I missed the first few minutes of this film, which was a shame as it provided a gentle introduction to the festival proper. Road movies set in Central America are not unusual but this one reverses the familiar trajectory and instead of heading North to the US, the protagonists go South to Panama from Costa Rica. César is a man past his prime but still working as a PE coach for local children. When he falls ill from heart disease his son ‘Tito’ must travel North from Panama to see him. This is a struggle for Tito who is an albino with the common affliction of poor eyesight. He has always felt a failure in the eyes of his macho father, a Panamanian of African-Caribbean consent.
When he recovers, César determines to drive his son back to Panama where he is due to participate in a regional 10 pin bowling contest. This means driving 1,000 kilometres in his beat-up Lada. Tito tries to persuade him not to try but it’s useless. On the way they pick up a young woman and her mongrel dog. César mocks his son’s inability to maintain a relationship with a woman (he was married and then quickly divorced).
Nothing much happens on the journey – or rather nothing much that is unexpected. I’m wondering about the possible national typing metaphors that the three central characters might represent. César is given a commitment to boxing like many Caribbean-Americans, Yadia is Spanish, possibly Amerindian and albinos are always significant minorities, invoking strong passions. I’m guessing that there is something I’m not picking up on. The story is presented in CinemaScope and it looks good and sounds good with an attractive music soundtrack. The film’s official website gives details on the crew with different creative inputs from Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador. Director Juan Sebastián Jácome was born in Ecuador and trained in Florida. This feature debut is a strong calling card for further Central American feature production. I noted that the Panamanian producer Luis Pacheco was also involved in production on Los colores de la montaña, one of my favourite films at the !Viva¡ festival in Manchester a few year’s ago.
This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.
Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.
The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.
I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.
This was the winning film in the European Features competition at BIFF. I saw it in two parts, having to see the opening after I’d seen the rest of the film. I don’t think that this spoiled my enjoyment. The plot is relatively straightforward. Adele is a teenager living on a farm in a remote and wooded area in Germany. Her withdrawn demeanour is briefly sketched in and she barely communicates with her parents. She is surprised by an escaped prisoner who has got into the farmhouse but instead of betraying him she decides, after learning that he has killed someone, to help him. They run away together and she then tells him that she will help him over the border into France – but in return he must push her off a cliff. This unlikely scenario then sets up a fugitive chase/road movie. Two characters must learn to work together and to learn about themselves in the process. The narrative has a form of ‘open’ ending and I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
In the interview below, the director Emily Atef explains that it took her several years to develop the script and organise the production – in fact she made two other features during this period. At one point she was selected for a Cannes ‘Residence Award’ which enabled her to move the development forward substantially. Atef has clearly been on industry radar for some time. Born in Berlin to Franco-Iranian characters she has also lived in the US and in London but now she is based in back in Germany. After watching this film I realised that I have a DVD of her 2005 feature Molly (about a young Irishwoman who travels to Poland). I must watch it again and post on it.
Kill Me is a success for various reasons, not least the performances by the two leads. Roeland Wiesnekker (Timo) is an experienced Swiss actor who suggests a character turned in on himself. He’s tall and dark and bear-like compared to the blonde Maria Vargus as Adele, known in the UK for her role as Klara in The White Ribbon. There is excellent use of landscape and Emily Latef tells us that she received regional funds from Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Probably most important though is the way that the script ideas are handled. It’s a classic case of not ‘doing a Hollywood’, so at the beginning of the film we don’t get any real explanation of why Adele is so withdrawn and certainly not why she would want to fall from a clifftop. Instead we have to piece her story together from looks and scant plot information. She will later tell Timo something but there is still plenty concealed, especially about his back story, so we travel with the pair never quite sure what will happen. I will reveal that the pair will reach Marseilles which is a ‘liminal’ region, not quite France, but not yet Africa and an iconic ‘end’ to Europe. In the Q&A below somebody asks the director if she ever considered a melodramatic ending. I think we know that she didn’t, though I must say that the location she chooses has been used in the ending of at least one great French melodrama of the 1930s.
The film has been released in France and the international sales agent is the well-known distributer-producer Les films du Losange (long associated with its co-founder Eric Rohmer). I hope they are able to find distributors in other European countries. It is a worthy winner of Bradford’s competition.
Here is the Interview/Q&A when the film was at the Raindance Festival in London in 2012:
Every year, it seems, UK critics and commentators pick out a small independent film and promote it. I do this myself to some extent, but I don’t have any influence. Sightseers has been picked out by Wendy Mitchell, Editor of Screen International, and by Sight & Sound, whose editor put the film on the cover of the November issue. It has even turned up on the ‘Top Films of the Year’ list of a Belgian critic polled by Cineuropa and the film has won prizes at three European festivals as well as a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for its screenplay. Clearly there is something here that critics are responding to. I found the film to be an interesting exercise that somehow didn’t come together. The main disappointment for me was that it is billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it funny. I do like traditional gothic horror films and Sightseers promises to be a modern gothic horror but doesn’t fulfil the promise.
Sightseers is an interesting mix – a road movie, a romance, a satire, a crime film and a comedy. The two central characters, Tina and Chris (played by the two principal writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), are 30-something social misfits. We don’t learn about Chris’s background until later on but he has acquired a caravan and a car big enough to haul it around the North of England. Tina is a dog counsellor and knitter who lives with her mother and she eagerly accepts Chris’s offer to become his muse as he travels seeking inspiration for a book he is planning.
The film is presented in ‘Scope and it does show some of the beauty of the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I’ve seen it compared to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which traversed some of the same roads, but whereas Winterbottom and his cinematographer seemed to capture more than just pretty images, I didn’t feel the same about Sightseers. To be fair, this isn’t a film about landscapes. The scenery is meant to supply useful plot devices and to represent a certain kind of Englishness associated with the National Trust and the perhaps more middle-class tourists who visit the National Parks. On the other hand, Chris and Tina also despise other types of tourists or even locals. They are basically misanthropes who develop a taste for dispatching people who cross them/offend them in some way. A “ginger-faced man and an angry woman”, as the news reports describe them, make an unlikely pair of serial killers.
Sightseers is directed by Ben Wheatley who has already developed a strong reputation with critics for films he has written himself, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). His background is partly in television (like Oram and Lowe) and that background in a certain kind of contemporary TV comedy maybe the reason why Sightseers is not to my taste. I’m too old to watch BBC3 and I have avoided programmes like Little Britain or The League of Gentleman. I have enjoyed comedy horror films where the violence seems to have a point but in this case it just seems cruel – which isn’t to say that Chris and Tina aren’t an intriguing couple and several of the romance elements are explored in novel ways. Wheatley is an astute filmmaker and he has a real future ahead of him. The interview listed below is well worth a listen.
The film’s critical status meant a wider distribution than most films with this kind of budget and genre mix – through the European ‘major’ StudioCanal. However, despite the generally very good reviews, audiences have not been large and I doubt that the film has gone much beyond the core horror fanbase and those who follow the more cultish end of the British independent film scene. Sightseers opened very strongly on 92 screens but then tailed off quite dramatically by its third weekend, suggesting that word of mouth was not so good. Nevertheless it has managed over £500,000 so far which is acceptable for a UK cinema release and bodes well for a subsequent life on DVD and online – where I expect it to attract repeat viewings by fans.
UK trailer (WARNING: Spoilers)