Any film that starts with the Toronto skyline has me at hello. However, this first feature-length film by Ingrid Veninger, does not linger in the new world but uses it as a jumping off point for its heroine Lina’s travels back to her European family’s home in Slovakia, to the town of Modra. Having been dumped by her boyfriend just before the trip, she takes Leco, a schoolmate, both acting on a whim out of the loose end they each find themselves in. What follows is a great treat – an unpredictable, uncertain alliance played out against the strangeness of the country to these new world kids adding to the emotion. The local cast was made up of Veninger’s own extended family – she emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was 2 – to complement her daughter Hallie Switzer in the main role.
We can find ourselves watching much consciously staged, bigger budget cinema, that might strive and never achieve the kind of easy tone and great empathy with the characters that this film does. I’ve seen it described as “DIY filmmaking” and it has that quality of being filmed almost as a home movie at times. However, there is an assurance behind this style that makes all the scenes ‘add up’ to a narrative about being that age and starting to understand – that you don’t know very much! The tone was sustained; I think this is at least partly due to the control of scripting the director describes in the press kit (www.modrathemovie.com) rather than surrendering completely to improv, giving it a control and shape for her audience. There is a visual assurance as well – to film with apparent realism but creating scenes drenched in light and warmth, with a canny eye for visual storytelling in the frame. The narrative arc similarly did not get lost – despite the way, given the regular confusion of its key characters, it made some good use of the ‘near miss’ throughout. One of its greatest markers was the way in which this was a story about going home, but not one which needed to exploit the strangeness of another culture or to counterpoint the teenagers as ‘strangers in a strange land’. They were, but they became part of it too, and the friendship/relationship/friendship developed believably – as it would do – in fits and starts. This is credit to the lead actors (Alexander Gammell alongside as Leco) and Veninger’s direction. As an actress herself (by her credits) Veninger seemed to know how to draw performances out of an inexperienced cast without losing their appealing ordinariness. She has also turned something clearly deeply autobiographical into a film that engages more widely, particularly with its understated humour.
It reminded me strongly of a film I saw years ago, Looking for Alibrandi, an Australian coming-of-age movie, that also had that an immediate charm. This film has distribution in Canada (with Mongrel Media) and is being released on DVD there (May 17th) but it has some hope of international sales with an agent recently signing on. Meanwhile, after Toronto, Vancouver, São Paulo – and Bradford – it continues on the festival circuit (Murmansk upcoming in May). Veninger was in Bradford to introduce her film, to field a short Q&A and then to use the time to film a scene for her next project (about a woman filmmaker) using the audience in the cinema. I like this woman’s style already!
Following two earlier photography documentaries, BIFF offered a chance to explore photographic practice directly through a Q&A with the Swedish photographer JH Engström. For several weeks the National Media Museum had been showing an exhibition of photographs by Engström and his ‘mentor’ and later colleague and close friend Anders Petersen. The exhibition closed a few days after this Q&A, but there is a book of photographs available for ‘From Back Home’ – a substantial project concerned with presenting images of the people and places of Värmland in West Central Sweden. In conjunction with the exhibition, I’ve been offering an evening class on aspects of Swedish Cinema entitled ‘Home and Memory’ so I was very interested to hear from Engström in person.
The event as advertised included both photographers and a screening of a short film about the pair’s work. However, Anders Petersen was ill and unable to travel and so Engström showed his own film about Anders, A Film With and About Anders Petersen (Sweden 2006). He also showed a ‘rough cut’ of a slide presentation of photographs from his new project focusing on his own recent family life – an intimate portrait culminating in the birth of his child. I found the slide sequence to be filmic and very striking. The documentary on Petersen was also very engaging and took us into Petersen’s world of close contact with his subjects which enables his distinctive high contrast black and white portraits. I understand that Engström has trained as a documentary filmmaker and there was clear evidence of this in the way he presented his friend (who reminded me in some ways of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell).
JH Engström proved to be an entertaining speaker with lots to say, often very forcefully. Since I don’t know that much about international photography culture I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Engström is clearly a major figure and the small cinema was packed. We learned that Engström’s whole outlook has been influenced by his background. He lived in Paris as a boy and returned there as a young adult to be an assistant to photographer Mario Testino. Then he returned to Sweden to gain a photography qualification. This is when he first worked with Petersen. But eventually he found Stockholm to be too ‘organised’ and restrictive and for a time he lived and worked in New York where he produced work for a project called ‘Trying to Dance’ (2004). When he did return to Sweden it was to Värmland where he had been born and where he embarked on ‘From Back Home’ with Anders Petersen. Now based in Värmland he seems to travel widely to give workshops etc. (See his website for his background.)
The key word for Engström’s approach appears to be ‘intimacy’. There was discussion of what this might mean, but for me Engström demonstrates it very successfully in his work. He seems to have a loose and free approach – but of course he works very hard and very professionally to achieve his aims. He said that when he first worked for Marion Testino, he wasn’t interested in fashion but he was impressed by the professional approach that he saw. He works in both black and white and colour on different formats, but always analogue not digital. I gather from this that there is no rigid ‘technique’ to be applied. Rather, he goes with whatever feels right in capturing the feeling of intimacy. As he said – “photography is about everything except reality”. His first project was in fact concerned with ‘social documentary’ – creating images with members of a women’s shelter in Stockholm but his later work consciously moves towards less organised communities.
In relation to the discussion about ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ qualities in the work a perceptive comment from the audience suggested the idea of the photographer who oscillates between the ‘personal’ – being immersed in the environment and emotionally close to the human subject – and the observer who is ‘close’ but detached. I think I’ve got this right but certainly Engström himself thought that this was an interesting line of enquiry.
I was impressed by many of the ideas in this session. For instance, I was taken by aspects of Engström’s methodology. He said that in his projects, selecting and editing photographs for the book comes first and that this then informs what goes into the exhibition (and presumably how they are presented). The photographs themselves I found quite striking and in his new work I was interested in how willing he was to display both himself and his partner for the camera. He seems like a very confident and assured young man. When I first saw the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition, I was struck by how the characters in what were recognisably Swedish locales looked rather different from the stereotypes – or rather that they looked both distinctively Swedish and ‘not at all Swedish’ at the same time. This probably says more about my own lack of knowledge about Swedish culture. However, several of the students on our evening class on Swedish Cinema linked to the exhibition remarked on how at first the characters seemed unusual but that after we had watched films set in Värmland or adjacent counties they seemed very familiar.
Here’s a short YouTube clip taken during the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition’s stay in Angers (dialogue in French):
The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.
Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.
Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.
The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.
The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?
A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.
Bradford welcomed Thomas Arslan for the UK première of his latest film In the Shadows (Im Schatten) and after the screening he was interviewed by festival programmer Neil Young. There wasn’t a big audience, but it was appreciative and for the small group of us who had seen all, or most, of the preceding four films, Im Schatten was a real treat. Like Arslan’s other fiction films, Im Schatten is quite short (85 mins) with a pared-down storyline and a spare shooting style. However, it gallops along by comparison with the earlier character studies and works convincingly as a classical European crime film. Neil Young suggested Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967) as a model, but later Arslan himself referred to the same director’s Le cercle rouge (1970) and that does make more sense in terms of the plot. He also told us that he was a crime fiction fan (I knew this guy had good taste) and that one of his influences was Don Siegel’s work.
The Alain Delon character (i.e. from Le cercle rouge) in Arslan’s original script is ‘Trojan’ played by the Berlin actor Misel Maticevic – unknown in the UK but a veteran of German TV. He is very well cast and able to portray the extremely precise actions of this cool criminal. Trojan arrives back in Berlin looking for a new job. He visits a couple of local mobsters, stealing from one (and trashing the thugs sent to get the money back from him) and turning down job offers that involve working with undisciplined men. Eventually he learns of a possible heist via a bent lawyer played by Karoline Eichhorn, familiar from Arslan’s Ferien. Unfortunately, Trojan’s meetings with Dora are being monitored by a rogue police inspector. Thus the professional criminal gets himself into a situation where he is being effectively chased by the local mobster’s thugs and a dogged policeman and then there is Dora – is she reliable?
I enjoyed the film very much, partly I’m sure because of my engagement with the previous four films shown in the retrospective. All of the films are in a sense, calm, cool and ‘clean’ – even when characters are falling out. Im Schatten was shot on a budget of €550,000 (I asked Thomas Arslan) and as he explained, that did restrict the shooting time available, the parts of Berlin that he could close off and the spaces on location he could organise. On that kind of budget you can’t stage a high street shoot-out in the style of Michael Mann in Heat. Instead, the action scenes are generally confined to rooms and corridors. Moments like the shot through the glass above have to be caught just when the opportunity arises. All of this worked well, except perhaps for the heist itself which became perhaps a little too unlikely. If I’m honest, I perhaps ‘admired’ the first half of the film more than I got fully wrapped up in it, but by the second half I was fully committed and I was sad when the film ended – I could have taken more and wanted to know what happened next (the ending is ‘open’).
In conversation Thomas Arslan proved to be an engaging but self-effacing filmmaker. He appears to be committed to his work, simply trying to achieve the best results possible. He spoke about the shooting of Im Schatten. Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider used the digital Red One camera which seemed to work well with the overall production design representing the clean, open lines of Berlin – a city we were reminded that is much smaller than London. It emerged that Vorschneider had also shot another German crime film, Der Räuber (based on a true story) at roughly the same time as Im Schatten – an interesting double bill, perhaps? I don’t think that Thomas Arslan had worked with Vorschneider before but he did have his regular editor Bettina Blickwede on board and I’m guessing that continuity is a feature of his work.
The audience was clearly with the film and interested in their guest. The questions were interesting, but on one key issue, Arslan seemed fairly reluctant to say too much. It was clear that several people in the audience (me included) were interested in his position as a director from a culturally-mixed background who had made films about German-Turkish characters (One Fine Day is the last of a trilogy about Turkish-Germans in Berlin) as well as the documentary on going back to visit Turkey, Aus der Ferne. He made the understandable point in reference to the Turkish documentary that he couldn’t say how Turkey had changed (he went to school in Ankara before moving back to Germany where he was born), only how he had changed and how he now saw things differently. He did say that he didn’t have any particular interest in Turkish Cinema and that as a child in Turkey he only remembered seeing American movies. To be fair, the Turkish Cinema of the 1970s had largely collapsed by the time he was watching films and it has revived only since he left. However, despite what he said he featured Nuri Bilge Ceylan in his documentary so he must be noticing what is going on! The crucial question for me is whether there is a distinctive difference between what might be called a ‘Turkish diaspora filmmaking culture’ and that of the Asian/African/Caribbean diaspora in France and the UK.
In response to one of the questions Arslan confirmed that one of his aims was to explore characters ‘in space’ – how they operate in terms of the narrative space allowed them by the mise en scène. And this is certainly evident in his films – and in this film is bolstered by Maticevic’s performance. He responded to a question about the ‘Berlin School’ by saying that on the one hand it didn’t really mean anything but on the other hand it was helpful in getting his films some promotion. This latter issue was something several of us raised. We all clearly enjoyed watching the films on a big screen (courtesy of prints from the Berlin Film Museum) but apart from Im Schatten, most of his films appeared only on German TV even if some of them made it onto DVDs. We pressed him as to whether he could get more funding by getting TV channels and distributors from France, Italy, UK etc. on board. He seemed quite diffident about this, worrying that more production partners possibly meant more interference. That is clearly a worry but it would be sad if films as well made as these were denied a cinema audience. Perhaps we might have egged him on to look for better distribution. I hope so.
We should thank the festival and Neil Young in particular for bringing Thomas Arslan over.
Neil Young’s ‘Jigsaw Lounge’ has an extended interview with Thomas Arslan about Im Schatten here.
A detailed Thomas Arslan bio is on the German Film portal which also has a section on Turkish-German film (which helps to explain Arslan’s position).
There is an interview with Arslan about Im Schatten on Cineuropa’s YouTube site:
and a trailer (in German without subs):