18th Raindance Film Festival: Highlights

Son of Babylon

18th Raindance Film Festival

Sept 29 – Oct 10 2010, Apollo, London

Raindance website

Alexander Pashby reports on the highlights of the Raindance Film Festival, starting with the impressive closing film, Mohamad Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon.

Son of Babylon (2010)

How do you make a film about the more than a million people reported missing in Iraq since 1991, or the hundreds of thousands of bodies found in mass graves shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein? You don’t. You can’t. The mind can’t imagine such vast numbers, so instead you make a film on a human scale, telling the story of just one family as they search for a missing member. That’s exactly what director Mohamed Al-Daradji has done with Son of Babylon, the film chosen for the closing night gala of this year’s Raindance Film Festival.

Set just days after Saddam is deposed, Son of Babylon follows Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shehzad Hussen) as they journey from the Kurdish north to the still war-torn Baghdad to find Ahmed’s missing father. A comrade of Ahmed’s father has told them to look in Baghdad prison. Ahmed’s grandmother promises Ahmed that they’ll also take in the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on the way. However, as their difficult journey progresses and they come across more and more newly unearthed mass graves, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are not going to find Ahmed’s father alive, let alone his body. And yet, they decide to carry on, going from mass grave site to mass grave site, even though the overwhelming probability is that Ahmed’s father is one of the majority of unidentifiable bodies.

Although there are subtle references to the dictator – for example a friendly ‘Uncle’ gives Ahmed and his grandmother a lift and when stopping for a toilet break, says he’s ‘going to call Saddam’ – Al-Daradji doesn’t indict Saddam directly, perhaps because the crimes are too huge and it’s too soon, but certainly to allow the audience to form their own emotional reaction as Ahmed and his grandmother’s heartbreakingly futile journey progresses.

Through the title of the film and the juxtaposition of the mass grave sites and the Hanging Gardens site, Al-Daradji is saying, look how far we have fallen since King Nebuchadnezzar II made the desert bloom in the name of love. However, the film is less concerned with blame than with sympathy for the Iraqi people as a whole. The most significant supporting character the pair meet, and subsequently forgive, is a former Republican Guard who was pressed into service as a child. Similarly, in contrast to the way the problems of race in Iraq are reported in the West, people from all tribes help Ahmed’s grandmother even though she doesn’t speak Arabic. Indeed, the film excels at showing the aspects of Iraqi life post-Saddam that we don’t get to see on the news, including memorable scenes on the public transport system, which would be terrifying enough without the interruption of American roadblocks.
Yasser Talib is excellent as Ahmed and is either a genius or so young and innocent that he can’t be said to be acting so much as reacting. Either way his performance is convincing and affecting. Look out for Son of Babylon as Iraq’s official entry into the Oscars 2011.

Read the interview with Mohamed Al-Daradji‘s about his previous film, Ahlaam.

Armless (2010)

Armless is a dark yet compassionate comedy about learning to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of our loved ones. Daniel London (Old Joy) stars as insurance executive John, who suffers from the real-life condition Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), which is characterised by sufferers believing that they would be happier living life as an amputee, and sometimes goes hand in hand with a willingness to amputate one or more healthy limbs. John runs away from his suburban home, hotly pursued by his wife Anna (Janel Moloney, The West Wing), to the big city because he’s read on a BIID message board that a certain plastic surgeon, a Dr Phillips, will perform the illegal surgery for him. But, of course, John turns up at the office of the wrong Dr Phillips (if the right one ever even existed) and when the doctor flatly refuses to help him, John threatens to carry out the surgery himself with a power saw he’s bought at a local hardware store.

Donoma (2010)

Donoma is the interesting, if overlong, zero-budget experimental product of a Paris-based collective led by writer/director/producer/director of photography Djinn Carranard. Apart from having an awesome name, Carranard has a lot of Facebook friends and they all helped him to make this series of overlapping narratives, usually two-handers, which poses the question, ‘Is it possible to say anything new about love?’ The film doesn’t necessarily come up with any answers, but the non-professional actors – or at least the professional actors giving up their time for free – are all excellent, and scenarios such as an atheist who develops stigmata and an artist who tries a relationship with a complete stranger where they are only allowed to communicate via mime, keep the scenes from becoming too repetitive.

Vampires (2010)

A late addition to the festival, but a very welcome one, Vampires is a Man Bites Dog– style mockumentary, which manages to be the perfect antidote to the current trend for emotional vampires, a biting satire on contemporary human society and a very funny film in its own right. The Saint Germains are an upstanding family in the Belgian vampire community and have it easy: asylum seekers delivered straight to their door; corrupt police to take care of any remains; and a live-in gourmet blood bank in the form of a young girl they call ‘The Meat’ whose only job is to infuse her blood with interesting flavours for special occasions. However, that’s all about to change thanks to a rebellious teenage daughter who keeps trying to return to being human by committing suicide, and an eldest son whose indiscretion with the local vampire leader’s wife leads to the family being exiled to a far less traditional community in Canada.

Read the reviews of Legacy and Jackboots on Whitehall, which also screened at Raindance, and our feature on the Japanese strand in the festival.

Review by Alexander Pashby

INTERVIEW WITH PAOLO SORRENTINO

Il Divo

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 March 2009

Venues: Curzons Mayfair and Soho, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Paolo Sorrentinon

Writer: Paolo Sorrentino

Cast: Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto, Giulio Bosetti, Flavio Bucci

Italy 2008

117 mins

Best known for his impeccably stylish modern noir The Consequences of Love (2004), Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, Il Divo, reunites him with his Consequences star, Toni Servillo, and together they revisit the subject of Mafia involvement in Italian life. However, this time the action centres around a figure from the real world, seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who was tried on multiple occasions for murder and corruption, but never convicted. Alexander Pashby spoke to Paolo Sorrentino during the London Film Festival in 2008.

Alexander Pashby: What was the inspiration behind Il Divo?

Paolo Sorrentino: The idea was to make a film about a character who had accompanied the lives of the Italian people for such a long time. It was something that I’d had in mind from the very beginning, when I started to enjoy cinema. And I decided to do it now because I could afford the luxury of taking a little time. There was no guarantee that I would actually be able to get this project together. I knew that it would be difficult to get funding, but at this stage of my career, it was a risk that I could take. If it wasn’t a particularly successful project, it was not going to be a disaster.

AP: Is that because of the success of Consequences?

PS: It’s really more a case of… When you want to make films, when you haven’t yet done so, you have this sense of urgency. When you’ve actually achieved your objective and made a couple of films, that degree of urgency is reduced. So there’s not that same driving need to make them relentlessly, one after the other.

AP: Andreotti is a popular author in his own right, there’s a wealth of academic writing about him and of course you lived through the events depicted in the film. How did you go about approaching…

PS: … the mass of material? Well, there was quite a lot of study and work involved, probably because I like studying. For Consequences I set myself the task of studying all the mass of material about the Mafia.

AP:I love the scene in Consequences where Toni Servillo’s character is taken to Mafia headquarters and you can really believe that every extra he passes is a member of the Mafia just from the way they look.

PS:Exactly. And in order to get there, you have to study. You have to deal with things that are real, and you have to keep to the facts otherwise you will be accused and exposed. And those true things also have to be material that is appropriate to be filmed. Not everything that is true in life is true on film. And so the difficulty with Il Divo was in the selection of the material and how to make everything fit. Because although the film takes things from reality, it becomes borderline once it’s on screen and it tends to tip over into the grotesque.

AP:Irony is very important to you, isn’t it? And the grotesque is linked to that…

PS:Yes, I always look for irony. The biography of Andreotti is the story of a man who makes an enormous use of irony himself. So it is a part of his way of dealing with things in the film. And then there’s the whole process of transforming reality into cinema reality, being distorted and turning into the grotesque. You could use the example of the scene with the cat. A man who encounters a cat, there’s nothing ironic about it, it’s a normal thing. But put it on the screen and this sort of distortion that the process imposes makes it tip over into the grotesque. That’s when you get the irony.

AP:This is the third time you’ve worked with Servillo now [the first being 2001’s One Man Up]. What’s it like working together?

PS:I wouldn’t really know how to describe it now because, having known each other for such a long time, the whole process is sort of an automatic thing. But it’s based on the fact that we get along very well. We share the same sort of ideas. We have a common view of things and that’s very, very useful.

AP:Your cinematography is very dynamic and your composition very precise. Where does that come from?

PS:I would say that it comes from what I like as a spectator. Reality is fairly random and imprecise, and if I were to make a film in which I presented something that is as imprecise and as random to my viewers, I would be afraid of boring them. So I prefer to make a film in which reality is real, but it’s also something else, and that other thing is, more or less, how I would like it to be.

Interview by Alexander Pashby

BEST OF THE 52nd LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Hunger

52nd LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

15-30 October 2008

The Electric Sheep team round up their favourite films of this year’s London Film Festival.

Hunger

A gripping, powerful and hauntingly beautiful film, Hunger is artist Steve McQueen’s slow-paced dramatisation of the last months in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 in protest against the British government’s refusal to treat convicted IRA members as political prisoners. Despite an arguably impressive display of physical violence, there are moments when stunning shots of artistic beauty lend the film a grim poetic atmosphere. The result is a mesmerising choreography that demands utter commitment from the actors (an extraordinary central performance from Michael Fassbender), and it is also an inventive bursting forth of McQueen the filmmaker. PAMELA JAHN

Waltz with Bashir

Ari Folman’s brilliant animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanon war was one of the best films at the LFF. This is a brave and powerful movie, both stylistically and in its treatment of Folman’s involvement in one of the most controversial episodes in Israel’s history, the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The animation beautifully conveys the depth and intensity of Folman’s story as he meets with fellow friends, soldiers and journalists in his attempt to counter the collective amnesia suffered by witnesses of the event. This is an astonishing, unmissable piece of filmmaking with one of the most harrowing and moving endings seen in years. SARAH CRONIN

United Red Army

Koji Wakamatsu’s latest film is by far the most complex, stunning and utterly demanding film I’ve seen in the course of this year’s festival circuit. In 190 visually and conceptually engrossing minutes, United Red Army traces the history of the Japanese militant left from its origins in 1960 to its escalation in the early 1970s. Basing his film on comprehensive research as well as his own memories and connections to some members of the Red Army faction when it was still active, Wakamatsu not merely reveals the gruelling events that took place at the time, he once again pushes the boundaries of filmmaking in almost every take, taking the story from docu-style drama to claustrophobic chamber piece into breathtaking action thriller in the final act. What remains is a profound and painful dissection of ideology itself, rendered with an impressive clarity that is rarely seen on the big screen. PAMELA JAHN

Afterschool

I found myself utterly stunned by Antonio Campos’s feature debut Afterschool. A class video project in an upscale American prep school accidentally captures a tragedy, and we follow the reactions of the school, its pupils, and particularly of the boy, Robert (Ezra Miller), who shot the incident, an alienated and unpopular student who becomes a source of anxiety for the institution. If, as is usually the case, high school/college movies are intended as portraits of America in microcosm, then this is the most bilious, vicious picture of that nation I’ve encountered in years. It’s a tough watch from the outset, with an unsettling montage of internet clips giving way to the face of Robert as he wanks away to some unpleasant porn, and never stops being unnerving thereafter. The dark nature of the story is emphasised by visually inventive, oddly framed photography throughout; imitating both the lopsided compositions of amateur cameramen and the disaffected gaze of a sociopath, it builds its own woozy unhealthy atmosphere, a world viewed through the wrong head. It’s creepy and smart and it may just screw with your head for days. MARK STAFFORD

Home

A happily eccentric middle-class family live in the ideal, open surroundings of the French countryside, right on the edge of a long unused motorway. However, when the motorway is suddenly opened to swarms of traffic, their lives become intolerable as the noise, pollution and danger invades their lives. As the disruption to their normal routine eats away at their freedoms, they descend into semi-primordial behavioural patterns and bizarre somnambulant rituals. Beautifully filmed, with a superb, believable cast (Isabelle Huppert is outstanding), Home explores the deep ramifications of urbanisation and the impact of rampant capitalism upon the human psyche. On one level it’s a witty, modern-day environmental parable, and on another it’s a surreal descent into the subconscious fears and desires of the id. Birthed from the same otherworldly penumbra as classics like Weekend, Themroc and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Home is a unique and strange masterpiece where Kafka meets Ballard on the arid tarmac of the Motorway. JAMES DC

Hansel and Gretel

A South Korean grown-up reworking of the familiar children’s story, Yim Phil-sung’s Hansel and Gretel is a dark, surreal fairy tale weaving themes of lost innocence, dysfunctional families, revenge, trust and love. When a young man driving along a country road crashes his car, he is taken to a ravishing house in the middle of the forest by a strange, ethereal young girl. He is looked after by her family but when he tries to go back to his car the next day, and the following days too, he finds he cannot leave the forest. Forced to remain with the three children and faced with a series of bizarre occurrences, he gradually disentangles the web of mystery that surrounds the children to discover the truth about their identity. The enchanted house and forest are beautifully depicted, the children are suitably ambivalent and the film’s atmosphere is perfectly balanced between sinister and magical. A real treat. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

Il Divo

Winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Il Divo sees director Paolo Sorrentino apply his trademark formal beauty to the life of one of Italy’s most notorious politicians. Seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was tried on several occasions for murder, corruption and Mafia involvement, but defended himself successfully each time. The characters accused along with Andreotti are many and difficult to distinguish – expect a re-edit before the theatrical release – but rather than try to establish the facts, Sorrentino chooses instead to focus on the aegis of ambiguity that Andreotti forges for himself. In this character study he could have no better co-conspirator than his The Consequences of Love star Tony Servillo, who is hypnotic as Andreotti. ALEXANDER PASHBY

Momma’s Man

On paper, Momma’s Man doesn’t necessarily hold that much appeal: a thirty-something man visits his parents at their New York loft and finds himself incapable of returning home to his wife and baby in Los Angeles. But director Azazel Jacobs’ film is much more than a sum of its parts. Jacobs cast his own remarkable parents (influential experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and artist Flo Jacobs) and shot the movie in the same Manhattan apartment where they’ve lived for the last 40 years. Matt Boren puts in a great performance as their son, who’s desperate to be a little kid again. The location itself is terrific, packed with the eccentric ephemera collected over a lifetime, and while the film’s laid-back pace demands some patience, this funny and poignant film has that indefinable something that marks out the most memorable films. SARAH CRONIN

Beautiful Losers

Pulled from this year’s EIFF line-up at the very last minute, Beautiful Losers was a welcome addition to the small number of worthwhile documentaries included in the LFF programme. In an unashamedly nostalgic but extremely likeable fashion, co-director Aaron Rose looks back in affection at his own achievement, New York’s Alleged Gallery, and the loose-knit group of American artists who became involved in the creative movement that grew around the small storefront space in the early 90s. It features artists such as Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Ed and Deanna Templeton, Jo Jackson, Margaret Kilgallen, Mike Mills amongst others, with Harmony Korine being no doubt the most weirdly charming contributor. PAMELA JAHN

Not Quite Hollywood

Not Quite Hollywood is music promo director Mark Hartley’s affectionate no-holds-barred-pedal-to-the-metal salute to Ozploitation cinema, charting its rise in the late 60s, fall in the late 80s, and recent resurgence with the likes of Wolf Creek. It rounds up an impressive roll call of talking heads from the scene, who, in true Aussie style, are refreshingly blunt about their experiences and each other, and intercuts them with a generous helping of clips from the films. It’s great fun: Hartley seems to be terrified of boring his audience and packs out his 102 minutes with insane stunts, montages of naked Sheilas, automotive carnage and explosions, and countless outrageous stories, all edited to a zippy sprint. The archive footage of Dennis Hopper scrambling for his life from his burning stunt double would justify your time and money on its own. It’s divided into three sections, sex, horror and action, and the movies can also usefully be divided into three types: familiar late night /video library classics (The Long Weekend, Patrick, Turkey Shoot, Road Games, and of course Mad Max ); films that you can safely avoid (Oz sex comedies of the 70s look just as toe-curlingly Christ-awful as British sex comedies of the 70s, which is some kind of achievement); and, and here is where NQH really scores, the numerous neglected, lost and largely forgotten films which the film makes you desperately want to see. As well as having a high population density of insane stuntmen the country was also clearly never lacking in spectacular outback scenery or 70mm lenses to shoot it with, and from the clips included here alone, the likes of Fair Game and Dead End Drive-In all look glorious. If I must quibble, I’d say that the pacy style of the film excludes any real discussion of the social context, aesthetics or especially the grisly sexual politics of ozploitation cinema; which is sorely needed, especially when the inevitable Quentin Tarantino keeps popping up enthusing about one woman-bashing scene after another. Hartley’s default setting is breathless, shameless celebration over analysis, and NQH often seems to actively avoid deciding whether the films are actually any damn good or not (Though I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Howling 3: The Marsupials sucks koala cock). Apparently, the director has launched his own line of ozploitation DVDs so any viewers wishing to familiarise themselves with some authentic Australian sleaze will soon be able to judge for themselves. Happy hunting. MARK STAFFORD

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