It’s five days since BIFF ended and today is the opening of the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend – four-day extravaganza of films screened in their original formats, something the museum is able to do across the whole range and matched only by a couple of other venues in the world. 2013 is the 60th birthday of CinemaScope and I wish I could sample the weekend but I’m exhausted and there is much else to do. I don’t know how the museum staff manage to keep going.
This is the first year that Widescreen Weekend hasn’t been directly part of BIFF, but that doesn’t mean that the festival felt thin or diminished. In fact, it felt busier than ever as a programme. I will eventually post on The Chess Players and that will make 23 film programmes I’ve reported on. The only other one I haven’t reported so far was last Friday’s ‘Bradford on Film’ programme at Bradford Cathedral. This complemented the earlier session of films from the Bradford-based C.H. Wood film company and was once again presented by Graham Relton of the Yorkshire Film Archive. The selection from the archives covered a wider range of Bradford material with virtually no overlap from the earlier show. Given that the Cathedral itself was celebrating 50 years of a newer part of the building the Bishop had requested some material from the 1960s. This there was, but also we had sequences of Town Hall square in 1897 and jubilee celebrations for George V in 1935. Again there was a good audience and each clip received a round of applause.
Although I found many of the clips interesting and I learned several things about Bradford’s history, I didn’t enjoy this show quite as much as the C. H. Wood presentation. Partly it was because the seats were less comfortable (the show ran over the scheduled 90 mins) and the screen was far too small for a venue of this size (there were actually two small screens operating simultaneously) and it was still daylight in a building without blackout curtains. The sound, however, was excellent. For me, one of the most interesting clips was from a late 1940s film showing the Bradford City refuse collection and street cleaning services. This 16mm film was in beautiful colour but someone had added music which had the effect of making the film feel like a silent cinema comedy. This was a shame, because along with other films on town planning and promotional films from the woollen industry in the city, there was the opportunity here to reflect on Bradford’s social history. (You can see the film silent on the Yorkshire Film Archive website.) This brings me to a final observation. I would have liked to have seen a little more about the changing social structure of the city which was hinted at in a film about Bradford University and students offering language support to recent immigrants – but of course, migration to Bradford has been important since the end of the 19th century. I think I need to investigate the YFA website further to see what else is available.
At the awards presentation session on Sunday evening, the Shine Short Film Award went to Ico Costa for his Portuguese-French film Four Hours Barefoot. This was the only one of the six shortlisted films for this award that I’d seen and I was able to see it again following the award. Shine Shorts are judged by a panel comprising a film producer, film educators, a programmer and a scholar/journalist. As with the European Feature Award, I haven’t seen the judging criteria. Four Hours Barefoot is a well-made film that works as part of a narrative about a horrific family incident which we only witness partially and mainly in the darkness. Most of the 15 min running time is concerned with a 16 year-old boy and his barefoot journey through the mountains to a police station. While I can appreciate the film’s undoubted merits, I have to admit that when I first saw it, screened before a feature, it had not particularly made an impact. This isn’t a criticism of the programme. The festival tries to carefully choose a complementary short (shorts) to go with each feature and I applaud this but as I set out earlier, there is a difference between a programme of shorts (and a sense of looking for a prizewinner) – the six competition entries are also shown in two competition screenings – and programmes of shorts plus features. Festival Director Tom Vincent said this was the strongest overall shorts selection for many years. He’s seen them all, I’ve only seen around a third (feature programmes also included some avant-garde shorts) so I’m not going to make an overall evaluation.
Perhaps this is the defining feature of Bradford’s film festival. I watched films on 10 days out of 11, sometimes four screenings a day, but I mainly concentrated on two strands – 100 years of Indian Cinema and the European Features Competition. Inevitably, the other films I saw were partly because they were on at times I could see them. In fact there were several other strands that I didn’t visit at all – and I think that these included some of the most popular shows, especially at the weekends with the live events. My guess is that there are at least three significantly different audience groups who visit the festival plus several other smaller segments. It’s dangerous to try to categorise these, but I’ll try. One group is the older, traditional arthouse audience (who may be retired and can visit in the afternoons), one is younger and perhaps more into ‘independent’ American and British films and a third group is more populist and interested in celebrity appearances. Of course, some festivalgoers go to a little of each strand. It just means that there are several different perspectives on the Bradford festival experience. To get a flavour of this, have a look at the posts from some of the most active BIFF bloggers:
Sam Turner (Film Intel)
Bob Brook (Otley Film Society)
I think these bloggers accurately represent some of the variety of interests. Bradford is a big, ambitious festival and it has lots of different types of film experience on offer. I think that’s a good thing. I thoroughly enjoyed BIFF 2013. I’m not going to pick out a Top 5 but I did want to congratulate all the organisers who had to sift through entries and write programme notes, introduce films, meet guests and all the other tasks. I’d like to give a big thanks to all the projectionists who triumphed over all the odd formats thrown at them (and the one, nameless filmmaker who caused mayhem). I have to add that I’m most grateful for the chance to see the Indian classics on wonderful prints and the new Indian films too. I’m looking forward to a similar celebration in 2014. Finally, congratulations to co-director Neil Young who is to appear on a festival jury at Cannes, we hear. That will help to support Bradford on the film festival map. No doubt Tom Vincent will be there soon as well.
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 mujahid.
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.
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.
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:
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.