Tom Huddleston and Virginie Sélavy report on the hits and misses of the 51st London Film Festival.


MISTER LONELY (Harmony Korine)

A pure pleasure: joyous, kaleidoscopic, fragmentary and incredibly silly, Harmony Korine’s return feels almost like the work of a different filmmaker, a man baptised by fire and chronic depression, now returned with a new fervour and passion for film and life itself. That is, until you get to the part with Werner Herzog as a flying priest. Tom Huddleston

FAR NORTH (Asif Kapadia)

With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic fairy tale set amid breathtaking landscapes. Against the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival, an increasingly tense triangle develops between two women and the escaped soldier they have rescued. At a time when there is so much angsty questioning about the state of British filmmaking, it is baffling that such a beautifully accomplished film should still be awaiting distribution. Virginie Sélavy

I’M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes)

Not for everyone, but a pure joy for Dylan fans, this is a bit of a nerds’ compendium, overflowing with in-jokes and witty asides, and some of the greatest music ever recorded (and, in some cases, re-recorded, for the most part very tastefully). Not all of it works, by any means, but what does is so dreamlike and involving, so vivid and original, it’d be a hard heart who didn’t come away feeling something. And Cate Blanchett’s performance is quite simply uncanny. TH

KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett)

Newly restored by the BFI, Charles Burnett’s 1977 neo-realist look at life in the ghetto is a beautiful, heart-rending film. Weighed down by his dehumanising job at the slaughterhouse, Stan sleepwalks through his life, unable to respond to his wife’s loving gestures. Stan and his friends’ efforts to improve their lives seem vain, and even though there are some very warm, humorous moments – in particular the scenes of kids playing in the wasteland – all that remains at the end is sheer hopelessness: the film closes with images of Stan working at the slaughterhouse as Dinah Washington’s sorrowful ‘Bitter Life’ is heard on the soundtrack. VS

TALK TO ME (Kasi Lemmons)

Something of a no-brainer, this tells the story of loudmouth ex-con and DJ Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene, a no-holds-barred man of the people and civil rights agitator who ruled the Washington airwaves in the late 60s and early 70s. Recycling every cliché in the DJ-biopic rulebook, this manages to be totally familiar and consistently surprising, thanks in large part to the passion and drive of director Kasi Lemmons, a terrific period soundtrack, and an extraordinary central performance from the wonderful Don Cheadle. TH

FROZEN (Shivajee Chandrabhushan)

A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film. VS

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (De Fortabte Sjaeles) (Nikolaj Arcel)

Or, Harry Potter, Danish style. This is a rollicking kids’ fantasy, drawing on diverse sources (Scandinavian folklore, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) to create a dynamic, exciting and enjoyably daft mythos of its own. The special effects are cheap and cheerful and the action sequences may lack pace, but the script is witty and self-aware, the young actors striking and watchable, and the plot moves at a lick. Roll on the American remake. TH

PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novels deservedly won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes festival. Although the film is a necessarily stripped-down version of the two volumes, which respectively describe her childhood in Teheran and her exile as a teenager in Austria, the film version retains all the elements that made them so successful: the mix of Satrapi’s personal story with her country’s history, the wryly humorous look at the absurdity of political power games, the penetrating observation of both Iranian and European societies and the powerful contrast between cute, simple animation and the complex, tragic events it depicts. Full of life and irreverent spirit, this is a film that is simply impossible to dislike. VS


EXODUS (Penny Woolcock)

Like a bad school play with far too much cash behind it, Penny Woolcock’s latest is a desperately worthy, hopelessly amateurish plea for understanding. The idea is fine – a retelling of the Moses story in a modern context – but the execution is woeful, wildly unsubtle, battering us over the head with its sociological and political parallels, insulting the audience’s intelligence at every turn. The cast are awful, the script weak and the narrative laughable – overall, this is a misjudgement of epic proportions. TH

THE LAST MISTRESS (Catherine Breillat)

I really wanted to like Catherine Breillat’s latest. A confrontational filmmaker who has been unfairly and violently reviled simply for taking a brutally honest look at sexuality, Breillat has always had all my sympathy. A ma soeur was a stunning film; Anatomie de l’enfer was flawed but had the merit to radically question traditional male views of women’s sexuality; even when not entirely successful, her films are usually fiercely intelligent and thought-provoking. Sadly, this is not so in her latest work and The Last Mistress, centring on the character of a nineteenth-century femme fatale, has none of the punchy questioning spirit that made her earlier films so exciting. VS

LIONS FOR LAMBS (Robert Redford)

Interminable at 90 minutes, Robert Redford’s well intentioned but hopelessly toothless take on the war on terror has attracted publicity for its cast and its subject matter, not for the film itself. This is essentially three tedious conversations about the state of America, between Tom Cruise’s slimy senator and Meryl Streep’s disillusioned journo, between professor Redford and his apathetic student, and between two heroic American soldiers stranded on an Afghan hillside surrounded by jibber-jabbering Jihadi insurgents. Boring, worthy, pointless. TH

FUNNY GAMES US (Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke has done a Gus Van Sant and remade his own controversial 1997 film almost frame for frame, only in a US setting and with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the hapless couple tortured by two freakily polite young men. Funny Games US offers the same unsettling and provocative dissection of our voyeuristic consumption of violence but adds nothing new to the original. VS



Format: Cinema

Release date: 2-13, 15 November 2007

Venue: ICA, London

Distributor: Human Film

Director: Mohamed Al Daradji

Iraq/UK/Netherlands 2005

110 mins

Ahlaam opens on images of American bombs raining down on Baghdad in 2003, interspersed with the frightened faces of the inmates in a mental institution of the capital. Cut back to 1998, when soldier Ali travels back to the Syrian border where he is doing his national service with his friend Hasan. Elsewhere the bright-eyed, cheerful Ahlaam is preparing for her wedding to Ahmed and dreaming about the life they will have together. But soon both Ali’s and Ahlaam’s lives change dramatically. An American bombing kills Hasan and leaves Ali traumatised. Carrying Hasan’s body across the border he is picked up by the Iraqi forces, accused of being a deserter and brutally punished. Meanwhile Ahlaam’s wedding is violently interrupted by the Baathist police who arrest Ahmed and take him away to an unknown fate, which drives Ahlaam insane with grief. Both Ahlaam and Ali end up in a mental institution in Baghdad under the care of the very humane Dr Mehdi. But when the Americans start bombing the city, the hospital is destroyed and the inmates escape. Ahlaam, still wearing her wedding dress, wanders amid the rubble of an eerily empty, ruined Baghdad, where the silence is broken only by the sound of random sniper shots. Ali, displaying some awareness of what is happening, scours the dangerous streets of the city to help Dr Mehdi round up the escaped inmates.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji had been living in exile in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime when the war broke out. In 2003 he went back to his country wanting to make a film about the plight of ordinary Iraqi people. He shot Ahlaam in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.

Virginie Sélavy: Ahlaam is structured as a flashback, opening in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the 2003 bombing, before it goes back in time to show how the characters that are in the hospital ended up there. Why did you decide to structure the story in this way?

Mohamed Al Daradji: To be honest with you, the story chose me, I didn’t choose the story. I wrote the story in a mental institution, so I know these characters well, I spent two or three weeks with them. While I was writing there I was thinking, shall I tell the story from A to Z, or shall I twist it in an artistic way? I like to not give too much information to the audience, I like the audience to be involved in the film. I think there is a certain artistic sensibility in any human being so I try to let this feeling come out of the film and involve the audience.

VS: One of the main characters is called Ahlaam, which name means ‘dream’ and is also the title of the film. She seems to be central to what you’re showing about Iraq in general in the film.

AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.

VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?

AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.

VS: It’s a very poignant title because their dreams end up in nightmare.

AD: Sometimes you say something but you mean something different. With the name Ahlaam I was trying to say, yes, dreams, but what kind of dreams, does it end as a nightmare or does it end as a dream. And that’s why at the end of the film I leave it to the audience to decide where Ahlaam ends. It’s up to each individual member of the audience to decide. If they’re positive people, Ahlaam will be OK, and her family will get her back and there’ll be a happy end. Or if they’re negative people, they will think that Ahlaam will be killed, and this is what happens in Iraq. So I left it open for the audience. For me it’s a dream but it’s also a nightmare. It’s a nightmare mixed with dreams of how normal people would like to live but they can’t control life and this is why it ends up like we see in the film.

VS: What’s really striking is that the dreams of those people are destroyed by both the brutality of the Americans and of the Baathist regime – you don’t take sides at all. It’s more about the consequences that their actions have on these people. It shows an incredible restraint because you must have felt some kind of anger towards both sides, so how did you manage to have that restraint?

AD: I had a debate with myself – where am I standing in the middle of this chaos, which side am I on – and the answer came to me one day: I thought, you’re a filmmaker, you need to just tell the story, to show your point of view. My point of view is the human being, the human element in this story. I didn’t want to guide the audience, and tell them they should be on this side or that side. I just show you the story, I show you both sides. I want you to feel this character, to feel like she’s very close to you, like she’s like your friend or your family. I try not to take sides but to observe the situation, and to put you through the situation, take you out from wherever you are and take you to Baghdad so you can feel what these people feel. It’s very important to me that the audience feel the suffering of these people. Of course I have a lot of anger. If I shout now, I will shake the whole of London. But I try and express my anger through the way I tell the story.

VS: VS: You’d left Iraq before the war and you decided to go back to shoot the film in Baghdad. That must have been incredibly difficult.

AD: After I graduated from Leeds, I felt like going back to Iraq and trying to do something for my country, for my family, for my friends. A lot of Iraqis went back in 2003, a lot of artistic people, filmmakers, who went back to try and rebuild the country. But unfortunately, it was really difficult. There was no finance, either from the Middle-East or from the UK. To finance the film I got money from banks in Europe and Holland and small grants from Holland. The crew and cast worked for nothing. They made the film on a voluntary basis, for the country. And we faced all the difficulties of Iraq: there was only three hours of electricity a day; the process of shooting the film took 55 days, sometimes we shot just three hours because of the problems and the area where we worked. An American helicopter almost shot at us when we were building the set for the Army camp scene in the desert but thankfully they didn’t and we got permission to film. The Iraqi police arrested us because they thought we were doing a propaganda film for the insurgents and the insurgents shot at us a couple of times because they thought we were making a propaganda film for the Americans. So we were in the middle of this chaos. One week before we finished the film three members of my crew and I were kidnapped and they shot my sound recorder in the leg. They took all the equipment and I lost about 25 minutes of the sound material for the film. We were left on the streets in Baghdad. We went to the hospital and told the police about what had happened to us but they didn’t believe us. They didn’t believe that we were making a normal film, they thought that we were working for the insurgents, for Al-Qaeda. So we got arrested by the American Army and we spent five days in the green zone area where we were subjected to psychological torture by the Americans. They didn’t believe we were filmmakers. I have double nationality so the Dutch embassy got involved and got me out of prison. So it was a nightmare. But I felt this nightmare was worth it. Of course you could do it here in the UK, but there when you see the children in Iraq you feel you need to do something for these people. You can’t change things but at least you can tell their story.

VS: You basically experienced the same things that your characters go through in the film.

AD: Yes, of course. My new film is called Made in Iraq and is about the story of how we came together to make this film and what happened to us and basically what happened in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 and why it’s like this now.

VS: The actor who plays Ali, Bashir Al-Majid, was actually a freelance reporter and had been a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. This must have brought another level of authenticity to the film.

AD: I tried to work with non-professional actors to tell the story. In 2003, when I went back to Iraq, he interviewed me for one of the newspapers in Baghdad and I told him I was going to make a film. When I went back to Iraq to shoot the film I was looking for the character of Ali. I called him and I learned about his story: he suffered under Saddam’s regime, he was a prisoner in Abu-Ghraib for five years, and he also lost his friend in the war. So we talked about all this experience and I think it came through a fantastic performance. In the workshop I made him go back to the time he spent in prison and work it out through his character. It was a very good experience.

VS: I’ve read that you had trouble finding an actress to play Ahlaam. Why was that?

AD: There isn’t much of a film industry in Iraq at the moment. We haven’t made a film since 1991. And before that the film industry was used by the government for propaganda. So between 1991 and 2003 there was no film made in Iraq. So it was difficult to find actors and to find actors who would go with you in the war zone, when there is a curfew, and you can’t go anywhere after 7pm. And then there’s the rape scene, which is difficult from a cultural point of view: people don’t show sexual scenes or sexual violence. I went to universities, schools, family, friends, relatives, to try and convince them, and none of them wanted to do it. My producer said jokingly that we should make the female character male. But I thought my film needed to be represented by a woman; women are very important in Iraqi society. So we started filming the hospital scenes with Ali the first week, and Ahlaam wasn’t there. Sometimes I was thinking about how I could change the script and make the film about Ali and Doctor Mehdi, but I thought I needed a female character. A week later they found Ahlaam for me. Aseel Adel accepted the role but on three conditions. One was to rewrite the rape scene, and I agreed – I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to show the rape but it was an important scene; she made it shorter. The second condition was that the rapist had to be her husband in real life so the rapist in the film is played by her husband! And she had a one-year-old baby called Mustafa, and she insisted that Mustafa needed to go everywhere with us because she didn’t want to leave him at home. So we all ended up babysitting for Mustafa! (laughs) We’d have to have breaks when Mustafa needed feeding or needed to sleep or when he was crying. It was very different.

VS: And you’re filming in the real Baghdad that has been destroyed so that makes the film incredibly powerful.

AD: All you see that is destroyed is actually a set, we used some destroyed buildings but I had a really good team of designers who did a great job recreating the scenes. But filming in the real environment was important. With all the films about Iraq that you see now, Arabic and Iraqi audiences can tell that they weren’t shot in Iraq. Western audiences can’t get a feeling of the Middle-East, of what it feels like in Baghdad, but in my film, because it’s shot in Baghdad it gives you the real environment, it’s the real Tigris river, the real buildings. It’s very close to what you see on the news.

VS: The really striking thing about your film is that there’s a documentary aspect about the life of ordinary Iraqis but it goes beyond that in the sense that there’s a real attention to the artistic quality of the film. How did you manage to keep focused on the artistic side of things when shooting the film was so difficult?

AD: I tried to surround myself with a good team of people, people who believed in what we were doing. I had 20 to 25 crew members, and I treated all of them as very important to the film – there was no difference between the first assistant director and the sound recorder or the production manager. All were responsible. There was the sense that you needed to do it for your country. When we had problems they tried not to disturb me or to tell me about it but instead tried to sort it out themselves. At the same time – maybe you’ll laugh – there’s an important relationship between me and the Tigris river, and it gave me the inspiration to focus on the film. When you write a film that is so personal you can see it in your head, and then you have to translate it to the camera and to other people. For me it was like the Tigris river, I went there every day to write, smoke a cigarette and have tea and relax, thinking about the next day and how to create what I wanted. I also believe that God was behind this film. The way the film was made was unbelievable. Now when I see the film I don’t believe I made it. Some scenes in the film wouldn’t have happened without God. There’s a scene at the beginning where Ali and the soldiers push the truck as the sun is rising. I’d written it differently in the script. We couldn’t find an old Saddam Army truck because they were all destroyed so we built one but it wasn’t working very well. We were waiting for this golden moment when the sun rises and it lasts just for a minute. So all my crew and cast were waiting but when I called ‘Action!’ they couldn’t hear me because they were too far away and it was dark. I called ‘Action! Action! Action!’ but nobody replied; nothing happened. So I went to them and they said that the truck was broken and they couldn’t fix it. So I shouted and cried, God help me. And then I thought, let them push the truck, it’ll be more powerful, we don’t need to shoot the scene as I wrote it, just do it. We had one minute so I gave the instructions, it was difficult but they pushed the truck, and we had a very good scene.



Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Eureka

Director: René Laloux

Titles: The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps, 1982), Gandahar (1988)


A whole generation of French children were brought up on René Laloux’s magical films, bussed to the local art-house cinema by their teachers to feast on the other-worldly sights of La Planí¨te sauvage (Fantastic Planet): buzzing plants and strange fruits, blue creatures shape-shifting to music and headless statues dancing together in space. Light years away from the bland slickness and smug cleverness of Shrek and co., Laloux’s films have fallen into obscurity, rarely screened despite the success they enjoyed on their release. Thankfully, Eureka have now made the films available in the UK, with last year’s DVD of Fantastic Planet joined by Gandahar and The Masters of Time (Les Maîtres du temps) last month, providing a welcome opportunity to revisit this master animator’s wondrous world..

In a career spanning three decades Laloux only completed three features and five shorts, his work always constrained by budgetary limitations. It was while he was working at the progressive La Borde Psychiatric Clinic at the end of the 50s that he made his first foray into filmmaking. The success of a short animated film made in collaboration with the patients led to a meeting with Roland Topor (creator of the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowksy and Fernando Arrabal). This marked the start of Laloux’s string of partnerships with respected illustrators: after making Fantastic Planet as well as two shorts with Topor, Laloux worked with Philippe Caza and Moebius on his following films.

Although Laloux’s collaborators changed from film to film, there is a remarkable unity of vision in his work, which emerges not only through recurring narrative themes, but also through the intensely poetic visual world that is created. It is a world alive with movement and sound: in Fantastic Planet, vegetal tentacles sway to electronic warblings, while crystals fall like rain, covering everything with a hard, shiny surface that shatters when a small boy whistles. The enchanted forest of The Masters of Time hums and pulses with life, and the paradisiacal world of Gandahar is a lush land of plenty, in which bizarre farm animals plough the land and humanoid women pick bright red fruit from blue trees. Eerie sounds underline the strangeness of this world and, synched to the movements of the extra-terrestrial flora and fauna, make it come alive. These alien landscapes and the creatures inhabiting them are reminiscent of a dreamy and more benign Hieronymus Bosch. Never sentimental, it is a world that is poetic and cruel in equal measure: in one startling scene from Fantastic Planet a bird of prey attacks a humanoid Om tribe, devouring some of them before the rest of the tribe manage to kill it. The scene ends with the Oms drinking the bird’s blood.

There is certainly nothing childish in Laloux’s animation, and the director explores some very serious themes. One recurrent concern is the sinister side of human civilisation. Both Fantastic Planet and Gandahar depict very advanced, refined civilisations that have a monstrous, inhuman side to them. In the former, a race of towering blue giants called the Traags, whose preferred activity is meditation, have enslaved the man-like Oms, treating them at best as pets and at worst as vermin to be exterminated. By reversing our own world order and placing humans at the lower end of the scale, the film strikingly underlines our own casual cruelty to all other living beings (the opening scene in which Traag children nonchalantly kill a female Om trying to run away with her baby is chilling). Most importantly, it highlights the danger inherent in establishing any kind of hierarchy between species or races, and in this warning one can see the trauma left by Nazism on Laloux’s generation. In a significant reversal of the traditional savage/civilised opposition, the ‘savage planet’ of the title becomes a place of hope for the group of rebellious Oms trying to escape the persecution of the supposedly civilised Traags.

Gandahar explores a different, but just as dark, side of civilisation, and it is a variation on another Nazi nightmare, that of genetic selection. The people of Gandahar first appear to live in a utopian society where everybody is beautiful, food is plentiful, nature is luxuriant, and humans live in harmony with their environment. Having forsaken technology in favour of natural means, the people of Gandahar use mirror birds for surveillance and sprouting seeds for weapons. Emphasizing their perfect integration within the natural world that surrounds them, their main city Jasper is a human shape carved into the rocks of a mountain. However, when Gandahar comes under attack from mysterious steel men, the price that had to be paid to create this idyllic world is revealed: past genetic experiments have led to the creation of monstrous creatures, such as the mutant Transformés, or Métamorphe, a freakish giant brain that was left on a platform in the middle of the ocean when Gandahar’s scientists abandoned the experiment. Just like Métamorphe, the Transformés are not permitted access to the city of Jasper and are forced to live hidden away in underground caves. Kept out of sight of the beautiful Gandahar people for a long time, these past horrors are coming back to haunt them: it is quickly revealed that the steel men come from Métamorphe. It is therefore Gandahar’s own dark side that is now threatening its idyllic world: the attempt to engineer a perfect civilisation has resulted in the creation of brutal armies.

The spectre of totalitarian oppression is also present in the opposition between individual and collective identity that runs through Laloux’s work. Métamorphe is a pink blob that absorbs individuals before turning them into empty metallic shells. The steel men all breathe as one, the loud, creepily regular Darth Vader-style breathing uniting them into one big collective entity that leaves no place for difference or individuality. The Masters of Time also features a big blob that reviles difference and promotes unity above all else, turning all those who approach him into blank-faced angels. More ambiguous than the sinister steel men, the angels point to the dangerous allure of the totalitarian discourse that promises harmony and happiness in return for relinquishing all individual will.

These reflections on human civilisation are inscribed in wider philosophical considerations about the surrounding universe, a universe that is governed by a process of constant transformation. The steel men turn the Gandaharians to stone using petrifying ray guns before placing them into egg-shaped prisons. When these eggs go through the door of time, the Gandaharians are turned into more steel men. The eggs, the empty shells of the steel men and the petrified Gandaharians all point to the unstable nature of being: in this universe, identity is not a fixed given but is constantly fluctuating so that the Gandaharians are threatened by their own transformed selves. There are no simple oppositions between light and dark, between beautiful and monstrous, or between organic matter and steel; rather, they are one and the same thing at different stages of evolution.

The Transformés most clearly represent this process of constant metamorphosis: their misshapen bodies are not stable forms but keep mutating. As a result, they shun the present tense and instead use a strange mix of future and past tenses. The living embodiment of the continuous flux of time, the Transformés exist in a zone that hovers between past and future. This interest in a non-linear, non-fixed time leads Laloux to explore temporal paradoxes in both Gandahar and The Masters of Time (although in the latter film the temporal paradox feels somewhat like an underdeveloped afterthought). In Gandahar, the beautiful people of the present civilisation coexist with their mutated selves who have come back from the future to destroy them. But it is less the temporal paradox in itself that interests Laloux rather than the investigation of time as a parameter of a universe in a permanent state of mutation.

Some of the ideas in Laloux’s films were part of the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s – the abhorrence of a dehumanising, collective identity, eugenics, ecology or out-of-body experiences – but, integrated into a magical world that weaves visual poetry and philosophical musings, they never feel dated. As Moebius remarked, Laloux is ‘an artist outside of time’, and having developed his style far from any fads or easy categories, he’s remained a unique voice in animation. Thirty years later, his films have lost none of their ability to make children and adults alike dream with their eyes open.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 December 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Rigoberto Castañeda

Mexico 2006

103 mins

A big hit in Mexico, Rigoberto Castañeda’s horror thriller KM31 centres on a young woman whose twin sister is in a coma following a road accident. Bathed in blue light, the film has more than a whiff of J-horror about it, and Catalina’s search for the truth inevitably leads to a spooky ghost child.

KM31 received its UK premiere at FrightFest in August on the same day as the Zombie Walk. When I arrived at the Odeon for the interview hordes of dazed zombies were still hanging around Leicester Square, blinking in the sun as though it hurt or crumpled on benches: the perfect setting for an interview with a director who is a horror fan through and through.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve said before that KM31 was influenced by films such as The Shining, The Exorcist, The Others and The Ring. Out of all these it seems to me that The Ring is the most relevant comparison, and you seem to have been influenced a lot by Japanese horror in general.

Rigoberto Castañeda: Many people have said that but I started writing the script for KM31 about seven years before pre-production started, so way before The Ring came out. It’s based on a well-known Mexican legend. Five or six years after I wrote the script The Ring came out. I went to see it and I was crushed because I thought it was so similar! I was about to quit! The producers suggested some changes but I said, you know what, fuck it, this has happened a hundred times in the history of cinema. The thing is, now more than ever because of the Internet, everybody sees the same things so it’s natural to have the same ideas. So I decided not to do anything.

VS: You don’t mention any Mexican films or directors in your influences. Why is that? Were you not influenced by Mexican horror in any way, by directors like Taboada and Moctezuma?

RC: In a way I was. When I was little I would go to my best friend’s house and watch horror movies at the weekend. I was pretty young when I saw The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and also the Taboada movies and Alucarda by Moctezuma, which shocked me. I was really traumatised by those films. When I started film school I tried to find them but when I saw them again, I was like, that’s not as scary as I remember! So they influenced me because of the memory of watching them as a kid but they didn’t influence me in a cinematic way. As a filmmaker I’m influenced by directors who are not horror directors, like Hitchcock or Kubrick or Kurosawa, all the classic directors.

VS: In recent years Guillermo del Toro has had a big impact on the horror genre. Has he influenced you in any way?

RC: He’s God! I love him. In film school everybody knew him. I wanted to do horror so the teachers said there’s one person in Guadalajara who also likes horror film, he’s a make-up artist, you should hire him. I wanted to work with him but by the time I was ready to make my first short film he was already working on his first feature

VS: Do you think del Toro’s success has made it easier to make horror films in Mexico?

RC: His first picture in Mexico was Cronos. It was successful but it wasn’t really a horror film, it was more of a fantasy tale with horror elements. There was a vampire in it but the film was more a romantic story about the transformation of the vampire. When Cronos came out, everybody was like, that’s it, we’re going to have horror cinema, but nothing came out of it. So no, it’s weird but it didn’t help. KM31 is actually the first feature since Cronos that really is a horror film. When I decided I wanted to make a horror film, I thought that it would be a big success because there hadn’t been a horror film in Mexico since the 70s and Mexicans love horror. It was like a big wide open space. Now there are several horror films being made.

VS: I’ve seen that several of Taboada’s films are being remade.

RC: Yes, two of them. That’s fantastic! I hope they’re good! Right now there are several things that are helping. One of them was KM31, it was a big success so it helped the genre a lot. And then, many different Mexican directors have been very successful internationally and that’s helped to show that in Mexico we can make good films. The Oscar nominations were on when we were making the film, and there were sixteen nominations for Mexicans, so that helped a lot. Mexican people go a lot more to the movies, it’s definitely growing. The Mexican film industry in general is healthy.

VS: Is there anything that makes your film specifically Mexican?

RC: It’s mostly the legend of La Llorona. If you’re Mexican you will have heard it at some point in your life from your mother or your grandmother or your aunt or somebody. Every young kid in Mexico knows that if you behave badly La Llorona will come for you – it’s very scary for a young kid! We never mention the character in the film but it’s not necessary. When KM31 was showing in Mexico I went to the cinema to see people’s reactions. When the main ghost appears at the end of the movie everybody got so scared and started shouting, ‘La Llorona! La Llorona!’ – it was a very emotional moment for everyone. That makes it a very Mexican film. But at the same time I think it’s a universal story: La Llorona is like a banshee; it shares things with the Bible, and with Jewish tales. I think everybody in the world can identify with this story.

VS: Why did you decide to take that legend as your point of departure?

RC: Actually, the point of departure was something else. I was listening to Mexico’s most famous radio programme, a horror show called ‘The Hairy Hand’. People call the programme and tell a horror story that’s happened to them. Everybody loves to listen to this show and to tell their horror story. It’s amazing. It’s so big that they’re now broadcasting in the US. The day I started writing the script I was listening to the show and a truck driver called and told a story about seeing a woman in the middle of the road who was clearly a ghost. He told it in such an incredibly dramatic way, I’ve still got goose-bumps just remembering it. It was fantastic, I was almost crying with fear. So I ran back to my desk and I wrote the first ten minutes of the movie – I never changed those pages. And then I thought this could be a fantasy story, the story of the crying woman. So while I was writing those ten pages, I was already thinking of the story of La Llorona.

VS: Where were the scenes on the road and in the forest filmed? How did you find those locations?

RC: I wanted to write the script in a special place. I went to the forest that is around Mexico City. There are people who live there, just like in the film, people who have houses almost in the middle of the woods. When I was little, my parents used to take me to the forest. There is an old Catholic convent there, with catacombs, so it was REALLY SCARY for a kid. I used to love to go there when I was little.

VS: On your own?

RC: Yes, on my own. (laughs) So I decided to go there and write. I went to the convent, I looked at the woods, and I wrote on my computer, sat on a rock, and I got this feeling of the woods. The highway is the actual highway. The river up there in the woods goes down to the city and as the city grew the river became the sewer system. So it’s based on something that is real and on the tales that people told me when we were doing the research. KM31 was invented by me, it’s not real. But what’s quite funny is that now in Mexico there are people who go to KM31 and record videos, searching for the ghost! (laughs) It’s turned into a real story in Mexico!

VS: The scene in the sewers is very atmospheric. Were they a set or do they actually exist?

RC: We were very lucky. In Mexico City, they close the sewer systems to do work on it for six months every seven years. We were lucky to be ready to film during those six months so we were able to go down into the sewer system and shoot there. Right now, it’s full of shit, literally. But it’s an amazing place. The final part in the sewer system, that was constructed on a stage.

VS: You’ve said before that you had the intention of writing a ‘commercial thriller’. How did you go about doing that?

RC: I’m a movie buff, I love going to the cinema. I enjoy art-house films but I’ve always gone to the movies for entertainment. That’s my education in film, watching movies at my friend’s house. So I try to make films that I would have enjoyed as a kid.

VS: Do you see yourself solely as a horror director? Would you like to direct other types of movies or are you happy to keep exploring the horror genre?

RC: I think I will make horror films all my life. I’m interested in other genres but what I love is horror, thriller and fantasy, and I’d like to work in those three genres all my life. Fantasy is the most difficult of them because it’s the most expensive, so the way to get to fantasy is by starting with horror and thriller. It’s a way to get to fantasy but it doesn’t mean that they’re inferior genres. I see myself at 92, directing a horror film, (squeaky voice) ‘blood! more blood!’ I will never do romantic comedies. Never! (laughs)



Photo by Lisa Williams

In an age where big studios dominate filmmaking, short films have become a means to bring experimental and adventurous work to the movie-goer, and no more so than at events like Rock’n’Roll Cinema. The evening of bands and short films, held at 93 Feet East in Brick Lane, is going into its fourth year – quite a grand old age for a monthly event, many of whose contemporaries have vanished without a trace.

‘It was born out of a combination of me being in a band and wanting new places to play, and of knowing different creative people who could come together to help me put on a night. I also found that when I went to the cinema I always wanted to talk about the film afterwards’, explains Dan Cundy, founder of the night. The different creative people include Dan’s girlfriend Wednesday, known as Rollergirl, who skates around singing jingles and selling popcorn, and the DJs, VJs and compí¨res he chooses to pull together the night.

Also with him from day one was the team at Future Shorts, who provide the night with a tailor-made programme of short live action films, music videos and animations. The choice of films is dictated by the nature of the crowd and the set-up at Rock’n’Roll Cinema, according to Pippa Rimmer, director of exhibitions at Future Shorts. ‘I think the films we choose to show here are a little bit quirky’, says Pippa. ‘We choose lots of music videos, show the longer films earlier in the night and try not to use many with subtitles because it isn’t a theatre venue. When we see films in the office we can often tell straightaway which films the crowd here will really like.’

One of the films specially picked for the Brick Lane crowd today is Fitness Video by Japanese director Nagi Noda. A surreal spoof exercise routine led by a young girl with Popeye-style muscles backed by a chorus of bipedal poodles, it is lapped up by the audience. You can tell when the audience likes a film because the laughs are louder and longer than those usually heard in a cinema. The same goes for the gasps, and even the awestruck silences seem more silent. ‘I think people are more relaxed here because they can walk around. It might mean that they’re less absorbed in the films because they’re right next to a bar but you get a better reaction from them as they’re having a laugh with their mates’, says Pippa.

The loudest gasps come during the opening film Spider, an Australian film directed by former stuntman Nash Edgerton. Its slow build-up of tension and triple-shock ending show that with the right story and execution you can move the viewer more in eight minutes than some films manage in two hours. There may be speed-dating and cakes in the next room, a barbecue and bottle bar outside, and bands and hula-hooping to come, but while this film is playing all eyes are fully forward.

Lisa Williams

Rock’n’Roll Cinema takes place every first Sunday of the month at 93 Feet East, London. For more details visit the website.


Zombina and the Skeletones

With songs called ‘Leave My Brain Alone’ and ‘Can’t Break a Dead Girl’s Heart’, the horror fiends of Zombina and the Skeletones were the obvious choice for our spooky November jukebox. Guitarist Doc Horror takes us on a hilarious ride through hardcore Z-movies and reveals a particular fondness for wrestling Japanese girls in spandex costumes as well as films that have ‘living dead’ somewhere in the title. Their new album ‘Death Valley High’ is out now and available here. You can catch them doing their hell-raising high-jinks horror punk-rock thing in Cambridge on Nov 3, London on Nov 4, Winchester on Nov 8, Preston on Nov 10 and Manchester on Nov 30. More details here.

1- The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The best film ever and the video bible for horror punks! ‘You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life!’ This film is the reason why people think zombies say ‘Braaainssss’ all the time. Dig that killer new wave soundtrack! Cramps! 45 Grave! Roky Erickson! Those who have not seen Return of the Living Dead deserve everything they’re gonna get when the zombies attack for real!

2- City of the Living Dead (1980)
City of the Living Dead has replaced Zombie Flesh Eaters in my heart as Lucio Fulci’s finest work. It makes no sense at all but it doesn’t matter ‘cos it’s got people crying blood all over the place and so many worms and maggots where there shouldn’t be any worms or maggots, and things bursting into flames for no reason. Fabio Frizzi is the all-time grand master of zombie chill-out music.

3- Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966)
The best super-hero action thriller ever made. Bin all your stupid Spidermans and X-Mens and whatever else garbage the man shovels to ya. This is the real deal. Ten-years-too-late rockabilly singer Lonnie Lord dons a balaclava and cape to become Rat Fink and sets off with his plucky sidekick Boo Boo on a mission to rescue his woman when she’s kidnapped by a gang who choose their victims at random by prodding the phone book with a hammer. This film is so hardcore low-budget that the filmmakers couldn’t even afford to correct typos on the title sequence (it’s supposed to be called Rat Fink and Boo Boo) and ends up stuck with the stupidest name of all time. Legend.

4- Tromeo And Juliet (1996)
…and all the other Troma in-house productions (particularly Toxie 4 and Terror Firmer). Detractors accuse Troma films of being cheapo frat-boy comedy shock-factor rubbish but these people need to have their faces stabbed off. Especially those that believe that stinking Baz Luhrmann abomination to be the superior reworking of the greatest love story ever told. Open your damn minds to the genius that’s at work here! The new Troma film has one of our songs on the soundtrack, but I ain’t seen it yet… it’s called Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s probably brilliant.

5- Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens (1979)
I’m not sure why this is my favourite Russ Meyer film over Faster Pussycat and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, possibly because of that cool thing where all the characters bleed different coloured blood, depending on their traits… or possibly just ‘cos I’m a bit lecherous and I like when Kitten Natividad gets it on with the dental nurse. It’s cool to mix social satire and soft porn, though, isn’t it? Or am I kidding myself? Is this just a dirty film and I’m showing myself up by listing it?

6- Phantasm (1979)
Jettison Dervish (our bass player) and I both share this as a candidate for best-scary-film-ever. It’s like one of those horrible inconsistent nightmares you have when you’re six years old and got the flu. In fact, I’m sure I had a recurring dream of something very similar to the Tall Man when I was little. Any money Phantasm was based on a real nightmare somebody had! The sequels are all amazing, but the first one is properly special.

7- You’ll Find Out (1940)
The only time Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre all appear in one film. It’s a musical horror-comedy starring the Kay Kyser Orchestra, the members of which are surprisingly hilarious in a gentle post-Groucho sort of way, contrasting most pleasingly with the scary men being their usual sinister selves. Kick-ass swinging tunes too.

8- Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
The tensest film ever made. Shane Meadows is a genius. I hope he makes another horror film one day. That reminds me, I really wanna see This Is England at some point in my life, the rest of the band keep telling me how great it is…

9- Cutting Moments (1997)
You get some crazy stuff in the pound shop sometimes. Not many people seem to have seen Cutting Moments so I won’t spoil it for anyone who may chance upon it some day. It’s ‘orrible though, I’ll tell you that much. Ignore the rest of the stories in this portmanteau and skip straight to the title feature.

10- L.E.G.S.: Lady Enforcers General Security (1998)
I found it on Ebay when looking for women’s wrestling videos. Of all the things I have ever discovered in my life, of LEGS I am the most proud. Japanese girls in weird spandex costumes having semi-erotic, semi-slapstick chainsaw battles one minute, then turning into a sort of riot grrl punk band the next. Someone should dub it, What’s Up Tiger Lily style, and put it on TV so everyone can enjoy!