Category: East European Cinema

Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013)

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended 'sky room' in this long shot.

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended ‘sky room’ in this long shot.

This vies with Phoenix as my film of the year (i.e. seen in a UK screening). It’s a perfectly formed art object that is both engaging and moving. It has been celebrated around the world and has recently been in UK cinemas after a winning a prize at the London Film Festival a year ago. We’ve had to wait a year but it has been worth it. I’ve watched the film twice now and in between screenings I spent a couple of days researching the work of the director Pawel Pawlikowski for an introductory talk. I enjoyed the research very much because it seemed that as I re-watched clips from the earlier films I’d seen and sampled some of the director’s TV documentaries from the 1990s, I began to see the continuities and the links between ostensibly different projects. Ida has been seen either as Pawlikowski’s ‘comeback’ film or as a revelation for those who have not known about the earlier films. Whether or not the concept of a director with ‘personal vision’ as an auteur still has mileage, there is no denying the continuities between Pawlikowski’s films.

Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his mother some time in the 1970s and eventually arrived in 1977 in the UK aged 19. His career as a filmmaker began in the late 1980s with documentaries mainly focusing on quite controversial figures in Eastern Europe. My notes for the film introduction can be downloaded here: Pawlikowski Background Notes.

Ida is a short film (just over 80 mins) and a plot outline would suggest that relatively little happens. A young woman, Anna, who we presume has grown up in a convent is now 18 and in preparation to take her vows when she is told that she has a relative, her aunt Wanda, and that she should visit her before she takes the final decision to commit to Christ. Anna is not sure what to expect but Wanda eventually provides surprising information about Anna’s Jewish family, including Anna’s birth name, ‘Ida’. Reluctantly at first (in Wanda’s case) the pair undertake a road trip to uncover the past. They meet relatively few people and the ‘action’ is limited but there is so much going on in the unspoken exchanges between characters and in the presentation of sound and image that we experience an immensely rich narrative.

There is no better way to introduce the film than to give the director’s opening statement (from the Press Pack):

Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldnʼt feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no axe to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood . . .

It seems to me that Pawlikowski succeeds in each of these aims. (Though the ‘outsider’ bit is possibly something for Polish audiences to comment on and they haven’t taken to the film as much as audiences in France or even the UK as far as I can see.) Much of the strength of the film does come from the director’s perspective – as an insider who became an outsider and who now returns unafraid to ask questions and ‘re-present’ the past. The power of the film comes from the astounding attention to the detail of the visual and sound images and the performances of the cast, especially the three leads.

An image from the blog by 'BB' demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

An image from the blog by ‘Benjamin B’ demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

The film was shot digitally using an Alexa 4:3 camera and the raw footage was then processed to create a monochrome film with a traditional Academy ratio and then further processed to add the grain effect of the filmstock used in the early 1960s. This process is described by ‘Benjamin B’ in his blog, ‘The Film Book’, which carries two features complementing an initial feature in American Cinematographer. These are a must read for anyone interested in the filmic image. There are several notable features of the images created in the film. As Benjamin B comments in his analysis of a short sequence, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, create pure cinema, ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ the story through a combination of acting, camerawork and sound related to a carefully structured narrative outline. The film also offers good examples of the old adage about needing a great deal of artifice to represent an image of ‘reality’. To achieve the ‘effect’ of natural light and simplicity in the depiction of the convent required careful placing of key and fill lamps. The effect works very well.

The two central characters of Wanda and Ida are played by Agata Kulesza, a vastly experienced actor and Agata Trzebuchowska a non-actor and this fits the narrative perfectly as Wanda has to drive the narrative and Ida has to respond to what happens. I was intrigued to discover that Agata Trzebuchowska had seen Pawlikowski’s earlier British films even though she was not involved in the film industry. I’m delighted that films do travel more extensively than might be apparent from the relatively meagre information we get from outside the US/UK film world.

I think Ida is going to be one of those films that “keeps on giving” – offering up new insights into how it can create meanings through camerawork, lighting, design, sound and performance. It has also prompted me to find the few John Coltrane recordings that ought to be played more often. The most striking aspect of the beautiful visual compositions is that they often place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, utilising a low horizon in landscape shots and producing a great deal of ‘sky room’. I haven’t quite decided what this means but it is distinctive and it certainly suggests a dialogue between characters and their environment. It also reminds me of the big skies in Academy frame compositions by directors like Kurosawa Akira and John Ford.

Just a thought, but this image is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay's 'Ratcatcher'.

Just a thought, but this image of Ida wrapping herself in a net curtain is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’.

Since I started this posting several weeks ago the European Film Awards in December made Ida the big winner with a total of five awards – two for the film itself, two for Pawel Pawlikowski as writer and director and one for cinematography (shared by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski who both worked on the film). If there is any justice the film would win at the Oscars as well. If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is now out but do try and find it on a big screen.

LIFF 28 #6: Corn Island (Georgia, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Hungary 2014)

The landscape view of Corn Island

The landscape view of Corn Island

This film is a joy to watch. Perhaps it helps if you’ve ever tried to grow your own maize crop, but the festival wins (Karlovy Vary and many others) and glowing reviews suggest that it’s not just me who was entranced by Corn Island. I’ll be surprised (and upset) if this isn’t picked up for distribution in the UK and many other territories.

The film’s narrative covers a summer growing season. Every spring the river Enguri washes fertile alluvial soil down from the Caucasus Mountains and deposits it further downstream creating temporary ‘islands’ when the river flow slows. These islands are sometimes large enough to attract peasant farmers to grow a crop – in the knowledge that when the heavy rains return, the islands will probably disappear. Into this dangerous environment comes an old farmer and his young teenage granddaughter who together methodically build a hut and then plant a maize crop. Unfortunately, the Enguri also forms the boundary between Georgia and the breakaway ‘autonomous region/republic’ of Abkhazia (one of four disputed territories in the region). The island is therefore on the front line in a dispute that has rumbled on since Georgia itself became independent of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, the old man and the girl feel under surveillance from passing motor boats of soldiers from each side of the dispute (plus soldiers on the shore).

The old man watches Azbakh soldiers depart

The old man watches Abkhaz soldiers depart

The film works brilliantly because it has the strengths of simplicity. Some of the reviews refer to ‘minimalism’ but I think that isn’t appropriate as the film is overwhelming in the riches of pure cinema. The cinematography (Hungarian veteran Elemér Ragályi) is breathtaking, whether it is the broad sweep of landscape of the hills and the river valley, the close-ups of the two characters building, fishing and sowing or the changing play of natural light on water and vegetation. Just as impressive is the sound design. I confess that I didn’t notice the music (which I think comes mainly at the end of the film) but I was aware that there is virtually no dialogue apart from the exchanges between the old man and the passing soldiers. The man and the girl don’t need to speak, they just get on with their work.

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

There isn’t a great deal of plot and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that a wounded soldier turns up on the island at one point. I mention this because it refers to a particular sub-genre of the ‘home front’ war picture in which wounded soldiers appeal to the goodwill of the peasants – and in doing so put their hosts at risk from ‘the enemy’. This then links to a second genre which is the ‘coming of age’ film. The girl arrives on her grandfather’s boat at the beginning of the film with a doll. The same doll makes an appearance at the end of the film, but the girl has by then already shown the signs of puberty, both physically and emotionally. Grandfather has to protect the girl as well as the crop. And this, in turn, leads us back towards the theme of fertility and the battle with nature to get the crop in before the rains arrive. When the rains come it means scenes that rival the best of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.

The girl and her grandfather

The girl and her grandfather when the building begins

The performances are excellent, especially by Mariam Buturishvili, the first-timer who plays the girl against the veteran Turkish actor İlyas Salman as the grandfather. The production overall must have been an amazing experience. Writer-director George Ovashvili chose to shoot on 35mm because that is what he was most comfortable with. Initially he hoped to find a ‘real’ island as a location. In the end he decided to build an island in an artificial lake (which would also, presumably, be away from the actual frontline of a smouldering boundary dispute). In an interview Ovashvili explained that the crew actually planted and re-planted different maize crops as needed by the script – the film was shot in April-May and December so it couldn’t be ‘natural’. The results are amazingly good. An initial report suggested that the shoot cost just €1.4 million, but that extra funding was being sought for post-production. The production also involved cast and crew from 13 countries speaking 13 languages (a whole bunch of translators is listed in the credits). Ovashvili in the interview says:

I think the diversity of the crew has strengthened the universal theme of the film.

I’d have to agree. This is the Georgian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. I don’t suppose it will win and it’s a shame if most Academy voters will see in on a TV set. This is one film that you want to see on the biggest screen possible (in beautiful 35mm ‘Scope). Please, UK distributors, get this into cinemas!

The trailer from the Karlovy Vary Festival:

LIFF 28 #5: Modris (Latvia-Germany-Greece 2014)

Kristers Piksa as Modris

Kristers Piksa as Modris

My fourth visit to this year’s Leeds International Film Festival offered a mild disappointment followed by one of the best films I’ve seen this year. First I’ll deal with the problematic film. Before 2014 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Latvian film and then two came along with very similar stories. At Bradford’s festival in April I enjoyed Mother, I Love You (Latvia 2013), an engaging film about a young teenager in trouble at school, deceiving his loving mother and having nighttime adventures in Riga and a brush with the authorities. Modris, the protagonist of the more recent film,  is older – he has his 18th birthday during the time period of the narrative – but he also takes off after a dispute with his mother (caused by his need to find cash to feed his slot-machine addiction). Again he is in a single parent family but up till now he hasn’t bothered too much to find his father, accepting his mother’s explanation that his father is in prison.

Modris is an apathetic teen, the kind of guy of whom older people are likely to say: “He doesn’t do himself any favours”. While that’s true it doesn’t mean that we can’t have any sympathy for his position, but writer-director Juris Kursietis makes it more difficult for me at least in shooting many scenes handheld in close-up and sometimes very shallow focus. Close-up and handheld here means an extremely off-putting image. And why shoot in ‘Scope if you are going to waste the potential for widescreen compositions? I can cope with handheld if it’s done with care but here it seems to be striving for some kind of effect. The young man playing Modris, Kristers Piksa, was present at the screening and in the Q&A he told us various things about the production. Kristers was not trained as an actor and he got the role almost by accident. A perceptive question from the audience prompted him to tell us that many of the handheld scenes were shot in one take – but that sometimes it might take anything up to 16 takes to achieve the desired result. Researching the film after the screening and taking on board the actor’s comments, I note that director was trained in the UK at the Northern Media School (Sheffield Hallam) and that this was his first fiction feature after documentaries and short films. He seems to have followed the ‘Ken Loach approach’ of giving his actors only the pages of script that they need for a specific scene, so that they remain fresh, reacting to events. I note also that Bogumil Godfrejow, an experienced and award-winning Polish cinematographer and some established Latvian actors in the cast means that even with a limited budget (€350,000?) there was the opportunity to make an interesting film. In the end it is the script that lets the film down. The story is based on a real character (who Kristers Piksa told us is now somewhere in the North of England) so it should have credibility. Kristers himself definitely has a screen presence – tall and gangly with a memorable nose. At times he presents an air of bemusement and incomprehension that reminded me of Vincent Cassel’s performance in La haine. But too much is unexplained or introduced and not followed up, so it becomes difficult to really care about the character. The potential narrative about gambling addiction seems to get lost completely.

There are, however, a number of interesting aspects of contemporary Latvian culture that do come to light in the narrative. The most obvious is the disconnect between what appears to be a society that validates music and other forms of cultural expression and has created a relatively high wage economy but which also operates a draconian criminal justice system that can lock up offenders for relatively trivial offences (i.e. the kinds of offences many teenagers commit. The film also offers the frictions of social class difference (like Mother I Love You) and hints at the legacy of Russian control of Latvia prior to 1991 and contemporary issues about migration. I wanted to like Modris more than I did. Perhaps on another day I would have done – but it needs a better script. I have to point out that the film has received good reviews from various festivals and Toronto called it “tough, but compassionate”. This trailer for the film makes it look much more exciting than I found it in reality:

Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen (Hungary 2011)


Multiple images and homages.

This film was the closing act in last year’s Leeds International Film Festival. It returned for two showing this year to packed and appreciative audiences. Chris Fell, the Festival Director, introduced the film.

It is a compilation of hundreds of film extracts, a sort of long and varied homage to the greats of cinema. Chris advised us that the film is not usually available for screening and is not available on video. This is because there are copyright issues around most of the extracts. However, the Festival is able to screen it as special occasion. The director and his four editors, together with a sound crew, have put together an amazing and intelligent selection of visual and sound clips.

The film also offers a simple romantic story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, another man or husband threatens the pair but is packed off: they make love, they marry and conceive a child, war arrives, the man enlists or is called up, battle scenes, he is killed – but the magic of cinema brings him back and they are reunited. This final sequence revisits earlier clips to produce a satisfying climax, ‘Nothing will ever die’.

That is the plot that binds together disparate extracts from Hollywood, Bollywood, art cinema and foreign language films (for every audience). The period range from the silent era right up until the 21st Century. There must be about every genre in film studies, plus the occasional avant-garde film. The plot idea is simple but does not work all the time – some sequences demonstrate a trope or motif not necessarily apt for the story.

Sequences are composed of numbers of shots. Some are familiar tropes from film – smoking a cigarette, eating, symbols for coitus, ringing and knocking on doors. There are sly inserts like several shots from Psycho (1960) and from Belle de Jour (1967). There are also surprising omissions – Tom Jones (1963) from the sequences of eating. Some are familiar but less fortunate tropes – like men slapping women. But there is also a sequence for forthright women, opened by Thelma & Louise (1991). And some feature fairly explicit sex and violence. The film would be a likely candidate for an 18 certification and one of the BBFC’s little homilies.

The average shot length is 3 to 5 seconds, but some are under a second. Longer shots tend to feature travelling shots or dialogue that propels the plot forward. All dialogue, from possibly a dozen languages, is subtitled in English, including the US and UK films. Meanwhile sometimes we hear the original soundtrack, sometimes sound (including dialogue) overlaps shots. And sometimes, music or a song carries us through a succession of shots – notably from Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Graduate (1967) and Love Me Tender (1956).

Appropriately enough for this sort of film there are several clips from Cinema Paradiso (1989). The most unlikely clip would seem to be from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chevolek a Kinnoapparatom, 1929). However, I was disappointed that there was only one canine appearance – one of the later Lassie’s. But the human stars are there – Lilian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, John Garfield, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Mifune Toshiro and any number of modern actors, including Sharukh Khan.

The whole collection displays a taste for a wide range of films. The end credits list all the film clips and all the music clips. I think even a hardened cineaste would find it difficult to note all the extracts as they tumble by.

The film is directed by György Pálfi: whose best known film release in the UK is probably Hukkle (2002). The Festival Catalogue quotes him on the film’s production:

I had some extra money which I did not need for I am not your friend, so I decided to make another film. This was I ended up with two low-budget films. The idea for Ladies & Gentlemen is simple, but we quickly realised that it’s a huge project. Actually I was going to make another film, but when the government withdrew their funding, I took the budget I had and made Ladies and Gentlemen.

At the film’s end a title notes that ‘All rights remain with the authors’ and then notes ‘For Educational Purposes. Presumably Hungary has the same ‘fair usage’ entitlement as that in the USA but which is lacking in the UK.