The Leeds International Film Festival Short City included this opportunity for filmmakers working in ‘Gods Own County’. As you might expect the audience included a fair number of the filmmakers and their friends. Despite, or maybe because of their investment they were a very responsive audience.
The Man Who Thought a Hat Was His Wife was the winner of the Spotlight competition at Leeds City College of Art [films of five minutes or under]. The film was developed from a ‘true story’ involving ‘visual agnosia’. It is a film about bereavement. In this case emotionally loaded objects stand in for the lost one. The treatment offered a touch of surrealism. The style and detail were very effective as was the sense of the character’s feelings.
Cushy – 11 minutes. This was set in the Doncaster prison. The protagonist, Vernon, an inmate, talked the audience through his situation with a cocky and at times ‘in your face’ manner. But other currents were at work less obviously: the film leads up to a pair of visitors for the innate. The visit shed a rather different light on Vernon and hi situation. This is a powerful and very effective film: and on area, offending and imprisonment, that receive less attention.
The Devil on Each Shoulder - 18 minutes. This was a fairly bizarre tale. It included a sorry protagonist, the model devils of the title, and an oddball packaged box. The film was developed or inspired by a number from Velvet Underground. I never developed any sympathy with the characters, though I quite liked the devils: and the pixilation and puppetry were effective. However, the audience at the screening found the film fairly funny.
Children of the Holocaust – Suzanne’s story – 5 minutes. The film was funded by the BBC so it enjoyed quality resourcing. Suzanne’s story was of a child who, because of a brave neighbour, survived the Nazi round-up in Paris, whilst her parents did not. There have been a number of films that translate the memories of survivors into visual images. This film was extremely effective. The animation was finely done and treated the story with an absence of despair.
Hunting for Hockney – 3 minutes. The film is as the title, seeking out David Hockney’s Yorkshire home, though the context is recent bereavement. The animation is excellent and captures the colours and style that is found in much of the painters work.
Scrap – 17 minutes. Set in a scrap yard with a protagonist wearing a cardboard box on his [?] head. The film was clearly offering comment on the contemporary world. But the surreal treatment did not work for me. And I also found the film rather repetitive, though that is part of the treatment.
Rare – 14 minutes. The film was about teenage affections and misunderstandings. The young performers were effective as was the use of settings and changes, semi-rural West Yorkshire. I thought some of the style overplayed effects, especially with some of the soundtrack. The film makes a point about relationships which is credible, as is the treatment of teen situations.
The Last Smallholder – 9 minutes. The last of small farms raising livestock owned and run by Carson Lee. His character seems to embody familiar Yorkshire characteristics. The film shows a warm interest in his work and situation. And the filming of his livestock and acreage was very effective.
Don’t Forget Your Hat – 15 minutes. A tale, set to ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’, of a rambler who encounters more than he expected. The situation soon became recognisable as was also the likely outcome. But the story was told in a stylish manner with lots of effective detail and edits. The film is fairly sardonic, a nice note to end the programme.
We then had a presentation with the Competition Jury. They selected Cushy as the winner, a worthy choice, and the film was also the Audience Choice. There was also a Special Mention for Rare. I thought there were three possible contenders that stood out, but this film did include stand-out performance by a young tyro.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.
More from Short City at the Leeds International Film Festival. This selection featured another six films from in and near Europe. The length, style and content all varied considerably, though they all offered a dramatic situation.
Last Base (Norway 2014 – 15 minutes). The film featured ‘base-jumping’, jumping off high buildings and places, with some sort of wings to enable gliding. The film opened with an unsuccessful base-jump – wack. The main narrative featured Joachim and Ǿywind climbing Mount Katthammeren to spread the ashes of the departed Roger and honour him one last time. The whole expedition seemed extremely hazardous – they crossed a steep snow slope on foot, a place where I would definitely have used an ice axe. At the summit we watch as the two friends weigh the options to honour Roger’s memory. Well photographed, the landscape is impressive. The friends differencing responses are well explored, and there are two exhilarating moments.
Kapi (Turkey, 2014 – three minutes). This is set on an underground station as characters, partly defined by ethnicity, board and exit a train. The film has a strong sense of atmosphere and is clearly allegorical. I thought maybe it was too compressed but a friend judged it finely done.
Birthday Present (Israel, Austria, 2014 – 23 minutes). Set in Jerusalem the film follows an evening with an Israeli student and a visiting Austrian tourist. It is the eve of his birthday, she leaves next day. They make love, but also wander the city. Their excursion is partly fuelled by his wish/fear that she take a ‘morning after pill’. The character and sense of place is well done. There is a delightful sequence in a late-night pharmacy when the girl converses with the female assistant in French, whilst he stands by uncomprehending. The conversation ends with a smile between the two women, the best moment in very well made film.
Lothar (Switzerland, 2013 – 13 minutes). This was my favourite in a strong programme. The film has a very effective title sequence – Lothar’s birth. A cut brings us to the present where Lothar has locked himself away in a room that resembles a set from Brazil – the parallel is deliberate, this is dystopian fiction. The main prop is a stylish toaster – though the room is filled with suggestive stacks of everyday necessities. Later we see Lothar leave his room for the outside world. This is an apocalyptic tale, but vey witty rather than downbeat and grim.
Bye Bye Melancholy (Bye Bye Mělancolie, France, 2014 – 22 minutes). Set on a Bastille Day in a fairly remote Service Station, we meet Morad. First we see him converse with an ex-girlfriend and then later at night he meets Emma, who drives an ambulance. The film is very much about relationships, loss and recovery. It gave me particular pleasure because it was the first short film to feature and effective canine part: and unlike some films the dog is not forgotten at the end.
The Dancing (Belgium, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a well staged film, with effective use of music and absence of dialogue. It clearly relates to a classic text like The Bacchae, However, it did not really engage me: I think it was too drawn out; it needed a much quicker pace.
This was a very good programme of films overall. They all enjoyed high production values and generally offered well structured narratives. And they mainly offered the virtues of short filmmaking, inverted, subverted or character led dramas.
This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).
The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.
Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.
Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).
I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.