Wednesday 20 December 2023

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

🎄🎄🎄 Season's Greetings! See you all in 2024! 🎄🎄🎄 

🎅 Meanwhile, check out our list of the year's best films! 🎅

Monday 11 December 2023

Schalcken the Painter (Leslie Megahey, 1979)

From a strictly personal perspective, there are few films as evocative as this BBC television adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's eponymous short story; yet the nostalgia it triggers comes not from this semi-biopic's content, but rather from the time of its original transmission.  For Schalcken the Painter first went out on 23 December 1979, in the late night slot hitherto occupied by the Beeb's then recently-cancelled (but subsequently resurrected) A Ghost Story for Christmas—a strand Leslie Megahey's film has since been somewhat co-opted into.  While I was too young to watch the film when it premiered—and I have no idea if my parents did—it is a title that transports me back to that Christmas in our remote stone cottage in the east of Scotland.  While thinking of the past, that foreign country, we often inadvertently alter details, and although I make no claim to have seen Schalcken the Painter when it was first broadcast—as an episode of the BBC's long-running arts programme Omnibus—the knowledge that it was beamed across the airwaves swirling above our house in deepest winter has certainly informed my memories of the final Christmas of the 1970s.

Yet these dewy-eyed trips down memory lane have never distracted me from the brilliance of the subtle, slippery Schalcken the Painter: upon first viewing the film, I was left in no doubt that it was a flat-out masterpiece.  But the movie was only shown twice on the BBC before falling into years of obscurity, and it remained criminally neglected until a decade ago, when it was spruced up for a very belated home video release.  Nowadays, Schalcken the Painter is easy to find in both physical and digital formats, and it has become a staple in my own Yuletide viewing, among the likes of A Christmas StoryThe Merry World of Léopold Z and A Charlie Brown Christmas; compared to those titles, this gothic, gloomy tale is a serious outlier.  The film's status as a quasi-Ghost Story for Christmas should by no means obfuscate its deeply unsettling nature: Megahey and Paul Humfress' collaboration is essentially a horror movie masquerading as an arts documentary—hence its inclusion in Omnibus, for which Megahey served as series editor—and this wolf in sheep's clothing proves far more disturbing than any bona fide Ghost Story for Christmas before or since. 

Godefridus Schalcken grew up in Dordrecht before moving to Leiden, where he studied painting under Gerrit Dou, the first and most successful of Rembrandt's pupils.  Schalcken would duly adopt the style of this Leidse fijnschilder, and he became a master of reproducing candlelit scenes; the images in this article provide some good examples of his technique.  Schalcken's striking work inspired Irish author Le Fanu to write his 1839 story, which uses the spelling 'Schalken' and fictionalises the artist's personal life.  Whether the portrait described in Le Fanu's chiller existed or not, an extensive search failed to locate it for the BBC film, so an ersatz Schalcken—of a foregrounded girl holding a candle while a lurking man draws a sword—was created especially for the production, thus further blurring the boundary between truth and fabrication.  The film uses this strange, disquieting painting as a jumping-off point for a slow-burn tale in which the impoverished Schalcken sees the woman he loves—Dou's niece Rose—reluctantly marry sinister, wealthy Rotterdammer Vanderhausen; the avaricious Dou receives a box of gold in exchange for the marriage contract, which Schalcken vows to buy back once he's made his own fortune.

Predictably, things start to unravel for the career-minded Schalcken, with his dread-filled journey—and the film—culminating in a startlingly creepy scene which, although not explicit, was probably right at the limit of what the Beeb of the late 70s considered acceptable for broadcast.  Follow that, weatherman.  The fact that the transmission of Schalcken the Painter finished just after midnight, thus bleeding into my then-favourite day of the festive season—Christmas Eve—has only served to strengthen the film's icy grip on my psyche.  Like much small-screen entertainment, Megahey's film feels as if it was designed to be a solitary viewing experience (which is quite ironic, given Christmastime's emphasis on social gatherings); indeed, I have never watched this singularly nightmarish work with anyone else.  Deftly edited by Sebastiane co-director Humfress, Schalcken the Painter is a stunning triumph of form: I am hard pushed to think of another film that so closely mimics the style of its artist-subject, and Megahey, Humfress and lighting cameraman John Hooper have, in effect, created a living, breathing Schalcken.  Unfortunately for its title character, not everything in Schalcken the Painter has a pulse.

Darren Arnold

Monday 13 November 2023

IFFR: Hubert Bals Fund Announces New Projects

The Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has chosen ten feature film projects to each be awarded a grant of €10,000 under its Script and Project Development Support scheme. A committee of international industry experts selected the projects from more than 760 applications. Tamara Tatishvili, incoming Head of the Hubert Bals Fund: "In these complex times, when uncertainty seems to reign, the significance of impactful storytelling becomes even more pronounced. In the midst of a fiercely competitive round and guided by the diligent efforts of the HBF selection committees, I am delighted to extend a hand of companionship to the creative teams that’s about more than just financial backing". 

Vanja Kaludjercic, IFFR Festival Director: "The Hubert Bals Fund remains a steadfast ally for emerging talent and a vital tool in championing storytelling worldwide. It's truly encouraging to find both new faces and familiar filmmakers who've previously showcased their work at the festival among our selections. We take immense pride in supporting their creative journeys". Two projects from the African continent are supported: Afronauts, about the true but forgotten events of the Zambian space programme, is the first feature by Ghanaian filmmaker Nuotama Frances Bodomo; and Senegalese-French filmmaker Katy Léna Ndiaye turns from the past to the shocking present with her debut fiction feature Lënd, in which rising waters threaten the lives of the residents of a fishing neighbourhood.

The Sea Is Calm Tonight is self-taught Vietnamese filmmaker Le Bao's follow-up to the Berlinale Encounters jury prize-winning Taste (2021). Mimicking the flows between the more than seven thousand islands that make up the Philippines, Martika Ramirez Escobar follows Leonor Will Never Die (2022) with Daughters of the Sea. Ana Elena Tejera’s Corte Culebra addresses the ancestral trauma of the communities displaced on Gatun Lake, the artificial heart of the Panama Canal. Another of the filmmakers in the selection to have screened their work at IFFR is Shengze Zhu, whose Present.Perfect. competed in the Tiger Competition at IFFR 2019. Her fiction debut A Distant House Smokes on the Horizon will explore the violence of the everyday with the recent phenomenon of juvenile murder cases in China.

Lipika Singh Darai’s short Night and Fear was in competition at IFFR 2023, and her feature debut Birdwoman will be produced in the language of the Ho indigenous community from Odisha in India. Egyptian filmmaker Nada Riyadh’s feature fiction debut Moonblind will be rooted in an arena of traditional Egyptian healing rituals. With I Recognized Him by His Hands, Omer Capoglu presents a humorous but heartfelt take on the Turkish culture around martyrdom. Fantasma Neon sees Brazilian filmmaker Leonardo Martinelli take on the gig economy in musical style, protesting against the anonymising and casualisation of labour by making the delivery drivers in his film the loudest they can be, singing and dancing in the streets. The film is the follow-up to the short of the same name.

Source/images: IFFR

Friday 3 November 2023

Raindance 2023: White Plastic Sky

Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó's first animated feature White Plastic Sky is no stranger to this year's festival circuit, with the film having already played at the likes of the Berlinale, Annecy IAFF, and Vancouver IFF.  As 2023 heads into its last couple of months, White Plastic Sky shows no signs of letting up on its globetrotting as it takes its place among the selections for this year's Raindance Film Festival, where it screens tomorrow, which marks the close of this year's edition.  As is not uncommon with Raindance titles, White Plastic Sky's screening—which takes place at 2 p.m. at London's Vue Piccadilly cinema—will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers; given the thought-provoking nature of Bánóczki and Szabó's movie, the post-film discussion should be among the most fascinating at this year's festival.    

Set in a climate change-ravaged Budapest a century from now, White Plastic Sky's world is one in which every human has a maximum lifespan of 50 years and, upon hitting this milestone, each person undergoes a procedure that sees them transform into a tree, which in turn is used to sustain the current human population; as 50th birthday experiences go, this one is a far cry from a champagne afternoon tea or a short break in a boutique hotel.  Then there are those who opt to check out even earlier, as is the case with Nora (Zsófia Szamosi), a young thirtysomething who has recently lost a child and—shortly thereafter—the will to live.  Nora's sacrifice is gratefully welcomed by the authorities but, as you would expect, her husband Stefan (Tamás Keresztes) has a very different response when he learns of his grieving wife's decision.  

The situation is made all the more urgent by Stefan only hearing this news after Nora has attended the clinic to commence her transformation, and she has less than a day left before her human form is gone forever.  Stefan works as a psychologist, one whose work mainly involves getting patients (and those close to them) to accept what's coming as the fateful half-century approaches.  Yet all of Stefan's professional acumen goes out of the window when he's faced with Nora's imminent death, and in his denial he insists on finding a way to halt a process that is widely regarded as irreversible.  While Stefan fares particularly badly when it comes to taking the same advice he's been dishing out for years, he is at least able to use his standing to blag his way into the secure facility where Nora is being treated.

Via countless beautifully-rendered backgrounds, Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó have created a credible, immersive environment, one that is worryingly plausible given that humans are on a collision course with the natural world.  While one would hope that the planet will not be in this condition when it comes to the year 2123, White Plastic Sky is a speculative fiction that doesn't feel as outlandish as, well, virtually any 20th-century sci-fi movie did when first released; it is not so much that cinema has slowed down for us, but rather we who have rapidly moved closer to such predictions—and not in a good way.  The directors' decision to employ rotoscoping—that most divisive of animation styles—will either engage or alienate, depending on whether you view the technique as adding or removing a human layer; indeed, this existentialist eco-thriller raises many questions regarding both its form and content.        

Darren Arnold

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Raindance 2023: Aurora's Sunrise

Inna Sahakyan's latest documentary deals with the Armenian genocide, and while it's certainly not the first film to do so—previous notable efforts on the topic include Atom Egoyan's Ararat and the Taviani brothers' The Lark Farm—it does take a novel approach to the subject.  For Aurora's Sunrise mixes animation with interview footage of its title character, a genocide survivor who starred in a 1919 silent movie which also features prominently here; as is sadly the case for around three quarters of original silent-era films, the movie was lost to the sands of time, although fragments of it were recovered shortly after Aurora's death in 1994.  Having already played at several film festivals including Tallinn Black Nights and the Netherlands' Movies that Matter Festival—where it won the Audience Award and received a special mention in the Camera Justitia competition—Aurora's Sunrise continues its festival run with a screening tomorrow at London's Raindance Film Festival, where the film will be followed by a Q&A session with producer Vardan Hovhannisyan.

Aurora's Sunrise comes hot on the heels of Sahakyan's previous documentary, the Dutch co-production Mel, which followed a record-breaking Armenian weightlifter who hastily left his home country after being publicly outed as transgender.  There's an obvious parallel between the stories of Mel Daluzyan—who sought asylum in the Netherlands—and Aurora Mardiganian: in both cases, extreme persecution led to a desperate need to flee Armenia.  Yet while the vendetta against Mel was of a highly personal nature, Aurora was one of countless civilians facing the Ottoman Empire's systematic annihilation of its ethnic Armenian population.  Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted that roughly half of all Armenian Christians were killed in the Constantinople-ordered slaughter—yet the genocide has consistently struggled to be recognised as such.  While there is no denying that the catastrophe was obscured by the fog of the Great War, the world has since had over a century to acknowledge what happened in eastern Anatolia.

The film picks up the story of the 14-year-old Aurora as she attempts to outwit the Ottoman troops.  Having been forced on a death march towards Syria, Aurora—who has lost her entire family—is subsequently kidnapped and put into slavery, but she engineers an unlikely escape and eventually edges her way to Norway, from where she boards a ship bound for New York.  On arriving in the US, Aurora lodges with an Armenian family, and it isn't long before her incredible story is told through the newspapers, which in turn leads to an offer from Hollywood.  While a movie studio's interest in this miraculous journey to freedom isn't too surprising—after all, cinema's enthusiasm for a ripped-from-the-headlines drama is by no means a recent phenomenon—a more outlandish development occurs when the filmmakers propose that Aurora stars as herself.  Thus this survivor of a massacre, who is now aged 16, has to relive her nightmares for the sake of the movie cameras; while the atrocities Aurora both experienced and witnessed are diluted for the screen adaptation, there's still something very troubling about this arrangement.

The resulting film, Auction of Souls (AKA Ravished Armenia), proved to be a runaway success on its release in early 1919, so much so that some cinemas were able to charge a whopping $10 for a ticket at a time when admission generally cost a quarter.  The surviving footage, which adds up to roughly the equivalent of two reels of silent film, was carefully restored and edited into a cohesive piece of work, and clips from this are judiciously spliced into Aurora's Sunrise.  Despite its age and sanitised representation of the genocide, Auction of Souls is surprisingly strong meat, with an all-female mass crucifixion scene proving sufficiently disturbing even before you learn, via an interview with Aurora, what really happened to these women.  Despite the trauma that Aurora Mardiganian would likely have suffered while making Auction of Souls, the film did at least bring the story of the Armenian genocide to a wide audience.  More than a century on, Sahakyan's harrowing, moving documentary serves the same much-needed purpose.     

Darren Arnold

Images: CAT&Docs

Monday 30 October 2023

Raindance 2023: Satan Wants You

With a title as lurid as the name given to the subject it examines—the so-called satanic panic of the 1980s—Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams' documentary looks, at first glance, as if it might be a worryingly glib kitchfest that makes light of mass hysteria; such sensational labelling can easily mask the fact that this particular moral panic was anything but a laughing matter for those whose lives were destroyed by spurious allegations.  Thankfully, it turns out that this thoroughly absorbing film takes a respectful, but not overly reverent, approach as it digs into a dark and painful episode in Canadian and US history.  Having debuted at this year's SXSW Film Festival, Satan Wants You will have its UK premiere, quite fittingly, on Halloween at the Raindance Film Festival.  The film will be followed by a Q&A session with producer Melissa James, but the fun doesn't stop there: anyone who buys a ticket for Tuesday's screening will be given a complimentary wristband for entry to Raindance's Halloween party.

Satan Wants You is a Canadian production, and for much of its snappy running time its focus is on Victoria, that fine Vancouver Island city that has long since been saddled with a rather unfair, if somewhat amusing, soubriquet: home of the newly wed and nearly dead.  Back in the early 80s, however, a semi-affectionate nickname was the least of the British Columbia capital's problems, as one of its residents, Michelle Smith (née Proby), claimed that she had been abused by a Victoria-based satanic cult which numbered her late mother among its members.  Smith was an adult when she made these accusations, the supposed basis for which was unearthed by psychiatrist Larry Pazder.  Smith had been under Pazder's care for some time on account of a depressive episode brought on by a miscarriage, but it was approximately 600 hours of hypnosis over the course of 14 months that led to the assertions that would kick-start satanic panic—a name that might be funny if the reality wasn't quite so tragic.

Following the apparent surfacing of these hitherto-buried childhood memories, the doctor and his patient wrote a bestselling book—Michelle Remembers—detailing the five-year-old Smith's alleged ordeal, and the pair would go on to marry.  Horlor and Adams spend a good while examining the couple's relationship, and what emerges is a picture of a setup that, even at its best, was highly unethical.  As Smith and Pazder turned their professional arrangement into a personal one, a number of people close to the couple were hurt: Pazder's wife and children; and Smith's father and sisters.  Yet the unfortunate reach of the Smith–Pazder alliance would extend way beyond their respective family circles as satanic panic began to take hold; to date, it is estimated that some 12,000 unsubstantiated cases have been raised.  While it may be a tad harsh to blame Smith and Pazder's book for every one of these instances, there is little doubt that its publication sparked a hysteria, one that was largely supported by venal motives and, worse, may well have obscured actual abuse issues.

While both Michelle Remembers and the the recovered-memory technique employed by Pazder have now been discredited, this will prove cold comfort to those who found themselves on the business end of baseless allegations.  Larry Pazder died nearly 20 years ago, and Michelle Pazder—who was effectively satanic panic's patient zero—declined to take part in Satan Wants You, but Horlor and Adams' film is nevertheless packed with insightful interview subjects, with Michelle's younger sister Charyl proving the pick of the bunch.  While the filmmakers' position is fairly clear, they have been careful to include a range of opinions, and they steadily paint a picture of a climate of fear that would eventually spread beyond North America to other countries, including the Netherlands; just a few years ago, journalists from Dutch radio show Argos conducted a lengthy investigation into alleged organised ritual abuse, the findings of which were aired in an episode called Glasscherven en duistere rituelen.  The impressive Satan Wants You is an intense and engaging experience—but also a deeply chilling one, for reasons that have nothing to do with its title character.

Darren Arnold

Saturday 28 October 2023

Raindance 2023: Pett Kata Shaw

This terrific horror anthology sees Bangladeshi filmmaker Nuhash Humayun successfully splice the ancient and the modern, with the results taking the form of a quartet of deliciously creepy yarns which put a contemporary spin on traditional Bengali folktales.  While Humayun has assumed authorial control over the entirety of Pett Kata Shaw, it is not his first experience of portmanteau films, given that he previously directed the first of the eleven segments that constituted 2018 drama Sincerely Yours, Dhaka, which was selected as Bangladesh's entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Oscars.  Pett Kata Shaw—which began life as a Web series on Bangla streaming platform Chorki—has already enjoyed outings at both Rotterdam and Fantasia, and it continues to play international festivals with a Halloween screening at this year's Raindance Film Festival.  A ticket for Tuesday's UK premiere—which takes place at London's Genesis Cinema—includes a couple of nice extras: a Q&A session with Humayun, and a wristband for entry to Raindance's Halloween party.

Pett Kata Shaw kicks off with "Something Sweet", a story in which put-upon sweet shop owner Mahmud receives an after-hours visit from a djinn, who apparently wishes to sample some of the vendor's products.  As you might expect, the rattled, panicking Mahmud has some trouble remembering what sweets this uninvited guest ordered, yet his forgetfulness can't entirely be blamed on the presence of the spirit; it turns out that Mahmud is infamous for his poor memory, but the djinn might just have a way of solving this particular problem.  Next up is "No Girls Allowed", which sees an angler inadvertently lure a malevolent piscivorous demon back to his apartment, where she promptly murders the young man's roommate before turning her attention to the terrified host, who can't afford to take his eyes off her as he fumbles to cook the fish responsible for this nightmare visit.  In the original series, "No Girls Allowed" was transposed with "Something Sweet", but here the running order feels much more effective.

"Hearsay", the third—and quite possibly eeriest—tale on offer here, can be viewed as something of a meta-comment on the whole film.  In this instalment, a young urban couple are hiking through a remote region when they happen upon a village where countless—or maybe even all—Bengali superstitions have originated; exposition is provided by a local elderly couple, who take the time to recount various cautionary folktales.  The bickering hikers—who have strayed far from their intended path—are predictably dismissive of such talk as they wait for help and/or a phone signal, and we all know how horror films treat those who don't heed warnings.  In a neat flourish, marionettes are used to depict the myths and legends that underpin this microcosmic segment.  Pett Kata Shaw is rounded out by "Call of the Night", a sad, downbeat episode in which a man starts to connect the suicide of his ex-girlfriend with a spate of child disappearances in the seaside town of Cox's Bazar.     

While anthology films are nothing new, they generally comprise work from several different filmmakers, which in turn often leads to such projects possessing a certain unevenness.  With this in mind, Humayun's bold decision to serve as writer-director for all of Pett Kata Shaw's episodes pays off handsomely, as his film plays as a remarkably fluid and consistent affair, one that belies its piecemeal origins.  It is difficult to identify a weak link among the segments—each offers something different, although a strong streak of black humour is common to all of the stories.  There's a visual cohesiveness, too, with Tahsin Rahman's gorgeous cinematography uniting the four instalments.  Humayan's adaptation of the source material is so adroit that it's very easy to forget that these are age-old tales, all of which have been passed down orally from one generation to another; indeed, this striking, memorable film, which sees ancient spirits mingle among smartphone users, achieves something of a timeless quality. 

Darren Arnold

Images: IFFR

Thursday 26 October 2023

Raindance 2023: Tender Metalheads

If you were one of the countless metal fans delighted by the return of legendary melodeath act Dethklok in this year's Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar, you may be pleased to learn that there is another feature-length heavy metal cartoon currently on offer in the form of Joan Tomàs' Tender Metalheads (Catalan: Heavies tendres).  Beyond both titles being animated films which revolve around metal, the movies share a trait in that each is based on a TV series; just as four seasons (and a special) of Adult Swim's much-loved Metalocalypse preceded Army of the Doomstar, Tender Metalheads is derived from the eponymous 2018 show that screened on Catalonian channel TV3.  If your Catalan is up to it—or even if it isn't—you can view all eight episodes of the first (and to date only) series of Heavies tendres via the CCMA website.

Tender Metalheads' minimal, cheerful animation style has already charmed audiences at several film festivals including Annecy IAFF, Sitges IFFF, DOK Leipzig, and Bucharest's Animest—where it won best feature film—and it continues its way round the international festival circuit as one of the selections for this year's Raindance Film Festival, which hosts tomorrow's UK premiere of the film.  The screening—which takes place at London's Vue Piccadilly cinema—will be followed by a Q&A session with director Tomàs and producer Juanjo Sáez, so there's a good reason to stick around once the end credits have rolled.  The early 90s Barcelona-set Tender Metalheads is one of four features in Raindance 2023's special focus on Catalonia; other festival titles from the region include Isabel Coixet's new film Un amor, which will screen as Raindance's closing night gala.

Tender Metalheads centres on two teenagers: the asthmatic Juanjo—who is set to repeat a high school year—comes from a loving if somewhat overprotective family, while the streetwise Miquel's home life is rather more chaotic and dysfunctional.  Yet despite their quite different backgrounds, the pair quickly form a bond over their love for heavy metal, a genre that is largely unfamiliar to Miquel when the boys first meet—although this problem isn't one that can't be solved by, of all things, a melted Phil Collins LP (the film unspools in a wonderfully analogue world still ruled by vinyl and cassettes, despite 1991 being the year when the CD finally eclipsed both of these formats).  While all band art seen in the film displays the names of real artists—such as Iron Maiden and Sepultura—the musical arrangements, ingeniously, skew each track just a fraction wide of the original recording.

One of the film's highlights takes the form of Juanjo and Miquel's first experience of that most polarising of metal releases, Metallica's Black Album, and Tender Metalheads' quite superb take on that record's absurdly familiar opening notes underlines why the film is set in 1991 (Metallica's watershed album aside, there's also the not inconsiderable matter of life in pre-Olympic Barcelona).  This is a moving and funny work, although it should be conceded that metalheads—teenage or otherwise—will squeeze a few extra drops of joy from the various musical references; certainly, if you want to hear an off-the-wall parody of "Run to the Hills", this film has you covered.  Yet there's a universality to the story of Juanjo and Miquel as they navigate those oh-so-tricky high school years.  A sweet pathos runs through this hugely appealing film, which stands as one of 2023's cinematic highlights.

Darren Arnold

Thursday 12 October 2023

LFF 2023: Gush / Desert Dreaming

Both Gush and Desert Dreaming form part of the BFI London Film Festival's Experimenta strand, where they feature alongside the likes of Filipino filmmaker John Torres' Room in a Crowd and Ukrainian animated tale It Can't Be That Nothing That Can Be ReturnedExperimenta, which traditionally sees the bulk of its screenings crammed into the final couple of days of the LFF, generally throws up some fascinating stuff, often at a point when burned-out festival goers are in dire need of a palate-cleansing experience.  Most of the titles shown in Experimenta present something radically different from the narrative cinema that forms a sizeable percentage of the LFF's fare, and the strand stands as an invigorating part of the festival programme.  You can even buy an Experimenta pass—which admits you to three screenings of your choice—for just £24.

Fox Maxy's debut feature Gush—which screens on Saturday, October 14—arrives at the LFF in the midst of a buzz that has been steadily growing since the film premiered at this year's Sundance, where it played in the New Frontier strand.  Prior to Gush, Maxy directed a number of short films—most notably Maat Means Land, Blood Materials and F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now—and saw her work selected for several international film festivals, including Rotterdam and Toronto.  Yet Gush very much feels like the film Maxy has been building to all along, as it draws from around a decade's worth of the filmmaker's personal footage, much of which predates the earliest of her shorts.  With its frenetic barrage of sounds and colours, the kaleidoscopic, overloaded Gush somehow manages to be at once personal and alienating; while F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now combined similar imagery with a discernible point about the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation, Maxy's latest provides fewer clues as to what the takeaway should be.

It's quite clear that much—if not all—that's presented here holds real meaning for Maxy, yet it is difficult for the viewer to link the various motifs scattered throughout the film's chaotic 71 minutes.  Like many an experimental film, Gush appears to have been made without its consumption in mind, almost as if any consideration of audience might lead to a dilution of the artist's original vision.  Which is not to say that others aren't welcome to come along for the ride, and the suberbly-edited Gush, despite its singularity, makes for an absorbing experience.  Yet Maxy's film will punish anyone looking for a semblance of narrative: while our instincts might tell us to both attempt to join the dots and impose a three-act structure, this slippery film requires a rewiring of cinematic expectations if we are to navigate it without frustration taking hold.  Gush is a bold, fitfully impressive work, one that careens to a memorable conclusion featuring inspired use of The Cure's "The Perfect Girl".

Abdul Halik Azeez's Desert Dreaming screens at the LFF on Sunday, October 15—which marks the close of this year's edition—when it plays as one of five titles included in The Land is the Living Witness, an Experimenta programme centring on colonial histories and migration routes.  Azeez's film is specifically concerned with migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East, and it begins with a conversation in which a man details his perilous travels through Iran and Pakistan.  While we're listening to this story, we're watching someone carry out some very basic photoshopping, which culminates in figures being pasted against a variety of international backgrounds; as these crudely hewn globetrotters float around, the dialogue is supplanted by music from M. G. Ramachandran's 1973 film World Roaming Bachelor.  As experimental shorts go, Desert Dreaming—like the aforementioned F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now—is a relatively direct example, and as such it stands as a fine entry point into the world of non-narrative film. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Tuesday 10 October 2023

LFF 2023: Tótem / Hoeba!

More than three decades ago, Hubert Bals—the late creator and director of International Film Festival Rotterdam—established a fund to support filmmakers in the developing world, who Bals felt were capable of producing great cinema if given the right resources.  Since its inception, the Hubert Bals Fund, or HBF, has assisted in the production of countless critically-lauded films, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria, Ciro Guerra's outstanding Embrace of the Serpent, and Carlos Reygadas' Battle in Heaven.  Both IFFR and the HBF have a hand in Lila Avilés Tótem, the director's eagerly awaited follow-up to her 2018 feature debut The Chambermaid, which that was selected as Mexico's entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2019 Oscars; while The Chambermaid ultimately failed to land a nomination, the acclaim undoubtedly helped Avilés secure support from the HBF for her latest feature.

Tótem was one of three HBF-backed projects from Latin America to play at this year's Berlinale—where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize for best film in competition—and it continues to make its way around the world's film festivals with a stop at the BFI London Film Festival, where it screens today in NFT3.  Huub Bals was a firm believer in Latin American filmmakers, and Tótem is a fairly typical example of the sort of cinema the region has been producing under the auspices of the HBF.  Just as the bulk of The Chambermaid's drama unfolded in a single interior location—in that case, a luxury hotel—Tótem centres on a family home, as several generations come together to organise a surprise party.  The celebration is for the 40th birthday of Tonatiuh (Mateo García Elizondo, co-writer of the excellent Desierto), a painter dying of terminal cancer.  Such is Tonatiuh's condition, it is likely that this birthday will be his last.         

Tonatiuh himself is nowhere to be seen for a large chunk of the film, with Avilés instead choosing to focus on other family members, particularly Tonatiuh's seven-year-old daughter Sol (Naíma Sentíes).  Given the amount of people involved—it appears most, if not all, of Tonatiuh's extended family is squeezed into his house for this occasion—some bickering is inevitable, and indeed without it the film would be robbed of much of its dramatic impetus.  Tonatiuh's psychotherapist father Roberto (Alberto Amador) is himself a cancer survivor and, despite remaining largely on the periphery of the preparations, he's a notable presence here, with his sober, cranky demeanour betraying the burden of a parent who will almost certainly outlive their child.  Tótem is a somewhat immaculate work, one that is both lovingly filmed and beautifully acted, yet it never quite delivers the emotional wallop its setup promises.

Dutch short Hoeba! (English: Hooba!) is set several thousand years BC in Drenthe, where primeval life in the province—long before cities Assen and Emmen were ever though of—is proving tough for its inhabitants, who lack both food and shelter; while attempting to construct the latter, the former proves most distracting for a small group of primitive men, whose building work comes to an abrupt, calamitous halt as their attention turns to a mischievous rabbit.  Sem Assink's charming, funny and colourful film—a dialogue-free affair which lasts for just a little over two minutes—is bound to get a fine reception when it plays as one of eight titles included in the LFF's Animated Shorts for Younger Audiences, which screens at the festival on Sunday, October 15.   

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Sunday 8 October 2023

LFF 2023: The Taste of Mango

Chloe Abrahams' striking debut feature The Taste of Mango plays tomorrow as part of this year's BFI London Film Festival, where it screens in competition for the Grierson Award.  Abrahams' film comes up against a strong field of documentaries, which includes Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann's The Klezmer Project, Cyril Aris' Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, and Sav Rodgers' Chasing Chasing Amy.  Yet the film in the documentary competition that The Taste of Mango has most in common with is Lina Soualem's Bye Bye Tiberias: both films are highly personal explorations of their makers' respective relationships with their mothers (in Soualem's case, her mum is famous Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass, who has appeared in the likes of Munich, Blade Runner 2049, Miral and last year's Hellraiser remake).

Abrahams was raised in the UK by her mother Rozana, who moved to England from her native Sri Lanka in order to escape a very specific problem.  While the film's focus is very much on the loving relationship that exists between the director and her mother, Chloe Abrahams widens her scope to involve another generation of her family, who are represented by her grandmother (and Rozana's mother) Jean.  It is through Jean's inclusion that The Taste of Mango takes its darkest turn, as it is revealed that her husband subjected Rozana, his stepdaughter, to years of physical and sexual violence, thus prompting Rozana to leave Sri Lanka when the opportunity arose.  In the years that followed, Rozana, quite understandably, became estranged from her mother, and she still can't fathom why Jean—who is fully aware of the abuse that occurred—remains married to this man.

While Rozana's relationship with Jean has since thawed to the extent that the latter can now visit her daughter and granddaughter in London, it's abundantly clear that much remains unresolved.  On camera, Jean herself comes across as both personable and affable—but it is hard to reconcile this person with the one who has consciously stayed with a man who inflicted such horrors on the young Rozana.  Although several decades have passed, Rozana hasn't completely given up on the possibility that her mother might one day leave her husband; Jean's persistence with the marriage can largely be attributed to that most banal of reasons: the need to maintain appearances.  Rozana is a luminous, wonderfully gracious presence, and both the love and life she's given to Chloe stand in stark contrast to her own terrible experiences back in Sri Lanka.     

Despite the closeness that exists between Chloe and Rozana, The Taste of Mango is also about distance, specifically the silent gap that lies between children and their parents; while the reason for the rupture in Jean and Rozana's relationship is obvious, there's the subtler example of Chloe's frustration as to why her mother won't do more when it comes to addressing the demons of the past.  Then there's the series of tangible gaps we witness early on in the film, as one of Rozana's family albums is littered with empty spaces created by the numerous photos that have been torn to omit her abuser; our eyes are instinctively drawn to the redacted areas.  While the absence of Rozana's stepfather from these pictures serves to highlight his unfortunate impact on her life, this photo album can conversely be viewed as symbolic of the survivor's life today, in which there's only room for the good things.  This is a moving, lyrical and haunting film; don't bet against it walking away with the Grierson Award. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Friday 6 October 2023

LFF 2023: Red Rooms

Canadian filmmaker Pascal Plante made quite a splash on the festival circuit with his two previous narrative features, Fake Tattoos and Nadia, Butterfly, which competed at Berlin and Cannes, respectively.  In keeping with this trend, Plante's latest film, the compelling, unsettling Red Rooms (French: Les chambres rouges) has been selected for the BFI London Film Festival, where it screens out of competition as part of the Cult strand on Sunday, October 8 and Monday, October 9.  Red Rooms' appearance at the LFF comes just a few months on from its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it vied for the festival's Crystal Globe; while it ultimately fell short in its bid to secure the KVIFF's main award (which went to Blaga's Lessons), the film's presence at both Karlovy Vary and London cements its director's position as a European festival mainstay.

The LFF's Cult section, while always worth a perusal, is particularly strong this year, with Red Rooms taking its place alongside the likes of Bertrand Bonello's keenly anticipated The Beast, Frankenstein riff Birth/Rebirth, and belated sequel Nightwatch: Demons Are Forever.  With its firm emphasis on the aftermath of violence, the highly implicit Red Rooms has a connection to another Francophone title from this year's LFF: The Spectre of Boko Haram.  While, on the face of it, Plante's film has little for gorehounds to sink their teeth into, its non-transgressive appearance should fool no one: the black-hearted Red Rooms is strong meat, and a difficult film to shake off.  It is anchored by a terrifically unnerving performance from Juliette Gariépy, who stars as Kelly-Anne, a successful model who spends virtually all her spare time following every detail of the trial of Ludovic Chevalier (a wordless turn from Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), who is charged with the brutal murders of three young girls.    

The trial of Chevalier proves to be something of a media circus, and Kelly-Anne regularly camps out in the cold in order to secure a spot in the public gallery.  It is while waiting for entry into the courthouse that Kelly-Anne meets Clémentine (Laurie Babin), a virtually penniless young woman who is convinced of Chevalier's innocence.  The rather taciturn Kelly-Anne tentatively strikes up a friendship with the chatty, slightly jittery Clémentine, who eventually takes up Kelly-Anne's offer of a place to stay for the remainder of the trial.  We hear graphic descriptions of the murders, all of which are revealed—in one of the film's queasiest developments— to have been broadcast live to one of the darkest corners of the internet, to which the highly tech-savvy Kelly-Anne has access.  Footage of two of the killings is used as evidence in the trial, yet the the third murder video has eluded everyone; while attempting to locate the missing recording, the dogged Kelly-Anne—who has accrued a sizeable pot of cryptocurrency through online poker—puts herself in real danger.   

But what exactly is Kelly-Anne's interest in this particularly grim case?  As Red Rooms begins, this wealthy model could easily pass for a relative of one of the victims, but she soon emerges as a more militant take on Clémentine's murder groupie.  Kelly-Anne's full-bore devotion to the cause—which culminates in a nightmarish, jaw-dropping scene that sees her dragged from the courtroom—leads to a rift with her justifiably alarmed agent, while the previously bellicose Clémentine refuses to cross a line that her host has long since breezed past in the quest to discover the truth about these crimes.  Yet it is not the fate of Chevalier but rather the mystery of what makes the inscrutable Kelly-Anne tick that gives this deliberately paced film its dramatic heft, and Pascal Plante keeps us guessing until just before the final credits roll.  Red Rooms' suggested atrocities instil a rising tide of anxiety that makes for a nerve-shredding couple of hours; this claustrophobic horror is a masterclass of less is more filmmaking, and is quite unlike anything in recent film history. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Wednesday 4 October 2023

LFF 2023: The Spectre of Boko Haram / Making Babies

Cyrielle Raingou's debut feature The Spectre of Boko Haram (French: Le Spectre de Boko Haram) won the Tiger Award at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, and it continues its way around the festival circuit with outings at the BFI London Film Festival, where it screens on Thursday, October 5 and Friday, October 6.  Although Raingou's film won the IFFR's flagship prize, it is not in competition at the LFF but rather finds itself in the festival's Journey strand, where it is joined by fellow documentaries The Echo and Ramona.  Cameroon native Raingou cut her teeth on short films including The Lamb, Challenge and Requiem Prologue, before moving into long-form filmmaking with her Rotterdam winner, a work which documents daily life in Kolofata, a village in the director's home region.   

Kolofata is a northern Cameroonian commune which sits close to the Nigerian border; for many years, the militant Islamist organisation Boko Haram has been based in Nigeria, but their reach extends to neighbouring countries Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as the latter's neighbour, Mali.  Kolofata has come under attack from Boko Haram on more than one occasion, and judging by the heavily-armed soldiers who guard the perimeter of the village's school, it seems that no one is discounting the possibility of future assaults on the town.  The film focuses on three children—Falta, Mohamed and Ibrahim—as they go about their everyday activities in the face of the fallout from Boko Haram's actions; Falta's father was killed by a suicide bomber, while Nigerian brothers Mohamed and Ibrahim are separated from their parents.       

Given both its success at Rotterdam and the subject matter, The Spectre of Boko Haram is an unexpectedly muted film; while it's an assured, fitfully engaging documentary, the style is televisual, and the filmmaking rarely rises to anything beyond workmanlike.  It's a sober, low-key work, one in which Cyrielle Raingou is bent on showing the lasting effects of conflict, while the violence itself is all but sidelined.  In accord with the film's baldly descriptive title, Boko Haram is an undeniable, unsettling presence here: never at the forefront of proceedings, but always lurking around the margins of the quotidian.  Moreover, Raingou provides virtually no context or background on Boko Haram's activities, which underlines her steadfast dedication to prioritising victims over perpetrators.     

Sticking with Francophone cinema, and Canadian short Making Babies (French: Faire un enfant) screens today as one of half a dozen films included in the LFF's What Makes Us programme.  Making Babies is written and directed by Eric K. Boulianne, a prolific screenwriter who is perhaps best known for co-writing Michel Côté-starrer De père en flic 2.  Here, Boulianne himself stars alongside Florence Blain Mbaye, with the pair playing a nameless couple who, as per the title, are making an effort to get pregnant.  After numerous tries—an on-screen counter keeps track of the attempts—and no progress, the stressed-out couple opts for fertility treatment, which brings no change in fortune but does put even more strain on the relationship.  This funny, moving and well-judged film proves just long enough to make its emotional point, with Boulianne turning in great work on both sides of the camera.  

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Monday 11 September 2023

IFF Rotterdam: New Head of HBF Appointed

International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has appointed Tamara Tatishvili as the new Head of the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF), the festival’s global film fund. Tatishvili has extensive experience across many areas of the international film industry as a strategy consultant, leader, producer and programmer. Amongst a host of notable positions, Tatishvili worked for several years as Director of the Georgian National Film Center and is currently Head of Studies at MEDICI, a training and exchange forum for senior decision makers of international public film funds. She will take up the position heading the Hubert Bals Fund following the departure of its previous Head, Bianca Taal. Also comprising the HBF team are Manager Jeske van der Slikke who will shortly be taking maternity leave and Coordinator Ayumi Filippone, who takes over until March 2024 in Van der Slikke’s absence. 

Tamara Tatishvili, incoming Head of the HBF said: “I'm thrilled to start a new chapter in my career, building on the HBF's long-standing legacy of championing global storytellers who boldly push cinematic boundaries within challenging contexts and environments. Throughout my career, I've seen first-hand the profound impact of strategic funding in regions with limited resources and restricted creative freedoms. I’m looking forward to ensuring HBF continues to amplify the voices of filmmakers whilst sharpening its focus on supporting inclusive narratives that can captivate and provoke.” Vanja Kaludjercic, IFFR's Festival Director said: "We are delighted to announce that Tamara Tatishvili has been appointed as the new Head of the HBF. Her expertise will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in strengthening the HBF's position and driving its development in the years ahead."

Source/images: IFFR

Tuesday 5 September 2023

London Film Festival 2023: Programme Launch

The 67th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) on Thursday announced the full programme line-up, which will be presented in cinemas and online, across the UK. Over twelve days from 4–15 October, the LFF will invite audiences to return to its flagship venues in the heart of London – BFI Southbank and the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, which between them host Galas, Special Presentations and Official Competition. Films and Series from all strands of the Festival will screen in many of central London’s iconic cinemas with a curated selection of features also being showcased at 9 partner venues across the UK. The LFF will present a compelling and diverse programme of films, shorts, series and immersive works from 92 countries, featuring 79 languages playing across the 12 days of the festival. 

Every feature and series will screen to audiences in the UK for the very first time, with many shown publicly for the first time ever anywhere in the world. Premieres include 29 World Premieres (14 features, 2 series and 13 shorts), 7 International Premieres (6 features and 1 short) and 30 European Premieres (22 features, 1 series and 7 shorts). World Premieres from filmmakers and artists include: Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s THE KITCHEN which closes the festival, Daniel Kokotajlo’s STARVE ACRE (below), Theresa Ikoko’s GRIME KIDS from the Series strand, the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation restoration of Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece PEEPING TOM in association with STUDIOCANAL, and the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation’s restoration of Horace Ové’s pioneering 1975 debut PRESSURE.

International Premieres include SALTBURN, directed, produced and written by Emerald Fennell which opens the festival, as well as collaboration between Deepa Mehta and Sirat Taneja I AM SIRAT and THIS IS GOING TO BE BIG by Thomas Charles Hyland. Major European Premieres include ONE LIFE by James Hawes starring Anthony Hopkins, EXPATS directed by Lulu Wang starring Nicole Kidman, TOGETHER 99 by Lukas Moodyson and DEAR JASSI by Tarsem Singh. Kristy Matheson, BFI London Film Festival Director, said: "In preparing this 2023 festival, my colleagues and I have been endlessly buoyed by the artistry, ideas and talented individuals and communities that have come into our orbit. It’s now time to share all this wonder and we can’t wait for audiences to experience it all this October here in London and across the UK with LFF on Tour and online at BFI Player.”

The LFF will invite audiences once again to its London hubs on the South Bank and in the West End, with both areas remaining at the heart of the BFI London Film Festival experience. Galas will screen at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on an 18-metre screen with full high-spec 7.1 channel surround sound, ensuring every seat in the over-2000-seater venue is the best in the house. Titles from the main programme will screen at a range of cinemas across the city from the BFI’s own South Bank Cinemas – BFI Southbank and BFI IMAX – to partner venues Vue West End, the Prince Charles Cinema, Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Curzon Soho and Curzon Mayfair, each of them bringing audiences up close and personal with filmmaking talents from the UK and across the globe.

Source/images: BFI