My week in film: shorts aplenty in Leeds and Bratislava

Mid November involved my visiting two international film festivals, Leeds and Bratislava, to sit on their short film juries. Two days in Leeds, thirty four films over six programmes in one screen at the Everyman cinema, resulted in one minor headache (probably from sitting too close to the screen), four satisfying meals, some very well crafted works and the pleasure of the company of fellow jurors Muriel d’Ansembourg and Jasper Sharp.

I’d never been to Leeds before and I still feel as though I haven’t, due to the tight schedule of screenings partially dictated by my departure back to Edinburgh in time for the next festival. Nevertheless, spending two days watching short films created with energy, passion and skill is a fine way to spend one’s time. From what I did see of Leeds and the impact of the festival (it runs for two whole weeks) on the city, it appears well attended and well loved. I was sad not to catch the local talent represented by the Yorkshire Short Film Competition. Tim_Guan-1024x573Of the films in consideration, we selected Drama directed by Guan Tian (pictured above) as the winner of the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition. Drama frames its action from the back seat of a car, where a mostly unseen couple halt their coitus when they realise they have no condoms. Seeing a woman across the street whom they assume is a sex worker, they decide she should be able to provide them with the missing contraception, and in observing her relate their interpretation of her interactions. The film impressed us for its layering of translations and clever use of off-screen space. First there’s the assumptions made about an unknown woman, then the translation of dialogue into subtitles for a non-Chinese speaking audience, and finally, like Rear Window, a play of what can and cannot be seen from the couple’s vantage point. In eleven minutes, Drama absolutely involved us in this couple’s intimate investment in another couple’s conflict, moving through frustration, fear, laugher and relief. Elsewhere in Leeds’ line up, The Jacket by Patrick Vollrath (to which we gave a special mention), Turtle (Jordan Scheile) and Volta (Stella Kyriakopoulos) were all very well executed pieces on – respectively – themes of masculinity, class and motherhood.

Washingtonia, Konstantina Kotzamani, Greece, 2014

Onward to Slovakia and a far more relaxed schedule awaited me. Alongside jurors Doris Bauer (programmer of Vienna Independent Shorts) and Eva Križková (Editor in Chief of Kinečko), I was tasked with considering twelve short films for the Prize for Best Short Film, and in a selection that included Aura Satz’s Chromatic Aberration and another by Patrick Vollrath – the Cannes selected Everything Will Be Okay, it’s safe to say each film had its own elements of originality and technical achievement. Ultimately we chose Konstantina Kotzamani’s Washingtonia, for the way it combined an idiosyncratic portrait of a mother and son, with musings on the nature of relationships and the natural world, or as we put it to the festival: ‘For the many pleasures that it offers. It has a depth and ambiguity that allows multiple interpretations and balances concerns of the heart and mind.’

20151114_135859 (2)
Lida Suchy, Portrait of a Village, Archaeological Museum Bratislava

Being in Bratislava for three full days with time to spare, I explored the city a little. An attempt to find the archaeological museum to see an exhibition of photographs by Lida Suchy titled, Portrait of a Village, resulted in a climb up and around the castle and back again and finally the discovery of the museum next to a construction site along the dual carriageway. It was worth it to see the extraordinary images captured by Suchy of villagers photographed first in the 1990’s and then, twenty years later. Bodies grow and shrink, lines appear, stature is affected and then relaxed and the benefit of hindsight provides new philosophies.

View of Bratislava from Bratislava Castle

Suchy’s partner, Mišo Suchý was the focus of a retrospective, and his concerns as an ethnographic/documentary filmmaker sat well with the festival’s family theme. At the screening I attended, I had the pleasure of seeing I Have Come a Long Way (1988), About Dogs and People (1993), Pictograph (2007) and Prysia’s Garden (work in progress, 2015) – all beautifully observed and thoughtfully realised studies of people and their environments. During the programme’s introduction, I was identified as the only non-Slovak speaker in the audience and to my surprise, after the lights dimmed, Suchý himself sat in the seat next to mine, whispering to me that he would provide translation as the first film had no subtitles. Akin to a live director’s commentary, the exactness of his hushed interpretation is unknown to me, at least I know that, for example “typical communist propaganda” describes the general, rather than specific translation of one scene in which a TV news program is seen in I Have Come A Long Way. Thanking him for his kindness after the screening, Suchý said simply that he had been in the position of lacking understanding in un-subtitled screenings many times, and he didn’t want to impose that experience on me.

Strangely the rest of the films I saw at BIFF were all American. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa was typically agonising and hilarious, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was utterly gripping (and deserves more words than I can offer here) and following Bachelorette, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People seemed to hide a dark and personal story beneath shiny romantic comedy clichés.

Also recently viewed: My Skinny Sister (Min Lilla Syster, Sanna Lenken, 2015), Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren, Jia Zhangke, 2015) and Netflix’s Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang.

My week in film: Zero Dark Thirty and McCullin

The Hurt Locker, McCullin, Zero Dark Thirty: this week has been all about war and its representation. Each film addresses the impact of war on the individuals that fight them and in the case of McCullin, the devastating burden of memory that comes with bearing witness to the atrocities of combat. Watching The Hurt Locker again I was surprised by how straightforwardly it makes its argument for war as a drug – the first time I saw it I took this single-mindedness as a sign of focus that serves the tension in the film very well. On second viethe_hurt_locker28wing, there seemed to be moments of narrative emptiness – or at least that the trajectory that central character, James (Jeremy Renner) is on, naturally involves lows as well as highs and that this occasionally results in watching a character that is hard to engage with.  This focus pervades Zero Dark Thirty as well, as CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), following 9/11 becomes obsessed with finding and killing Osama bin Laden; at the cost of any friends, family connection or personal relations at all. The screenplay not having included a romantic/parental guilt subplot is not just a welcome relief; it also provides the moral, human critique that many of the films’ detractors have said it lacks, by showing that the efforts of Maya to achieve hers and the governments’ goal don’t solve anything, or justify the war, let alone release Maya from the weight of her obsession. Maya’s emotional numbness; her blank expression on seeing the body of bin Laden represents perhaps a most disturbing judgement of torture that suggests its use has lead to an anticlimactic nothing – a truly chilling notion. zero-dark-thirty-trailer-final

Its problematic that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow didn’t choose to emphasise the enormity of the moral outrage and complexity surrounding the use of torture by the CIA, instead portraying it as one method of getting information, that is then replaced by others, such as bribery. However the result is a film that allows for ambiguity – for the viewer to think and engage critically, not just after, but also during the film. Even as Maya is portrayed sympathetically – grieving for the loss of her last ‘friend’ and colleague – she remains somewhat unreachable; unsympathetic; pushing her team to the limits – perceiving that bin Laden’s death will somewhat correct the imbalance caused by the enormous US and UK death toll from terrorist attacks. This distance allows for a viewing that at every turn, can consider what the impact of her actions really are, on her colleagues, the economy, the public perception of the hunt, and most importantly, for the victims of torture. esq-thirty-1012-xlg

The raid scene itself rewards the procedural approach of the preceding hunt, delivering palpable tension as the SEAL team approach, broach and invade the ‘fortress’ in which their target is concealed. Using an aesthetic most closely akin to video games, and utilising the inherent eeriness of night vision POV, these scenes put the viewer in the midst of the action, following the soldiers as they move up each level – a moment given to dwell on every life taken.

mccullin-northern-irelandLives taken feature heavily in McCullin; David and Jacqui Morris’s documentary portrait of war photographer Don McCullin, who, over three decades covered conflicts the world over – Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Cambodia – with an unflinching, yet sympathetic eye. Paced steadily, with a solid, if unimaginative chapter-like approach, McCullin traces its subjects’ career, placing the photographs themselves at the heart of each tale of brutality and violence. McCullins’ images, most poignantly described by the man himself – show the humanity that is being lost in times of conflict, or with regard to one devastating account – finding dignity in a place where it would be least expected. Some of the most tragic and heartbreaking moments in McCullin however, are those in which his articulate testimony, without visual representation, conjure a vivid image, allowing the viewer a means to imagine what horrors still haunt the great man.

Also watched, in the Filmhouse Polanski season: Cul de Sac – a delight.