March of the Podcasts

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A couple of years ago I started doing a regular feature here, where I wrote about the sound-based content (whether sound art and installations, podcasts, radio plays or radio documentaries) I consumed that month or that I made that month. As well as being an enjoyable project, it was a great motivator to both listen to and create more sound-based content. There are far too many deadlines at my main freelance gig for me to enjoy them outside of it, but accountability is always helpful and motivating.

I’m breaking myself in gently this month with a review of my recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.

First up I’ve taken up yet another language based podcast. The Allusionist is a podcast that looks at the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Unlike the linguistics podcasts that I also follow, this podcast is less about the mechanics of language – the syntax and grammar – and more about the cultural and historical influences and impacts of the language. It’s a podcast that appreciates the essential weirdness of English and likes to pull those strange bits out and examine them.

I’ve been bingeing the entirety of 2017’s episodes over the last few weeks, and have been left with the desire to go back to the start of the podcast in 2015 and listen to every single episode, which I always feels bodes well for the staying power of a podcast. If it holds up to binge listening, it’s likely to stay the distance in my affections.

Next up there’s Twenty Thousand Hertz. I actually came across this podcast thanks to The Allusionist as they did a guest episode on accents. Though as I’ve been working through their archive I discovered they’d also done a guest episode of 99% Invisible on the NBC chimes. It’s one of those podcasts that I come across and have to wonder how I didn’t know about it before. I feel sure that someone I know who’s also into podcasts must have recommended it to me before, as it’s the most relevant to my interests podcast I can imagine existing. (Basically, if I were going to make a podcast, it would be this podcast.) However it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve left an interesting link open in a tab and forgotten about it. I used to use twitter as a bookmarking device for that sort of thing but there’s far too much content on there these days for that to be effective.

Anyway, the podcast itself is a delight to listen to, it’s beautifully produced and mixed – you’d hope so from a sound design podcast – and, while it took them a wee while to get into the swing of things, they manage to strike a good balance of being general enough to engage a non-specialised listener, but detailed enough to keep a more dedicated sound design geek like myself coming back for more.

Finally, we have the Hammer House of Podcast, which is a much newer series – it only started at the turn of the year. In which two writers – and sci-fi geeks – watch and review their way through Hammer Films backlog of horror films. As longer term readers of this blog will know, I have strong feelings about Hammer Horror films. (For newer readers, when I first graduated from university I spend some time writing academic film reviews for a now defunct film review website Montage films. As my specialism at university was sound in horror films, I ended up with all the horror films to review, and there were a lot of Hammer Horror films released on DVD in that period. As such, I know more about late 60s – early 70s Hammer Horror films than I ever wanted to.) I’m enjoying the reviews so far – very funny, and honestly I hadn’t realised how much I wanted more podcasts where someone has a Scottish accent – but I strongly suspect that as we get on to the ones I know best I will spend a certain amount of time shouting ‘you’re wrong’ at my computer. Which, in fairness was a considerable part of my enjoyment of the Wittertainment podcast – 80% nodding in agreement, 10% cackling gleefully, 10% shouting ‘you’re wrong, Mark!’ at my radio.

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1. The Shape of Water

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The Oscars made their arrival last weekend. For all that the entertainment press in the UK sporadically make their regular cry of ‘The British are Coming’ that never actually seems to be the case. However, looking at the winners of the Best Director category over the last few years, it would perhaps to be fair to make the claim that ‘The Mexicans are Coming’, with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu – twice – and now Guillermo del Toro having all got the nod recently. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Oscars these days, without at least cursorily addressing the diversity issues that have been raised about it. Which in turn reminded me that I’d intended to have another go round at the 12 films project and an unexpected Oscar winner would be a good place to start.

Having been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade ago, I was both surprised and delighted to find both The Shape of Water and its director nominated for so many Oscars this year. (Just because I happen to think that del Toro is one of the best and most interesting directors working today, that doesn’t mean I expect the Academy to agree with me!) Having now seen the film itself, I’m no less baffled but even more delighted. It’s so rare to see genre films do well at the Oscars, especially ones as unapologetically strange and political as this one.

The Shape of Water is a delightfully strange and beautiful film, a cold war fairy tale with all the whimsy and darkness that ought to go along with that. Fundamentally, it’s a story about love – both romantic and platonic – and hope. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, embodying both the optimism and creeping insecurities – not to mention explicitly displaying the casual bigotry of the times – of both the films and wider society of the US in the early 1960s. In particular both the diner and the car show room, embody the duality of those Atomic age B-movies and the time they were made, with the shiny futuristic surfaces and the bubbling undercurrents of tension flowing just below it.

(Arguably, you know you’ve spent too much time in the horror and science fiction genres, when you hear Theme from a Summer Place and understand instantly its dual role in both comforting and quietly creeping out the audience.)

There’s something a little Amelie-esque about the theme that Alexandre Desplat has given to Elisa, but more widely the score and the soundscape in general arguably owe more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier work with Marc Caro, Delicatessen. There’s both a tenderness and a nightmarishness to both films, a sense of something pure and good struggling to survive in the face of terribly mundane evil.

It’s a film to warm your heart and remind you that, even in these troubled times; people are still capable of great kindness and bravery. So while it may have been an unexpected to choice for the Oscar, it was not, I think, an undeserved one.

Sounds of the City Part 2 – The Cities & Memories Remix

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been watching with interest as the Cities and Memories project has expanded in scope and public awareness. I also joined their mailing list a while back and have been enjoying poking through the sounds that they’ve been looking for people to remix. But until now I haven’t actually taken part in any of their projects. There are some brilliant and clever remixes and re-imaginings up on the site and I decided that I ought to have a practice with my own sounds before I experimented with the sounds of anyone else. As much as they insist that there’s really no wrong way to tackle the re-imaging of the sounds, I’ve never done any remixing in the conventional sense before, so throwing myself head first into a collaborative project seemed a bit too much like running before I could walk.

I decided, for this first re-imagining, to start with what I know best. As a sound designer, the bread and butter of my work is taking sounds recorded on location, in the foley studio and out of the archive and putting them together to create a sonic landscape that is entirely constructed but that feels believable as the soundscape of the location. I would start with a single field recording (in this case the sound of the fountain outside St Mattius church in Budapest) from a place, and combine it with other sounds recorded nearby to create a soundscape that was entirely imagined and yet was true to the spirit of my memory of the place.

Back in July I posted about the location recordings I made in Budapest when I was there in the summer. I have a whole collection of recordings that I made while I was there, that were collected not for any particular project but instead just for the fun of recording sounds in an unfamiliar place. Each recording paints a picture in my mind with an aural photograph, reminding me of how I felt and what I experienced when I was making the recording.

The soundscape of this reimagined sound is entirely imagined. For one thing, two of the recordings that make it up were made in Pest and the other two were made in Buda, but that seemed an entirely fitting combination to reflect the way the twin cities combine to create a greater whole.

Having made this first foray into re-imagining sounds, I’m itching to do more, to try something more adventurous and experimental. I’ve got the seeds of an idea germinating at the back of my mind, and I’m looking forward to see what sprouts in the coming weeks.

Art in Inverness

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One of the best things about many Scottish urban spaces, is the way the surrounding landscape forces its way into the urban skyline at unexpected moments. There are few more breath-taking moments for me in autumn, than rounding a corner, as the light is fading and being surprised by some gap in the skyline revealing the play of light shade on a distant hill. Even in the centre of a city as densely populated and built up as Glasgow, you can still walk down Buchanan Street on a clear day and look up at the right moment to find you can see all the way to the Cathkin Braes. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Highlands, where the lines between urban and rural are so blurred that it is easy to lose track of where they lie. Indeed, a fair amount of the art I’ve seen since living up here – at least from locally based artists – has explored that mutability to a greater or lesser extent and effect.

Art is everywhere here. When I first moved up to Inverness, despite favourable first impressions, I did wonder how much art – let alone interesting art – I was likely to find on anything like a regular basis. Most of the really interesting art I’d seen in over a decade of living in and around Stirling had been stuff that I’d stumbled on, mostly by accident. And almost all the art that I’d gone actively looking for in that time had been in Glasgow or Edinburgh, cities I already knew to a certain extent. Indeed, at first I only really saw art in the galleries upstairs in the local museum and the local arts centre, but as time passed, I’ve learned to sniff out the clues. It turns out that once you know what to look for, art can be found all over the place here, bursting out all over.

The on-going grind of the recession has left Inverness, like almost every other town in Scotland, with its share of mournful looking empty retail units. However, over at the Victorian Market, they seem to have come up with an idea that feels like it ought to have been an obvious idea. They’re using one of the empty units as an exhibition space. It’s currently displaying art from UHI students, which I hope continues, given that while the college itself is rather a charming piece of architecture, it’s apparently rather lacking in spaces in which to make and display art. We can only hope that this results in rather more innovative and experimental takes on producing and displaying art from the resident art students. In the interim, I’ve certainly been enjoying finding odd bits of art and craft-based sculpture in unexpected corners of the market and in unlikely shop windows.

Market Exhibit

Social media has been a great boon in my search for new art. I’ve spent a fair amount of time, working on identifying a collection of good local sources that promote art locally and nationally. But its definitely one of those situations where the more you find out, the more you find there is to find. Or often in my case, the more I find I’ve just missed.

Upstairs Gallery

Something that I often narrowly miss, are the exhibitions at Upstairs. Between 2pm and 4pm on week day afternoons, an architecture firm on Academy Street opens their doors to art lovers. Small exhibitions by local artists are the order of the day and there’s something delightfully transgressive about the whole experience. Although the gallery has managed the rare trick of being open at precisely the time-frame when I’m least likely to be free to enjoy some art, on those occasions that I’ve managed to make it along to see the art, I’ve both greatly enjoyed the art – the current exhibition of constructed photography by Michael Gallacher is well worth a visit – and the feeling that I’ve snuck in somewhere I’m not supposed to be.

The building itself is a bit of a hidden gem, with a lovely tiled entranceway, and nicely understated glasswork on the stairwell windows. And the advantage of the gallery space being in an Architecture firm, if you’re me anyway, is that even if the art turns out to not be your taste, they’ve got some fascinating little architectural models of their own on display that you can enjoy while you’re there.

A Curious TurnDay of the Dead

This month, even the more conventional location of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery’s upstairs art gallery had rather an eccentric exhibition. A Curious Turn is a visiting exhibition from The Craft Council, on the history and resurgence of automata as both a craft and art form. It’s very rare that I see art exhibitions that feel like they’ve been carefully crafted into a work of art themselves. The exhibition is full of delightful details from the hand-cranked exhibition sign, to the little mule that draws himself, to the odd assortment of cogs, cranks and accoutrements that let younger visitors build their very own automata. (When I visited someone had put together the kind of macabre assemblage that only small children and art students are capable of creating.) My own favourite part of the exhibition was that almost all the automata on display were operable, if their handles were too small and fiddly for general use, they’d been wired up so that you could make them run in their glass cases with a push of a button.
Schematic

Docs of 2017

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It’s the last day of the year, so arguably the best time to make a review of the year’s documentaries. This year’s documentary watching target was twenty documentaries and in the end I made it to eighteen. (I could, perhaps, have squeezed in another today as part of my time-honoured Hogmanay tradition of documentary watching but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.) So near and yet so far! However given that I only watched 34 films in total that I hadn’t previously seen, 18 documentaries was reasonably impressive.

For a change, a decent number of the documentaries – eight of them – were actually from this year, so I’ll be interested, when the awards season nominations roll in at the start of 2018, which of them – if any – show up in the documentary categories. For once, I’ll be able to have an informed opinion.

I didn’t see any ‘classic’ or even just old documentaries this year. All of this year’s documentaries were from the 21st century with the earliest instalment being 2001’s Oscar winning Murder on a Sunday Morning. On which note I saw three Oscar winning documentaries this year – the film that I almost watched today would have made it four, as it was Bowling for Columbine – but I don’t think I’m any closer to figuring out what makes a documentary award-winning than I was two years ago. Over the last few years, I’ve been quite successful in my quest to see more documentaries and while I tend to see documentaries a bit behind the curve, I usually see a fair survey of the previous year’s documentary films each year, and yet looking at the Oscar winning and nominated films for the last three years I’ve only seen two of them – Citizen Four and Last Days in Vietnam, winner and nominee respectively – and while I’ve heard of a few of the rest of them, most of them I never even heard of, let alone saw a review of, much less got a release here. The documentaries that did get a wide release here, or proved popular/influential on a wider stage are almost entirely absent from the listings. Is it purely a sign of the inevitably US-centric nature of the Academy’s voting or simply a matter of taste? For example, I think that Roller Dreams was far and away the best documentary I saw this year, but I’ll be truly amazed if it shows up on any awards nominations lists in the new year. Whereas I suspect that 78/52 will do, as too I suspect will Ex Libris, which I missed, so can only go by the trailer – which was a little Oscar-baity. Perhaps fundamentally, the BAFTAs documentary award is a better metric for my viewing.

If this year’s documentary watching had a theme it was systematic injustice and corruption. It wasn’t intentional, but that seems to have been the theme that emerged, perhaps also the lies that we tell ourselves: about ourselves, about each other and about the world in which we live. Obviously not all of them fitted into the theme – one of the most recent instalments, The Furthest (about the Voyager probes) and Lost in La Mancha and 78/52 really don’t – but overall that would appear to be the thread that wound itself through this year’s documentaries.

Take One Action Double-Feature #TOAFF17

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Continuing my quest to watch a year’s worth of documentaries in the last quarter of the year, I went to see a double-bill of films showing as part of the Take One Action film festival.

This year mark’s the festival’s tenth anniversary, as a project to get more people to see more films about issues of social and environmental justice and concerns. And through this inspire people to make changes in their own locale, empowering them to feel like they can make a difference. (Their slogan being a nice riff on the over-quoted ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’.)

Bending the Arc
Bending the Arc is almost a bio-pic of a NGO. It’s as much a profile of Partners in Health as it is one of the people who founded it. But in a way that’s fitting, because however charismatic and committed those central figures are, they appear united in a certainty that the work is by far and way more important then any one of them. There’s a refreshing honesty about their past failures and mistakes along the way. Along with a willingness to stop and reassess why things aren’t working and try something different. They all – particularly Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim – seem viscerally aware that their successes and failures are counted in human lives. That the price of losing these battles and campaigns is paid in the lives of patients and colleagues and friends.

(An unexpected part of the film, was the advocacy of the – former, but current at the time – Rwandan Minister for Health, Agnes Binagwaho with her big dreams and her enthusiastic commitment to the good they’ve been able to do together.)

In other ways the film is also an explanation for how Jim Yong Kim ended up being President of the World Bank. (The more I read about the World Bank, the weirder an organisation it seems to be.) The film may well downplay how controversial his tenure there has been, but honestly I feel the whole point of giving him the job was for his to be controversial and try different things. Whether they work is a matter for time to tell.

Thank You For The Rain
Thank You For The Rain is probably as different a film from Bending the Arc as its possible to get. It’s a film that grows and changes as it goes along. Evolving from a film about a Kenyan farmer campaigning within his community to minimise the damage of climate change to that community, following him through his transformation into a climate campaigner, into a collaboration between the director and Kisulu as they work together to bring the voices of people living on the frontline of climate change to the people who make the policies and hold the power.

Kisulu’s video diaries prove the driving force to reshape both the film and the arguments within it. His desire to be heard and to make a difference, the determination and optimism that he continues to exude in the face of varied set backs is both inspiring and something of an inditement of the politicians and policymakers. His deeply felt understanding and articulation of the fact that time is short but its not yet too late, is an idea that keeps coming up again and again in recent discussions of climate change.

There’s something slightly eerie about seeing the Paris 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference from a completely different perspective than it appeared in An Inconvenient Sequel. There’s a weird sense of having seen behind the curtain having watched both films, fascinating to compare two very different forms of campaigning and advocacy, but a little weird all the same.

As different as the two documentaries in the double-bill were, they do have something fundamental in common. A conviction, deeply embedded rather than merely paid lip-service to, that in order to really help people in these marginalised communities, you have to work with them and listen to – and amplify – what they have to say and what they actually need. That the solutions to the major issues currently plaguing the world need to be collaborative endeavours to have any chance of making a real long term difference.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Highlights

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As previously noted, I decided that I was going to organise this years reviews and posts about the Inverness Film Festival by means of its own themes and threads. Documentaries, New World Cinema, Short Films and…Highlights. Which is a slightly odd category for a theme but it’s essentially the films that come recommended by the Festival Programmer. It’s a category I tend to avoid most years, perhaps unfairly, because often the films are the ones that are doing well on the wider film festival circuit so a) if you go to a couple of film festivals you’ll end up seeing the same films and b) because they’ve already got a buzz and will be popular at the festival, they’ll doubtless appear again some time in the early new year. Also because, the films in question tend to sell out really quickly. However, this year I’ve ended up seeing three of them so lets see if they prove to be the highlights they’re advertised as.

Dark River
This was the unofficial Opening Film of the festival, according to the programmer’s introduction to the film, this was the last film to be added to the programme. (They had to hold the print run to include it.) Apparently they had to ask for and be refused screening rights a couple of times before they were able to get it. So it was in fact squeezed into the schedule ahead of the official Opening Film of the festival – the rather more commercial Battle of the Sexes. As I told a friend that I bumped into unexpectedly after the screening, it’s the second film in two months I’ve seen about damaged Yorkshire sheep farmers. Much like God’s Own Country, Dark River is at once a beautiful and compelling watch, while also being an intense and far from easy experience. I’m not sure why I’m remotely surprised by that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Clio Barnard directed film that could be described as an easy watch – I’m not sure that she’s ever directed one. So much supressed emotion – both grief and rage – such beautiful scenery, so very many sheep.

If you see the words ‘a new Clio Barnard film’ and your heart – like mine – lifts, then you’re going to enjoy this film.

The Florida Project
So apparently this film was the toast of the Croisette at Cannes this year. Which, if we’re being honest probably tells you already if you’re going to like it or not. I went on the recommendation of a friend whose taste in films I usually coincide with – she’s the friend that recommended Arrival to me and I utterly adored that. But I didn’t make it through the film. I think it’s the first film I’ve seen at this festival – in any year – that I’ve walked out of. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters, I wasn’t even rooting for the kids – charming as they were – everyone just felt so two-dimensional. (Any film where I like the character played by Willem Dafoe the best has some seriously unlikable characters.) Weirdly, I think I’d have liked it better if it had been a documentary. A documentary about the real people who live in a place like that would have been far more interesting, their fictional counterparts felt like sketches of people rather than fleshed out characters.

Mountain
A sneaky wee last minute documentary. I picked this one more because by Sunday evening at last year’s film festival my brain was completely frazzled so I thought I’d pick some gentle viewing to see me out of the festival. And it delivered on that front. It’s a mediation on the relationship between people and mountains delivered via the compelling tones of Willem Dafoe’s narration and accompanied by some excellent classical tunes, by way of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. (Apparently, in Australia, the orchestra toured with the film, and I can only imagine how truly epic that experience must have been.) Its an adrenaline pumping, whirlwind of glorious vista, epic athletic achievements and horrifying near misses, that does not shy away from the very really dangers of mountains and climbing them. It also gains a secondary soundtrack of the audience’s visceral reactions to the footage, a chorus of gasps – both of awe and terror – exclamations, incredulous laughter and audible flinches. It was one of the most communal cinema experiences I’ve had in a while and a film that I’d highly recommend seeing in the cinema, for that as much as the wide screen footage.

So all in all, do I think the films in this category represented the ‘highlights’ of the film festival? Well, in a word, no. None of my favourite films of the festival were part of this thread. But on the other hand, as a guide to the films that we can expect to see a lot of in awards season, it’s probably a safe bet. I’m sure, come awards season, there’ll be a lot of people in Inverness, who’ll be able to express informed opinions on the nominations – love them or hate them, at least they’ll have seen them.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Documentaries

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There were a lot of documentaries showing this year at the Inverness Film Festival – and naturally the two that I most wanted to see were showing during the only shift I was working over the festival and overlapping with each other. However, I did manage to see three feature-length documentaries over the festival. All of them on vastly different topics.

78/52
This is a film for hard-core film geeks. If you’re a film student, former film student or have secretly harboured a longing to be a film-student, then this is the film for you. If you’re not…well unless you really, really love Psycho then this is probably not the film for you.

So, presuming that you fall into the former category, it’s an excellent film. I described it to a friend I bumped into afterwards as like being in a seminar at uni – I did in fact have an lecture on Psycho at uni, although it was about score composing not editing – except instead of my classmates and lecturer, they were famous editors and actors opining on the subject. Due to the aforementioned previous lecture I didn’t actually learn all that much unexpected from it – except, embarrassingly, I’d never realised that Jamie Lee Curtis was Janet Leigh’s daughter – but it was a rather enjoyable ride all the same.

Roller Dreams
This is such a lovely bittersweet little documentary. It’s about the origins of what we now call roller dance or street skating, in Venice Beach, LA. However its also about friendship, music, ambition, loss and black culture in California. It takes the time to provide the cultural and historical background to the rise and fall of the scene. The continuity between cultural appropriation and gentrification in the loss of a community and a culture. It’s a beautiful film and it broke my heart a bit along the way, but mostly it made me want to get my skates on and dance.

What I found really fascinating was something that I’d noticed coming from a roller derby background, that this kind of skating has had a huge impact on how a lot of guys skate. Some of the guys in the documentary talk about it being something they could completely throw themselves into, and how they learned how to turn falling over into part of the act, to make their recoveries graceful and powerful. So many male derby skaters – certainly in the UK – who come from a skating or skateboarding background have some of that same masculine grace – that these guys took to an artform – to throw themselves into the movement and catch themselves as they fall. They’re part of a continuity in skating culture and I hope more people involved in the sport see it and come to appreciate what was lost along the way.

A Stitch in Time
A Stitch in Time is a local film and a very personal one. Although its not the director’s own story, it’s the narrator’s story. (And as such it includes footage that he shot himself at various stages in the story.) Well, more accurately it’s the story of the narrator’s family, specifically his father. If you’ve seen the play or read the book of The Tailor of Inverness this is the story of how Matthew Zajac came to write it.
It’s a strange and moving story about war and grief and re-making your identity. There are a lot of old wounds in this story, both on a personal level of his discovery of his father’s first wife and daughter, and on a wider front, discovering the scars that remain in both Poland and Ukraine from the Second World War and afterwards.

There are joys too though, in the way writing and performing the play have brought Zajac the younger to a greater understanding of his father and their family history and in the new and clearly mutually cherished sibling relationship he has formed with his step-sister Irina. If this documentary is mostly a story about the lies people tell to themselves and the people they love, its also a story of the restorative power of truth.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – New World Cinema

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As is probably obvious to regular readers of the blog, this week has been the Inverness Film Festival. This year I decided to try organising my feature-film reviews about the festival by means of its own themes and threads. It’s probably inevitable that the ‘New World Cinema’ thread would be my favourite thread of the festival, as for me, that’s what film festivals are about, seeing obscure films from far flung or unusual parts of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see. This year felt like a particularly good one for this thread as none of the films that I saw that came under that heading earned any less than ‘very good’ vote on my audience choice award slips.

Blade of the Immortal
Apparently, Blade of the Immortal is Takeshi Miike’s one-hundredth film. Do you know what that means? That means there are ninety-five or so more films by him that I can watch! To a certain extent, if you’re at all familiar with Miike’s work you know what you’re getting with his films, and this film delivers that in spades. This year, I’ve seen two of his films – I managed to catch Yakuza Apocalypse on Film Four at the start of the year – and what I can mostly conclude about his film-making at this stage in his career, is that his films are much more fun these days. Blade is brutal and bloody certainly, but its also a film with a great sense of both humour and fun, and most importantly it has heart. It’s also really nice to have a film like this where the central relationship is platonic. Rin reminds the immortal Manji of someone he loved and lost years before, but that someone is his sister. Which neatly allows them to evolve a deeply devoted companionship – with appropriate sibling-style insults and arguments – while neatly avoiding any creepy undertones to the whole teenage girl and much older immortal bodyguard dynamic.

I laughed, I cried, I gasped with shock: a truly excellent film.

Pomegranate Orchard
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film from Azerbaijan before. Or about Azerbaijan for that matter. (For those of you struggling to figure out where Azerbaijan is on the map, its either as far East in Eastern Europe as its possible to be or as far West as its possible to be and still be in Western Asia, depending on your perspective.) This is director Ilgar Najaf’s third film and the second film of his to involve pomegranates. (Some quick research reveals that pomegranates are one of the national symbols of Azerbaijan, and the Goychay Pomegranate Festival that features in the film is a significant cultural event.) Apparently the plot is based on Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and as such features a prodigal son returning home to the family he abandoned twelve years before.

It’s a film full of space and silences. The family that Gabil left behind have co-existed together for a long time without him and do not seem to feel the need to infringe on each other’s space and thoughts too much. Both the characters and the filmmakers seem content to give each other space in which to be themselves and to make their own decisions. They’re conversations are measured as though they’ve learned to think before they speak, perhaps a necessary adaptation to avoid re-opening the emotional wounds that Gabil’s departure has caused. There is a great deal of play made of the relationships between fathers and sons, and the absence of Gabil’s dead brother. But for me the defining relationship of the film is the one between Jalal and his grandfather Shamil, with its quiet devotion and loyalty. Both of them men of few words, but with emotions deeply felt.

I spent the entire film feeling that Gabil was clearly up to something, but nonetheless, the twist was a proper gut-punch of a reveal. A really good film, atmospheric, beautiful and bleak.

The Nile Hilton Incident
An excellent Egyptian thriller for a Saturday night. A singer is killed in a hotel room, a member of the domestic staff is a witness and barely escapes with her life, and important people want the case to just quietly go away. Set against the background of the 2011 Tahir Square protests, by the end of the story the endemic corruption and utter failure of the justice system has both the viewer and the central anti-hero feeling no little sympathy for the urge to burn the whole rotten system down.

Leading man Fares Fares for some reason really reminds me of Christopher Eccleston, both in looks and in acting style. Which is no bad thing, as he’s an excellent actor too. His long serious face makes him look perpetually caught between sadness and grumpiness, but there’s so much going on with his eyes. An excellent performance as a corrupt cop discovering just how far across the line he will and will not go.

Cloudboy
Not technically part of this strand – this was actually one of two films to be shown as a result of the young cinema programmers project that Eden Court runs – but as a Belgian film set in a Sami community in Sweden I think it counts.

This is such a lovely film, one of my favourites of the festival. The protagonist Niilas is obsessed with sound and radios, recording things and people, and the film is full of all the weird perspectives and recordings that he makes. It’s such a warm-hearted film, with Niilas as this fish-out-of-water, finding his place in the life and family that his mother has built. The bonds he eventually makes with his siblings and mother feel all the more real for how hard fought they are. (And that his actions have real world consequences in this life.) And his stepsister Sunnà is clearly the most sensible, head screwed-on right person in the entire film.

I’m not entirely sure if the elk that keeps appearing at significant moments is an actual animal or a supernatural one, but the film gets away with it either way.

IFF17 @EdenCourt – Short Docs

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The short docs screening is always the short film screening that I most look forward to at the Inverness Film Festival. Mostly because the films are almost always by or about people from or living in the Inverness area. The rare ones that aren’t always have some connection back to the Highlands. It’s always a timely reminder of how many interesting stories there are to be told about the area and it almost always makes me want to get out there and make my own.

Not least because this year, of the five films, there were only three directors between them.

Ethie & Coire Eilde
Both of these were outdoor adventure films directed by Mike Webster and featuring adventurer and wildlife photographer James Roddie. They both felt a bit like being on a guided gorge walk with them, without the danger of getting cold or wet – or injuring yourself! A couple of vicarious adventures through stunning scenery with personable guides. A very pleasant journey.

Woman Up & Riding Through the Dark
Are both films about cycling, though very different ones, by director Katrina Brown. Woman Up is only three minutes long and is that rarity for me; a short film I wished was longer. Eilidh is a compelling subject and her struggle to find her way to fitness and acceptance of her own body was moving and engaging. And just when I was hooked on her story, it ended.

Riding through the Dark feels like a follow up to the previous film, although it features a completely different cast of characters and a very different type of biking – road biking rather than mountain biking. It follows two very different groups of cyclists, one elite long distance athletes and the other a local cycle to health group. However both groups contain members who have – and continue to – struggled with mental health issues and whose continuing recovery is helped both by the physical act of cycling and the support they’ve found from their fellow cyclists. Often documentaries with a philosophical or metaphorical title can end up being a bit twee and pat in their conclusions, but here the metaphor felt appropriate and apt. The longest film of the lot, but by far my favourite.

Alexithymia
This was definitely the oddest film of the bunch. It’s certainly successful in creating a sense of alienation and failure of connection/communication. Perhaps the lack of connection I felt to the interview subject and my failure to really understand what Alexithymia really is – is it a symptom of a mental illness, or an aspect of neurodiversity? – was intentional on the part of director Duncan Cowles. Or perhaps the film just wasn’t very good. Either way, it was a very long ten minutes.