The Glasgow Film Festival goes from strength to strength with admissions up again this year. I enjoyed my follow-up festival visit after 2015 and this time I got more of the festival buzz because I was able to visit the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), only a short distance from Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). The CCA has more space and a bigger bar/café area. Its two screening rooms have good projection facilities but the seats are hard and the front rows don’t have raking. Fortunately the three films I saw at the venue were all engaging and my backside survived the experience. The bar/café is an important focal point for a festival and GFT has sacrificed what was once its restaurant to create a (very impressive) third screen. The result is that there isn’t really anywhere to relax between screenings apart from the tiny café upstairs. The renovations to GFT continue and we are promised a restoration of the staircase. Even so, the CCA is a welcome retreat that I hope will remain in use.
I’m not sure that the films I saw in 2016 quite matched the very high standards in 2015. I was only there for three days and only able to sample a small selection so that’s perhaps not a useful observation. I did value the Argentinian Cinema strand and chance meant that four out of my eleven screenings were from Latin America which was good. I was also pleased to be able to catch an archive screening of a Julien Duvivier film. The three best films I saw were all documentaries. The Pearl Button, Miss Sharon Jones and Speed Sisters were my picks. The first and the third are on release in a few weeks – don’t miss them! GFF is also a festival celebrating popular cinema and, though it’s not my thing, I’m always intrigued to see the range of interesting venues that have been selected and the enthusiastic responses evident in the festival’s twitter feed.
I was pleased to see that GFF had managed to put a film from HOME’s Hong Kong crime season into the festival – and to get Andy Willis to introduce the screening. GFT and HOME are two of the most important UK cinemas outside London and it would be good to see more link-ups like this. This year GFF also introduced an Industry strand, again well-received I think, and I’m sure there is scope to expand this element of the festival, especially given the demand for a Scottish studio facility and the general upsurge in interest in production in the Glasgow area. The more GFF grows, the more pressure there is on Edinburgh’s struggling festival. Perhaps I’ll give Edinburgh a go, but I’ll certainly be back in Glasgow.
I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.
Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.
The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.
Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:
While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)
Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.
Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!
This year Glasgow Film Festival has instituted a set of free screenings of classical Hollywood films under the heading of ‘The Dream Team’ with pairings such as Bogart and Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Butch and Sundance etc. Tickets are only obtainable 30 minutes before the screening at 10.30 am. I rolled up to find a queue outside GFT but there was plenty of room in GFT1, the largest auditorium, and everyone was easily accommodated. The pairing was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first film together, Woman of the Year. The screening was introduced (as all GFF screenings I’ve attended have been) but, unlike on most other occasions, co-director Allan Hunter said quite a lot about the film, offering us information about the production and the long loving relationship between Hepburn and the still married Tracy hat started on this film shoot. The intro was well received by an audience that wasn’t totally made up of pensioners. For younger members, Hunter’s insights were no doubt very useful.
Woman of the Year was an MGM production on which Hepburn had a considerable input since she sold the script package to the studio and chose both Tracy as her leading man and George Stevens as director. Hunter told us that she thought Stevens could talk to Tracy about sports. I was partly attracted to the film because of Stevens – who later directed Shane in a manner rather different to his pre-war films. I wondered if the film would have been different if George Cukor had been agreed by Hepburn (she had previously worked with both directors). Stevens had a good pedigree in comedy and Woman of the Year fairly zips along with great dialogue exchanges. Hepburn is Tess Harding – a character based on the leading American female journalist of the period –who is elected ‘Woman of the Year’. Tracy is Sam Craig, the leading sports columnist on the same paper. When they meet they fall for each other immediately and marry quickly despite their obvious differences in background and tastes.
I found the film refreshingly sharp and witty with two great players and a tight script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. The two actors seem to feed off each other. The main interest in the film today is in the ending which legend has it was the result of studio bosses wanting to see the strong assertive woman cut down to size and ‘behaving herself in a man’s world’. The final sequence was not in the script that Hepburn brought to the studio and though its force was slightly ameliorated by the writers, even so it is seen as dating the film because it wouldn’t be acceptable post 1960s feminism etc. I’m not sure if that analysis makes sense (whatever the studio’s intention). Tess has behaved badly (in her treatment of a refugee child). This is mainly because she has lived the life of a wealthy and privileged woman and doesn’t understand a few basics. The final scene sees her trying to appease Sam by making him breakfast in the kitchen of the new apartment he has taken after leaving her. Since she knows nothing about cooking or kitchens, everything goes wrong in a glorious sequence of blunders with untameable food technology. Stevens began his career photographing Laurel and Hardy films for Hal Roach and he organises this well. Tess’ failure to cook is demeaning not because she is doing ‘women’s work’ but because she is a rich young woman who has never done menial work in the home. She isn’t being ‘punished because she is a woman but because she has no contact with the world of the everyday for most people. It’s also true that the costume Kate is wearing is immensely impractical and gets in the way of cooking. Personally I can never see Ms Hepburn as a submissive woman on screen – she always seems to be in charge. Having said that, Allan Hunter told us that the normally assertive Katharine Hepburn was remarkably subservient to Spencer Tracy in their personal relationship. So, ‘that’s acting’ as more than one female star has said.
This film didn’t really work for me and I was surprised that it was selected for the Audience Award Competition. There were some good ideas behind the development of the project but they weren’t exploited effectively. Parabellum, as the title implies (transl. ‘prepare for war’), is about ways of tackling conflict and its aftermath. The film posits a world undergoing a never identified crisis manifest in random explosions as comets/bombs? fall from the skies and groups of people take advantage of the panic to start looting and rioting. There is only minimal dialogue as a random group of (presumably middle-class) people from the city is taken to a resort in the forest where we see them instructed in various forms of survival. Eventually they are deemed ready and those who have completed the training set off into the bush to ‘survive’. We don’t know what kind of ‘mission’ they might have been given.
The problem with the long training process is that it is so loosely edited with the inclusion of what seem like redundant or overlong shots that there is no tension or suspense, partly because it isn’t clear whether they are all expected to succeed. Is it a competition? We hear the training instructions but virtually nothing in the interactions between the recruits. When the ‘survivors’ finally get out into the river delta (which isn’t that far from Buenos Aires) things get a little weirder but not much. The trailer for the film includes some interesting images but it doesn’t convey the lacklustre appeal of the narrative. A posting on the film festival’s blog suggests all kinds of things about the film. Director Lukas Valenta Rinner and his collaborators Ana Godoy and Esteban Prado (who co-wrote the script) joined genuine Argentinian survival courses at the time of the 2012 ‘end of the world mania’. The lack of dialogue is a deliberate policy related to the experience of this preparation. The director was raised in Austria before moving to Argentina via Spain to study film and it seems that the film is inspired to some extent by the similarities between the Austrian middle-class and the Argentinian ‘upper middle-class’ (the director’s terms). If I’d read the blog before watching the film I might have been more disposed to support it, but at the end of a long day this film just didn’t grab me like the preceding four.
Trailer from International Film Festival Rotterdam:
Julien Duvivier was an established director from the 1920s onwards perhaps best known in the UK for the proto-noir Pépé le Moko (1937) with Jean Gabin, although he ranged successfully across several genres. Like Jean Renoir, Duvivier spent the war years in the US and on his return he struggled to re-establish himself in the climate of mistrust surrounding those who had left France under Vichy and the Occupation. By the late 1950s his kind of cinema was going out of fashion as the New Wave came in. He died in a road accident in 1967. Duvivier’s earlier films from the 1930s had often been highly praised and GFF16 mounted a mini-retrospective of three films.
Panique was scripted by Brussels born Charles Spaak and based on a novel by the great Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. The same novel was adapted again as Monsieur Hire in 1989 directed by Patrice Leconte. Spaak was a former colleague of Duvivier as was Michel Simon who played the mysterious M. Hire in the 1946 version. The simple story sees a small town (a Parisian suburb?) community in which M. Hire is a man of independent means who roams the town with his camera and fusses over his shopping. He clearly isn’t ‘one of us’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s unpleasant phrase. The disruption which kicks off the narrative is the arrival of an attractive woman, Alice played by Vivian Romance. She has just been released from prison and threatens to be the femme fatale who will provoke both Hire and the man for whom she ‘took the rap’ (and who in the same period in the UK would be called a ‘spiv’ – marked as a criminal type by his dress and demeanour). At the same time, a fair comes to town and the body of an older woman is found when the fair sets up. Murder and robbery are suspected.
The narrative is constructed around an extensive studio set in which M. Hire has a room which overlooks the hotel where Alice is staying. Apart from a brief excursion the whole plot is worked out on the set – a familiar approach from 1930s French cinema. Duvivier uses every possible narrative device to drive M. Hire to his doom. We will find out a little more about his background and why he is the way he is but mainly we are transfixed by how he is set up for the murder and the way in which the townspeople are whipped up into a frenzy about his presumed guilt. In one memorable scene he ‘escapes’ onto a dodgem car in the fairground only to find that every other couple on the rink ‘bumps’ into him deliberately. The use of these devices and the close control over mise en scène creates exactly the kind of social commentary about collective self-deception that must have been very uncomfortable for French audiences when everyone is likely to be identified as being in the résistance or a collaborator. The final scenes are a tour de force with a final tragic revelation. I’m certainly up for more Duvivier films if I can find them. The other two titles in the GFF retrospective were La belle épique (1936) and La fin du jour (1939). Although it was in the smallest auditorium at GFT, this screening was packed – an encouraging sign that a foreign language film can still generate an audience on the big screen.
This Cannes prizewinner (FIPRESCI and Critics Week Prizes) from 2015 has attracted critical attention across the festival circuit. I would hope it would get a UK release but I’m not sure it will. It would be a shame if it didn’t get widely seen outside the festival circuit (it is being distributed in the producing countries and Spain). GFF16 featured an Argentinian cinema strand, neatly spotting the growing importance of Argentina’s output (120 features in 2015), and Paulina was one of 10 films, old and new in the strand. Paulina is also the third of the films I saw to feature a teacher/care worker facing up to difficult students/clients.
Based on a significant 1960 film, La patota (‘mob’ or ‘gang’), director Santiago Mitre and his co-writer Mariano Llinás moved the action of the story from Buenos Aires to the border region of North-Eastern Argentina where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil converge. This is an area where the forest has been cleared and re-planted with pine for lumber (see also the film Las acacias (Argentina 2011)). There is an indigenous population some of whom work in the sawmill and this community becomes the focus of the narrative.
Paulina is a highly-promising PhD law student and the film begins with a long argument she has with her father, a judge. He expects her to follow him into the judicial system but she wants to take direct action – giving up her studies and becoming a teacher of politics and civil rights in a school in the indigenous community. Dolores Fonzi as Paulina is an attractive and forceful young woman determined to do what she thinks is right. Her father and her boyfriend can’t dissuade her and she goes ahead. Paulina’s home region isn’t clear but she seems to come from somewhere not that far away from where she goes to teach.
Paulina makes all the mistakes of the untrained teacher, failing to get to know her students before she starts on quite complex classroom discussions/activities. Disaster is signalled very early on and after a night of drinking with another teacher who is trying to help her, Paulina is attacked on her way home by four young men and raped by one of them. The director uses flashbacks to give a different perspective on some of these events. The important outcome of the rape is that Paulina decides not to seek to prosecute the men and also to return to her teaching job when she leaves hospital. She didn’t see her attackers but knows that they are connected to her students in some way. Later she finds she is pregnant. The narrative’s main concern is to locate Paulina’s political views which compel her to do what she feels is best for the indigenous people of the community, including her students. In doing this she will have to fight her father, who claims himself to be progressive and leftist but believes she is making the wrong decisions.
Reviewing the film after its Cannes screening, Variety‘s Ben Kenigsberg suggests that Paulina’s decision turns the film into a “pointed intellectual exercise” and a flawed filmic narrative. He suggests that most audiences will side with the father. This is indeed a pointed political rather than intellectual exercise, made stronger by the flaws in Paulina’s original approach (she is both naïve and arrogant in her liberal ‘mission’) and her father’s seemingly logical argument. However, he oversteps the mark and some audiences will recognise that Paulina is correct in that the authorities will mistreat any suspects that she identifies. But what about Paulina’s emotional state? For the narrative to have any credibility (and therefore to carry through a political discourse) requires that Dolores Fonzi performs to a very high standard – and I think she does. And the film deserves its chance to convince us.
This is scheduled for a UK release in the next couple of weeks. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year and I’m now going to have to go back and watch director Patricio Guzmán’s previous film Nostalgia For the Light (2010). But then, Guzmán’s been making films since 1968 so I’ve got a lot to learn. Why is this film so good? Partly it is because of the sheer skill in combining sets of ideas – ideas about the importance of coastlines and water to the inhabitants of Chile, a long thin country with both the driest and wettest areas on earth; ideas about the culture of indigenous peoples and the genocide suffered under colonialism/imperialism; ideas about the Chilean version of fascism and the brutality of the smashing of democracy – so that a seamless narrative seems to be being constructed. It’s about the beauty and the horror of images, the testament of survivors, the honesty of those who ‘followed orders’ and so much more.
The film is only 82 minutes long but this is a beautifully-edited documentary that flows effortlessly and logically through its powerful arguments so you hardly realise just how much you are absorbing and learning. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is the tiny object that almost magically ties together the two historical narratives. I feel that I don’t want to reveal how the narrative works because that would spoil the impact of the connection. What struck me most forcefully (apart from all the facts about Chile that I didn’t know) was the terrible universality of the two historical narratives.
Before the arrival of the Europeans the indigenous peoples of the Patagonian archipelago had a developed nomadic maritime culture which was based on an understanding of astronomy and the seas around the islands. The people fished from canoes and moved freely between islands. The culture survived until the start of the 20th century when the few thousand strong Kawésqar nation was decimated by European diseases and attacks by settlers. Only a few survivors in the 21st century can still speak the language. Guzmán’s presentation of this history brings to mind Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014) and Indigenous films from Australia as well as other narratives from Africa and the rest of the Americas – I’m sure similar histories exist in parts of Asia as well. Guzman is something of an expert in uncovering the evidence of the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Here he manages to link what happened to the supporters of the democratically-elected President Allende to the destruction of indigenous Patagonian culture. One of the major islands of the archipelago, Dawson Island was first used by Chilean settlers to intern indigenous people (the Selk’nam) evicted from land required for sheep grazing. After 1973 Pinochet used the island to intern civil servants and others associated with Allende and Guzman presents evidence that some of these internees were thrown into the sea from helicopters – a terrible symmetry in terms of the importance of the waters to Chile.
This film is riveting viewing, I hope it draws large audiences when it reaches cinemas. It comes out on March 18th in the UK from New Wave Films. Find out where it is playing near you from this website.
Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.
The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.
Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.
A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.
On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.