Posted by Roy Stafford on 23 April 2013
Riz Ahmed as Changez (centre back) behind Kiefer Sutherland as his boss on a trip to the Philippines to make a car plant more productive (and lose jobs).
You have to admire the chutzpah of BIFF programmers Tom Vincent and Neil Young in starting their festival with Michael Winterbottom and finishing it with Mira Nair. They are two of my favourite directors but both are almost guaranteed to cause controversy or to produce films that critics write about negatively (which is important for the success of specialised films). I wasn’t keen on the Winterbottom this time but the Mira Nair, though seriously flawed in some ways, was very interesting. The more negative reviews I read, especially from the US, the more I like it. To be fair though, the most sensible article on the film I’ve seen so far came from the New York Times.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid published in 2007. The script is by William Wheeler and Ami Boghani with some input by Hamid. I haven’t read the novel but I understand that it has been ‘opened out’ for the film – or perhaps changed in terms of genre. The protagonist identified in the title is Changez Khan, son of a Punjabi poet in Lahore who gets to Princeton and from there wins a job with a major US financial consultancy, becoming a ‘lord of the universe’ and rewarding investors while ruining the lives of workers around the world. Changez moves up the associates ladder at a rapid rate but is halted by the after effects of 9/11 and also by a relationship with the niece of his employer. He turns against his mentor, returns to Pakistan and becomes an academic. This story is told to an American journalist in Lahore in the context of the kidnapping of an American professor from the same university. We are asked to consider if the journalist is a CIA agent and if Changez has become a mujahidheen.
A number of reviews and comments I have read which are very negative have come from Americans who don’t seem to recognise that the narrative is from the POV of Changez, so the film works differently to those Hollywood thrillers about ‘terrorists’. Other negative reviews (including from the UK) criticise the film for lecturing/moralising or peddling clichéed liberal views and using characters as symbols for ‘big ideas’ etc. I have to admit that there are also reviews like this one in Slant magazine in which it is a South Asian in North America leading the attack. I don’t really go with any of these, though I can understand some of them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens in the UK in May and despite my misgivings, it’s definitely worth seeing. Riz Ahmed is excellent and so too is Kiefer Sutherland as his US boss. Many of the people I talked to after the BIFF screening liked the film.
The major problem in the film for me was the romance. Kate Hudson has been seen by many as being miscast. I’m a bit uncomfortable about this. She isn’t, in this role, anything like a Hollywood female star and I should applaud that. To put it bluntly, she isn’t a stick insect and she seems much older than Riz Ahmed as Changez. I should applaud the casting – and her playing – but it didn’t work for me and I just didn’t believe in her as the character she played. In many ways, the romance got in the way of the main story – but it was necessary to bring the issue of family into play. The importance of the family in Lahore is emphasised several times and for me the key scenes are in Istanbul. Changez and his boss are there to close down an Istanbul publisher which is losing money. Changez reveals some of his background and the publisher says he should be ashamed as the son of a poet. Later the publisher tells him about the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire – Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period. This seems to me a neat way of critiquing Changez’ position and I think that to criticise it as heavy-handed is ridiculous. Hollywood tries hard to normalise its promotion of Western capitalist values. Here Asian and Muslim values are being promoted by a character. What’s the problem?
This is another film which uses the horror of 9/11 as a key event in the narrative structure. There have been many such films from the West but relatively few that are seen from the perspective of a Pakistani character. The only other one that comes to mind is Yasmin (UK/Germany 2004). Because the event appears in the film, it seems to inevitably push the rest of the narrative into a security-based CIA thriller. I don’t think that this is in the novel and for me it spoils the film. I think what is interesting and enjoyable about the film is the struggle that Changez faces over competing ideologies and competing social environments. As he grows up he realises that he can be successful in the cut-throat world of international capitalism. He has the skills and the drive, but he attempts to combine that with a commitment to family that is threatened by the same actions. I think that narrative is compelling without the “is he a terrorist?” sub-plot which I found just made me angry. What would be interesting in terms of ‘reading’ the film would be to compare it with Indian films that similarly bring back successful migrants to the US and see what happens to them in a South Asian context. For example, Swades (India 2004) sees Shahrukh Khan return from his job as a successful space scientist to search for his childhood nanny in rural India.
The Khan family in Lahore with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi as the parents and Meesha Shafi as Bina (Changez’ sister).
Mira Nair is both an Indian and a North American director who moves between bases in the US, Uganda (where her husband teaches) and India. This gives her a different perspective on issues than if she remained in only one location. She is arguably a prime example of a ‘transnational filmmaker’. Unfortunately this also means that she can be claimed or rejected by cultural critics in each territory. In one of her best films, The Namesake (India/US 2006) she explored the two cultures narrative through two generations of a family that moved from Calcutta to New York. That film was based on a story by Jhumpa Lahiri and my feeling is that if she had stayed closer to the story by Mohsin Hamid for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her Pakistani melodrama might have worked better. I’m not here promoting “the book is better than the film”, but I am suggesting that the added genre element of the CIA in Lahore weakens the narrative. However, shooting a story set in Pakistan presents a whole range of problems re funding and the logistics of the production. Most of the scenes in Lahore were shot in India (in Delhi) and the film has a significant Indian crew and cast. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play the parents of Changez (played by the British-Pakistani Riz Ahmed) and the film is edited by Shimit Amin, known in India as a director. Meesha Shafi who plays Changez’ sister Bina is Pakistani. She also contributes to the soundtrack. The other heads of department in the crew are mainly American and British. Disappointingly there have been mutterings about representations of Pakistan from India but it would not have been possible to shoot this film on the streets of Lahore. Mira Nair also makes the point that her family roots are in Lahore and in the context of the film’s central narrative it’s important to remember that the values that Changez has to consider are South Asian rather than solely Pakistani. The different paths for economy and society in India and Pakistan since 1947 were to a large extent determined by the imperial decisions of UK governments in the 1930s and 1940s and the development of US foreign policy since the 1950s. Mira Nair is reported as saying that she hoped that her film would “start a conversation”. I hope that it does and that it swiftly moves on from the problems of the romance and the CIA surveillance of Lahore to consider the issues about Anglo-American capitalism, alienation and the South Asian family.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Indian Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: BIFF 2013, migration, Mira Nair, Riz Ahmed, transnational film | 2 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 22 April 2013
Adele and Timo escape through the woods.
This was the winning film in the European Features competition at BIFF. I saw it in two parts, having to see the opening after I’d seen the rest of the film. I don’t think that this spoiled my enjoyment. The plot is relatively straightforward. Adele is a teenager living on a farm in a remote and wooded area in Germany. Her withdrawn demeanour is briefly sketched in and she barely communicates with her parents. She is surprised by an escaped prisoner who has got into the farmhouse but instead of betraying him she decides, after learning that he has killed someone, to help him. They run away together and she then tells him that she will help him over the border into France – but in return he must push her off a cliff. This unlikely scenario then sets up a fugitive chase/road movie. Two characters must learn to work together and to learn about themselves in the process. The narrative has a form of ‘open’ ending and I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
In the interview below, the director Emily Atef explains that it took her several years to develop the script and organise the production – in fact she made two other features during this period. At one point she was selected for a Cannes ‘Residence Award’ which enabled her to move the development forward substantially. Atef has clearly been on industry radar for some time. Born in Berlin to Franco-Iranian characters she has also lived in the US and in London but now she is based in back in Germany. After watching this film I realised that I have a DVD of her 2005 feature Molly (about a young Irishwoman who travels to Poland). I must watch it again and post on it.
Kill Me is a success for various reasons, not least the performances by the two leads. Roeland Wiesnekker (Timo) is an experienced Swiss actor who suggests a character turned in on himself. He’s tall and dark and bear-like compared to the blonde Maria Vargus as Adele, known in the UK for her role as Klara in The White Ribbon. There is excellent use of landscape and Emily Latef tells us that she received regional funds from Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Probably most important though is the way that the script ideas are handled. It’s a classic case of not ‘doing a Hollywood’, so at the beginning of the film we don’t get any real explanation of why Adele is so withdrawn and certainly not why she would want to fall from a clifftop. Instead we have to piece her story together from looks and scant plot information. She will later tell Timo something but there is still plenty concealed, especially about his back story, so we travel with the pair never quite sure what will happen. I will reveal that the pair will reach Marseilles which is a ‘liminal’ region, not quite France, but not yet Africa and an iconic ‘end’ to Europe. In the Q&A below somebody asks the director if she ever considered a melodramatic ending. I think we know that she didn’t, though I must say that the location she chooses has been used in the ending of at least one great French melodrama of the 1930s.
The film has been released in France and the international sales agent is the well-known distributer-producer Les films du Losange (long associated with its co-founder Eric Rohmer). I hope they are able to find distributors in other European countries. It is a worthy winner of Bradford’s competition.
Here is the Interview/Q&A when the film was at the Raindance Festival in London in 2012:
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, German Cinema | Tagged: BIFF 2013, road movie | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 22 April 2013
Maria Dragus, star of ‘Kill Me’ speaking after receiving the European Features award on behalf of Emily Latef – watched by Tom Vincent and Neil Young, Festival Directors.
Last year’s inaugural European Features Competition featured six films by debutant directors. This year there were another three first-timers plus three established filmmakers. Again the six films have not achieved UK distribution and Festival Director Tom Vincent told us at the award ceremony that this was the chief aim of the prize – to highlight films that UK distributors had missed and should perhaps reconsider. The festival brochure doesn’t tell us what the judging criteria are – which strikes me as problematic. There were three jurors: Stephanie Bunbury is a film journalist from Australia, Hannah McGill is well-known in the UK as one-time director of the Edinburg International Film Festival and is now a critic and film journalist and Martijn Maria Smits is a writer-director from the Netherlands.
As far as I’m aware, the three judges saw all six films at the beginning of the festival and none of them were present at the announcement on Sunday evening. It seems to me that operating in this way, the judges will not have had any sense of how audiences reacted to the films. I wonder therefore if they will have judged the films on the basis of their appeal as ‘festival films’. By this I mean a film that appeals directly to festival professionals and audiences who seek out festivals rather than to a mainstream or arthouse audience. People generally watch films differently in festivals I think.
I thought before the official announcement that the judges may well choose Kill Me directed by Emily Atef. This was the only one of the six entries that I hadn’t blogged on – for the simple reason that I had missed the opening 15-20 minutes and I didn’t want to comment without seeing the whole film. Emily Atef has won several festival prizes for her work and I thought her film would appeal most to the judges. My guess proved correct and though the director wasn’t present, the young star of the film Maria Dragus had flown into Bradford specially. She was clearly delighted that the film won the prize. I had planned to watch the opening of the film so I stayed on for the screening – knowing I would have to leave after about 30 minutes for a meeting. Unfortunately, I was sat directly in front of Ms Dragus so I hope she wasn’t offended when I sneaked out. Now I’ve seen the whole film I will write it up, but if you are wondering, it offers the unlikely pairing of a teenage girl on a farm in Germany who runs off with an escaped prisoner. The odd couple has an uneasy relationship which is explored in a form of ‘road movie’.
Apart from Kill Me, there was a ‘special mention’ of A Night Too Young and its director Olmo Omerzu was present. The young boy’s face in that film with its young/old appearance will stay with me for some time and I certainly support the judges in singling out a film and a filmmaker that both deserve more attention. All six films in the competition were worth consideration for wider distribution and it was a strong field. The award this year was sponsored by ‘Bradford First UNESCO City of Film’ and its director David Wilson presented it to Maria Dragus. I think the ideas behind the award are very good and it is something that BIFF could build on, but to actually convince a distributor to take up any of these films in the UK is going to require more – perhaps several festivals could combine to give European films more focus. The New British Cinema Quarterly scheme sees a package of British films getting a limited release. How about a New European Cinema Quarterly? Britain is the toughest market in Europe for ‘European’ films so anything might help. But for now, let’s celebrate the European Features Award. Kill Me review to follow.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Film awards lists, People | Tagged: BIFF 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 April 2013
Michael Muller as Nick and Gaite Jansen as Evy
The title of this feature refers to the only sound frequency that one of the two deaf mute characters who form the central couple in the narrative can hear. I’ve read several reviews which name the precise sound that Nick can hear but I must have missed that. I spotted the moment when Evy remembered a sound she heard once. Clearly sound design has to be dominant in the film and it is quite unsettling to watch and not hear what we expect to hear. And yet, director Joost van Ginkel also strives to offer us rich visuals as well – as if to compensate? The reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, so perhaps some audiences think that he tries too hard. Van Ginkel comes out of shorts and TV and this is his first feature. It may be that he is focused more on sound and image and ideas than on narrative. Evy and Nick are young lovers. Again I’m not sure how some reviewers know the exact ages of the characters, but importantly Evy lives with her parents and her father in particular doesn’t approve of Nick. Nick is much freer. He works in a garage and sleeps in an old bus. He clearly doesn’t have any time for his own father – and there are scenes in which his revulsion is possibly explained. Both families are wealthy and it is summer so life isn’t hard for the lovers. They decide to run away and stay away long enough for Evy to become pregnant. At this point I was reminded of the Bergman film Summer With Monika. But the ‘journey’ that Evy and Nick make is much shorter – their place of refuge turns out to be an old submarine moored in a local inlet (and with buildings overlooking it).
I think van Ginkel is caught between wanting to create a conventional genre piece (and the film certainly plays with genre conventions, especially with Nick as the long-haired biker boy ‘rebel’ in leathers) and wanting to stay within a kind of arthouse fantasy. In the credits he reveals that he has borrowed ideas from both Krzysztof Kieslowski and Darren Aronofsky. I haven’t been able to work out what these might be but there is certainly a feel or ‘tone’ that the film strives for that might be related to the work of these auteurs. Genres like the youth picture are essentially realist in the sense that the young protagonists have to confront parents or the agents of authority and they must overcome obstacles, ‘learn’ from mistakes, achieve goals etc. In this film the protagonists run away but there is no sense that anyone is coming after them. A sub-plot sees Nick confronted by a trio of young bullies at a water polo game which promises something but is then easily ‘resolved’. Other confrontations appear to be fantasies and there is a danger the audience will lose patience with trying to read the final scenes.
The film certainly looks good. Gaite Jansen is an experienced young actor and she does a great deal with the part. Michael Muller has no other listed credits on IMDB and he plays his role in a deadpan manner most of the time. Nevertheless I thought they made an interesting couple. The main problem with the film is that there isn’t enough narrative meat to get your teeth into, there is no ‘peril’ and no idealism, they seem secure on their submarine and it is only their own adolescent tiffs that propel the last third of the film forward.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Dutch cinema, youth picture | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 April 2013
Jade Aspros as Esther and Igor as King Henry
I’ve watched quite a few of the shorts at BIFF this year, but most of them haven’t really caught my imagination. This one did. It has a genuine story – an incident with an outcome and recognisable characters. Esther Weary doesn’t enjoy her birthday, which falls on a schoolday that is also Halloween. She imagines herself being persecuted — and then she is. Her nose is too big according to a dreadful little princess. To her consternation her first period arrives on the same day . When she gets home her family are waiting for her. There’s King Henry the pug and her grandfather (played by the great Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), who is kind and thoughtful but seemingly isn’t prepared for menstruation. All will be well because Esther isn’t ugly and her family love her. That’s it really, except that the story is told again through an animated pop-up picture book which forms the basis of the credits. It’s 14 mins long and director Stephen Dunn tells the story with real imagination and most of all through images. That’s what I want from a short – a whole story, told with imagination in as short a time as possible. I don’t mind a little sentimentalism thrown in as well if it’s tempered by the dark stuff. Most of the other shorts I’ve seen in BIFF are either avant-garde formal experiments (fine in their own right but not always a good complement to a feature) or they are good ideas without a story or a story without good ideas.
Here’s the lovely trailer:
Posted in Canadian Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Short films | Tagged: BIFF 2013, youth picture | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 April 2013
Eli and Val – lovers re-united?
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Romance | Tagged: Bulgarian cinema, migration | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 April 2013
Max (Keith Poulson) and his second wife Lyla (Jess Weixler)
In his introduction to the film, Festival Co-director Neil Young was careful to tell us that this was a ‘Marmite movie’ – some people love it, others hate it. I fear I’m unusual. It passed the time quite pleasantly after a beginning when I thought it was going to be awful. There were occasions when I laughed and I was always interested in what might happen next. The performances were generally good, the aesthetic was clean and bright and the animated chapter headings/intertitle cards that told us ’5 Years later . . .’ etc. were very nicely done. I just can’t get too excited about it. That’s probably because of my general aversion to contemporary American Indies. Film festivals mean that you get to see some films simply because they are ‘there’ – and in this case because I wanted to see the short (more on that later). But what’s this film about, you ask?
The title isn’t very helpful (at least to me) and I don’t think the film bears any relationship to the 1956 boxing movie. Instead it features Max (Keith Poulson) a young man with seemingly few social skills who moves from one marriage to a second and then a second separation and a third relationship. Along the way he has a son and throughout he has a sounding board/friend/rival in the form of Sal (Nick Offerman). The wittiest scenes in the film involve these two exchanging misunderstandings. Max also has a suitcase containing something magical rather like the mysterious object in Kiss Me Deadly (but seemingly less dangerous!). The film’s other novel feature is that the central characters never age, but we see the evidence of time passing through Max’s son who is played by four different actors as he grows from child to man. The film’s Texan director Bob Byington (on his sixth feature) thanks both Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick in the closing credits but for me the reference point would be Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Or do all these Austin indies include a British pop song? The music in the film was quite enjoyable but it was a surprise when Sandie Shaw popped up. (The animated graphics are by Bob Sabiston who worked on Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and A Waking Life.)
Max may be autistic, but he may just be an example of indie cool. There are moments of casual racism and sexism which I think are meant to be taken ironically – in any case the three female leads easily match the men. After the screening I found people who did ‘really like’ the film and it has won festival prizes. It’s only 75 mins long and I think it’s out on DVD in the US.
Posted in American Independents, Comedies, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013 | Leave a Comment »