This charming tale of a 12-13 year-old boy tripped up by the conflicted emotions of early adolescence was my final screening at BIFF 2014. In the end it didn’t win the European Features prize but it has won other international prizes and it seemed to me a genuinely commercial film – although at 82 minutes it is a little short. I’m not best qualified to select films for children but I would want to show it to secondary school children (11+) and possibly younger. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got this wrong.)
The central character is Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) who is small for his age and is at that awkward stage when some of the girls in his class are tall and willowy, towering over him. He attends a specialist ‘orchestra school’ and his instrument is a saxophone. One day he plays a joke on one of the girls that misfires and he is required to take home a behavioural report to be signed by his mother. Mother (Vita Varpina, one of the professional actors) is a hardworking single parent (a doctor/midwife?). Raimonds thinks that she will react badly to his misbehaviour and he removes the page from his report book and prevents her receiving a message from the school. Of course, one lie leads to another and he finds himself in an escalating crisis which his friendship with Peteris, the drummer in the orchestra, unintentionally makes worse. Raimonds’ relationship with his mother will deteriorate further before it gets better but the film ends on an upbeat note.
The film is the second feature by Jānis Nords who trained formally after working in film and television and directing his first film in 2008. Mother, I Love You was shot on location in Riga in just 20 days with most of the cast being non-professionals. It looks and sounds very good and is directed with vitality. It can’t be easy creating a CinemaScope feature on the streets with a non-professional cast but he succeeds and I found it very enjoyable. I’ve seen several mentions of François Truffaut’s work in critical responses to the film and especially to Les quatre cents coups. There are certainly similarities but the tone of this film is quite different. Raimonds is not the ‘wild child’ presented by Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel and there is not that sense of romantic despair. Raimonds’ mother is not an uncaring parent – this trope has been passed onto Peteris who suffers beatings from his mother.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a Latvian feature before but the Press Pack for the film suggests that Raimonds “has to venture into Riga’s thrilling night-life”. This is a little hyperbolic. Raimonds visits a skate park (the actor is, the Press Pack tells us, a very good ‘extreme cyclist’) and he follows a young woman through the dark streets (she has something he needs). That’s as thrilling as it gets. Nords does not make the mistake of shifting the tone of the film. He neatly sums up his approach:
A seemingly minor misdeed can seem like grand offence bound to bring harsh consequences. Though Raimonds is faced with a moral dilemma – to act dishonestly and escape punishment or tell the truth and face backlash – I tried to avoid teaching my protagonist a moral lesson. Instead, I was looking to portray a child, who thrown into the wildest of circumstances and confronted with tough choices, manages to maintain humanity and gain conscience. In other words, a child who “grows up”.
I hope the film has more festival showings in the UK. It should be on general release but I fear it won’t get picked up. If it does get a screening near you, please go.
The third Spanish film in my BIFF viewings offers something very different and very welcome – beautiful images of a unique landscape and its people in an artistic and poetic documentary. These images are nearly always framed in long shot and held long enough for us to contemplate the stories being told and to allow our gaze to wander across the composition, following tiny moving figures or noting the import of the situation. Before the feature screening there was an earlier short by the same filmmaker, Mountain in Shadow (Spain 2012). In the short Lois Patiño trains his camera on the ski slopes of a mountain range in Iceland. The contrasting white, grey and black of landscape and people (tiny figures) make both abstract patterns and moving tapestries. On a big screen the image seems to tremble or pulsate with life. As well as marvelling at the compositions and framings, I found myself also wondering how did you get those shots. Is the camera on another hillside hundreds of metres away with a long lens? Or is the camera in a balloon or on a helicopter? I think the latter is unlikely since the shots are held steady and the expense would be too great.
The same questions about camera positions come up with Costa da Morte. Here the long shots show us the treacherous waters of the Galician coast around Finisterre which the locals are able to navigate to harvest shellfish and goose barnacles. This is in itself dangerous but at least the locals know where the rocks are. The coast’s name is said to arise from the high number of shipwrecks caused by hidden rocks in difficult waters. As on other ‘wrecking coasts’ there are also stories about ships being lured in so their cargoes can be ransacked. Patiño shows us the coast in detail and we hear the tiny figures in the distance discussing the dangers. He also takes his camera inland to the forests and mountains of Galicia, exploring forestry and that other elemental danger of fire on the hills. I was a little surprised by the extent of these fires – Galicia is generally wet and green, but presumably dries in Summer. (The first images in the film gradually reveal loggers at work as the trees emerge from the mists on the mountains.) Again we hear stories about firefighters who sometimes re-started fires to keep themselves in work. We also see farmers and quarrymen – all in relation to their environment. This is a region where people have struggled in poverty for centuries battling against the elements. At the end of the film in the credits I noticed the name ‘Castro’ and remembered sitting in a bar in Havana which displayed Galician mementoes and support for the region’s teams. I assume that like Ireland and the Canary Islands, many Galicians from the coast looked West for the chance to make a new life.
Lois Patiño is a young filmmaker from Vigo (the biggest city in Galicia to the South-West of Costa da Morte). This is his first feature and he is an obvious talent who with this film is an obvious contender for Bradford’s European feature prize. (The film has already won prizes in other festivals.) The beautiful Press Pack on the film’s website includes the director’s statement which eloquently sums up the filmmaker’s intention:
I sought to relate the vastness of the natural space to the intimate experience of people through a double perceptual distance to the human figure (far in the image close in the sound). Eventually through the deep contemplation of the image we will dissolve in the whole and disappear into the landscape of Costa da Morte.
It was almost a relief to be presented with a feature that didn’t work for me. I confess that I missed the introduction to the film and I hadn’t looked very carefully at the brochure blurb for El futuro but that shouldn’t have mattered. And actually my struggle to work out what was going on at least got me engaged with a film that I seriously thought of abandoning (I’ve only once done that before and that was over thirty years ago).
Eventually I twigged that El futuro presents a group of young people in Madrid partying after the announcement of the election success of the Socialists under Felipe González in 1982. They aren’t celebrating a Socialist victory as such, but rather what they perceive as freedom now guaranteed, seven years after the death of Franco. I was trying desperately to remember the term given to these young people and the culture they created in the late 1970s, celebrated in the early films of Pedro Almodóvar – La Movida Madrileña. So the party features the usual drinking, smoking, drug-taking and at least one ‘outrageous’ display accompanied by a soundtrack of Spanish ‘New Wave’ and punk music. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course. Most of us have attended parties like this. Thirty or forty years later they don’t seem much fun but they seemed important at the time. More problematic is the presentation of the material – deliberate crash editing, fluctuating sound levels, break up of the image, end of reels etc., almost as if the filmmakers (Luis López Carrasco from the Collective Los Hijos) wanted to replicate the look of those early Almodóvar Super 8s. (Cineuropa suggests he was using 16mm) It didn’t work for me. I can see that the approach does intentionally frustrate the audience’s desire for a conventional narrative flow. A good example of this is the subtitling which sometimes seems to shift from giving the song lyrics to what is actually being said in a conversation almost randomly. Are they really talking about lemon blue vomit?
What did work was the insertion of a collection of still photographs. Someone at the party refers to those ‘summer holidays in the 1960s’ when “you knew who your boyfriend was”. The photos show rather complacent looking men and women in formal poses – and they did bring back the Spain of the Franco years. At the end of the film we see a series of shots of an empty apartment at dawn with the debris of the party and then several street scenes. I think that we are meant to ask ourselves what ‘now’ might look like viewed from the past? All this may be some kind of (justified) howl of rage at the waste of youth unemployment. Who knows?
Class Enemy is one of two standout films so far in my BIFF screening selections (Diego Star review coming up later). It was the Slovenian entry for the Foreign Languag Academy Award. I’m surprised that a film like this hasn’t got UK distribution. I can only assume that some kind of institutional inertia exists in UK distribution which prevents films from smaller territories like Slovenia from gaining a high profile. Perhaps the box office records of the two films which Class Enemy most resembles is helpful in thinking this through – Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Die Welle was dismissed by leading UK broadsheet critics, seemingly unable to see beyond it as a popular youth picture whereas The Class was warmly embraced as an auterist film by Laurent Cantet and went on to do excellent business as a specialised film. I thought both films succeeded in their explorations of the classroom environment and the interactions of teachers and students. Class Enemy is aesthetically more like Die Welle – presented in CinemaScope with instantly identifiable teenage types. But its tight focus on teaching styles and classroom interactions and its complex narrative also align it towards The Class.
I don’t think that Class Enemy actually moves the action beyond the walls of the school until the closing scene. This insularity actually points towards its universality. Slovenia is in some ways the most affluent, liberal and generally ‘calm’ of the countries formed after the break-up of the Yugoslavian federation – at least that’s how it seems from the outside. In reality I understand that the trauma of the after effects of World War II and in particular the the conflict between quislings and partisans has had a lasting impact. Slovenia is also a country strategically placed at a crossroads between Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe with potential migratory flows and domination by different hegemonic powers throughout history. The class of students placed at the centre of the narrative reflects this diversity with students whose backgrounds suggest different European histories – and with the single East Asian student symbolising the globalised world now open to Slovenes. Given the region’s history it isn’t surprising that the central drama involves German culture and accusations of ‘Nazi behaviour’.
The film’s dramatic conflict is created conventionally by the arrival of an ‘outsider’ who disrupts the equilibrium of the school and this class of 17-18 year-olds in particular. Their ‘liberal’ friendly teacher is about to go on maternity leave and she introduces the new German teacher, Robert Zupan. The new teacher seems to have a very different teaching style – strict and possibly authoritarian. When a tragedy occurs affecting all the students in the class, Zupan is held responsible because of his methods and their impact on students. The class comes together (with at first just one dissenter) in a form of rebellion which gradually escalates. The school authorities are forced to try to find a solution which means facing the parents as well as the students and Robert Zupan.
Class Enemy is the first feature film by 29 year-old Rok Biček. The excellent Press Pack includes an interview in which he discusses his methods. His two main inspirations seem to be Michael Haneke and the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the former prompted the coldness and surgical precision with which the events are analysed and the latter the basic long take style. Given the single central location and the focus on one class and three or for teachers, casting was very important. Biček says he took his lead from the Palestinian-Israeli pairing of Scandar Copti and Zaron Shani and their approach to Ajami (2009). He decided to mainly use professional actors for the teachers and found non-professionals for the students. The latter then built their own performances around their reactions to the constructed performances of the teachers. The students were kept away from the ‘actor’ teachers until their scenes so that they responded as naturally as possible.
The whole story was based on a set of incidents during Biček’s own school career. His skill has been in developing these into a narrative structure that allows a complex drama to emerge. This is a film which at the same time gives ‘concrete’ explanations /resolutions to certain narrative strands but still leaves open the possibility of a different reading. There are no ‘right’ answers as such. For instance, the headteacher does eventually ‘solve’ the problem but the film can still be seen as an indictment of modern school administration which often seems better at handling PR than in finding the best ways to offer real education. Similarly the German teacher (brilliantly played by the leading Slovenian theatre actor Igor Samobor) does indeed act in a rigid and authoritarian manner – but his actions can be read as rational and supportive and ultimately of benefit to students. The students themselves behave as any group of individuals placed under stress and towards the end of the narrative Biček also brings in the parents who also present ambiguous responses to the situation.
The brilliance of Biček’s direction lies in first the ‘surgical precision’ with which he presents the drama and then in the careful balancing of the possible readings of the actions. I can see an argument for showing this film to all teachers training for work in secondary school classrooms (assuming that we have any training left in the bizarre English education system). The work that trainee teachers might do in attempting to read the film would be highly beneficial. Perhaps I’m biased as both an ex-teacher and ex-teacher trainer, but I’d give the Bradford European feature prize to this film. There is still one screening to go in the competition so I’ll hold my fire for the moment.
90-plus minutes of talking heads anyone? I think the thought of that is why Sally Potter’s Rage is rated a mere 4.7 by imdb users. In reality, of course, it’s – at the least – an engaging film that relies on its excellent script and performances to allay any ‘poverty’ in the image. Riz Ahmed, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law and David Oyelowo are the stand outs in what can actually be called a ‘star studded’ cast. The monologues are ostensibly, we never see him, shot by a student for his school project; though he’s actually posting them on a blog. His subject is a fashion show, which is going ‘pear-shaped’, and Potter’s intention is to skewer the pretensions of the industry.
Not a difficult target, I would suggest, but Potter also goes beyond that focus by implicating western consumerism, and wars, into her film. We are invited to read between the lines of what the self-justifying characters are saying. Inevitably, most of them are as two-dimensional as the green screen; which is almost any colour but green, background. The actors perform the shallowness of the characters to perfection; Bob Balaban talking about his new ‘opportunities’, having being sacked, is particularly good.
But why this form? Potter’s targets are valid but are monologues to camera the best way to offer a subversive look at our capitalist world? I suspect it’s a case of form winning over content. Potter’s purpose was to make a film for mobile phones and chose the best – only? – visible format that would be effective on such small screens. This is not to say it doesn’t look great on the big screen, it makes the performances literally ‘towering’. Rage is worth seeing as Potter, and her performers, have risen to the challenge created by the form’s limitations, but it is more an exercise than a entirely convincing piece of cinema.
Phantom was screened alongside a short film, Tokyo Dreams (Japan 2013) by Nicholas Barker. It’s not difficult to see the logic of the pairing. In Tokyo Dreams the camera captures commuters on Tokyo’s network of local rail services sleeping through the routine of their journeys. I wondered just how many of these sleepers had been asked to sign a release form for their appearance but otherwise the film didn’t do very much for me. Phantom is much more interesting. The title refers to the sense of people all around you in a city like Tokyo who are somehow not ‘solid’ and ‘connected’ to the life of the city. They aren’t ghosts but they haven’t got substance. The extract below includes the discussion of the term in the film.
Phantom is directed by Jonathan Soler and it is basically a one-person job. He is a young (born 1985) French filmmaker who has spent a year and a half in Japan. The idea of the film is an essay about living in the city constructed around a young woman and her boyfriend who spend a night when neither can sleep discussing how they feel about their lives in Tokyo. In fact it’s mostly the woman who reveals her thoughts and the boyfriend who listens and occasionally adds his comments. Soler auditioned actors to read the script he had written and then edited the dialogue before adding the image track. The images comprise short and long sequences in a montage of aspects of city life (trains again, discarded objects in the street, roads, buildings etc.) and some scenes of the couple in her flat or in art galleries, on walkways above the city etc. I got the impression that the views of Tokyo gradually moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts. The crucial point is that although we see the couple on screen, none of the dialogue is in synch with characters we see speaking – everything is in effect voiceover. Music is in an important part of the film. During the montages of Tokyo life, an electronic score underpins the camera’s movement but I think that during the dialogue scenes the music is absent. Soler credits several filmmakers as the possible source of inspiration for Phantom and it was Chris Marker’s San Soleil (with its Japanese sequences) that resonated with me.
I confess that I did find Phantom difficult to follow, although I found what the young woman was saying to be very interesting. Part of the problem was that I found it more difficult than usual to track the image while at the same time reading the subtitles. This was partly because the image was often very dark and blurred and therefore needed more attention, but the subtitles were also quite dense. The blurring of the image is a function of the decision to shoot in available light with the aperture on the Canon 50mm lens permanently set at f1.8 and therefore always giving only a shallow depth of focus. I can imagine that if I didn’t have to read the subtitles, I could have given more attention to the images. I also found the overall aesthetic (the music/silence, the dark screen and disembodied voices) to be quite good at lulling me to sleep. (I should have had the coffee before not after the screening!) This was unfortunate as the script has plenty to say about being young in the city.
The young woman eventually reveals that she is well-educated, including a year spent overseas, but can only get temporary work – often as a menial worker. As well as the stress of not being able to afford her modest flat and enough food to keep her going she feels that she can’t be part of urban life (we watch her eating instant noodles). She describes how she feels that the world around her is floating, coming apart. She talks about having to return to live with her mother – the common issue for young adults across the developed world today. She also refers to more specifically Tokyo issues. At one point she says that some people live in manga cafés and both she and her partner dream about opening a small bar/restaurant – which made me think of the excellent Japanese film Dreams For Sale (Japan 2012). She mentions two novels that she has been reading. One is Horoki, a 1927 novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Hayadhi was known as the major writer of ‘women’s literature’ which for many years was deemed ‘inferior’. Several of her books were adapted by Naruse Mikio for his great melodramas of the 1950s. Also mentioned is Kanikōsen (1929) a short novella about exploited crab-pickers that has also been filmed (twice) and adapted for the stage.
Phantom is an intelligent and original film. I think most of the people who have seen it (and have commented on IMDB) have done so via an internet link. The film is available (with English subs) from Amazon France (Region 2). Its theatrical screenings might perhaps be rare because its length (76 minutes) is best suited to compilation screenings in festivals etc. I suspect that it is actually easier to watch on DVD or on a computer screen. However, I don’t regret seeing on a very big screen. I would recommend the film and I’ll look out for future work by Jonathan Soler.
Extract explaining the meaning of ‘Phantom’: