This was the most enjoyable film I watched in Glasgow. Most of the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering. The hero of this fairy tale, as the writer-director calls it, is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Halla is a woman in her forties, living alone and seemingly happy with her ‘crusades’ (and the name ‘Halla’ refers to one of the last Icelandic outlaw’ characters in the 17th century)’. Halla has three passions – leading a choir, taking care of the planet and protecting her local landscape. It’s these last two which motivate her declaration of war on heavy industry and the power company. Her heroes are Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The film’s narrative begins with the one woman war already well under way. A large metal smelting plant has been built close to Halla’s town and power is brought to it by overhead lines which snake across the mountains. The Chinese are said to be interested in investing in the smelter, so protecting it is high on the government agenda. Halla has already managed to cut the power supply more than once and now she has bigger plans. Meanwhile, the company and the government have brought in security forces, the CIA and the latest surveillance technologies to stop her (though they don’t actually know who is causing the power losses yet). But Halla is very fit and resourceful and has some clever ideas. She might not be a superhero, but she is a tough adversary.
The narrative has a key twist which I won’t reveal and it has a sub-plot which goes some way to explaining the film’s co-production status. Halla applied some time ago to adopt a little girl orphaned after the fighting in Ukraine. This is a bureaucratic process that appears to be heading for a resolution just as Halla is about to launch her biggest attack. She desperately wants the child but how would her arrival affect Halla’s campaign?
The film works because of the wonderful central performance and the comic understanding of co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson whose previous film was the cult hit Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013), which I also enjoyed (and which also featured Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). The comedy is in the way Halla evades capture and outwits the security forces, but pleasure is also generated by the careful planning procedures and exciting action scenes. I note from going back to a film still from Of Horses and Men, that Erlingsson seems to have repeated the idea of a lone Spanish traveller on a bicycle who is a kind of ‘silent witness’ to all the trouble Halla is causing (and since the authorities don’t know the identity of the saboteur, this poor Spaniard is arrested on the grounds that he is an alien). I wonder if this character played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is set to appear in Benedikt Erlingsson’s future films? The other big attractions in the film include the Icelandic landscape (beautifully presented in ‘Scope by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson) and the music. Halla has her own musical accompaniment physically in place with her as she tackles her mission, a wonderful touch. The euphonium is an inherently comic instrument for me. Icelandic films seem to thrive on a certain kind of dark humour. If you enjoyed Rams and Under the Tree, you should certainly enjoy this.
Woman at War was screened in Critics Week at Cannes in 2018 and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Picturehouses so it should appear later this year. Don’t miss it. The main trailer for the film gives away the twist so here is a much shorter US teaser:
This was one of my real ‘finds’ at Glasgow. It is the first fiction feature of the documentary filmmaker Marta Bergman and was selected as one of the candidates for the ‘Audience Award’ competition. It’s not hard to see why. Marta Bergman was in attendance and she proved a fascinating guest. Alone at My Wedding was screened in the ‘ACID’ (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) programme at Cannes in 2018. This programme features films that might have difficulty finding a distributor and currently this film is looking for distribution via the sales company Cercamon.
Marta Bergman, originally from Bucharest, studied at film school in Belgium and then returned to Romania to make documentaries. This first fiction feature has taken several years to make and clearly draws on the documentary experience. It mixes professional and non-professional actors. The narrative is relatively straightforward. Pamela (Alina Serban) is a single mother in her twenties living with her toddler Rebeca and her grandmother in a Roma community in a village on the outskirts of Bucharest. She has to find ways of earning money to buy food and decides eventually that the only way to survive is to find a rich husband via the internet. This isn’t easy (and requires her to raise money for the fees) but eventually, through an agency, she makes contact with Bruno (Tom Vermeir) in Brussels and agrees to fly to Belgium. She leaves Rebeca behind with her grandmother and tries to make a new life for herself in Brussels, sending the money Bruno gives her home to Romania. I won’t spoil what happens to her (and Rebeca) but I will say that Marta Bergman tells a human story in which some good things happen and Pamela is frustrated in her attempts to ‘get ahead’. Bruno is not a typical man who orders a ‘mail-order bride’, but even when it is clear that he wants the best for Pamela it doesn’t necessarily mean their relationship will work. There are Roma in Brussels and Pamela finds them easily enough. Meanwhile, things are happening in Bucharest where Marian (who might be the baby’s father) is concerned about Rebeca.
The film succeeds partly because Alina Serban is a terrific actor and a bubbling vivacious personality. She appears younger than her 30 years as listed on IMDb and she lives up to the database description of an ‘award-winning actor, playwright and director’. Marta Bergman told us that Alina was primarily a theatre actor but she does have previous film and TV experience. Tom Vermeir is also a theatre actor and he had to develop his Brussels French after working in Flemish theatre. Bergman’s documentary background is evident in the way she makes use of small gestures, some of which have come from observation of families in Bucharest. For instance, early in the film we see Pamela trudging through the snow with a bucket of water because her home has no running water. Later in Bruno’s flat she often leaves the water running, holding her fingers under the flow, revelling in its availability.
I enjoyed this film very much and I hope it gets a UK release. I’d like to show it to students and in the current Brexit climate it provides a powerful story about ‘living abroad’. If I have one slight criticism, it might be that at around 2 hours the film might be too long. By this I don’t mean that the material doesn’t warrant the length – there is more I would want to know – but that perhaps a slightly shorter, tighter narrative might appeal more to distributors? Having said that, I heartily recommend the film as it stands.
Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.
These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.
In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.
Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.
By 1969 I think I considered that my interest in cinema was more than just the enjoyment of ‘entertainment cinema’. I hadn’t yet discovered the full range of the diverse film offer in London, but I’m pretty sure I was aware of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. However, I can’t remember if I actually watched it on release. I was intrigued to see it in GFF’s programme and now I feel very grateful for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
Allan Hunter gave his usual entertaining and informative introduction to this screening, suggesting that the cinematographer Wexler making his first film as a director was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard. I think that this might be a reference to Godard’s 1967 film Weekend. Certainly there is an important use of car crashes in both films, but Wexler’s film is much more structured and ‘narrativised’ in its use of different elements than most of Godard’s work from 1967 onwards. Wexler is also credited with the screenplay and the cinematography on Medium Cool. In the interview shown below, Wexler tells us that his film began as a literary adaptation of a 1967 novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness. This novel traced the adventures of a freelance photographer and naturalist who meets a boy with a dog in the New York city storm drains. The two discover the wide range of animals living in the city. This storyline remains at the centre of Wexler’s film but the location moves to Chicago. When Wexler returned to his home city in 1968 there was so much going on in the streets re Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and Mayor Daley’s attempts to hijack the Democratic convention that he realised that the ‘background’ in his film had to come forward and merge with the original story.
The central character becomes a TV news camera operator/reporter, ‘John’ played by Robert Forster, who with his sound recordist attempts to collect material that will represent the tumultuous events in Chicago at the time. But when John learns that the TV station regularly sends his footage to the FBI to help in identifying people he ‘wakes up’ and starts to to investigate stories as a freelance. At the same time, he changes in his personal life as well when he meets Harold, a young teenager who he thinks is stealing his hubcaps. Harold (a remarkable performance by Harold Blankenship, one of several non-professionals in the cast) lives with his mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom), who has brought her son to Chicago from West Virginia where she was a teacher in a rural school. In Chicago she works for Motorola. Harold has homing pigeons and roams the streets of Chicago with a young friend. John and Eileen are similarly on the streets looking for each other and for Harold as the clashes between police and National Guard on one side and demonstrators on the other spread across the city.
Watching the film now, the mixture of fictional story, documentary footage of the convention, Wexler’s own footage recorded as part of the real event and ‘staged’ documentary sequences doesn’t seem that unusual. Several commentators suggest Wexler is a pioneer of ‘ciné-vérité’ camerawork. They may be correct about a studio film at this point but ciné-vérité dates back to Jean Rouch in France in the early 1960s. The North American equivalent, ‘Direct Cinema’, though slightly different in approach, was already a staple of TV news documentaries in the US and also featured in Nation Film Board of Canada films. Looking back at reviews from the time does however reveal the impact of the film. Roger Ebert, for instance, thinks that the film marks the real turning point in Hollywood films and he abandons his usual approach to write more generally about how Hollywood had changed, picking out the earlier film The Graduate (1967) as the beginning of the process. Vincent Canby in the New York Times is perhaps more clear-eyed in his analysis of the film, suggesting that it is
a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica’, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence. The movie, however, is much less complex than it looks.
Canby also recognises that the film’s title is a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s work on television, though he thinks that the film’s use of colour and editing could diminish the horror of the real events being shown live on TV. (McLuhan suggested that TV was a ‘cool’ medium because it offered relatively little stimulus to the viewer and required ‘participation’ by the viewer to fully understand its meanings. This he contrasted with a ‘hot’ medium like cinema film which stimulated the visual sense above all else.) Ebert and Canby don’t however mention the film’s use of music which is distinctive and which in a way links Medium Cool to both The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant. The music was the responsibility of Mike Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who was also a relative of Wexler’s. Bloomfield use a mix of traditional protest songs and strong guitar pieces, one from Arthur Lee’s Love and a number of Frank Zappa’s early compositions for the Mothers of Invention. The other major Chicago figure who was important in the film’s production was Studs Terkel, the legendary ‘people’s historian’, actor, journalist and radio broadcaster. Wexler explains that without Terkel’s support he would not have been able to film the scenes with black militants in Chicago who were understandably reluctant to engage with white Hollywood filmmakers in 1968.
Wikipedia suggests that the film was profitable for Paramount, suggesting rental income of $5.5 million and an original budget of $800,000. This suggests that the studio knew what it was doing, which if true was unusual for the time. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been made at the time at any other studio. Wexler says in the interview below that he was offered the chance to make The Concrete Wilderness by Peter Bart who was then a producer at Paramount. This was also the period when Robert Evans was Head of Production and between 1967 and 1974, Paramount was a ‘hot studio’ with hits like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972), both in their different ways groundbreaking films.
Haskell Wexler made only three more films as director and none as high-profile as Medium Cool. However, he did continue to be a highly acclaimed cinematographer. He had already won an Oscar for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) and he won a second for his work on Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976). Later he shot four John Sayles movies with Silver City in 2004, his last major feature. Wexler was clearly a fascinating man and died aged 93 in 2015.
The free programme of archive prints at GFF this year was dedicated to a group of films that challenged traditional Hollywood in 1969 and the festival strand was entitled ‘The End of Innocence’. Alice’s Restaurant is a particulary good example of a film that fits the selection criteria and was introduced as such by the GFF co-director Allan Hunter. It’s a rarely-screened film from 1969 and we watched a digital print from Olive Films in the US.
The director of the film was Arthur Penn who alongside the other two ‘Ps’, Peckinpah and Pakula, belonged to the maverick group of 50s/60s directors who began in TV or theatre and were never really happy with the studios. Robert Altman was another and this quartet were older and possibly wiser than the Movie Brats who formed the next generation. Penn had his big success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (sharing its success with producer-star Warren Beatty) and he was in a position to make this unusual film with a reasonable budget. Hunter made two useful statements when first he told us that Arthur Penn himself had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an ‘experimental college’ with an emphasis on art and that he was therefore predisposed to make this film about the ‘counter-culture’ based around various events in the life of Arlo Guthrie and celebrated by the young folk singer in a long narrative song which appeared in 1967.
Secondly, Hunter quoted Penn himself saying that his film was the most ‘authentic’ of the studio pictures attempting to capture the brief period of the counter-culture. I’m not sure if there is much competition for such a title, but certainly Penn’s film feels authentic, not least because of Arlo himself in the lead. There are others in the cast too who are non-actors, some of whom were directly connected to the original events that form the basis of the narrative. Alice and her husband Ray are played by the actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick (and the real Alice and Ray) have small parts. Alice is the familiar ‘earth mother’ figure of the commune narrative whereas Ray is the older figure, a man around 40 who perhaps fought in Korea and is now enjoying a kind of delayed adolescence.
The film is conventional in including scenes of the clash between the young ‘long-hairs’ and the conservative townsfolk of the small Montana town where Arlo attempts to become a student to avoid the Vietnam draft and then, after his expulsion, the antics he gets up to ‘fail’ the draft board medical. By contrast the initial opening of the restaurant and the founding of an ‘alternative community’ in a de-consecrated church in Massachusetts at first goes well. The incident at the centre of the narrative when Arlo and his (real) childhood friend ‘Roger’ (Geoffrey Outlaw) illegally dump the garbage from the Thanksgiving Day party when they discover the town tip is closed now appears the oddest act in the film. No self-respecting ‘alternative’ group today would despoil the countryside with litter.
Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie was hospitalised with Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary and ultimately fatal nervous disease. He died in 1967. Woody is played in the film by the actor Joseph Boley but when Arlo goes to visit on one occasion he discovers Woody being serenaded by the real Pete Seeger with his banjo. I was surprised to see a couple of reviews stating this performance was out of place in the film. Pete Seeger is one of the great men of the 20th century for me and when Arlo joins him on harmonica, I found this to be the most emotional moment in the film. It was nearly matched by a later song at a funeral when Tigger Outlaw sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’. (Tigger was possibly the first wife of Geoff Outlaw according to one internet source?)
I’m not sure what I make of the film from this 2019 viewing and I can’t remember whether I saw it the first time round. The music still resonates and it stitches the narrative together in following the song lyrics. Arlo is a likeable character and Pat Quinn as Alice is very good but the more generic sequences don’t do much for me, especially the extended party scenes. The sub-plot about trying to help a heroin user carries more weight but not enough to support the narrative on its own. Perhaps what surprised me most was the importance of the motorcycle sequences, which seem to hark back to the 1950s as a ‘challenge’ to conservative America. They also create some tension with the sense of a peaceful alternative community.
The counter-culture didn’t last that long in North America, perhaps from 1967 to 1970? In the UK, despite being in London during that period, I felt the impact of the ideas about ‘alternative lifestyles’ wasn’t really evident until the later 1970s. Fortunately Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, one of the few times the UK didn’t slavishly follow US foreign policy. Arlo Guthrie in one interview has stated that for him the anti-war rallies were the high point of the 1960s.
One of the other points that Allan Hunter made was again to quote Penn in saying that it was a white middle-class alternative lifestyle. I think in general that’s probably true, but there are actually African-American musicians in the film and Arlo’s girlfriend is Asian-American. I’m glad I saw the film but questions about the ‘End of Innocence’ were always more likely to be raised by the next programmed archive screening of Medium Cool.
[I haven’t included a trailer because there seem to be several free online offers of the film that you can explore.]
Programmed as part of the ‘Pioneer’ strand in the festival this is the first solo feature by Claire Burger who graduated from La fémis as an editor but then went on to make several short films and one part of a compendium film, Party Girl (2014). Ms Burger comes from Forbach in Lorraine and Forbach was the title of her 2008 short film. Real Love is also set in the town. I should say that this was my last film of a long day and I think I struggled a little with the opening sequences. I don’t think this was the fault of the film, but the characters in this family melodrama are not immediately easy to understand and come to terms with. But eventually I became fully engaged and later I found myself thinking a great deal about the film and reflecting on its impact.
This is a film about a father moving towards a potential point of crisis and then recovering – mainly through his interaction with several women. In one sense the narrative might be seen to end conventionally, with the man’s redemption of sorts as part of a public display, but I don’t think his route towards that point is at all conventional or formulaic. In the Press Notes Claire Burger reveals that the story is inspired by her own family history.
Mario Messina (the Belgian actor Bouli Lanners) is separated from his wife Armelle who has left him in the family home with his two teenage daughters. The older daughter Niki is nearly 18 and looking for her independence. Her sibling Freda is 14 and more of a problem for her father. He loves his daughters and attempts to be a ‘good father’ but he struggles to keep house and to cope with his work as a civil servant in a local office. He also has problems with his personal life, especially with his working relationships and especially with the women he meets in in various forms of social interaction. He decides to sign up for a community-based theatre project called ‘Atlas’, the creation of Ana Borralho and João Galante.
‘Atlas’ is a real project that has operated in different parts of Europe. The idea is that individuals from a specific community each contribute something they feel about their town or about their personal lives. This could be a song, a poem or some other kind of performance. The project workers then bring all the individual contributions together into a theatrical presentation. The whole process of generating ideas, rehearsals and final presentation in the local theatre is a form of social interaction. Claire Burger first saw a presentation in Nanterre and was then invited to see another in Charleroi, a Belgian town suffering from industrial decline like Forbach. She then decided to use the project as part of her film. Mario struggles to be part of this and feels compromised because he’s a civil servant and he doesn’t want to criticise his employers by highlighting local social issues – so he turns to more personal issues. The project is based in the town’s theatre and Armelle works as a lighting technician, creating more tension for Mario who doesn’t feel confident knowing she might be watching him.
The film is a familiar form of social realist melodrama and Burger makes some interesting observations when she says that narratives often deal with the rich who have opulent lifestyles to be explored or the poor who have real social issues to deal with. The ‘middle class’ (I think she means the lower middle-class in UK terms) is often considered to be less interesting. Forbach is a town that is losing its richer inhabitants and she felt that focusing on Mario was an important decision. She wanted to use local people in the project and:
I didn’t want lingering shots of industrial landscapes, but shots of the inhabitants’ bodies and faces. I wanted the camera to give them a voice. Those voices, on a personal and collective level, resonate with the story of Mario and his daughters.
She says that representing the strength of the community was also important as the Front National was starting to make big inroads into the town’s political life.
But Mario’s story is about personal interactions with his daughters, with his boss at work and the leading project worker on ‘Atlas’, Antonia amongst others. Claire Burger explains her own situation growing up:
I wanted to draw a portrait of a delicate, sensitive, affectionate man, far removed from clichés of virility. I was raised by a man like that. For Mario, I was inspired by my father’s personality and his relationship to fatherhood and, above all, to passing on knowledge and culture. It was the upbringing he gave us and, to some extent, his feminism that enabled my sister and I to feel strong as women and, in my own case, legitimate as a filmmaker.
In the movie, Mario is overrun by women packing big temperaments. All the women around him are solid and strong, and they force him to reassess . . . The film reflects a time in society when women are expanding their rights and freedom, but the idea was not to portray a man resisting change. Mario changes too; he repositions himself in that context.
Mario is indeed cultured and he is passionate about music. As befits a melo there is plenty of music in the film – all kinds of music. The music is an integral part of the culture of the community and the key to the film’s success is also in the casting, so apart from Bouli Lanners (who comes from not far away over the border and can speak the local dialect), most of the other roles are played by non-professionals who are local or by members of the crew, stepping out from behind the camera. Antonia, the project leader is played by Antonia Buresi from ‘Atlas’. The film is presented in CinemaScope, a format that distinguishes many French films from similar British pictures.
I don’t think Real Love has a UK distributor as yet, but I hope someone decides to go for it. Claire Burger offers something unusual but not that different from the films of the Dardenne Brothers or Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and those films sell in the UK. The film opens in France and Belgium in March 2019.
A Belgian trailer, in French with Dutch/Flemish subs: