After a hiatus shaped like Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival (which I produced), my viewing journal returns with a typical mix of artistic expression and popcorn nonsense. On Wednesday night the third edition of Iberodocs – Scotland’s only dedicated documentary festival and a celebration of Ibero-American cinema – opened at Filmhouse in Edinburgh to a packed audience. Begun as a way to showcase the work of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American filmmakers, Iberodocs has quickly developed a dedicated audience, supportive sponsors and a robust and carefully selected programme of films. A lively and welcoming reception at Traverse bar preceded the opening film, Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a sincere and affectionate biography of the Nobel prize-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Directed by Justin Webster, the film brings together interviews with Márquez’s friends (Gerald Martin, his biographer; Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, writer and Bill Clinton no less), peers, family and inspired writers (Juan Gabriel Vásquez), to reflect on the extraordinary life and politics of one the world’s most celebrated literary talents.
Relying mostly on talking heads interviews, archive and television footage, Gabo chronicles the writer’s early life, student days, journalistic career, romances, his great friendship with Fidel Castro, which seemed to run counter to his anti-communist politics, and is most engaging in the use of interviews with the man himself, which demonstrate his sharp wit and idiosyncratic perspective on life. On receiving the Nobel prize for literature, a journalist asks him, “is this the greatest moment of your life?” to which Márquez replies, “No, that was the day I was born.” Such moments go some way to answer the film’s central question; how did a boy who was born into poverty grow up to be a writer ‘who won the hearts of millions?’ Márquez’s charisma, dedication, and importantly, self-belief emerge as the defining characteristics that allowed the author to have such an impact.
Iberodocs runs until Sunday 8 May and includes the remarkable and very moving, All of Me (Friday 6 May), by Arturo González Villaseñor about the Patronas, women in Mexico who prepare and distribute food to the migrants who pass by on the freight train to the US. The short film programme Looking From Afar (Sunday 8 May) also looks to be an exciting collection of highly personal works from such sharp artistic talents as Salomé Lamas and Ana Vaz.
Elsewhere in my viewing, Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature as writer/director, Green Room surpassed my expectations, which were based on some buzz around Patrick Stewart portraying a skin head Nazi in backwoods America. Stewart certainly is suitably chilling in the role of Darcy, but what’s most interesting about Saulnier’s work, as with Blue Ruin, is how, unlike many a director of dark and violent films, he appears not to celebrate violence, but rather, violence occurs due to ingrained social expectations and justifications of power, and is horrific and visceral in a very authentic, non-stylised way. Green Room cinematographer Sean Porter creates a dank, dark atmosphere using very little light, whilst editor Julia Bloch uses neat and clever cuts to keep the pace fraught and the horror efficient.
Finally, this week I saw Captain America: Civil War, which gleefully allows members of the Avengers A and B team (and some other ‘enhanced’) to shine, within excellently choreographed and edited action set-pieces. The film somehow doesn’t convey the ethical complexity of the Civil War comic books, despite the presence of a menacing Daniel Bruhl. It’s also still deeply frustrating to see only three female characters with speaking roles in these films (where’s Cobie Smulder’s Agent Hill?!) and only two women a line-up of super dudes. I’d love to see a Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) origin story, but the possibility of that seems nil.
What Happened Miss Simone? Liz Garbus, excellent documentary
Season 7 of Parks and Recreation (again)
Last year, I participated in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. It was my first visit to a film festival outside the UK and it opened up a world of cinema I’d yet to see at that point. Going back this year has been a very different experience, not least of all for navigating the programme without the structure of jury screenings to attend. When faced with a programme as massive as IFFR’s, it can be daunting to know what to see. I took the opportunity to see some celebrated work by established directors (Ben Rivers, Lucille Hadzihalilovic, Laurie Anderson, and Whit Stillman) and was drawn to new work by female filmmakers considering issues of representation, compliance, gender, and sexuality.
Melisa Liebenthal’s Las Lindas, which had its world premiere screening in the Bright Future section, is an autobiographical essay film, focused on her adolescence and that of her friends, how they developed into young women and the societal expectations they felt to be attractive.
Chronicling the shifting loyalties among her school friends, Liebenthal explains how, between the ages of 9-12, she and her friend Camilla were very close, slightly apart from a group of girls they would later bond with, who referred to themselves as the ‘Little She Stars.’ The ‘Stars’ were popular, confident and close with the boys from their class. By contrast, Liebenthal states that, ‘at the age of 12 I decided to stop smiling in photographs.’ A montage of pictures attests to this, with Liebenthal seen at the beach, or a museum or with family, each time with the same half blank, half serious expression. The smile is this director’s first target for critiquing the conditioning of young women to be compliantly attractive to men. “You’re prettier if you smile” – and other persuasion tactics – are here identified as absurd but extremely effective manipulations, seen in the countless photos of smiling girls shown, that contrast with Liebenthal’s straight-faced rebellion.
It’s an entertainingly frank, clear and witty self-portrait that neatly places the filmmaker’s own experience within the context of wider issues around gender inequality, relying more on personal testimony than statistics or academic theory. Liebenthal’s willingness to expose her own insecurities, her inviting self-awareness, combined with editor Sofia Mele’s efficient handling of each sequence, make Las Lindas not just a film every teenager should see, but a thoughtful and worthy contribution to the essay-film genre.
In five years, prolific American director Nathan Silver has made six feature films and five short films. I saw Stinking Heavenat IFFR last year, where the director has been well featured over the years. That film looked at the use of role play as therapy in a communal living situation, and with his new work, Actor Martinez, Silver has teamed up with co-director Mike Ott, to take the concept of role play as far as possible. Seen in the film as themselves – or versions of themselves – Ott and Silver follow actor/full time computer repairman, Arthur Martinez as he goes about his daily life; you might call such scenes documentary. Arthur also performs as himself in scenes constructed by Ott and Silver, and the three of them hold auditions for the part of Arthur’s love interest. Actor Martinez frequently works with set ups and reveals, between what is presented as ‘document’ and what is play, even its two directors set up scenes where they read lines as themselves, playing almost Machiavellian overlords to Arthur’s life. The latter complains consistently that the experience is ruining his life, and that he no longer knows what is real and what is play, and appears to evade revealing his ‘true’ self to his tormentors, who, frustrated, push the limits of what is tolerable not only for Arthur, but for his co-star, Lindsay Burdge. What is ultimately ‘actual’ and what is constructed remains a puzzle that Ott and Silver clearly want their audience to enjoy trying to solve.
Also interested in role play, is Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part, which had its world premiere at the festival. Maggie Siff (Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna Baskin, an actor who takes an abrupt leave from her successful TV role to go back to her old apartment in New York. There she meets up with two friends with whom she once collaborated in the ‘90s; Kate (Cara Seymour, American Psycho, The Knick) who is less than happy to see her, and Isaac (John Ortiz, Silver Linings Playbook) who welcomes her, but isn’t altogether honest. The three friend’s fractured relationship then becomes the film’s focus, with as much time spent on Kate’s internal struggles – showcasing Seymour’s incredible performance – as Anna’s journey back to stability. A Woman, A Part is perhaps flawed in not allowing enough of the comic moments its cast are clearly capable of delivering, but it’s refreshing to see an adult drama where the protagonist’s lives feel authentically written, they have real flaws, which mean you can’t like them all the time. Each of them is still trying to find their role, and seeing the process of them push each other is often very thoughtfully done. Still, the ending is perhaps too neat for all that’s gone before.
I saw two very different approaches to female sexuality in Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. In the former, writer/director Krebitz extracts a compelling performance from her lead, Lilith Stangenberg as Ania, a young woman who one day sees a wolf in the woods near her apartment and becomes obsessed with capturing it. Much is made of Ania’s sad and repetitive life, and her introverted personality, enhanced by a palette of grey blue and her somewhat girlish clothes, all the more to demonstrate the change that affects her when she and the wolf become housemates. There’s a level of absurdity to some sequences, notably when Ania’s sexual fantasies play out, but this seems to come more from a knowing sense of humour than unintentional clumsiness. Stangenberg’s performance remains one of conviction, and very much carries the film to its inevitable conclusion. Krebitz is playing with the theme of the instinctual, wild woman supressed by the expectations of the patriarchy, and she does so with a kind of gleeful wickedness that is actually, a lot of fun.
Fun, also is The Love Witch in which writer/director/editor/producer Anna Biller (who also did production and costume design) has created a present-day scenario where young lovelorn witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is intent on embodying the ultimate male sexual fantasy. Using the aesthetics of 1960s sexploitation cinema and shot on 35mm, Biller envelopes the viewer in a completely realised, technicolour world, at once removed from, and inherently familiar as, ‘real’. Real in the sense that Elaine’s entirely constructed femininity, functioning to give pleasure to the men she gives her love potion to, is only a slight exaggeration from the everyday standard of beauty with which women are still conditioned to comply, as is demonstrable from Las Lindas.
Despite Elaine’s layers of artificiality and obliviousness, Biller is sympathetic to her brainwashed central character, making clear that it’s the men in her life who have led her to follow this path, and who will, finally and tragically, oppose her. Along the way, the sheer beauty and level of attention to detail in The Love Witch is stunning, and Robinson’s performance shows an astonishing commitment to the physicality of the role, which requires great restraint and poise (utilising her background in dancing). The Love Witch was a particular highlight of IFFR 2016 – a gloriously seductive feminist work, and a distinctly pleasurable viewing experience.
Also seen: Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the two Eyes are not Brothers, Ben Rivers A Woman, A Part, Elizabeth Subrin Strange Love, Natasha Mendonca Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman Evolution, Lucille Hadzihalilovic Sixty Six, Lewis Klahr History’s Future, Fiona Tan Arianna, Carlo Lavanga
There’s been more than enough pieces written on the best films of 2015, including two lists (which include Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, pictured above) to which I already contributed – Sight & Sound and CineVue – so here at Cinematic Investigations, we’ll refrain from adding further to what was considered ‘best’* last year. Instead, this annual review will focus on the complete year’s viewing, including television, films re-watched and those seen at festivals and at home. In a year in which I attended 10 film festivals, viewed 262 films, of which 68 were short and 125 were new** features, this is a way of considering what was personally most memorable, and not necessarily the films themselves, but the whole experience of viewing, discussing, sharing and thinking about film.
Filmmaker interviews at IFFR 2015
As I reported back in January, I was selected to be part of International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. A great honour that allowed me to meet some brilliant people, and conduct interviews with Remy Van Heugten via Skype about his film Gluckauf, in person with Ingo Haeb about The Chambermaid Lynn, on the phone to Martin Radich to discuss Norfolk and via email with Nicolas Steiner for his remarkable documentary, Above and Below.
Tired Moonlight at IFFR and EFG
Britni West’s enthralling, ambiguous Tired Moonlight was the last of 31 films I saw at IFFR. By that point I was exhausted and longing for my own bed, and West’s Super 16mm shot ode to her hometown of Kalispell, Montana gradually lifted me from apathy to pure joy. When I screened it for the Edinburgh Film Guild audience in December, it temporarily made us forget there was a freezing downpour going on outside.
Family cinema trip: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
My favourite ‘Come and See’ screening at Filmhouse in 2015.
4. Brutal cinema part 1: The Tribe
Being a fairly miserable Ukrainian drama in which the only dialogue is un-subtitled Russian sign-language, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe was a hard sell to the friends I asked to accompany me, but I suggested it could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It certainly proved more divisive than anything else, sparking a heated debate about whether such depictions of violence are deliberately and unnecessarily provocative.
Orange is the New Black series 3
Particularly episode four, Finger in the Dyke written by Lauren Morelli and directed by Constantine Makris, in which Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) backstory is revealed; where an initially playful persuasion by her father to get her to wear a dress as a child, develops into complete parental rejection of her lesbian identity. This series frequently deals with characters struggling with who they are, and this episode showcased DeLaria’s ability as a performer to convey someone who courageously asserts herself, in the face of those who would prefer she pretend to be someone else.
Asif Kapadia’s expertly made documentary about Amy Winehouse just about broke me.
Brutal cinema part 2: I stay with you (me quedo contigo) at IFFR and EIFF.
At IFFR, I saw Mexican artist Artemio Narro’s I stay with you, a deliberately deceptive, willingly provocative experiment in putting female violence on screen and right in the viewer’s face. In an upcoming issue of the Slovenian journal KINO!, I discuss the film and violent women generally with fellow writer Tina Poglajen, but on first viewing I really didn’t know what to make of it. When EIFF Artistic Director, Mark Adams, selected it to screen at EIFF, I looked forward to meeting with Narro again and talking more about the film, having allowed its brilliance and flaws to fully sink in. Narro proved to be one of the best guests at the festival – he’s certainly aware of the challenging nature of the film, and was prepared to lose a good proportion of the audience during the screening.
At his Q&A, I asked him about the film’s wider reception, about his intentions for the film, and the audience too, quizzed him on the random appearance of a horse (actually a unicorn, Narro loves them, even has a unicorn tattoo, which went down well in the country for whom they are the national animal), and the film’s unsettling tonal shifts. It was a film that inspired what any artist can hope for – passionate, thoughtful (and in this case, angry) engagement from the audience.
EIFF’s Doc of the Day: Stand By for Tape Back-Up and other special events, including Haskell Wexler himself.
As programme coordinator at Edinburgh International Film Festival last year, I had the pleasure of planning and delivering a lot of truly special events; a gig reuniting legends of the Scottish post-punk/indie music scene following Grant McPhee’s Big Gold Dream; a Skype Q&A with the Angulo brothers, subject of Crystal Moselle’s incredible The Wolfpack, and In Person events with Neil Innes and Barry Purves. One of my films of the year however turned out to be Ross Sutherland’s Stand by for Tape Back-Up, an autobiographical, semi-experimental documentary that plays with time and memory and incorporates The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into musings on the afterlife. It’s a film that’s now deeply embedded in my mind as one of the most intriguing and moving I’ve seen.
Also at EIFF, I met again with award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (High Fidelity, Atonement, The Avengers, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Godzilla) who had brought legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler to the festival to discuss his work and the issues most important to him. Wexler wanted to spend most of his onstage time praising Seamus, but the latter carefully persuaded him to share some of his experiences from his life’s work, which includes One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Medium Cool. Sadly Wexler passed away in December aged 93, I’m privileged to have met him.
10. Cats Are Cinema: Noel Marshall’s Roar
In which Noel Marshall and wife Tippi Hedren spent eleven years bringing to the screen a film they were sure would raise awareness of the poaching of African big cats and the unfair treatment of big cats in captivity. The result was a shoot with over one hundred cats – lions, tigers, jaguars etc. – seventy injuries to the crew and several near death experiences. The film itself is a completely bonkers and terrifying tribute to the cats, and Marshall and Hedren’s foolhardy commitment to their cause. A late night at EIFF, in which I laughed long and hard.
11. There’s how many teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of ketchup?! The influence of That Sugar Film.
There’s four. Four teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of tomato ketchup. Thank you Damon Gameau for making That Sugar Film and forever changing my feelings about the sweet stuff. When I met Gameau at EIFF I learned I was the eighty-fifth person to host a Q&A with him – he said I did a good job. What a pro.
12. Family Cinema Trip: Magic Mike XXL
My sister was ssshhh’ed for whooping during the opening credits – those Edinburgh Cineworld audiences take their fun seriously! And it was, seriously fun.
13. Singing and crying: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Filmhouse
Only the second time I’d seen John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical (the first being a Blockbuster video rental sometime around 2002) but this time it was a sing-a-long screening and I soaked up the film’s emotion and wit, impressed by my friends lyrical knowledge and shared sensitivity to Hedwig’s identity crisis.
Finally finishing The West Wing brought with it the satisfaction of seeing it through and the sadness that there were no new episodes to see. When we first started it, we found W.G. Snuffy Walden’s score unbearably patriotic (what did we expect?!) but by the end it felt triumphantly appropriate. Other highlights of viewing: assessing Josh’s hair, loving and then missing Sam Seaborn, doing impressions of Bruno’s ‘kelp’ speech, noticing which episodes had a Parks and Recreation version, saying ‘Blues explosion’ during the credits when John Spencer appears.
A superhero show in which the villain is literally the patriarchy? Yes please. A thousand times yes.
17. All in one night: Master of None
So many brilliant episodes in this series, I loved how each was themed, I loved the compassion and honesty of it, I loved its representation of friendship and millennial anxiety. I loved that it was flawed.
18. Aniston forever and ever and ever
In case you didn’t know, 2015 brought you the blog series you’ve always wanted: a critique of the megastar that is Jennifer Aniston. Watching her films has so far been a mix of irksome, joyful and hilarious, more coming soon.
I summarised what makes Todd Haynes’ latest so special, and my film of the year, for CineVue, so I’ll simply quote myself here: ‘That it’s so highly lauded is assuredly deserved, as Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have created a richly realised depiction of romantic love that envelops the viewer completely in its characters’ world. Both Rooney Mara as shop clerk and aspiring photographer Therese, and Cate Blanchett as the titular married woman, falling in love in 1950s New York, give exceptional performances, and have a chemistry palpable in every glance. The result is a film the very texture of which, highlights Carol and Therese’s relationship as one defined by both their unnameable intimacy and the distance between them, agonisingly reconciled in the film’s last, brilliantly tense final scene.’
20. Finally saw Frozen and understood its genius (see video below)
21. Best Christmas film: Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
*For the record my official Top Ten, offered to CineVue is:
2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
4. Stand by for Tape Back-Up
6. It Follows
7. Arabian Nights
8. The Forbidden Room
10. Force Majeure
** Any film that had its first screening in 2015, internationally.