About a week has elapsed since this film festival, but I didn’t get the chance to write about some films that I thought were really memorable and will probably pass unnoticed otherwise. You can read part one here.
The first is Pikadero, a Basque word which means Riding School, or more colloquially, a public place for people to have sex, whether it be in a car at a cemetery parking lot, or, as a memorable scene in this film shows, a rented caravan which gets raided by the police, with the proprietor having to flee. The debut film written and directed by a Scotsman, Ben Sharrock, who spends time in the Basque country, it’s another very quiet film, in which the shy protagonist, Gorka, an unpaid apprentice at a screwdriver factory, starts an uneasy relationship with a beautiful Basque girl, Ane, an art student with aspirations to be a translator and move to Edinburgh. It’s a beautifully minimalist film, a lot of which is shot with the two protagonists and often unwelcome intruders at the railway station of a small village. The film’s portrayal of the Basque country is of a deserted, run-down place where emigration is endemic, and possibilities seem to be hopeless in the prevalent economic crisis. It’s droll, low key, and quietly funny in its portrayal of the couple’s frustration, as they are interrupted in a toilet by a guy who takes a fancy to Ane’s shirt, and then at a rugby game – Gorka is, oddly, a big fan – which portrays the two teams running across the field past a static camera. It’s been compared to Aki Kaurismaki in its quietly deadpan tone, which gave it a small boost in Finland, but it’s also very much in the tradition of Scotsman Bill Forsyth. Gorka’s workmate and friend Iñaki is learning German in order to emigrate, and bequeaths Gorka his car, and indirectly his job, as Gorka gets word that he has been offered a full-time position at the factory, much to the delight of his parents. Ane, who takes the initiative in all their interrupted sexual encounters – one on the sofa at Gorka’s cramped parents’ house, where he still lives at 30 – persuades him to come to Scotland with her, and he even starts learning English, but once he gets the job that project is stymied. Ane remains a rather mysterious figure, saying Gorka is not ready to meet her parents, and the film ends with a letter from her from Edinburgh, where she is working as a hotel housemaid with other Spanish girls. It’s a sad as well as droll film, and a very promising debut. Produced by Basque Irene Gurtubai, with excellent cinematography by Nick Cooke – lots of long, static, beautifully composed shots – it deservedly won the Critics Choice Award at the 2015 Zurich film festival. Another low budget film far more engaging than ten blockbusters.
The same can’t be said for Fado, a German film set in Portugal, directed by Jonas Rothlaender, about a Berlin doctor meeting up with his ex in Lisbon after a long separation, and being racked by jealousy. Far too many over-explicit sex scenes for my liking, and an unpleasant subject, with the title a complete misnomer – we never get to hear any fado. Writer-director Emir Baigazin’s second film The Wounded Angel, set in a severely ravaged post-Soviet Kazakhstan, is a poetic if gruelling four-part study of four adolescent boys, punctuated by Finnish symbolist painter Hugo Simberg’s frescoes in Tampere Cathedral. Baigazin previously made Harmony Lessons, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2013, and now he’s joined forces with flamboyant Belgian cinematographer Yves Cape, who shot Leos Carax’s Holy Motors – far more restrained here, with many more static shots – in a confusing but powerful feature about doomed youth. Almost reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker at times, with its industrial wastelands and parched grasslands, it’s a decidedly bleak and depressing affair. The title is referred to by two glue-sniffers who live underground in torchlight and carry around a physically and mentally handicapped orphan, who laughs constantly, on a makeshift sedan chair. One of the protagonists is a singer called Toad who has a beautiful voice but has to contend with school bullies and sings Ave Maria, another deals in scrap metal, and another becomes a thief providing for his family when his father gets out of jail. Finally we have a medical student who helps his pregnant girlfriend with an abortion, and becomes obsessed with the idea a tree is growing inside him. It’s almost overpowering in its grim imagery and poetic force, a form of film making that isn’t seen much these days.
These Daughters of Mine is a Polish family film with a difference, a second feature written and directed by a female documentary maker, Kinga Debska, who won a Polish academy award for best screenplay. The mother in question suffers a stroke, and the family has to reunite, and then the domineering father suffers a collapse, and alcohol seems to be a prevalent issue. It’s an offbeat comedy, in which one of two the daughters is an embittered, aging soap opera star (Agata Kulesza, the star of the award-winning Ida), the other a teacher, but a bit of an airhead, and they’re all rather comfortably well off, with inheritance a looming issue. It moves at a frantic pace, and it’s occasionally confusing, but with moments of comedy, as when the father keeps trying to buy bottles of whisky which his daughters confiscate. News from Planet Mars is a French family comedy directed by Dominik Moll, in which a computer programmer about to turn 49, once married to a newsreader who reports from Brussels and leaves him with his 13 year old sun and studious daughter. Asked to keep an eye on a work colleague who goes beserk and slices off part of his ear with a meat cleaver, and then turns up on his doorstep, having escaped from an asylum, it’s a fairly frantic and engaging comedy involving stolen frogs (the son’s school biology experiment), rescuing slaughtered chickens with the help of an elderly next door accomplice, and an artist sister’s Chihuahua, also dumped on him, it ends up with the protagonist resolving to give up his job. Another more serious French film is Kalinka, the English title for In the name of My Daughter (Au nom de ma fille), based on a book by Andre Bamberski, a French accountant who spent nearly 30 years pursuing German doctor Dieter Krombach for raping and murdering his daughter Kalinka Bamberski in 1982. Bamberski is played by Daniel Auteuil, and the film is directed, rather ponderously, by Vincent Garenq, and it’s an extraordinary story, involving attempts to extradite the villain from Germany to France. Bamberski ends up hiring thugs to abduct the villain, who is eventually tried and sentenced to 15 years, and gets off the kidnepping charge with a one-year suspended sentence, but it’s along and winding road to this point, also involving Krombach stealing Bamberski’s wife, who leaves him but refuses to help the injured party. The film is more like a documentary drama than fiction, and although the story is extraordinary, the film making is rather pedestrian.
Several films at this festival deal with the often brutal world of teenage girls, none more brutally than the Romanian film The World is Mine, directed by Nicolae Constantin Tănase, which won Best Romanian debut at the Transylvania International Film Festival in which Larisa (Ana Maria Guran), a gutsy but insecure 16 year old who decides to lose her virginity to Florin, a layabout dirtbag car washer, who promptly dumps her for her queen bee rival, Ana, who bullies her in the school toilets, and has much more economic power. Made for a meagre $168,000, the film itself shows a certain economic power, with excellent performances from the young cast, as Larisa burns her bridges with her school friends and family, being scapegoated in the headmaster’s office and smashing his goldfish tank. She has to contend with an abusive stepfather, who demands she apologise to Ana’s powerful father, as well as a catatonic grandmother, whom she cares for, while her ineffectual mother stands by. Much grittier than equivalent US teen features, the hip-hop song Toata Tara (Across the Country), sung in Romanian by female artist Ruby, all about the desirability of boys with bling, is used very effectively throughout. The climax occurs at a party in a club, when Larisa is taken to the beach – which plays an interesting role in this film – by another, wealthier boy, who rapes her, forcing her to be complicit in the process. Her T-shirt reads ‘Cocaine and Caviar’, neither of which she could ever afford, and her grim initiation into the world of teenage sex is heart-breaking. Effectively shot with lots of hand-held camera and extreme close ups of Larisa and her girlfriends, it shows how US influence on teenagers in this part of the world can cause havoc.
Another glimpse of the brutal world of teenage girls comes from debut Swedish director Daniel di Grado, Alena expanded from a hour-long Swedish TV version, and based on the Scandinavian horror graphic novel by Kim W. Andersson, which was inspired by Brian De Palma’s Carrie, and published in 2012. Andersson also co-wrote the screenplay, in which the eponymous heroine ((Amalia Holm) is a new girl at a posh private school who has transferred from a public school, where we discover her best friend has committed suicide. She is bullied by the school queenbee Filippa (Molly Nutley), who is the reigning lacrosse champion, a sport which has its roots in the Native American Iroquois, and now is played largely in Canada and North America. Lacrosse sticks and balls make handy weapons, and are used by Filippa, but Alena has an unwanted protector in the form of the ghost of her dead friend, Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who attacks Filippa and anyone else who tries to hurt her. Alena is invited to join the lacrosse team, where she supplants Filippa, and also befriends Fabienne (Felice Jankel), a cool outsider who is also outside of Filippa’s influence. A lesbian encounter takes place between them, before Filippa unmasks Alena by stealing photos of her and Josefin and putting them online. There is a showdown, in which Josefin’s suicide is revealed, and it’s all good fun, despite the girl-on-girl brutality.
Rosalie Blum is also adapted from a graphic novel, a French film by Julien Rappeneu which was the headliner in the recent Australian French film festival, and it deals with an odd case of stalking, in which Vincent (French-Iranian actor Kyan Khojandia), a bald hairdresser who lives in a provincial town one floor below his overbearing mother, follows the protagonist, a decidedly unattractive Noemi Lvovsky, in a rather distasteful story which becomes a bit more palatable as it proceeds. Rosalie is on to Vincent, and employs her very cute niece, Aude (Alice Isaaz), and her girlfriends and eccentric male creative flatmate to bamboozle and unmask him. This involves staging a scene of diabolism, among other things, and in the process Rosalie’s backstory, her time in prison for robbery, is also unmasked. Extremely improbably, Vincent ends up with Aude, and all is resolved, if not satisfactorily. The over-lush music was composed by the director’s brother, Martin Rappeneau. Films based on graphic novels tend to be rather formulaic, and this is no exception.
Road to Instanbul is a more serious affair, by Belgian director Rachid Bouchareb, about a mother (Astrid Whettnall) who discovers her 18 year old daughter has been radicalised and fled to Syria with her Muslim boyfriend. Tastelessly described by the Hollywood Reporter as ‘a gloomy art house version of Not Without My Daughter’, a decidedly racist Hollywood film with Sally Anne Field, it follows the mother’s attempts to track her down, culminating in finding her in an Istanbul hospital with an amputated leg after she has been caught up in a border skirmish. I found it a gripping story, with the Turkish and Syrian characters well developed, and Whettnal’s portrayal of the mother very affecting. Another French film, called Two Birds with One Stone in French, but Our Mother in English, directed by Fejria Deliba, deals with Zayane, a 75 year old woman who has not left her neighborhood in years, but receives a letter announcing the death of a man she knew as a maid many years ago in Algeria, who has left her a box of photos. It’s a moving study of Zayane and her busy family of eleven children who are concerned about her absence, but gradually discover through the audio cassettes and films she has kept, that she has had a secret life with this man before her marriage. She goes to meet the man’s widow to get the box of photos, and an initially hostile encounter is then resolved. A strong and affecting film, in which the older children are shocked and don’t want to know, while the younger, more feminist and Muslim daughters moved by her revelations. There’s also some nice oud music by Youssef Boukella and Luis Saldanha. Another film about mothers, writer-director writer-director Eric Lavaine’s Back to Mom’s – a hideous US title for Retour chez ma mere deals with a successful 40-something architect who has become bankrupt, lost her possessions as well as her husband and is forced to move back in with her mother, is a successful mainstream comedy which was very popular in France and is quite enjoyable as we see the 60 year-old-mother sorting out all her daughter’s problems. Finally, Hedi – a name which means ‘calm’ – is an absorbing Tunisian film by Mohamed Ben Attia, co-produced by the influential Dardenne brothers, about a rather passive, prematurely balding man, dominated by his mother and successful older brother, who is about to get married to a young woman he hardly knows. He meets Rim, a freewheeling, sensual woman, a dancer and tourist co-ordinator, while he is on a business trip as an endangered car salesman, and there is a scene of them dancing together in which he is uplifted. He talks about his aspirations as a cartoonist, and then decides to defy his parents’ expectations and call the wedding off. Set in the present, but with reference to the Tunisian revolution five years ago, it is a film which nods towards a new spirit in Tunisia, with music by Omar Aloulou.
Films such as the above, some by first-time film makes, tend to circulate at various film festivals and then disappear. Some turn up unheralded on SBS, but many disappear without trace, as our cinema screens become increasingly dominated by US blockbusters. So we should be grateful for the chance to films like these which are a welcome relief from Hollywood.