Stranger Than Fiction at the @Glasgowfilmfest

As regular readers of this blog will know, I always try to organise myself for an epic day of film watching at the Glasgow Film Festival. There’s always so many things I want to see and even when I worked in Glasgow there was never enough time to see them all. This year I decided to pick a theme as my more successful previous trips have had that in common. Given my avowed desire to watch 25 feature documentaries this year, choosing the Stranger Than Fiction documentary strand seemed the obvious choice. So, on Saturday I headed to Glasgow to see three documentary films back to back at the CCA. As I tweeted on the day: ‘Yes usher, I would most DEFINITELY like a cushion.’

First up was a little bit of a strange choice, Burroughs: The Movie a documentary about William S Burroughs from 1983. I’m not a great fan of the beat poets and the romanticism and mythologizing that goes on around them and their work. I’ve been trying to read On the Road on and off for years and mostly having to leave off because I wanted to smack Jack Kerouac round the head with the book. (I did enjoy the film of Howl but I suspect that the less I know about the people involved personally the more I like their work.) It’s really quite an odd experience to watch a documentary about a man who comes across a delightfully eccentric old gay man, when previously the main thing I knew about him was that he killed his wife in a drunken game of ‘William Tell’…

Second up was the rather more modern and more kitschly strange film Electric Boogaloo: The Untold Story of Cannon Films. For the uninitiated Cannon were responsible for such gems as Superman 4 and Masters of the Universe…oh and Zefferelli’s version of Othello. The driving force behind the company was a duo of Israeli cousins who moved to Hollywood and set about making the oddest mix of films. I get the impression that they wanted to be the kind of Hollywood studio that hasn’t existed since the 30s, churning out historical epics, action adventure films and musicals – without the Hayes code restrictions. What they actually made were closer to a cross between 1950s B movies and 70s exploitation films. The interviewees are an odd mix of actors who almost all despise them and technicians and other former staff who are an odd mix of affectionately loyal and despairingly frustrated in the ‘we could have had it all’ mould, The bittersweet outcome of the film is that some of the team that worked with them mostly learned what not to do and now make slightly toned down version of exactly the same kind of films to much greater success. They were pioneers and trailblazers, and good taste was a stranger to them, but as a lover of terrible 80s B movies I salute them. Some of us like Masters of the Universe.

Last but not least was arguably the best and most interesting of the three documentaries and the one I most wanted to see. Limited Partnership is the story of a 40-year battle for a US/Australian gay couple to have their marriage acknowledged and accepted to allow them to stay together. It’s a sweet and heart-breaking story of love, friendship, family and state intolerance. In its way it’s a history of the gay rights movement in the US and a lesson in the way that any civil rights movement is not a straight line from intolerance to tolerance, with steps forward and backwards along the way. Tony and Richard are such articulate advocates for their cause, so unflinching in their loyalty to and love for each other that its hard to comprehend that anyone could consider there to be anything ‘limited’ and lacking about their partnership.

Glasgow Film Festival: Short Film Fest Part 2

As promised the second half of my reviews of the Saturday screenings at the Glasgow Short Film Festival (if you missed it you can find the first half here)

Apparently, I stopped writing down my ratings for the films after the 2nd screening of the day. Which matters less for the 3rd screening, as I wrote reviews of them during my break for food (Japanese, very tasty). However, as I was tired and all filmed out by the end of my last screening, I didn’t write the reviews at the time…and writing them now I was cursing my lack of star ratings. My opinions about the 2nd screening were much easier to retrieve with the stars as a guide…

Mutations: International Competition 1
Mutations was my favourite of the screenings. It was certainly strange but a good strange I felt. Half the films were animations and that always predisposes me to view positively. Overall it managed to balance the dark with the light well.
Edmund was a Donkey/Edmund était un âne (2012, Franck Dion, France/Canada)
Edmund was a Donkey is a definitely both the strangest and the saddest film in the collection. A small man, who has been by turns contentedly miserable and quietly happy comes to believe, after a cruel office prank, to believe himself to be a donkey. It’s a film about escapism, madness and more about how we treat those who we perceived to be ‘mad’ or ‘different’ and how thin the line between cruelty and kindness can be.
The Pub (2012, Joseph Pierce, UK)
The Pub is an animation and not an animation, as far as I can tell, it was filmed live with actors and then had animated effects added – rotoscoping perhaps? There’s an ugly beauty to the animation that lends it an extra power. The landlady of this particular pub can see the animals and monsters that lurk under the skins of her punters (and perhaps even under her own) which can be both a blessing and a curse.
Stammering Love/L’Amour Bègue (2012, Jan Czarlevski, Switzerland)
Stammering Love was my least favourite of this set, largely because handsome young man angsting about girl and how they are so shallow and can’t see past X thing about them, got old when I was still a teenager myself. The most interesting thing about the film is the way the central character fights to assert that it is the shallow casual hook-up culture itself that leaves him sad and depressed, rather than his lack of success in it.
Trans (2012, Mark Chapman, UK)
Trans is a documentary of a sort, built entirely of still photographs taken with very long exposures. The film grew from a conversation between the subject Callie and the film-maker, about Callie’s trans-ness. Which evolved into him documenting Callie’s transition to where she is now, which is comfortable. This gives the film’s narration an intimacy that would be hard to achieve otherwise, it feels like someone explaining something quite complex but very close to their heart to a friend, it presumes an audience that doesn’t understand but wants to. The nature of the photographs, always slightly blurred, matches well with the topic of gender fluidity and also serves to disguise a lot of the process of changing that both steers it away from seeming exploitive, and denies the inherantly voyeuristic nature of cinema.
Through Ellen’s Ears/Door De Oran Van Ellen (2011, Saskia Gubbels, Netherlands
Through Ellen’s Ears is a documentary following a young deaf girl, and to a lesser extent her deaf and hard of hearing classmates, as they face decisions about where they will go to secondary school: the hearing school, at hard of hearing school or to a boarding school for deaf children. Having grown up in deaf society she is keen to learn to interact with hearing society to help her cope with wider society once she leaves school. Whereas her parents and classmates are keener for her to go to deaf school where she will have community and better academic prospects. Making the whole process harder is that her best friend (from whom she is inseparable) is hard of hearing so cannot go to deaf school. Can they find a way to stay together and still get their educational needs met?
Fear of Flying (2012, Conor Finegan, Ireland
Fear of Flying is a charming little Irish animated film about a bird with a fear of flying. This, as one can imagine is rather a major problem for a bird in general life but worse when the rest of his kind fly south for the Winter. It was light weight and light-hearted and generally a bit of a relief after the intensity of the previous films in the screening.

Bottled Up: International Competition 2
This was the last screening of the day, and its late night slot was clearly intentional, as it was more consistently dark and the themes were definitely post-watershed. It was my least favourite of the screenings though whether that was due to the subject matter or if I was just burned out by that point, I can’t be sure. There were some very good films involved, I just got to the end of it feeling a bit ground down by them.
The Curse (2012, Fyzal Boulifa, Morrocco/UK)
The Curse is a rather depressing little film, in which a young woman has sneaked away from her village, to make a last rendez-vous with her older lover who is going abroad for a while. Having been caught by a young boy from her village, she begins the long walk home trailed by an increasing number of inexplicable village children, who taunt her with their knowledge and demand sweets in payment for their silent. Getting hold of said sweets proves more costly than she could have imagined or that they could understand.
This Charming Couple (2012, Alex MacKenzie, Canada)
This Charming Couple is odd and purposefully so. Created from water-damaged, found footage, from an old educational film, it transforms the footage for its own purposes, undermining the original message. But quite what the intended message of the new film is, remains as opaque and unclear as the footage itself.
The Buried/Sepulte (2012, Jonathon Pop Evans, USA)
The Buried is a film about a murder, or at least the aftermath. It’s apparently based on a real-life hate crime, from the evidence of the film, a traditional ‘gay panic’ effort. The film focuses on the awkward messy aftermath of trying to dispose of the body and facing up to the horror of what they’ve done in the cold light of day when the violent passions of the night have passed.
Under the Colours/Zur-e Parcham (2012, Esmaeel Monsef, Iran)
My favourite from this screening, by a long way. A red skirt is found caught on the barbed wire around an army barracks, having presumably blown off one of the washing lines belonging to the surrounding blocks of flats. A group of the soldiers rescue it and attempt to solve the mystery of where it came from and to return it to its rightful owner.
Softly One Saturday Morning/Mollement, Un Samedi Matin (2011, Sofia Djama, Algeria/France)
Softly One Saturday Morning is definitely one of the better films from this selection, even if I remain a bit leery of it for the whole ‘attempted rape’ as metaphor for the state of the country thing. The film is well-shot, atmospheric, and the lead actress’ performance was compelling and her character interesting and intelligent. The best of the film is undoubtedly the confrontation/debate between her and the police chief, I just feel there should have been a better way to get there, but perhaps that says more about the world the director lives in rather than the director herself.

Glasgow Film Festival: Short Film Fest Part 1

It’s that time of year again, or at least it was when I started writing this in February, the Glasgow Film Festival was upon us and with it came the Short Film Festival. Either way, for once I’m not posting about all the interesting shorts I’d like to be watching but am not. (Though last year I did manage to see some Gaelic short films – which given the lack of excited email from FilmG I presume didn’t run this year.) This year I was prepared – ok, actually I was just paying attention when @glasgowfilmfest tweeted that tickets were selling out fast for the Frightfest strand. Having discovered that a high percentage of the programmes had a screening on a Saturday, most of them in the same screen at the CCA (no danger of making over-lapping bookings) I decided to embark on an epic day of short film watching.

It would actually be possible to see 6 of the short film programmes in one day – but you’d probably either need to bring your own sandwiches or be very good at eating very hot soup, very fast. Good sense, thankfully prevailed, I only booked for and I scheduled in time to actually have lunch and dinner.

Hooray for Hollywood: International Competition 7
I’ve been to a few film festivals over the years and while I was nominally aware of audience awards for films it wasn’t something of which I had any experience. However, low and behold, a member of festival staff came round the screening, presented me with a ballot paper and a pen, explained the voting system and there I was, part of the system. So if some of the reviews seem a little as though I’m awarding and deducting points as I go – that’s because I was.
Hollywood Movie (2012, Volker Schreiner, Germany) ****
Hollywood Movie is a construction, or possibly more accurately a reconstruction of an existing text. The text is a mediation on a different way of engaging with cinema and the text is constructed from clips of Hollywood movies to form the monologue from cut up snippets of existing movie dialogue. It’s cleverly done, well edited and the juxtaposition of original and constructed context is by turns interesting, poignant and at times humorous. It’s rather meta and honestly I think its more a work of video art than a short film but the more I think about it the more I think it needs to be seen by a cine-literate audience that appreciates it fully. It really needs being projected in the dark into that shared audience space.
Jerry and Me (2012, Mehmaz Saeedvafa, USA) ***
Jerry and Me is an autobiographical documentary about the relationship between and the impact on an Iranian film-maker by the films of Jerry Lewis. Given that she has been living and working in the US for a long time now and the times that we live in, its also about her wider relationship with cinema and with the US. It’s an interesting little documentary, and the archive footage of Iran is fascinating, but in the end I wasn’t exactly sure what message it wanted its audience to take away from it.
The First Hope (2012, Jeremy White, USA) ***
The First Hope is odd. It looks good, the dialogue is minimal and its a fairly tender view of first love and growing up. It’s also a bit about obsession with movies you watch repeatedly, with your first crush, all the little transgressive pleasures of early teen love/crushes. And I’d probably have like it far better if I hadn’t seen so many art films with implied or subtextual incest in the background…
Warning Triangle (2011, Virgil Widrich, Austria) ****
Warning Triangle suffers from the same issue as Hollywood Movie, except more so because it doesn’t have a clear through-line of narrative. It’s very effective at what it does and I enjoyed it but it didn’t feel like a film? It probably doesn’t help that it started out as an installation in a museum demonstrating autophillia…
Burning Hearts (2011, James McFay, Japan) *****
Burning Hearts is my favourite from this selection. It starts out as a tale of urban ennui and disengagement. A depressed taxi driver mourns the loss of his ambition and dreams, a mysterious woman discovers her lover and her best friend are having an affair. Her tattoo fascinates the taxi driver and her lover promises her will ‘take care of her’ only for her to mugged by a gang moments later. The fight scene that follows is almost comic yet brutal enough to avoid parody. There’s something almost computer game-esque about the fight-scene. And it has the best pause in a fight scene I’ve ever seen. It’s not clear how much is real or fantasy or quite what those linking tattoos on their wrists mean but they’ve clearly found whatever they were looking for and somehow, that’s enough.

Adrift: International Competition 4
Adrift seems a particularly appropriate title for this programme of short films, as their protagonists are all somewhat adrift in their very different ways.
Echo (2012, Lewis Arnold, UK) ****
Echo has a clever and rather strange conceit, which is hard to explain without ruining the reveal of the film. The reveal comes early on in the film but its worth seeing unspoiled. It’s an interesting take on grief and how we deal with it after the initial shock of it, how it can trap us and consume us if we let it. And that ring tone will haunt you afterwards.
The Globe Collector (2012, Summer De Roche, Australia) *****
The Globe Collector is a charming if odd documentary about an Australian eccentric. A man who collects lightbulbs (light globes) of every kind. He’s passionate about electronics and determined to preserve the legacy of their innovation before they are eradicated to give way to the more ecofriendly energy-saving variety.
Secrecy/Sigilo (2012, Karla Gomez Keep, Argentina) ***
If The Globe Collector is odd in a good way then Secrecy is odd in a bad way. It’s the sort of film people describe as ‘dreamlike’, melancholic or contemplative when actually they mean beautifully shot but almost nothing actually happens. The children are interchangeable, none of the characters get developed, there’s no apparent plot and nothing actually happens until the denouement at which point I was a) baffled and b) keen to follow the small girl’s course of action if it meant the film would end.
Vanishing Point (2012, Abhijit Mazumdar, India) *****
Take all your expectations about Indian cinema and leave them at the door. This is not an India that most people reading this will have seen on screen. There is no Bollywood glamour here, nor is there any ‘poverty porn’ to feel voyeuristic watching, Vanishing Point owes more to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than anything else (if Hunter S. Thompson had been Indian and smoking cannabis rather than all the psychotropics he could get his hands on and Dr Gonzo had been sane, sober and rather put upon…). It’s the story of two young film-makers – very different people, and arguably friends who are slowly drifting apart – on a location scouting trip in the countryside, they’re in search of the perfect bus stop but they find (and lose) all sorts of other things along the way.
I Am Tom Moody (2012, Ainslie Henderson, UK) *****
I Am Tom Moody is a weird but compelling stop motion film, that’s a bit about a childhood, but definitely not for kids. It’s about pursuing lost dreams, and facing your demons, about facing the little voice that says you can’t and facing up to where that really comes from. It’s touching and sad, and worth sticking with despite the un-promising beginning.

9. Mesnak/Turtle

There was a strand at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival called The Edge of the World, which consisted of highlights from the ImagineNATIVE Festival in Canada with a sprinkling of Gaelic short films thrown in. This particular film was accompanied by a short called Glen Tolsta (about an isolated and now abandoned community on Lewis). It was particularly nice because both the directors were in the audience so they spoke a bit about their respective films at the start. As is the way of these things Ishbel Murray spoke in Gaelic first before continuing in English, so when it came to Yves Sioui Desard’s turn he spoke, briefly in Innu before continuing in English, which is the first time I’ve heard that in real life.

The film itself is essentially a retelling of Hamlet within a Native community in Quebec (on an interesting cultural/linguistic note, I realised while watching it that I’ve seen more films in Inuit languages that I have in Quebeçois) only with less violence, more drugs and the incest isn’t so much implied as explicit (a woman sitting next to me with two early/pre teen kids got up and left during the drug-taking scene – it was rated 15 for reason…) However it is a really interesting adaptation, sticking close to the original at some points and playing fast and loose at others. For a start Osalie (our stand-in for Ophelia) gets a great deal more to do and a bit more agency. Despite sharing her Shakespearean counterpart’s fate – that doesn’t actually serve as a motivator for Dave/Hamlets’ actions (other events to do with her do, but kind of understandably) at the end so her decision seems more about her than as a plot motivator. It abandons bits of the original that it doesn’t need and drafts in elements such as drug abuse and alcoholism, assimilation versus cultural resistance that make it feel more real and less allegorical.

There’s a lot of highly symbolic stuff with a turtle – who is, I supposed, our stand in for the ghost of Hamlet’s father (his spirit animal was a turtle) – who manages to imbue considerable personality despite being a turtle. There’s less of a focus on the revenge tragedy of the original. As someone says early on to the protagonist Dave, there is more to Hamlet than just revenge – there is grief and redemption and Dave certainly gets more of both of those than his Shakespearean counterpart.

The film is beautifully shot in quite gorgeous black and white. The various locations managing to be both mundane and stunning – the reservation isn’t all one thing it is portrayed like any other rural community with posh bits, normal bits and downright scabby bits.

Glasgow Short Film Festival

Probably only relevant if you’re in Scotland at the moment, but its the sort of thing I tend to find out too late to do anything about (or when I’m skint as I am just now) so I thought I’d share it anyway.

Tomorrow sees the start of the Glasgow Film Festival (18th – 28th February) and as part of that the Glasgow Short Film Festival will be taking place this weekend with attendant prizes. There are a variety of short film programmes running (mainly at the CCA but also at other venues around the city) over the weekend, both fiction and non-fiction.

The shorts festival is now in its third year, and is once again being programmed by the fine folks at Magic Lantern (I’ve talked about their short film programmes here previously). Additionally this year sees the addition of workshops for filmmakers and visual artists, along with a couple of guest curated programmes from Radio Magnetic and New Media Scotland.

Tickets can be bought directly from the venues, or ordered online at the website, where they are doing a 3 shorts programmes for £12 offer.

Film Festivals I Have Missed

Film festivals are excellent things, brilliant opportunities to see films that you might not otherwise – or at least not for a long time – to see short films or obscure documentaries. I love film festivals, but crucially I don’t go to that many. Not, as some might presume, because there aren’t very many in Scotland, while the majority of the film festivals that take place in the UK are held in London there are a fair few up here. Recently the Edinburgh Film Festival has stepped out from under the shadow of its parent Festival, and the Glasgow and Shetland film festivals are gaining increasing international coverage; there are numerous smaller more specialised – Edinburgh’s annual Africa in Motion comes to mind – film festivals held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, festivals from the rest of the UK increasingly do tours and Tilda Swinton and co continue to produce charmingly eccentric efforts across the Highlands.  I just have this unfortunate tendency to miss them. Somehow, I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time or don’t hear about them until it’s too late; one year I will hear that tickets for the Edinburgh film festival have gone on sale before the films I want to see sell out.

Never has this unfortunate tendency of mine been more obvious than this autumn. I knew in advance I would be missing the Africa in Motion festival as I was off adventuring around mainland Europe, and doubly so because its tour doesn’t come my way this year. However, it seemed everywhere I went around Europe I would find a film-festival that I couldn’t go to. Festivals seemed to be happening the week before I arrived places, or the week after I left them, in the case of the controversy dogged Zürich film festival it started the evening of the day I left. In one particularly annoying case I discovered that the last screening of one festival was the evening I arrived in that city; the day afterwards. It did occur to me that it would make quite a fun project to travel around Europe for a year trying to attend every single film festival, but mostly I came to feel that the film festivals of Europe were taunting me a little. It even continued once I’d returned to the UK, arriving in Bristol to discover that the Unchosen festival – which campaigns against Human Trafficking – was the following month. (Looking for a link to that festival I’ve discovered that I am currently missing the Encounters short film festival in Bristol…)

Therefore I felt thoroughly triumphant to actually make it to a screening as part of the Birds Eye View Festival when its tour arrived in Glasgow this week. Flooding and train cancellations meant I didn’t get to the Documentary Masterclass at the CCA but I did see an excellent silent film with live musical accompaniment at the GFT on Wednesday. My Best Girl starring the iconic Mary Pickford could almost be held up as the perfect archetypal romantic comedy, and despite not being the greatest fan of the genre I mean that as a compliment. Additionally it has a certain charm, a sort of innocence and naivety almost, borne of being made in a less cynical age than our own. I must admit that I think all silent movies should be watched on a big screen with live musical accompaniment, there’s a certain vibrancy that the live accompaniment gives them that doesn’t come across on the pre-recorded scores that accompany DVD or television screenings. Some films lend themselves to cinematic viewing, loosing a certain something on the small screen (I saw Requiem for a Dream in a tiny screening room, with an excellent sound system, at uni and I’ve never felt more claustrophobic or enjoyed that film more). There’s just something about that piano accompaniment, accentuating the moments of comedy or tenderness, or picking up the pace, galloping along as the inevitable chase gets increasingly manic, that somehow manages to hold its own against any amount of deafeningly crystal clear 5.1 surround sound. There’s something more intimate and warm about it, almost akin to attending a gig, knowing that you’re sharing a unique experience and that even if you were to go and see the film again, with the same people, in the same place with the same accompanist it wouldn’t be exactly the same. It was, as the girl in the row behind me announced at the end, “exactly what I needed.”

Magic Lantern Goes Nord

I’ve been on the mailing list for Scottish Screen‘s Roughcuts newsletter for several years now, and never really done a lot with it other than occasionally apply for jobs advertised, and covet attending film festivals and screenings that I never get round to attending. Lately however, I’ve been trying to go to more events though mostly I’m thwarted by the short notice on screenings (or screenings that start too early for me to get to without leaving work an hour early), occasionally I’ve even been successful. Having a fondness for short films the Magic Lantern programs at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow seemed an obvious choice. I keep forgetting but on Wednesday I managed to get myself along to one of their screenings. The latest screening had a decidedly Nordic feel with films from Swedish, Danish and Finnish directors who are (mostly) better known for their full-length features.

Continue reading “Magic Lantern Goes Nord”