Book Review: Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen

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Stephen Totterdell takes a look at  Ruth Barton’s latest book, Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen.

 

“Had Rex lost his grip on the little grammar and syntax he had learned? What was a ‘broad’? And a ‘cinch’? Did he mean ‘clinch’?”

The story of Rex Ingram could be an emigration story. Born in Rathmines, Ingram fled to the U.S. to work first as a manual laborer, before enrolling in Yale and then becoming, uh, a Hollywood director. Unlike many other Irish artists in America, however, Ingram never played stage-Irish. Instead of a hard-living, hard-drinking, sweater-wearing Irishman, Barton describes an aesthete much more at home in the world of movies than in the bar. Ahead of his time, Ingram traveled in LGBT circles and had a deep interest in sex. Barton speaks of his rumoured bisexuality, but it remains unconfirmed. Certainly in his work one can see undertones of what was probably an actively bisexual life, and his work will be of interest to scholars of Queer Theory.

Ruth Barton is best known as one of the core figures in Film Studies in Ireland. Instead of an academic analysis, however, this book focuses on telling the compelling narrative of Ingram’s life. It could be argued that the book represents the inroads academics have been making for the last few years into public discourse. The notoriously squeezed field of academia has led a number of scholars to pursue what is known as ‘AltAc’, or Alternative Academia. Writers such as Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed, or Slavoj Žižek are two high profile examples. These academics hope to bring theory and research to mainstream audiences, a practice which reminds one of the golden years of public intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin or Jean-Paul Sartre.

With this Rex Ingram biography, Ruth Barton brings an under-represented director to the surface. Well written and – importantly – slim, the book requires little effort to read. It is full of great details about the director. One of the great anecdotes about Rex Ingram is that he was born a Hitchcock, but changed his name in order to break into Hollywood. In contrast with his aesthetic interests, “One of Rex’s peculiarities was his liking to dress like a bum,” and his tyrannical on-set behaviour is in contrast to his charming social persona. Barton describes an eccentric and intriguing man who refuses to be categorised. Perhaps this is why we remember him less than some of the other figures of the period – just what is the Ingram brand?

Certainly that is not something that will be said of Barton. A tireless scholar of Irish cinema, she continues to enrich the field both inside academia and out of it. This biography is insightful, exciting, and – best of all – fun.

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Interview: Alina Bronsky, writer of ‘Scherbenpark’ (Broken Glass Park)

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Scherbenpark (Broken Glass Park) recently screened at the IFI Kinofest. Based on Alina Bronsky’s best-selling novel of the same title, Scherbenpark tells the tale of seventeen-year-old Russian immigrant Sascha who lives in a rough Stuttgart neighbourhood where her family has some notoriety, with her stepfather imprisoned for the brutal murder of her mother. When Sascha sees a sympathetic newspaper interview with the convict, she angrily confronts the editor, Volker, whose guilt leads him to invite Sascha into his home, where he lives with son Felix. In this environment, the harsh and abrasive young woman slowly begins to mature into someone more open and accepting of the world’s flaws.

Stephen Totterdell met up with novelist Alina to discuss her work.

 

Sascha appears to reject the traditional “social drama” narrative at home in favour of more personal and humorous adventures. Was this a conscious choice to move away from “struggle” narratives that are frequently associated with these communities?

I wanted to tell a story that was dramatic and entertaining at the same time. Sascha still has a lot to struggle with, but I wanted her life to have more colours than just the grey and black of poverty and loss. I did not plan her to appear as on all-round victim either: She is just as powerful and funny as life can be. 

 

Do you think there have been more “immigrant” literatures and films coming through in the last few years? If so, why?

I guess there are more of us now and we speak with different voices. The next step would be not to talk about “immigrant” literature anymore, because there are too many very different ways of storytelling to be united in this genre.

 

What are your thoughts on the adaptation process? Can you think of adaptations that worked particularly well, or didn’t? Do you have a favourite adaptation?

Here are two very different examples: Hunger Games and A Fleeing Horse. I love both.

 

The prose in Scherbenpark is quite cinematic. Did cinema influence your writing at all? Furthermore, do you think a lot of writers today are influenced by cinema as much as literature?

I suppose writers watch films as much as other people. You can not pretend you are not influenced by the  media around you. However, for me it is not a conscious process.

 

Is the role the media play in personal tragedy an important theme for you?

You mean the tragedy in Scherbenpark? Sure. The media are part of it. They transfer the personal tragedy into a public one, so Sascha has the experience of her very own story not belonging to her anymore.

 

How involved were you with the casting process? Do you feel that the actors had an effect on the behaviour or mannerisms of the characters? I’d imagine this can be one of the biggest leaps when translating a story from page to screen.

I was not involved at all, I wanted to be surprised. So I was. Of course, the actors have a huge effect – so we all were lucky to enjoy such a great cast.

 

What role or position do you see for German cinema in the international film industry? Is it an insular cinema in any way, or does it provide a specific function around the world?

Honestly, I don’t know. Never thought much about it.

 

What role do literature and film play for people of immigrant background in Germany?

You cannot generalize. Immigrant background can be very different. They have in common that younger people prefer to watch rather than to read. Some immigrant communities stick to their languages which makes it harder to reach out to them – the choice of the TV channel can influence you a lot, and if you watch different films and read different books you sort of feel  like you come from different planets.

 

Do you think cinema and literature are addressing fundamentally different audiences? What do you think is unique about each one, and what do you think can be achieved more effectively by one over the other?

I would like to hope that most of the people enjoy both cinema and literature. I would not like to compare them.  I cannot even say that books require more patience because it is not true. They just force the mind to a little more activity.

 

Were there any additions to the film that you were particularly pleased with?

I am fine with all the changes, which are necessary when you are adapting a book. If there had been more I would not have minded either.  I like it when someone takes my idea and transfers it into something new.

 

Which of your other books do you think would be suited to cinematic adaptation, and why?

I do not see any difference between Scherbenpark and my other books in that point. However, I’ve been told it’s much more difficult when your book has a great number of characters or a longer timeline of three generations or a protagonist whose face has to be hidden until the end. I must confess these are the things I never worried much about while writing.

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If I Stay

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DIR: R.J. Cutler • WRI: Shauna Cross • PRO: Denise Di Novi, Alison Greenspan • ED: Keith Henderson • DOP: John de Borman   DES: Brent Thomas   MUS: Heitor Pereira • Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Stacy keach, Liana Liberato

If I Stay reminds one of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in that it chooses to use a framing device that feels superfluous to the narrative. Its hospital-based scenes (the lens through which we view the central plot) underscore a rather lively and touching narrative, but the film could have stood alone on its central plot. While The Fault In Our Stars examined youth and illness with plenty of attention given to the tiny nuances of the experience, If I Stay prefers instead to offer its viewers gratuitous crying scenes in place of meaningful interaction. It is these post-death, emotion-laden scenes that feel manipulatively designed to provoke adolescent passion. There is an insincerity in these moments that cannot be overlooked. The Fault In Our Stars felt like it cared about its characters. If I Stay cares about them only enough to get a rise out of its audience.

Based on a young adult novel novel by Gayle Forman, the film follows Mia, the victim of a car accident, as she replays memories from her life and relationships. These memories are full of good dialogue and distinctive characters, recalling the likes of Juno. Like a novel written in the vernacular, the viewer must overcome initial resistance to the stylistics of both the dialogue and the cinematography and, when that is achieved, these elements become irresistable. Mia’s parents are memorable characters, and the tension between generations is nicely capsulated in Mia’s desire to play cello while her father remains an old-school punk rocker.

The film is visually striking, and offers claustrophobic spaces in which Mia plays out her relationships. Rather than appearing dreamlike, these flashback sequences are the most vivid and colourful of the film. It is almost a shame that the car accident plot exists at all, because during these flashbacks we witness dialogue so sharp and funny that the hospital scenes come across as variably dull and manipulative. This framing failure really cuts away at the heart of the film which, otherwise, might have been a pleasant film about music, relationships, and the generation gap.

Its narrative is fresh enough that the viewer can’t easily settle into predicting what will happen. There are enough original turns of phrase and new variations on interactions to make If I Stay an invigorating watch – more than your average blockbuster. That it comes from a young adult novel in a time when young adult novels are pushing the boat out further than perhaps any other form of literature is relevant, although If I Stay is one of the tamer books around. A lot of viewers misunderstood The Fault In Our Stars – thinking it to be a kind of cry-fest rather than a well-researched portrayal of illness as an identity – but If I Stay offers the kind of empty experience that was claimed for Fault.

So it’s enjoyable, fresh in many ways, but not particularly nuanced or interesting. Worth a watch.

Stephen Totterdell

12A (See IFCO for details)

84 minutes

If I Stay is released 29th August

If I Stay –  Official Website

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Wakolda

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DIR/WRI: Lucía Puenzo  • PRO: Fernando Abadi  •  DOP: Nicolás Puenzo • ED: Hugo Primero • MUS: Andrés Goldstein  CAST: Àlex Brendemühl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti

A few things come together in Wakolda. First, there is the striking notion that South American cinema could centre on the narratives of its rather capacious German population. In German cinema, the Turkish-German population are presently emerging from the sidelines to assert their own cinematic narrative. Here, we have the Germans at the centre of an Argentine narrative. It might come to pass that a larger German-Argentine cinema will develop, much in the same way as Turkish-German or, for example, Italian-American. For now, though, we focus on the genesis of the world’s interest in German-Argentine narratives: the history of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America.

It should be noted that Germans had a history of emigrating to Argentina and Brazil before the war, but, as the cloud of the Holocaust hovers over every German cinematic narrative, this must be the jumping off point for all artistic discussion. This film, at least, is a refreshing take on the subject. Its expansive Argentine landscapes contrast wildly with the contained and measured German doctor Mengele. When his host family’s daughter runs into physical “problems” (she is “too short”), Mengele convinces the family to allow him to experiment on her in order to fix her height.

There has been a lot of talk about the banality of evil in recent cinema, with Austria’s Michael a highlight. But whereas Michael incisively penetrated its villain’s everyday life, demonstrating just how normal he was, this film offers merely a surface glimpse into the proceedings. All of the characters remain largely enigmatic. This is down to a mix of both flimsy characterisation – in the case of the parents of the girl – and a conscious choice to merely observe – in the case of Mengele. The film makes frequent reference to Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer whose trial was covered by Hannah Arendt and whose triviality was responsible for Arendt’s theory of “the banality of evil”.

However, it must be noted that Mengele seems motivated less by a general sense of evil-doing and more by scientific curiosity and misguided attempts to advance science. One of the spookier elements of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy is when he explains that Nazi doctors were capable of such horrific acts because they worked through a series of ethical checks; for example, they could justify experimenting on Jewish people because the Jewish people were classified as less than human; and so the doctors could act as if they were experimenting on animals. This meant that they did not have to directly mentally engage with the true nature of their actions. They did not have to think the sentence “I am experimenting on a person.” There are frequent references in Wakolda to dolls, animals, other inhuman bodies. So rather than a walking monster, we have a hugely misguided man. It is similar in ways to the film Close to Evil, which screened at the Galway Film Fleadh this year, in which one of the last remaining SS officers refuses to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened. If she acknowledged it, her internal defence systems would shut down. The cognitive dissonance would be too much.

It is interesting, too, that the film comes along in 2014; at a time when we are obsessed with creating the perfectly optimised self. Not to stretch it too far, but the desire to create a kind of superhuman is definitely something that we can all understand. The quantified self is here. It is that leap from where we are now to more profoundly disturbing experimentation that causes horror. But it is worth trying to understand all of these issues rather than simply reacting in abject horror. There have been enough  films about the war that simply say “Evil!” This film does that to an extent, but it is a little more contemplative about our motivations and actions as people. Very interesting and worthwhile.

Stephen Totterdell

93 mins

Wakolda is released on 8th August 2014

Wakolda – Official Website

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Living in a Coded Land – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell deciphers Living in a Coded Land, Pat Collins’ film essay that makes unexpected links between events and locations, history and contemporary life. The film screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

This film tries too hard. It’s extremely self-indulgent.

And yet, it offers sound analysis of Irish society in a way that most films don’t. It makes no concessions to its audience, and can come across as preachy; but if its viewers can stick with it they will find value. It excavates – slowly – some of the ideology at the heart of modern Ireland. It offers a vocabulary for liberation in a thoughtful manner, rather than a shouty manner.

There has been much talk about the reasons for Irish artist’s disinterest in critiquing Irish society during the financial crisis. Most writers and filmmakers seem content to ignore what has been happening, and write about tea instead; or the power of sticking together or whatever. A few, such as the poet Dave Lordan or the novelist Julian Gough, do their best to shoot from the sidelines. It is still rare, though, and that makes this film a welcome manifestation of concern.

The code of the title is the set of behaviours, mannerisms, social rules that one learns to manipulate in order to rise to the top. Those who achieve it aren’t necessarily the best or the brightest; they just know the right things to say in order to slip through. More often that not, this is due to an accident of birth; they were born into a “good” family or they went to a certain school. They learn to latch onto the part of society that rises to the top. Whereas in the past it might have been the world of oil (or milkshakes), today it is finance

What the film achieves is that it makes explicit the mechanisms at work, so that laymen can understand them. It demystifies the processes at work, which will hopefully help the population to feel more confident in criticising those processes. It is easy for those in these high status positions to accuse the “lower” classes of being overly passionate or not knowing the specifics of a situation, but, as with the many violations of the last few years, we can see that these “higher” classes don’t really know the specifics either. It’s a power system, and this film attempts to teach people to navigate it in order that they can begin to dismantle it.

That is an ambitious and admirable project. That Collins indulges in too much arthouse imagery is forgiveable, but I hope that he improves on this front in the future. This is one of the few contemporary Irish artworks that tries to say something important.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

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Close to Evil: Extended Cut – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell takes a look at the extended cut of Gerry Gregg’s award-winning documentary, Close to Evil, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Cognitive Dissonance. Is there any psychological process that has caused more trouble in the world? But the cognitive dissonance on display in Close to Evil allows us insight into how atrocities can occur, and how they occur again. Tomi, a Bergen-Belsen survivor who arrived in Dublin in the late 1950s, decides to seek out one of the last remaining SS officers from the camp. He doesn’t want to confront or accuse. Rather he wants the SS officer to show remorse, and to shake her hand in the spirit of reconciliation. Hilde Lisiewicz served as an officer in Bergen-Belsen while in her early 20s, and went on to put it behind her and live a normal life.

It’s the smile that does it. The “chit-chat”, as one interviewee puts it. We expect a former Nazi to show remorse, or to have become embittered, or to live a punishing life. But Hilde smiles, says she doesn’t remember much, she liked the uniforms, would you like a sandwich? It’s the banality of evil, and is something German cinema has dealt with repeatedly. The recent Austrian film Michael analysed it: that film tells of an unassuming office worker who returns home in the evening to a child he has locked in his basement. It’s the stories about Hilter being a vegetarian. We expect a monster. When these people turn out to be human it causes what Julia Kristeva calls ‘abjection’. We see a part of our own identity become vulnerable; the border between us and these monstrous figures is blurred, and we react with disgust.

That Hilde can’t acknowledge her own history of atrocity speaks to a wider human condition. What would happen if she had acknowledged it sooner, or at all? Is it possible to acknowledge being a part of such a thing without finding some excuse, some reason that you weren’t really a part of it? Such a realisation would surely end in suicide. Hilde seems so assured of her innocence that she brought her children to visit Bergen-Belsen, telling them that she worked as a chef in the camp. But why did she lie about her job there?

It’s the kind of mentality that reminds us never to take the world for granted, that our powers for self-justification are endless. Look at those arguing for unjust wars abroad, look at the situation with Israel and Palestine. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle comes into it. In a way, people find comfort in putting the Holocaust in the past; in saying there, that’s where the evil is. In looking at the horrific footage available. It existed, and it was terrible, but it was in the past where it can’t get us. Like Kristeva’s abjection, an acknowledgment that this kind of atrocity could still happen; that does still happen; that we could all be in some way complicit in something or other, would threaten our sense of identity too much. So we put it in the past, and we wonder how the Germans of the 1940s could have let such things happen.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

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Begin Again: Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell checks out Irish director John Carney‘s Begin Again, which opened this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Take Once, set it in NYC, and turn the emotions up as far as they’ll go – you’ve got an approximation of Begin Again. Despite this, John Carney’s latest film works with one of the sharpest screenplays of the last few years. Add to that a hugely endearing Mark Ruffalo (who I predict will soon get the Bryan Cranston treatment), as well as Ray Romano, and there’s something refreshing about this film. In the ’70s, Woody Allen refused directorial preciousness with Annie Hall – inventing the subtitles scene, the animated scene, the layered flashbacks; and anything to keep the film fresh and engaging. It looks like John Carney has taken a similar approach, playfully subverting both Hollywoood’s and the audience’s expectations. This feels like it comes out of a genuine anxiety of “selling out”, and indeed the film’s themes mirror this anxiety.

Mark Ruffalo plays a down-and-out family man and former indie record label owner, whose personal issues have cost him everything. When he stumbles across Keira Knightley’s poorly received open mic performance in New York, his contrarian nature tells him that she could be – with a little work – an important artist. While her former partner and ex-boyfriend becomes a music legend, her passion for the craft at the expense of success sees her living hand-to-mouth.

Carney introduces a number of familiar cinematic elements, only to undercut these moments with a dexterity subtler than anything stock postmodernism could achieve. When James Corden invites Keira Knightley to perform at a gig, she is reluctant. This reluctancy is followed by an arc-friendly acquiescence. Then, rather than provoking the awe we expect, she bombs. This development is subverted again by a moment I won’t spoil. The film is full of this playfulness, and refusal to be precious about its subject matter.

Although Carney clearly wrestles with the move from Irish film to Hollywood, he manages to marry Hollywood’s sentimentalism with a low-key sense of humour that sounds a note akin to a few other young U.S. directors. Along with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling, Carney is determined not to follow the beaten path. The vogue today is for artists to reject the establishment in order to carve out their own unique careers, and the rise of Kickstarter films along with indie publishers and Twitter successes fits nicely with this film. That its message can be tied to a very American message (Emerson’s ideas on self-reliance and ignoring the crowd aren’t exactly new) reveals it to be less revolutionary than it wants to be, but that it does so within a stringently anti-risk industry and that Ruffalo and Knightley’s journeys clearly mirror Carney’s give this philosophy a visceral affirmation.

Structurally the film operates on a strange level. The A plot and the B plot don’t overlap in the way that one expects. It’s as if we are watching two different films spliced together.

Both Knightley and Ruffalo have been on the path previously tread by Matthew McConnaughey, albeit at slower speeds. That so many artists eventually come to reject easy success in order to pursue what they’re passionate about is a nice trend in American cinema right now. There should be films that reflect this spirit. This film brings hope – a qualified hope – for the future of American cinema. It’s not great. But it is interesting.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwLuDO_Cxfc&feature=kp

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Love Eternal

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DIR/WRI: Brendan Muldowney  PRO: Conor Barry, Manami Fukawa DOP: Tom Comerford  ED: Mairead McIvor   DES: Owen Power  MUS: Bart Westerlaken CAST: Robert de Hoog, Naomi Clarke, Tina Shaw, Cathy Malone

Asperger Syndrome is a fun plot device. From Hannibal‘s forensic genius Will Graham to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s computer genius Lisbeth Salander, it’s become shorthand for cinema’s “troubled genius” characters. High IQ mixed with asocial personalities make for exciting drama. Rarely, though, is the Syndrome explored outside of high octane scenarios. Rarely do we see a portrayal of just a lonely young person who struggles to connect with others.

So here we are. Love Eternal’s Ian Harding is on the spectrum. Only it’s not stated. Perhaps it’s not even intentional. The only explicit reference is a shell Ian picks up from the beach; a shell which is distinctly reminiscent of the Fibonacci numbers – a design frequently referenced with regard to autism. Ian is obsessed with death, and has been ever since witnessing his father’s at the age of six. This has produced in him an odd intimacy with corpses, and one gets the impression that he is a sort of merchant of death. Nobody gets closer to the dead than Ian. It’s a story of a lonely man who seeks out others with whom to share a suicide. If he’s alone in life, he reasons, he might as well enjoy a bit of company before his death.

Adapted from Kei Oishi’s novel In Love With the Dead, Brendan Muldowney’s film is another in a line of Irish films to reject the Priest+Field narrative ordinarily so prevalent in Irish cinema. The Scandi-Noir aesthetic recalls Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did and, although this film has lower production values (which are in some places obvious), its depth and intensity of focus make it a flawed but energetic effort. There are many things I could criticise in this film, but its ingenuity and freshness is something that must be applauded.

Ian spends his youth browsing suicide websites, and I imagine this is common practice for real world teenagers. Its deftness at dealing with mental health issues marks it out from any sensationalist “message films”. Away from the hustle and partying of the Skins teenagers, here’s a character people on the spectrum can relate to. Ian sits by himself and chats to his online friends for “ten years”. When he begins searching for a partner in suicide, he begins to develop real world relationships.

I had one reservation about the narrative. The moments during which Ian comes alive are always the moments when he is dancing, or singing, or performing a Neurotypical (non-Aspergic) activity. This is when he is happy. But this narrative device perpetuates the idea that Ian is, as he states, defective, and that in order to be happy he has to become more Neurotypical; more normal. Anyone with Asperger’s will tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. This process is called “mainstreaming”. It’s the idea that rather than accept difference we must strain it out and transform people like Ian into “normal” people in order for them to be happy. I think all this does is help “normal” people to become more comfortable with those who are different, rather than affecting those with Asperger’s in any positive way.

It’s nice to see a low-budget film that doesn’t make a show of its low-budget. There’s an element in Irish cinema that wants to turn everything into Republic of Telly, so it’s good to see some genuine artistic endeavour here. Although its production values can ocasionally be distracting, the story plays out with such earnestness that one forgives it its flaws. The fact that it was adapted from a Japanese novel also brings hope, and perhaps coincides with Anglophonic consumers’ growing taste for translated fiction.

This is one of those films that isn’t for everybody. But for those who like the sound of what I’ve described above, it’s really worth watching. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert: I’m tired of films that are for everybody, which really means they’re for nobody. This film is for me, and for me it works very well indeed.

Stephen Totterdell

18 (See IFCO for details)
97 mins

Love Eternal is released on 4th July 2014

Love Eternal – Official Website

 

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The Golden Dream

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DIR/WRI:  Diego Quemada-Diez  PRO: Edher Campos, Inna Payán, Luis Salinas • DOP: María Secco • ED: Paloma López  • MUS: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman   CAST: Brandon López, Rodolfo Domínguez, Karen Martínez

 

“Are you going up to the United States?” It hardly needs to be asked. Most of the characters in this film, even those in the background, are on a journey to the United States. The inevitability of this rite of passage never comes into question, even when those undertaking it are shot at, raped, taken hostage.

 

Director Diego Quemada-Diez has said that his work is influenced by his former mentor Ken Loach, and it shows. It’s an unflinching depiction of a tremendous waste of youth and life. However, his reliance on this social realist mode is perhaps a drawback, too, because the film doesn’t have the high-concept draw that might help it to succeed with current audiences. While its narrative and imagery are competent and engaging, the film is distinctly disinterested in spectacle or experiment.

 

The final scene is one of the most refreshing and depressing in modern cinema, but I would have liked to see more of this flair throughout the rest of the film. In many ways, it is a typical “Third Cinema” film of the kind that is successful with Anglophonic audiences: a quick hit of poverty that induces immediate outrage but which is followed by apathy. It’s a well put together film, and there are a lot of interesting moments; it’d be nice to see Quemada-Diez indulge in his obviously vivid imagination a little more in the future.

 

The social realist mode that has been so popular now appears to be giving way to something else. Look at Lenny Abrahamson’s work, for example. He’s a director who made his name in social realism during the Celtic Tiger Cinema period. Lately, though, he’s been utilising more atmospheric modes; such as the Scandinoir aesthetic in What Richard Did or the absurdism of Frank. In many ways, these modes are more effective methods of dealing with serious issues. The glut of political films means that to stand out one has to not just point out social issues but articulate them in a unique manner. For Latin American cinema, the Chilean No achieved great heights. By examining a dictatorship through the lens of a marketing firm it put its audience’s pleasure first and its message second; much like the advertising campaign at the centre of that film.

 

The Golden Dream doesn’t do this, and as a result can feel not so much moralising but rather a little boring. We’ve seen this before. Its message is moving and important. The moments of greatness – little visual flourishes, or in the relationships between the three central characters – are wonderful. I think Quemada-Diez can become a good director, and this is a good film. But I think he needs to read The Anxiety of Influence and try to escape Ken Loach a bit.

Stephen Totterdell 

12A (See IFCO for details)
108 mins

The Golden Dream is released on 27th June 2014

 

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Camille Claudel 1915

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DIR: Bruno Dumont • WRI: Bruno Dumont • PRO: Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Brehat, Muriel Merlin • DOP: Guillaume Deffontaines • ED: Bruno Dumont, Basile Belkhiri • CAST: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman, Marion Keller

Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection postulates that when confronted with that which threatens our identity or sense of categorisation – in other words, that which crosses the border between inner and outer –  we react with disgust; we throw up or kick out in an attempt to expel that which is threatening our sense of self and our sense of order. Bruno Dumont knows this. And he knows that cinema is about spectatorship. But what if the audience were not merely spectators but complicit in the events of the film? Dumont plays on the recent trend for biopics to challenge his audience: Why are you watching these films? What do you hope to gain? Can you really hope to improve your own lives by watching somebody else’s pain? Does it make you feel good to know that you’re a voyeur during the worst moments of a public figure’s life?

Could this explain the presence of Juliette Binoche? In the first instance of star-power in a Dumont film, the star plays against the viewer. If the viewer is here for Binoche, the viewer is complicit in the entertainment-ification of historical lives. Given the recent controversy around the David Foster Wallace biopic, this is a worthwhile portal of exploration. When we place a cinematic narrative on the life of a real figure – usually a tragic figure or somebody who has experienced extreme difficulty – are we diminishing the human experience? Those worried about the Foster Wallace biopic claim that such a complex and demanding person can never be captured by a three-act structure; that he is in danger of becoming Kurt Cobain or Che Guevara – just a series of quotes and myths.

There is no such danger with Camille Claudel. The sculptor remains as unknown to the viewer after 90 minutes of painfully intimate shared anguish as she was beforehand. “Why are you watching me cry?” Claudel shrieks, ostensibly to a fellow patient at the asylum in which she is incarcerated, but really, we sense, at us. Her fellow inmates laugh or cry. It’s hard to tell. There’s a shortage of teeth. Identities and bodies are hard to pin down. Claudel, played by Binoche, is the only attractive patient in the asylum. Because of this we begin to believe her ramblings – she’s sane; unfairly incarcerated.

Dumont refuses to move his camera and help us to feel safe; to look away. His lens focuses on Claudel as her speeches circle around on themselves, become paranoid; briefly a little saner, then back to madness. While each individual reason she has for her parole sounds valid, as the reasons jumble together their cohesion slips. She is saying whatever she can think of. Is any of it true or honest? Or worse, is it all true and honest? It is this focus on the importance of context rather than the soundbite that makes Camille Claudel 1915 stand out. In one scene, Claudel visits the asylum church. A nun casts her arms over Claudel and says “Hallelujah!” She does it again. Then she follows Claudel out of the church, where she continues to wave her arms and say “Hallelujah!” Removed from the environs of the church, this behaviour comes to appear absurd. She’s not a nun after all. Just another patient. Another category broken.

The film is uncomfortable to watch. Its refusal to engage in traditional staples of the biopic, and indeed its passion for exploding those staples, remove all comforts. Here is madness. A great film.

Stephen Totterdell

95mins

Camille Claudel 1915 is released on 20th June 2014

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Of Horses and Men

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DIR/WRI: Benedikt Erlingsson  PRO: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson  DOP: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson  ED: David Alexander Corno MUS: David Thor Jonsson  CAST: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Charlotte Bøving

It’s brave for a film to showcase illness and death in the manner Benedikt Erlingsson does here. And that he does so with a portmanteau film about men and their horses – set in the beautiful Icelandic landscape popularised by Walter Mitty – proves that cinema can utilise just about any subject matter  to say something important if it tries. Whereas Michael Haneke’s Amour deals with old age and illness in an on-the-nose fashion, Erlingsson’s lens is horseriding, and the peculiar and beautiful relationships that form between men and their horses.

The caustic landscape kills. While Ben Stiller (meanwhile, in Walter Mitty) cycles inspirationally through the Icelandic hills, its fences, sea, and snows are picking off Of Horses and Men‘s inhabitants. In a culture that values perfect bodies and fetishises good health, the characters here stand out perhaps most for their declining health. Everyone has bad teeth. Characters suffer permanent life-altering injuries. Others die. Those who live do so in a state of perpetual depression. There’s one genuine smile in the film. And, for all that, the film is full of joy; because it celebrates that which makes life worth living. It celebrates that which encourages us to endure these misfortunes: humanity’s passions and obsessions. For Erlingsson and everyone who worked on this film, it’s horses.

Erlingsson wants his audience to know that nature doesn’t take us seriously. That’s why his cameras pan over magnificent mountains to find the film’s main character sitting on a horse while it has sex with another horse. His wife watches from the house. She’s heartbroken. He looks guilty. He looks like he does it a lot. Another character suffers a serious and permanent injury during a trivial and otherwise unimportant moment in his life. The whims of nature have no regard for human lives and relationships.

Of the current crop of “identity cultures” (LGBTQI* being a prominent and important one), one of those that receives little mainstream attention is that of the chronically ill. Cinemagoers are bombarded with images of physical perfection in just about every film they watch. Of Horses and Men could be perceived as a bubbling up of this tension. Here’s a film that takes traditional symbols of power and beauty; mountainous landscapes and horses; and shows us how they engage with illness, pain, and ugliness rather than merely acting as the tourist images they serve as in Walter Mitty.

The portmanteau nature of the film offers further relief. Like Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, the small tragedies and moments of pain or joy pile up. They have the cumulative effect of showcasing the pointlessness of human endeavour, and the inevitable and random tragedy that befalls even the most peaceful of lives. Although these characters own their horses, the power balance could just as easily be the other way around. The film attacks the idea that we have any control whatsoever over our environment, and it is refreshing to embrace that.

It is a credit to Erlingsson that he’s made one of the most violent films of the year without utilising a single weapon or action sequence. It’s a reminder that there needn’t be any grand quests, and there needn’t be any vengeance. Sometimes going for a walk is the deadliest act of them all.

Stephen Totterdell

81 mins

Of Horses and Men is released on 13th June 2014

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When I Saw You

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DIR/WRI: Annemarie Jacir • PRO: Ossama Bawardi • DOP: Helene Louvart • ED: Annemarie Jacir, Panos Voutsaras • MUS: Kamran Rastegar • CAST: Mahmoud Asfa, Ruba Blal, Saleh Bakri, Ali Elayan

Palestinian cinema has been through a rough time in the public eye. 2002’s Divine Intervention was initially rejected as a contender for the Academy Awards because the Academy refused to recognise Palestine as a country.  In addition to this, there’s a harmful ethos in much of the art world that claims art should remain separate from politics. When your film is rejected from the Oscars on account of politics, how can you go on believing this?

When I Saw You is director Anniemarie Jacir’s second feature film and engages fully with Palestinian history and politics. It opens with beautiful digital video footage of a group of Palestinian kids rollerskating. The question “Are we losing something by switching from film to DV?” becomes as obsolete as “Are we losing something by switching to technicolor?” Whereas 3D has yet to convince audiences of its worth, the value in DV has been clear from the outset. It’s a whole new palette to play with. 1967 has never looked this modern, and there’s something political to that. By removing the barrier of the “cinematic aesthetic”, the film can be experienced as a raw document – thus facilitating greater intimacy between viewer and film. Contrary to claims of the “coldness” of DV, When I Saw You is as convincing a case as you’ll find for the intimacy offered by DV.

 

The film takes place in 1967, when Palestinian refugees were forced to live in camps in Jordan. 11-year-old Tarek is something of a boy-about-town; razor sharp and willing to speak up against injustice. When his schoolteacher begins harassing a fellow pupil for not answering correctly, Tarek corrects his teacher. His language is his power and, although the film reminds us that he can’t read, his ability to think and speak quickly gains him power within his community.

 

This makes altogether more jarring his attempts to communicate outside of the camp. When he leaves the camp in search of his missing father, he happens upon a group of traveling hippies: “Why does he speak like that?” They say, “Is he from one of the camps?” His strength within his community becomes a distinct weakness outside of it. The message is clear. There is only one place where Palestinian people fit in, so how can it be taken from them? Tarek’s quick wit wins him little regard outside of the camp. This mirrors the experience of many Palestinian people who wish to communicate their experience to the Western world. There’s an ideological break between cultures, which is filled largely by Western misconceptions about the Arab world. Jacir has spoken in interviews about the frustration of getting a message across and circumventing these misconceptions.

 

Language and knowledge are key focuses of the film. Although Tarek can’t read, his mental agility circumvents any problems that this might cause. Characters quote Karl Marx without having read him. The language of the revolution becomes the language of sex when several Fedayeen members pose for a magazine photographer. Everybody is confused and nothing is concrete. Tarek accuses his mother of lying and of “Always being right!” The film tears down the idea of absolute truth. When Tarek chooses to live with the Fedayeen, his mother accepts his choice and stays with him while he works out his value system. By placing a child at the centre of the film, by gifting him with wit and knowledge, and by listening to his thoughts and decisions, director Annemarie Jacir provides us with what is perhaps the film’s most radical message: curiosity and a certain innocence represent hope.

 

While all of the adult characters become bogged down in dogma, work and family obligations, social status, and so on, Tarek is the character to question accepted reality and to forge his own path through the conflicting truths imposed upon him. He is a part of the world, and he has to find for himself the best path forward. Jacir has stated that she refuses to listen to the voices in the art world claiming that art should remain separate from politics. She, like Tarek, is a part of the world. She will contribute in whatever way she can.

Stephen Totterdell

85 mins

When I Saw You is released on 6th June 2014

When I Saw You – Official Website

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Podcast Interview: Actors Barry Ward & Simone Kirby – ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

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Ken Loach’s latest film Jimmy’s Hall is set in Leitrim in 1931. 10 years beforehand Jimmy Gralton had built a dance hall on a rural crossroads in an Ireland on the brink of civil war. The Pearse-Connolly Hall was a place where young people could come to learn, to argue, to dream . . . but above all, to dance and have fun. As the hall grew in popularity, its socialist and free-spirited reputation brought it to the attention of the church and politicians, who forced Jimmy to flee.

A decade later, at the height of the Depression, Jimmy returns to Leitrim from the US to look after his mother and vows to live the quiet life. But as he reintegrates into the community and sees the poverty and growing cultural oppression around him, the leader and activist within him is stirred. He makes the decision to reopen the hall in the face of the dangers it may bring.

Stephen Totterdell sat down with Barry Ward and Simone Kirby, who star in Ken Loach’s portrait of Irish communist and activist Jimmy Gralton. played by Ward alongside Kirby, who plays Gralton’s former love Oonagh.

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Jimmy’s Hall

Jimmys Hall: Gralton stands with community members

Stephen Totterdell on Ken Loach’s latest.

DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • ED: Mike Andrews • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott, Jim Norton, Brían F. O’Byrne

Something of a final kick to the head of the church, Jimmy’s Hall channels Ken Loach’s anger into an assault on authority in all its forms. With nods to the Occupy movement and Generation Y’s non-hierarchical power structures, Loach examines the cost of rebellion in a society that mythologises its rebels but rarely supports them. Through references to historical and artistic figures of the time – Joseph Stalin, to name but one – the film reminds its viewers of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Debord posits that we, the public, view historical events through mediated lenses and come to believe that they exist outside of everyday reality; that they are movies, almost. They never really happened. This creates apathy, because the connection between real social and political struggle and revolution is lost – revolution becomes something inevitable, something that occurs because of a preconceived narrative, rather than an event that is spurred on by the will of the public. Therefore, if there is no revolution it’s because there shouldn’t be one. In truth, it’s because nobody has decided to start one. Jimmy’s Hall reminds us that Stalin was real, not just a myth, that Maud Gonne was real, not just a myth, and that Jimmy Gralton was real.

During the early 1930s, Jimmy Gralton’s act of rebellion is to set up a community hall in Co. Leitrim at a time when the church has a hold on all of public life. The local community can involve themselves with art, music, and dance. It acts as a reprieve from the economic crisis, from the background of emigration and hardship, and is – in a sense – a testament to the value of the arts in times of crisis. The church consider it a threat to decency, and use shame as a weapon to discourage its patrons. The film’s contemporary parallels couldn’t be clearer.

Ken Loach appears to have set himself the goal of making myth visceral, but it’s questionable how much impact his message can have in reality. For a section of the community to be truly revolutionary, as Gralton is, there needs to be introduced to their project a sizeable portion of doubt and cognitive dissonance. By setting his film in the past, Loach himself falls for Debord’s trap a little. The film’s events are easier to swallow if they are taking place in old Ireland. They are more inevitable, less disruptive. For all of its anger, a contemporary story might have been more effective on a political level. As a piece of aesthetic cinema, of course, it remains strong.

One of the film’s great achievements is its nuanced dialogue. I’m reminded of What Richard Did. The speech patterns and dialects, down to characters stuttering or repeating themselves, achieve versimilitude beyond what one expects from cinema. Close attention to the way real people talk is a strength of Irish literature and film, so Loach’s social realist leanings serve him well here. Authentic dialogue helps to thin the line between cinema and reality, but Loach could go further still if he wants to engage in political life.

Jimmy’s Hall excels at demonstrating the cumulative effect of these rebellious figures. It speaks to the power of great oratory throughout Irish history. For example, a committee call on Jimmy to give a speech defending the community hall’s ideals. They insist that it is his personality, his charm, his skills of oration that will make a difference. This brings to mind figures from Jim Larkin to Panti Bliss, and the oft-overlooked importance of these small agitators. In this way, the film’s period setting plays to its advantage, because the viewer feels the distance we’ve covered because of figures like Graltan.

Language of shame runs through the film. When a couple bring their child out into town in the evening, somebody mutters, “That child should be home in bed. Ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” A particularly brutal scene involves a character being beaten by her father for visiting the community hall. Many of the film’s priests use shame liberally, but one young priest – played with vigour by Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott – offers hope and understanding. The message is clear: pay attention to the younger generation.

So by drawing on Ireland’s rich historical and literary heritage, Ken Loach has created a film that serves as both a critique of modern political and economic infrastructures and as an engaging portrait of a rebellious young Irishman. Through excellent pacing and rich cinematography, Jimmy’s Hall touches on the nuanced power plays at work in modern society, and does so in a way that will cause pause for thought in its audiences – if not spurring them to real action.

Stephen Totterdell

15A (See IFCO for details)

108 mins

Jimmy’s Hall is released on 30th May 2014

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Report:March on Film Competition

Best Film Award

Mark and Ed Griffin with their awards for their film Drift

Stephen Totterdell reports from the March on Film Competition.

The March on Film Competition challenged Ireland’s filmmakers to spend the month of March bringing a short film from beginning to end. The finalists were given the opportunity to screen their films before an audience and a panel of judges on Wednesday night [14th May 2014] at The Sugar Club.

The night began with a prescreening of late entries. Of these, To Oscar by Seven Figure Films went on to take the Latecomer Award.

Locked by Random Thought was one of the winners of the Heats Screenings along with Walk On By from Salty Dog Productions. Locked is a humorous and postmodern take on the modern party experience, and manages to make an old subject fresh with its astutely observed social dynamics. Walk On By is an excellently put together comedy about a man who becomes friends with a pedestrian crossing button. Its strong editing and sound production bring to mind early Celtic Tiger Cinema, and cover up the occasional clumsy line of dialogue in an otherwise superb script.

The ten finalists displayed a remarkable diversity of influences and styles, confirming the Irish film industry’s retreat from old themes (priests) and its determination to examine modern life. Best Editor winner Michael Casey, who worked on Lights Out by VFilms, said that “With Irish productions like Love/Hate getting international attention, there’s a revival of interest in and awareness of the Irish film industry.” Many of the films demonstrated their commitment to engaging with the international film industry, and there was a distinct lack of “stage Irish” – or, by contrast, Hollywood style, writing on show.

Amongst the highlights were Persistence by Team Gibson, of which Ronan Graham went on to win Best Actor. It’s a sharp comedy about a shared social encounter – think an Irish Before Sunrise, with all of the social and dialectical nuance that implies.

Drift took a slew of awards [pictured]: Best Cinematography (Ed Griffin), Best Director (Mark Griffin), and Best Film. It’s a charmingly simple story about a lonely man and his balloon, made poignant by its light touch and emotional honesty.

Kirsten and Jim Sheridan, who couldn’t be in attendance because of scheduling conflicts, sent messages of support. They, along with the competition’s organisers, were keen to point out that the filmmakers who took part should think of themselves not as aspiring filmmakers, but simply as filmmakers. A central theme of the night was enthusiasm: that young people can get around funding barriers and use whatever means available to them to make a film they can be confident in screening.

All the finalists and winners are available to watch at www.marchonfilm.com

Complete List of Winners:

Audience Favourite – Heats Level: Locked (Random Thought)

Audience Favourite – Heats Level: Walk On By (Salty Dog Pictures)

Late Entry Winner: To Oscar (Seven Figure Films)

Best Actor: Ronan Graham Persistence (Gibson Karate)

Best Script: Abraham Tarrush FestiVOL (AC & Co)

Best Producer: Aoife Maguire, Meet Me (AK Maganos)

Best Editor: Michael Casey Lights Out (VFilms)

Best Cinematography: Ed Griffin Drift (Massimo G Riffin)

Best Director: Mark Griffin Drift (Massimo G Riffin)

Best Films:

3rd Prize:  Persistence (Gibson Karate)

2nd Prize:  Lights Out (VFilms)

1st Prize: Drift (Massimo G Riffin)

Best Teen Film:

5 Days of Falling by Candlelight Productions.

Complete List of Prescreening Films:

Locked – Random Thought

Get Her Number – Sharkasm

To Oscar – Seven Figure Films

Complete List of Ten Finalists:

A Friend – Continuum Productions

Drift – Massimo Griffin

FestiVol – AC & Co

Human Relations – Cula Bula Productions

Lights Out – Vfilms

Meet Me – AK Maganos

Persistence – Gibson Karate

Tache Force – Devils Head Films

The Way – MacGuffin

Walk On By – Salty Dog Pictures

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Cinema Review: In Bloom

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DIR: Simon Groß, Nana Ekvtimishvili  WRI: Nana Ekvtimishvili  PRO: Simon Groß, Marc Wächter  DOP: Oleg Mutu  ED: Stefan Stabenov  DES: Kote Japaridze CAST: Lika Babluani, Mariam Bokeria

Georgian cinema has a history as rich as any in Western Europe. As the Soviet Bloc still stood, Georgia’s films were considered amongst the most creative available to those behind the Iron Curtain. Before the collapse of the Bloc, directors such as Otar Iosseliani and Sergei Parajanov held huge influence over their peers and successors. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said of Parajanov’s films: “They have influenced cinema first in Ukraine, second in this country as a whole, and third in the world at large.” Since the nation’s declaration of independence in the early 1990s, however, Georgia’s film industry had lost its way a little. Now, with films like In Bloom, it’s showing signs of vitality again.

It’s 1992. Georgia has declared independence. We follow two 14-year olds, Eka and Natia, as they navigate inter-generational dynamics in family life and on the streets. Motifs of past versus future run throughout the film; from the old Soviet apartment buildings lighting up with blooming red roses, to the young girls’ interrogation and rejection of traditional family values. It’s exhilarating to watch the girls test their boundaries, and we see one liberty extended after the next until finally they impudently anger one of the locals and get a slap in the face. The obvious parallel here is the anxiety that envelopes a newly independent state that doesn’t yet know its own boundaries. It’s reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, which interrogated anxiety over Hong Kong’s handover to mainland China; or of any of the variety of European cinema movements which deal with a break from the past. That old chestnut.

Crisp cinematography by Oleg Mutu keeps the film two beats removed from its bleak environment. This technique has become more common in recent years, and helps to introduce previously overlooked national film industries to Western audiences. Visually the film creates a hyperreality reminiscent of Children of Men; the viewer is right alongside the characters but remains buffered from some of the film’s harsher moments. In Bloom resists traditional miserablism by attaining a sort of hyperfocus on its subjects. Rather than the chaotic state around them, the film creates a sense of hope by focusing thematically and visually on the blooming idealism of the two protagonists. At a party, we watch a traditional dance performed with grim efficiency and all around the room the onlookers shout encouragement. We don’t hear the encouragement, bar a few muffled shouts. We hear music playing faster and louder, we watch the girl dance the way she’s been taught to dance; for a mesmerising few minutes our experience of Georgia is focused on this minute act of reluctant tradition.

And then tradition is subverted. “Why are you poking around my things?” Eka’s mother asks, upon catching her daughter in her bedroom. A panicked Eka replies “I was looking for an address. I wanted to send a letter to dad.” Eka is learning not only to function independently in a dysfunctional family, but how to exploit tradition for her own gain. “She should have told her husband she wasn’t a virgin,” says Eka to two older girls on hearing of a divorce scandal, “He’s right to leave her.” They laugh, “What century are you in?” Similarly, as the two girls begin to understand their sexual power over the boys in their school, they come up against gradations of the same in older girls and adults. Just as they learn to maneouvre within the bread queues, they learn to maneauvre within gender politics. When Eka catches the two older girls smoking cigarettes, we know that the rose that symbolises her adolescence will soon turn to ash; and that she has but a narrow window of opportunity to exert influence on her world.

The film is co-produced by Germany’s Indiz Films, Georgia’s Polare Film and France’s Arizona Productions, and the two directors (Simon Groß and Nana Ekvtimishvili) studied film in Germany. It looks like co-productions will be the future in European cinema, as national borders disintegrate and funding barriers go up. In response to the breakdown in industry infrastructure since the declaration of independence, Georgia can capitalise on its international relations and arthouse prestige to regain its potential as one of the great world cinemas.

Stephen Totterdell

12A (See IFCO for details)
104 mins

In Bloom is released on 2nd May 2014

In Bloom – Official Website

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Cinema Review: An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker

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DIR/WRI: Danis Tanovic  PRO: Amra Baksic Camo, Cédomir Kolar   DOP: Erol Zubcevic  ED: Timur Makarevic CAST: Nazif Mujic, Senada Alimanovic, Semsa Mujic, Sandra Mujic

 

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is immediately reminiscent of Pavee Lackeen, though the latter brings slightly more depth to its subject. The two films share common themes of poverty and social exclusion, but the real novelty here is that both films create verisimilitude by hiring real people to play themselves. The film is a reconstruction of a real ordeal suffered by the family. Nazif makes a living in post-war Bosnia by collecting scrap metal and selling it on to keep his family above the poverty line. When his wife Senada suffers a miscarriage, Nazif is confronted with the typical barriers associated with minority groups: exorbitant hospital fees,  unspoken hostility based on the colour of his skin, lack of insurance. He is part of the marginalised Roma community, who are paradoxically more in need of medical care and less capable of attaining it.

 

The film’s docudrama format is interesting, because one wonders how the real Nazif chooses to portray his own experience. His face, worn by depression, remains almost entirely glum throughout. Is this because he is clinically depressed, or because the real Nazif needs to convey the brutal living conditions for the Roma community in Bosnia? In other words, what comes first: the lived experience or the sociopolitical import? The viewer is invited to consider Nazif’s Sisyphean sense of desperation – his family face problem after problem. The ‘Episode’ of the title rings true, because this medical emergency is not a typical cinematic event. It is not the dramatic event that defines a cinematic life. Rather, it is almost an everyday occurrence for the Roma community; just one problem amongst many. By the film’s end, Senada has been saved but two problems arise in her place. The family must save up to pay off their overdue electricity bill, and they must save up for Senada’s medicine; neither of which they can reasonably do.

 

Digging beyond this Sisyphean view, one perceives the small sense of purpose and dignity held by Nazif and his family. The viewer’s interpretation of his life is juxtaposed sharply with that of his children. Semsa and Sandra bounce on furniture, play games, watch DVDs, and appear oblivious to the family’s problems. This comes as a reminder to the Anglophonic critic who would be tempted to impose his own values onto Bosnian life. A lot of what we see here appears shocking – is shocking – but the scramble to separate what is truly difficult from what appears to be difficult has long been a challenge for Anglophonic audiences. One must be careful to follow Nazif into his world, rather than remaining the shocked outsider. The film hints at his small sense of purpose when, after returning from the hospital, Nazif and his family enjoy small smiles on the couch. After an hour of frustration, these smiles bring many of the film’s loose threads together. It indicates that these events are commonplace, and that the family find their happiness where they can. The satisfaction of a task completed brings solace.

 

More dignity is found in the hospital, when Nazif thanks the doctors and nurses for their help. “Should I treat you?” He asks. “That won’t be necessary,” they reply, “Thank you.” The hospital staff know he can’t afford it, and he knows he can’t afford it – but the gesture takes on great import and prevents Nazif from feeling like a victim. That these small victories are present is comforting, but they ultimately reveal the terrible conditions in which the Roma community are forced to live. This is the film’s central purpose. It is more of a cry for help than a narrative drama.

 

At 75 minutes, the film truly lives up to the “Episode” of its title, which means that its shocking and grim nature alarms the viewer without growing tedious. However, it’s hard to measure the political effectiveness of such a film. We know from our experience with viral videos that emotive pieces tend to flare viewers up, only to suffer a sharp disappearance from our collective conscience. While this film achieves a lot, perhaps the most depressing thing about it is that the conditions portrayed will remain unchanged for some time.

 

Although the docudrama ‘shaky cam’ is stale nowadays, some of the scenes – particularly those set in the snowy woodlands – are visually stunning. When Nazif hunts for scrap metal in the snow we get a sense of the sublime dichotomy of his world – harsh conditions with beauty in the background if one can find it. It appears to be the only method Nazif has of achieving peace. All around him are scars and problems from episodes past and future. The lines under his eyes speak to mental health issues. Amongst this, though, are crisp and vibrant snow scenes; moments of joy. The film ends with yet another episode beginning: “Senada,” says Nazif, “I’ll go chop some wood for the fire.”

 

While its messange is potent, the film remains a little one-dimensional. Its portrayal of the hardships faced by the Roma community in Bosnia is distressing, but it lacks the more nuanced portrayal of a community displayed by the aforementioned Pavee Lackeen. It’s a good film, but not a great one.

Stephen Totterdell

75mins

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is released on 25th April 2014

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Cinema Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

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DIR/WRI: Biyi Bandele • PRO: Andrea Calderwood • DOP: John de Borman • ED: Chris Gill • MUS: Ben Onono, Paul Thomson • DES: Andrew McAlpine • CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, John Boyega

Half of a Yellow Sun embodies Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”. Whilst the characters on screen navigate the class dynamics of colonial life; choosing to adopt certain characteristics of their European colonisers in order to advance professionally and socially; the film itself reflects a growing trend in mainstream cinema of dealing with African themes using traditional Western narrative structures. In the past many African films shirked the Western model. This came from the feeling that African directors lacked an instinctive sense of the Hollywood aesthetic, which meant that they were on the back foot when it came to international distribution. Complaints about production values, narrative devices, visual metaphors were subdued when African directors began following the principles of the Third Cinema movement and rejected the Hollywood model. Interestingly, and perhaps importantly, the latest batch of films dealing with issues of race; notably Long Walk to Freedom; unapologetically utilise a more Western approach.

 

Set during the Biafran War that took place between 1967 and 1970, Chiwetel Ejiofar stars as Odenigbo; a radical professor with an interest in postcolonial theory. The film revolves around his relationship with his lover Olanna, and the relationship between Olanna’s sister Kainene and Englishman Richard. The civil war background plays itself out through the neuroses of these four characters, caught as they are between Igbo and English cultures. What’s interesting is how the film plays around with the nuances of colonisation. It creates a dichotomy between the older or less educated Igbo population, who deal in emotions and superstition, and the cold logic of their European colonisers. Most of the central characters lie in the middle of this spectrum, having received an English education and yet remaining Nigerian rather than English. For example, Odenigbo is capable of advancing professionally as a critic of colonisation precisely because he has absorbed the English accent and cold logic the film associates with its English characters. The cognitive dissonance caused by this plays out in the tension and tenuousness of his interactions with his turbulent environment.

 

A rising star, Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to be best-known to audiences for his role in 12 Years a Slave. Given Idris Elba’s recent observation about the glass ceiling faced by black actors in England, it’s nice to see films like this being made (although it should be noted that although it’s an English-Nigerian co-production, it was filmed in Nigeria at writer Biyi Bandele’s request). Ejiofor brings a visceral undercurrent of sensitivity to his cold intellectual; embodying the tensions between Igbo and English culture without drawing overt attention to it. The performances by the rest of the cast are noteworthy – especially John Boyega as Ugwu who conveys a lot with very little dialogue.

 

While a few minutes could be cut, its running time is reasonable and it keeps an even  pace throughout. Its violence is genuinely shocking and comes in small, controlled doses. It’s real, fast, in plain sight. There are no special camera angles, no editing tricks, no gratuitous blood: just real violence, and it is all the more disturbing for that. There are a few nods to Chinua Achebe and his ilk, such as when an English photographer – during his first hours in Lagos – snaps the locals without so much as talking to them. His ignorance is emphasised because we compare him to the other Englishman, Richard; who has spent time amongst the Igbo population, speaks the language, and has integrated into the culture. Achebe’s great lesson is that of the coloniser projecting his or her own exoticised narrative onto the local Nigerian population. As Odenigbo says, “Race was invented by the white man as a means to oppression.”

 

Biyi Bandele, the writer of both the film’s screenplay and its source material, does a decent job directing, although it’s standard enough. There are a few beautiful flourishes, interesting newsreel footage, and the aforementioned steady hand when it comes to violence. Bandele comes from a writing background and is a successful playwright. That this, an early foray into directing, comes across as solid is achievement enough, and with the help of a potent screenplay the film manages to open up Lagos society to a Western audience in compelling fashion.

 

The film flags somewhat in the moments it loses sight of its politics; but, while the balance between kitchen-sink drama and colonial analysis is sometimes uneven, the civil war background provides enough tension to carry some of the film’s weaker moments. Although its political dialectic can occasionally sound expository, its ideas are new enough to cinema to make those lines worthwhile.

 

For those unfamiliar with Nigerian history, this film serves as an engaging introduction and will hopefully help bridge the gap between Nigerian cinema and the European or Hollywood model.

Stephen Totterdell

111 mins

Half of a Yellow Sun  is released on 11th April 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun – Official Website

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