Redland: Interview with Asiel Norton, Magdalena Zyzak and Lucy Adden

Redland

Director: Asiel Norton

Writers: Asiel Norton, Magdalena Zyzak

Cast: Mark Aaron, Lucy Adden, Sean Thomas, Bernadette Murray, Kathan Fors, Toben Seymour

USA 2009

105 mns

Film website

Screened at the 17th Raindance Film Festival

Date: 30 September-11 October 2009

Venue: Apollo Cinema, London

Raindance website

A claustrophobic tale of family relationships in the wilds of Depression-era America, Redland is an astonishing debut, the result of a collaboration between American director Asiel Norton and Polish writer-producer Magdalena Zyzak. After a rapturous reception at the Raindance Film Festival, Eleanor McKeown met up with Norton, Zyzak and lead British actress Lucy Adden to discuss their experiences shooting such an intense piece of cinema.

Eleanor McKeown: The film has an incredibly accomplished feel to it but none of you had ever worked on a full-length feature before. How did the project come about and what inspired you to make the film?

Asiel Norton: I grew up being a film junkie and always wanted to make movies. My childhood was very similar to the film itself – I was born in a cabin up on a mountain. It was a very, very rustic upbringing with no television, but my parents were into movies and we would drive to a small university town about 45 minutes away to watch old, classic films. I used to make little movies when I was a teenager and also did a lot of acting so I felt like I had a natural ability to edit and an intuitive understanding of acting. What I really wanted to know was how to make a good visual. I decided to study at photography school in order to learn that, and afterwards I attended film school.

Magdalena Zyzak: My background was mainly in directing but I’m also a fiction writer and I’m currently working on my first novel. Some of the stories in the film came from my own background and experiences in Poland, but I think our idea was to create something more universal.

EM: But the film is also specifically American, being set in Redland during the Great Depression.

AN: The original inspiration for the film came from a single vision I had of a guy wearing a hat, with the rim of his hat shading his face, and shooting his rifle. His attire was Great Depression-era clothing. The idea for the whole film came to me as that image. I don’t know if I saw the film as American. Some people see it as an avant-garde Western and it was certainly influenced a lot by American Gothic literature, like Faulkner, but we were also influenced by world cinema. Some of my favourite directors are European, like Bergman and Tarkovsky. When you’re making a film, so many things influence you, it’s not always easy to define them. I think everything that you absorb in your life is there. The film had a lot to do with my own background and my family. For me, it was a combination of my own life, creative influences, and lots of philosophical and spiritual influences too.

EM: The film’s narrative takes its structure from the literary tradition of the ‘holy fool’. The child-like character of Mary-Ann, who is the daughter of the family, is pivotal in creating change and driving the action. Lucy, how did you prepare for such an important and intense role?

Lucy Adden: I didn’t know all the background to the holy fool tradition – I think if I had, it might have been harder to play! I was just thinking about her for myself. I thought of her as a child-like character. She obviously has this depth and wisdom to her but she’s not really aware of it. I tried to play her very simply. She doesn’t really know much about the world or anything going on outside of her own little sphere. When I read the first page of script, it just hit something in me. I don’t know if it was the way it was written or the part, but it just tapped into something. Magdalena, Asiel and I were obviously on the same wavelength.

MZ: It’s odd because when we were auditioning, Lucy arrived with this floral dress on and this long, long hair. We thought she was just perfect! We had originally been thinking of a different type of person to play the part, someone more earthy.

LA: And then I came in, like a little forest elf! (laughs)

AN: Yes, I had imagined someone more like an earth mother type but, when we found Lucy, we realised we wanted the character to be more of an otherworldly spirit. These things work out. With filmmaking, you always have to think about what will work better because things are changing all the time. A lot of the time, you’re hoping for and setting up the conditions for the ‘happy accident’.

EM: Did any other characters change through the casting process?

AN: The character of Charlie Mills [Mary-Ann’s lover and father of her aborted child] changed quite a bit too. We hired a different actor originally, who was more comedic. Because the film was very visual, we had extensive camera tests and kept using Toben Seymour, the second unit director, because he was always around. I’d be watching the shots and thinking, ‘Oh my god, Toben’s so fucking handsome!’ I ended up auditioning him and we switched actors!

MZ: During the shoot, Toben was always in character, always in costume. He would jump in front of the camera and improvise while he was shooting footage. Even when you’d talk to him on set, he’d always be talking to you as Charlie.

AN: Yes, even for ages after the shoot ended, he kept wearing the costume! We’d meet up with him in a bar and he’d be wearing the costume (laughs)! Actually, Toben and TK Borderick [who wrote the original music for the film] created a bluegrass country band based on the character… Toben would perform as Charlie Mills!

EM: The physicality of the film makes it at times extremely uncomfortable to watch. In particular, there is a very lengthy death scene, which is incredibly claustrophobic. Did you want to create a particular reaction in the audience?

AN: One of the main reasons for that scene was because I wanted to show that dying isn’t easy. Although I wasn’t thinking of this at the time, it’s like how Alfred Hitchcock dragged out the murder scene in Torn Curtain because he wanted to show that killing someone is hard. I did the same thing with this. While we were writing the script, my dad was dying of cancer and he died before we shot the film. It was a very brutal death and took forever. Most films take one quick shot for a character to die – I didn’t want to do that. Some people said the death scene was too long but I would never, never cut it. I wanted to make it longer. I think even if my hero Stanley Kubrick had come back from the grave and told me to cut it, I still wouldn’t have done it!

EM: Towards the end of the film, an incestuous relationship develops in the family. The handling of this storyline is unusual in so far that the sex appears to be consensual. It caused quite a strong reaction at the Raindance Q&A session. What were your intentions with this?

AN: Well, when you make a film, you want to hit people – you want to hit them intellectually, you want to hit them viscerally and, at the highest point, you want to him them spiritually. Basically, you want to hit them on every level but hitting them viscerally is very important. We weren’t aiming to shock but there’s a natural tendency to create conflict in order to create something dramatic. I think that storyline came not from me, but from the story itself.

MZ: We never planned to write about incest, it just organically happened.

LA: To me, it felt like a natural part of the family’s fight for survival.

AN: Yes, life was running out within the family so it had to find a way. In that sense it’s not something shocking, it’s just how life is. The film is about life as a powerful force. This particular bit of the story was the final stage of that.

EM: There has been a lot of critical praise for the look and feel of the film, which is extremely unique. How did you go about creating this effect?

AN: The way we shot was very free. We’d think, ‘oh that’s a great tree! Let’s improvise a scene around it’. People don’t really tend to shoot movies like that! Everyone working on this film loved movies and because we kept the enthusiasm going, it became this really creative process. As a director, I’m very demanding and I love all aspects of filmmaking. I’m hands on with everything. It can drive people crazy! When we worked on the sound, I would sit in with the sound guy, David Bartlett, and pick the creak of a door opening, and that’s not normal at all. He’d worked with all these big directors, like Tarantino, but he’d never experienced that before! David said if he’d chosen a door sound and just played it to me, I would probably have accepted it, but I told him, ‘That’s why I’m here – I want to choose that door sound!’

Interview by Eleanor McKeown

Read Eleanor McKeown’s article on Redland in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with John Hillcoat about his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!

Kakera: Interview with Momoko Ando

Momoko Ando

Director: Momoko Ando

Based on the manga by: Erica Sakurazawa

Cast: Hikari Mitsushima, Eriko Nakamura

Japan 2008

Screened at the 17th Raindance Film Festival

Part of a Raindance strand on Japanese Women Directors

Date: 30 September-11 October 2009

Venue: Apollo Cinema, London

Raindance website

Kakera – A Piece of Our Lives is an effervescent debut from first-time Japanese film director Momoko Ando. An exploration of sexuality and youth, the film follows the intense relationship between two girls as they partly fumble – and partly hurtle – towards adulthood. Meeting Ando in a Soho coffee bar during the Raindance Film Festival proved a similarly madcap and engaging experience for Electric Sheep‘s Eleanor McKeown. Punctuated by cigarette breaks with her mother and Ando’s views on the sex drive of the elderly (apparently it’s better news for the fairer sex…), the discussion of Kakera was long and lively, and the director gave a passionate explanation of the film’s ideas and aesthetics.

Eleanor McKeown: One of the best things about Kakera is how you capture the intensity of the relationship between the two young girls – how did you prepare the actresses for that?

Momoko Ando: The interesting thing is that the girls who play Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) and Riko (Eriko Nakamura) are completely opposite characters in real life! Riko, for example, is really slow and really sweet. I wanted to do that kind of casting because I think girls have both sides inside themselves, both really shy and outgoing. I thought if I could bring out the actresses’ deep characters, it would probably be stronger than using how they already are in real life. I tried to ignore Hikari completely and make her really depressed and lost throughout the whole process. She got really angry and shouted at me, but that’s exactly what I was waiting for. Haru is supposed to be someone who doesn’t know what to do in her life.

EMK: Halfway through the film the character of Haru starts to gain confidence…

MA: That last shot of Hikari looking through the window at the birds during the blackout, that’s what she’s really like! I told her, you’ve already got that energy, but in the future, you will probably have to play characters like Haru, so you can’t let all your energy out all of the time, or people will think you can only do that kind of acting.

EMK: The film comes from a comic book by Erica Sakurazawa. How much of the book did you change to make it into a film?

MA: It’s a really simple story. I changed probably 80% of it. The characters had really nice dialogue and things they wanted to say in the comic book so I picked that up. I struggled quite a lot to make it more interesting because the comic book doesn’t really explain what the characters are like or their background at all. Riko isn’t a prosthetic artist, for instance. There are just two girls, a middle-aged woman and the boyfriend. So the characters are there but you don’t understand what they are.

EMK: How did the author feel about her book being made into a film?

MA: Well, the comic book is quite old. She wrote it 10 years ago, and it’s not very long, so she was quite open about it being made into a film. We got on very well, I explained to her how I felt about the comic and she felt very comfortable, I think.

EMK: The film is very intense but there’s also a certain amount of distance when dealing with the central relationship. How close did you feel to the material and characters?

MA: I was drawing on painful stuff from my past when I was writing the script and directing the film. I was definitely engaged with the whole thing, but at the same time I didn’t want to make it too deeply connected because life’s sometimes not like that. At that age, you’re probably not connected that much with life and reality because you’re too young to understand people and how deeply they feel things. I wanted to create that weird, surreal mood of youth.

EMK: The film has a really strong visual identity, especially for a debut feature. How did you plan the aesthetic?

MA: The look was really important to me. As it was my first feature film and I was only 26, I thought it would be more interesting if I worked with a cameraman who was older, probably like my dad’s age [Ando is the daughter of actor and director Eiji Okuda] – someone who makes films in a proper, old-fashioned Japanese style. If I’d worked with a young cinematographer who feels exactly the same as me, that would be more common. I decided to work with this cinematographer who’s worked on many 70s and 80s low-budget movies. He’d never worked with young film directors, especially not female filmmakers… We both thought that would be a cool plan. That’s probably why the film looks quite traditional.

EMK: You studied at the Slade College of Art in London before moving into filmmaking full-time – how do you think that influenced your visual sense?

MA: It’s something that’s quite difficult to explain, like describing a smell! You’d have to say it’s like a rose but if you don’t know what a rose is, it’s quite difficult to know what the smell is! I never really felt connected to Japanese culture. I always felt like I stood out, not always in a good way. It’s probably the same in any country but I felt more confident when I came to England, I just felt so comfortable… Also, I liked punk music.

EMK: How did you work on the soundtrack?

MA: Well, I was a crazy, huge fan of the Smashing Pumpkins when I was living in London and I happened to meet James Iha. It just worked out perfectly because what I wanted for the film was something similar to what I used to listen to when I was a teenager and James wrote the music! I knew he would write really beautiful music. It’s never depressing, always really touching and beautiful. James worked with the drumbeats first. We decided what sort of tempo we wanted for the movie and that’s why it feels like it’s all connected, always with the same beat.

EMK: How did you write the script? Did you write it as a linear story? Did you work on the dialogue first or visuals?

MA: It was definitely much more visual. I’m writing the script for my next project at the moment [which follows a female home-help drawn into becoming a prostitute for elderly gentlemen] and it’s completely original. You might think I’m weird, but I remember my dreams when I wake up and I just write all those things down. I always have bits of weird stuff in my notebook. Then I start to read it back because I kind of forget what I’ve written. And I think, ‘Oh, this is quite interesting stuff I’m writing!’ Then I decide on the concept for the next movie, what I really want to do in the film, and I start picking stuff, adding, omitting… like in cooking!

EMK: Do you think of Kakera as a woman’s film? How consciously did you decide that you wanted to treat gender? Did you have something specific to say?

MA: Yes, of course! I always dreamt of becoming a filmmaker who was quite masculine and was able to make movies like the Coen brothers – very manly – but I just found that impossible because I’m a woman and the way I think is female. Once I’d decided to make a very female film, I had so much to say. I was so conscious of gender. I had one positive message – it really doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, it’s more important how you live your life as a human being. In Japan especially, I think young girls and boys aren’t really conscious of who they are or what they are like… I was just so frustrated looking at these people: I believe you should think about how you should live your life as a good person. It’s not about being a good woman or good man.

EMK: What are your plans for the future?

MA: I’m going to be promoting Kakera because it’s going to be opening in Japan in Spring 2010. I’m halfway through my next script so when I finish it I’ll start looking for funding. Kakera is only my first film and I think that if you can’t keep making films you’re not really a director. I hope I can carry on making films. That would be amazing!

Interview by Eleanor McKeown

SHORT CUTS: AN EVENING WITH DON HERTZFELDT

I Am So Proud of You

London International Animation Festival

27 August-6 September 2009

Various venues, London

LIAF website

Expectations were high for Don Hertzfeldt’s one-night-only appearance in London, billed as ‘the animation event of 2009’. Part of an extensive international tour, the show at the Curzon Soho cinema not only boasted the first London screening of his new short, I Am So Proud of You (2008), it also gave fans a rare opportunity to hear the man himself. And when I say ‘fans’, I really do mean ‘fans’. Over in the States, they turned up tattooed with Hertzfeldt characters, queuing up to get pieces of clothing signed. While there didn’t appear to be any tattoos in London, there was a definite sense of excitement as people filed into a slideshow of Hertzfeldt’s storyboard scribbles.

It’s easy to see why Hertzfeldt’s early shorts have garnered such a cult following. With their deadpan timing and macabre wit, they have that alternative sense of humour that immediately makes you feel that you’re a part of something special – you’ve passed into an exclusive club of people ‘who get it’. The Curzon audience certainly welcomed the early works like old friends. Two particular favourites were Rejected (2000), Hertzfeldt’s deranged assault on the commercial side of animation, and Billy’s Balloon (1998), a skewed re-imagining of The Red Balloon (1956), in which a flock of balloons terrorise some unfortunate stick-children.

Although amusingly scripted and beautifully paced, these YouTube hits are eclipsed by Hertzfeldt’s latest works. Typically self-effacing, Hertzfeldt himself described the chronological development of his films as going from ‘sucking to not sucking’. While it’s widely inaccurate to say that any of Hertzfeldt’s films ‘suck’, there is a marked difference in the scope and visual imagination of his last three shorts. They really are breathtaking.

Building on his technique of using simple hand-drawn stick-figures shot on a 1940s 35mm camera, Hertzfeldt has added new elements of photography, creating an intensified atmosphere of dark claustrophobia. The earliest film to demonstrate this new aesthetic is The Meaning of Life (2005), which opened up the Curzon Soho programme. Described by critics as an animated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film depicts the changing fortunes of our solar system to a soaring Tchaikovsky soundtrack. As stick-people fill the screen, neurotically repeating lines of dialogue ad nauseam (‘Does this look infected to you?’; ‘I know he’s cheating on me’; ‘Give me your money’), Hertzfeldt shows us the absurdity and futility of existence in a beautifully amusing and poignant way.

This ability to simultaneously sweep across the entirety of human life and focus in on the minutiae of human anxiety is evident in Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious project to date. A trilogy-in-progress (I Am So Proud of You is the follow-up to his 2006 work, Everything Will Be OK), the films focus on Bill, a stick-man diagnosed with an unidentified disease, spiralling into mental illness. With Hertzfeldt’s quick-fire voice-over recounting the history of Bill and his family, both films play like hypnotic, mysterious literary vignettes. Indeed, Hertzfeldt’s work has been compared to Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut (although interestingly, Hertzfeldt said that he rarely reads fiction and more commonly finds inspiration in philosophy, psychology and real life). Despite their brevity, these strange visions leave a long-lasting sense of bewilderment and awe, demanding contemplation and requiring repeated viewing. The frenetic atmosphere of the Curzon bar and clamouring autograph queues felt quite incongruous after such complex, beautiful, introspective pieces of work.

Eleanor McKeown

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt was organised by the London International Animation Festival and took place at Curzon Soho, London, on June 25. The event also screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. The LIAF’s 6th edition runs from August 27 to September 6 at various London venues. For more information about the festival, visit the LIAF website.

SHORT CUTS: SOHO RUSHES SHORT FILM FESTIVAL

This Way Up

Still from This Way Up

Soho Rushes Short Film Festival

27-30 July 2009

Various venues, London

Festival Website.

The opening night of Soho Rushes Short Film Festival started off rather unexpectedly with a 105-minute film. Having shown various shorts at Rushes over the years, director Jan Dunn was in attendance at Curzon Soho to discuss her new feature-length film, The Calling. Having moved into features, Dunn described shorts as an excellent opportunity for filmmakers to ‘exercise their muscles’ and show what they can do. In this light, shorts are seen as a stepping-stone to other projects. This attitude could be detected in some of the films showing at the festival. With glossy productions and an animation category that included two commercials, sometimes screenings felt more like showcases for insiders to spot and hire new talent. This year saw a concerted effort to bring in outside audiences with new screenings at the ICA but there is no escaping the fact that RSSF, based in Soho at the epicentre of London’s creative industries and production companies, is essentially an industry-focused festival. This can be a little distancing for those less commercially minded. Indeed a day of seminars and master classes at BAFTA was fantastically interesting for burgeoning filmmakers wishing to hear about funding opportunities and technical developments but not quite so exciting for those interested in seeing the works themselves.

That is not to say that there isn’t a need for this type of festival. The capital has alternative calendar fixtures, such as London Short Film Festival, which cater to public audiences. It is great that this type of focal point for the industry exists, but at the same time there is a sense that if an event is too introspective, the professionals won’t get an outside perspective on the works and the general public will miss out on some of the gems in the programme. And there were gems to be seen.

Introduced as one of the strongest categories in the festival, the animation screening at the ICA had some excellent works and was also nicely eclectic, with a mix of stop-motion, cartoons and 3D work. Particularly inventive was Txt Island, which showed the development of a beach resort on an unspoilt desert island, using only plastic lettering and a peg signage panel. There were lovely touches as swimming alligators and leaping fire were created out of the simplest typography. Photograph of Jesus, which took a look at the work of a picture library, also used stop motion to enchanting effect. Based on an interview with one of the picture researchers, the film visually represented some of the more ridiculous requests received at the library (photographs of Jesus, a picture of Hitler at the 1948 Olympics in London). Origami Yetis swung between filing cabinets as Jack the Ripper tore paper cuts into the bodies of his victims. The overall winner of the category, This Way Up, involved a similarly charming physical type of comedy as two funeral directors struggled to carry a coffin back to their parlour. Echoing the comic choreography of silent cinema, the timing was spot-on and the 3D animation had a beautiful Gothic quality as the two figures made their way across swampy moors.

These films, and many more throughout the festival, were carefully considered works that wonderfully fitted the definition given by actress Pauline McLynn at the Q&A that accompanied The Calling: a successful short should be a ‘beautiful sonnet’. RSSF screens some fantastic work and it deserves to be visible to those both inside and outside the industry.

Eleanor McKeown

FLATPACK 09 REPORT

Waller Jeffs

Birmingham, UK, various venues

11-15 March 2009

Website

I’d been looking forward to Flatpack ever since interviewing the organisers, Pip and Ian, way back in December. At that point the schedule was in its embryonic stages – with many films and speakers still to be confirmed – but, even then, it was clear that there was a rare thoughtfulness and passion behind the festival’s programming. And spending five days zig-zagging between Birmingham galleries, art-house cinemas and specially converted warehouses, I wasn’t disappointed.

A perfect combination of careful programming and a jumble-sale of treasure troves, Flatpack is a breath of fresh air among increasingly industry-focused UK festivals. Community is paramount to its identity – whether between visiting filmmakers or local cinema-goers – and there was clearly a great deal of reciprocal love between city and festival.

The opening night paid homage to Birmingham’s answer to Mitchell & Kenyon – the entrepreneurial Waller Jeffs – and Brum made recurring cameos throughout the programme, from a delightful selection of films made by a local boys’ group in the 1950s (my personal favourite was their attempt at sci-fi shot against a chalkboard solar system) to Peter Watkins’s magnificent Privilege (1967). A satirical look at the record industry, the film opens with Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, an increasingly reluctant pop puppet in the government’s manipulation of youth, on a messianic pilgrimage through the city streets. With a hilariously wooden performance from Jean Shrimpton, psychedelic renditions of ‘Jerusalem’ and some wonderful 60s tailoring, the film is at once a trippy, hallucinogenic dream and an acute critique of the commercialisation of youth and protest.

As always, music films were very strong at Flatpack, from the hip-hop classic Style Wars (1983) to Kieran Evans’s lyrical and beautifully paced documentary Vashti Bunyan: From Here to Before (2008) – a fascinating look at the myths and memories involved in the folk singer’s now legendary 1960s’ horse-and-cart journey to the Outer Hebrides.

One of my personal highlights of the festival was ‘Unpacked’ – a day-long series of panels and discussions exploring the creative methods behind many of the works being screened at the festival. Animator David O’Reilly proved particularly popular as he gave a whistle-stop explanation of the theory behind his animation film, Please Say Something (winner of the Golden Bear for best short film at this year’s Berlinale). Several panel discussions explored the use of pre-cinema technologies – a strong element across many of the films and art installations displayed at the festival. With many of the guests coming from fine arts backgrounds, it was interesting to hear differing approaches to the filmmaking process. These talks are a new feature of Flatpack and make a very welcome addition to the programme – the audiences were really engaged and the warm atmosphere prompted some very fluent and insightful discussions.

Another nice new touch to this year’s programming was the children’s strand, which took in a wide range of material from the Moomins to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon. Paper Cinema was a particular gem among the children’s screenings as illustrator Nic Rawling moved paper cut-outs (think Quentin Blake crossed with Saint-Exupéry doodled onto old cereal packets) in front of a live video camera. Watching the film being created before their eyes, the audience was enthralled. It was great for children to be involved in the festival and exposed to imaginative works of art at such a young age. Just like Unpacked, Paper Cinema provided inspiration and an intimate, inclusive atmosphere, sadly lacking at older, more institutionalised affairs.

A young, fresh festival with a fantastic range of films, discussions and installations, long may Flatpack reign!

Eleanor McKeown

FLATPACK FESTIVAL

Megunica

Birmingham, UK, various venues

11-15 March 2009

Website

Do you remember receiving your all-time favourite compilation tape? It’s the middle of a never-ending suburban summer and you’ve just been presented with a freshly biroed track-list: an enticing roll-call of little-known B-sides and bootlegs; an exotic list of unfamiliar names and titles. Looking down at the carefully considered recommendations, you might not be able to sing along just yet but instinctively you know you’re going to love it. I’m reminded of this feeling when I meet Pip McKnight and Ian Francis, the organisers of Birmingham’s Flatpack film festival. Sitting in a café near New Street station, I’m looking through copies of their exquisitely designed festival programmes, all lovingly put together by their designer, Dave Gaskarth. They read like beautiful fanzines about rare internet shorts and breakthrough animations, about lost figures from cinema past and surreal vaudeville cabaret acts. The choices can be obscure but, like a finely crafted mixtape, there’s an inclusive and infectious enthusiasm: like friends itching to share their latest find with you.

Film graduate Ian and ex-community worker Pip first started out six years ago, putting on local film nights under the name of 7 Inch Cinema. The nights continue across Birmingham, filling pubs with eccentric bedroom animation, music video mash-ups and vintage newsreels. Building on the success of these screenings, they started to make guest appearances at festivals, showcasing their unique cinematic discoveries. Over the past 12 months, gigs have ranged from the esoteric, such as a weekend of knitting-related shorts at Warwickshire gallery Compton Verney, to mass shindigs at music festivals, including Supersonic and Green Man.

Having dipped their toes into the world of festivals (Ian also did a stint at the Birmingham Film Festival), setting up Flatpack seemed the next logical step. The somewhat unusual name came from a desire to show that ‘putting on a film show or making your own short film is not rocket science’ but, as Ian attests, organising a festival can also be bloody hard work: ‘If this festival were available to buy as a build-it-yourself cultural happening, it would come in the kind of kit that has instructions in Swedish and several vital components missing’. Working most of the year as a two-person-band from Birmingham’s cultural hub, The Custard Factory, Pip and Ian dedicate a huge amount of energy into making Flatpack a success. They certainly achieved their aim with the first two editions of the festival: a wonderfully eclectic blend of film shows and live acts, which attracted audience members from as far away as Israel. However, after the second festival in 2007, Pip and Ian grew fed up with ‘hand-to-mouth funding’ and made the ‘big decision’ to take a year out. Ian tells me that they concentrated their energies on finding some stability and creating a ‘three-year plan’ for the festival. Having secured UK Film Council funding during their break, 2009 sees the return of the festival and what Ian describes as a ‘step up in ambition’.

Although pleased to have safeguarded the festival, Pip and Ian are keen to keep it as ‘un-schmoozy’ as possible. They seem refreshingly adamant about not compromising their vision or falling into the trap of becoming too industry-focused. The tenacity of Flatpack is much needed at a time when so much festival and cinema programming is dictated by distributors. Ian and Pip want to move beyond the usual festival-going demographic and love the idea of people stumbling across the screenings by accident. They have planned installations in shops throughout the city – a paper trail of screen-based artworks – that aim to draw in unsuspecting shoppers, workers and tourists.

Given this dissident streak, Pip and Ian are particularly attracted to the eccentric entrepreneurs of early cinema. The patron saint of this year’s festival is Waller Jeffs: Birmingham’s answer to Mitchell & Kenyon. A cinematic impresario, Jeffs staged a series of film seasons (1901 – 1912) at the city’s Curzon Hall, with live sound effects and a menagerie of novelty acts (‘Unthan, the Armless Wonder’ and ‘Cyrus and Maud and their Educated Donkey’). Flatpack will kick off at Birmingham’s town hall with a selection of Jeffs’s films, accompanied by a 15-piece gypsy folk band, The Destroyers. Throughout our conversation, Pip and Ian speak excitedly about the ‘Wild West atmosphere’ of early 1900s cinema: a time when everything was new and anything was possible; a time when the audience had no boundaries and would openly react to screenings, rather than sitting in reverential silence.

This sense of drama and interaction crops up throughout the selection for Flatpack 2009, particularly in the children’s programme. Inspired by the surrealist Exquisite Corpse (‘cadavre exquis’) game, there will be a chance for groups of children to make and pass on short segments of film for others to complete. Pip and Ian themselves are particularly looking forward to Paper Cinema, a live-action treat that sees illustrator Nic Rawling moving paper cut-outs in front of a camera, making fairy tale films before the viewers’ very eyes. After Flatpack, the children’s programme will be touring Midlands schools in an attempt to move beyond the limited pool of children attending art-house cinemas.

Setting is a vital component of the Flatpack experience and Pip and Ian have devoted a lot of energy to finding exciting new venues for this year’s festival. Bringing in local set design students, they are currently decking out a dilapidated warehouse and hoping to commission murals to complement their street art film strand. This includes the award-winning Megunica, which follows Italian artist Blu; In A Dream, a portrait of legendary Philadelphian mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar; and Who is Bozo Texino?, a film about railroad graffiti that was an impressive 16 years in the making.

Pip and Ian evidently have big plans for the festival, hoping not only to raise the cultural profile of Birmingham, which, they say, needs to be better at ‘shouting about its achievements’, but also by creating a gathering point for people to experience film in a new and exciting way. And yet, when I ask them to sum up Flatpack, it’s not easy to get a direct answer. As Ian says: ‘We’ve had a job explaining what this festival is, even to ourselves at times’. It cannot be neatly encapsulated in a ‘marketing speak’ sentence. The programme is radically eclectic and, simultaneously, pleasingly cohesive. Like the perfect mixtape, the choices jump from era to era and genre to genre, yet perfectly segue into one another. You’re not quite sure how or why the selection works, but that is what makes it precisely so magical.

Eleanor McKeown

SHORT CUTS: PREVIEW OF THE LONDON SHORT FILM FESTIVAL 09

One Man in the Band

Still from Man from Uranus from One Man in the Band (Adam Clitheroe/One Man in the Band). More information on the film here.

London Short Film Festival

9-18 January 2009

Various venues

LSFF website

Now in its sixth year, LSFF returns to the capital with a charming mix of films, music and can-do attitude. Set to be a highlight of this year’s programme, Adam Clitheroe’s work, One Man in the Band, perfectly encompasses the festival’s DIY ethos. Having started out making ‘odd little shorts’ on 16mm film, Clitheroe has always preferred a samizdat style of filmmaking and found a kindred attitude in the ‘stubborn persistence of one-man bands’, as he describes it. Influenced by the atmospheric style of Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida, Adam’s documentary is a lyrical, poetic portrait of seven lone performers. A strange menagerie of acts, the one-man bands provide an illuminating meditation on man’s creative impulse – that strange desire to define oneself and connect with the world, which so often leads to loneliness and isolation.

In order to keep costs down and retain control, Clitheroe spent six months acting as a one-man crew, undertaking all aspects of filmmaking from camera to editing to sound mixing. As he explains, ‘it was just me on my own, chatting to the performers, getting distracted by scowling cats and trying not to drop my camera as I drank a cup of tea at the same time’. Clitheroe’s unobtrusive approach has resulted in some distinctly surreal scenes: a skeleton puppet playing the theremin; a strange duet between one man and his Hornicator, a homemade instrument made from junk-shop finds; and The Man from Uranus, a Gulf War veteran playing avant-garde space rock to a garden full of Cambridgeshire children. By acting alone, Clitheroe also garnered some very honest, poignant conversations from his subjects. As he wisely says, ‘if you’re filming someone interesting, just listen to what they say’.

Speaking about the initial motivation behind the film, Clitheroe admits to being ‘seduced and overawed by the impossible glamour of music performers’, but in retrospect he’s not so sure he ‘discovered the glamorous face of music making’. Indeed the film does so much more than that; through the weird and wonderful performers, it presents a fascinating exploration of the creative process.

In addition to individual filmmakers, LSFF also invites the participation of film organisations, and last year one of the guests was Darryl’s Hard Liquor and Porn Film Festival – a Canadian festival showcasing comic shorts all about sex. Having started out nine years ago in filmmaker Darryl Gold’s bachelor pad, the ‘festival’ has grown beyond a small network of filmmaking friends to a large-scale annual event but the same irreverent spirit remains. Audience participation is strongly encouraged and it went down especially well in London last year, with an extra screening being scheduled to satisfy demand. As festival co-curator Jill Rosenberg explains: ‘It is always a spirited crowd and often quoted as the best party of the year.’ It’s not just about the festivities, however; the films themselves are often extremely creative. Jill’s brilliant animation, Origasmi, winner of the lo-budget film award at LSFF 2006, is a case in point. Such an experimental do-it-yourself attitude is integral to LSFF and one which makes the festival such a deserving hit with London audiences. Make sure you don’t miss out!

Eleanor McKeown

SHORT CUTS: CINEMA16 WORLD SHORT FILMS

Madame Tutli-Putli

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 November 2008

Distributor: Cinema16

295 mins

Having showcased the best shorts from Britain, Europe and America, the Cinema16 team are taking on the world in their latest two-disc collection. It’s no easy task to encompass the entirety of world cinema in 16 short films and, as is to be expected, there are significant gaps. Sadly, there are no works from the Middle East or Eastern Europe, and African cinema is represented by just one film, Borom sarret (1963). Considered to be Africa’s first contribution to modern film, Ousmane Sembene’s portrait of a Senegalese cart driver is incongruously older than the other films in the collection (most of which date from the 1980s onwards). As such, despite its beauty and importance, it highlights a need for more modern examples of African filmmaking.

Geographical bias aside, the DVDs present a wonderfully eclectic snapshot of contemporary world cinema. The animations are particularly strong. Sylvain Chomet’s The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998) contains the same winning combination of absurdity and slapstick which made his 2003 feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous, such a pleasure to watch. With a similar nod to silent classics, the stop-motion animation Madame Tutli-Putli (2007) is a magical work of art. Having taken four years to complete, the 17-minute short introduces the extraordinary technique of superimposing live action human eyes onto animated puppets. The added human dimension results in an intensified sense of fear as we follow Madame Tutli-Putli on her increasingly sinister train journey. This emotional depth is surpassed, however, by Adam Elliot’s poignant work, Uncle (1996). Elliot’s endearingly naive models and his tender focus on the little details of life emphasise the vulnerability of human experience.

The ‘little things that happen underground or indoors’ is also the inspiration behind Guillermo del Toro’s Doña Lupe (1983-84). Made when del Toro was just 19 years old, this rarely seen film follows two corrupt, drug-dealing police officers as they try to outwit an elderly widow. The resulting dialogue is far funnier than the disappointing comedy of the collection – cult splatter film Forklift Driver Klaus (2000). Other acclaimed directors who make it into Cinema16’s selection are Guy Maddin and Park Chan-wook, who both provide visually arresting works. Maddin films Isabella Rossellini’s ode to her father Roberto – My Dad is 100 Years Old (2005) – with characteristically dreamlike beauty whilst Chan-wook’s Kafkaesque Simpan (1999) has a powerful, stylised quality also apparent in Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s Sergio Leone-inspired Sikumi (2007) and Naoto Yamakawa’s terrifically witty Attack on a Bakery (1982).

Many of the live-action contributions focus on the idea of coming of age, with two examples from the UK – Simon Ellis’s gritty tale of masculinity, Soft (2006), and Andrea Arnold’s well-acted but slightly contrived Wasp (2003) – and two from New Zealand: the recent film Two Cars, One Night (2003), and Jane Campion’s haunting A Girl’s Own Story (1984). Despite being best known for her award-winning features, Campion has said before that she believes the short film format forces filmmakers to be more creative as plot is less important. In keeping with Campion’s comments, the films in this collection, although slightly patchy both in quality and geographical range, all reveal a willingness to experiment that should inspire and entertain any cinephile.

Eleanor McKeown

ASIA HOUSE FILM FESTIVAL 2008

881

Asia House Festival of Asian Film

22-28 August 2008

Renoir Cinema, London

Programme

And your starter for ten? Define ‘Asian cinema’ using just five films. Struggling? Not an easy one, is it? Well, it’s no problem for Heng Khoo from Asia House. As the programmer for a new festival taking place at Curzon Cinemas this month, Heng has made a fascinatingly diverse selection: an Iranian anti-war film, a South Korean thriller, a Chinese action epic, an Indonesian art-house film and a musical from Singapore. So what’s the thinking behind this refreshingly eclectic programming? When I meet Heng in the beautiful surroundings of Asia House, he tells me that his initial aim was to provide a platform for films that probably won’t get recognition here in Britain. Indeed, all five films will be receiving their UK premieres during the festival. Despite domestic success and festival favour (the Iranian film, Night Bus, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Asia Pacific Film Awards 2007), theatrical release looks doubtful for most of them.

Asia’s dominance in the film world is clear to see in the recent glut of Hollywood remakes, and yet, there are still works which are very difficult to see here in the UK. 881, the Singaporean musical, for example, was a huge hit at home and in South East Asia but is perhaps not considered profitable enough over here by UK distributors. Likewise, The Photograph, may be seen as too culturally specific for a commercial marketing campaign. And yet, the film, which follows the relationship between Sita, a karaoke bar hostess, and her photographer landlord, Johan, is a fine example of emerging filmmaking talent from Indonesia. Night Bus is another interesting choice for the festival and reflects Asia House’s wide geographical scope, from the Gulf in the West to the Far East. The film takes place on a single night during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s and its critical view of war should strike a chord with British audiences.

Alongside these lesser-known works, there are two slightly more populist choices, both recently acquired by Icon Film Distribution UK. The Korean thriller Seven Days is billed as a cross between 24 and Se7en and stars Yunjim Kim from Lost while the Chinese epic Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon brings together the balletic martial arts of Hero and the melodrama of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As Heng tells me, ‘even in this international world of DVDs and downloads, the best place to see films is always in the cinema’; these action-packed features will most certainly prove his point. And which film is Heng most looking forward to? It’s a toss-up between the hyperkinetic Seven Days and the idiosyncratic 881, which manages to incorporate very loud techno music and a quacking duck in one of its opening dance routines. Definitions of Asian Cinema might not be easy but who could resist a techno-loving duck!

As Heng plans to expand the festival in coming years, with more titles and an even wider choice of genres and national cinemas, this annual festival looks set to become the highlight of Asia House’s already successful film programme.

Eleanor McKeown

FASHION IN FILM FESTIVAL 2008: REPORT

The Pearl

Fashion in Film Festival

10 – 31 May 2008

Fashion in Film Website

Alone at last, Bette Davis reaches out for the object of her desire: a deliciously alluring mink coat. Caressing the fur, Davis envelops herself in its sensual embrace, looks longingly at her own reflection and twirls around the pokey living room. The screen suddenly blackens… Davis reappears exhausted, lying on the sofa, puffing on a cigarette. This absurd tryst (the cause of much laughter amongst the assembled audience), with its glamour, elegance and sense of fun, provided a fitting entrée into this year’s Fashion in Film Festival.

With a special focus on the links between fashion, crime and violence, the festival’s carefully selected programme provided a host of thieves, petty criminals and femme fatales fixated on acquiring the latest ‘it’ accessory. Forget feeble lusting over Manolo Blahniks, these formidable heroines took lusting over clothing to a dangerous and criminal extreme. In fact, watching the beautiful array of costumes, it was hard not to sympathise… just a little!

In Asphalt (1929) – a striking example of German Expressionist film – the beautiful actress Betty Amman played a glamorous kleptomaniac with an impossibly chic closet of stolen jewels and furs. Dressed in an array of stunning silk, lace and fur outfits designed by René Hubert (who worked for Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo), Amman used her sexual magnetism to distract the hapless owner of a jewellery store and a morally upstanding police officer. Shots of Amman’s stocking-clad legs provided a link between sex and crime, perfectly mirrored in other works showing in the Criminal Desire strand of the festival.

In The Pearl (1929), another seductive temptress used her charms to steal a piece of jewellery, in this case, a pearl necklace, from a young man hoping to impress his doting, innocent girlfriend. A game of chase ensues between the young man and the female jewellery thief, and he quickly becomes smitten with this conniving criminal. Screening alongside a number of silent shorts, this Belgian surrealist work, with its army of female robbers dressed in figure-hugging body suits, was a real visual treat. In The Kidnapping of Fux the Banker (1923), an early Czech crime parody that enjoyed its UK premiere at the festival, yet again, the male of the species is taken for a ride. Having already financially ruined one suitor with her clothing habit, the greedy flapper Maud hatches an elaborate plan to find a substitute, bringing about a farcical plotline with a cast of cartoon-like characters including the hopeless detective ‘Sherlock Holmes II’.

As well as giving audiences the chance to see these rare early films, the festival offered an array of talks and introductions. Those attending the special symposium ‘Taking Stock’ at the ICA soon learnt that Bette Davis wasn’t the only leading lady with a passion for mink. In a fascinating lecture, film noir expert Petra Dominkova revealed the mink coat to be a status symbol with much deeper cultural and social significance than a mere frivolous piece of fashion. Indeed, this was the beauty of the festival: it looked beyond the groomed surface and used clothes to discuss questions of power, status, sex and greed. With such intelligent curating and rich themes, we eagerly await the next instalment of the Fashion in Film Festival.

Eleanor McKeown

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews