Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Holgut (Liesbeth De Ceulaer, 2021)

Belgian filmmaker Liesbeth De Ceulaer's Holgut is a film many years in the making, and it proves to be a tough one to classify: both the London Film Festival and the IMDb have it down as a documentary, but De Ceulaer has infused her film with enough dramatic elements to make this status questionable.  That said, in Holgut it's often hard to identify what has been staged for the camera and what is straight documentary—although you might want to spend some time doing so, as the film offers precious little else to engage with.  While there's a kernel of a good idea here, Holgut shows little to no interest in developing it, and the end result is an infuriatingly opaque experience.

In a frozen wilderness, brothers Roman and Kyym spend their days hunting a rare, near-mythical reindeer; parallel to this expedition is the story of scientist Semyon, who is searching the same icy landscape for mammoth remains, which he hopes can be used for cloning purposes.  Once these three have scoured vast swathes of this unforgiving region, which once formed part of the mammoth steppe, it seems that the only way is down, and a journey beneath the permafrost takes the story quite literally in a different direction.  As you might expect, a point does arrive when the two quests become linked in a way that goes beyond their shared setting, and these seemingly disparate storylines come together in a manner which is nothing if not surprising.      

While watching Holgut, it doesn't take long to latch onto the contrasting nature of the quests: while Roman and Kyym are hunting what is, at best, a highly-endangered animal, Semyon is aiming to bring a species back from the depths of extinction.  There's a lot riding on both of these expeditions, so why does the film give off a sense that there's so very little at stake?  Even at a scant 75 minutes, Holgut feels stretched to breaking point, and at no stage is there a sense of urgency—which is kind of remarkable, given the subject matter.  While the film has one or two interesting points to make regarding both extinction and climate change, these are delivered in such an oblique manner that it seems highly unlikely that anyone will consider Holgut to be a remotely useful work on these subjects—especially when there are other films available that cover these topics in a much more accessible way.

Holgut comes off especially badly when compared with Genesis 2.0, a 2018 documentary that covered similar ground, also via dual storylines: one concerning the science that may bring about the return of woolly mammoths, the other focusing on those hunting for the same creatures' tusks.  Genesis 2.0 is an absorbing, thought-provoking piece of cinema—in short, it's everything that Holgut isn't—and those seeking a mammoth fix would do well to seek it out, or even opt for a random instalment of the Ice Age franchise.  With pacing that might be best described as—ahem—glacial, Holgut is, unfortunately, something of an ordeal, one which feels like double its actual running time.  We can hope for better things to come from Liesbeth De Ceulaer, but Holgut delivers neither the insight nor the experience it promises. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Flanders Image

Monday, 4 July 2022

All-In (Volkan Üce, 2021)

At the start of the summer season, Ismail and Hakan start working in Nashira Resort, a gigantic all-inclusive hotel at the Turkish Riviera. Ismail is 18 and dropped out of school to earn money for his family. He dreams of working as a hairdresser, but is employed as a kitchen porter at the hotel. Hakan is 25 and the youngest of 12 children. He quit his studies and hopes to overcome his social anxiety in the hotel; he will work as a lifeguard at the aquapark. Both have come to the hotel business to move ahead in life and to learn English. At first both young men are very shy and avoid all contact with the hotel guests. They have learned to be respectful to others and they understand their position. They observe the colourful swimsuits, the unemptied plates, the different ways of addressing other people, and gradually discover the sorts of opportunities that come with them. 

As the friendship between Ismail and Hakan grows stronger, it becomes clear how different they are. Watching the guests from behind his buffet, Ismail’s appetite to discover the Western world only seems to increase. But Hakan struggles to be ‘the nobody’ the hotel business demands him to be. In vain, he tries to discuss Pushkin and Dostoyevsky with the Russian tourists. Is it at all possible to set your identity aside for the sake of money? And who can be an example to whom? By following Ismail and Hakan during two summers in the hotel, All-In explores the loss of innocence against the backdrop of a fading European dream. Initial kindness turns into indifference as Ismail and Hakan’s initiation into the absurd world of Western tourism soon leads them to ask: which dreams are really worth aspiring to?

Source/images: Flanders Image

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Luce en de rots (Britt Raes, 2022)

In less than three months' time, this incarnation of Holland Focus will reach its fifth anniversary, and one of the very first films to be featured on the site was Britt Raes' Catherine; if you haven't already seen it, this excellent, moving short can be viewed in its entirety—and for free—by clicking here.  When it was reviewed here, Catherine was screening as part of the 2017 London Film Festival, which also featured Daan Bakker's portmanteau movie Quality Time; Bakker's film was scored by Bram Meindersma, who composed the wonderfully atmospheric music for Britt Raes' new film, Luce and the Rock (Luce en de rots).  Meindersma can do more than just compose, however: he's also responsible for Luce and the Rock's sound design, and he voiced the main character in what was Quality Time's first, best and funniest segment.

In addition to the presence of Meindersma, Luce and the Rock also features a credit for Imge Özbilge, whose fine short #21XOXO was chosen for the 2019 London Film Festival; for a small rental fee, you can view Özbilge's film here.  With any luck, Luce and the Rock will be among the selections for the 2022 London Film Festival, but it has already screened at this year's Berlinale—where it played as part of the Generations strand and received a special mention—as well as enjoying an outing at Brussels' Anima festival, where it picked up the Best Belgian Short Film award.  Luce and the Rock is virtually the same length as Catherine, and as such it has some versatility: it could either work as part of a larger programme of shorts, or play before a feature film—as was the case when Catherine screened with Michel Ocelot's Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess.

Luce and the Rock begins with the girl of the title living a happy, tranquil life in the small village where she resides with her mother.  There are a number of other equally happy villagers, all of whom enjoy life in their cute little houses.  There's little for anyone in the village to worry about, and the biggest inconvenience for Luce is that she's not too fond of the dark; thankfully, a glowstick is always on hand to help Luce get through the nights.  The villagers' idyll is suddenly shattered when a gigantic rock creature quite literally rolls into town, in the process reducing most of the little blue homes to rubble.  Naturally, nobody is very pleased with this development, and the uninvited guest soon becomes a target of the villagers' anger; it doesn't help matters that the creature oozes an unappealing yellow gloop.  While Luce is just as annoyed as the rest of the village's population, her stance softens once she spends some time with this maladroit but charming visitor.

Like its predecessor, Luce and the Rock features both top-drawer animation and a useful message, with its title characters' interactions illustrating how friendships can blossom despite—ahem—rocky beginnings; the film also makes a valuable point regarding inclusivity, and how differences need not form a barrier to getting along with others.  Luce and the Rock greatly benefits from Britt Raes' terrific use of colour, which lends a real warmth to both the characters and their settings, and it's a real pity when our time in this magical world comes to an end; there's a lot packed into the 13 minutes, and it's likely that the film will withstand repeated viewings.  Catherine was always going to be a tough film to follow, but Luce and the Rock is a very worthy successor to that superb feline-themed film; let's hope we don't have to wait another five years to find out what Britt Raes does next. 

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

52nd IFF Rotterdam (25/1/23–5/2/23)

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) presents a new team line-up and structure ahead of its upcoming 52nd edition, which will take place from 25 January to 5 February 2023. Vanja Kaludjercic, Festival Director at IFFR, said: “IFFR is completely unique - our team and our programme each year are testament to our commitment to bold and thought-provoking cinema - and we’re excited to be entering into a new chapter in our history. This year, we’ve had the challenging experience of looking at our organisation and asking difficult questions about how we become more inclusive and more sustainable for the decades to come - and as a result have made some significant changes. Now we are looking forward to delivering IFFR 2023 and beyond through a revitalised team consisting of many of our existing programmers as well as adding new voices. We can’t wait to be back in-person with audiences next year to present a line-up of surprising, challenging, and exciting cinema and visual arts.”

The selection committee for features consists of former IFFR programmers Stefan Borsos (South and South-East Asia), Michelle Carey (English speaking territories), Evgeny Gusyatinskiy (Central and Eastern Europe, Israel), Mercedes Martínez-Abarca (South and Central America, Mexico, Caribbeans), Olaf Möller (German speaking territories, Nordic countries, the Cinema Regained programme), Lyse Nsengiyumva (Sub-Saharan Africa), Olivier Pierre (French speaking territories), and Delly Shirazi (Middle-East, Northern Africa, Iran, Turkey), former Shorts programmer Koen de Rooij (Netherlands, Flanders), and new hires Rebecca De Pas (Italy, Spain, Portugal), and Kristína Aschenbrennerova (South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan).

The Shorts programme will be curated by the selection committee for shorts consisting of Rebecca De Pas, Cristina Kolozsváry-Kiss, Lyse Nsengiyumva, Ivan Ramljak, Koen de Rooij, and Leonie Woodfin. Our Rotterdam dedicated programme “RTM”, which aims to encourage Rotterdam film talent development, becomes more central to our programming and is led by Ronny Theeuwes as Head of Year-round events, Talks & Unleashed. The scouts for IFFR’s upcoming programme are: Hiromi Aihara (Japan), Robert Gray (French speaking territories), Wu Jueren (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan), Ralph McKay (North America), Ivan Ramljak (Former Yugoslav countries), and Susana Santos Rodrigues (Latin America). 

IFFR also welcomes Bianca Taal as Head of HBF, Inke Van Loocke as Head of Pro, Charlie Vermeulen as Head of Programme Operations, Alessia Acone as Manager Pro, Sara Juricic as Manager Talent. Other posts announced include: Barbara de Heer as Chief of Funding and Business Growth, Marije Stijkel as Chief of Operations, and Anne Wabeke as Head of Communications. Overall, six permanent roles in total were made redundant across the organisation as part of the restructure. IFFR’s festival strands consist of: Tiger Competition, Big Screen Competition, Tiger Shorts Competition, Bright Future, Harbour, Limelight, Cinema Regained, special programmes (retrospectives/thematic programmes), Shorts, Art Directions. Submissions open from 1 June; check out our submissions page for more details.

Source/images: IFFR

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Vortex (Gaspar Noé, 2021)

During Christmas 2019, Gaspar Noé's festivities were cut short by a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, from which, happily, he made a full recovery.  Vortex, Noé's first feature film since his hospitalisation, can and will be viewed as both a response to that major life event and a radical shift in tone from the filmmaker.  While each Noé film from Enter the Void on has been notably tamer than its predecessor—and his latest effort is no exception to this trend—Vortex nonetheless delivers the sort of sickening punch familiar to anyone who's experienced Noé's previous work; only with this film, Noé takes the emotional route in order to serve his goal, a strategy that will almost certainly wrongfoot audiences accustomed to the director's visceral approach.  That said, the film has its writer-director's fingerprints all over it, and it could never be mistaken for the work of any other filmmaker; while Vortex sees its director cover new terrain—or at the very least, the same old ground in a novel way—it's always clearly identifiable as a Noé film.   

Vortex chronicles the final days of a nameless elderly couple, played by cinematic legends Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento (both of whose work was featured among a stack of VHS tapes glimpsed in the opening moments of Noé's Climax).  She's a retired psychiatrist—albeit one who, crucially, can still prescribe medication—while he's a writer currently working on a book about cinema and its relationship to dreams, which is exactly the sort of project one could easily imagine Noé tackling once he reaches retirement age.  Their daily routine, filled as it is with largely aimless pottering, betrays the quiet contentment of two people who have spent decades in one another's company.  Yet illness has begun to define both of their lives: he has a longstanding heart complaint, while she finds herself in the ever-tightening grip of dementia.  As she becomes more prone to erratic behaviour—wandering off without notice, leaving the gas cooker on, flushing her husband's manuscript down the toilet—he becomes irritated and concerned in roughly equal measure.  The couple have a son, recovering drug addict Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who tries his best to help, although he has many other problems to contend with, including trying to stay clean and looking after his own young child.  In a bid to make everyone's life a bit easier, Stéphane urges his parents to consider moving to a retirement home but, rather inevitably, this suggestion is dismissed out of hand.

The bulk of Vortex's already lengthy running time unfolds in split-screen, with each half of the frame devoted to one of the two protagonists; a few years ago, we'd have looked on this effect as just the latest in a long line of gimmicks employed by the ever-mischievous Noé, but here it feels like a truly vital component, one that firmly underlines the isolation experienced by both of the main characters.  In hindsight, it's easy to see how Noé and his regular cinematographer Benoît Debie used the medium-length Lux Æterna, with its liberal use of side-by-side images, as a testing ground for the much more ambitious Vortex, a film that proves quite demanding for the viewer when it comes to selecting what to focus on at any given moment.  As with Lux Æterna, much of what goes on in Vortex isn't particularly consequential, yet the film manages to instil a real sense of anxiety, one that's ultimately justified as the exquisitely desolate story plays out to its conclusion.  Comparisons to Michael Haneke's immaculate Oscar-winner Amour are both obvious and appropriate, but there's something more recognisably human about the jagged, messy Vortex, almost as if Noé is serving as the fire to Haneke's ice.

Vortex boasts two—actually, three—beautifully-judged performances, with veteran filmmaker Argento excelling in what is a very rare turn on the other side of the camera, while Lebrun, still best known for her outstanding performance in Jean Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore, is note-perfect as the dementia victim for whom the world rapidly becomes a hostile, bewildering environment, with her eyes relaying the terror she experiences once she is no longer able to recognise faces and places.  And while he at no point encroaches on the limelight commanded by the two leads, the superb Lutz manages to make the rather hapless Stéphane a credible, sympathetic presence.  All three of the film's principal characters are caught in the vortex of the title, which sees both memories and tangible, real-world content swept away.  As Brian Molko of Placebo—Noé directed the music video for the band's "Protège-moi"—once sang, "can't stop growing old".  Or, as Noé himself put it with Irreversible's final (or should that be first?) title card, "time destroys all things"; a full 20 years on from that brutal, pitiless film, Gaspar Noé's concerns haven't changed very much—but his approach certainly has.   

Darren Arnold

Images: Wild Bunch

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

To Plant a Garden Is to Believe in Tomorrow

On today, her birthday, both the Audrey Hepburn Garden (a playground) and a bust by Dutch artist Kees Verkade will be inaugurated at the corner of Ixelles' rue de l'Arbre Bénit and rue Keyenveld - where the actress was born 93 years ago. The 1993 bust is a gift from Sean Hepburn-Ferrer to the Brussels municipality. UNICEF Ambassador Audrey Hepburn devoted her energy to defending the rights of children around the world, putting her fame at the service of the weakest and giving voice to their suffering. This playground is a reminder of the battles she fought on the behalf of children worldwide. There is a second cast of the statue in the park of the municipality of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Symbolically, the two statues are found in the cities where she spent her childhood. The Mayor, Christos Doulkeridis, the Alderman for Green Spaces and Plantations, Audrey Lhoest, and the Alderman for Town Planning, Yves Rouyet, are happy to inaugurate Ixelles' new green space located at the intersection of Keyenveld and Arbre Bénit streets. Like the actress, discretion and elegance are combined to give life to this new green area. In June, a statue of 'Little Audrey' will be inaugurated in the garden of Le Louise Hotel Brussels - MGallery Hotel Collection, formerly Sofitel. 

Source: Rodrigue Laurent Press

Images: Rodrigue Laurent Press / Intimate Audrey

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

BFI Flare 2022: the stats

The 36th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival (16-27 March), the UK’s leading LGBTQIA+ film event, closed on 27 March and celebrated being presented back at BFI Southbank after two years of being delivered online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall the Festival saw 25,023 attendances across BFI Southbank and on BFI Player, with an additional 4.5k online views of BFI Flare events, which included the Festival’s Programme Launch on BFI Flare Facebook and BFI YouTube. 58% of all ticket buyers were new to BFI Flare.

Partnering for the eighth year, BFI Flare and the British Council made five LGBTQIA+ short films from the BFI Flare programme available to global audiences for the duration of the festival with the ground-breaking Five Films For Freedom. The LGBTQIA+ digital campaign attracted over three million views from around the world with figures from international content partnerships still to be counted. The project allows audiences worldwide to show solidarity with LGBTQIA+ communities living in countries where human rights are restricted and this year’s selection spanned from China, Croatia, India, Panama and the UK.

Over 12 days between 16– 27 March, BFI Flare welcomed its audiences back to its home venue with 56 feature premieres and 84 shorts screened from 42 countries. For BFI Player, 10 features premiered virtually and 6 short films were screened for free plus Five Films For Freedom.  The Festival hosted 6 World Premieres, 7 International Premieres, 1 European Premiere and 25 UK Premieres from across the features programme. BFI Flare welcomed 174 filmmakers and their teams (106 international, 68 UK-based) in person from 33 countries. Two filmmakers joined the Festival virtually. 

Particular favourites at this year’s edition included Opening Night film GIRL PICTURE, with director Alli Haapasalo presenting the film fresh from its screening in this year’s Berlinale and its World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award win at Sundance. The Closing Night world premiere of, Kevin Hegge’s feature documentary TRAMPS! celebrated the unique cross-fertilization of British art, fashion, music and film in the early 1980s, foregrounding the queer talent which came out of the London scene. Special guests included Jeffrey Hinton, Scarlett Cannon, Dave Baby, Michael Costiff, Philip Sallon, David Holah, Les Child and Princess Julia who opened the Closing Night party with a TRAMPS! inspired DJ set.

Source/images: BFI