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