I normally like to sort my film reviews for the film festival by the festival’s themes. Documentaries, short films, silent film, new world cinema, and perhaps a country or two in focus. However, no matter how organised I am, my taste is ultimately too eclectic to fit neatly into these categories, so there’s almost always an ‘other films’ section for the films I see and enjoy that don’t quite fit. This year that category applies to nearly half the screenings I attended as I wasn’t seeing enough films in any other given category to gather them together otherwise. There’s something about looking at the schedule for this year’s film festival that is short of like looking through a trick mirror. The scattering of themes, French, Canadian, documentary, like ghost trails of the larger, broader film festival that we might have had in another timeline.
This was a charming and meditative film, giving a dogs eye view of life in Istanbul. There’s both a warmth and a deep sorrow, to how it depicts the lives of both the dogs and the humans living rough on the streets of the city.
In some ways the film felt like a companion piece to Kedi from a couple of years ago, which focused on the relationship between the residents of the city and it’s stray/feral cat population. Istanbul, the film tells us, has one of the largest populations of stray dogs of any city, and despite various civic attempts to curb the issue, there are in facts laws against the impounding or euthanising of stray dogs – such was the public outcry against previous campaigns. This film is much less of a straight documentary than Kedi, as there are no direct to camera interviews, everything we learn about the human characters we meet is picked up in overheard snatches of conversations and arguments. We see the city and it’s humans much more through the dogs perspective than viewing the dogs through human eyes.
Part of the pleasure of the film for me, was trying to work out how certain sequences were filmed. Some sequences were clearly done with a Go Pro or similar harnessed to one of the central dogs. Other’s only seem possible if the camera operator was wearing the camera – perhaps a body camera at thigh height – and in some scenes the camera moves in ways I associate with drone cameras. But the real mystery is how they filmed it without impacting the reactions of passers by to the dogs. With the homeless kids, you can see that they got acclimated to the film-maker and just ignored them but with general members of the public most people never seem to even clock the camera, and when they do notice they don’t look to the operator the way I would expect. The eye-lines don’t work – I dearly want to know how they did it!
Mama Weed/La Daronne
This is a utterly charming and extremely French crime thriller comedy. Perhaps it’s just that most of the contemporary French films I’ve seen over the last few years have either been serious and realist or utterly ridiculous comedies that really didn’t work for me, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a French film this much in years. It had exactly the right balance of charm, ridiculousness and real threat to work as both a thriller and a comedy. It feels a little as if the director watched all those ridiculous Luc Besson crime/comedies of the late 90s, early 00s and thought, yes but what if we did it properly rather than as a trashy B movie? (No shade to Luc Besson, I’m a fan of his work, but he has made some terrible movies – to the extent that sometimes I think he’s doing it on purpose – he’s good at action but comedy…less so.) But honestly Pedro Almodovar feels like the main influence on this film, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.
Isabelle Huppert, who learned Arabic for the role, is really convincing in the role, both as someone out of her depth just trying to help someone she feels she owes, and as having an utterly ruthless streak buried under all that frailty. The film is full of layers, it takes a lot of digs at the French establishment, the underlying assumptions about police violence and assumptions about immigrants and crime that it both sends up and uses to it’s advantage. (The moments of solidarity between Pauline and her Chinese neighbour Colette are all entirely based on a shared realisation for both women that they are alike, that the only way they can thrive as immigrants is one grift or another, that whether they’re honest or not the state will fail them.)
I think this might actually be the only time, in the five years I’ve been attending the Inverness Film Festival that I’ve actually attended a ‘Closing Film’. I tend to avoid them, as they’re usually films that are already feted and likely to do well on the awards circuit, and frankly there’s usually something else on at the same time that I’d rather see and that is less likely to return. But there was something about Nomadland that just appealed to me, so I snaffled a ticket and I’m glad I did. There was definitely something rather thrilling about seeing a film months before it’s official theatrical release, knowing that the only other audiences to have seen it were those at other film festivals – even if the presence of an actual security guard with night vision goggles on looking out for film pirates was initially a little off putting! This film also had the special feature of an introduction from Paul the programmer, who was doubling up as projectionist for the evening, and has hopefully now seen the film!
The film is a fascinating insight into a hidden part of American culture – that exists just under the surface of the one that most people see. The cast of the film is largely populated by actual nomads, people who live the life portrayed in it, and who make the film possible by their participation. It feels like the film is as much about them as it is about Fern, that it memorialises their griefs and valorises their strength, and that the fiction element simply provides a distance that allows for a more honest and less exploitive experience than a documentary might have provided. (It’s almost the opposite of The Florida Project from a few years ago and everything that annoyed me about that film.) I have to take a moment to just appreciate Frances McDormand’s acting here. It’s very, I guess egoless is the best way I can describe it, she’s method acting I suppose, really living and breathing that character, who seems lost and vulnerable but ultimately resilient. It’s the opposite of a scene stealing performance, more of a self-effacing one, where she makes the other characters she shares the scene with shine instead.
Someone asked me at the start of the week, does the festival have a theme this year, and I blithely told them no, it’s not generally a themed festival. However, looking back on the week’s films, they do feel as though they all share – or at least all the ones I saw – not quite a theme but certainly a common thread. All the features that I saw deal, to a greater or lesser extent, with the idea of what it means to be free. The line between freedom and insecurity; people trapped by debt, poverty, health issues, trauma, addiction or just circumstances outwith their control. (I keep coming back to that Beatles lyric: oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go. The double meaning that lurks within that phrase: both terror and joy.) I wasn’t looking for it, and I don’t know if it was intentional but nonetheless it felt very fitting for these strange times that we’re living through.