Celebrating its fifteenth birthday this year, the UK’s biggest independent film festival runs in London from September 26 to October 7, with a packed programme that comprises eighty features as well as numerous shorts and documentaries from all over the world. In the last decade or so, independent cinema has grown to encompass anything from modest, no-budget works to bigger crowd-pullers and this is reflected in the selection, which includes Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park as well as obscure gems such as gritty Icelandic social drama Children, camp sci-fi comedy Turks in Space or quirky Argentine oddity La Antena.
Since its inception in 1993, Raindance has played a vital part in bringing eccentric, challenging and unusual films to these shores, films that would not stand a chance of getting a general UK release. Originally set up as a platform to promote independent film, it has remained true to its objectives. Says Senior Programmer Suzanne Ballantyne: ‘We aim to promote first-time directors, discover new talents, open up new worlds to cinema-goers and show audiences that there is life outside the multiplexes.’ The criterion for selecting the films is simple: ‘At least two or three people in the office have to like the film.’
Raindance has always had an interest in music, and inviting punk icons to sit on the jury is becoming something of a habit: last year Marky Ramone was playing film critic, and this year it’s the turn of Iggy Pop and Mick Jones. ‘A lot of people who work at Raindance are into punk’, explains Ballantyne, ‘and I think it’s very good to have a musician judging films. It’s an interesting mix, and Raindance has always featured music documentaries in its programme.’ Sadly, there are fewer music-related films this year, simply because there were fewer submissions than in previous years.
But this year’s selection promises plentiful cinematic delights, including Ballantyne’s personal favourites Phantom Love, ‘a very special, visually breathtaking film about a woman’s subconscious by true indie auteur Nina Menkes’, and Waz, ‘a flashy British thriller that has been compared to Se7en‘. Below we take a closer look at five films showing at the festival.
THE AMAZING LIVES OF THE FAST FOOD GRIFTERS
This bizarro-comic fantasy from Mamoru Oshii (author of the brilliantly ambitious animé Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) is the kind of film that makes Raindance so special. Catch it at the festival for it is doubtful that any UK distributor will take their chances with such a baffling, beautiful and plain bonkers UFO of a film.
The Amazing Lives presents itself as an erudite study of the con artists who began to swindle free noodles out of food merchants in post-war Japan. We hear about mythical characters such as Moongaze Ginji, the charismatic white-haired old man who started it all, the gorgeous Foxy Croquette O’Gin who vamped her way around the noodle houses in the 50s, and many more. As this is Oshii, this is not simply about food but each grifter’s own particular approach to life, revealed by their individual scamming style.
Through the tale of the grifters’ exploits Oshii also charts the history of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. In the background of each story there are references to political and social events of the time, from WWII to student protests and a Red Army plane highjack. The grifters are outsiders who, through their attitude to food, represent individual resistance to political power and business interests. Nowhere is this as clear as in the story of Hamburger Tetsu: as he brings down a thriving fast food chain by ordering hundreds of burgers his tactics are compared to that of the guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War.
Oshii creates here another wondrous visual world, experimenting further with animation techniques, mixing fuzzy footage of devastated post-war Japan and the occasional animé image with computer-generated visuals. At a time when CGI animation is all about the excitement of 3D, the director decidedly goes the other way and makes it all as flat as he can. Not only does he succeed in creating a singularly weird, atmospheric world but such resolute individuality is truly inspiring.
Indie comedy The GoodTimesKid is the second feature from director Azazel Jacobs, son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Taking a more mainstream tack than his noted ancestor, the interestingly named Azazel constructs a gentle, good-hearted if slightly inconsequential tale of romantic estrangement around three disillusioned thirtysomethings crossing paths over 24 hours in LA.
Shot in fourteen days with a crew of six, on film stock lifted from a major Hollywood studio, the film is low-budget and proud of it. Taking its cues from early Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and classic Chaplin, the film develops almost wordlessly. The minimal narrative centres around two men, both called Rodolfo Cano, and their helpless attraction to an unnamed girl, charmingly played by the director’s girlfriend Sara Diaz. Indeed, the entire film could be seen as something of a love letter to Diaz, as the two Rodolfos find themselves in orbit around this unpredictable creature.
There are scenes of real beauty in The GoodTimesKid: a central sequence of tentative romance on a houseboat unfolds almost flawlessly, opening up these taciturn characters, drawing us into their world. The camera is used to magical effect, intimate close-ups capturing every flicker across the actors’ effortlessly expressive faces. There are a few indie clichés on display here: hints of artful dispassion; helpless, existentially traumatised men; a free-spirited woman who expresses her independence by dancing to old jazz records. But the film is perfectly constructed, strikingly photographed and never less than involving. The enduring impression is of a sweet, transitory experience, as slight as a backward glance but just as intriguing.
M is a bleak and often perplexing psychological drama which journeys into the seedy underbelly of Japanese society, exposing a thriving industry of pornography, prostitution and violence. Satoko (Miwon) is a seemingly ordinary, contented housewife and mother who secretly works as a prostitute for a dangerous and violent yakuza gang. Minoru (Kengo Kora) is an intense young man who delivers newspapers and hangs out at hedonistic parties thrown by bored bourgeois teenagers. One day their paths cross: they share a lingering gaze and Minoru becomes intrigued by Satoko. After seeing her photo on a porn site, an image strangely bereft of any eroticism, he attempts to warn her away from the dangers of the yakuza, but the pair develop a perverse and destructive bond which leads to brutality and murder.
The way Satoko (and other women) is treated in the film suggests that male fantasies revolve around sexual violence against women: sadomasochism, humiliation and exploitation are explored in a frank and unflinching manner, and static, clinical camera angles coupled with Satoko’s cool detachment exclude any trace of sensuality. But baffling plot twists and flashbacks hint that Satoko isn’t simply a passive object of desire, nor is Minoru simply her knight in shining armour. Although it is never clearly spelt out, childhood secrets may well be the source of their dark desires. Does Satoko perceive the abuse as punishment she deserves? Does Minoru see his mother in Satoko? Such ambiguities in the narrative suggest that nothing should be taken at face value; fantasy, reality and illusion frequently blur and collide.
Director Ryuichi Hiroki learnt his trade working in the Japanese ‘pink film’ (soft-core porno) industry, before going on to have international success with his 2003 road movie Vibrator. His formative experience has visibly influenced M, but he is clearly commenting on the industry from the outside, making it an unusual and uncompromisingly dark film.
In this Yorkshire-set British thriller, the whole film itself is ‘exhibit A’, a tape recovered at a murder scene by the police. Filmed by fourteen-year-old Judith on her brand new camera, it starts as a home-movie of ordinary family life before turning into the chronicle of her father’s descent into an increasingly psychotic state.
Shot in an ultra-naturalistic way, the film replicates the style of an amateur filmmaker down to the flat TV image, shaky camera and funny angles. This uncompromising realistic approach is applied unwaveringly throughout the film so that some events occur off the screen, with sounds and voices the only clues as to what is happening. Although the constant jerks of the camera can be a tad tiresome, they succeed in creating the impression that what we’re watching is strictly impromptu filmmaking. In this way the film makes us privy to the inside reality of a sensational news story and implicates us as voyeurs.
In a Hidden-like way, Exhibit A plays on the ambiguity of different kinds of images. The film we’re watching is really a piece of evidence in a murder enquiry. Within it there are more incriminating images, including revealing photos and embarrassing mobile phone footage. Images are double-edged, and both Judith and her father’s disturbingly stalker-like behaviour is also bizarrely well-meaning: by exposing everything, they believe they will be able to put things right. They are, of course, sorely misguided and as more and more uncomfortable truths emerge, the unity of the family is dangerously threatened. Too much truth is toxic, the film seems to be saying, and the omnipresent recording devices of modern life place us all under a scrutiny so intense that no relationship can survive it. One question remains at the end: Would any of this have happened if Judith hadn’t been filming?
BEING MICHAEL MADSEN
On the surface, Being Michael Madsen is a slightly dubious premise for a movie. A self-consciously self-reflexive work of self-mythology, a pseudo-documentary about a pseudo-documentary, this is cinematic meta-fiction taken to a new and dizzying level. It doesn’t help that, in the early stages, the celebrity ‘interviews’ are quite obviously scripted, the actors’ efforts to appear casual and off-the-cuff somewhat unconvincing.
But the central sections, as the crew pursue the hapless Dant through the streets of LA, have a gripping, manic energy. And there’s a genuine desire to explore the complex relationship between celebrities and their hack stalkers, a situation which seems to serve everyone’s needs while simultaneously making them all angry and miserable. Gratifyingly, the film offers no easy answers, blurring the lines between celebrities, journalists and the ‘ordinary’ people in between, taking well-aimed potshots at each.
Being Michael Madsen is listed as unfinished, and it could perhaps benefit from a little fine tuning. Nevertheless, this is a witty, intelligent examination of stardom, its pitfalls and its pratfalls, with a wry sense of humour and an agreeably non-judgemental outlook.
FIVE MORE TO WATCH
This year’s festival opener is a witty, laugh-out-loud stoner comedy from Canada in which two dopeheads desperate to get their hands on some dosh to pay back an angry drug dealer have to contend with a Satanic cult, Medieval midgets and an undead girlfriend.
Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore
Journalist or polemicist, genius or manipulator, influential filmmaker or paranoid megalomaniac, ‘St Mike of the working man’ or ‘Showman Mike’? A team of filmmakers turn the tables on Michael Moore and use his own methods to illuminate his true nature.
The Devil Dared Me To
Bad taste comedy from New Zealand about an incompetent stuntman – involves lots of disastrous stunts, outrageous deaths, maimings and gross bodily fluid jokes.
Offbeat, bittersweet Belgian comedy about a bumbling inventor who goes to Canada in search of his birth family, built around an intricate series of meticulously orchestrated coincidences.
John Waters: This Filthy World
John Waters shares pearls of wisdom and insights into his influences in this filmed one-man-show. Highlights include a hilarious account of filming a spoof of the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie K crawling out of the back of a car in a pink Chanel suit to the shocked bewilderment of neighbours – only two years after the event. We are also treated to Waters’ fond recollections of watching underground movies as a young man: ‘You got arrested when you went to the movies. You’d go see Flaming Creatures and the cops would raid it and the whole audience would be taken away in police vans. It really perks up the movie-going experience.’