For several years Bradford’s International Film Festival offered the opportunity to see anglophone Canadian films that rarely got a UK release. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any this year. Instead the festival has picked up on the recent successes of Québécois cinema such as the films of Philippe Falardeau, Kim Nguyen, Jean-Marc Vallée, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve creating a stir wherever they have been shown. Will the next in line be Frédérick Pelletier with Diego Star? I think it deserves to be and already the film has begun to win prizes at international festivals.
I’m a fan of Canadian cinema and very impressed by the recent Québécois films that I have seen and I was pre-disposed to enjoy this film. It didn’t disappoint. Bradford screened a Pelletier documentary short before the feature and this set up expectations with its portrait of a retired seaman and his wife in their small house in the city of Lévis on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec City. Diego Star uses the same location and tells a simple but powerful story.
The title refers to a cargo ship registered in Cyprus with a crew comprising a Russian captain and a crew from Africa, the Middle East and further afield. The ship breaks down and is to Lévis on the St. Lawrence seaway with one of the biggest shipyards in North America. The crew are offered accommodation in Lévis at the shipping company’s expense while the ship’s problems are investigated. The ship’s second engineer is an experienced sailor from Ivory Coast who tends to be known as ‘Traoré’ since his personal name is too long/difficult to remember. Early on we realise that he is a man of principle who has told the captain several times that the ship’s engine needs to be serviced. Traoré is billeted on Fanny, a young single parent who needs the money for his bed and board to supplement her wage from kitchen work in the shipyard’s cafeteria. At first hesitant about being too friendly towards Traoré, she soon realises that he is a family man who is good with children and she accepts his help with her infant.
The Canadian authorities question the crew about the ship’s service record but most of the crew are prepared to keep quiet as they are still owed their wages for the last trip. Traoré decides to tell the truth believing that the authorities will support him. But he soon discovers that the company have suspended him – withdrawing his right to enter the shipyard. Fanny loses his bed and board allowance and their friendly tentative relationship breaks down. Traoré finds himself without any support in a country he doesn’t know. Diego Star is a bleak tale and, without giving away what happens, there is no artificial happy ending.
I think this is tight, muscular filmmaking with terrific performances by the two leads played by Isaka Sawadogo and Chloé Bourgeois. Both Traoré and Fanny are abused by the system and struggle to maintain relationships in which others let them down. The overall aesthetic is a form of social realism probably more akin to the French mode of Laurent Cantet in Ressources humaines (France 1999) or the earlier work of the Dardennes Brothers than to the social melodramas of Loach in the UK. We do learn about Traoré’s family through the photographs he places in his room and the interaction with Fanny and her child and the film does move into a dramatic final sequence, but always without non-diegetic music. Pelletier doesn’t resort to any kind of conventional narrative devices. He deals in the realities of the lives of sailors far from home and a young woman facing the problems of bringing up a child in difficult economic circumstances. The film looks very good and the freezing Canadian winter (beautifully captured in the stately progress of the snow blower moving down the narrow street) is almost another character in the drama. This was one of the most impressive films that I saw at BIFF and is highly recommended.
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.
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.