Tony Tracy examines Fiona Tan’s film about one man’s odyssey through a Europe in turmoil – and through his own mind. The Irish-Dutch-German co-production screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
We live in unsettled and unsettling times. In the weeks bracketing the screening of History’s Future at the 2016 Galway Film Fleadh, the UK tore up its European membership card, France experienced its third major terrorist event in 18 months, a sniper shot five police officers in Dallas TX during a peaceful protest over recent police shootings, and a failed military coup in democratic Turkey left hundreds dead and thousands arrested. All this after several years of ‘austerity’ politics following the implosion of hyper-capitalism and the displacement of some 11 million Syrians, including approx. 5 million refugees. Perhaps that surfeit of reality helps explain the somewhat depleted audience for what, for my money, was one of the richest films of this year’s Film Fleadh. More likely, it was its early afternoon slot on Saturday and the abundance of more readily recognizable Irish features screening during the evening. Yet for all its internationalism – an Irish-Dutch-German co-production directed by Fiona Tan (Indonesia/Australia/Amsterdam), co-scripted by British film critic Jonathon Romney, featuring an international cast and shooting locations in six countries – History’s Future is local enough, with themes that implicate us all and a career-high performance by the hugely talented Mark O’Halloran who, alongside his screenplay for Viva, is redefining the cinematic boundaries of Irishness in 2016.
To adequately summarise History’s Future would be a reductive and only half-certain exercise given its multiple textures and digressions, not to mention the fact that sub-titles suffered a technical failure at the Galway screening, a serious issues for a film with multiple extended foreign-language scenes (although some in the post-screen Q+A felt this added to the film’s overall effect of opacity and it led to a memorable translation/‘making-of’ anecdote in the Q+A afterwards from Mark O’Halloran of his scene with Denis Lavant). Writer Romney has spoken before of the impact Wim Wenders’ early films had on him and there is certainly a discernable influence in the film’s themes (memory) and structure (transnational road movie) that recalls films such as Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World. In its assemblage of drama, documentary and archive footage to convey past and present states of Europe, we might also invoke two more recent films: Leos Carax’s surrealist Holy Motors – not least through the shared DNA of Lavant – and Tadgh O’Sullivan’s reflective and disturbing essay-film The Great Wall on the refugee crises. It shares with both those films an odyssey narrative, but defies the traditional conventions of the genre in that this journey begins at the end and ends in confusion. But confusion, to paraphrase Brian Friel, is not an ignoble condition.
History’s Future centres on a central character – or more accurately a series of related characters – all played with panache and dexterity by O’Halloran. The Ur-character has lost his memory after an assault, cannot remember those most intimate to him, and after some weeks in rehab, leaves his wife and home in suburban Netherlands to wander through a series of European settings: Barcelona, Paris, Athens, Dublin. At each turn we learn about him from those he meets and through them we encounter a Europe that has also become detached from its past and, more troublingly, its future.
While this is director Fiona Tan’s debut feature film, she is an internationally respected multi-media conceptual artist and this background contributes to the film’s often cerebral and highly visual vignettes which refuse to be fully integrated into a smooth overarching narrative. (The film begins at ‘The End’ and rolls backwards and forwards at different junctures). Indeed the film is perhaps best approached as an instance of the now common intersection of gallery and cinema; and one could imagine episodes from the film playing on a series of ‘white cube’ screens simultaneously. Across a range of settings, costumes and facial hair, Mark O’Halloran manages somehow to bring unity to such disparity, grounding big ideas about an amnesiac and disintegrating Europe in a performance of a man/men who are genuinely confused but who remain, nevertheless, alive and directed onwards.
History’s Future screened on Saturday, 9th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.