dOCUMENTA (13)

The Radiant (The Otolith Group)

dOCUMENTA (13)

9 June – 16 September 2012, Kassel, Germany

dOCUMENTA (13) website

Don’t touch that meteorite: an attempt to make a beeline for the video art of dOCUMENTA (13), while politics-of-space debates rage from all directions.

As we speak, a tent embassy of sorts has been set up in the main square of Kassel, Germany. The organisers are calling themselves Doccupy, in the spirit of the Occupy movements across the globe. Simultaneously, a very public debate is raging over whether it is right or wrong for two dOCUMENTA artists to transport an ancient, culturally precious meteorite from its home with an indigenous community in Argentina to Kassel (at a huge expense), for the purposes of art.

For dOCUMENTA (13), it seems that this meteorite, along with the activities of Doccupy, is what has been grabbing the headlines across international media. dOCUMENTA(13), showcasing 200 international artists and showing for 100 days until September 16 in Kassel (along with satellite events in Kabul-Bamiyan, Alexandria-Cairo, as well as Banff and Switzerland), has run once every five years since 1955. And this year, these debates, centered on a politics of space, are threatening to steal more attention than the exhibited artworks themselves.

In her essay on dOCUMENTA, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, states that there are four positions around which dOCUMENTA (13) is articulated: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. These, she intuits, are ‘four possible conditions in which artists and thinkers find themselves acting in the present’. A zeitgeist full of contradictions; a time when contradiction is a welcomed state of mind, perhaps? Christov-Bakargiev also surmises that dOCUMENTA (13) explores ‘terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific fields and in other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary’. In other words, political debate and creative explorations are inseparable: dOCUMENTA is a place of transition, and of being in transit within these explorations. And in the midst of an overwhelming sprawl of artworks across the city of Kassel, the legs of visitors will certainly get a sense of being in transit, if nothing else. The place is huge.

It is not unique to dOCUMENTA, of course, to debate the concept of space in a political sense within the context of art. This very debate is a hot topic right now across the art world. It’s just that the meteorite incident and Doccupy are such strong visualisations of this particular, Western world/ developing world tension, making it easy for the international media to grab a hold of it. In another recent colourful example, this year’s Berlin Biennale experienced a staged subsuming of the festival by another art group called ‘Occupy Museum’, also parroting the Occupy concept. They borrowed the turns of phrase, methodology and even some of the exact slogans used in real-world protests and uprisings – all while maintaining really cool hair…

For dOCUMENTA, however, this dedication to politics is precisely the point of its existence, as it has been since 1955. In a press release, Christov-Bakargiev expressed her welcome of Doccupy, stating that the movement ‘continues the wave of democratic protests that have been spreading across many cities in the world. It enacts the possibility of re-inventing the use of public space and appears to me to be in the spirit of the moment and in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, who marked dOCUMENTA and its history significantly, embodying another idea of collective decision making and political responsibility through direct democracy’. Doccupy’s opponents argue that the movement is an attempt to fulfil personal artistic aims by intellectually piggybacking a form of political action used in bloody situations such as those of Egypt and Syria. For the artistic director, however, Doccupy works towards the ‘germination and flourishing’ of ideas, befitting dOCUMENTA.

It follows, then, that a festival concerned with the germination and flourishing of ideas between art and politics should have such a strong video-art presence. Video possesses the immediacy and accessibility to communicate urgent political messages, and is of course widely respected for its power as a political weapon, as well as a documentary and ethnographic tool. Video art, when traditionally screened, is also far more ephemeral than other art forms in terms of the space it physically occupies. When it’s effective, it occupies the space within us (psychically) far longer than its existence in the gallery space. For dOCUMENTA (13), video pieces occupy the traditional spaces (cinematic projections) along with far more surprising spaces; they are projected on the arched ceiling of a planetarium, on hand-held iPods, within cabins in the woods, and situated as a film-in-progress within the minds of hypnosis subjects in trance. Of course, some occupy their chosen space with far greater effectiveness than others.

Every morning in Kassel, for the 100 days of dOCUMENTA (13), video artist Albert Serra shoots a part of his film, titled The Three Little Pigs. He then edits in the afternoon and shows the new extract in a dOCUMENTA cinema the following morning. The film is an audiovisual portrait of three famous German figures – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adolf Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – engaging in conversations taken from historical records. The artist claims that he has used the rule of three as a method to arrive at a solution that will avoid the disaster of the proverbial wolf, as well as using the third cultural approach in order to tell this story successfully – not literature or history, but film. Based on viewing just one of the daily excerpts, however, it could be argued that (similar to the attempts of Doccupy to embody their manifesto) the idea of the film is far more interesting than the results on screen.

In the adjacent cinema, another video work, this time by the Otolith Group, is being shown. It is titled The Radiant and is concerned with the aftermath of the recent nuclear disaster in Japan. The most striking aspect of it is the interview with a Japanese man in his sixties, who is arguing that spaces contaminated by nuclear radiation in Japan should now only be occupied by people of his age group or older. He argues that the young are too vulnerable and have their whole lives ahead of them, whereas he and other elderly people will most likely be at the end of their lives by the time the radiation affects them. His proposal of a self-sacrificial occupation of space in Japan based on age is both alarming and heart-warming in its urgent selflessness.

Downstairs in the Hauptbahnhof (or main train station) is an interactive sound-and-image work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, titled Alterbahnhof Video Walk. At first glance, it appears to be very much in line with Cardiff’s earlier aural and film installations. A few minutes into the experience, however, the work causes an emotionally violent collision between the real space in the present and the real space of the past. The work plays with your experience of your present space through the artists’ re-imagining of it, via sound and images recorded in that same physical space. You play the work through a hired iPod, and are led by Cardiff’s recorded voice around the station, in synch with the movements of her video of the space. It is as if she is leading you in a tango dance between the present and the past, the real space and the recorded space. This could seem just a clever gimmick, with a few personal and uncanny touches thrown in, until it hits you that Cardiff is guiding you to one station platform in particular. It is the very platform from where so many people were transported to concentration camps during World War II – many of whom, as we are all acutely aware, never returned. It’s an inordinately emotional moment when the video forces you into this realisation. You are standing in a place of tragedy. That tragedy is dragged suddenly into the present once more. It’s a re-mapping of time and space that blurs history with a recorded ‘present’ to force you to re-evaluate the real-world present and the space you occupy. This is a feat that is arguably very rarely achieved in film or indeed art of any medium.

Past the Hauptbahnhof, in the desolate train yard, is a four-storey house that is perhaps a century or so old. As you reach the threshold, you are asked to leave even the smallest of bags in the cloakroom. Immediately upon stepping inside the house, it becomes clear why your belongings could be considered hazardous inside. The house is plunged into almost complete darkness, with only tiny pools of light emitted from the video art scattered throughout several rooms. With only this light to guide you, your eyes are forced to pay attention to these works. The stillness and simplicity of the images are mesmerising and comforting as you are forced, fumbling, around the blackness. As you climb the stairs, the house gets lighter, although still the ‘House of Horrors’ sensation pervades. Each storey of the house contains more video work, but also blank, beautifully bound books, as well as letters exhibited on the walls that are the only clue to piecing together the history that has been created for this house. They are letters between two men over several years. The letters’ content is beguilingly simple, hiding an undercurrent of longing, nostalgia, loneliness and desire. Up in the attic are two large metal balls standing solemnly, their only artistic companions being the orchestral string music trickling into earshot. Their mystery is a fitting end to the tour of the house, whose history, created by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer (The End of Summer, 2012), generates more questions than answers. (It later became apparent that the music is part of Turner Prize-winner Susan Phillipsz’ latest sound installation, featured nearby at the Hauptbahnhof. No matter – the synchronicity of music and place only served to further articulate the sense of longing in this house.)

Back outside, towards the station, is an opening that leads to Artaud’s Cave, a film projected within a concrete ‘reconstruction’ of Plato’s cave. Created by Javier Téllez, the film was inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and shot in a psychiatric institution in Mexico using non-actors. Viewers must crunch along a gravel path and clamber over cold stone walls to view the work. Somehow the combination of cave and film are claustrophobic, with the sense that you too are confined in an institution of sorts, with no clear way out.

Nearby is a five-channel video installation by Indian artist Tejal Shah, titled Between the Waves. The work is thematically positioned around an archaeological excavation in India that hopes to find the possible true origins of the unicorn. The work uses live-action video, animation and even an iPhone Morse code app to tell its story, and repositions a traditionally Western mythological creature back within its purportedly accurate Indian heritage. As Shah explains about her work: ‘All clues lie within, decoding them is a matter of our own cognitive or imaginative limits.’

Wooden cabins scattered across Kassel’s beautiful parkland, Karlsaue, contain all manner of installations and video works, including sail boats washed up in trees; a film depicting archived impressions from a Swiss sex commune from the early 20th century; a film and sound installation exploring the existential space of the voice that is at once haunting and frustrating (Manon de Boer, One, Two, Many, 2012); along with a narrative film depicting a privileged white family sitting around a candlelit dinner table, speaking about their son’s racist ‘honour killing’ of a violent man (Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012). At last, unassumingly nestled amongst the fir trees, is a cabin that you must book to visit and is an absolute must for your dOCUMENTA experience: the Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room (Marcos Lutyens, Raimundas Malašauskas).

Upon your arrival, you must take off your shoes and follow the artist downstairs. There, once alone with the artist, you will find yourself in an almost bare wooden room, which is still somehow cosy. You are told that you are being filmed. You are told to relax and choose a ‘story’ from a book consisting of no words, only colour combinations. And from there on in, the hypnotist and your unconscious mind take over to become the featured artwork. The hypnotist works to project your inner thoughts back to you in the form of verbal descriptions woven into the narrative he speaks. In this sense, each individual session results in a completely new ‘artwork’, which is captured in an ongoing video. This process is accompanied by a series of events when the artist switches roles and places himself under a trance-like state. The artist, while in this state, escapes the cabin to roam the streets of Kassel, filming the results of his interactions with people going about their days and nights. This work is a disquieting example of how art can occupy your utmost personal space: it fixes the exhibition space of the film directly inside the unconscious mind.

The Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room has the potential to occupy all four positions of thinking as outlined by Christov-Barakiev, depending only on the state of mind of its subjects: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. And the same could be said for the poor meteorite trapped in the midst of all these artistic and political debates. The meteorite is at once besieged from all sides, hopeful for resolution, attempting to retreat and yet spot-lit on the world stage of media attention. One can only wonder what thoughts the meteorite itself would have under the spell of hypnosis. Four thousand years’ worth of tales to tell us. A humbling thought.

‘The riddle of art is that we do not know what it is until it is no longer that which it was.’ Christov-Barakiev

Siouxzi Mernagh

2009 REVELATION: STEVEN SEVERIN AND DANNY PLOTNICK

Steven Severin

Revelation Perth International Film Festival

2-12 July 2009

Perth, Australia

Revelation website

They may be poles apart creatively, stylistically, conceptually and in probably every other conceivable way, but Steven Severin’s and Danny Plotnick’s relationships with music and film strangely complement each other: Severin is a composer who is inspired by film while Plotnick makes films driven largely by music.

Severin and Plotnick were recent international guests at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, which was, assumedly, the sole reason for them to ever encounter each other. Rev, as it’s fondly known, is a festival renowned for its love affair with film that pushes boundaries, and, significantly, film that takes its cues from the worlds of punk, jazz, and experimental music.

Plotnick’s films emerged from the post-punk 80s scene in San Francisco: the main impetus behind the work being the inspiration provided by the music his friends were playing. As Plotnick put it: ‘I couldn’t play an instrument and I couldn’t draw comics, so I started making films and touring them around in bars and clubs with friends’ bands.’ This year, Rev showcased a retrospective of Plotnick’s work, often transgressive and always funny, titled San Francisco’s Doomed. The programme included YouTube favourite Skate Witches, a Super 8 short he made in one day for $60, which has now been picked up by MTV. Plotnick’s 1999 short, Swingers’ Serenade, also featured – a hilariously tawdry interpretation of a script by the same name published in 1960 by Better Movie Making, a magazine aimed at amateur home filmmakers… Imagine, if you will, your parents getting kinky with an egg whisk in their suburban lounge back in the day and you get the picture. Plotnick also ran a workshop on low-budget underground filmmaking, revealing handy hints to local indie filmmakers, such as: ‘Best not to park your car for two days at a set of public traffic lights, with one actor in a clown suit and one stark naked, without a council permit.’

Severin began his music career in the 70s as a founding member of Siouxsie and the Banshees and was thus a key influence within the milieu of London fashion and counter-culture. Severin speaks of having ‘always been inspired by film’ and wanting to create film soundtracks as far back as his early days with Siouxsie. His live performance at Rev consisted of two acts. The first involved him playing on stage from his laptop while avant-garde classic The Seashell and the Clergyman was screened. The second act saw Severin returning to the stage with his laptop (a set-up reminiscent of the side-stage pianist during the silent film era) to musically accompany a visually evocative series of experimental shorts.

A little-known surrealist masterpiece that first screened in 1928, before Un chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman is ripe with macabre, sexualised religious undertones and alternates between moments of visionary jouissance and ecstatic violence. Unfortunately, such a vivid visual landscape proved a treacherous path for Severin to tread and, for the most part, his music seemed vanilla in comparison to what was on screen. More impressive, however, was his accompaniments to the shorts in the second act, a particular highlight being the 2002 short directed by Belgian team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, titled Chambre jaune. A triumph of extreme suspense, the film evoked claustrophobically frightening acts of sex and eventuating violence contained almost within one single room. Again, the richness of the visuals seemed a dangerous challenge, but this time the aural/visual collision satisfied.

I spoke with both Severin and Plotnick in the lull of the afternoon at the festival bar, fascinated by their shared interest in the relationship between music and film, and their two radically different approaches. I was first interested to find out from Severin how he managed to make the leap from playing guitar in a notorious London punk band to creating music-scapes for films often only seen in film schools and art galleries. He explained: ‘I wanted to do a film soundtrack for years and years, which I think is pretty evident in some of the Banshees’ music – it’s very cinematic. I got my first chance to do that back in 89 with a short movie called Visions of Ecstasy [18 minutes, no dialogue], which was banned in the UK on the grounds of blasphemy. Then in 2002, I got asked to do the soundtrack for London Voodoo [a supernatural thriller directed by Robert Pratten]. The live show really comes from my desire to keep writing music for film and playing it live. I realised that the established film venues weren’t going to invite me, so I’ve only ever done these live shows once in a cinema. Rev is the second time. I also wanted to see how it would work in different settings and venues.’

When asked whether he agreed that screen composers often attempt to direct the emotional impact of a film through its music, Severin had strong views: ‘What I dislike most in film music is when it signposts emotions. I hate being manipulated in that way. You just have to create a bed for the emotion that’s already there, to heighten it. I’m often asked to make the emotion come out when it’s not there in the acting. I can’t do that when the acting is bad. There is one scene in London Voodoo between husband and wife where the wife feels as if she is losing her mind. I thought that it should be made from the woman’s point of view, so I put all the emphasis in the music on what she was doing. And then the director saw it and said it should be the other way around. So I just moved everything over and it completely changed things.’

The impact of music on the subconscious mind is something that Severin is particularly interested in: ‘There is a contrast in my live show between the first half and the second half, in which most of the films are very harsh and brutal and very conscious. But on the other hand, Seashell could all be a dream from the word go. So I’ve purposefully composed the music to hopefully enhance that subconscious side of it. It has a story, it has a narrative, but it doesn’t make any sense. You can do all these things with music and it’s very powerful.’

Just as with Severin, it was a strong sense of independence that led to Plotnick’s early screenings in punk venues as he took his cues from the DIY approach of the indie music scene in which he grew up. ‘I had a projector and a Super 8 camera and I’d take this on the bus to a hardcore or punk show’, he said. ‘I didn’t really even know how to set it up properly or how to make films… When we’d project the film, I couldn’t understand why the image was too huge or we couldn’t see it properly. All my friends were in bands and they’d make a 45 and then they’d make another 45, so when I was finishing my first film I thought I had to make another film, not realising that often filmmakers take years to make films. There was a period where I was making two or three films a year, thinking that’s how you do it. Sugarbutts cost about $60, I used one reel of film. I was always asking, how can I keep making these films on the cheap? I kept them short and the look and feel was always completely different to Hollywood. I didn’t want to compete with that.’

His attitude to filmmaking was shaped by a reaction to the cultural climate of the time: ‘The thing about the 80s, certainly in America, was that popular culture was pretty horrid and limiting, pre-internet, pre-cable, pre-independent film – I say this meaning pre-Sundance – so really, musically, it’s hair metal and Michael Jackson, even though there’s this vibrant American indie scene bubbling under that’s ultimately going to lead to Nirvana. You’d go to see Hüsker Dü and there’d be 100 people there. In terms of movies, you had these big Hollywood films and then these small experimental fine art films… which is great, I love that, but that wasn’t the type of film I was interested in making.’

Plotnick’s films are inescapably comedic, with a punk aesthetic, and have forged an identity for him as somewhat of a ‘god’ of true American indie filmmaking. ‘A lot of my films are populist films’, he noted. ‘They’re just goofy and fun. In the more experimental film realm, all these people were appalled by the visuals of my films and the fact that they are not serious. But then later (laughs), a lot of these types actually took my film Pillow Talk seriously and thought it was a serious nightmare film.’ It was later picked up by MoMA, New York.

Plotnick continues to make the most of his twin loves of music and film, making music videos for friends’ bands. He also collaborates regularly with his partner, Alison Faith Levy, a composer, musician and actor in many of Plotnick’s films. ‘This is what I do and it is so much fun. I just like making films. I like making them with my friends and doing them quick and moving on to the next thing. I’ll continue doing it while I’m having fun. Where that trajectory goes from here, who knows?’

Siouxzi Mernagh

More information on Danny Plotnick’s latest work at www.dannyplotnick.com. For details of Steven Severin’s next live performance visit www.stevenseverin.com.

Read Siouxzi Mernagh’s report on the Revelation Festival in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 09: GIRLS 24/7

Beautiful Kate

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

3-14 June 20089

Sydney, Australia

Festival website

This year’s Sydney International Film Festival programme included both a focus on women directors from the 60s and 70s (‘Girls 24/7’) and a significant number of new features written or directed by women. It was an attempt by festival director Claire Stewart to highlight female-driven stories, and to emphasise that the cliché of the glass ceiling is still relevant today for female storytellers in the film industry. Miranda Otto (festival jury member and actress) and Australian film icon Rachel Ward agreed resoundingly that a special effort to focus on women directors is a timely reminder that in an increasingly competitive industry (due largely to dwindling budgets) female storytellers need to fight harder to get their stories heard. They also agreed that this is felt perhaps to a slightly lesser extent in Australia, blessed as it is with ‘leading lights’ such as Gillian Armstrong.

Ward’s accomplished first feature as a director, Beautiful Kate, made its world premiere this year in the Official Competition section of the Sydney Film Festival. It screened within a programme of some very strong films helmed by female filmmakers, the highlights being Catherine Breillat’s latest offering Bluebeard, Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7(1962), V?ra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, and Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Less compelling works included Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Sophie Barthe’s Cold Souls. Significantly, these arguably weaker works are probably those with the largest budgets and the biggest stars.

Breillat’s Bluebeard is undoubtedly a feminist film, with its social commentary on what it means for women to survive financially without a male provider, in the structure of a sobering fairy tale. On the other hand, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee could be described as an anti-feminist chick flick: the emotionally weak protagonist is shown as incapable of taking control of her life until forced to, when her wealthy sugar-daddy dies.

Beautiful Kate, Humpday and Everyone Else are films that, on the one hand, remain true to the ‘expectations’ of female-driven stories in the sense that they are emotionally rich, narratively loose, introspective and modestly budgeted works; less expectedly, they are stories with strong male characters at their hearts. Beautiful Kate reveals an outback family’s past tragedies in flashbacks through the troubled eyes of Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), who has returned to the family farm after 20 years to say goodbye to his dying father. Humpday follows the often hilarious story of two straight male friends with completely divergent lives who decide to make a porn film together, learning about camaraderie and their own masculinity in the process. Everyone Else focuses predominantly on the boyfriend’s perspective on a troubled young relationship, as he is struggles with class and career issues that threaten his feelings for his free-spirited girlfriend.

There were also some introspective personal stories directed by men in this year’s programme, the main highlight being Last Ride, starring Hugo Weaving, directed by first-time Australian feature director Glendyn Ivan. Ivan explained that the tale of young boy Chook, who is taken on a dangerous road trip by his criminal father, is, emotionally speaking, ‘his story’, one that he simultaneously relates to as both a son and a father. Interestingly, this harrowing, emotionally charged and low-budget work has all the qualities traditionally associated with female-directed films.

It was an admirable move for the Sydney Film Festival to focus so heavily on women filmmakers. But for things to change drastically for female storytellers, it seems it will take an alteration in both audience expectations and the number of women in decision-making positions within film festivals and funding bodies. But ultimately, as Rachel Ward points out: ‘Women really only have themselves to blame for this glass ceiling – there’s not enough women who feel as if they have a right to tell their stories or to helm a picture themselves. More women need to get out there and tell their own stories.’

Siouxzi Mernagh

BERLIN DIY PUNK FILMMAKING: JULIA OSTERTAG’S SAILA

Julia Ostertag is an underground filmmaker from Berlin on a mission to challenge representations of female characters in film, particularly those that are violent and sexualised. Coming from an art school background and finding her early influences in the cinema of transgression, she is a filmmaker whose work elicits a love or hate reaction from the audience. She delights in provocation, and her first feature Saila is further proof of this.

Ostertag recently screened Saila at Schnarup-Thumby, a tight-knit Berlin squat with a strict ‘no photography’ policy – a somewhat different venue to those chosen for the L’Oréal-sponsored 59th Berlinale which opened a few weeks later. The squat provided a particularly intense and appropriate atmosphere for a chat with Ostertag about the film and her intentions. The screening brought together the voluntary and largely amateur team that comprised Saila’s cast and crew for a manic and rewarding evening, which for Ostertag ‘mirrored the two-and-a-half-year filmmaking process itself’.

Saila centres on the title character, a dreadlocked outsider searching for a ‘lost memory’ in an increasingly violent ‘Berlin punk dystopia’, where time and space no longer appear to obey conventional rules. Through a bewildering cycle of psychosexual visions and phantasms, Saila discovers her own violent truth. As Ostertag explains, it could be described as a ‘female revenge film without a specific reason for the revenge’. One of the most dynamic elements of the film is its unpredictability. Ostertag feels that this may come from the challenging method in which it was shot: ‘neither the actors nor myself knew where the journey would take us’, she explains. ‘It was a total challenge and very different from the other shorts and docos I’ve done’, she says, referring to the spontaneous performances and to the unstructured nature of the narrative.

Saila was shot guerilla-style within urban Berlin, in abandoned warehouses, decrepit apartment blocks and industrial wastelands. This shooting style was only made possible through working with a team that knew this side of Berlin from experience – the film’s locations are situated in parts of the city that are completely off the radar for the majority of the Berlin film industry. Ostertag’s choices have paid off handsomely: although set for the most part in a fantastical post-apocalyptic future, the film displays an authenticity and genuinely punk sensibility that is impossible to feign.

The film has been described as ‘probably the Berlin Punk film right now’ and a must-see ‘if you care about the Berlin D.I.Y. scene at all’ (Andreas Michalke, 26 November 2008, berlindiyhcpunk.wordpress.com). Through Saila and her previous films, particularly documentary Gender X (Berlinale 2005) and experimental short Sex Junkie (2003), Ostertag has placed herself at the dark, pulsing heart of Berlin’s underground film scene. Her bold representations of female sexuality and the unashamed insertion of her own personal concerns within these representations (including the decision to perform in the self-sexploitative lead role in Sex Junkie) certainly deserve our attention.

The filmmaker proclaims passionately that Saila and her other films aim to ‘question civilisation’, and that they could possibly provide some answers for ‘middle-class audiences coming to a crisis’. Her films represent characters who willingly thrust themselves at the fringes of society. Ostertag wants her work to provide an alternative in an industry which to her is all about ‘creating films for TV stations’. This ability to question and to challenge through her filmmaking shines through boldly in the complexity of her female characters.

Saila contains one of the bloodiest love scenes in cinema history. It is visually harsh and yet erotically charged, its intensity heightened through the awareness that we are watching local punks on screen, not professional actors. Ostertag points out that at no point did her non-actors feel that things were going too far: ‘Not everyone’s up to rolling around in broken glass. But my actors completely slipped into their roles and the broken glass and the filth never stopped them.’ In spite of the unpredictability of the journey she took her actors on, Ostertag did attempt to prepare them for their roles by showing them films such as Richard Kern’s Submit to Me Now (1987), chosen especially to help her actors discard any assumptions about acting ‘narratively’. Although there is no conventional narrative thread to guide us through the decaying dystopia, we feel compelled to continue through the dark by Saila herself, a damaged and fascinating female character, both fragile and vampy in equal amounts. It is Saila’s predatory side that ultimately wins out, which for Ostertag is the focal point of the story as well as what drove her to make the film.

Ostertag intended the character of Saila to represent a strong female identity, a female sexual fantasy even. Many women in the audience have told her that they find Saila’s character and her sexual encounters a strong turn-on. ‘It’s especially interesting that girls are getting turned on by the aggressive sex’, she says. ‘The way I picture sex is still an important thing for me. But I like it when girls also see the romantic side of the scenes and connect to them on a very strong emotional level.’ Ostertag points out that she has also heard the opposite point of view: some women find her approach to sexuality offensive and believe she is pushing things too far. This is the filmmaker’s response: ‘I can never figure out exactly what it is that they mean by “too far”. Maybe they think that girls are not allowed to have fun in that way, even when it is depicted from a girl’s point of view.’ Ostertag concedes that as a female director it is easier to push these kinds of representations of women further, that as a female you can generally ‘get away with more’. That said, Ostertag also admits that there are very few female directors working with these concerns, particularly in such a visually provocative way.

Siouxzi Mernagh

Want to find out more about the DIY cinema scene in Berlin? Read Siouxzi Mernagh’s article about Berlin squat cinema in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. Our spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kí´ji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!

REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008

My Winnipeg

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2008.

THE GOOD

Waltz With Bashir/Persepolis
It seems somehow unfair to try and choose between Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir in deciding the best film of the year. Both superbly animated, autobiographical features, they are totally unique, powerful and refreshing in their own ways. Persepolis uses stunning black and white animation to tell Satrapi’s often humorous story about growing up a rebel after the 1979 revolution in Iran, while Waltz with Bashir is a very personal and brave attempt by Folman to come to terms with his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Both are emotionally gripping, riveting films that are also terrifically stylish, making them an absolute pleasure to watch. SARAH CRONIN

My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is among his finest work to date, combining documentary footage, theories on psycho-geography and the director’s typical left-field sexual anecdotes to lurid and devastating effect. Maddin has conjured a Canadian Brigadoon that is both lost to the developer’s wreaking ball and to reminiscences of itinerant residents who have long since moved on. My Winnipeg is a beguiling and loving homage to both the news footage and the director’s own home movies of the town itself and an unmissable, metatextual fever dream about places we’ve all loved and lost. ALEX FITCH

Savage Grace
Fifteen years after his critically acclaimed debut feature Swoon, Tom Kalin’s follow-up is another stunning, audacious and dazzlingly well realised exploration of the relation between sex and power, based on a disturbing real-life crime. Shot in deep, lush colours, and with a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore in the central role, Savage Grace recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly. Kalin brings a coolly compassionate spirit to this haunting tale of love and madness while excellent performances throughout lend the film an extra edge of enigmatic power and unsettling perversity. Undeniably graceful, gorgeously photographed but also brutally sharp. PAMELA JAHN

The Orphanage
Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage marks a powerful escape from the clutches of the ‘torture-porn’ franchises devouring the horror genre in recent years. The simplicity of a look, of the sound of footsteps, a long hallway disappearing into darkness, the sound of children whispering… suddenly the subconscious mind is given some credibility again. The Orphanage is almost entirely preoccupied with the topography of the mind and is extremely successful at evoking the (often frightening) symbolism of the past, of childhood, of memories best left undisturbed. There may have been better films in 2008, but The Orphanage got to me deepest. SIOUXZI MERNAGH

Man on Wire
James Marsh’s Man on Wire shocked and amazed me above anything else I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who with the help of a small and fearless team, broke into the World Trade Centre in 1974. Taking with him an arsenal of equipment, he staged a feat of iconic proportions by walking between the two towers. If the heist-like nature of the narrative isn’t compelling enough, the emotional bond between the key players seen through modern-day talking heads and archived footage secures the film’s place as one of the most engaging documentaries of recent years. JAMES MERCHANT

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s haunting Lust, Caution examines the explicit affair between naí¯ve spy Tang Wei and government official Tony Leung against the backdrop of wartime China. Leung’s performance is a master-class in self-loathing, revealing a supposed embodiment of evil to be a world-weary company man who is aware of the shortcomings of the political power to which he has sold his soul. Lee presents a multi-layered recreation of 1940s Shanghai wherein even a mah-jong game is an exercise in alliance and betrayal. Skilfully adapted from an Eileen Chang short story, Lust, Caution is as suspenseful as it is emotionally complex. JOHN BERRA

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic folk tale, set amid the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

THE BAD

Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth
When making a nostalgic film about lost possibilities and childhood heroes on a limited budget, you sometimes end up with a work of genius like My Winnipeg and sometimes you get ill-conceived and tedious claptrap like Captain Eager. Inspired by the classic British comic book character Dan Dare and 1930s adventure serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, this is a film that tries to be an innovative, funny and affectionate homage to the past but fails on almost every level, while criminally wasting two of this country’s finest comic talents – Mark Heap and Tasmin Grieg. ALEX FITCH

Awake
Awake is a ridiculous thriller that strives for novelty by exaggerating, or exploiting, a medical statistic concerning the number of people who wake up during open heart surgery. When a bland junior business tycoon, portrayed by jobbing Jedi Hayden Christiansen, becomes conscious during a life or death operation, he discovers that he is the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by his new wife and his surgeon. However, his physical paralysis means that Christiansen spends much of the film relaxing on his back while his voice-over attempts to take care of the acting. Not to be viewed without anaesthetic. JOHN BERRA

Angel
Franí§ois Ozon’s first English-language feature, a foolish adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor’s unduly neglected novel Angel (1957), may be his most love-it-or-hate-it film to date. It is a strained, disastrous mixture of camp spoof and lurid melodrama, a would-be satire of Hollywood dramas of the Douglas Sirk variety that completely misses the mark. PAMELA JAHN

My Blueberry Nights
While not necessarily the absolute worst film to come out this year, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights was certainly the most disappointing. The director’s first foray into Hollywood resulted in a film inferior in every way to his Hong Kong-based work, while the most egregious offence was the misguided casting that saw the inexperienced singer Norah Jones and the mediocre Jude Law take on the two leads. The story itself is a mere confection, with Jones waitressing her way across America after she’s jilted by her boyfriend. Thankfully, Wong Kar Wai quickly restored his reputation by re-realising his 1994 film Ashes of Time, a beautiful, elegiac picture that helped dull the painful memory of My Blueberry Nights. SARAH CRONIN

THE UGLY

RocknRolla
Arch-chav Guy Ritchie’s pathetic films are littered with embarrassing caricatures: mockney wide boys, smart-arse gangsters, Fagin-esque thieves and air-head tarts. This ridiculously contrived, self-consciously ‘cool’ macho wankathon was utterly boring, adolescent and stupid. But what’s most reprehensible about it is its glamorisation of the most disgusting elements of male, thuggish society: greed, misogyny, egotism, immorality, narcissism and random violence. JAMES DC

27 Dresses

This film is a triumph of formula, a mastery of the Machine:

1. Distill the identity of the ‘modern woman’ into one crisp, shiny, easily opened package.

2. Extract money from the ‘modern woman’ by marketing a tried and tested ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride (unless you’re younger and blonder)’ movie to her.

3. Stew the ‘modern woman’ in saccharine juices until her brain is pink and pliable.

4. Await congratulations from film investors.

Unfortunately, 27 Dresses grossed $160 million worldwide, with around 75% of the audience being female (boxofficeguru.com). And this from a female director… SIOUXZI MERNAGH

PHILIP WINTER’S VERY OWN ROUND-UP OF 2008

Unlike most of the other pundits writing this end of year review, I haven’t been to the cinema. 2008 was a grand year for cinema-phobia as far as I’m concerned. Despite my love of the art form I have never been a regular cinema-goer. My preferred time to go to a screening is mid-week, mid-afternoon, with no companions apart from my fellow strangers. Sadly, work and life have thwarted my indulgence in that proclivity, as has the fact that there has been very little fodder on offer that I have wanted to squander my cash on. I haven’t even attended press screenings. Indeed, most of my cinematic consumption has come via conduits such as DVDs and the Web. However, (here’s the me, me, me bit) I have been proactive in producing cinematic events. All of them low-key, thoroughly amateur and jolly good fun in a kind of botched together from Sellotape and twigs way. In the summer, I started an occasional evening entitled Philip Winter’s Lucky Dip (this title permitted me to decide what I wanted to screen the night before). At these events, I screened an eclectic range of films – local history documentaries, British transport films, instructional videos, Super 8 non-sequitur, YouTube chaff. Experimentalists like William English, Oliver Mezger, Fari Bradley, David Leister and Toby Clarkson presented 16mm and video works live, and as master of ceremonies I talked nonsense in between. The screenings took place in a room above a pub adjacent to the pub’s Thai kitchen, which provided a constant background din. Audiences weren’t huge but we all had fun, albeit of the shoddy variety, and best of all, it was free. I am glad I haven’t visited a cinema in 12 months.

PREVIEW OF 16th RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

The Rind

16th Raindance Film Festival

1-12 October 2008

Festival programme

Anyone with an iota of interest in indie film, or indeed mainstream film, knows Raindance, if not as an organisation that has championed independent filmmaking for close to 20 years, then most definitely for its annual film festival. The Raindance Festival, this year held October 1-12, is widely accepted as the most important event for independent filmmaking in the UK.

Now in its 16th year, the festival has quite a reputation to uphold. We asked festival producer Jesse Vile how they manage to keep things interesting: ‘We’re not tied to any government funding so we have free rein to do what we want. Nothing is ever too out there for us. We’re looking for balls, originality and something that shakes things up. The programming does evolve through the films we receive so when you look back on it, each year has an energy and style of its own’.

Over the years independent filmmaking has seen a shift in trends, and this has been reflected in both UK and international entries to the festival. ‘There has been an enormous increase in documentary film production over the last five years, and each year we get more and more sent to us’, explains Vile. ‘For a while everyone wanted to be Quentin Tarantino but now it seems they all want to be Morgan Spurlock’. Whatever genre they choose to work in, however, the most important thing would-be filmmakers should remember is to make a film with what is available. In an interview on Raindance TV, Shane Meadows reminds them that he started his career thanks to video. For Vile, this is simply what independent filmmaking is all about: ‘You’re not going to make The Godfather on a cheap camcorder but you can create something amazing that all the money and 35mm film in the world couldn’t create’.

Raindance has helped launch the careers of the likes of Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Brooks – all of whom were Raindance workshop participants back in 1992. Since helping these talents to emerge, the festival has not changed its core values and continues to expose and assist more filmmakers each year. For Vile, it is that aspect of the festival that makes it so vital: ‘We’re not just a festival that screens independent films, but we’re an independent organisation, so we know all about the struggles of getting things done on a limited budget. We maintain personal relationships with a lot of the filmmakers that come through our festival and continue for years to help them out in any way we can. I don’t know other festivals that do that to the extent that we do’.

The Raindance programme has now been announced and can be explored here. With screen legend Faye Dunaway as a special guest and a jury that includes Nicolas Roeg and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, it should be another top indie feast.

Siouxzi Mernagh

TOP PICKS

BLACKSPOT (New Zealand)

Two young men face darkness of an unexpected kind when their car breaks down on an isolated road during a night trip.

THE DAISY CHAIN (UK)

After the death of their baby daughter, a young couple foster a strange little girl who has lost her entire family. With Samantha Morton in the role of the grieving mother.

A LIFE IN THE DEATH OF JOE MEEK (USA)

Documentary that chronicles the rise, fall and resurrection of Joe Meek, Britain’s first independent pop record producer.

NIGHTWATCHING (UK)

Peter Greenaway’s extravagant look at Rembrandt’s romantic and professional life and the controversy he created by the identification of a murderer in the painting The Night Watch.

PVC-1 (Colombia)

A bizarre act of terrorism leaves a woman fitted with a plastic collar filled with explosives by a criminal gang who will detonate it if her family don’t pay a ransom. Shot in one continuous 84 minute steadicam take, PVC-1 is a groundbreaking thriller that has won numerous festival awards.

THE RIND (Uruguay)

Working in an advertising agency, slacker Pedro finds himself hastily promoted when his talented partner dies abruptly. Under pressure to put forward ideas, he investigates his dead colleague’s life in a desperate search for inspiration.

SEVEN SIGNS (USA)

Colonel JD Wilkes (the charismatic frontman and songwriter of the Legendary Shack Shakers) sets off to prove that the older stranger South still exists in all of its eerie, time-worn and Gothic glory.

THE COMPASS OF MYSTERY

The Compass of Mystery

The Compass of Mystery

Sept 26-Oct 19

Bristol

More information on the Compass website

The Compass Film Festival is not the average week-long-vaguely-film-related-piss-up audiences have come to expect from indie film festivals. On the contrary, it is a considered, annual event embracing the arts scene of Bristol in addition to screening films from the four compass points of the world, which each year are represented by four different countries. This year the festival looks at Poland as North, Somalia as South, Argentina as West, and Pakistan as East. Since 2006, the Compass Film Festival has shifted both thematically (Horror in 06, Resistance in 07 and Mystery this year) and physically, from Bristol art cinemas in 2006-07 to the Mivart St Studios, a former Victorian factory that houses over 40 resident artists and which organiser Sam King describes as ‘the perfect choice for the theme of mystery as an unknown and as yet undefined venue’.

It’s all a big nod to the richness of the Bristol arts scene: Bristol, it seems, is the Berlin of the UK right now. The festival programme aims to balance international films with those that are locally produced. Unusually, the festival is only open for submissions in one category, the ‘Five Minutes of Mystery’ short film competition: the remainder of the programme is selected by the organisers to fit the festival’s aims and theme. This year, the three-week event will also involve VJing master classes, a theatrical performance by a Bristol-based collective, an art project by local schools, exhibitions by local artists, a live poetry event and potentially some involvement from the Bristol Society of Magic!

So what motivated the choice of theme this year? ‘Mystery appealed to us as a concept that would be accessible and imaginative, but that would also allow for a broad range of creative interpretations’, says King. ‘The occult is just one element of mystery that we would like to explore through the film programme. We are also looking at representations of mythology and mysticism, science fiction and alternative realities in film. The range is very varied – from a session on film noir, through science fiction to thinking about mystery in terms of representing unknown or emerging filmmakers, and promoting the cultural production of lesser known areas in Bristol.’

It is a timely choice, and it fits well with the interest in the mystery and the occult that is currently found in mainstream filmmaking. Paradoxically for King, mystery is often a way of clarifying complex issues: ‘The increase of a mysterious element in film may come from a public demand for answers, and the sense of blindness about influences and factors that contribute directly to political decisions. Fantasy often offers a means of making sense of political conflict and war. I think the popularity of fantasy and mystery is not simply about escapism, but about dealing with social and political issues through an imaginative lens’.

Coming largely from an academic publishing background, King and the rest of the organisers are interested in bridging mainstream and scholarly film interests. They have set themselves quite a task. The rest of us can sit back and benefit from a unique and informed festival that’s all about generating a positive community spirit and encouraging new directions in the arts.

Siouxzi Mernagh

INTERVIEW WITH IVAN KAVANAGH

Tin Can Man

Sydney Underground Film Festival

September 11-14 2008

Programme

Tin Can Man has been described as the most violent film you’ll ever see. At its premiere screening in 2007 at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, there were audience walk-outs and complaints made to the festival’s organisers. At the same festival it won the ‘Boundary-Breaking Best Feature Award’ and ‘Best Actor’ for the film’s star Patrick O’Donnell. This is clearly a film that divides its audiences. Above all, it is a film that courageously refuses to be ignored.

The film’s self-described quiet and shy writer/director/producer/editor (and sound recordist!) Ivan Kavanagh takes the walk-outs and complaints as compliments. For him, the only time to be concerned about audience reaction is if it’s indifferent. Tin Can Man is Kavanagh’s third feature – it follows Francis (2005) and The Solution (2006), which has played at over 15 festivals worldwide and has been described as ‘a gritty masterpiece’.

Unexpectedly, Kavanagh describes the process of making Tin Can Man as a ‘joy from beginning to end’ and he is already making plans for a sequel Tin Can Man: House On Fire Monster. Below, Siouxzi Mernagh quizzes him about this ‘joyous’ process, and finds that Ivan’s sensibilities are an inspiration to anyone who calls themselves an underground filmmaker.

Siouxzi Mernagh: Firstly, congratulations on your awards at the Sydney Underground Film Festival for Tin Can Man – although it seems that the audience had mixed opinions on the film. Strangely enough (for an underground film festival!), several audience members walked out during the screening, and there were around 10 complaints that the film was too violent.

Ivan Kavanagh: To hear that people walked out and complained is an indication that the film made an impression, it stirred an emotion in them. The films that influenced me most when I was growing up were the ones that divided the audience. They may hate or love the film, but cannot ignore it. These are exactly the type of films that a festival that promotes itself as ‘boundary-breaking and subversive’ should be showing. I think the only time to be worried is when the films get no reaction. Also, Tin Can Man has no actual on-screen violence. It all takes place off-screen. What affects people, I think, is the unrelenting oppressive atmosphere, which is achieved through the sound design, the lighting/camerawork and the intense performances. There is a sense of dread that I think is way too much for some people. I suppose that it can only be taken as a compliment that people believe they have seen the most violent film ever made, when they actually ‘see’ nothing.

SM: Recently in Australia there was a ridiculous amount of controversy around photographer Bill Henson: very weighty moral assumptions have been made about Henson as a person based on the subject matter of his work. Do you ever feel that assumptions are made about you based on the darkness and violence evident in your work? Perhaps people take it all a bit too seriously?

IK: People sometimes assume that if an artist’s work is dark or violent, then the artist is a dark and violent person – which of course is ridiculous. I, for example, am a shy and quiet person. In fact, I think I might be a disappointment to people who are expecting someone quite different. When Taxi Driver was originally released some people attacked the filmmakers for being racist. But, as I think Paul Schrader said, there is a big difference between making a film about a racist and making a racist film. Artists sometimes explore and analyse difficult themes and subjects, and of course they should always be free to do so.

SM: Speaking specifically about Tin Can Man, to me the film is about father/son relationships and the fear of failure in the eyes of the father…. What’s your take on this?

IK: I wouldn’t want to analyse this too much myself. But Tin Can Man is probably my most personal film. There are so many elements of myself in the character of Peter, played by Patrick O’Donnell. This personal aspect is further heightened by the fact that the father in the film is played by my own real-life father, Christopher Kavanagh.

SM: Aside from the pragmatic struggles of getting Tin Can Man made did you find the process of making the film emotionally draining, considering its material?

IK: It’s funny and it may not look like it, but making Tin Can Man was the most enjoyable filming experience I have ever had. It was a joy from beginning to end. I came off finishing a very dark and serious film, The Solution, and wanted to do something a bit lighter, a genre film. It didn’t quite work out like that, but I still find Tin Can Man very funny. The crew consisted of Colin Downey (cinematographer) and I (I also recorded the sound). That’s it, there was no one else. So it was a very intimate filming experience – which of course is great for the actors.

SM: Can you tell us anything about the process you went through with the actors, particularly Patrick O’Donnell?

IK:I had worked with Patrick O’Donnell previously and knew what he was capable of. He’s a great actor. Then, when I met Michael Parle, I knew instantly the film would work. I love working with actors and employ different methods to aid their performances. For example, in Tin Can Man, Patrick didn’t see any of the script before the filming began. He knew it was a ‘horror’ film and that’s all. I would give him the information he needed to know just before the scene. So when you see fear in his eyes it’s probably real fear. But this only works with an experienced, disciplined and talented actor like Patrick and is aided by the fact that he’s acting opposite another very talented and unique actor like Michael Parle.

SM: All the performances are extremely powerful and you’ve managed to create exceptionally unique characters. I’d be very curious to hear how you found the inspiration for the man with the bleeding ears…

IK: A couple of years ago, I lived next to a man who would play techno dance music excruciatingly loudly, all day. When I complained he moved his speakers right against the wall so that the music was even louder. In fact, it seemed as if it was coming out of my walls. So that’s where the man with bleeding ears came from.

SM: Now that it’s been a year since you made Tin Can Man, how do you feel when you watch it?

IK: I don’t usually like watching my own films, but I saw Tin Can Man again recently and I’m quite proud of it. I don’t know when I will get the chance, but am really looking forward to returning to that world.

SM: Can you tell us anything about the sequel to Tin Can Man or your other feature Our Wonderful Home?

IK: The sequel is called Tin Can Man: House on Fire Monster. I think it’s a really exciting idea and if I could start filming immediately, I would. It’s a road movie and again takes place during the course of one night. It has many of the same characters and a few new ones. But that’s all I’ll say. It will require a little bit more money this time, but not much more. But I’m hoping it shouldn’t be too difficult to raise it on the back of the original film. I am also in the final stages of post-production of my new film Our Wonderful Home and currently writing two other films to be shot in 2008-2009.

So brace yourselves for another relentless, heaving spiral into the darkness: Tin Can Man: House on Fire Monster will be coming your way soon. And never, ever, forget to thank your guests for their lovely cake.

Interview by Siouxzi Mernagh

TIGER FESTIVAL

Memories of Matsuko

Still from Memories of Matsuko

Tiger Festival

May 29-June 8
London, ICA


June 11-June 24
Brighton, Duke of York’s Picturehouse


Festival programme

Watch the trailer

SPECIAL EVENTS:

Meet Korean director Im Sang-soo: Drinks and signing session at the Korean Cultural Centre, London, Friday 30 May, 6:30-9pm, and Saturday 31 May, 6:30pm, before the screening of The President’s Last Bang at the ICA.

‘Meet the distributors’ seminar, Friday 31 May, 3:30-4:30, Sofitel St James, London: A chance to watch trailers of forthcoming releases and speak to UK distributors of Asian cinema.

Following the Beijing 2008 torch relay fiasco and the opening of the largest ever Chinese cultural festival in London (China Now), the time is ripe for a festival of Far East films to grace our screens.

Returning for a bigger, brighter, louder second year, the Tiger Festival will screen thirteen features from the Far East in London and Brighton from May 29 to June 24. The independent festival is also running a short film competition with a Far Eastern theme in conjunction with nonmultiplexcinema.com as well as playing host to several side events and parties, including the official Tiger Festival Party at the ICA.

When was the last time you went to the cinema to see a purely Asian film – an Asian film without the cinematography of Chris Doyle, or the 3D wizardry of Animal Logic, or a storyline involving an American war hero? The Tiger Festival will give you a chance to do so, presenting innovative, bold cinema that offers perspectives on the world that are as varied as the region itself. So unique are the films that the festival’s organisers have had to come up with their own sub-genres to give us some sense of what’s in store: ‘Macabre Musical’, ‘Multiple Personality Thriller’, ‘Monster Fantasy Action’… This is a festival that will erase any pre-conceived notions you may have on Far Eastern cinema.

The opening night film, Memories of Matsuko (Japan, 2006, UK Premiere), is a bold choice. Part tragedy, part musical, part videogame-on-acid extravaganza, the film is largely seen through the Technicolor eyes of lost soul Shou. Asked by his estranged father to clean the apartment of a long-lost aunt who has just been found murdered, he is led to uncover her rich life, and this brings new meaning to his own. The film is certainly an acquired taste, but its bizarre mix of saccharine music video interludes and gritty dramatic bitterness makes it well worth the effort.

The festival will also screen the political satire The President’s Last Bang (Korea, 2005), giving UK audiences a rare insight into South Korea’s political climate in the late 70s. It depicts governmental corruption before focusing on the assassination of President Park Chung-hee. Director Im Sang-soo will be present for a Q&A session after the screening.

One standout from the programme is Fox Family (2006), also from Korea. With an opening line as odd as ‘Where can we find a lot of humans?’ you know you’re on to a good thing. Its initial atmosphere is very Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes, before quickly veering wildly off course to completely unexplored cinematic territory. Sex and death and their various interactions dominate the film, with a few Mighty Boosh-esque dance numbers thrown in for good measure. This is fresh filmmaking meat at its rawest.

Siouxzi Mernagh

Read our comic strip review of Johnnie To’s Mad Detective, also showing at Tiger Festival, in our June print issue. For more details on where to buy the magazine, or if you wish to subscribe, email amanda@wallflowerpress.co.uk. For more information on the contents of the June issue go to our magazine page.

SHORT CUTS: SEAN CONWAY

Alex and Her Arse Truck

‘In the bedroom of the Kurt Cobain-obsessed protagonist from my first short film Rocco Paris there are posters on the wall of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Marley and Sean Conway.’
Sean Conway

He’s been described variously as ‘the UK’s coolest filmmaker’ (Giuseppe Andrews, actor) and ‘a fucking genius’ (Rankin, photographer and co-founder of Dazed and Confused). Writer/director Sean Conway (and self-confessed frustrated rock star) is undoubtedly doing something right. But with a drama to be screened on Channel 4, enough feature script ideas on the boil to last him his career, a multimedia collaboration funded by onedotzero, and a novella being published, Sean isn’t about to lie back in self-satisfaction.

Sean has been making a name for himself since his award-winning short Rocco Paris made strange bedfellows of poignancy and cool. Since then, he’s proven himself with shorts Rabbit Stories (2006), and Alex and Her Arse Truck (2007). Sean aims to make films that, in his own words, leave people thinking, ‘Wow! I’ve been in another universe!’, and he sees himself as having the capabilities of directing the next Harry Potter film just as much as LA alt-porn: the binding factor being his possession of an ‘agitation of the mind’ (a phrase coined by Werner Herzog).

Rabbit Stories depicts the world of Fenton, a young man with schizophrenia. The fractured visual style complements a brilliant and similarly fractured script. The constant argument between sound and vision is a driving force in communicating Fenton’s state of mind. Unfortunately, we never reach Fenton’s inner core, despite being offered several ‘Thought Insertions’ in which Fenton’s sexual identity and propensity to violence are hinted at. This is slightly disappointing, as is the positing of Fenton as a Christ-like figure: a slightly tired concept that contrasts with an otherwise highly original film.

Sean’s latest, Alex and her Arse Truck, is a vast leap in many ways from Rabbit Stories. Funded by Film Four and the UK Film Council, part of the Cinema Extreme scheme, it revolves around a couple of idealistic hedonists, Alex and Baby Shoes, and their encounters with panties-sniffing perverts, dancing drug dealers and a car park full of cheerleaders. Sean’s use of light is visionary, but there are too many potentially interesting psychological concepts that end up in a music video style extravaganza. The ever-present music will most definitely date the film, but hopefully in the way of a good tattoo – it might not suit in ten years but it makes a statement about the film here and now. Several moments display stunning directorial vision. The decision to have Alex mouth her first line of dialogue, for example, is infinitely more powerful than if she had screamed it.

Each of Sean’s films are very Gen Y, expressing a constant need to be made whole and the notion that the future will be brighter if you just hang on a little longer… As Baby Shoes puts it: ‘It’s like my balls are going to explode but my heart can’t breathe’.

In Rabbit Stories, Fenton believes that he is piloting a plane flying overhead with his plastic remote control. It’s a fitting analogy for Sean’s work as a filmmaker: with such an ambitious mind at the helm, the possibilities that may take flight are boundless.

Siouxzi Mernagh

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews