Category: Festivals and Conferences

A Blast (Greece-Germany-Netherlands 2014)

Maria in the computer room listening to (and watching) porn

Maria in the computer room listening to (and watching) porn

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680This was another LFF film that I admired more than enjoyed. Writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas was in attendance and he is as dynamic and aggressive as his film. (There is also a co-writer Youla Boudali working on her second film with Tzoumerkas.) Given the terrible state of his country’s economy and the effects of the crash on all Greeks he has every right to be so and to deliver a film that lives up to its title.

The focus of the film is what the director described as a ‘lower middle-class’ family living somewhere on the coast. They own and run a grocery store and possibly own some land and another small property as well as living over the shop. The central character is Maria (Angeliki Papoulia) the dynamic member of the family. We see her as a young woman eager to go to university and then later as a mother of three small children and married to a handsome ship’s captain, Yannis. The narrative constantly shifts between flashbacks and the present until the last section which becomes a form of chase/escape. This structure is deliberate in trying to convey the social turmoil of the country. Maria and Yannis have a tempestuous relationship which is matched by the problems in her family. Mother runs the shop from her wheelchair and father seems ineffective. Maria’s sister Gogo has learning difficulties and her parents are relieved to marry her to Costas who works in the local waste disposal depot. This marriage also has problems as Costas is an abusive husband.

I think the film is distinctive in a number of ways. Maria is certainly a compelling character. Here is an intelligent attractive woman who has a passionate relationship with her husband and for whom separation is difficult. There is a great deal of overt sexual activity of all kinds in the film but arguably the most arresting sequence is when Maria, at a very low ebb and with Yannis at sea, goes into a computer room in some form of community centre and begins to search porn sites. I didn’t quite understand the scene but she seems to be searching for a specific category of hard porn – something she did with Yannis? The men at the other terminals all turn to stare at her as she watches the screen intently. Maria can also be extremely violent, both verbally and physically. As a representation of an intelligent woman put under enormous pressure this could be a very interesting case study for film and media students. Yannis is beautiful and seemingly calm. The press notes and interviews suggest that Yannis is rather an exotic creature for Maria’s family – more middle class perhaps? He has surprising liaisons during his trips away but still seems to be in love with Maria.

Apart from Maria as a character, the film is also distinctive in its layering of the complexity of the consequences of the economic crash. Businesses go under, families break up, criminal activity expands, government agencies can’t cope, ecological damage and destruction increases – the plot includes elements of all of these and presents them in a broken narrative in which the incoherence eventually leads to the final chase. Maria is determined to throw away whatever she has as a scream of anguish about the state of her life and the situation she finds herself in. The visual style of the film matches the urgency of the narrative with hand-held camerawork, swift tracking shots and a suitably raucous soundtrack (see the trailer below).

The film reminded me a little of other recent Greek films such as Dogtooth (2009), not so much in style or content but in its ‘edginess’ and confrontation. I haven’t seen any evidence of distribution deals for the UK/US but I think the film needs to be widely seen. (Although I suggest a tweak of the title. I take ‘a blast’ to be a description of a great experience – “We had a blast” – I don’t think that is the intended meaning here.) One review makes the point that this ‘blast’ is refreshingly different from the social realist drama the subject matter suggests.


35mm films at the Leeds International Film Festival


Through a Glass Darkly

I counted eleven films screening in their original format of 35mm at this year’s Festival. Despite the claims of commercial managers film originated on celluloid tend to look better in that format. It actually requires around 6K digital to match the quality of good 35m prints. And the characteristics of digital are somewhat different from celluloid. Nick Wrigley sets out one key factor in an article in Sight & Sound (December 2012), ‘Crimes against the grain’. Celluloid is composed of silver halide grains, whilst the Digital formats are composed of pixels. Their response to light differs. Modern DCP’s are treated to reproduce the look of grain, but frequently the ‘look’ still differs. One noticeable aspect can be the diminution of definition in long shots. Of course, quality requires good prints and good projection. This has usually been the case with Festival screenings up to now.

One of the retrospective programmes in the Festival is devoted to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. All of the four films and one of the two documentaries are to be presented on 35m. The other documentary, Trespassing Bergman (2013), was probably produced on digital.

My cinematic youth was filled with the films of Bergman, and other European filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Andrzej Wajda. They remain powerfully present in my memory, but they have also rewarded revisiting in recent years.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961) is the earliest film on show. It is part of a cycle of films described by one critic as ‘chamber works’. It is, for me, one of the two or three finest films directed by Bergman. The film is set on a remote island and involves a small family group. It is an intense drama but with moment of lighter lyricism. Persona (1966) focuses tightly on a convalescing actress and her nurse. It includes some of the most avant-garde techniques found in Bergman’s output and ends with an ambiguous but enthralling set of lap dissolves. The Shame (Skammen, 1968) has a familiar intense relationship at its centre but also broadens out into a study of the effects of violence and war. The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) is the only one of these features in colour. In this film a series of close relationships develop, as a series of violent acts are perpetrated on helpless animals.

Bergman is generally considered an auteur, but like most really talented directors he relies on a carefully selected group of collaborators. All of these films were photographed by Sven Nykvist, one of the outstanding cinematographers in world cinema. All of the films are edited by Ulla Ryghe and three of them have Production Design by P. A. Lindgren, and the last two films have Sound by Lennart Engholm. More familiar are the Bergman ‘stock company’ of actors, some of the finest in world cinema in this period. Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman turn up three times in these films. And we will also be able to see Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand twice: with appearances by Harriet Anderson and Erland Josephson.

The other regular in Bergman’s films is the Island of Fårö. You will see it as the regular location in these films and it is also where Bergman made his home. Fårö Dokument was made for Swedish Television in 1969. This is both a portrait of the island and of the inhabitants, at a time when contemporary changes were impacting on the island communities.

Welcome Mr. Marshall

Welcome Mr. Marshall

A rather different tone from the intensity of Bergman will be found in several Spanish films directed by Luis García Berlanga.  Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, 1952) is a black and white satire from the years of the Franco Dictatorship. Because of the extreme censorship the film had to tread carefully, but it offers a sardonic look at the operation of Spanish government and bureaucrats. The Mr Marshal in question is the USA Aid programme for war-recovering Europe. This was one of the most successful Spanish films of the 1950s.

That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz, 1953) was jointly directed by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, both subjects of retrospectives at the Festival. This is a black and white comedy set round winning a sweepstake – a regular plot device in genre films of the period. It is found in Italian films of the 1950s and Berlanga’s films in particular show the influence of the Neo-realist movement in that country.

Plácido (1961) is a black and white black comedy. The film satirises the gulf between rich and poor and is set on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The Executioner (El Verdugo, 1963) is another black and white satire. The film suffered cuts by the Francoist censors but still manages to generate ‘gallows’ humour when an undertaker’s assistant marries an executioner’s daughter.

The Day of the Beast (1995) is a much more recent black comedy directed by Alex de la Iglesia and made in colour. Also set in the Christmas celebrations this uses the idea of the Anti-Christ to generate ‘politically incorrect’ comedy. Inglesia also enjoys a retrospective at the Festival.

The Trouble with Money (Komedia om Geld, 1936) is a rare film from the early European period in the career of Max Ophuls. It was produced in black and white for the Cinetone Company in Amsterdam. Ophuls is regarded as a great stylist, especially in his use of editing and the moving camera. But there are also recurring themes in his films: as in La Ronde (1950) there is a narrative figure for this story of the travails of a poor bank clerk. And like the later Madame De… (1953) relationships are intertwined with commodities, in this case an amount of missing money.

Given the sometime unreliability of UK distributors it will be wise to check in advance if the 35mm print in question has arrived. And there may be more treats of this format at the Festival. The Hyde Park Picture House is screening Comfort and Joy (1984) as part of its Open Day. The film is not listed as a 35mm print in the Brochure but when it was the Xmas screening at the Hyde Park we saw a fairly good 35mm print.


The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi, Italy 2014)

The doctor (left) and the lawyer with their respective partners around the restaurant table. From left, Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Massimo (Alessandro Gassman),  and his second wife Sofia (Barbora Bobulova). Foto by Emanuela Scarpa.

The doctor (left) and the lawyer with their respective partners around the restaurant table. From left, Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Massimo (Alessandro Gassman), and his second wife Sofia (Barbora Bobulova). Foto by Emanuela Scarpa.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Google translates the Italian title of this film as ‘Our Boys’ – which is confusing because it appears to refer to the original novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. For this Italian adaptation writer-director Ivano de Matteo and his co-writer Valentina Ferlan have changed aspects of the novel’s narrative including two of the central characters, making them a boy and girl rather than two boys. The various changes (there are more) are intended to make the moral question at the heart of the narrative even more compelling.

The ‘dinner’ is a regular event in which a wealthy lawyer and his second wife entertain the lawyer’s brother, a paediatrician, and his gallery ‘explainer’ wife. It is always the same expensive restaurant and the relationship between the brothers is testy at best. The doctor is critical of his brother who he thinks has too much money and has married a ‘bimbo’. This latter is rather unfair and the film is suffused with a sense of a critique about the haute bourgouisie in Rome. The central part of the narrative refers to a dangerous and reprehensible action involving the lawyer’s daughter and the doctor’s son who are on their way home from a party. I won’t spoil what they did. The fallout is that the two sets of parents have to decide what to do and in what follows most audiences are going to be surprised by the actions that the parents take – which is unexpected, not just in terms of what they do but also in terms of who does what. The denouement takes place at the next dinner when the two couples are together again. The actions they take are also compared to an incident which takes place at the start of the film. This sees a case of road rage in which an off-duty policeman pulls a gun when he is threatened with a jack and shoots the assailant dead, also wounding the man’s son. The lawyer brother then defends the policeman and the doctor looks after the injured child.

You probably get the impression that this is a contrived narrative and that is precisely right according to the director who answered questions in the Q & A alongside Jacopo Olmo Antinori, the young actor playing the lawyer’s son (who also played a disaffected teenager in Bertolucci’s Me and You which I saw at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013). One member of the audience said that he was profoundly shocked by the ending of the film. I’m not so sure. I certainly noticed the ending but I’d got a little irritable by then because the interplay between the brothers did indeed seem contrived – loaded one way so that it could be flipped. Ivano de Matteo was an engaging aggressive character in the Q & A and he is clearly a talented director. The film won the prize for ‘Best European Feature’ awarded by the Europa Cinemas Network after its Venice festival screening which means it will get support for distribution in Europe. It has also been acquired for North America. A Dutch adaptation has already been released and a Cate Blanchett adaptation is also expected.

I thought the film was well made and the performances were good. It is an interesting moral dilemma but I did feel I was being manipulated. That may not be a bad thing if my liberal views are being challenged, but I didn’t enjoy the film so much because of the approach the director takes. I’m grateful to the ‘Den of Geek’ review of the film which points out that What Richard Did and We Need to Talk About Kevin cover much of the same ground much more cogently and more effectively.

Waiting For August (Belgium 2014)

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.

Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.

Teodora Ana Mihai, <>

Director Teodora Ana Mihai

If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.

The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:

. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.

Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.

As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.

I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.

At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.