The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘Belgian Cinema’ Category

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 April 2014

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Danish Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Icelandic Cinema, Nordic Cinema, Russian cinema, Short films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #8: The Joycean Society (Belgium 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 April 2014

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

Portrait Without BleedI haven’t laughed so much in a cinema for a long time. This ‘mid-length’ documentary (52 mins) is extremely simple. It comprises a single camera roaming, mainly in close-up and shallow focus, around a room in Zurich in which the James Joyce Foundation offers the chance to discuss Finnegan’s Wake on a regular basis. The informative website gives all the background. The participants in the discussion in the film are mainly older people with just a couple younger, and presumably academics. We learn that for some of them this is their third time reading the book a few lines at a time and attempting to find all the possible meanings in this, Joyce’s richest book in terms of allusions.

The group comprises Europeans and at least one North American. The whole conversation is conducted in English and my only gripe about the film is that on the print we saw everything is also subtitled in English. It is certainly helpful to see Joyce’s words in print since so many of them are recondite and spelt in interesting ways. However, to have all the dialogue subtitled is unnecessary and a distraction. Everyone speaks English well enough and the subs aren’t needed. It’s revealing how easily the eye is drawn to read when there is no need. Having said that, Dora Garcia’s film isn’t particularly interested in the image as such, although the cinematographer tries to ring the changes. There are a couple of scenes outside the room in which one of the participants expands on the background to the group. Speakers are often framed in profile or are only seen partially, often out of focus. The words are the important elements.

I think that I laughed most at the naiveté and sensitivity of the participants concerning sex, death etc. – topics Joyce was gleeful about exploring. Mostly it’s like watching University Challenge and enjoying getting question right before the team. But I shouldn’t underestimate these guys and they do know a lot. It’s a pleasure to see people working together without being competitive.

I understand that the work is actually part of a larger project. That makes sense. As it stands I don’t think it fits into the European features competition. I tend to go by the French definition that requires a feature to be 65 mins or more. But if you do get the chance to see it, do take it.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Salamander (Belgium 2012/3)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 February 2014

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the 'face' of 'Salamander'?

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the ‘face’ of ‘Salamander’?

For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4’s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.

‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.

The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.

The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?

At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Global television | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, Bel/Fra/Italy 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 July 2012

Samantha (Cécile de France) with Cyril (Thomas Doret)

I think I need to watch this film again. The latest production by the Dardenne brothers rather took me by surprise. Much has been made about the decision to shoot in the summer and to offer a story that seems much more optimistic than their earlier work. Even though I knew this was the case, I still found myself slightly bemused. The other ‘difference’ in this production is the presence of a major star in Cécile de France. She is terrific in the role of a hairdresser living above her shop. Since she grew up in Namur, not much further along the Meuse Valley from the Dardennes’ usual location of Seraing, she must have felt quite at home. Jérémie Renier, who has a small part as the mostly absent father in this film and has appeared in other Dardenne Brothers’ films, is also arguably a star name, but not perhaps with the glamour of Ms de France. I guess the UK equivalent of this would be Samantha Morton turning up in a Ken Loach film.

Like all the Dardennes’ films, The Kid With a Bike has a simple idea drawn from contemporary culture in Wallonia. Cyril, a pre-teen boy has been taken into care because his father has abandoned him. The boy has lost his bicycle which he believes has been stolen. In one of his many attempts to find the bike (and evade his carers) he literally runs into Samantha the hairdresser. She takes to him and finds his bike which she buys back from someone on the local estate. Eventually, she offers to look after Cyril and he agrees – but he still seeks his father. Although the woman and boy are good together, he has been messed up by his experiences and he almost inevitably becomes involved with a local drugs dealer/gang leader.

As in the other Dardenne brothers’ films I’ve seen, the narrative simply ends without a clear ‘resolution’. However, the overall tone is brighter than in the previous films – though it has its dark moments as well. The Dardennes have spoken about the genesis of the film as coming from a desire to use ideas from fairy stories in an everyday setting. Cécile de France would of course make an ideal fantasy godmother, but here she is ‘ordinary’ (but still breathtaking). The final element in the mix in terms of changes is the use of music. Instead of a conventional score, music – a few bars of Beethoven, I think – punctuates the narrative at key moments. The austerity of the Dardennes’ usual style eschews music and for me this new addition didn’t work. Reading about it afterwards, I can see what they were trying to do and perhaps it will work when I watch the film again. (I’ve seen its usage quoted as a nod to Robert Bresson.)

I want to say at this point that I was totally gripped by the film and swept along by it. I was shocked by the abrupt end of the film and I left the screening feeling that I’d seen another example of superlative filmmaking – but not sure what to say about it. I’ve read a wide range of reviews and some interviews with the brothers, but in a sense the brilliance of these films is never really analysed. Perhaps this slight change of direction will provide an opening?

Is this naturalism or social realism? Is it ciné verité? These are all referenced in reviews. Many reviews also seize on the bicycle and make the obvious link to Bicycle Thieves. A bicycle is actually a very good ‘narrative device’ in this kind of film. It gives a character mobility and it keeps them close to the realities of life in a particular community. It also places characters in situations which make them vulnerable – they can easily be pushed off a bike and it can easily be damaged or indeed stolen. Throughout this film we do get a sense of Cyril’s energy and restlessness and we are constantly fearful about his safety – and that of the bike. In one sense this is social realism. By making films set in their own backyard of the post-industrial belt in the Meuse valley, the Dardennes do ground themselves and their characters in a specific social situation. However, they don’t (at least in the films I’ve seen) attempt to represent the culture of their region in terms of its politics and economics. The comparison with Ken Loach earlier was deliberate. The Dardennes are, I presume, admirers of Loach – their company Les Films du Fleuve is a co-producer of both The Angel’s Share and Looking For Eric, films which are similarly rooted in specific communities. But whereas Loach and writer Paul Laverty create forms of social melodrama which always appeal to issues of class politics and forms of social justice, the Dardenne brothers films seem more concerned with distilled stories of individual moral dilemmas/struggles and personal relationships. (The Dardennes seem not to offer any social context or ‘back story’ for their characters.) Both Loach and the Dardennes use non-actors alongside professionals cast because they ‘fit’ the social realism of the specific region. The other difference comes in camerawork – Loach’s ‘observational documentary’ style against the Dardennes’ more invisibly choreographed style ((which I certainly need to look at more closely) – and use of humour and popular culture. Loach often tends towards the earthy. I clearly need to find the earlier Dardennes’ films that I haven’t seen before I can complete this comparison.

One last point. The summer shooting does create something magical for me, especially in the nighttime scenes. The limited locations include streets with summertime bushes by the roadside and hidden areas in the woods. There is a strong sense of ‘adventures of a summer night’ and the slightly disturbing feel of summer sun in an urban/suburban setting. One reviewer refers to the ‘poetic realism’ of the Dardennes in this film – and he may be right. It certainly feels different from the austerity of The Silence of Lorna or L’enfant.

I’ve just come back from the Meuse valley in Belgium, so I’ll try and write some more about cinema in Wallonia. In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Le gamin au vélo from Cannes 2011 (where it won the Grand Prix):

Posted in Belgian Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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