EIFF-Festival Roundup

I ended the first part of this roundup with a discussion of Historic Centre, one of my festival highlights, before going on to say that there was one film I liked even better. That film was 36. In some ways, the two films are linked by a thematic concern with the past, and how we remember it. The protagonist of 36 is a film location scout, who works by taking digital images of the locations she visits, before copying them onto external hard drives – one for each year she has been working. When one of the drives goes down, questions are raised as to how we experience life in the digital age (“It’s like a whole year has died”, she tells a friend). Earlier, she shared a moment with an art director: she is photographing something, while he is simply looking at it. He tells her to put the camera away, but she protests that she wants the photograph so she can keep it. “That’s okay, I already saw it”, he responds (it is a film about looking and seeing, as much as it is a film about memory). A melancholic sense of loss runs throughout. The impermanence of memory, and therefore history, is highlighted. A director fingers a printed photograph of a building that is no longer standing – he wanted to film there because of its past, its atmosphere – but now it is only the photograph that remains. Photographs are tied to memory, and when the location scout’s drive goes down, she is left amnesic in a modern world (“It’s digital: when it’s gone it’s gone”, a computer technician tells her). Unlike much of today’s art house cinema, 36 doesn’t try to hide its meaning and themes behind oblique pomposity, and it is all the more profound and thought-provoking for its openness of intent. There’s a striking minimalist beauty, both to its images and to its narrative. The film’s title is derived from its structure, which is comprised of 36 scenes, the amount chosen after the number of frames on a roll of 35mm film. Each ‘frame’ is filmed in one shot, and each is introduced by a numbered title card which names the segment (perhaps the most representative being, “Does this place have a past?”). Whisper it quietly, but 36 might be this year’s masterpiece, and I sincerely hope it finds the audience it deserves when it’s released in the UK in November.

Themes of image-as-memory also permeated Avanti Popolo, another of the festival’s highlights. Here, the images come from rolls of 8mm shot by an absent figure, whose brother finds them after moving into their father’s house. The house is in disrepair, and its crumbling exteriors take on a dimension of metaphor, helping to explore the legacy of the history invoked by the 8mm footage of the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1970s. The action is often peripheral, sometimes off-screen entirely, while the compositions are held beyond their necessary duration: we are being encouraged to look further into the images, to explore the meaning behind the metaphor, and to soak in questions about Brazil’s identity which arise from the ashes of the past. Like 36, the mood may be melancholic, but there is also much humour to be found within the film’s smooth, gentle rhythms.

Another excellent and gently paced film was When Night Falls, based upon the real-life story of a young man who was put to death for killing six police officers in Shanghai, after being questioned about his unlicensed bicycle. The film focuses on the fate of his mother, who is illegally prevented by the authorities from helping her son. The film’s understated, unhurried and unsentimental approach requires patience from the viewer, but it’s quietly transfixing throughout and builds to a very moving finale.

More abrasive in style was the equally superb From Tehran to London. Left unfinished when writer/director Mania Akbari chose to flee Iran halfway through filming, under fear of arrest, the footage was later edited in London – hence the film’s title. The story of a disintegrating marriage and complicated (bi)sexual politics within a single household, the film’s incomplete state gives it an extra reflexive political dimension and poignancy. But it’s not only the themes and politics that struck me: the blocking and cinematography are amongst the best I’ve seen in a small, interior drama. The accompanying documentary, Dancing Mania, detailed themes and symbolism found within the film, and therefore helps the viewer delve even deeper into its subtext.

One of these subtexts concerns the conditions needed to create art (the protagonist is a poet), and this seemed to be something of a running theme throughout the festival: closing-night comedy Not Another Happy Ending dealt with a novelist overcoming writer’s block, while entertaining music documentary The Great Hip Hop Hoax from DN friend Jeanie Finlay tells the story of two Scottish rappers who had to pretend to be American to find success (thereby exploring a number of additional themes, including performance, identity, the perils of fame, passion and friendship). But I think my favourite of the films which touched on this theme was the brilliantly bizarre I Catch a Terrible Cat. Ostensibly about a burgeoning friendship between an elderly male novelist and a young female bartender, the film constructs an increasingly complex web of romantic entanglements involving not only the novelist and the bartender, but also his two children, their two partners, and his young protégée. As the coincidences pile up, it becomes clear that the film is more interested in exploring themes of desire and longing than in telling a realistic narrative, and the film builds to a suitably surreal conclusion. In all, it’s a beautifully realised and beautifully restrained parable about the power of love, and the effects of the (romantic) choices we make.

Elsewhere in the festival, I enjoyed the thriller-cum-road-movie-cum-coming-of-age-drama Before Snowfall, which contained the most compelling narrative of all the films I saw; the documentary Natan, which shines a spotlight on an important, neglected and ambiguous figure from the history of cinema (as well as reminding us how easily critics can propagate misinformation); A.C.A.B. All Cats Are Brilliant, a tender, observational drama about a political protester in Greece; and Il Futuro, a story about a teenage orphan who falls for the man she is supposed to rob – while that may not sound promising, it’s bolstered by excellent performances and a perfectly judged use of an off-kilter tone.

Playing in the “American Dreams” strand (which highlighted “cutting-edge new works from American independent cinema”) were two films which made for an interesting double bill: C.O.G. and This Is Martin Bonner – both of which raise interesting questions about the place of religion within modern American society, and both of which feature protagonists attempting to make a fresh start in life. Of the two, Martin Bonner is the stronger, though there’s much to enjoy in C.O.G’s deconstruction of its protagonist’s constructed personality. Martin Bonner, meanwhile, is quiet and engrossing, beautifully handled, and very touching. It also feels generous and genuine, two qualities too often missing from films today.

As well as offering plenty of new films, EIFF is also known for its strong retrospective strands, and the opportunity to immerse myself in the work of a single, important director is always one of the things I enjoy most about the festival. Unfortunately, I missed all of the Richard Fleischer films, but I did manage to see a reasonable amount of the Jean Grémillon work on offer. All of the films were strong but, aside from the consistency of quality, I struggled to find the elusive heart of Grémillon. All of the films were strikingly different from each other, making it hard to pin down the essence of a Grémillon film. In the festival catalogue, Ricardo Matos Cabo suggests the films are “crafted around the pursuit of happiness”, and this certainly chimed with the films I saw. There was also a compassionate emphasis on workers and the working class, often filmed with a documentary-like interest in the process of their work (witness, for instance, the detailed focus on the work undertaken by the eponymous protagonists of the Lighthouse Keepers, my favourite of the Grémillon films I saw). These qualities extend to several of the documentary shorts that accompanied the features during the retrospective, but perhaps shouldn’t be over-emphasised, for several of the films also incorporate more mystical elements (the most obvious of these being the magician’s performance for the passengers of an ocean liner in Daïnah la métisse). Despite what I perceive as my own failure to really get to grips with the films of Jean Grémillon, I certainly relished the opportunity to see these rare films on the big screen.

Of course, feature films – old and new – are only one part of the festival programme, which also contains a large number of shorts. Of the ones I saw, I particularly enjoyed three abstract works in the experimental “Black Box” strand (Sou, Salt Lines and The Sight), as well as another “Black Box” short, Funny Games Ghost, which layered extracts from the two versions of Haneke’s film on top of each other. Also good was The Pioneer, about filmmaker Alice Guy-Blanche, and returning EIFF veteran Tom Chick’s amusing Rushcart, about the customs of Morris Men in a small parish in Greater Manchester.

As can hopefully be gathered by the length and scope of this two-part review, there was an exhausting amount of films and events on at Edinburgh this year, just like there are every year. So, all we can do now is count down the time from now until next June, and look forward to doing it all over again!

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