Europe, She Loves: SFF 2016

Swiss director Jan Gassmann’s intimate observational documentary, Europe, She Loves (2016), is a love-letter to Europe. A camera tracks across scenes from different cities in Europe, as if seen from the back window of a passing car, celebrating the ease with which this pan-European crew can move from one city to the next. The work itself is the result of extensive collaboration between crews across five European cities: Tallinn, Dublin, Seville, Thessaloniki, and Zagreb. And the stories of the four young couples, one from each city (- The Zagreb story was left out of the final film -), unifies, rather than separates, these different cultures with their overwhelming sense of shared humanity.

This love-letter, however, is no paean, but a eulogy.  Gassmann is well aware of the challenges facing Europe, and news bulletins are repeatedly used to draw attention to the various crises playing out across the EU. The couples seemingly live their microcosmic lives divorced from the broader forces at play, but in truth the macro powers assert themselves forcefully into the deepest inner sancta of these private relationships: Caro, a girl in Seville, unable to find a job amid high youth unemployment, leaves her boyfriend behind and heads out on her own towards Paris; Veronika, a Tallinn mother of two, tries to support her family by performing as a go-go dancer all night long, while breast-feeding during the day; a Dublin couple, through an overwhelming boredom caused by lack of opportunities, fall inexorably back into drugs; a Thessaloniki couple whose relationship is on the brink because the girl, Penny, is poised to leave Greece, against the backdrop of street riots.

One of the most striking things about the film is the rare intimacy with which Gassmann has been brought into these lovers’ lives, filming the couples in their most private of moments, not excluding sex. The sex in the film, far from being gratuitous, draws us more profoundly into the deep personal bonds between characters; the nuances of the various relationships explored through the slightest of body language and gesture.

Gassmann loves his characters as much as he loves Europe, and one cannot help but feel, as the various couples feel the strain between each other, the underlying angst that is simmering away in Europe’s heart. The only hope that remains is perhaps indicated in the strength of the love between the Estonian couple, who are the ones closest to healing their ruptures and forging the foundations of a shared future together.


No Home Movie: SFF 2016

Infused with the long shadows of the past and ineluctable reflections of the future, No Home Movie (2015), Chantal Akerman’s final film before her death at the age of 65, is at once an elegy to her dying mother, Natalia, and a profound personal confession, as the filmmaker attempts to confront the possibility of a world without her ‘maman’.

Once again for Akerman her fixation with space takes centre stage; in this film the Belgian apartment of her dying mother which feels like both sacred refuge and shadowy tomb. Filming through curtains, and repeatedly moving from inside to outside, like a moth drawn towards the light but which can’t quite reach it,  Akerman constantly achieves a sense of confinement within the apartment. Her mother’s belongings and furniture become, in the typical frontal style that has made Akerman famous, relics like those found in a museum.

Akerman, as world-travelled filmmaker, cannot remain inside this space for very long. She is a figure that is always passing through, but never staying. As the title suggests, this is “No Home” for her. Her transience compounds the sense of inevitability when, in the last scene that we see her in, she takes her leave from her mother for the last time, drawing the curtains back and taking suitcase in hand. By contrast the filmmaker’s world, driven by the curiosity of an artist, opens up upon the large, rolling expanses of a desert (filmed in Israel).

And yet while Akerman contrasts the confinement of her mother against her own sense of freedom, I couldn’t help but feel that it was precisely in these spaces, in these “distances” (as she calls them in the film) that I feel her come closest to her mother. It’s almost as if Akerman has to create distance in order to draw closer to her, and in this sense I am reminded of her earlier film News from Home (1977) where she reaches out to her mother from the distance of New York. When Akerman is at home with Natalia if feels as if they talk rather than connect. As Natalia confides to her carer at one point, Chantal “never talks”, or at least “never says anything interesting”. It is conversely when they are apart that I feel the moments of greatest connection: in the way that Natalia’s face lights up on the skype screen, barely being able to conceal the joy of seeing her daughter; in the way that Akerman movingly films her own reflection in the same screen, blurring the two identities into one, her own outline woven into the eyes of her mother; or in the landscape where the two are joined together in their spiritual home, as one image suggests: two mountains facing each other, a small fault line running between them.

It’s hard to watch such a personal film. It’s even harder to watch it in light of the untimely death of its author. We still feel her presence so strongly emanating from the screen, still breathing on us like the wind that blows through the field of grass in one scene. Akerman is the tree of the film’s opening, battered by strong winds yet standing there triumphantly, surveying the terrain beneath her. In this image we can feel that she has finally come home.



Death in Sarajevo: SFF 2016

In his latest film Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevu), Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land, 2002) , brilliantly confronts the “hysterical dualism” at play in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the context of its impending inclusion in the EU. This “hysterical dualism” identified by a Bosnian historian who is being interviewed in a film within the film, is most clearly expressed by the differing attitudes towards the figure of Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event considered the catalyst of the First World War: was/is Princip a “terrorist” or a “hero”?

Death in Sarajevo, loosely adapted from the play Hotel Europe by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, in fact takes place on the centenary of Ferdinand’s death, and raises the prospect of approaching the same event in history through radically different narratives. By doing so, Tanovic invites the possibility that history in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to be radicalised, forces behind the Balkan War of the 1990s in which the country suffered the worst casualties of all the nations of former Yugoslavia.

Set in a swish hotel in modern Sarajevo, where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton once stayed, as the weary hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) informs us, Tanovic deftly uses the various spaces, to present us with an allegory of the various strata of Bosnian society, from the nightclub thugs in the basement, up to the French diplomat in the penthouse (perhaps suggesting the true influence that the EU exerts on Bosnia-Herzegovina). Above him, though, on the rooftop a Bosnian journalist, Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan), interviews a number of people for her television show, with modern Sarajevo looming large in the background, and I suspect an affinity for the role that film/television can play here, looking down from a bird’s-eye view at the big issues at play in society. Incidentally, the power of the image is alluded to at other points in the film, through the omniscience of security cameras within the hotel. It is also used as the final shot in the film.

What is striking about the way Tanovic treats each of his subjects – from the smooth-talking gangster in the basement (to whom he gives some of his funniest lines – about a worm living in shit), to Hatidza who has dedicated her last thirty years to working in the laundry, to her daughter Lamija (Snezana Vidovic) who has become a sassy head receptionist, to Lamija’s latest one-night stand, a new love-smitten sous-chef, to the wife-harried, coke-snorting security guard, to the desparate hotel manager, right up to a gun-toting Serb nationalist on the roof – is the depth of humanity he is able to infuse in each of them. Superb editing, sometimes pausing momentarily on a character as they stare wordlessly in deep thought, as if catching a private out-take, intercuts between the various characters, weaving them together into one seamless tapestry, that is a succession of narratives lived together, each unknowingly affecting the other. Long takes following one character, then surprisingly intercepting with the trajectory of another character, bears visual witness to this concept. You can’t help but get the feeling in Tanovic’s universal inclusivity, that in spite of all of his characters’ differences they are united by circumstance; by this shared, complex narrative web called History that has imprinted itself like a scar upon Sarajevo and all who live there.



Reviewing the 63rd Sydney Film Festival: Goldstone

Here I am back again one year later reviewing another suite of films at the Sydney Film Festival.

Ivan Sen’s new film Goldstone opened the Sydney Film Festival last night, and has divided audiences: “masterpiece”, or “flawed experiment” ??


Cemetery of Splendour, a feature film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

We spend approximately one third of our human existence sleeping (and dreaming). Cinema, with its ability to express itself through word and images, with its ability to manipulate time and space, is perhaps most true to itself when it adopts the qualities of dream. At least this is what I feel whenever I watch an Apichatpong film. It is the feeling that cinema comes into contact with itself, over and over again. Cemetery of Splendour (2015), screening as part of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, is fortunately no exception.

Jenjira, an elderly housewife, is a volunteer at a makeshift hospital in Khon Kaen, a small town (incidentally where Apichatpong grew up) in Isan Province, Thailand . There she tends to Itt, one of a number of male soldiers who have succumbed to a mysterious sleeping illness. The ward of sleeping soldiers, in the hands of Apichatpong, becomes a place of transcendent splendour, where the sleeping and the waking co-exist. In much the same way Apichatpong’s dreaming and waking life merge in the film itself.

Apichat’s magical realism is so startlingly real that the magical, or, better, spiritual, dimensions of his world become part and parcel of our waking reality, without distinction. Goddesses carry scarves from the market. A psychic who might also be an FBI agent sells skin care lotion for a local TV personality. Electric multi-coloured healing lights are set up between the sleeping soldiers, turning the room from green to red to blue to yellow, and back again.

But while in a Lynch film, for example, we become aware of the fact that we are dreaming, with Apichatpong it is a dream in which we lose ourselves completely. It is only until we reach the end that we open our eyes, as Jenjira does, and truly consider the “absurdities” of what we have just witnessed. It is as if Apichatpong’s unconscious has filtered directly into the very depths of our own being. There was a strong sense of intimacy among the audience as we gathered outside the cinema to make sense of what we had just seen.  It was as though we, just like Jen and Itt, had, for a brief moment – at least two hours of our life – experienced the same dream.

Tehran Taxi, a feature film by Jafar Panahi

Screening in official competition at the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, the third feature film Jafar Panahi has made while technically not making films (officially, at any rate), after This is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013), Tehran Taxi (2015) is his strongest “banned” film, not least for the lightness of touch and infusion of hope with which he deals with the weightiest of topics.

Using humour more freely than in his previous banned films, Panahi seems more at ease, both physically as an actor (he features as the central figure as himself playing a taxi driver, picking up (seemingly) random passengers off the street) but also as a filmmaker, delighting in the play-acting of his cast playing out “real-life” situations, while never undermining the seriousness of the predicament in which he has found himself (i.e. that of a banned filmmaker under house arrest).

The line between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred, with characters on more than one occasion alerting us to the fact that the people who appear in the film are in fact actors playing out scenes choreographed by Panahi, or, at the very least, drawing attention to the fact that they know who Panahi is, or that they know that they are being filmed. The virtuosity of Panahi’s craft as director is that one cannot be 100% sure about who is playing a role and who is not, though we begin to suspect as the film progresses that Panahi has choreographed more than we might have initially supposed.

A short, stocky distributor of illegal DVDs is one such character who confuses us, initially appearing as though spontaneously out of the corner of the frame, claiming a “real” moment by recognising both Panahi and dialogue spoken by “actors” from another Panahi film, his performance becomes far more nuanced as the film progresses – such as a particular look he gives when he has been called out by Panahi for having suggested to his client that Panahi and he are business partners.

Panahi’s young niece is particularly delightful. She is absolutely at home playing games with her famous filmmaker uncle, but she has also been given a set of ideas about filmmaking that need to be raised in the course of the film. Panahi disguises the framework beautifully by getting his niece to tell him what her teacher has been telling her about making films. The teacher tells her she must make a “seeable” film, in which Islamic saints need to feature as the heroes, and in which no “sordid reality” must appear lest the film become “un-seeable”. Throughout the film the niece discovers just how hard it is to make a film without any trace of “sordid reality” be it an argument among neighbours, a homeless boy finding some money, or people speaking about “politics or economics”. Through the eyes of the niece, then, Panahi alerts us to the fact that all true filmmaking must in some way encounter a dose of “sordid reality”, and that, therefore, perhaps the teachers are not always right.

Censorship is, unsurprisingly, a major theme that runs throughout the work: in the way teachers are educating Iranian youth (through the niece); in the way that cultural commodities are distributed on the sly (such as the DVDs and CDs in the film); in the way that we learn about the authorities executing and locking away dissenters (such as through the ebullient “flower lady”who is actually a lawyer); and in the way that ordinary Iranian citizens are afraid to approach authorities for fear of over-zealous consequences (such as through a childhood friend who prefers to take his story to Panahi rather than to the police).

However, most cinematically, and therefore most powerfully, the theme of censorship is at the heart of the film in the stylistic choices Panahi makes: cameras rigged up inside the taxi surveil himself, his passengers, and (with some quick rotation) the world outside; the DVD distributor man uses his mobile phone to record an accident; Panahi’s niece uses her own pocket camera to record Panahi and the world around her;  a colleague gives Panahi a scene to watch on an i-pad. One gets the feeling that cameras are as ubiquitous as cars. Cameras (and therefore filmmaking) for Panahi are thus, finally, a form of freedom, and, moreover, in the hands of a curious next generation, a beacon of hope.

Therefore, while the last confiscation of his taxi cameras might represent a victory to the authorities in a minor battle, it will not win them the war.

The Daughter, a feature film by Simon Stone

My experience of watching an Ibsen play is that in the very first scene I have the feeling that someone has fired a bullet, and then I spend the rest of the play waiting for it to hit. Inevitably, after a long, suspended trajectory, it does.

Simon Stone literalises this idea in his adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in his stunning debut feature film The Daughter, produced by Nicole O’Donohue and Jan Chapman, and screening tonight as the first in the official competition at the 62nd Sydney Film Festival. The film begins with a bullet being fired into an evocative mist, only to claim its first victim in the form of a lame duck. Those familiar with Ibsen already know that this duck is a metaphor writ large, and that this bullet will claim another victim, all in the passage of time.

This feeling of inevitability conjures the spirit of ancient tragedy, something Ibsen himself was tremendously interested in. So palpable was this sense of inevitability for the ancient Greeks that they coined a term for one’s sense of helplessness in the face of this more powerful force: that is, “pathos”.

Stone, having turned his hand to the ancients on more than one occasion – his theatre production of Seneca’s Thyestes is one example – is no stranger to pathos. So it is no surprise to find a strong sense of pathos running rampant throughout The Daughter. This is exacerbated by one of his boldest stylistic choices, in the editing where often the dialogue spoken by the actors become separated from the actors themselves, acquiring their own force, independent of the human agents. Its as if, freed from the throats of the human players, the words are written by the hands of the gods themselves, pulling the characters who utter them helplessly along behind.

An equally bold (and I think by and large successful) choice is that Stone savours the ensemble cast, in a manner unexpectedly reminiscent of Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (a recall perhaps aided by memories of Geoffrey Rush’s performance). While audiences may struggle to find their sense of equilibrium in the first half hour, as Stone rapidly shifts our sense of point-of-view, it soon becomes clear that Stone’s real interest is not so much in taking us along the journey of a central protagonist (although Odessa Young’s raw performance as Hedvig, or equally Ewen Leslie’s wounded Oliver might vie for the honours), but rather of the journey into the machinations of family dynamics, in which each character is in some way complicit.

In this way, the one responsible for the crime (and some may be tempted to point to Henry (played by Geoffrey Rush) – but note that even he cannot bring himself to kill the wild duck at the film’s opening) becomes strangely amorphous: it’s as if the complex web of human interactions themselves are to blame. A crescendo of compromised relationships descend into a cacophony of cadences, each sending ripples out into the misty valley: a dissonant chorus of human voices obfuscating clarity.

In this misted land of compromised ambiguities, it is only the sound of the bullet that rings out loud and clear: an act of clear decision; an act of defiance by the one pulling the trigger. It is a clarion call – a deep plea for Stoic certitude within a sea of compromised human emotions, all too often defined, as we each of us know only all too well, by chaos and confusion.