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