At the start of Paul Harrill’s beautifully thoughtful debut feature, Something, Anything, Peggy suffers a miscarriage. A letter of support arrives from the brother of an old school friend. Now a monk, he is praying for her. In the wake of such tragedy, the words resonate with Peggy, leading her to recognise the unfulfilling nature of her marriage and high-powered job, sending her on a search for something, anything, to fill the void. If the story sounds familiar, perhaps it is – but Harrill’s engaging drama is a timely reminder that, as one character says, ‘every day is a choice’, and that we can choose, at any time, to step away from the materialistic confines of consumerist society. Interestingly, though, the film suggests that the answer lies not in asceticism, but in a life lived moderately – and, almost as if by design, it’s an approach that seems to extend to this year’s festival as a whole.
Although it’s unfair (and a little incorrect) to align Snowpiercer and Joe with consumerist cinema, in terms of their star power they were certainly the two most commercially-orientated films I saw at the festival – the former being the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, featuring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris, the latter being the new offering from David Gordon Green and starring Nicolas Cage. They were also, in many ways, two of the least inspiring films on display, each following a predictable narrative trajectory and only coming into their own a little too late to surmount their prevailing sense of mediocrity. Much like Peggy, then, it seems we must look further afield to find satisfaction.
A sense of such a search was seemingly shared by some, if not all, of the subjects featured in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana. From the same Sensory Ethnography Lab that won last year’s Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at Edinburgh (for Leviathan), Manakamana features eleven rides in the cable car that travels to and from Manakamana temple in Nepal, each filmed in a single, unbroken take and featuring a different set of subjects. The baton-passing structure works well, but it feels like a trick has been missed: why not show us the same people travelling up and down, thereby allowing us a sense of insight into the experiences had at the temple? Indeed, a multitude of questions arise regarding the subjects and their purposes, but this is perhaps part of the attraction – the continual motion of the cable car becomes hypnotic, and the long extended duration of each trip begets both contemplation and humour from the scrutinised subjects.
Extended duration also abounds in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, of which there were three on offer at this year’s festival. The longest, the feature-length Stray Dogs, was also the most frustrating: ostensibly a film about the life of a family living in an abandoned building, the film’s narrative remains buried in obscurity, obtuse to the point of provocation. And yet, as a film about abandoned people in abandoned spaces – and about hope, longing and seeking a connection – individual moments of transcendent beauty abound, with the ending proving especially poignant. Such moments exist too in the mid-length Journey to the West, in which Tsai abandons narrative altogether, thereby also leaving behind the frustrations that the abstraction of Stray Dogs brings: Journey to the West is pure meditation, pure transcendence – and pure poetic joy. The Danish director Carl Dreyer once said that the human face is a landscape one never tires of exploring, and with his opening shot – an 8½ minute, unmoving, unflinching, close-up of the French actor Denis Lavant – Tsai puts this theory to the test. Later, he even frames Lavant’s face in close-up profile against the rocky mountains of Marseille, as if literally making him part of the landscape. Tsai’s third film, Walking on Water, his short contribution to the portmanteau film Letters from the South, was a companion piece to Journey: both feature a monk moving slowly through the terrain they explore (Marseille and Malaysia) – but in Water, we leave the monk too often, exploring spaces of personal relevance to Tsai, but perhaps of too little relevance to us. At times, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a profound artistic statement or simply empty pretence.
As a whole, Letters from the South is an uneven omnibus, looking at the lives of the Chinese diaspora in other areas of Southeast Asia. The strongest segment comes from Royston Tan, whose simple and scrumptious parable of a father opting to hand-make traditional food, rather than buying it, reminds us of the importance of tradition.
The other omnibus film I saw at the festival, Cathedrals of Culture, was also uneven, and not just across its parts: even within its individual episodes, it veered between the naff and the beautiful, the trite and the inspirational. Conceived as a major project seeking to uncover the ‘souls’ of the buildings it explores (the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Library of Russia, Halden Prison, the Salk Institute, the Oslo Opera House and the Pompidou Centre), the film is at its best when its cameras roam silently through the halls of its environment – but too often it resorts to informational or cod-poetic voiceover. Some of the six directors (Michael Madsen and Robert Redford) handle the voiceovers better than others (Wim Wenders and Margreth Olin), but at all times it seems to pull us further and further from the ‘soul’ of the buildings, towards the ‘body’ – or, in discussing their design and purpose, maybe even the ‘brain’ (in fact, the excellent short film Graminoids, which focused on the grass in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, comes closer to achieving Cathedrals stated goal). That said, even if Cathedrals doesn’t uncover the something, anything it’s seeking, it remains a stunningly realised achievement, featuring some of the best 3D material I’ve yet encountered.
Another film focusing on a searching protagonist was one of my festival highlights, Stations of the Cross. Broken into 14 chapters, each named after one of the eponymous stations (and, like the trips in Manakamana, filmed in single, unbroken takes), the film focuses upon Maria, a 14-year-old girl who is about to be confirmed in a dogmatic, fundamentalist Christian sect. She’s bullied at school for her beliefs and her mother’s iron rule makes her home life no more comforting – so it’s perhaps little wonder that she offers herself so completely to God. At first, it seems as though director Dietrich Brüggemann will study Maria’s situation objectively, almost like Scorsese studied Jordan Belfort’s in The Wolf of Wall Street, allowing the audience to make up their own mind, while simultaneously feeding his characters just enough rope to hang themselves with – but as the film begins to reach its conclusion, a hint of cynicism comes creeping in, threatening to undermine the film’s central enquiry. Until then, there’s been a hint of Dreyer about the proceedings, but as the film heads ever more towards Ordet territory, things begin, ever-so-slightly, to unravel. Still, the film deserves to be applauded for its fascinating examination into faith and the family, and for its fantastic use of the long take, which allows the action to unfold under its rigorous gaze without ever becoming prone to stasis or showiness.
If Maria’s plight once more warned against the dangers of asceticism, then what of the films concerning life and the comforts of human relationships? As the title of Sorrow and Joy implies, even here a range of emotions runs riot. Concerned with the events that befall a film director and his manic-depressive wife after she murders their young baby, Sorrow and Joy is a penetrating study into living with both mental illness (her) and cinematic creativity (him). The film can almost be read as a parable about how filmmaking ruins lives, and a reflective, reflexive coda extends this notion to (self-)examination of how such a story can present itself on screen. One gets the sense of the film being therapeutic self-analysis, but the personal nature of the project never prevents director Nils Malmros from focusing upon the darker aspects of the story or his own unlikable qualities. Ultimately, though, Sorrow and Joy is a film about love, and while it remains clouded by the former emotion, it’s the rays of the latter that shine through from the screen.
Troubled marriages were also at the centre of two other, very different, films I saw at the festival: Dominik Graf’s epic 18th century romance Beloved Sisters, and Nathan Silver’s contemporary minimal indie Uncertain Terms. The former concerns itself with a highly fictionalised version of the courtship and marriage of Friedrich Schiller and his wife Charlotte, in which Charlotte shares Schiller with her sister Caroline in a ménage à trois that goes quickly wrong. Running at a much brisker pace than its period setting and 170 minute duration would suggest, the film is certainly an engaging, enjoyable romance but, while it touches briefly on the nature of genius, a more thorough examination into the nature of Schiller’s creativity would have deepened the drama (it’s a balance that Sorrow and Joy managed much better). Uncertain Terms, meanwhile, centred on Robbie, who heads to a rural halfway house for pregnant teenagers to escape from his cheating, alcoholic spouse and to contemplate their future together. As friendship (and more) burgeons between Robbie and two of the pregnant girls, the film becomes a beautifully understated, naturalist and free-flowing discourse on the nature of relationships and the way they affect our own sense of self-identity.
Such understated probing was also on display in two films about teenagers on holiday, Au revoir l’été and Club Sandwich, in which low-key romances slowly rise to the surface. The latter was the more focused and, arguably, the more successful of the two – in fact, Club Sandwich was, as I had hoped, my festival highlight. Beginning as a comedic portrait of off-season holiday tedium, the film grows into a surprisingly vicious love triangle when the budding romance threatens the teenage boy’s relationship with his single mother. Considering the wryly observed, minimalistic style, the ending oozes a surprisingly dramatic, gripping tension – this is cinema at its best, and returns us nicely to the idea of a life (and cinema) lived moderately. Of course, for some, such a quiet life is out of reach – and the festival contained several interesting examples of politically engaged cinema.
The most ‘in your face’ of these was The Uprising, which uses a spate of YouTube videos filmed during the 2011 Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen to create a fictional chronicle of a pan-Arab revolution. It’s a bold technique that generalises the various uprisings in order to make a wider comment about oppression, but I couldn’t help but wonder if, by doing so, it undermined the meaning of the individual struggles. Another politically-engaged fusion of fact and fiction was A House in Berlin, which recounted the story of a Scottish woman who inherits the titular house, only to be drawn into the still-raw upheaval of the Second World War. If the film’s aesthetics are a little too low-fi, it nevertheless approaches the legacy of war from a fresh angle, raising important questions of morality along the way. Of course, by having the story anchored to the woman’s search, the film mixes the personal with the political, and the same can certainly be said for one of my other festival highlights: Life May Be.
A filmic correspondence between Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari, Life May Be consists of video letters in which the filmmakers discuss, back and forth, issues of art, film and life in exile (Akbari left her native Iran in 2011, finally settling in London). Perhaps the rawest, and the most honest, film I saw at the festival, Life May Be sprawls outward from a central concern for the body – what it means, represents and symbolises, not only personally and politically, but also within the wider contexts of culture, liberty and, of course, sexuality. As their eloquent discussion unfolds, Akbari and Cousins prove themselves to be poets of both the image and the word. But, more than this, as the final part dispenses with their presence, something else occurs, and a transcendent beauty is strived for – and, even if it’s not quite achieved, the journey from body to spirit that it represents is fitting for a festival programme seemingly centred upon the search for something, anything.