LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

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UKJFF: Saul fia (Son of Saul, 2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).


Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.

Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.

Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.


© Sony Pictures Classics

FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival
Director László Nemes | Writers László Nemes and Clara Royer | Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély | Starring Géza Röhrig | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015

Ida (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Solopan

It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.


CREDITS || Director Paweł Pawlikowski | Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Paweł Pawlikowski | Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski | Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza | Length 80 minutes

Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope, 2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Andrzej Wajda | Writer Janusz Głowacki | Cinematographer Paweł Edelman | Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski | Length 124 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© ITI Cinema

I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.

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