N. Smith (Dangerous Minds) and set in the Burren and Newfoundland, Love and Savagery tells of an impossible passion. In 1969, Newfoundland geologist Michael McCarthy travels to the Burren to study the unique rocks and flora. The most beautiful thing Michael encounters is Kathleen O’ Connell. Though about to enter religion, Kathleen is drawn to Michael. Local people learn of their growing affection and begin to take sides. ‘Michael is a foreigner. What right has he to divert a young girl from her calling?’ Ironically, the most understanding character in the drama is the mother superior of the convent Kathleen is about to enter. Michael is a persistent suitor and Kathleen has a decision to make. True to time and place and with panoramic views of North Clare and Eastern Newfoundland, Love and Savagery is a joy to the eye. Performances by newcomer Sarah Greene as Kathleen and Alan Hawco as Michael are understated and true. Veteran Macdara Ó Fatharta, as an elderly fisherman, steals many scenes.

Film archivist and documentary filmmaker Desmond Bell’s Child of the Dead End tells of poet Patrick MacGill. Born into grinding poverty in the Glenties in 1889, MacGill became an indentured farm worker at age twelve. Later he found his way to Scotland, where he worked as farm labourer, dock and construction worker. Interested in social conditions, he wrote ballads and then articles. His novel Children of the Dead End struck a chord with the public. A member of the London Irish Regiment, MacGill was gassed and wounded at the Battle of Loos. In all, he wrote five works based on his war experiences, his 1927 novel Fear being the greatest.

With a total budget of €250,000 gleaned from TG4, BBC Scotland and private sources, Desmond Bell has crafted an eloquent tribute to a gifted poet/novelist. Combining footage from Knocknagow, the Lumière Brothers, early Chaplin shorts, and battle sequences from the Imperial War Museum, plus dramatic recreations set in Donegal, Glasgow, and Windsor Castle, the archivist/director has crafted an engrossing film. Stephen Rea narrates and plays the older MacGill, while the director’s son Cian incarnates the author as a young man. The film will be screened at the upcoming Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2010

Anthony Kirby.