2009 NZIFF No.2

October 10, 2009



OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST is the second feature by the relatively unknown Portuguese filmmaker, Miguel Gomes, although on the strength of this film he won’t remain unknown for long. There is significant quality and potential on display in this film, but as good as it is, I can’t quite go so far as to declare it the masterpiece that some have. At 150-minutes, it might just be a tad leisurely, and the freewheeling style of the first half will irritate some. But if you have the patience for the slow build up, there are plenty of subtle bits-of-business to savour. Just don’t expect the film to take meaningful narrative shape for a good hour – at least!


I know nothing about how the film was made, so it’s hard to judge the veracity of the factual and fictional elements in what is generally taken to be a film that ‘starts as a documentary then morphs into dramatic fiction’. On the face of it that seems to be what happens, but I suspect that Gomes is much more in control of his film than we are led to believe. I could be wrong, but that’s part of the pleasure of this extremely unique film, and I mean unique – I can’t think of any other like it. It’s tempting to cite Manoel de Oliveira (whose new film, Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl, will screen at this festival) and the late João César Monteiro (an iconoclast to the end) as possible influences on Gomes, as he shares a similarly dry (very dry!) sese of ironic wit with his two Portuguese elders. The opening scene (of a fox eyeing-up caged chickens) may be a tip-of-the-hat to Monteiro. This is followed by a poem in which João de Deus (a character Monteiro played in his films) is mentioned. There may be no connection at all of course, but that’s part of the intriguing mystery and pleasure of this excellent film. 


Jerzy Skolimowski began his directorial career in the mid-60s with a run of impressive films, notably Identification Marks, None (1964), Walkover (1965) and Barrier (1966). His international productions include Le Depart (1967), Deep End (1971), The Shout (1978), and his best-known film, Moonlighting (1982). He also had a huge amount of input into Roman Polanski’s superb debut feature, Knife in the Water (1960). Following the disastrous Ferdydurke (1991), Skolimowski packed away his directorial chair to focus on painting and poetry, but after a spot of acting in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), he felt encouraged to return to filmmaking. FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA (Cztery Noce z Anna) is the result, and it’s an exceptionally good return to form.


One might be tempted to herald the film as a ‘triumphant’ return-to-form if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s strongly reminiscent of many other films. The visual style recalls Bela Tarr’s Krasznahorkai trilogy; Michael Haneke’s The Castle (with which it shares darkly comic overtones) and Time of the Wolf (particularly the effective use of natural lighting); and the sodden landscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky. The story parallels Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Short Film About Love; there are hints of Roman Polanski and the Czech New Wave; and the emotionally withdrawn awkwardness of the central character is strikingly similar to Pharaon de Winter in Bruno Dumont’s Humanity. But yes, these could all be mere coincidences.


Skolimowski may be no Tarr, Haneke, or Dumont, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While more conventional than its predecessors (if not influences), Four Nights with Anna is nevertheless an assured film. There’s subtle black humour throughout that suggests that the cinematic references could stem from a taste for taking-the-piss, as well as an willingness for self-depreciation. In any event, the verve of the filmmaking and attractive atmospheric appeal of the visual storytelling (refreshingly light on dialogue) make the film one of the most intriguing of the European films in this festival.


Love is far from blind in Juraj Lehotský’s assured debut, BLIND LOVES (Slepé lásky). Ostensibly a documentary about a small number of visually impaired people grappling with life and love, Lehotský seamlessly incorporates a fictional layer into the mix that results in a work of rare honesty, intimacy, and poetry. The non-professional cast are either completely or partcially blind. They essentially play themselves, and the clarity with which they ‘see’ things leaves no room for pleading sentimentalism about disability. The teasing uncertainty as to what is and isn’t staged is only one aspect of the film’s appeal. Differences between sighted and unsighted perceptions are beautifully conveyed throughout the film, as in one unexpected sequence involving a giant squid. The fact that Lehotský pulls this scene off without disturbing the naturalistic balance of the film testifies to his skill as a director.


Blind Loves is restrained, but it’s never forced or austere. Lehotský’s affection and admiration for the people in his film is palpable, but he eschews calculated appeals to the emotions. It’s slightly reminiscent of the blunt humanism of Austrian filmmaker, Ulrich Seidl, but with none of Seidl’s corrosiveness. One might also discern similarities with György Pálfi’s Hukkle (2002), or the muted naturalism of Valeska Grisebach’s Longing (2006), but such comparisons could be misleading. Blind Loves is very much its own thing, and is sure to be appreciated by casual filmgoers and connoisseurs alike. Highly recommended. 


DOUBLE TAKE is Johan Grimonprez’s idiosyncratic blend of historic fact and fiction casts a wry eye on commercial and political duplicity by assembling archival news footage, television advertisements, and the droll introductions to the late 50s TV series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. To this he adds a Borges inspired Tom McCarthy story in which Alfred Hitchcock takes an extended lunch during the making of The Birds (1962) to meet a man in a hotel who turns out to be his future self from 1980, the year of his death. There is also a documentary portrait of Hitchcock look-alike, Ron Burrage, who played Hitchcock in Robert Lepage’s The Confessional.


The archival material reflects the anxiety of the Cold War period, using footage of the space-race; the Cuban missile crisis; the Kennedy/Nixon debate; Nixon meeting Krushchev; Castro in Russia; etc. The notion of doubles is given a contemporary parallel with footage of the Empire State Building after being hit by a small plane back in 1945. This is paired with footage at the end of the film of Donald Rumsfeld delivering his infamous speech about ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’, contextualising the film within a pointedly up-to-date political anxiety, and emphasising the implication of ‘double-dealing’ that is present throughout the film. Instant coffee commercials (promoting the product of the Hitchcock series sponsor) underline the theme of manipulation and coercion, neatly wedding the insidious practise of convincing consumers to ‘buy’ something they don’t need (and which, more to the point, is fake) to broader considerations about entertainment, televised news, and duplicitous political rhetoric.


Grimonprez is best known for Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, his 1998 cine-essay on plane hijacking. In Double Take, he does a bit of hijacking of his own by constructing archival footage into a thoughtful piece about, among other things, the use of fear as a political tool. As such, there is a distinct parallel between Grimonprez’s thematic intentions and those in Lanthimos’s Dogtooth and Jai’s 24 City. However, despite the seriousness of Grimonprez’s intentions, his film isn’t (in my view) in the same league as Jia’s masterpiece or Lanthimos’s allegory. Double Take isn’t a long film, but it might have been more effective if it had been shorter. The Burrage segment and tale about Hitchcock meeting himself are recursive and ultimately tiresome, but they dominate the film. It’s as if the filmmakers weren’t confident that the allegory would be enough to sustain an audience’s attention. Double Take is certainly interesting enough to sustain one viewing, but I doubt if I’ll be rushing back for a second.


John Walter’s impassioned and inspirational THEATRE OF WAR raises many though-provoking questions, such as what do we do with the knowledge of our complicity, what do we do with our apparent powerlessness, and how does our work and actions define us? Bertold Brecht attempted to answer these questions by facing them head on in his writing, notably “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Theatre of War is structured around the 2006 Public Theatre production of the play in New York, which Walter uses as a pretext for an examination of the meaning and value of Brecht’s great work, particularly in a post-911 world. At one point, he shows the burning of the Reichstag, a reminder of how Hitler consolidated power. 70-years on, the Twin Towers collapse, another consolidation emerges, and Mother Courage takes to the stage once again.


Brecht stressed the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own making (rather than ‘being made’ by the dictates or machinations of others), but he also acknowledged the impossibility of doing so in a world governed by dependency and fear. Brecht saw ideological enmity as the perfect pretext for warmongering and moneymaking: money is the primary means by which everything is measured and motivated; idealism inevitably gives way to cynicism; ‘God’ is the ultimate justification for evil (or for doing nothing), and the cowardly and self-serving are the most likely to survive. And yet there is hope in Brecht, and it resides in active participation: standing up, speaking out, writing a play, composing music, making a film … or even just going to see one!


The make-believe of cinema occasionally connects people with their conscience, but more often than not the world of dreams and illusion keeps us dozing. Theatre of War may not be a deafening wake up call, but it pokes us firmly in the ribs as we snooze. However, one film that encapsulates the ideas discussed in Theatre of War (with as much force and conviction as you will see in this festival) is Haile Gerima’s TEZA. Gerima is fully aware of the wickedness of the world and the futility of idealistic fervour in the face of raw hatred. Mother Courage is referenced in a scene where a woman tries to stop soldiers dragging her son to war, a moment that brings the philosophical ruminations of Theatre of War into stark and palpable relief.


Teza is a very ambitious film. It has a relatively complex narrative structure spanning many decades, cultures, and characters, and with a running time of nearly 2 ½ hours it’s something of an epic. While the humanity and courage depicted in the drama is reflected with equal intensity in the filmmaking, Teza is not without flaws (such as some of the worst acting of any film in the festival, and an old-fashioned, overwrought style of direction). But none of this really matters because Gerima’s passion and sincerity come powering through regardless.


Given the film’s account of a country in which children are rounded up as war-fodder as soon as they can hold a weapon, it would have been quite justified for Teza to end in anger. Instead, it closes with a celebration of new life, a near-revolutionary note of obstinate hope. When the lights came up the audience responded with an outburst of genuine applause, and while other films in this festival are sure to receive similar approbation, few are likely to elicit as heartfelt a response as Teza.


That said, Nandita Das’ debut feature, FIRAAQ came close. Firaaq is another ambitious film based on tragic historic events, specifically the violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat where thousands of people were killed in 2002 in what was widely thought to have been a government-sanctioned bloodbath.


Das and her writer (Auckland-based Suchi Kothari) framed their film around a handful of loosely related characters whose lives were directly affected by the violence. Their intention was to elucidate the social, religious, political and racial conditions that give rise to enmity. It’s bleak, but not without hope. Das deserves credit for not only managing to get the film made, but for doing so with such sincerity. Firaaq is nicely put together, and one can’t argue with its objective to address the injustice and suffering of racial violence, but I wonder if the need to produce a movie that reaches as wide an audience as possible resulted in a film that’s more conventional than was necessary.


Predominantly character-driven, Firaaq relies heavily on its actors, but unfortunately a few of them struggled with the gravity of their roles. The handsome Sanjay Suri and the equally beautiful Tisca Chopra play an affluent young business couple (he’s Muslim, she’s Hindu) whose shop was looted in the violence. Both actors were quite out of their depth. Their performances were such that one wondered if their work in romantic comedies caused them to forget how to frown convincingly. One could be forgiven for thinking that they were primarily cast because their looks would appeal to audiences, distributors, and/or funders. The exposition is earnest and overly telegraphed to the point of cliché. Aarti (Deepti Naval) is the downtrodden housewife (servant, more like) of the brutish chauvinist and racist Sanjay (Paresh Rawal). Guilt-ridden for not helping a distressed Muslim woman fleeing her attackers (and who was most likely killed), she eventually finds the courage to leave her all-bad husband to follow her conscience, which of course we are primed to expect she will do.


The problem I had with Aarti’s story (and others in this film) is that because it is so blatantly didactic it lacks the conviction and power necessary to be truly effective. I’m not saying that Firaaq is a bad film, but (like Teza) its use of commercial cinema tropes to communicate a non-commercial message comes across as ingratiating. That said, judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience, such criticisms may not be widely held, and (once again) it doesn’t really matter, because like Teza before it Firaaq gets its points across with unmistakeable clarity.


One film that handles its potentially sensationalist subject matter with intelligence and respect (for audience, story, and cinema itself) is Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s VAN DIEMAN’S LAND. Co-written and co-produced with actor Oscar Redding (who plays the central character, Alexander Pearce), this impressive feature debut is based on Pearce’s confessions relating to his 40-day ordeal surviving the Tasmanian bush with seven other penal colony escapees in the 1820s. Pearce was the sole survivor. The others – well, they were dinner. 


Viewers expecting to revel in an hour or two of cannibalism will be disappointed. As grim and murderous as the story is, Heide and Redding eschew sensationalism for a contemplative approach, pitching the film somewhere between the sodden frontier grittiness of Deadwood and the philosophic poetry of Terence Malick and Werner Herzog. Everything about the film – cinematography, direction, acting, editing, the superb score and equally fine sound design – is class. That it was achieved by pulling favours and scrimping together the resources necessary makes it all the more remarkable. Van Dieman’s Land may not be political in nature, but this thinking-boy’s-own adventure is an example of a film that deals with potentially lurid subject matter in a respectful, artful, moral, non-judgemental and non-gratuitous way, indicating a direction that politically orientated filmmakers could take.


But there was an even stronger example of how one might address political subject matter in a formally precise manner without pandering to or alienating the viewer, Warwick Thornton’s exceptional feature debut, SAMSON AND DELILAH. This Australian feature achieves it's aims without resorting to the audience-pleasing tropes often employed by earnest filmmakers anxious to get their message across (Teza and Firaaq), Thornton’s film is a solid example of politically focused cinematic fiction, and while one could quibble with a few of the directorial choices, for the most part the filmmaking is of a very high order. Mature, intelligent, compassionate, sensitive, respectful, perceptive, understated, artful, serious-minded, genuine in its depiction of the world, focused and measured in its expression of anger, but with no lack of potency, vigour, or conviction. What more can I say? Excellent.


There is very little dialogue in Samson and Delilah. The principle actors say very little, which functions as an effective metaphor for a people without a voice. On paper that might sound trite, but on the screen it’s barely noticeable thanks to Thornton’s skill. The sun may be shining, but it bears down upon Samson and Delilah like a searing reminder of their place as indigenous people in a long-colonised land. Thornton’s formal restraint speaks volumes. There is no need for expositional dialogue. He trusts his images, the perception of the viewer, and the power of cinema to speak for him. Thornton is in total control of his art, and has no need for movie conventions, fabrication, predictability, cliché, overemphasis, or emotional pleading, yet his film packs a walloping politically grounded punch. Samson and Delilah is humane, focused, and sincere, free of the need to pander to the dictates of commercial expectations. One could say that as a filmmaker Warwick Thornton is truly free.  


Those familiar with the found-footage creations of Craig Baldwin, such as O No Coronado (1991), Tribulation 99 (1992), and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) will have some idea what to expect from his latest excursion into cut-and-paste retro-chic, MOCK UP ON MU. Baldwin’s inventive concoctions have always been more than film-geek indulgences. He is obviously a fan of industrial-films, government-films, and all grades of pop and pulp culture from B to Z, but he is also very adept at subverting the original intent of the material to ironic and pointedly critical effect. In Mock Up, Baldwin takes his iconoclasm further by enlisting the services of fellow cult-film connoisseur, Damon Packard (creator of the infamous Reflections of Evil, 2002). Packard turns in a suitably over-the-top caricature of L Ron Hubbard (one-time sci-fi author and founder of the Church of Scientology), now based on the Moon where he plots all manner of nefarious bits of business that involve a tattooed femme-fatale called “Agent C” and a dubious defence contractor by the name of… Mr Lockheed Martin.


Got the picture?


The plot is typically convoluted (perhaps even more than usual), and everything from weapons dealing to religious hokum (and all shades of political and social charlatanism in between) is subjected to Baldwin’s sardonic wit. Coming at a furious clip and packed with aural, visual and intellectual stimuli, Mock Up is an unrelenting ride. But in a world dominated by (and currently suffering from) the excesses of the High-Priests of Self-Serving Materialism, films like this are a necessary reminder of just how easy it is to fall prey to (as Baldwin might put it) The Tentacles of the Octopi of Mammon!


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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© Steve Garden 2017 

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