I first came across Thomas Arslan in 2011 when five of his films were shown at the Bradford International Film Festival. He also visited the festival and took part in a formal Q&A as well as chatting to several of us in the bar. He seemed like a really nice guy, but perhaps a little diffident for a film director. I enjoyed his films and I’ve looked out for them ever since but I don’t think any of them have got a UK release and I haven’t caught any of them at festivals.
I got the chance to see Bright Nights because of a promotion offered at the Glasgow Film Festival by the streaming service MUBI. I’ll report in full on what a month of MUBI films might look like a little later. Bright Nights is a title that refers to a trip to Northern Norway in the summer undertaken by Michael (Georg Friedrich). Michael is a guy in his late 40s, a construction site manager living in Berlin with his younger partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger). At the beginning of the narrative he has just heard that his father, who he hasn’t seen for five years, has died from a heart attack in Norway where he has been based since his retirement. When Michael’s sister says she won’t be going to the funeral, Michael decides to take his 14 year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel) who he has barely seen since his divorce.
Thomas Arslan has a very distinctive film style. His films are often short and this one lasts just under 86 minutes. Arslan’s DoP Reinhold Vorschneider carefully composes static shots which are sometimes held without any discernible action on screen. In an interview on Cineuropa, Arslan responded to the suggestion that he had chosen a ‘relaxed’ pace:
I don’t really think about films in terms of fast or slow. That’s too formal a way to look at it, and I don’t work like that at all. I tried to bring the appropriate rhythm to this very particular story, without being bound by general conceptual rules.
That strikes me as the answer of someone who thinks a lot about how he does things. My own feeling is that he is a good judge of pacing. Yes, shots are held a long time but I didn’t find that off-putting. I should also note that the music by Ola Fløttum (who has worked with Ruben Östlund and Joachim Trier) and the film editing by Reinaldo Pinto Almeida complement the camerawork very well. Added to the pacing is Arslan’s wish to show not tell so the viewer needs to be alert to look around the image for visual clues rather than expecting dialogue to do the job.
After the initial scenes in Berlin (in which Michael learns that Leyla is going to be working in the US for a year, unsettling him further) father and son arrive in Norway for the funeral and then a trip to the far North involving some camping and hiking. Since Luis barely speaks to his father we know this is going to be a difficult trip. When they pick up their rental Land Rover Discovery the film could become a familiar road movie, but there are few ‘adventures’ or interesting encounters. It might be an ‘anti-road movie’ but actually in some ways it becomes a film which conveys very well the the feelings and emotions that can arise on a journey, especially on empty roads in a wild environment. There is a standout sequence lasting over 4 minutes in which the camera simply stares through the windscreen at the road ahead as the vehicle moves through the fog on an upland road. I found this almost a spiritual experience, especially with the music, a synthesiser drone that rises imperceptibly as the car rolls on with the only other sound that of the tyres on the road and the low thrum of the engine. The snow poles which look so odd in the summer landscape reminded me of some roads in the Pennines. Not surprising perhaps but such areas of wilderness are so much more extensive in Norway which looks terrific through Vorschneider’s lens.
Rebuilding a father-son relationship is a relatively common theme in films, but it is rarely achieved with such subtlety as in Bright Nights. At the end of the film, which is mainly composed of long shots, there is none of the emotional catharsis of mainstream movies. There are just a couple of shots in which we search for and find some emotional meaning – and that’s enough.
If you like calm, intelligent and beautifully crafted films, Bright Nights is for you. If you want excitement or a popcorn movie experience, it isn’t. The two leads are both excellent. I thought they seemed familiar and Georg Friedrich was indeed the lead in Aloys (Switzerland-France 2016) which I saw on a plane last year. I’ve got a bit more of an excuse for not recognising Tristan Göbel who was equally good as the 10 year-old boy in the excellent Westen (Germany 2013). I’m delighted to have had the chance to see Bright Lights, now I must find Gold from 2013 with Nina Hoss.
Here’s the German trailer for the film (no English subs), but at least you can get a sense of the cinematography:
Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.
Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.
The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.
The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.
I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts. You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).
Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a big hit last year. In New Zealand it made over US$8million – which would mean 1 in 6 of the cinema audience saw it. It had success in Australia and healthy returns in both North America and the UK as well. So, what is the attraction? It’s not difficult to understand. Here is a family comedy with a rebellious streak that stars a likeable young teenage boy and a star actor familiar to all. It also helps that it was shot in the mountains and forests of various parts of North Island, New Zealand – and, yes, there is a Lord of the Rings joke.
Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year-old boy abandoned by his single-parent mother and now has a petty crime record that drives his social worker to her last resort for foster carers. They are Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), a seemingly unlikely couple living on a remote farmstead. Bella is a ‘warm earth mother’ and a rescuer of waifs and strays, but Heck is a cantankerous old bastard who accepts Ricky only to please Bella. Ricky quickly sees that Bella is someone who might actually care for him, but when something bad happens, he and Heck have to team up and go on the run in the ‘bush’.
It doesn’t seem much of a story, unless it is going to be an epic struggle against the elements and the dangers of the ‘wild’. But for all his faults, Heck is a sensible man of the mountains and forests. The pair could survive for many weeks, even with the authorities, led by Paula (Rachel House) the dragon-like social worker, in constant pursuit. Director Taika Waititi has had plenty of success in recent years, headed by Boy (2010), one of the biggest ever films at the New Zealand box office. He knows exactly what he is doing and expertly builds the ‘odd couple’ relationship between Ricky and Hec that becomes the focus of the film.
I realised quite quickly that the central idea of the film was very familiar and that elements of Pork Pie (New Zealand 2017) were beginning to crop up at regular intervals. Pork Pie (like its predecessor, Goodbye Pork Pie, 1981) is an adult road movie with a young Maori tearaway and an older white guy racing through New Zealand with a massive police hunt and a social media campaign attempting to find the duo. This is what Hunt for the Wilderpeople becomes in its third section. The difference between the two films, apart from the age differential, comes from the origins of Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the comedy writer Barry Crump. Crump himself is presumably the model for Hec. He was famously an archetypal ‘outdoorsman’ whose adventures formed the basis for a string of comedy novels and a big celebrity status.
My knowledge of New Zealand ethnic identities is not great, but clues in the dialogue suggest that Ricky has a Maori identity. Rather than the heavy social typing (he has been abandoned by his mother and is in care with a social worker) I noted the scene where he reads the police ‘Wanted’ notice and comments about the description of Hec as Caucasian – “They’ve got that wrong since you are obviously white”. Ricky names his dog ‘Tupac’ and sees himself as having ‘rapper’ potential. Not much, I know, but the point is that this is almost a ‘colour-blind’ film made by New Zealand’s most successful Maori filmmaker. It’s the kind of film that would be difficult to make in the UK, US and probably Australia. Most of the cast are Maori and it doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Taika Waititi presumably doesn’t feel the ‘burden’ of representing Maori identity in contemporary New Zealand, in the way that some UK directors from African-Caribbean or South Asian communities feel the pressure to represent a ‘community’. It’s difficult from outside New Zealand to be sure how a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople is understood in terms of identity. For instance, in the image above, Ricky is reluctant to pose for a selfie with TK who sticks out his tongue in what I take to be a gesture from Maori warrior traditions. I’m not sure which aspect of all this makes Ricky embarrassed. I’m happy to be informed by anyone who knows how to read this!
I realise that I haven’t emphasised just how funny many parts of the film are. There are some good movie quote jokes and the relationship between Ricky and Hec works equally well as comedy and genuine emotion. We’ve seen this kind of relationship in several well-known films and it depends on getting the mix right between the experienced adult actor and the relatively inexperienced younger actor. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are both excellent and we believe in the relationship as it develops. Waititi provides a quartet of oddball characters, including a loopy priest played by himself. The redneck hunters and ‘psycho loner’ seem more heavily typed as do the social worker and her police side-kick. Only the young girl on a horse makes a connection with the emotional drama, everything else is played for laughs. I’m not sure that Hunt for the Wilderpeople would stand up to intense scrutiny as a narrative but as a comedy with a heart that races along with plenty of laughs on the way, it’s hard to beat.
I was going to start this post with another moan about Peter Bradshaw, but in this case his review wasn’t that bad, just not enthusiastic enough for me. Instead it was Wendy Ide, now reviewing for the Observer, who was the real culprit. In a paragraph of clichés she sneers at the film for its worthiness and even manages to imply a plot development that doesn’t happen. I know this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but in this case its impact is compounded by the treatment this film got from some UK exhibitors. I mean you, Picturehouses. The Olive Tree was chosen by Picturehouses for its ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot in which a relatively obscure film is placed in selected Picturehouse cinemas for a single showing at 18.00 on a Tuesday. The argument presumably is that this gives an outlet the film might not usually get and it can be promoted as part of a ‘strand’ in the local cinema’s programming. I guess that for some titles this might actually be beneficial – but in several cases the slot has been used to screen a film that could reach a much larger audience who might not be able to get to that single screening.
The Olive Tree is written by Paul Laverty, arguably one of the UK’s most consistent screenwriters whose scripts have graced two Cannes Palme d’Or winners for director Ken Loach. He is also the partner of the director Icíar Bollaín, the most high-profile female director in Spain. The Olive Tree is their second production together after the critically acclaimed Even the Rain (Spain-France-Mexico, 2010). They met on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). The Olive Tree is a ‘comedy drama’ that for me was both very funny and deeply moving. It is, as might be expected from Laverty and Bollaín, rooted in observation and social commentary. So, although on the surface this may indeed be a simple story, you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to find the commentary about the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, the anger about aspects of corporate practice and the pain of contemporary social and personal problems. Despite the subtitles, everybody can access the humanity of this film and in any sane film culture they wouldn’t have to look carefully for its single showing in their local cinema.
Many of us love trees. We especially love old trees and this olive tree is perhaps 1,000 years or old or more. (The grandfather in the film claims it is 2,000 years old.) Anything this old and especially a tree which has supplied fruit for the livelihood of succeeding generations of farmers is not just a tree, it is a symbol of a way of life. Consider the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers in the West Bank – a deliberate act of vandalism in trying to destroy a culture. The situation in the Valencia region of Eastern Spain is not so critical but unbearably painful nonetheless for the farmers and their families. In The Olive Tree, Alma (Anna Castillo) is a young woman working in the chicken shed on the family farm and acting as a carer for her grandfather who has dementia. He now barely touches his food and doesn’t speak but instead wanders into the ancient olive plantation staring at a mound of stones. When Alma realises that he is thinking about the olive tree that was sold several years earlier when she was still a child, she resolves to somehow get the tree back. Unfortunately the tree was sold for €30,000 to an energy company in Düsseldorf – where it has pride of place in the atrium of the company’s HQ. Alma is a resourceful young woman, but the only way she can proceed is by subterfuge, persuading her uncle and a younger driver to ‘borrow’ a truck with a crane and head for the Rhine by telling them a made-up story about an offer to return the tree. It’s a crazy prospect and we seem to be in the fictional world of madcap adventures and ‘feelgood’ films. Laverty and Bollain have the task of making the journey – and its outcome – credible while at the same time entertaining us and making serious social comments. I think they do this splendidly.
At one point I wondered if Laverty’s starting point was his own script for The Angel’s Share (UK 2012) and indeed there are similarities, but The Olive Tree has a different tone and perhaps a broader perspective. One of its strongest themes is about the pain and misery of the Spanish boom before 2008 and the subsequent crash. The family lost its money through investment in a seaside restaurant and the anger about the moneyed classes who survived the bust is neatly encapsulated in a visual joke. The economic and social plight of Spain is also represented by the tree’s sale to Germany – which is the strong Eurozone centre oppressing the weak Spanish Euro partner. On the other hand, the film also acts as a rebuke to Brexiteers as the truck sails along, passing signs welcoming the trio to France and Germany – signs in blue with the circle of yellow stars of the EU. There are no borders, no customs posts, no currency exchanges.
Lying behind or underneath the feelgood road trip and the economic and social commentary is a family melodrama – a tale of repressed emotions. Through the tree Alma is linked to her childhood relationship with her grandfather. She doesn’t speak to her father who has a different set of feelings about the old man. She does tease her uncle but she has failed in her relationships with men nearer her own age. Perhaps the journey is also about addressing these issues. Alma’s difficulties with family and work colleagues are contrasted with her relationships with her female friends and with the women who drive the social media campaign which develops during the truck’s journey. The campaign exposes the energy company’s ecological crimes and focuses on the ‘tree rescue’ as a news story about popular resistance.
So, this isn’t just a ‘simple story’, it’s many-layered. All the performances are good but I especially enjoyed that of Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa and that of Pep Ambròs as Rafa, his driving mate. The film looks wonderful in Sergi Gallardo’s ‘Scope compositions and sounds great with Pascal Gaigne’s score. It was nominated for four Goyas with a win for Anna Castillo.