Dreileben: A crime trilogy from New German Cinema

One Minute of Darkness

It’s been two years since Channel 4 unveiled its ambitious yet patchy Red Riding Trilogy, which was adapted from David Peace’s crime novels, with each of the three episodes made by a different home-grown director. Following a similar principle, the three-part German TV project Dreileben, which screened in the Cinema Europa section at this year’s London Film Festival, was directed by three of the country’s leading filmmakers, Christian Petzold (Yella, Jerichow), Dominik Graf (Germany 09) and Christoph Hochhä;usler (The City Below, Germany 09). This screening may not have been met with the same level of enthusiasm by UK audiences as back in Germany, when the films premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, yet Dreileben is a bold, innovative and largely compelling experiment in cinematic storytelling that deserves more attention than it has received during its limited festival run.

Almost more fascinating than the outcome is the initial extensive email conversation between the three filmmakers about film aesthetics, which ultimately led them to continue their heated exchange on screen. ‘The three of us had a long and extremely intensive correspondence on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy Berlin,’ says Petzold. ‘It started off with a discussion about the so-called “Berlin School”, which Dominik criticised. According to him we were in danger of compromising our view, our deep and passionate criticism, in favour of a common style, which would ultimately lead to a feeling of artificiality, constraint, and a distrust in communication, in language. We wrote to each other on a daily basis for about six weeks. Suddenly, the DFFB anniversary had passed, but we missed having these conversations, so we continued to meet and to talk, without any recording devices or designated use, until we decided to start this film project together.’

Defined by Hochhä;usler as ‘sibling films rather than a trilogy’, each of the resulting films feels very much like a separate piece of work, although there are more or less obvious plot links and reoccurring characters, similarly to the format of the Red Riding Trilogy. Most importantly, the filmmakers agreed upon a criminal case as the golden thread that binds their individual narratives: the escape of a convict from police custody into a small town called Dreileben. Located in the beautiful yet chilling Thuringia Forest, in the former East Germany, it seemed to be the ideal place for what the directors where trying to achieve. ‘I knew Thuringia from my childhood,’ says Petzold. ‘My mother grew up there, and I made Christoph and Dominik go and visit the area. Despite its proximity to Weimar, the home of Goethe and Schiller, it has always been a very poor area. People didn’t want to live there, they left if they could, and those who stayed told dark stories to each other. We liked that.’ As a consequence, Dreileben draws heavily on the German romantic tradition in terms of its approach to nature – seeing it both as a place of danger and a place of inspiration.

This becomes most evident in the third part, One Minute of Darkness, directed by Christoph Hochhä;usler, which also proves to be the most compelling episode. The film focuses on the investigations by the local detective in charge of the case of Frank Molesch, the escaped murderer, who – if only in the eyes of the detective – may actually be innocent. ‘What I find very intriguing is that we can never be sure about anything,’ says Hochhä;usler. ‘Instead we have to construct reality time and again. And what interested me most about Molesch’s character was the question: to what extent are we the authors of our own destiny, and to what extent do other people have an influence on that? Molesch is an extremely malleable, extremely soft persona, whose entire life has been dictated by his foster mother and external authorities, and I thought it would be interesting to explore what happens if such a diktat no longer exists. Can he actually make use of this moment of freedom? Where does it lead to?’

Hence Hochhä;usler’s episode is told mainly from Molesch’s viewpoint. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Molesch, despite his almost brutish actions, enters into a wonderfully tender bond with a young runaway, who also happens to be hiding in the woods. Meanwhile, the police inspector tries to get inside the head of Molesch, in order both to find him and prove his innocence. Shot in the cool and sparse New German Cinema manner, One Minute of Darkness may bring nothing terribly new to the genre, but it still makes for an effective and solid thriller in its own right.

In contrast, Petzold’s Beats Being Dead (the first episode in the trilogy) dazzles on the aesthetic level, but fails to keep up the tension and intensity from start to finish. Petzold reveals very little about the murder; instead, we meet Johannes, a young male nurse, who begins an affair with an immigrant girl from Eastern Europe who works in a nearby hotel. While the hunt for Molesch always remains in the shadow of the film’s main narrative, Petzold decides to concentrate on the mismatched couple as they struggle with life as much as with their young, and doomed, relationship.

Sitting in between the two episodes is Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, in which a police psychologist has been ordered to Dreileben to help the local police in their investigation. Adopting a style that is less cool and detached than Petzold and Hochhäusler’s approach, Graf manages to deftly weave a compelling personal story about two women, who fell for the same lover in the past, into the crime scenario. However, he gets slightly too carried away by his own ambitions for the project, rather than simply sticking with its initial premise.

Taken as a whole, Dreileben might have benefited if Petzold, Graf and Hochhä;usler were slightly less hard-headed filmmakers. There seems to be a potential in their work that is not quite realised, a kind of brilliance that keeps bumping against the same creative blockages. Still, aesthetically and conceptually, Dreileben is an innovative and engrossing, if slow-burning, TV-style crime-drama experiment that often hits a note of genuine mystery and discomfort in its attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent German filmmaking. It’s certainly worth four and a half hours of your time, even if it’s not quite the triumph that might be expected from each of these three directors.

Pamela Jahn

The Artist: The Sound of Silence

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist may be the first ‘silent film’ made in America to trouble the attention of the Oscars committee for several generations; and yet, paradoxically, no other film this year pays such close attention to sound. It is the absence of sound that first makes us pause. As the film begins, we find ourselves caught in a mise en abyme: in a cinema, watching an audience in a cinema watching a silent film. So the sound of your traditional silent film music comes as no surprise. It is only when this film ends, and the film music with it, and the camera pulls back to reveal the wildly applauding audience, that we are confronted with the curious horror of nothing to hear. Wherever we expect sound, we are confronted with its absence (elsewhere, the music stops just as someone puts a needle on a record, for instance).

We have just about got used to this uncanny reversal when the beginning of the second act is announced with a dream sequence. More properly, a nightmare. It is a nightmare, precisely, of synchronised sound. For what could be more horrifying to a star of the silent screen (such as our George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin) than the sudden coherence of sounds with their source. A glass falls and clinks against a wooden desk and the sound – because it is the first sound ‘effect’ of the film so far – is like a knife in the ear.

George Valentin, our titular ‘artist’, is haunted throughout the film by the traumatising power of the voice. What becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses is that it is not any particular quality of the voice or any given enunciation. It matters not what the voice is saying. It is the horror of the voice as such: the voice in its orality, the infinite demand of its insistent address. While the musical soundtrack (almost) literally never shuts up with its endlessly signifying chain of references to classic Hollywood scores, the voice remains that which says nothing, communicates nothing.

The Artist is released in the UK on 30 December by Entertainment Film Distributions.

Robert Barry

The Films of Larry Fessenden


Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.

At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.

Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.

In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.

Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).

Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.

I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011’s August FrightFest.

Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?

Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.

In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?

Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.

That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!

I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.


It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.

I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.

The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?

Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!

Interview by Alex Fitch

London Korean Film Festival Shorts

Night Fishing

London Korean Film Festival 2011

3-17 November 2011, London

LKFF website

Short films were represented by two screenings at the London Korean Film Festival. Each showcased different works selected from Korea’s Mise en Scène festival, which celebrated its tenth edition this year and was originally set up by the filmmaking powerhouses Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) and Bong Joon-hoo (Mother) as a platform for the country’s shorts.

Both screenings opened with their star attraction, Night Fishing (2011), a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey and one made more so by the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an i-Phone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision.

It was an impossibly strong start and at the second screening, which I attended, the following shorts never quite matched its quality. That said, the standard was high and I especially enjoyed Kim Bo-ra’s The Recorder Exam and Lee Chang-hee’s Broken Night (both 2011), two wildly different films. The Recorder Exam is a beautifully small-scale, poignant film that follows a young girl’s preparation for a school music test. The film makes snatched references to the 1988 Seoul Olympics but the narrative focuses on the domestic story of an unhappy home life, a million miles away from grand, international ceremonies. In contrast to the slow and still approach of The Recorder Exam, Broken Night is a fast-paced nightmare of high-speed road accidents and shifting moral perspectives.

The sinister atmosphere was echoed in Yi Jeong-jin’s Ghost (2011), which followed a man hiding out in a derelict housing block following the murder and assault of a young girl. The film never made its message or the subject of its empathy clear so, while its creepiness was well executed, the story seemed to peter out, feeling like the start of a longer film rather than a completed short. I felt that the weakest of the selection was Kim Han-kyul’s Chatter (2011), a comedy focusing on a meal out between friends that quickly descends into a battle of gossip and ill-feeling as secrets and insults are exchanged. I found the humour to be a bit laboured (an effect further hampered by poorly translated subtitles) but I think this was a matter of personal taste; the ICA cinema was soon filled with laughter. Indeed, the audience seemed to be engaged throughout the screening and there were very positive murmurings as the selection came to an end. The chosen films provided an interesting chance to see material beyond Korea’s internationally screened feature films and it appeared that everyone at the ICA was very appreciative of that.

Eleanor McKeown

Bloody-Minded Auteurs from the Arthouse to the Grindhouse

Andrei Tarkovsky
By Sean Martin
kamera Books 224pp £16.99

Dark Stars Rising
By Shade Rupe
Headpress 559pp. £15.99

Flesh and Blood Volume 2
Edited by Harvey Fenton
FAB Press 95pp £14.99

Many writers will tell you that writing ‘short’ is often a much tougher discipline than writing ‘long’ – a short story can be more demanding than a novel. In the case of writing about a life’s oeuvre, as Sean Martin has attempted with his recent book, Andrei Tarkovsky, the task is daunting indeed, for the Russian director is an idiosyncratic and demanding auteur. Kamera books has a strong track record in publishing short, pithy overviews of directors, genres and national cinemas. The series is largely successful in providing credible and accessible introductory volumes for the interested and curious cinema-goer and fledgling film students. Both groups are well served by Martin’s book, which does justice – in a brief 196 pages of text proper – to the complex, semi-autobiographical visual poetry that constitutes Tarkovsky‘s cinema. In chapters that cover his seven major films, Martin writes with a fine turn of phrase that reveals a firm critical understanding and sensitivity to the filmmaker, to wit: ‘Poetry, for Tarkovsky, is the form of linguistic expression that is as close as we can get to life itself; it is a manifestation of truths beyond language.’ Of Nostalgia he writes: ‘It is as if Tarkovsky is heeding the advice of Robert Bresson in the film – more so than in any of his previous work – “Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.” If Stalker is one of the great films of silence, then Nostalgia is one of the great films of immobility…’ The author’s stated intent for this volume is ‘to serve as a short overview of Tarkovsky’s work for those unfamiliar with it, or as a stimulus to go back and re-watch the films for those already acquainted with them’. It succeeds on both counts.

The appropriately named publishers FAB and Headpress both immerse themselves in the muddy waters of transgressive cinema and liminal spaces and places. What links FAB Press’s Flesh and Blood Volume 2 and Headpress’s Dark Stars Rising is their mutual celebration of authors – cinematic and otherwise – whose integrity of vision or simple bloody-mindedness (literally and figuratively) is enmeshed in their work and often indistinguishable from their lives. Hence, in Dark Stars Rising, Shade Rupe presents a vast collection of interviews undertaken over the years with many artists who may fairly be put into the camp of extremist cinema. In a set of 27 interviews – more conversations really, as the author notes – some fascinating words are spoken by the likes of Gaspar Noé, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Udo Kier and Hermann Nitsch, each of whom takes the reader on a journey – often circuitous – into his mind and work. Rupe is a game interviewer but too often takes a chummy, near-schmoozy approach to his subjects; he occasionally gets lost in his own vast references and misses chances to probe more deeply into his subject’s opinions, observations or downright misguided ideas. A trifle too hagiographic in his approach then – but forget about my niggling: this collection provides an insider’s guide to the fringes of culture and takes us joyfully into the liminal hinterlands of cinema and art.

Not dissimilar in its cultural territory but significantly different in approach and subject matter, Harvey Fenton’s new book is a miscellany of interviews and historical/cultural essays about various fringe or geek (in the best sense of the word) cinematic tastes. It is a delicious potpourri about good old exploitation and ‘cult’ cinema. Indeed, there is a piece by Robert G. Weiner on that hoary old carny barker of a film producer, the legendary Dwain Esper, who, along with those other film biz rascals, Kroger Babb, David Friedman and Willis Kent, made going to the ‘sin pit’ such a satisfactory guilty pleasure. Carl T. Ford contributes a worthy piece on Du&#353an Makavejev and Sweet Movie, while Kier-La Janisse’s piece, ‘Boccaccio’s Bastards: the Decameron from Pop to Porn’, makes a unique cine-historiographical job of tracing the bawdy Italian’s major work as it has evolved in various cinematic interpretations – rarely culminating in a masterpiece to match the source material. Topics range from body horror to Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses – linked nicely in this collection through its connection to the various incarnations of Le Fanu’s vampire novella, Carmilla, which is the focus of Jonathon Scott’s engaging chapter, ‘The Female of the Species: Fantale’s Karnstein Trilogy’. There follow interviews with John Landis (which is not as probing as might have been hoped), Alan Birkinshaw, Geoffrey Wright and Paul Verhoeven discussing ‘the politics of pulp’. Flesh and Blood Volume 2 has been long anticipated and is a worthy successor to the original collection. It is certainly a must-have addition if you enjoyed (and coveted) the first volume. Both Headpress and FAB deserve praise for the kind of tangential cinematic materials with which they so joyfully engage.

James B. Evans

Gaggle’s Film Jukebox


Gaggle are a multi-membered all-female contemporary choir led by classically trained Deborah Coughlin. A powerfully intelligent and creative group (a ‘gaggle’ in fact…) of women, their music ranges from beats to opera and is powered by vocal force. Gaggle’s debut album will be released on Transgressive in early 2012. For more information please go to the Gaggle website. Below, ten different members of Gaggle, named at the end of their contributions, pick their favourite films. Delia Sparrer

1. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
I only like films that pass the Bechdel Test (it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). I wish I had known about the test, and wish I had watched this film when I was 12, the same age as the protagonist Dawn Weiner. This is no ordinary pre-teen coming-of-age film; Dawn could be a 12-year-old riot grrrl or young Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World. The film is realistic yet kitsch in its portrayal of female outsiderness and suburban ennui. It captures the awkward yet sacred rituals of girldom perfectly, especially in the scene where Dawn performs an incantation over her DIY shrine to her dreamy teen crush Steve, glitter and candles flickering on her bedroom carpet. Welcome to the Dollhouse doesn’t pander to any of the ‘ugly duckling turned swan’ pre-teen film clichés, nor does everything turn out alright in the end, and it’s all the better for it. Glossolalia

2. The Evil Bong (2006)
The first time I watched this film I was half drunk on Kopparberg and eating Camembert (that might have been heart-shaped) on baguettes in a huge Gaggle Tour Bus, sat next to my bezzie mate Boadicea. We had this TV on the coach with literally thousands of films on it. As Gaggle are one big happy family, Daddy Gaggle Simon (writer, sound engineer, producer), who obviously had the remote (cock reference anyone?) skimmed through the options and eventually we found this – a gleaming gem of a film that no one thought we would watch all the way to the end. But we did, and I thank Christ every day for it. Apparently, what keeps 30 women entertained and quiet for more than half an hour is tits and drugs. Evil Bong is essentially a dumb stoner movie made on a budget better suited to YouTube. It eloquently tells the story of a group of stoners that inhale more than they bargained for, smoking from a possessed Amazonian bong. After a few ‘tokes’ the stoner boys are transported into a strip club (so far so good) and are danced around by hot topless ladies (great) who later murder them (Uh oh!), leaving their straight-living nerd roomy to save the day… It’s not pretty to look at, the plot’s bizarre, but it has the boyish charm of Beavis and Butthead and a billion other Vice/MTV rotters before it. Which basically makes it Lipstick Gaggle’s dream come true. If I wanted ‘Culture’ I’d go and watch Amelie. Lipstick

3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
God – where to begin for reasons… It’s such a heart-wrenching tale about love, discrimination, disability, creative expression and done in such a fantastical, imaginative and sensitive way. A grown-up fairy tale. The production design and general style of the film is so incredibly cool, even today. I love that bit when all the cars come out of their pastel-coloured driveways in perfect timing – it’s such a brilliant shot to represent the eeriness of suburbia… And also when Edward cuts all the women’s hair and they all pretty much jizz their pants… And that bit when Kim dances in the garden under the snowflakes that Edward is making from his ice sculptures… And it’s got Johnny Depp… swoon… and Winona before she went mental and started stealing things. WONDERFUL! WigWham

4. The Seventh Seal (1957)
This is a film that totally stuck in my head after I watched it, even though it’s really different from and more serious than the type of films I usually tend to like. Max von Sydow is perfect as the soul-searching knight playing chess with Death – he barely even seems to say that much, it’s all in his sad eyes! It has a great mixture of being subtle in its telling but surreal in its content. The Crusades, the ever-present threat of the Black Death and the reality of witch burnings provide a backdrop that is both bizarre but familiar and totally fascinating. Apart from that, it’s strange to see iconic imagery that you then realise has been parodied and pastiched many times over (most comically perhaps in Bill and Ted – who play, and beat, Death at Twister and Battleships). It also inspired one of my favourite songs by Scott Walker. Sredni Vashtar

5. Sliding Doors (1998)
I’ve never looked at the world in the same way since watching this film. It made me question whether one moment really can change your path forever or if our fate is decided from the outset and the succession of events leading up to the end result is what we know to be life. I can turn my head in knots thinking about it and it does baffle me but I also find it very exciting – I can’t wait to see what life brings my way. Belle

6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Centred around two characters who feature quite largely in Hamlet’s life as his best friends, but are dispensed with in just one line and no further comment in the rest of the Shakespearian play. In this film adaptation of his own play, Stoppard (who is a genius when stretching the limits of language to absurdity) uses the medium to its advantage, creating a funny, surreal, nonsensical and cyclical piece of cinema. Also I just love Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, they are definitely British acting gems. Corvus

7. The Dark Knight (2008)
First of all Christopher Nolan: the man is a genius, and in my humble opinion has yet to make a bad movie. In The Dark Knight, Batman is simply badass, and when you take the Batman universe from the comic and drop it straight into a real-world crime drama you are on to a winner! All the campness of the 60s TV series and the awful Joel Schumacher movies are replaced by a dark and gritty atmosphere. The film is so well crafted with rounded characters all with depth and inner conflict, beautiful cinematography (Chicago makes an amazing Gotham City), and some breathtaking action set-pieces that aren’t reliant on crappy CGI. Jezebel

8. Hairspray (1988)
The John Waters one OF COURSE. Because it has the best fucking soundtrack, and it’s got the best performance of people doing the Madison in it. The best fucking hair, DIVINE GOD BLESS HER SOUL, and Ricki Lake AND Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono and Rik Ocasec as a beatnik – I don’t think I need to explain anymore than that. Strick

9. Mullholland Drive (2001)
I love the dark atmosphere of this film and how you can interpret the story in several different ways as it shifts between reality and the unconscious. The non-linear approach to storytelling is truer to life. Naomi Watts plays such a stand-out role in this, bringing to life several different characters through the movie and each one as believable as the other. Mixed with the surreal element and set against the backdrop of Hollywood, it gives a great dark insight to the depths of what is usually portrayed as an aspirational and glamorous place. Swanimaru

10. Now, Voyager (1942)
After much deliberation (Jurassic Park, Sister Act, Eraserhead, Slaves of New York, Lost Boys didn’t make the cut!) I think I have to contribute Now, Voyager. Stylish and moving, Bette Davis plays a really inspirational woman who finds her own happiness, ignoring the expectations and conventions of others. It explores some pretty modern ideas considering it was made in 1942 – from the stigma of suffering from depression and the success of talking therapies to women’s independence and a celebration of unconventional family relationships, with some timeless lines and a complicated but happy ending thrown in. McClean

Scarlett Bailey is Scarlett O’Hara

Scarlett O'Hara

Scarlett Bailey has loved writing stories since childhood. Before writing her debut novel The Night before Christmas she worked as a waitress, cinema usherette and bookseller. Passionate about old movies, Scarlett loves nothing more than spending a wet Sunday afternoon watching her favourite films back to back with large quantities of chocolate. Her filmic Alter Ego is Scarlett O’Hara. EITHNE FARRY

Maybe it’s a little odd to want to be Scarlett O’Hara, manipulative, sociopathic, vain and cruel heroine of 1939 Victor Fleming epic Gone with the Wind. And yet for all of her faults, which are legion, Scarlett remains an iconic heroine, blazing a trail through adversity, against all the odds. Scarlett is a survivor and a fighter, with a nifty sideline in turning curtains into frocks, and I think that there aren’t many of us who don’t wish for at least some of those qualities at least once in our lives.

And it’s fair to say that Scarlett is not all bad. She’s a woman of character, who flourishes in a time of crisis, her troubles only making her stronger. Fiercely loyal to her love for Ashley, even when he chooses boring, nice and predictable Melanie, Scarlett never turns on him with stereotypical female vengeance, but continues fighting for him, as much as for herself, to the very end. Yes, she might marry out of spite or for money, might like kissing a certain Rhett Butler, while pining over Ashley, so addicted to wanting what she can’t have that she barely notices when her feelings for Rhett begin to change from lust to love. But when it comes to the crunch Scarlett is the one you want in your corner. She’s got the guts of steel to nurse the terrible wounds of the injured soldiers, when Melanie can’t. And she’s the only one who’ll stand by Melanie during the birth of hers and Ashley’s baby, getting her out of a burning Atlanta like Boudicca in her chariot. After facing so much adversity, who can blame Scarlett for vowing never to go hungry again and for doing whatever it takes to stay alive? It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to compare Civil War America with our current global economic crisis, but for those of us who make a living from our wits, right now is not at all a bad time to be a little bit like Scarlett O’Hara.

The Night before Christmas is published by Ebury Press.

Scarlett Bailey

The 8th China Independent Film Festival

No. 89 Shimen Roa

8th China Independent Film Festival

28 October – 1 November, 2011, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

As with last year’s event, the 8th China Independent Film Festival was an exercise in under-promotion: a schedule that was only available in advance if you had the right email address, screenings in lecture rooms at the downtown campus of Nanjing University, and an opening ceremony at a moderately sized venue that provided sufficient seating for those in the know, but left curious latecomers standing in the aisles. This is not a method of organisation that is exclusive to CIFF, as any independent film festival operating in mainland China has to take such measures due to the inclusion of features that have not been approved by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). 2011 has been a particularly difficult year for such festivals, with the organisers of the Documentary Film Festival China being pressured to cancel the Beijing-based event (which would also have been in its eighth year) due to a tense political climate that coincided with the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and increased mainland internet restrictions. The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival went ahead in October, although not without disruption, as the venue had to be changed twice and police presence was reported at the launch event. Representatives of SARFT were in attendance at CIFF, but did not intervene at either screenings or workshop sessions, meaning that the festival ran smoothly compared to its equivalent in the capital. With political conflicts effectively sidestepped, CIFF was able to offer another interesting selection of features, documentaries and experimental shorts, with filmmakers present for post-screening discussions of their work. It could be said that the ‘real’ festival took place at the local branch of Sculpting in Time (a Chinese version of Starbucks that serves alcoholic beverages in addition to over-priced coffee), where the network of directors, distributors, academics and journalists was further expanded.

While the features emerging from China’s independent sector are undoubtedly political, they often avoid sweeping state-of-the-nation surveys in favour of social microcosms to show the effect of national shifts on the family unit or the individual. Zhang Ciyu’s haunting Pear (2010) is a chamber piece concerning a young married couple who are struggling to complete the construction of their new house on a mountain slope; the wife ends up working in a brothel in town to earn the necessary funds and the husband is left to hang around the waiting room of the establishment while she services her clients. Regardless of how much money she makes, the couple can never keep up with the rate of economic acceleration and the pears of the title – the wife’s favourite fruit, which are brought to her in a basket by her husband – are left to rot, much like their dreams of a prosperous future. The eponymous heroine of Song Chuan’s insightful and quietly heart-breaking Huan Huan (2010) is a young village woman who becomes the mistress of the local doctor; she struggles to find her place in the world despite, or because of, a near-constant bombardment of social messages (birth control regulations, labour force drives, state-controlled television news). The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.

If the nicely crafted No. 89 Shimen Road represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Chinese independent cinema – a universal narrative placed within a wider political context – then Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) and Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters (2010) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old Dog is a poetic portrait of Tibetan life in which the unauthorised sale of the titular animal by the owner’s son leads his father to retrieve the dog on the grounds that using an animal as a commodity is taboo in traditional Tibetan culture. It’s a thoughtful contemplation on the changing values of Tibet under state reform, with striking long shots of farmland divided by barbed wire and town streets that show slow but steady signs of economic progress. By contrast, The Cockfighters is aggressively commercial, a punchy rural thriller that follows the feud that develops between a youth from a wealthy family and a grassroots family man when the former loses his first cockfighting match to the latter. The narrative device of a destructive game of one-upmanship owes much to the genre cinema of South Korea, right down to the obligatory shaving scene before the climactic showdown, and The Cockfighters certainly makes a gripping bid for international box office viability. Developing links between China’s independent sector and alternative production in other Asian territories were adequately illustrated by Zhao Ye’s altogether gentler Last Chestnuts (2010), which was filmed in Nara, Japan, at the invitation of Naomi Kawase, director of The Mourning Forest (2007). A terminally ill Tokyo woman (Kaori Momoi) wanders the area, searching for her missing son, with only a couple of digital photos as clues to his whereabouts, and is assisted by helpful locals; Zhao conveys the time-sensitive desperation of the mother’s search, although the emotional impact is lessened by unnecessary meta-references to Kawase’s work in the same region.

The documentary line-up also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports. Wang Hao’s Seven Days in a Year (2011) documents the responsibilities of an internet-monitoring department in Chongqing, revealing how such restrictions are implemented by low-level state servants who spend the day browsing bulletin boards for negative comments and brainstorming SMS advertising strategies to encourage patriotic feeling. Beijing’s art scene was examined by Zeng Guo in two documentaries, 798 Station (2010) and The Cold Winter (2011). The former provides an account of how a thriving art zone comprised of galleries and studios has evolved from factory space, while the latter follows the unsuccessful efforts of artists to stop the demolition of the art districts that surround the central hub of 798 Station. The Cold Winter shows both the strengths and weaknesses of China’s artistic communities, with everyone committed to a certain ideal, but the movement compromised by a lack of agreement on how to practically realise it. However, as with the features, the most interesting documentaries were those that focused on the individual, exploring past and present Chinese society through daily routine or recounted memory. Wei Xiaobo’s The Days (2010) is a candid first-person account of the director’s cash-strapped lifestyle with his live-in girlfriend Xei Fang; they fight, make love and Wei undertakes various freelance assignments to pay the rent. Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.

Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of Huan Huan or Pear. This is not necessarily a problem, as coming-of-age dramas or revenge thrillers with a certain level of social-political context appeal to the international art-house crowd, who regularly watch films that exist on the fringes of the mainstream but still adhere to genre parameters. However, it is hoped that such potential crossover successes will not overshadow more marginal works like Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (2009), a minimalist romance between a bored young woman and a violent gangster that is told in just 31 long takes with no close-ups. Sun Spots polarised audience opinion – some found it to be a patience-tester, others were hypnotised by its deliberate rhythm – but nonetheless generated much discussion due to its formal qualities. On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.

John Berra

Outrage: Interview with Takeshi Kitano


Having started his career as a comedian and television presenter in the 1970s, Takeshi Kitano has always been more than the writer-director and actor of his own films. Already established as a multimedia superstar (working as a TV personality and actor) in Japan under the name ‘Beat’ Takeshi, Kitano earned himself an international cult following with yakuza gangster movies such as his feature debut Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-Bi (1997). But the recent series of what Kitano has self-deprecatingly called his ‘auto-destruct’ cinema, including Takeshis’ (2005) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), has disconcerted distributors and damaged his standing, leading to increasingly limited or straight-to-DVD releases for his films outside of Japan in recent years. Yet, his latest offering, Outrage, which premiered in Competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, sees Kitano back with a vengeance both behind and in front of the camera, in what feels like one of his most refreshing and enjoyable yakuza thrillers to date.

Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in which Kitano talked about tackling genre conventions, dentist horror scenarios and what it feels like to be the boss of it all.

Q: Outrage marks your return to the crime genre but there is clearly a shift in tone compared to your early yakuza films such as Violent Cop and Sonatine. Although the film is equally violent, the characters are not as cold and cool as they used to be and and you seem to have fun playing with the genre conventions. Was it a conscious decision you made when you started the project to test new grounds with this film?

Takeshi Kitano: Of course it would have been much easier to focus on the main protagonist played by myself and make a straightforward yakuza genre movie with lots of violence rather than trying a different route. But when I started working on the film I noticed that many people were very interested to find out what I was going to do next and I thought that if I simply repeated what I have already done in the past people would say, ‘Well, he’s just doing the same old stuff again’. So, yes, I consciously tried to do something different with this film. First of all, I intentionally changed the pace and the rhythm of the whole film and incorporated a lot of dialogue, which I hadn’t really done before in my earlier movies. I also stepped back from the limelight as the main character. I mean, although I am the main character, the film is not just about this one protagonist. It’s more about the whole group of gangsters, so it becomes an ensemble film. Most importantly, however, it has this kind of detachment, it’s like watching one of those nature documentaries shows where you see the bugs in the woods killing each other, or ants chasing worms – I kind of treated the characters in the film in that way. So, the emotional aspect is much less important here.

Did all this evolve quite naturally or did you work on the script for a long time?

I worked on the script for this movie backwards in that the very first scene, the very first idea that I had, was the sequence when one of the yakuza characters gets beheaded with the string attached to his neck and gets dragged away by a car. And from that point on I went backwards in terms of developing the story line. I started thinking of the many ways of killing people, and it was only then that I came up with how the whole trouble begins and what would be the cause of the warfare. But after the first draft I noticed that there were too few scenes featuring myself to make this movie work, so I had to add some more scenes with myself in them because otherwise I would have had too many scenes with different characters and the story wouldn’t have worked as a whole.

How did you come up with the idea of the man getting beheaded by the car?

It is the development of an idea that I ended up not using for my previous movie Achilles and the Tortoise, where I thought that the protagonist that I played in that movie would hang himself. He would attach a string to a tree and put the rope around his neck and then the car beneath him would slowly move forward. But then the woman would drop from the tree and he would fail to kill himself. But I dropped that idea after discussing it with my crew, who said it would look too much like a comedy and that it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the story. The scene in Outrage is almost a revised version of that.

You said elsewhere that you wanted to make the audience feel the pain…

While I was writing this script and while I was shooting, my intention was that all the violence should look as painful as possible because that’s how it is in real life. Violence is a painful thing. But then I felt that it was actually very difficult to find a balance in portraying the violence because if you bring a chainsaw into a yakuza movie it suddenly turns into a horror movie. So you can’t get too carried away with how people get killed in a gangster movie. But one of the ideas I came up with was the dentist scene, which is inspired by me having treatment at a dentist in the past. What happened was that while I was receiving treatment, my dentist’s phone rang and she said, ‘Mr Kitano, I have to take this call, do you mind waiting for a moment?’ I said ‘OK’ and she went out of the room. And then I had this weird idea thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if somebody broke into the room right now and started drilling my teeth, that would be a nightmare’. And suddenly it hit me, that this could be a great scene in the film and as soon as I got out of that chair I wrote it down.

Then there is this tongue scene, I thought that worked really well in terms of trying to combine the violence and the humour, especially because I noticed the reactions of the audience at the official screening. I didn’t have the intention to make those violent scenes comical at all, but I noticed during the editing that many of the scenes are almost hilarious unintentionally. But although it wasn’t my intention in the first place, it eventually turned out to be a good thing because it somehow works as a relief for the tension.

Outrage is very much a film about men in conflict about their egos, their self-serving aspirations and ambitions. In real life, being the boss of your own production company Office Kitano, do you often come across these sort of ego problems with other people, or do people in general get a bit nervous around you?

I don’t think people are usually nervous around me because there is never any conflict on set. I have never screamed at anybody on set, in fact, I am a very quiet director, I think. I try to be as cooperative as possible with my crew, and I am open to listening to their ideas. So I’d like to think that my producers and crew members just like to help me too. They might even think I cannot do anything without them and that they have to help me, so actually they might be my nurses rather than being nervous.

From your film’s perspective, do you think much of the influence and tactics of the yakuza have changed over the years since you made Violent Cop? Do you have, or used to have, close contacts to members of yakuza gangs?

I don’t think this film is a very reality-orientated kind of yakuza movie. Although it is not entirely fictional it is not intended to be realistic either, simply because the conflict and warfare scenes in Outrage are slightly exaggerated. Those things are not really happening in the Japanese gang wars and the violence is not as explicit as in the film. But in terms of yakuza businesses, how they work and how they make a profit, this is an open secret for any Japanese, you don’t have to do much research to know how they operate. Japan is one of the very few countries where the gangsters don’t hesitate to show that they are gangsters, they even put a billboard up on their building saying ‘so and so family office’. You don’t see this in Western countries, right?

Aside from dealing with the same subject matter, is there a common thread that runs through your yakuza films?

I haven’t given it much thought to whether there is some sort of common thread that runs through my films or my career, because as an actor it is important to try to achieve what you are required to achieve in a project rather than to think about the consistency of a series of similar or different movies. For instance, even if I work purely as an actor for other directors, I basically try to be as cooperative and faithful to the director’s instructions as possible, not thinking about my own ideas, not thinking about my priorities, I am only listening to the director. And when I work on my own movies, it is really the film that calls for a particular performance and it is important to convey that in each project. So it is really difficult for me to reflect upon my work and find out what is different or what has been added to each movie.

Another difference that you haven’t mentioned earlier is that you seem to be using a rougher soundtrack than in previous films?

In terms of sound, including the music but also the sound effects and the acoustics of the whole movie, I wanted to bring in some notion of comic book sound effects, this same sort of exaggeration. Like in a manga, where you actually read the sound, like ‘bang’ is written on the picture, and I wanted that kind of effect on the sound.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Toronto International Film Festival 2011 – Part 2

Las Acacias

Toronto International Film Festival

8-18 Sept 2011

Toronto, Canada

TIFF website

To characterise the 36th TIFF, it is probably most relevant to invoke the phrase that seemed to be making the rounds in the press lounge this year: The Austerity TIFF. There were small but clear indications throughout the festival events that economic hair-cutting was the order of the day. Sponsored events were fewer and further between, and the previous year’s more magnanimous gestures were dramatically cropped at this still humongous and prestigious film festival. The big money seemed to be ring-fenced for the impressive Hollywood band-wagon that inevitably arrives for three or four days and sets the city’s residents into a celebrity frenzy usually held in check by their cautious Canadian personae. Come festival time, all restraint is thrown to the wind. This year they had George, Johnny, Madonna, Bonehead – sorry that’s Bono – Francis, Martin, Vigo, Keira, Ryan, Brad et al to rubberneck at.

As for the films themselves, there were the usual number of high-profile premieres of American productions as well as the more interesting hundreds of international features, documentaries and shorts. This report concentrates on films that remain in mind after dozens have slipped into the muddy streams of visual unconsciousness.

I had the privilege of eavesdropping on distributors as they hotly enthused and kept deepening their pockets for the rights to William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a nasty little number that features Matthew McConaughey – in a career-stretching role – as a Dallas cowboy-cop who moonlights as a very cool and ruthless hit man. He is hired by a bumbling trailer trash family to kill their no-good mama in order to inherit her insurance money – a good example of a staple trope of classic noir being resuscitated and transplanted into a neo-noir (or film soleil, as some would dub it). Friedkin, who knows a thing or two about chase sequences (The French Connection, 1971) treats us to a good one here, and the only criticism that might really be raised is the rather gratuitous stretching out of the final bloodbath. Adapted from a 1993 play by Tracy Letts, the film introduces a fried chicken leg in the starring role as a blowjob recipient – made problematic by the nasty circumstances under which it is delivered. But Killer Joe sees the veteran director William Friedkin in a real return to form of sorts, after several below par outings in the last years. Coen Brothers meet Tarantino.

The coming-of-age adolescent film is well-mined territory and coming up with even a slightly original slant is difficult. Jens Lien in Sons of Norway accomplishes just this by inverting the scenario. The relatively straight-laced 14-year-old Nikolaj (&#197smund Høeg) and his younger brother live with liberal hippy-ish parents. His father, Magnus (Sven Nordin), is a super-energetic eccentric character with yellow crash helmet and crazy souped-up bike to match, who falls into a depression when his younger son is killed. When he snaps out of it, his eccentricity and diatribes against capitalism are heightened and young Nikolaj searches for a way to rebel to gain attention as well as find out who he really is and emerge from young adolescence. Difficult to do when your father approves and encourages all and every kind of rebellion. Nikolaj finds an outlet in neo-punk and The Sex Pistols music. Executive-produced by none other than John Lydon, who makes an appearance in the film, Sons of Norway is in the same vein as Fucking Amal (1998) or C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) and as such is a charming sleeper that deserves distribution. Another charmer is the Filipino film Fable of the Fish, directed by Adolfo Boringa Alix Jr. (Adela [2008], Chassis [2010], Presa [2010]). Seamlessly stitching together naturalism, magic realism and Filipino folk tales, it follows the travails of the childless, middle-aged couple Miguel (Bembol Roco) and Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) as they move from impoverishment to scavenging for their existence. Lina becomes miraculously pregnant and instead of bearing a child gives birth to a milkfish. She soon becomes a local celebrity but Miguel is humiliated and ashamed, and we see the schism between the two as she becomes happier and full of life and grace while he sinks lower and wants to deny the ‘child’. This satire is played straight and is always sympathetic to its characters, who emerge as good and kindly human beings. A fine achievement and a strong addition to the growing number of quality low-budget films emerging from the Philippines.

In the annual City to City strand, which this year featured Buenos Aires, I took a shining to Pablo Giorgelli’s very slow-burning, poetic road movie Las Acacias – the tale of a hitchhiking woman Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and a baby who are picked up by a curmudgeonly truck driver, Ruben (Germán de Silva). The story is told mostly within the cab of the truck with little dialogue and no non-diegetic sound – there is just the constant background sound of the truck’s engine. Simplicity and a tutorial in elegant filmmaking that relies on camera work and facial insinuation and gesture rather than an abundance of text (or excessive music for that matter): a strategy often utilised by small-budget filmmakers to compensate or over-compensate for some perceived lack of action or motion in their straightened economic conditions. Las Acacias moves at its own measured pace with the drone of the truck engine and the slowness of the characters in exchanging conversation providing the viewer with the perception of a near real-time experience. Giorgelli is to be commended for his commitment and vision to what might be called ‘slow cinema’. This no-frills, realistic film is a deeply human and humane piece of work, all the more notable and laudable for being the director’s first feature. It was a deserving winner of the Caméra d’Or at Cannes this year, which has been followed by wins for the director at San Sebastian, Mumbai and London Film Festivals.

Las Acacias is released in the UK on 2 December 2011 by Verve Pictures.

Among other Argentine films to feature at Toronto were an interesting pairing from 2011 and 1969. The latter is a little seen Argentine classic, Invasión (Hugo Santiago), which tells a futuristic and fascistic dystopian story of invasion from the rebels’ point of view. It is an allegorical tale about a group of guerrilla intellectuals attempting to halt and reverse the onslaught of an invading force in a city named Aqueila but looking for all the world like Buenos Aires. The script was co-written by literary luminaries Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares and their collective paranoid sensibilities in Invasión presciently anticipate the coming military junta. Invasión has been called an Argentine Alphaville and on this viewing one can see why. Perhaps losing some of its political edginess in current times, this is no less a major work of cinematic art in both the Argentine context and in its obvious adoption of French New Wave and Godardian form and content. And while it is often commented that contemporary Argentine cinema has lost its appetite for engaged political films, an exception to this observation can be found in the Santiago Mitre film, The Student (2011), which takes as its subject the remnants of Marxist and committed socialist politics as encountered by a young bourgeois non-political student, Roque (Esteban Lamothe). His political pilgrim’s journey takes him from apathy to commitment to disillusionment. The same can be said of the arc of his love affair with Paula (Romina Paula), a much more sophisticated and informed political siren. As engaging as the film is, it is difficult to see how it might transcend its obvious Argentine-specific sources and travel outside the country. Nonetheless, a fine pair to see back to back to compare and contrast the socio-political lay of the land.

A noticeable theme in recent European cinema has been the issue of the impact of mass illegal migration upon the shores of Eurozone countries, especially focusing upon the ‘problem’ of Africa. Two such films screened in Toronto explore these issues as they affect small island communities trapped between maintaining history and tradition on the one hand and globalisation and tourism on the other. Color of the Ocean is the story of a Canary Island cop, José (Alex González), whose job is to decide the fate of the hundreds of African boat people who wash ashore onto this idyllic ocean paradise. When sun-soaking bikini-clad German tourist Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo) witnesses the sight of bedraggled and suffering refugees as they stagger ashore, she begins to help out and makes a connection with one of the refugees and his young son. Against the wishes of her husband, Paul (Friedrich Mücke), who wants her to keep out of it, she helps to effect an escape for Zola (Huber Koundé) and his son Mamadou (Dami Adeeri) from the local internment camp. But rather than assisting she unwittingly makes it more difficult for him as he becomes involved with criminal smugglers. As Nathalie gets more deeply involved, she comes to the attention of policeman José and both find that they have issues to address in their own lives as well as making sure their actions will create positive rather than negative change. As the tag line has it, to free someone, you may have to free yourself.

The Italian director of Respiro (2002) and Golden Door (2006), Emanuele Crialese, covers similar issues in Terraferma, his take on the timely topic. Set on the island of Linosa, off of Sicily, the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of the centuries-old fishing community as they grapple with the realities of the global age. Tensions rise within a family as the patriarch refuses to give in to the new demands of tourism and face up to the harsh realities of depleted fish stocks, while his son and daughter embrace the new realities facing the island. The familial tensions are exacerbated by boatloads of illegal immigrants suddenly appearing on their shorelines. As the fishermen try to uphold an ancient tradition – to rescue anyone in distress upon the high seas – they find it almost impossible not to come to the aid of the struggling refugee families from North Africa. The patriarch and his family’s lives are turned upside down when they find themselves aiding and abetting a young pregnant African woman. The law states that they must turn her in but they are in a quandary about this and have radically different ideas about what to do. A thoughtful and provocative film, it raises questions about the issue without bludgeoning the viewer into siding with one or another of the possibilities articulated in the smart script. Again, the issue of ‘liberal’ tourists, their near-decadent appearance in the world of the local inhabitant and their need to not be subjected to the reality of beaches ‘besmirched’ with desperate refugees are seen in a fair but complicated light. Two thoughtful accounts then, of the same phenomenon, though I lean to Color of the Ocean as the marginally superior film.

The docu-drama Always Brando was a poetic and reflective film by the Tunisian director Ridha Behi (Bitter Champagne [1984], Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem [1994]). A very interesting storyline mixing fact, fiction and speculation, Always Brando is described by programmer Rasha Salti as ‘at once a loving and lucid elegy to the cinema, and the director’s naked, uncontrived meditation on its imperious allure and cruelty’. And that description is little short of the truth. Behi’s film weaves a meditation on his unlikely relationship with Marlon Brando – who unexpectedly and after many years of solicitation from Behi, summoned him to his Hollywood home to work on a script – and Behi’s meeting with a Tunisian actor, Anis Raache, who bore a striking resemblance to the young Brando. This gave the director the idea to make a fictional film about this Brando lookalike and how this opportunity to work on an American movie being filmed in Tunisia deludes the actor into thinking he will achieve fame and fortune in Hollywood. Exploited and seduced by a middle-aged man who promises to cast him in a Brando biopic, Anis is led on a downward spiral that ends in futility and failure. Meanwhile, in real life the idea of a collaboration with the real Brando, which was being worked on in the actor’s Mulholland Drive mansion, came to an abrupt end with the death of the great man. From these fragments from Behi’s life, he has made a film that is ‘specifically tailored to the two Brandos’. This is cinema that is thoughtful and intriguing and shot through with possibilities.

Less thoughtful and intriguing – in fact the biggest disappointment of the festival – was the new quasi-vampire/horror flick Twixt by The Man Formerly Known as Prince (of directors), namely Francis Ford Coppola. In Twixt, Bruce Dern, who is almost always in overwrought and over-acting mode (à la Nicolas Cage), plays the part of a local sheriff who has fantasies of co-writing a novel about the mysterious death of a local young girl. He pitches his idea to down-on-his-luck visiting thriller author Hal Baltimore (embarrassingly played by Val Kilmer). When the near-delusional Baltimore has a visitation from the girl’s ghost, the preposterous filmic story commences. As the writer hallucinates and confuses dreams with reality, we are taken on an unwelcome journey with him as he starts hanging out with a resurrected Edgar Allan Poe, who gives Baltimore pointers on the finer aspects of horror writing and detection. I kid you not. Po-faced, or should I say Poe-faced Coppola’s once mentor, Roger Corman, has done far better service to Poe – and the horror genre – than Coppola has here. Corman’s Gothic at least had style and panache. This film is plodding and cringe-inducing and I would have liked to see a dozen young filmmakers split the budget of this real-life horror film between them and see what they would have come up with; surely something livelier and more engaging. And the few minutes of 3D spectatorial (non) glories to be glimpsed halfway through the film and in the inevitable and predictable bloody ending were gratuitous and ill-advised. Not one from the heart then, but one from the faint-hearted. Forget about it.

James B. Evans