Thoughts on LFF 2015: Arabian Nights

The BFI London Film Festival ran from 7-18 October, opening with Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette and closing with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. Whilst there, I caught neither of these (natch), but did see a host of other new films, most of which had been around the festival circuit for a while but were making their UK debut in the English capital. A highlight was Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights which had its world premiere in Cannes this year and is structured in three parts; Volume 1: The Restless One (125min), Volume 2: The Desolate One (131min), and Volume 3: The Enchanted One (125min). Seeing all three films back to back (with 30min breaks in between) at LFF, might happily make the experience one to include in those deemed ‘endurance cinema.’

Gomes previous films, Our Beloved Month of August (2008) Tabu (2012) and Redemption (2013) all play gleefully with notions of documentary and testimony. Actors are commonly non-professional, playing versions of themselves in re-enactments of events in their own lives, mixing with professional actors too. Arabian Nights takes this even further, using the structure of Scheherazade’s tales to present fictional stories about the economic, social crisis in Portugal from July 2013 – August 2014. At the same time, the director is all too aware of the problematic nature of his approach, presenting himself at the outset as a man in crisis, wondering how he can resolve his social and political responsibility with his desire to present ‘wonderful stories.’ He runs away from his crew, and upon finding him, Gomes’ destiny is to be punished according to ‘the Law of Cinema and Audio Visual Media’.

Still from Volume 1: The Restless One, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire
Still from Volume 1: The Restless One, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire

This irreverent and contradictory approach is what makes Gomes’ films so involving, at once he appears deeply concerned about ethics and committed to confounding his audience. So in Volume 1: The Restless One, we see the story of The Men with Hard-ons, where Portugal’s political elite are usurped by their own desire for virility, whilst in The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire, a cock that crows before dawn is tried by a committee for disturbing the peace, and defends itself through a translator. It’s elements like this that bring to mind an absurdist tradition along the lines of The Marx Brothers, Monty Python or more recently Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier).

In Volume Two: The Desolate One, the true story of a couple who took their own lives in a tower block, becomes the basis for a narrative about a dog who encounters their own ghost, in The Owners of Dixie. Here Tabu actor Teresa Madruga plays Luisa, one of Dixie’s owners, giving a moving performance of a woman becoming gradually overwhelmed by her circumstances.

Still from Volume 2: The Desolate One, The Owners of Dixie
Still from Volume 2: The Desolate One, The Owners of Dixie

Gomes worked with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, known for creating the lush look of Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past lives (among others) for Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Throughout Arabian Nights, the use of 16mm and 35mm creates a depth of colour and texture that enhances the film’s atmosphere, seeming to make the experience of the characters somehow more palpable. In Volume 3: The Enchanted One, the sun-drenched Mediterranean, standing in for Bagdad, looks utterly gorgeous, as we see Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) encounter the inhabitants of the archipelago, such as Carloto Cotta’s hapless and endearing Paddleman. Later, Volume 3 becomes almost entirely a document of Chaffinch training and singing competition, though structured loosely, it’s impossible not to become invested in the fate of these little birds and their dedicated owners.

Still from Volume 3: The Enchanted One, Scheherazade (on the 515th day of narrating stories to the King)
Still from Volume 3: The Enchanted One, Scheherazade (on the 515th day of narrating stories to the King)

That Arabian Nights became three films is down to the looseness of Gomes’ production plan at the outset, and the resulting volume of footage shot – somewhere there is a nine hour version of the film. In an interview with cinema scope, Gomes talks of the film as being equally one film and three, so that either volume would come to represent the whole experience that he wanted to give the audience. By explicitly using a storytelling structure – a story leads to another (actually something like Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, which also screened at LFF) Gomes perhaps makes more explicit than in previous films, the critique of narrative that has consistently concerned him. Does a ‘documentary’ perhaps deceive its audience by presenting something ostensibly ‘real’? A document of social distress, told through the narrative of, say chaffinch trainers channelling energy previously dedicated to regular employment, is perhaps most compassionate and honest when communicated as a collaboration of document/performance between director and ‘actor.’

NB – for anyone located in or around Edinburgh, you can see Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August as part of the Edinburgh Film Guild programme, LOCAL/LOCALE. More info here. Facebook event here.

Mundane History

The relationship between the individual and society is at the core of Mundane History by Anocha Suwichakornpong, but far from being a straightforward treatment of causality or employing a definitive narrative context, the film expands its theme to tackle spiritual and philosophical considerations as well. This expansion reaches as far as cosmological imagery – a juxtaposition with domesticity perhaps realised more coherently than in Malick’s Tree of Life.

The plot concerns a young man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk) who is paralysed from the waist down and confined to his room in his father’s manor house. Cared for by male nurse, Pun (Arkaney Cherkham), Ake oscillates between fury and obstinacy at his new, restricted world. Ake and Pun’s initial interactions are awkward, with Pun seeming unprepared for the tension and emotion of his patient, and Ake resistant to conversation with his round-the clock carer. Eventually the two find common ground, with both expressing their previous ambitions toward creative careers – one of many instances of the way the film is concerned with differences between outward appearances and internal desire.

The sense of an underlying, unspoken strain in the household – demonstrable by Ake’s father’s persistent absence – is maintained throughout, not only by the other inhabitants, who hold back from open conversation, but in the quiet, still shots of the house – both internal and external – that show through diegetic sound, how little seems to occur there. One wonders if this was the case even before Ake’s accident – the cause of which is never revealed – or if the quiet respectability is inherent to the patriarchy of the home.

In an excellent interview included with Second Run’s DVD release of the film, Suwichakornpong speaks of the way the film deals with the notion of life cycles in Thai culture. The stages of birth, decay, death, and rebirth are present both in the imagery of human childhood and Ake’s condition, and the montage, or layering of images of nature with a voice over describing the life cycle of a star. A shot of Ake’s empty room: the bed and chair notable for his and Pun’s absence cut to footage of a caesarean being performed. When described simply in this way, the grand, national and cosmological reach of Mundane History might seem heavy handed, however the effect is quite the opposite – by this point sympathy for Ake and Pun’s combined enclosure – one physical, one socio-economic – is established well enough to view their circumstances as symptomatic of the cultural norms (and life cycle) of the country as a whole, and reflective of even the most banal existence sharing elemental origins with other life forms.

It is testament to Suwichakornpong and editor Lee Chatametikool’s deft handling of the films various audio/visual elements that the pervading result comments on family structure and Thai culture with such subtlety. Finding the right music for the soundtrack was key for the director, and the editing process required a song that would compliment the visual edit. The final choice of a song by Malaysian band Furniture combines with visual shifts in the film, and punctuates the narrative. This punctuation was for the director a way of creating little ‘explosions’ of sorts that gradually expand, providing a way to introduce the cosmos to an ostensibly domestic setting.

Comparisons with Apichatpong Weerasthakul are inevitable, given the films ambiguity and balance of spiritual/familial aspects, but Suwichakornpong has clearly developed her own aesthetic, and one that is closer in its use of non-linear narrative to Wichanon Somumjorn’s In April the Following Year, There was a Fire (my review of which, you can read here).

Mundane History is an invigorating, hugely rewarding film, and one that only improves on repeat viewings – don’t miss the directors fantastic short Graceland also included in another excellent release by Second Run DVD.

 

Investigating the Cinema of 2011

It’s January again, a time for planning the New Year’s activities, films to watch, ones to look forward to and also a time for reflection. Unsurprisingly I have been thinking about the films I’ve seen this year – of which there are hundreds when I include cinema outings, DVD’s rented, films watched online and special ones bought or borrowed.

In order to narrow down my review of 2011 however, I am going to concentrate merely on cinema experiences; represented here by pictures of the tickets I have archived for the year. They include those of re-released classics, as those moments when the lights go down and the curtain pulls back are truly ones worth investigating!

Pina by Wim Wenders

In no particular order then, I begin with Wim Wenders’ Pina, a 3D documentary about the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Featuring interviews with dancers and collaborators as well as archive material of Pina herself, some of the real pleasure of this film came from the new performances of her work. Whether on stage or taken outside into the landscape or urban space, the intangibility of the digital created a wonderful tension, as movements appeared indiscernible from one dancer to the next and leapt from the screen.

Le Quattro Volte, on the other hand, directed by Michelangelo Frammartino also contained one scene that seemed choreographed like a dance, although so precise as to utterly convince as an hilarious accident, involving a dog, a truck and some goats. An almost wordless film, philosophical in intention – I’m stuck as to other films I’ve seen recently that so perfectly combined form and content. I didn’t want it to end.

In total contrast to that I really enjoyed Attack the Block, the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, one half of comedy team Adam and Joe(the other being Adam Buxton, of course). Wearing its horror and sci-fi influences firmly on its sleeve, Attack the Block gloriously celebrated the underdog and the delights of analog effects. The simplicity of the creature design – a beast with seemingly impenetrable black fur and the wittiness of the dialogue combined for a truly refreshing and hilarious British film.

Speaking of darkness – never has it been put to such startling use than in Béla Tarrs’ Turin Horse. Bleak in tone, repetitive in its plot and seemingly negative overall – I was captivated. Not one to see if you require your films to have explosions, or character development or a happy ending but if, like me you appreciate a unique world view about humanity and survival, then I wholeheartedly recommend you seek out this film. Especially as Béla won’t be making any more – as he said himself at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: this film expresses all he has to say, and being about ‘apocalypse’, is a fitting end to a near 40-year career.

Also at EIFF last summer I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). Having spent some time working through the feature films of this most marvellous Thai director I was excited to see his early work on screen – a rarity for sure (discussion of those can be found elsewhere on this blog). ‘Joe’ as Apichatpong likes to be referred to, had sent a video introduction in his absence at the screening, and he described how the conditions of making the film were so unique and special they could never be repeated – something that can certainly be said of his other works. An impression is given of a truly magical filmmaking process and a film that seems to evolve instinctively rather than being planned down to the last detail. If you ever get the chance to see any of Joe’s films at the cinema – take it!

In a similar vein there was another retrospective title that has proven itself one of the more memorable screenings of 2011. I have read a lot about Terrence Malicks’ The Tree of Life being the top of ‘best film’ lists for last year (notably in Sight & Sound) but if was the restored version of Days of Heaven (1978) by the same director that really affected me. Projected at Filmhouse in glorious 70mm this was the perfect cinema experience. The story concerns a family of sorts who work as farm labourers – Bill (Richard Gere) and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), pose as brother and sister to be more respectable, whilst keeping Bill’s sister Linda (Linda Manz) under their care. Their seemingly simple, tough but somewhat idyllic life becomes disrupted when the land owner (played by Sam Shepherd) falls for Abby. Malicks’ technique of using only natural light is never more spectacularly demonstrated than in the scenes of the cornfields at dusk, and sitting in the dark I was mesmerised.

Margaret

Moving back into the 21st century one of the last films I saw last year was also the best. Being someone who has championed Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000) for many years, I was keen to say the least to see his latest film Margaret. The film was actually made in 2005, but due to disagreements with the films’ financiers Camelot Pictures and Fox searchlight (that Lonergan failed to fulfil the terms of his contract, having gone over budget and failing to deliver a film of the agreed length, and on time) the film is only now seeing the light of day – and only just. In an attempt to ‘bury’ the film, Fox gave no press screenings and only after demands from London critics and twitter/Facebook users to give the film more screenings has it gotten a wider release in the UK – an example of social networking being put to good use.

This is all only important because the film itself deserves to be seen. It has obvious flaws – its length, how messy it is and a central character (Anna Paquins’ astonishing performance as Lisa) that is very difficult to like. At the core though is a portrait of New York – damaged and traumatised post- 9/11 and portrayed beautifully by Lonergan as a place where traffic is constant, but only occasionally do people really relate to each other.

There were many more fantastic films released in 2011, and some of them I only managed to see on DVD, but they are too numerous to mention here. I’ve already had one most memorable experience this year – Raúl Ruiz’s four and a half hour epic, Mysteries of Lisbon, which proved itself to be a true feast of cinema. I hope the year’s cinematic treats provide more opportunities for investigation.