In my recent introductory piece to the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015, I noted that I was feeling a little apprehensive about this year’s festival. In part, this was due to changes in the leadership, but it was more the result of the programme itself – there was little there that truly excited me. I should have had more faith. As I stated at the time, “the festival has never failed to deliver”, and this year was no exception. Looking back, my fears were totally unfounded. The Edinburgh experience remains intact and, if anything, the extended opening hours of the Filmhouse (now open until 3am) made this one of my best trips yet.
Needless to say, I also found plenty to enjoy among the films on show. In previous years the festival has contained a strand entitled Films on Film, and while the strand may not have officially run this year, there were still plenty of films at the festival looking at films and filmmakers. Perhaps the most enjoyable amongst the three that I saw was Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema, which examines a fascinating and underexplored moment in the history of world cinema – the Turkish cinema of the 1960s and 70s. At this time, Turkey had one of the world’s biggest film industries, but resources were thin and the films were made quickly and cheaply. So quickly, in fact, that there was no time to generate original stories for them. Given that there was also no real copyright law in Turkey at this time, the “Turkish Remakesploitation” movement was born – a bizarre world in which the superhero at the centre of Demir Yumruk: Devler geliyor (1970) wears the mask of The Phantom, bears Superman’s S across his chest, and a Batman utility belt around his waist. As this implies, the Turkish ‘remakes’ are rarely straight-out copies, but the list of films for which there exist alternative Turkish versions is tantalising: Tarzan, ET, Some Like It Hot, Wizard of Oz and The Exorcist, to name but five. The films were made with scant attention to health and safety or quality control, but the clips shown in this insightful and amusing documentary nevertheless pique one’s interest – I’ll certainly be seeking ways to see some of these films in the coming weeks (it would seems some of them are on YouTube).
Also attempting to shine light on a lesser known aspect of world cinema is David Nicholas Wilkinson’s The First Film, which tells the story of Louis Le Prince and his two-second long Roundhay Garden Scene – the oldest surviving film in existence and, as Wilkinson argues, the first film ever made. Le Prince later died in mysterious circumstances, and there’s no doubt that his story is both fascinating and vital, which should make The First Film essential viewing – but the film’s didactic tone makes for something of a stumbling block. Early in the film, Wilkinson addresses the camera and tells the audience that he is setting out to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Le Prince made the world’s first film. Wilkinson is a man on a mission, and while alternative ‘first films’ are mooted, Wilkinson’s passionate drive to prove his theory threatens to unbalance the facts presented. But, this ‘bias’ aside, the film offers an interesting investigation into Le Prince’s work, and one can only hope that the film is able to find an audience beyond those to whom it has obvious appeal – realistically, the film will appeal most strongly to those with a penchant for early cinema, and these are the same people who are likely to already know this story. But (as I can testify) there is much to enjoy in The First Film, even for those familiar with Le Prince and his work. Wilkinson has struggled to make this film for thirty years, and one must be glad that he has finally achieved his aim.
Of course, it’s arguable that Le Prince would not have been able to create the world’s first film without the earlier work of the photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, whose studies in motion, and his subsequent animation/projection system zoopraxiscope, have secured his place as the godfather of cinema. The First Film dismisses Muybridge and the zoopraxiscope due to the fact that the invention wouldn’t allow for narrative storytelling (a contentious dismissal, perhaps, but not one I have the space to discuss in more detail). Still, if Wilkinson’s film gives slightly short shrift to Muybridge, he takes centre stage in Kyle Rideout’s new biopic, Eadweard, which deals specifically with Muybridge’s motion studies for the University of Pennsylvania, and the events leading up to him murdering his wife’s lover. The film portrays Muybridge as a man full of suppressed anger and rage, intensely jealous and possessive of his wife, even as his attention becomes consumed by his work. But while Eadweard is as beautifully shot as one would hope for a film about such an important photographer, there are times when its visual playfulness veers into kitsch. The film also never quite goes beneath its glossy surface, leaving Muybridge himself as something of a cypher, and failing to deliver the required emotional impact of what should be a devastating conclusion.
In a sense, the same could perhaps be said of Scott Graham’s Iona, which likewise would have benefitted from a slightly deeper penetration of its lead characters and, more specifically, of the sense of regret and remorse felt by Ben Gallagher’s Bull after he kills his father in the film’s opening sequence. This opening sequence is also the film’s weakest, but Graham’s assured direction manages to pull things back on track once Bull and his mother flee to the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, attempting to escape from the consequences of Bull’s act and reconnect with the island of his mother’s past. In these sequences, the film is full of pregnant silences and subtle storytelling. The visuals have a sparse, almost ascetic quality to them, and the atmosphere is involving and mysterious – so it’s a shame that the film doesn’t manage to dig just a little deeper, and that things start to unravel (thanks to one too many threads) as it races towards its ultimately unsatisfying finale.
A more gratifying experience was to be had with Andrew Haigh’s nuanced character study 45 Years, which fully succeeds in presenting the penetrating psychological portraits that were somewhat lacking from Eadweard and Iona. Haigh’s film tells the story of a happily married couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Tom (Geoff Mercer), who are making plans for a party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary – but one week before the event, Tom receives a letter from Switzerland telling him that the body of his first love has been discovered after being frozen in an ice glacier for the last fifty years. Perhaps, when summarised like that, the plot sounds a little ludicrous, but Haigh’s treatment of the material grounds it in a reality that allows the discovery of the body to become the catalyst for a rich exploration of love, jealousy, desire, regret, identity, old age and the choices we make, while also questioning how well we can ever really know anybody. But the film never becomes bogged down by these multiple themes, imbued as it is with a warm, gentle humour and a compassionate tenderness. Haigh’s debut Weekend was a solid piece of work, but this follow up feels like a big step forward – at times, it’s almost Bergmanesque, in the best possible way. The film was the best I saw while at the festival.
Less successful, but concerning itself with similar themes, was David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, about a locksmith (played by Al Pacino) who pines over a lost love, even to the extent of allowing it to get in the way of blossoming new relationships. It’s a stylish piece, boarding on the magic-realist, and Pacino delivers a strong performance.
Another of the old Hollywood elite who delivered a strong performance this year was Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Henry Hobson’s Maggie, Arnie plays a father whose daughter Maggie is infected with the ‘Necroambulist virus’, meaning that in eight weeks she will turn into a zombie. But despite the film’s rather conventional opening sequence (in which Arnie drives through a devastated landscape while a radio broadcast outlines the details of the zombie outbreak), it soon settles into a quiet, intimate drama. Arnie takes Maggie home for the eight week period so that he has time to say goodbye to her before she is taken into quarantine. Of course, taking her to quarantine is not the only option – he can kill her himself, or simply let her go rabid. This decision, and the danger of her going rabid early, form the basis of the drama, which explores the psychological toll the virus has on the uninfected survivors. In essence, then, the metaphor being explored is terminal illness (it feels a little like the film is making a case for euthanasia). Oversentimental to the extreme (with a terrible, overly emotive score), watching Maggie is a bit like being hit in the face with an emotional sledgehammer. It’s a shame that the film feels it has to work this hard to win its audience over, because if a more subtle approach had been taken, it could be brilliant. It’s a mature, sober and sombre piece, which could have succeeded without being so emotionally manipulative, and if it had treated its audience with a little more respect, the overall impact and sense of goodwill towards it might have been much higher.
If Maggie succeeded in turning the zombie apocalypse into a family drama, Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert does the same for the biblical epic. Starring Ewan McGregor in the dual roles of Jesus and Satan, the film has all the understatement that Maggie lacks, and is all the better for it. We first meet Jesus walking through the desert, faced with the great expanse and the silence of God (his father, lest we forget). It almost seems like we’re in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, but then Jesus meets a family: the father wants his son to stay in the desert and build a house, while the boy wants to go to Jerusalem to live his life and put his foot print on the world (for to waste life, he says, is a sin). Jesus makes a wager with Satan that he can solve the dispute amicably, and his attempts to do this make up the bulk of the film, allowing for philosophical and theological dialogues to take place – far from following the path of Gerry, or Van Sant’s own Last Days, Last Days in the Desert is ultimately a rather talky film. But its ideas are presented more subtly than that might suggest, and the family’s predicament can be understood as reflecting the relationship between Jesus and his own father – should Jesus please his father or live his own life? Indeed, García’s conception of Christ seems to follow the foundations laid down by Kazantzakis (and thus Scorsese) in The Last Temptation. If García’s film never quite reaches the same heights as Scorsese’s, it nevertheless concocts a mysterious, menacing atmosphere, and succeeds in humanising Christ to a sever degree – this Jesus even laughs at farts.
Jokes about bodily functions of a different kind could be found in Colin Kennedy’s debut Swung, which begins as a comedy packed full of visual and verbal double entendres centring on the protagonist’s severe case of erectile dysfunction. But as the film progresses, the jokes seem to become of secondary importance to the drama of the situation, and it begins to examine erectile dysfunction in a more serious way – though this is not the film’s only subject. As the protagonist and his girlfriend look for ways to get their sex life back on track, they are drawn into the world of swinging. The film becomes a sympathetic exploration of sexual mores as it follows its characters through a topsy-turvy spiral of jealousy, desire and reconciliation. Kennedy’s portrayal of his central couple is filled with compassion, even as they make mistakes, resulting in an endearing viewing experience.
And Swung wasn’t the festival’s only endearing relationship comedy – the same can be said about Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, a film so likeable it sparkles as brightly as the neon signs of its Hong Kong locations, even if it’s ultimately undone by its derivative nature. The film begins as many have before it – with a chance encounter between a man and a woman. But while this story can be traced back at least as far as 1930’s People on Sunday, the ending of It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong makes it all too clear that it’s modelling itself (a little too closely) on Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (or, more specifically, the trilogy’s first two parts). Still, if there’s little that’s original in the ‘narrative’ of It’s Already Tomorrow… at least the Asian setting and casting of real life couple Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung make it eminently enjoyable (Chung, in particular, is a revelation). The film flirts with ideas surrounding national identity and cultural heritage, but it’s also an interesting exercise in filmic point of view and audience identification – both characters have partners who are kept off screen, and the audience is lead into rooting for the two would-be lovers to hook up, even if they are both promised to others.
The effects of people breaking just such a ‘promise’ are examined in a striking sequence in Doze Niu’s Paradise in Service, which explores the world of Taiwan’s military brothels and its ‘Comfort Women’, through the character of 19-year-old new recruit Lo Pao-Tai (Ethan Juan). After flunking out of the ultra-tough Sea Dragon unit, Pao is assigned to Unit 831 – the military brothel he had previously refused to go to out of fidelity to his fiancée. But soon Pao becomes entrenched in the world of the brothel, making friends with the prostitutes and becoming entranced by one in particular (his role in the brothel is an amalgamation of ticket-seller, handyman and bodyguard). Compared to the tough training of the Sea Dragons, life in the brothel is relaxed and enjoyable – or so it seems. But soon we learn that the women are treated as prisoners, used and abused by the state and their customers alike. Paradise in Service offers a fresh take on the war movie, but its message is ultimately the same – war is hell. Emotionally engaging but thoroughly understated, Paradise in Service may well prove to be the film from this year’s festival that lingers the longest.
Moving from the Pacific to the Atlantic, we find the setting for Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s debut feature documentary Transatlantic, which offers a series of observational tableaux of life aboard a ship making the thirty-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the vastness of the Ocean, and the ship itself, it’s Dufour-Laperrière fascinating attention to detail that impresses most – the patterning of light on a wall, for instance. Unfortunately it was the only film I managed to see in the festival’s always-interesting experimental strand, but it was strong proof that the art of slow cinema is alive and well.
So, in all, it was another great year for film at Edinburgh, and the social side of the festival remains as strong as ever. I’ll admit that I’m still sad to see the back of former Artistic Director Chris Fujiwara, who was taking the festival in some interesting directions, but there’s no denying that Mark Adams has started his tenure with a bang. The festival had a real buzz about it this year, and it’ll be interesting to see where Adams takes the festival next year. But one thing’s for sure – I wouldn’t miss it for the world. And in the run up to next year’s festival, I’ll keep the faith.