Belfast Film Festival 2014

It’s a healthy sign that a large number of the films in the 14th Belfast Film Festival‘s ‘New Cinema’ category come with a large independent UK distributor attached. You could put that down to the programmers just asking Artificial Eye, Metrodome and Axiom for previews of their forthcoming releases; but whoever is making the selection, someone somewhere is doing a great job. Moreover, the fact that such innovative and distinctive films are still being financed in these economically challenged times is even more heartening. If one of the roles of a good film festival is to restore your faith in cinema, the Belfast Film Festival does just that.

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The current economic crisis barely seems to register with the filmmakers in the ‘New Cinema’ category, where most of the programme comprises films made in 2013. But it’s an earlier economic crisis – or the beginning of the current one – that lies at the heart of Anthony Chen’s ILO ILO. The film is primarily a family drama, but you can’t miss the references to the economy, since everyone is affected to one degree or another by the events that unravelled in Singapore in 1997. Hwee Leng works in a shipping company that is handing out redundancy letters, and her husband Teck’s investments have failed, putting his business is in jeopardy. This means that the position of the Filipina nanny they’ve just employed (another economic migrant, who has to take up a second part-time job as a hairdresser) is precarious. Even their son keeps an eye on patterns in the lottery tickets.

Some of the plot elements in ILO ILO are predictable. Teck pretends to go to work when he no longer has a job; a fraudulent inspirational speaker preys on the vulnerable; but the film’s concept and purpose are strong, and Chen is poetically imaginative in his tying together of economic and sociological crises. There also a suggestion in Alex van Warmerdam’s BORGMAN that affluence and a nanny don’t necessarily equip children to cope in a changing world. How it goes about putting across those ideas is far from straightforward, as an ambiguous underground-dwelling vagrant sets about exposing and unravelling a bourgeois family, with surrealism, dream manipulation and good old-fashioned extreme violence.

… the film lets fate punctuate the drama in a way that makes it unpredictable and deeply involving.

Family matters also lie at the heart of Katell Quillévéré’s SUZANNE, a film currently on limited UK release. It’s the one constant in a film that is hard to pin down, lacking any conventional narrative path or evident purpose as it covers 25 years of family troubles. Is it a character study or social commentary? An auteur work or an actor’s film? Certainly its success relies heavily on a strong central performance from Sara Forestier in the role of reluctant single mother Suzanne. As Quillévéré charts the ups and the very deep descents that follow over the course of Suzanne’s life, the young woman’s sister makes different choices and seems to have a better grip on life; but even she can’t avoid what fate has in store. In place of a traditional narrative grammar, the film lets fate punctuate the drama with exclamation mark events at key points, and even one or two question marks in a way that makes the drama unpredictable and deeply involving.

HONOUR is a new film from first-time director Shan Khan that deals with a topical family issue for UK Asian communities: the question of “honour killings”. In dressing it up as a violent chase thriller, and casting a white English actor in one of the lead roles, the director risked obscuring the very real issues that he was attempting to raise. In a post-film Q&A, Khan was unapologetic, and spoke with conviction about wanting to make a film that would be exciting and entertaining for a mainstream audience. He’s undoubtedly right, since the film might otherwise never have been financed. Questionable plot points actually have a basis in reality: such as an Asian family hiring a racist thug as a bounty hunter for their errant daughter. As for the character of the white supremacist with a heart, Paddy Considine brings credibility to a challenging role. Aside from just being a well-structured, slickly directed thriller that gets its point across, it’s great to see vibrant new UK cinema reflecting issues on the ground for a multicultural society. We could do with more of this, and less hidebound reactionary English cinema such as TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY.

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Challenging cinema, with an edge of the bizarre, the extreme and the experimental, is characteristic to the Belfast Film Festival. For instance, last year Finnish filmmaker Antti Jokinen plumbed the depths of misery with THE PURGE. You wouldn’t take bets against a frozen land to the north delivering some of the festival’s most discordant notes, and Finland strikes again this year with Pirjo Honksalo’s CONCRETE NIGHT. Aesthetically the film is quite beautiful, with striking high-contrast black-and-white ‘Scope cinematography and a dreamy Sokurov-like quality that really complements the tone of the work. You could also see Coppola’s RUMBLEFISH as a reference – young boy growing up in a violent world idolises his elder brother who is about to begin a prison sentence – but with added bleakness and more violence. But the film doesn’t quite sustain interest through to its conclusion, particularly when it’s hard to feel anything for these remote, cold and unlikeable characters.

It doesn’t all have to be grim up north, but that depends if you’re a human or a horse. OF HORSES AND MEN will have animal lovers waiting anxiously for the end credits to confirm that ‘no animals were hurt during the making of this film’, and they can rest assured of that fact. One might be more concerned about the high casualty rate among the small Icelandic community in Benedikt Erlingsson’s arid black comedy, but you come to expect that from Nordic and Icelandic filmmaking; particularly anything with Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s name attached (he’s the producer here). Stark, cold landscapes shape the people of this region, but it adds considerable resonance to the little episodic stories that take place in the film. In such a place you can see how such tales can amount to the stuff of ancient myth and legend: a rounding up of escaped horses, a man struck blind in a feud with a neighbour, a lost wanderer forced to disembowel and sleep inside the cooling carcass of his horse. It’s not for those of a more delicate sensibility, but OF HORSES AND MEN is delightfully amusing as all the stories come together wonderfully at the end.

… a daring and wholly successful departure from the traditional narrative form …

There’s a similar element of whimsy as well as a consideration of the space shared by animals and humans in Ramon Zürcher’s THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT. In the context of the edgy selection of the majority of the films shown at the Festival it was a welcome change of pace. In fact, pace is everything here, following the rhythms of the activity in an apartment where the extended family of a Berlin couple have come to stay with them. It’s difficult to catch any of the supposed references to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ in it (the idea developed during a workshop with Béla Tarr), but we are subjected to something of a cat’s eye view of human life and activity: the sounds, the connections, the interaction between each other and the outside world. It’s pleasant and never dull, even if it feels somewhat inconsequential; but there’s no doubting that this is a daring and wholly successful departure from the traditional narrative form and for a first feature, it’s quite brilliantly realised.

The perspective shifts inward in Christoph Behl’s THE DESERT, a refreshing approach to the zombie apocalypse genre; but you can’t help feeling that Behl has missed the point. It’s not the most obvious comparison for an Argentinean zombie film, but THE DESERT is frequently reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s view of 1968 Paris in THE DREAMERS: in as far as leaving the viewer wondering why they are stuck indoors with a tedious love triangle situation, while the more interesting film is clearly what is going on outside. This is undoubtedly a conscious, choice of the director (in both cases), and a particularly perverse one. We eventually get to see one zombie that the three survivors (two male, one female) of the unexplained outbreak keep as a kind of pet, and thankfully it’s the only thing to provide some welcome diversion from the tedium of the “sex, lies and videotapes” complications. It would have been nice, given the location, to have some political or social context applied to the situation; or even gender politics. As it is, this feels like a wasted opportunity.

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Is it really five years since local filmmaking team Factotum’s low-budget debut feature DITCHING premiered at the Belfast Film Festival? Their follow-up, BUSBY FURBALL, has been a long time coming, and despite being only 28 minutes long it was worth the wait for what is possibly the weirdest film of the festival. BUSBY FURBALL recounts the adventures of three oddly shaped, colourful furry creatures called Giblet, Polyp and Offal. Offal in particular is prone to misadventure, experimenting with strange fungi, and then giving birth violently to a large slug after swallowing his own furball. Giblet is more methodical in his scientific experiments, using technology he has developed to enable himself and Polyp to take control of Offal’s mind. A TV series would be lovely idea, but it’s difficult to imagine them pitching their wild “Tellytubbies on acid” concept to a production company.

In terms of strange, unique cinematic visions, the Turkish feature THOU GILD’ST THE EVEN is perhaps the most unsettling. The film’s title is taken from a Shakespeare sonnet, but for every moment of sheer visual poetry and beautiful sentiments in Onur Ünlü’s film, there was an equal or greater moment of extreme graphic violence; usually following in quick succession and bringing the viewer rapidly down to earth. There does at least appear to be a rationale for these wild mood swings, flights into magic realism and bewildering array of visual effects. Storytelling, legends and mythology play a large part in telling the story of Cemal, a clinically depressed and suicidal Turkish barber whose mother and sisters have recently died in a house fire. It’s not an easy film to watch as the viewer winces in anticipation of the next jarring explosion of violence, which invariably surpasses the horror of the previous one. Without a single dull moment, THOU GILD’ST THE EVEN is likely to polarise audiences; but it at least provokes a strong reaction.

… a poet whose talent focusses obsessively on his exceedingly large cock …

You could certainly say the same about Yann Gonzalez’s barely endurable YOU AND THE NIGHT. With the aesthetic of a French 80s soft-porn movie and a cracking retro soundtrack from M83, the film plays out as a ‘huis clos’ where a diverse/perverse group of characters known only by their sexual identities (‘The Stud’, ‘The Slut’, ‘The Teen’ and ‘The Star’) have been invited by an equally strange couple and their transvestite maid to participate in an orgy. As they each tell their stories, there are a number of bizarre scenes that are difficult to erase from the mind. Eric Cantona, for example, plays The Stud (The Stallion in French), a poet whose talent focusses obsessively on his exceedingly large cock, which he is keen to introduce to everyone at the earilest opportunity. The sight of Cantona in a police cage, wearing only his underpants as he whips Beatrice Dalle (who is dressed as a Russian commissar) is probably the least bizarre scene in the film. It perhaps has ambitions towards Buñuel, or at least operates with the same openness to the mystic qualities of sexuality as Greg Araki’s entertaining and self-knowing KABOOM!

Why don’t we get more good science-fiction films with an edge of genuine scientific curiosity and a foothold in realism – and why don’t they get a much wider distribution? It’s a difficult balance that EUROPA REPORT manages to deal with rather well. Sebastián Cordero’s 2013 feature recounts a commercially-funded scientific exploration mission to Europa, the frozen moon of Jupiter. Europa is the only other place in our solar system which is considered able to support life. In case the tension of discovering a single-cell lifeform in isn’t enough to engage the interest of a mainstream audience, the story is told from a piecing together of recovered transmissions from the lost mission. EUROPA REPORT has everything you would want to see in a good SF film: stunning vistas of Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, solid science (within reason), thrills, accidents, incidents and alien lifeforms of who knows what description. It might not satisfy fans of PROMETHEUS, but old-school fans of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY will appreciate the scientific realism tied to a sense of adventure. It won’t redefine the genre, but EUROPA REPORT is not without a few surprises.

It’s Earth that feels like an alien place in Godfrey Reggio’s VISITORS. It’s not a science-fiction film, but it does actually consider similar human questions to those raised in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, particularly in our relationship with technology. VISITORS has all the familiar hallmarks of the director of KOYAANISQATSI and is silent but for the obligatory Philip Glass soundtrack, but its vision of the world is just as extreme, as beautiful and as disturbing as anything else seen in the Belfast Film Festival. New Cinema, Altered States, Documentary – VISITORS is one work that fits into almost every BFF category, and consequently it was one of the most relevant and significant films in this year’s selection.

14th BELFAST FILM FESTIVAL PROGRAMME, 2014

ILO ILO – Anthony Chen, Singapore, 2103
BORGMAN – Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands, 2013
SUZANNE – Katell Quillévéré, France-Belgium, 2013
HONOUR – Shan Khan, UK, 2013
CONCRETE NIGHT – Pirjo Honksalo, Finland, 2013
OF HORSES AND MEN – Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland-Germany, 2013
THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT – Ramon Zürcher, Germany, 2013
THE DESERT – Christoph Behl, Argentina, 2013
BUSBY FURBALL – Factotum, UK, 2014
THOU GILD’ST THE EVEN – Onur Ünlü, Turkey, 2013
YOU AND THE NIGHT – Yann Gonzalez, France, 2013
EUROPA REPORT – Sebastián Cordero, USA, 2013
VISITORS – Godfrey Reggio, USA, 2013

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