Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: A Work in Progress

American Torso

Edinburgh International Film Festival

15-26 June 2011

EIFF website

The 65th edition was a year of transition for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Under a new directorial team, the festival had teething problems, including a dearth of international guests, an unambitious film selection, technical issues (wrong projection format, out-of-synch subtitles) and venues impractically spread out across the city. On the positive side, however, there was a dynamic attempt to open up and diversify the festival experience, and interesting efforts to look at film in relation to other areas, including music and science.

Among those initiatives, Project: New Cinephilia was a multi-platform venture aimed at stimulating debate around film criticism, curated by Kate Taylor and Damon Smith. It culminated on June 16 in day-long talks between critics, writers, bloggers and filmmakers. Electric Sheep took part in the panel discussion on new tools for film criticism, which involved comics, blogs and video essays. Thought-provoking talks and interaction with the audience made it a very energising and inspiring event. As part of the project, Mubi published a series of essays, including the video essay created especially for the event by Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Michael Koresky from Reverse Shot, on a special section of their website – a visit is highly recommended.

Improvising Live Music for Film was part of the Reel Science initiative. Norman McLaren’s hypnotic animations from the 1940s, 50s and 60s were given new soundtracks by members of the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, who responded to abstract ‘dot’ and ‘line’ films as well as the anti-war parable Love Thy Neighbor and dance film Pas de Deux. Featuring impressive guitar from George Burt, the mini-orchestra’s improvisations were warm and accessible, with nods to the jazz styles of McLaren’s era. The promised discussion on film music’s neurological impact, while introduced well by Edinburgh University Reid Professor Nigel Osborne, didn’t have time to fully materialise – a shame, given the fascinating subject matter.

One of the unquestionable highlights of the festival was the presence of Hungarian master Béla Tarr, who was there to introduce his latest film, Turin Horse. An austere film, and a hard watch in some respects – it is very long, slow and deliberately repetitive – it is also extremely rewarding. The film is an oblique take on an anecdote about Nietzsche, which recounts how the philosopher protested at a man who was beating his horse in Turin. The story has inspired many interpretations; Tarr chooses to focus on the horse, the man who owns it and his daughter. Set in a bleak, constantly wind-swept landscape, it is a soberly apocalyptic tale, a sort of creation story in reverse, as the characters’ world is gradually diminished and restricted over the course of six days until total darkness engulfs them. Tarr has said that it was his last film, and the disappearance of light at the end makes it a particularly poignant farewell to cinema.

Béla Tarr was also one of the guest curators (together with Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant) asked by the festival to choose a small selection of films. He picked three black and white Hungarian films with an interest in film language, which had clear connections with his own work. The best known was Miklós Jancsó’s 1966 The Round-Up, about the detention of political dissidents in Austria under an authoritarian regime. Gábor Bódy’s American Torso (1975) was a wonderful film, centring on a Hungarian map-maker fighting in the American Civil War. Full of references to literature and history, playful and poetic at the same time, it is a spellbinding meandering that loosely connects war and revolution, the development of map-making, Hungarian exiles and a mysterious, death-defying devil of a man at its heart. György Feher’s Passion (1998) is a take on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, made to look like a 1930s film. Feher’s approach is both elliptical and drawn out, as if he had only kept the essential moments of the story, and extended and deepened them. It is a very evocative film, in which the contrast between darkness and light and the positioning of the characters in the frame are more important in conveying emotion and mood than dialogue or narrative.


This year, the festival had also decided to celebrate its historic interest in documentary. One highlight was Jarred Alterman’s Convento, a lyrical, beautifully shot film that shines an intimate light on an artistic family living in a restored convent and nature reserve in Portugal. It’s a gorgeous place, tenderly cared for by its inhabitants: Geraldine Zwanniken, a former dancer, now artist, and her two sons, the nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, who creates kinetic sculptures using found materials, often the bones of dead animals, reanimated in a sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous way. Alterman’s almost poetic visual style allows us a fleeting chance to share in the family’s extraordinary lives.

Stylistically, James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim, is a more classic documentary. Using interviews and archival footage, Marsh pieces together the remarkable and disturbing story behind Project Nim, the misguided experiment to teach sign language to the eponymous chimpanzee, raised from infancy by a human family in New York. It’s a heart-breaking story; Nim was a victim of unbelievable hubris, and while loved by the people who cared for him, he was also abandoned when he became less like a human child and more like a wild animal. It’s an intriguing film, but the people interviewed (Nim’s original family, the scientist who devised the experiment, other researchers), with one or two exceptions, are just so unlikeable, and some of their actions so unconscionable, that it’s impossible to identify with them.

The same can’t be said of the subject of Calvet, Dominic Allan’s engrossing documentary. While describing someone as larger than life may sound like a cliché, the phrase surely applies to Jean-Marc Calvet – runaway, legionnaire, vice cop, bodyguard, alcoholic, drug addict, and now painter. Allan lets Calvet do all the talking, the camera following him as he revisits locations from his tortuous past; the artist is a fascinating, charismatic character, given a near-miraculous opportunity for redemption when he decides, with Allan discreetly following, to find the son he abandoned years ago. It’s a remarkable film about a remarkable man, who, in his words, has been to hell and back.

One of the most enjoyable documentaries was Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fisher against the World, about the rise and fall of the American chess master who became caught up in Cold War politics when he was asked to compete against the Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik. The film is worth watching for the meticulously detailed footage from the incredibly tense, nerve-wracking games leading up to Fisher’s victory, which ended 24 years of Soviet domination of world chess. It also provides an interesting insight into Fisher’s upbringing and troubled state of mind, exploring the fatal relationship between genius and insanity and asking whether the former can ever exist without the latter.

Life in Movement offered another well-crafted glimpse at what it takes to be a talented, ambitious and passionate individual. Its subject is Australian choreographer Tanya Liedke, who died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 29, the night before taking up the position of Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Theatre. Like Bobby Fisher, this simple yet moving portrait by producer-director duo Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde would have benefited from slightly tighter scripting, but both documentaries managed to capture the charisma and unique personality of their central character, and remained compelling and informative throughout.

Screened on the last weekend of the festival, Hell and Back Again, by first-time director Danfung Dennis, will probably be discussed mostly for the impressive daring and visual beauty of its ’embedded journalism’ and its filming of troops in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But in fact, the film follows the slow recovery of a seriously wounded sergeant, with the combat footage relegated to flashbacks. Mainly free of political commentary, the film only lapses into sentiment and borderline propaganda with an ill-judged Willie Nelson song over the end credits.

Phase 7

It says a lot about this year’s edition of the EIFF that one of the most high-profile screenings was David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a mismatched couple who, much to their own surprise, fall for each other as the world falls apart during an epidemic. The mysterious disease causes people to lose their senses, one at a time, which is followed by temporary and uncontrollable outbursts of sorrow, anger or hunger. Other than taking a more personal approach to the apocalyptic genre, the film does not have much to offer, and although it is largely sustained by the lead actors, the flaws in the script ultimately make it a tiresome watch.

An unnamed epidemic also hits in Nicolás Goldbart’s Phase 7: residents of one quarantined Buenos Aires apartment block are up against not only a killer virus, but also their neighbours in this witty, low-budget horror. Coco, a peaceable young dude trying to keep his pregnant wife safe and well-fed, forms an unlikely alliance with Horacio, the maté-drinking, gun-toting conspiracy theorist next door, when the intentions of the other residents – humorously drawn as both impeccably bourgeois and utterly ruthless – become clear. Phase 7 offsets the gore and tension with a sharp script and a cool John Carpenter-esque soundtrack by Guillermo Guareschi.

Latin America offered another futuristic tale with Alejandro Molina’s By Day and by Night, from Mexico. Tackling the timely theme of over-population, the film is set in a world where people have to live under a dome that protects them from the ‘exterior’; due to the limited space, half of the population has to live during the day, while the other half lives at night. The film follows a mother’s search for her daughter after the child’s ‘shift’ is inexplicably modified. Visually, it’s a cross between Star Trek and Solaris, and Molina’s nostalgic, minimalistic, slow-paced approach and sparse use of dialogue are a welcome change from recent slick, pompous 3D sci-fi blockbusters; but the result is mostly a joyless, soporific and sentimental cinematic experience that is not as deep as it pretends to be.

There was more dystopian science fiction on offer with Xavier Gens’s apocalyptic action thriller The Divide, which had generated some hype after screening at the Cannes film market earlier this year. After New York is destroyed by unidentified causes, a mismatched group of eight adults and a young girl are trapped inside a basement. As they try to survive not only the outside menace, but also one another, the film’s annoyingly stereotyped cast and unconvincing plot twists fail to maintain interest, despite fairly energetic directing from Gens.

A sprinkling of horror films included Troll Hunter, directed by André Øvredall, which follows in the mockumentary footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Øvredall’s scenario isn’t exactly bursting with ideas, but it does play imaginatively with its single premise. The trolls themselves are rather splendid, and the film is very handsomely photographed amid spectacular Norwegian scenery, all looming mountains and misty meres. To its credit, the film never gets caught up in trying to make its absurd conceit plausible, and derives a lot of enjoyment from the bare-faced silliness of it all.

By contrast, The Caller was just a pile of derivative trash. After separating from a violent ex, Mary moves into a new apartment. But soon, she starts getting strange calls from a woman named Rose, and events from the past appear to influence the present. The premise seemed interesting; sadly, the realisation is entirely incoherent from a narrative and thematic point of view and chock-full of clichés.

Although not a straightforward horror film, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus had elements of the genre. The Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship are treated with de la Iglesia’s customary outrageousness, the film starting with an army of clowns in full make-up roped in to fight against the General’s forces. One of them has a son, Javier, who decides to follow the family tradition after his father is caught by the Franquists. Silliness and quixotic heroism, outlandish humour and hideousness mix in this exuberant response to a dark period of Spanish history. But despite inspired moments (a particular highlight is Javier, treated like a dog by an officer during a hunting party, biting the hand of an ageing Franco), the film prefers to focus on an uninteresting, hackneyed romance between the sad clown and the beautiful trapeze artist, rather than really sinking its teeth into its historical context.

Our Day Will Come

Among other films worthy of note, Pablo Lorrain’s Post Mortem particularly stood out. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is an emotionally stilted functionary at the city morgue, who becomes an inadvertent member of the military regime as the body count rises dramatically in the days surrounding the death of Salvador Allende. While the film starts slowly, tension builds as Mario falls pathetically in love with the troubled Nancy, a cabaret dancer who disappears when her father is arrested – although Lorrain refrains from showing much action. Instead, the sounds of a violent struggle are heard off-screen as Mario showers in his house across the street, oblivious to the brutal crackdown that is taking place around him. When he leaves for work, the streets are empty of people, cars bulldozed by the tanks that have swept through, crushing everything in their path. The film’s very deliberate, subtle pacing leads to a troubling climax, and while the surprising final scene is easily read as a metaphor for the oppressive, dehumanising regime imposed by Pinochet, it’s no less tragic.

Anyone who has seen the video for MIA’s ‘Born Free’ will be familiar with the basic set-up in Romain Gavras’s original debut feature, Our Day Will Come: red heads are second-class citizens, tormented and persecuted for their looks. In the bleak Nord-Pas de Calais region, Rémy (Olivier Barthelemy) is treated like a joke, ostracised by his family and football team, while his only ‘real’ relationship is conducted online in a gaming forum with someone he’s never met. But then, like a warped knight coming to his rescue, Patrick (a terrific Vincent Cassel), a psychologist and greying red head, decides to take Rémy under his wing and teach him a few life lessons. Over the next 48 hours, they buy a Porsche, get hammered in a supermarket after hours, check into a luxury hotel – where Gavras amusingly subverts the usual male-fantasy group-sex scene – and Rémy discovers that Ireland is the red heads’ spiritual homeland. The slightly absurd subject matter makes the film a bit of an oddity, but it’s confidently directed, entertaining and humorous, and laced with sinister undercurrents.

In Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman, a veteran (Garrett Dillahunt) from an unnamed war shows up unannounced at the remote home of the man who saved his life during a firefight (Franklin, played by Donal Logue). One man has a medal for bravery, the other a gaping scar across the back of his skull. The injury has left Sherman a bit slower, a bit dimmer, and certainly unable to cope with the social niceties demanded of him by Franklin’s wife. Redford, with the help of a chilling performance from the eerie Dillahunt, creates a palpable air of tension in the remote household, keeping the audience guessing what direction the volatile reunion between the two men, with their completely different lives, is going to take. It’s a bleak, disturbing and ultimately engrossing picture.

Yoon Sung-hyun’s debut feature Bleak Night was the only Korean entry in this year’s selection. It follows a grieving father as he investigates his son’s closest friends to piece together the events that led to the tragic accident in which the teenage boy has died. Although Yoon Sung-hyun’s assured directing style and the convincing performances from his young cast create a disquieting tension in the first half of the film, the atmosphere and mystery that initially sustain it dissipate gradually, and what remains feels like a plodding analysis of teenage discontent.

Overall, although there were a number of interesting films in the programme, they were too often films already scheduled to have a UK release in the near future. The desire of the directorial team to revitalise the Edinburgh festival is entirely laudable, and it is to be hoped that they will be able to propose a more original and daring film selection next year.

Festival report by Sarah Cronin, Pamela Jahn, Virginie Sélavy, Frances Morgan and David Cairns

Our Day Will Come: Interview with Romain Gavras

Our Day Will Come

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2011

Venues:ICA (London)

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Romain Gavras

Writer: Romain Gavras, Karim Boukercha

Original title: Notre jour viendra

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Olivier Barthelemy, Justine Leroy

France 2010

90 mins

Having started making short films with the collective Kourtrajmé when he was only a teenager, French director Romain Gavras is best known for his controversial videos for electro band Justice and M.I.A.’s ‘Born Free’. The latter describes a society that violently hounds red heads, and Gavras’s first feature film revolves around a similar idea, focusing on two men with red hair who feel persecuted: one, Rémy, a mixed up teenager, the other, Patrick, a depressed and mischievous psychiatrist played by Vincent Cassel.

Romain Gavras talked to Virginie Sélavy at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2011 about being seen as a provocateur, finding round cars depressing and the freedom of road movies.

VS: Why did you return to the idea of the ‘Born Free’ video for your first feature film?

I actually shot the M.I.A. video after making the film, although the video was released first. The idea was that the video was set 30 years after the film, as if they’d succeeded in creating an army of red heads. And I was frustrated that I couldn’t have lots of red heads in my film, so I put tons in the video!

The video was very controversial. Were you surprised?

Yes and no. I was surprised it was that controversial. M.I.A. is a big artist in the United States and ‘Born Free’ was her comeback title. She said, ‘go ahead, ruin my career’. She was the one who wanted something strong.

Why red heads?

When we started writing the script they were not red heads. My co-writer [Karim Boukercha] and I started thinking we could maybe make them albinos to make them more striking, but that was too complicated. I liked the idea of red heads because they’re a visible minority, but there is no religious or cultural community. Later we decided that they wouldn’t really be red heads to avoid it being too farcical. I liked the fact that they think they belong to a community that doesn’t exist, that it’s really something that is in their minds.

The film alludes to divisions between various social and ethnic groups, when Patrick insults Jews, Arabs and peasants, in particular. It seems to echo what is happening in France. Is that fair to say?

Yes, because when I was growing up everyone mixed together, but now there is a sort of withdrawal into communities, and when you withdraw into your community you are in a de facto situation of confrontation with other communities. And that can lead to something completely absurd and dangerous. That said, the film is not a statement, just elements that we evoke and touch on. It’s also about the confusion of the characters. Their way of thinking is confused, their fight is confused, and that’s because we live in a period of confusion.

There are some explicit commentaries on France, for instance when Vincent Cassel describes a French car: ‘It’s just like the country, round, banal, boring.’

It’s the character speaking, I don’t control my characters. They say what they want!

You don’t agree?

Yes, I agree with the line on cars. I hate round cars, they’re rubbish, ugly – they’re just like Geox shoes, comfort over style. I can’t stand it. I don’t even drive, so in fact I don’t really care, but visually, when I set my camera down and there’s a Twingo in the field, it just depresses me.

The film centres on the relationship between Patrick and Rémy, but there is something absurd in the fact that they get together because they have red hair and feel that the rest of the world is against them.

Yes, the idea was to have a story that was a bit silly but treated very seriously, like a Greek drama. It’s about two blokes who are completely lost and who go on this impossible quest. It’s a relationship that goes nowhere, a quest that goes nowhere, a film that goes nowhere.

How important is the sexual element in their relationship?

It’s an identity quest, especially for Rémy. He wonders who he is, whether he’s a victim or an aggressor, and it’s also about sexuality. And as the character of Vincent Cassel can see that Rémy is confused, he teases and pushes him to annoy him, and to make him doubt himself until the moment when Rémy confronts what he is.

Do you see Patrick as a bit of an agent provocateur?

Yes, but it’s not always his fault. He’s not a Machiavelli; he provokes situations because he’s bored and disgusted with everything, and in the end he’s disgusted with himself after he goes too far in the Jacuzzi scene. He manipulates people, but not for a specific purpose – more to make things happen and to feel alive.

They are rebels against a society that they perceive as repressive, but there is also a pathetic side to them. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. Rémy is a rebel in the way many young people are, i.e. he has all the reasons in the world to rebel, but he doesn’t know what to direct his violence against.

The scene in which he shaves his hair off is very powerful. What was the idea behind it?

It’s a sort of visual suicide, a bit like when Britney Spears shaved her head. And he does it for real.

Was it inspired by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver?

Not specifically, but of course I am influenced by a lot of films, Buñuel, Blier, Pialat.

The film starts with a fairly realistic depiction of a northern town, and then surreal and absurd elements are introduced into the story. Was the mixing of these different styles important to you?

Yes. As they’re on an impossible quest, the idea was to start almost like a Bruno Dumont film in the north and have something really anchored in realism, and little by little we enter their minds and their delusions, we plunge into their madness with them. That’s why everything around them becomes a little strange.

The desolate, post-industrial landscapes of the north of France fit the story perfectly. Is that why you chose to set the film there?

I’d shot in Lens and I have friends in Lille, so I know the north quite well. I really like this region because you could be in England, or Belgium, or Germany. The area has a universal aspect. And there are amazing landscapes that reflect the state of mind of the two characters, two blokes who get worked up in a completely empty place, a quasi-post-apocalyptic décor.

The film becomes a sort of road movie in the second part. Is that a genre you’re interested in?

Yes, I’m interested in the freedom it gives you. I didn’t want to make a first film with a tight plot where you discover the identity of the killer at the end, with guns and money in suitcases. I wanted to have something completely free, where things can happen that you don’t need to set up and with the freedom of tone and movement that road movies allow.

Many reviews of Our Day Will Come have insisted on the provocative aspect of the film and seem to take what Patrick says as your own words. Were you trying to provoke with your film?

No. My videos are a lot more provocative because that’s their aim. But the film is different, much gentler. There is a character who is a provocateur in the film, but that doesn’t make me one. It’s really in France that the debate has been about whether the film is gratuitous provocation. I think it’s because of the videos I made, so people have associated me with the character of Patrick. OK, I don’t like round cars, but I don’t agree with everything he says! I see the film as quite gentle and funny. It’s been presented as a drama but it’s more of a black comedy.

Everything you do seems to attract a degree of controversy. That was also the case with A Cross the Universe, the film you made about Justice’s American tour. How do you feel about that?

Controversy is a question of point of view. That was entertainment, there’s nothing controversial about it. I find things shocking that don’t shock people. Rob Marshall’s films, such as Nine, for instance, make me want to puke, they make me mad. Bad taste shocks me. To take 8 ½ and turn it into a big vulgar turd, that shocks and revolts me.

Vincent Cassel produced Our Day Will Come, as well as acting in it. How did he get involved?

I’ve known him for a long time. He helped us when we started, and played in our short films.

In Kourtrajmé ?

Yes. We created Kourtrajmé with Kim [Chapiron], and Vincent was a bit like a godfather to us. He said that if I wanted to make a feature film, he’d produce it. He said, ‘if you want to make the film that you want, there won’t be much money. If you’re happy to compromise, there’ll be more’. We chose the former and I made the film I wanted to make.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Crystal Stilts’ Film Jukebox

Crystal Stilts (Photo by Erika Spring)

American garage pop combo Crystal Stilts returned in April with their second album, In Love with Oblivion (Fortuna POP!), a glorious collection of gorgeously textured, fevered, dreamy pop gems rooted in their brooding, mysterious world. Catch them live on July 31 at Derby Indietracks, Aug 1 at Liverpool Static Gallery, Aug 2 at London Whiteheat @Madame Jojo’s and Aug 3 at Norwich Arts Centre. For more information on In Love with Oblivion, please go to the Fortuna POP! website or Crystal Stilts website.

1. Cat People (1942 dir Jacques Tourneur)

2. L’atalante (1934 dir Jean Vigo)

3. Sans soleil (1983 dir Chris Marker)

4. Hellzapoppin’ (1941 dir H.C. Potter)

5. Nathalie Granger (1972 dir Marguerite Duras)

6. Robinson Crusoe (1954 dir Luis Buñuel)

7. The Awful Truth (1937 dir Leo McCarey)

8. Treasure Island (1985 dir Raoul Ruiz)

9. Underworld (1927 dir Josef von Sternberg)

10. Walden (Diaries, Notes and Sketches 1969 dir Jonas Mekas)

Poetry: Interview with Lee Chang-dong


Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: ICO/Arrow

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Original title: Shi

Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Hira

South Korea 2010

139 mins

Lee Chang-dong is a Korean novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and even a former Minister of Culture and Tourism. Poetry, his fifth film, is about an ageing woman who must cope with the distress of discovering that her grandson is implicated in a horrific crime, and its fallout.

Sarah Cronin interviewed Lee Chang-dong by email and asked him about the death of poetry, the beauty of small things and the importance of ‘seeing well’.

SC: Where did your inspiration for the story come from? Was it the rape and suicide of the young girl, or the character of this older woman facing dementia?

LCD:It started with a sexual assault case that had actually happened in a small town in South Korea, which was committed by a group of juveniles. But the real case was a bit different from the film; the girl, the victim, didn’t commit suicide. However, this case had penetrated into my mind and did not leave. And although I wanted to talk about this issue through my film, I was not sure about the means. Of course, there would be easy ways that I can think of. For instance, have the victim fight for justice with difficulty, or have a journalist or a police detective, or a third person striving to search for the hidden truth, etc. However, I didn’t want to adopt those conventional ways. This case eventually became the story for my film when I came across the main character, a woman in her 60s wishing to write a poem for the first time in her life, who faces Alzheimer’s disease. To sum up, this story was finally born from a combination of different elements: the sexual assault case, the suicide of a girl, and the lady in her 60s writing a poem.

Why did you choose to build the film around the central theme of poetry?

While I was trying to figure out a way to deal with this sexual assault case in a film, I was travelling in Japan when I happened to watch a TV programme intended for the sleepless tourists in my hotel room one night. Watching the typical landscape visuals with meditation music-type sounds of peaceful rivers, flying birds, fishermen throwing their nets, it suddenly occurred to me that the title of the film dealing with this cruel case should be Poetry. The film character and plot came to my mind at the same time, along with the title. All these things didn’t come through logical thinking but instinctively and intuitively. But perhaps my old questions and thoughts suddenly found their small resolution at that moment. Questions of what? Questions like, why do I write novels and make films; and to what extent my writings or films can affect the world. Art is a pursuit for beauty and there is the question of how it is related to the filth and vice of the world. The question is similar to what Theodor Adorno had asked: is it possible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz? The character Mija in the film asks those questions instead of me. She may be old, but she is naive enough to ask them. Like all beginners are naive.

One of the poets that Mija meets says that ‘Poetry deserves to die’ – is there some truth in that? And why do you think film and poetry are dying?

People nowadays do not read or write poetry. Do you see any young people who write poems around you? Students learn poetry as if they are learning archaic words. People would ask back, ‘Can you make a living by writing poetry?’ They’re right. Poetry doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee any pleasure or desire. It has no value economically. Maybe it exists only in a form of advertisement copy. Poetry is dying. If poetry is an act of pursuing hidden beauty or truth, an act of questioning our lives, it can also be another form of art, it can be cinema. In this regard, cinema is also dying. While some films are massively consumed as ever, other films, films that I’d like to create, films I’d like to see, are becoming more difficult to find. Films that make people observe the world with different eyes, to feel invisible beauty and to question life. Do those films still exist? Do you wish for those films to exist? These are the questions that I want to ask.

What appealed to you the most about Mija’s character, and also Yun Jung-hee? Mija is this very feminine older woman, who also seems very enigmatic. You never explain anything about why her daughter left, or what happened to her husband.

When I first thought of the character Mija I wrote her down as ‘Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic’. The description ‘like a girl’ was important in showing her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside. She is innocent and naive, like a child who wonders about everything that the child sees for the first time. A beauty that goes against time, like a dried flower. An unrealistic character who still feels and talks like an immature girl, despite her age. Which are also the characteristics of the actress Yun Jung-hee. I named the character Mija because I couldn’t think of any alternatives. Though the name Mija is old-fashioned and it is not common nowadays, it has the meaning of ‘beauty’ in it. Anyway, Yun Jung-hee’s real name turned out to be Mija. I didn’t think it was coincidence, but fate. Mija’s past life might not have been easy. Maybe she has been abandoned by a man. Maybe her daughter was following in her footsteps. However, I didn’t want to describe their backgrounds directly to the audience. Rather I wanted the audience to feel and understand them through their present.

The poetry teacher stresses that the ‘important thing in life is seeing’ and ‘to see well’. Do you feel the same as a filmmaker – that it’s your duty to see what’s around you, and reveal it on film?

That comment made by the poetry teacher represents my thoughts to some extent. ‘To see well’ is a fundamental aspect in writing poetry or making films. Films show the world on behalf of the audience’s eyes. However, the films that we make, what kind of eyes are they in showing the world to the audience? Some films make us see the world differently, while some make us see only what we want to see. And some films do not let us see anything.

Do you believe that it’s important to always find beauty in small things – the apricot that’s fallen to the ground, for example? Is that something you also try to express in your films?

To discover hidden beauty and meaning in small and trivial things is the fundamental element, not only for film, but also for all art genres. The problem is, beauty doesn’t exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it’s visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Apricots need to fall down to earth to create a new life. Therefore, art is an irony as itself. As so are our lives.

Your films often feature characters who are disabled – in this case it’s a man who’s had a stroke. Why is his relationship with Mija central to the film?

They are mostly characters with communication barriers, rather than being physically disabled. I always dream of communicating with audiences through my films. So, those characters in my films, in a way, represent the part of me that is not communicated, that longs to communicate. However, the old man character in the film having a fit of apoplexy represents disabled masculinity. That is, the macho man’s sexual desire, which makes him beg to ‘be a man’ for one last time after becoming ill and helpless, despite the money and power that he achieved in the past. And when Mija accepts that desire, she defiles her own body like the dead girl.

It’s very disturbing that the fathers care so little about the gang rape and death of the girl. Is this attitude – pay off the mother, the school, newspapers – common in Korea? Are you trying to make a wider comment on corruption?

I admit that parents in South Korea tend to be overprotective of their children. However, I believe that all societies have similar attitudes to sexual violence, although there are variations. People, especially men, think revealing the problem never helps anyone, even the victims. That is why they do not seem to feel guilty in covering up the problem.

Mija’s poem, ‘Agnes’s Song’, turns out to be a beautiful, poetic suicide note, written from the young girl’s point of view. When you started the script, did you already know that was the form the poem would take? It’s an incredible moment in the film, when the young girl’s voice takes over the narration.

Agnes is the Christian name of the dead girl. Mija is eventually able to write a poem after she accepted the pain of Agnes as her own, the life of the girl as her own. Therefore, the one poem that Mija leaves in the world is the one that she wrote on behalf of the girl. Mija speaks out with the voice that the girl would have wanted to leave behind. The two become one through the poem. When Mija’s voice changes into Hee-jin’s, the audience can feel that the destinies of Mija and the girl are overlapping, and that the two characters are united as one.

Why did you choose to close the film with a shot of Agnes turning to look at the camera, rather than a scene with Mija, or Wook? It’s a very powerful, but also very open-ended conclusion.

I wanted the audience to face her directly at the end of the film. I wanted people to remember her faintly smiling face and expression directly looking into the camera, and to accept her emotions along with Mija’s poem. Mija has gone after she has finished writing the poem. I wanted to make people feel Mija’s absence while listening to her poem. Where did she go? I left the answer up to the audience. I pictured the film to have much space, as poems do. Blanks that the audiences could fill in. In that sense it can be seen as an ‘open’ film. The conclusion will be in the audience’s mind.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

Shinjuku in London

The Desert Archipelago (Katsu Kanai)

Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s

12-31 July 2011

Close-Up Film Club

Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London

Close-Up website

Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan

1-31 August 2011

BFI Southbank, London

BFI website

The Art Theatre Guild of Japan: Spaces for Intercultural and Intermedial Cinema

Two-day symposium

30-31 August 2011

Birkbeck College, London

The 40th anniversary of the events of 1968 was marked in 2008 by a resurgence of interest in the phenomenon and, ever since, there has been a wave of activities across the world that have celebrated the peaks of creativity and political activism that flourished in the surrounding years. 1968 was not just an event situated in the West, but parallel equivalents emerged simultaneously in many corners of the globe, Japan being no exception. What differentiated Japan’s 1968 was that it was situated in the wake of a failed revolution against ‘Anpo’, the renewal in 1960 of the US-Japan security treaty, which was vehemently opposed by the Japanese populace. For the Japanese, the 1960s were a decade that was defined by disenchantment and by a reinvigorated and necessary urge to focus on the issue in preparation for the treaty’s next renewal in 1970. The artists of this generation, many of whom grew up in a Japan devastated by the war, acted on their impulse to use artistic expression to contribute to the climate of social protest and avant-garde activity.

The screenings organised in London in the coming months, namely Close-Up Film Centre’s July season, Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s, and the BFI Southbank’s August season, Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, demonstrate the best of Japanese independent cinema in the age of cultural and political revolution.

The programmes have been put together to counter the traditional auteur-driven notion of cultural productivity. Instead, they focus on the era’s creative spirit, which permeated the arts community. Close-Up’s Studies in Movement: Experiments by Three Filmmakers programme will screen Hausu director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s early shorts and New Wave titan Nagisa Ôshima’s photo-collage film Yunbogi’s Diary alongside collaborative experiments by a student collective, the young filmmakers of Nihon University Film Studies Club. The programmes intend to dismantle the boundaries that have been set up between experimental cinema and narrative features to prove the two modes of expression and their practitioners continuously infiltrated one another. Katsu Kanai, who will be visiting the UK for the first time to introduce his Smiling Milky Way Trilogy, was one of the key filmmakers of the period. He was able to merge fiction and reality, narrative and visual poetry, in a way that revelled in a joyous desire for experimentation. A nun with a machine gun and a man giving birth to his doppelgä;nger from his wounded back are just two out of many images that you will never forget.

Masao Adachi’s Galaxy, screening with English subtitles for the first time, is a masterpiece of surrealist filmmaking, where a sense of narrative melts into the protagonist’s subconscious. The inaugural film at the Theatre Scorpio, an underground art space where dance, theatre and screenings took place, Galaxy was instrumental in launching Adachi’s career as a scriptwriter and pink director. This is where he met his long-term collaborator, KÔji Wakamatsu, who walked past the venue in awe at the queues around the corner, and immediately got in touch with Adachi. The venue quickly became a focal point for all corners of the art scene and a space where artists shared ideas and established collaborations. Close-Up’s film programme is in celebration of this influential theatre, its name given by Yukio Mishima in tribute to Kenneth Anger‘s Scorpio Rising.

Located above Theatre Scorpio was the Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka, the centrepiece cinema for the Art Theatre Guild, where a range of foreign art-house films, by directors from Glauber Rocha to Satyajit Ray, and from the Polish New Wave to world cinema classics, were screened to large crowds. One of ten ATG cinemas that were established across the country in 1962, the venue screened films ATG distributed and, from 1967, local independent films that the organisation helped to finance as co-producers. The space was also used for jazz concerts, rakugo comedy and late-night angura theatre. The BFI season in August showcases the early period of ATG productions with their 13-film programme, which includes films by luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Ôshima, Shûji Terayama (whose films will be screened at Tate Modern in March 2012), Toshio Matsumoto and Masahiro Shinoda, alongside prominent titles by lesser-known directors such as Kazuo Kuroki, Akio Jissôji and Susumu Hani. ATG continued to support productions until the late 1980s, a later period that is currently placed under the spotlight in a full-scale retrospective at the Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris.

Perhaps due to the interactive nature of the art spaces, where films were placed alongside other arts, the featured titles in the programme have become invaluable records of theatrical happenings and the visual arts scene, as well as testaments to the existence of a participatory environment that unabatedly crossed disciplines. The ATG encouraged prominent playwrights, graphic designers and composers to take part in the production of film: famed graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu took charge of the art design of Double Suicide; Terayama scripted Inferno of First Love; theatre directors Kunio Shimizu and Jûrô Kara took on film directing; and Tôru Takemitsu, Yasunao Tone, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Takehisa Kosugi (whose work is exhibited at Spitalfield’s Raven Row Gallery until July 17) all provided radically innovative soundtracks for films of the period. The importance of the art spaces will be the focus of a free two-day symposium at Birkbeck College (July 30-31), an event that will include a talk by Katsu Kanai and keynote speeches by curators Go Hirasawa and Roland Domenig, as well as three UK premieres of rare films from the period.

Performance art and live art were documented on film, yet in characteristic approaches that emphasised the director’s personal vision rather than clarity in documentation. The infamous ‘rituals’ performed by Zero Jigen feature in Funeral Parade of Roses and The Deserted Archipelago, and Terayama’s theatre troupe Tenjô Sajiki appear in his feature-length ATG films and Double Suicide. Motoharu Jonouchi, an experimental filmmaker whose work is the subject of an entire programme in the Close-Up season, participated in live art events as a collaborator-filmmaker. His film Hi-Red Centre Shelter Plan, to be screened at Peckham’s Flat Time House as part of South London Art Map’s Last Friday events (July 29th), records the notorious live art event at the Imperial Hotel in which Tokyo avant-garde figures such as Yoko Ono, Tadanori Yokoo, Nam June Paik and a naked Masao Adachi participated. Jonouchi’s butoh dance film, Tatsumi Hijikata, which captures the co-founder of butoh dance’s contorted choreographies frame by frame, will also feature in Close-Up’s programme. Kazuo Ohno is the other leader of butoh and his flamboyant costumes will be displayed in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum this autumn. Both feature in Takahiko Iimura’s Cine-Dance films, screened as part of the BFI’s Essential Experiments strand, together with Yayoi Kusama’s body paintings, which feature in her film Flowers; her work will be the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern in January 2012.

These seasons, brought together especially for UK audiences, testify to and take part in a renewed interest around the world in Japan’s counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The screenings and events are an exceptional opportunity to encounter these rare works of art, as many of these films are unavailable on home-viewing formats even in Japan. All screenings are accompanied by an introduction by the curators, filmmakers and experts in the field, who will provide a platform for discussion. If you thought 1960s Japan was only about Ôshima, think again; Japan’s avant-garde had many faces, and the screenings will provide vital occasions for an introduction to the exhilarating explosion of creativity that was the post-war Japanese art scene.

Julian Ross

Sydney Film Festival 2011

Boxing Gym

Sydney Film Festival

8-19 June 2011, Sydney, Australia

SFF Festival website

Like many major city film festivals, Sydney’s objective is to collect what is deemed the year’s best films from around the globe and offer them to the locals, resulting in an eclectic line-up of films, but with a certain absence of a unifying identity. Just like at the London Film Festival, the venues are spread apart in a way that disperses the core of the festival, yet its spirit persists as each venue attracts an eager horde of the city’s film-going public, who queue for their next cinephilic hit. Rather than the premieres and international guests, it seems it is the keen public and their enthusiasm that keep the festival running, and my conversations waiting in line made it more than worthwhile attending, albeit regretfully only for the latter half of its schedule.

Béla Tarr’s newest, and allegedly his last, The Turin Horse (2011), retains the director’s singular style, albeit filtered into further minimalism and pathos. The story of Nietzsche’s last conscious act is its springboard: his defence of a beaten carriage horse before withdrawing into madness is adapted (or continued) into a tale of a horse, its owner and his daughter, who reside in a windswept wasteland where the harsh conditions render them immobile. The savage weather and setting are strongly reminiscent of The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), but the film’s closest neighbour is Kaneto Shindo’s Naked Island (1960). The gruelling monotony of daily routine is captured with deliberate pace and patience in both films, where the necessary cycle of everyday survival becomes transcendent, hinting at realms beyond the human condition. In both films, small events jaunt the rotational flow, and the haunting soundtrack becomes a motif that breaks the spell of endurance for a breath of relief. Yet in The Turin Horse, the soundtrack we’ll remember is the despondent gale that traps and silences its victims under its omnipresence.

Repetition is also explored in documentary Boxing Gym (2010), where Frederick Wiseman observes the training processes of boxers of all ages, races, sizes and gender at a Texas warehouse. The aural pulses of the space, with the boxers’ concentrated breaths, floorboard squeaks and punched vibrations, provide the soundtrack for the film and resonate with the visual rhythms of the boxers’ measured movements in a constant loop. Wiseman captures the boxers’ individual exercises with his characteristically observant and distant camera, which simultaneously intimates a fully involved gaze.

Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited Tree of Life (2011) is similarly made of visual pulsations, relying on intuitions for sensorial transition between the shots rather than any sense of an anchored narrative. The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes earlier this year, the film is epic in scope but finds it difficult to balance the microscopic tale of adolescence in suburban pre-Vietnam US with the colossal enormity of the birth of the universe. The juxtaposition jars; Malick’s trademark sense of touch and his ability to evoke emotion, imbedded here in the depiction of the family, have always been meaningful and tangible, but they lose their grip when Tree of Life enters the cosmos.

Family also takes centre stage and is placed under strain in the excellent A Separation (2011), winner of the Official Jury Competition at the festival. This Iranian drama depicts the moral and legal battle between and within two families when a chain of events leads to a maid’s miscarriage and her employer is blamed. The title of the film not only refers to the divorce application that opens the film, but also to the partitioning of social classes, generations and gender, a rift caused by the central accident. Intensity reaches boiling point and our sympathies swerve between the characters as the spiral narrative unveils the malleability of truth with each new revelation.

A Separation was released on July 1 and is currently showing in UK cinemas.

The festival joined many other international contemporaries in celebrating the work of Iranian filmmakers, specifically Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rausolof, a necessary and timely focus in light of their imprisonment and ban from exercising their professions. Heavily allegorical and resolutely political, The White Meadow (2009), directed by Rausolof and edited by Panahi, demonstrates their skills as storytellers in an environment where voices struggle to be heard. A travelling tear-collector visits different communities, who are all involved in ritual ceremonies that attempt to relieve the environmental hardships afflicting their members; for example, the most beautiful woman of one village is served as a martyr to mate with the sea in order to combat drought. The film becomes a road movie as the protagonist gathers the disowned outcasts and they journey on forward, Rausolof’s camera sinking its lens into the foggy air to capture the beauty of the landscapes.

Gesher (2010), produced by Rausolof and directed by Vahid Vakilifar, observes three workers who labour in a factory at a period of rapid industrialisation. The characters are silenced by the mechanical noises and are dwarfed by the enormity of the machinery, and such scenery is captured in long shots and long takes. Powerless individuals in overpowering situations were also found in Wang Bing’s first fiction-feature The Ditch (2010), a docu-drama about the camps where those who voiced their criticisms against Mao in the Hundred Flowers Campaign were sent. In the midst of a three-year famine, the detainees undergo an intense struggle for survival as one by one they reach exhaustion and starvation. The harrowing depiction of camp life never shies away from the gruesome details, and Wang’s camera perseveres in its realist mode of expression even when the depravity sinks beyond the imaginable.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem (2010) is a story of a lonely man who records causes of death and whose workload reaches previously unimagined heights on the day of the military coup against President Allende in 1973. Hints of civil distress suggested off-screen are forced into the on-screen narrative that meanders in the pivotal historical moment and our protagonist Mario seems silently confused at his newfound situation. Pablo Larrain’s contemplative pace never rushes the story forward despite the catastrophes that surround it and main actor Alfredo Castro, who plays the John Travolta obsessive in the director’s previous Tony Manero (2008), delivers volumes through an absence of expression.

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) portrays another historical period, but this time, anchored in the distant West where three families journey on the Oregon trail, only to stray in the wilderness without their bearings. The camera positions itself with the women, who pace behind the male leaders to lead the group into the depths of nowhere, a unique point of view for the Western that questions masculine sovereignty. Despondence brews in the air and intensity levels rise, but such feelings are only revealed through momentary slips in the cycle of hopeless repetition and the sinking expressions that expose a gradual realisation that the odds may be against them. The epic landscape of the Western genre, which is often used to signal hope, is denied by the framing that squeezes its vastness into a 4×3 screen ratio.

A total loss of control reaches its absolute zenith in debut filmmaker Jo Sung-Hee’s imagined apocalypse End of Animal (2010), a low-budget Korean disaster film that taps into universal fears of global collapse. Although its menace deflates when it punctures its mysteries in semi-explanatory flashbacks at the end of the film, the film largely relies on a sense of disarray experienced by both audience and characters in their newfound situation of impending enigmatic doom. Jo’s storytelling is cold, introducing pregnant protagonist Soon-Yung to possible notes of redemption, only to throw her back into misanthropic despair as the camera follows her hopelessly wandering in circles as exhaustion looms.

Julian Ross

Malick’s Magic Hour

The Tree of Life

Watch the trailer for The Tree of Life below.

Here’s what we know about Terrence Malick.

1. He doesn’t give interviews, or appear in public and refuses to be photographed, or at least have his photograph used for promotional purposes. Except this one where he wears a big hat.

2. He’s a philosopher. He wrote a book about Heidegger, taught at MIT and spent some time teaching in France. His films have become increasingly ambitious with the years and more self-consciously ‘philosophical’, culminating in The Tree of Life, which takes on nothing less than Life, the Universe and Everything as its subject matter. Add to this the kudos given to an artist who is also something else. Like John Updike working as a doctor in a hospital as well as being a novelist of international repute.

3. He hasn’t made many films. Only five in almost 40 years: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). A work rate that makes Stanley Kubrick look like Woody Allen means each film appears loaded with expectation as an event. It also adds to the mystique of a man who could probably be making a film a year, but who deliberately chooses his subjects with care and then spends time polishing and fiddling.

However, each of these points is complicated. Why?

1. The nature of being a recluse these days is defined by an intrusive busy-body media and a promotional sausage-making machine that churns out sound-bites and waffle-snacks. Malick’s reticence is now effectively more voluble than Quentin Tarantino’s mouth, standing as a little pocket of stubborn silence in contrast to the twittering overload of the blogosphere. Shutting up has become the new way of saying something, the way not being on Facebook says much more than being on Facebook.

2. The philosopher tag combines with the recluse label in giving Malick an otherworldly feel. It is a kind of back-handed compliment that promotes to dismiss. Ultimately, Malick is as much a historian as he is a philosopher. All of his films have been period pieces and three of them are based on true events: Badlands is a true crime flick, The Thin Red Line is based on the battle of Guadalcanal and The New World is an interrogation of the foundational myths of European America.

3. Although it is indisputable that his output has been limited, each film has resolutely carved its place into cinema history. There are filmmakers who have made more films, certainly, but there aren’t many who have created more masterpieces.

Taken together, Malick’s films create a remarkably consistent universe. A river runs through all his films. There is always a birdcage. A fire burns in every one of his films, usually burning down a house, usually deliberately ignited. Life is lived outside and houses are often foreign environments, to be invaded. The intrusion into somebody else’s house happens in every film.

If the furniture of his cinematic universe is consistent, so is his way of viewing it. In fact, Malick’s style is so recognisable as to veer occasionally towards becoming his own cliché, especially in his later films: the magic hour photography, the use of music and the dislocation of image from sound, often dropping the sound out of scenes that look noisy; the use of voice-over rather than dialogue.

Initially, the voice-over was an ironic counterpoint. Sissy Spacek’s massively unreliable narrator provided a disingenuous commentary to the inarticulate violence and loquacious double-speak of Martin Sheen’s Kit. In Days of Heaven, the commentary luxuriates in its own meandering irrelevance, giving the film some of its most memorable lines: ‘he wasn’t a bad man: you give him a flower and he’d keep it forever’. The Thin Red Line is an oratorio of questions, anxiety and uncertainty. The voice-over in The New World and The Tree of Life triumphs as a mixture of meditation, introspection and prayer – whispered, sighing, internal mutterings – almost entirely does away with the traditional dialogue-rich scene.

Despite diverse subject matter (juvenile crime, poverty, war, colonisation and grief), Malick’s films share some big themes. The loss of innocence is often cited as a central concern in all the films, but innocence is a sticky topic. In Badlands, Holly’s innocence facilitates Kit’s violence, who is in his own way untouched and innocent of the pain he causes. Days of Heaven begins with the protagonist Bill (Richard Gere) launching a possibly fatal attack against his foreman. The paradise of the opening of The Thin Red Line is a truant paradise, preceded by the lurking crocodile and one that, we later learn, exists only via an act of wilful deafness and blindness. John Smith begins The New World in chains and the indigenous peoples are warlike and intent on murdering him.

Innocence is then something that we feel the loss of without ever having fully understood its presence. The Tree of Life begins with loss and grief. A grown son, a middle child, perhaps as a result of a war, has died. The rest of the film is an attempt to understand life through the lens of absence, loss and death. The fifty-minute symphonic opening abandons narrative in favour of a mapping of the origins of all life from the cosmic to the microscopic and finally to the human scale. This is certainly Malick the philosopher, but it is also Malick the historian going back to primary sources, and Malick the scientist. Theological ideas, such as that of a lost Eden, give the film images to work with, just as the quotation from Job sets an overtly religious tone to the film, but Malick is interested in DNA and evolution as well. In fact, although there is a religious striving throughout the film, God is a presence that can only be felt through a series of absences. There might be prayers in the films, but whether they are answered or not is open to question. In the cosmic vastness, there is a big God-shaped hole, fringed with doubt and questioning.

And yet for all the philosophy, theology, etc., Malick is always grounded. This might seem like an odd claim, when viewing the visual poetry that at times is almost overwhelming, but his films can only get to the spiritual via the intensely physical. The sudden sunshine on a waterfall looks magical, but it is real. The upside down shadows of children playing on wet tarmac might make us think of ghosts, and in a way they are, being the projections of projections of projections, but they are also the shadows of the children. The magic hour is just a certain time of day, albeit a time of day when we feel that something is going, has almost gone, is gone. Just as The Thin Red Line, for all its questions and despair, included a thoroughly delineated combat operation, so The Tree of Life always comes back to a young family in 1950s Texas over which the shadow of a death foretold falls.

Even more than the pyrotechnics of the opening and closing sequence, it is this intimate portrait of an ordinary childhood that achieves moments of sublime cinema. The ordinary is elevated, tinged though it is with the elegiac. Two children trying to touch hands through the glass of the window anticipates a moment of final separation. When the children leap from their bicycles and run into the long grass the camera follows them joyfully. Even here, among the games and the energy of youth, Malick is not going to give us an untroubled innocence though. There is sexual awakening, the heartbreaking realisation of parental fallibility and the banal cruelty of siblings. In a sly self-reference, the first word the baby pronounces is ‘alligator’, reminding us of The Thin Red Line‘s very first image: a crocodile slipping under the water. The Tree of Life is Malick’s most magical film, in being his most grounded.

John Bleasdale

Watch the trailer:

Cressida Connelly is Dumbo


Writer and journalist Cressida Connelly is the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, The Happiest Days, and of a biography of the Garman sisters, a band of eccentric, artistic siblings who took centre stage in London’s bohemian Bloomsbury set, The Rare and the Beautiful. Her debut novel, My Former Heart, is about missing mothers, absconding husbands, splintered families and children’s ability to adapt to emotional upheaval. Eithne Farry

If I were a character in a film, I’d be Dumbo, the baby elephant in Disney’s 1941 animated film of the same name. Like Dumbo I used to get teased for having big flappy ears, but unfortunately I wasn’t able, as he is, to turn this to my advantage by learning to fly. The film is much more simply drawn than Fantasia, which preceded it, but it’s very beautiful. The scene where storks deliver babies and the sequence when Dumbo is, effectively, acid-tripping and sees weird visions are both incredible.

When my mother was a little girl in war-time London, her mother took her to the cinema. Before the feature there was a newsreel, and my grandmother thought she saw in it the man she was in love with, who had disappeared. This image has always appealed to me, so when I came to write a novel I made it my starting point.

The rest of the story is invented, including the fact that the film the mother and daughter go to see is Dumbo. I just wanted to find a film that would have been on show in 1942. What’s odd is that a lot of the book is about missing people, being torn apart from loved ones, and of course Dumbo is separated from his mother and misses her terribly. So the film flickering across the screen at the beginning mirrors one of the main themes of the book.

Cartoons are brilliant at depicting the sense of loss missing someone you love occasions. The characters appear to sag and crumple under the weight of sadness. Dumbo depicts this brilliantly, as does Bambi. More recently, Toy Story 3 exactly captures the longing and disappointment of missing a loved person.

Dumbo overcomes adversity and embraces the very things that frighten him. That makes him an excellent role model for a coward like me. I’m glad I’m not a circus star, but in other ways I’d like to be like Dumbo.

Cressida Connelly

My Former Heart by Cressida Connelly is published by 4th Estate.