@AiMfilmfest – Short Film Competition

I keep thinking that one year I’ll actually make it to some screenings at the Africa in Motion film festival in Edinburgh, to attend some screenings and discussion panels in person, rather than catching a film on tour when the films tour the country. (Though to be honest, that is one of my favourite parts of this film festival, that it tours its films round more provincial art cinemas.) I did not expect that in this plague year of ours, I would see more AIM films and events than I normally do by virtue of the film festival having gone entirely virtual. This was my first attempt at attending a virtual film festival and I must confess it took me a while to get the hang of it – films were mostly available for 48 hours after their ‘showing’ time, but keeping track of what was available until when and lining them up with what I was in the mood for on any given day was a bit of an adventure.

This is the thirteenth year that the Africa in Motion festival has a held a short film competition. The short-list this year comprised of 15 films from 12 different countries, from across Africa and further afield throughout the diaspora, whittled down from over 450 entries. There is both a jury prize and an audience award so all the online viewing pages have an option to rate the films.

I was working from home for most of last week, so I took advantage of that to watch a couple of short films each day on my lunch-break.

Ser Feliz No Väo (Happy in the Gap)

This is a documentary about Afro-Brazilian culture, assembled almost entirely from archive footage. It’s got some really nice use of archive to weave together several different themes regarding recent Brazilian history, but while I do feel like I got an insight into something I know very little about, I felt that the film itself needed a stronger narrative through line to hold it all together. It started off strongly but then drifted away a bit and I got lost.

Sun and Moon

A short but sweet little stop motion animation about a man playing chess with himself, alone in an Egyptian coffee shop – an ahwa. After he stares at the board for too long the pieces seem to come to life and enact an epic battle of good versus evil, seemingly playing out some internal conflict of the man’s own. The little plasticine characters we follow seem a little rough and ready, but that quickly becomes part of their charm. It’s a rather enchanting little film all told.

Roger

This one is a dreamy little piece about a jazz musician – Roger Kosa – as he struggles through the frustrations and mundaneness of life to find the transformative escapism of playing the piano. According to the film’s summary there’s a lot of other things going on in this documentary, but honestly I don’t think you would get any of it from just watching the film. Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t any good. It’s a dreamy and enjoyable watch, but it feels like the opening to a much longer documentary – or perhaps the trailer for it, and if it were I would definitely like to see the rest of that documentary.

Kauna Pawa (Invisibles)

This was hands down my favourite film of the shorts available to me – the first competition short that I rated five stars – a magical realist, surrealist fable. The score is excellent, almost doing the work of the absent dialogue, cueing us into the mental and emotional states of our two taciturn leads. It is beautifully shot, the use of colours, the shot composition – all the little perfect details – and the cinematography are just stunning. Doubtless helped along by the stunning dramatic scenery of Namibia – I always forget until I see it on film again how gorgeous those landscapes are, and wonder why more films don’t shoot there – and I loved the visual referencing of Mad Max: Fury Road which did in fact film there. Much like that film this one has an excellent line in show not tell – I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue in the film – visually taking us on a journey with our protagonists, as they carry their literal and metaphorical baggage through the dessert and find closure together. It’s dreamy and strange and lovely – highly recommended.

Days, Nights: Queer Africa Shorts

These films were not were not in the short film competition but as short films on my lunch break was the order of last week I managed to squeeze in most of these too. These four films could not have been more different in style, tone and genre but they were all excellent little films. (I’d have given them all four stars at least!) From the sci-fi dystopia of 2064, to the London gangster buddies of Mandem, through the Sao Paulo scene kids of Bonde, and onto Ife which navigates the difficulties of being a lesbian in contemporary Nigeria; they all have very different perspectives on what being LGBT in different parts of Africa and the African diaspora means today and might mean in the future.

Serotonin

This one is a straight up art film. That’s not a criticism in the slightest, the film knows exactly what it is and fully commits to it, so while I was at times not really sure where it was taking me, the confidence with which it moved forwards allowed me to relax and just enjoy the ride. It’s beautifully shot, mostly in black and white, but with certain scenes in colour, and it really makes the most of that, to illustrate shifts in tone and mood. There’s also some lovely use of sound in the film, from the opening sound bridge to the recurring motif of the train coming ever closer.

I think it’s about the protagonist’s struggle with his mental health, choosing to pursue and hold onto the small joys in life, and not to be consumed by the struggles and darkness of life. I think. It’s all very metaphorical, but in an appealing way, rather than an irritating way, which given how many shorts I’ve seen that cover the same ground, is considerably harder than you’d think.

Pumzi Redux

Several years ago (six, in fact) I stumbled across the trailer for a fascinating little short science fiction film, set in a post water-wars world. At the time the film had not long since screened at Sundance and the director was hoping that they might pull together funding to make a feature-length version. Clearly that never came together, and having finally seen the full 20 minute short film, I can only be sad that we’ve never got to see more of this world. It’s a beautiful and compelling little film as it is, packed full of hope and heartbreak and as much as it is satisfying and complete as is, it feels like a tantilising glimpse into a rich and complex world of which we only ever brush the surface. We get just enough of this world to leave us wanting more, with so many unanswered questions that I would love to see explored further.

PUMZI from Awali Entertainment on Vimeo.

Hitchcock Double Feature

So, awhile back I decided to start a new idea/challenge to get me blogging more. I was going to watch pairs of films from my unwatched DVD collection (a fiendishly large pile) and review them on a compare and contrast basis. The pairs would be picked, by genre or type, or even country of origin and age, whatever appealed or seemed potentially interesting at the time. Anyway, it was a good idea and a shame to let it lie just because November didn’t go to plan. So New Year, new leaf turned over.

This pair of films came about accidentally; I was originally planning to do a double bill of ‘black and white suspense films’ in the shape of Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man. However, I came across one of the those ‘free with a paper’ DVDs of the original version of The Man who Knew too Much and decided to do a Hitchcock double feature instead – purely for the thematics, nothing to do with making a less awkward blog title.

As a forewarning, I feel I should note that I’m not actually a massive Hitchcock fan. Perhaps because his films have been built up so much in popular culture that it was inevitable that I would be disappointed when I finally got to watch them. The first half hour or so of Psycho is brilliant, but after that first iconic murder sequence it falls rather flat for me, and after all the hype I’d heard about Rear Window actually watching it left me rather cold. I persist in watching them though, in the hope of finding one that will give me a light bulb moment when I’ll suddenly understand why everyone else seems to think he’s a genius.

What can we say about The Man who Knew too Much? Well, to be entirely fair to it, the DVD transfer wasn’t exactly pristine. The black and white was very dark, the sound tinny and panned all to one side, so that somewhat went against it to start with. Other than that, well to be honest, I can understand why Hitchcock decided to remake it twenty years later. There’s a decent movie in there somewhere but while it has its moments, they’re few and far between. Motivations are vague and contradictory, relationships are unconvincing and sometimes confusing, and the acting is downright wooden from some of the cast. Jill and Bob seem genuinely more affectionate and concerned for poor dead Louis then they are for poor kidnapped Betty. Peter Lorre does his best with rather thin material, but honestly, I’ve seen him be far more sinister and intimidating without anywhere near as much firepower. Quite what was going on with the creepy ambiguously-Central-European dentist is anyone’s guess. There’s a couple of good moments – Jill gets most of them, and makes me wonder if what was actually going on with her and Louis was him trying to recruit her to be a spy – but in general I’ve had waits at the dentist that were tenser and more filled with suspense.

Shadow of a Doubt on the other hand is a film that really shows what Hitchcock could do. Tension runs through the film like a thread pulling tighter and tighter, unexpectedly slackening only to pull ever tighter. At the heart of the film, and I feel the secret to its success, is the relationship between the two Charlies. The ways they are alike and the ways they are different, the way the affection between them curdles until the only way for either of them to survive is for one of them to destroy each other. There’s something highly appealing about both characters, older Charlie is a character we’ve seen in a thousand movies, the son who left to make his fortune and comes home to shower his family with the spoils of his success. He’s charming and personable, suave and successful, and also a psychopath at the end of his tether. A very human monster, with motivation and backstory. The American dream made flesh, with its entire destructive, rotten core laid bare. Young Charlie is also an archetype, young woman, just graduated high school, whole life ahead of her, longing for escape from suburbia: will she choose conventionality or adventure? These days she’d be the final girl, but here she’s something else. She’s truly the mirror image of the monster, her choice is protect her beloved uncle from the world or protect the world from her uncle. We feel her conflict and her struggle, the terrible weight of the decisions she has to make and make alone. The great compelling tragedy of the film is that she will risk him killing again – sacrifice innocents unknown – to protect her family, he will sacrifice anything, even her, to protect himself. Compelling to the end, it may not be one of Hitchcock’s ‘classics’ but to my mind it’s his best work.

Underneath all that, these two films do have something else in common beyond their director. They both deal with sacrifice, what people are willing to sacrifice for their principles and what principles they will sacrifice for their loved ones.

Documentaries So Far

I started writing this at the halfway point of the year, but then life got in the way in good and exciting ways so this post got put in hold. However, then as now, I was doing well on the documentary-watching front. I said at the start of the year that I wanted to watch at least one feature-length documentary a month this year and so far, I have indeed watched one a month.

As always there’s been a certain amount of hold over from previous years as I track down films that came out a while back but that I either missed the one screening round my way or where it has just taken that long for it to make it to my neck of the woods. In my 2013 review I talked about The Act of Killing being much touted but never actually seeing screenings advertised – though I couldn’t remember its title at the time. (It turns out to be about an anti-Communist purge in Indonesia but the events are no less horrific if less widespread than the Khmer Rouge) Turns out that one reason I’d never seen screenings advertised was that it didn’t make it to my local arts cinema until April this year. It was a strangely compelling, somewhat disturbing little documentary and made the oddest contrast with A Story of Children and Film (lovely, lovely film, made me want to watch all the films featured – though a sad lack of mention for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Quvenzhané Wallis’ frankly mesmerising performance in it) that I watched two days later.

My first documentary of the year was watched almost immediately after I wrote my review of the previous year’s documentary offerings. I was all fired up and motivated and, while flicking through the iPlayer looking for something else entirely I stumbled across Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair. I’d missed it in the cinema when it came out, but I’d really wanted to see it then so I watched it there and then before I could forget it was on again and it was definitely worth seeking out. How gripping can a documentary about hair be you wonder? Very. Especially when you discover the complex issues around culture, politics and economics that interweave around the issue of African-American hair. Also it’ll be a long while before I can hear the phrase ‘hair relaxer’ without flinching a little.

The most recent documentary that I saw this year was The Bridge Rising/An Drochaid I think, largely because I went to the premiere of it during Celtic Connections. It’s a film about the campaign to remove the tolls from the Skye Bridge – a summary that either tells you everything you need to know about the film or leaves you utterly in the dark. So, essentially, the bridge connecting the Isle of Skye to the mainland was one of the earliest Public/Private Funded ventures in Scotland and as such was massively controversial (such projects, especially in regard to hospitals and prisons remain highly controversial) in its own right. On top of this, the tolls were high and in a place where petrol/diesel is notoriously expensive anyway so a protest movement began – marches, petitions, refusal to pay tolls, legal campaigns, questions in parliament, and the lot. Anyway, the tolls were eventually removed at some considerable cost both financial and personal, and it was really fascinating to see it all gathered together because I was quite young when all this started and we only really got snippets a significant turning points. It’s also an interesting demonstration of how important Gaelic media is in the Highlands and Island, because the vast majority of news footage they have is from Telefios (Gaelic news programme in the 80s and 90s) and lots of the interviews with campaigners are in Gaelic. So I’d recommend it even if you know nothing about the Skye Bridge, purely if you’re interested in grass roots protest movements or minority-language/indigenous media.

I intended to see more documentaries at the Glasgow Film Festival, but most of them were either really popular and sold out, or their alternative screenings started when I was either at work or finished at a time that would see me missing the last train home. I did manage to schedule a documentary double-bill to see The Last Impressario and On The Edge of the World. The first of this double-bill I saw without trouble (well, there was some unnecessary running about to get my tickets in time but never mind) a strange and intriguing little documentary about an equally strange and intriguing man. Michael White was a producer and social butterfly extraordinaire for the best part of 60 years (he’s still alive, just reluctantly retired), putting on a kinds of interesting and controversial plays (including the original run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and introducing all sorts of the artists – including Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch – to British audiences. Despite his social butterfly/party animal status, he’s very shy and seems to have spent a great deal of time hiding behind his camera, which has made for some fantastic photos with which to illustrate the stories in the film and fill in the gaps where his memories are now failing him. The second of my double-bill was denied me, as the screening was cancelled – not because the film hadn’t arrived in time but in a new issue with digital projection, the films arrive at cinemas time-locked, so they can’t test the films until the day they’re being shown and thus if they find they either can’t unlock them or there’s otherwise an issue in formatting or ratio or even just that the file is corrupted, its too late to get a replacement or reach most of the people who’ve pre-booked their tickets. So I saw the Japanese remake of Unforgiven instead, which was good but not a documentary in any way shape or form.

More recently, I indulged my DVD buying habit, by getting a double-bill of documentaries from 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Senna which were both excellent for very different reasons. Oddly enough, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the only Werner Herzog film that I’ve ever seen and based on it I feel I should watch everything he’s ever made, because its essentially a record of the archaeological excavation of a cave in France which holds the oldest cave paintings – the earliest known human art by quite a considerable stretch of time – in the world. It’s somewhere between a museum’s audio-visual display and a mediation on the history of art and what it means to be human. It is fascinating and compelling and if you’re remotely interested in history or art then I highly recommend it. Senna is good for completely different reasons. Whereas CoFD peaked into a world of people whose names we’ll never know and whose lives beyond the art they left behind are a mystery to us, Senna is about someone whose life was lived largely in the public eye, whose words and actions we have detailed documentary proof of and can analyse in great detail, yet still remains an enigma. You know how the story ends from the very start, yet still, somehow, when it does your heart still breaks a little.

Under The Skin

It’s been awhile, a really long while actually, since I’ve seen a film as genuinely beautifully weird as Under the Skin. I mean that as a compliment too. I was utterly engrossed, enthralled is perhaps the better word given the subject matter, by this film. I’ve seen a lot of self-consciously strange indie films, painfully self-aware screaming ‘look how weird I am’. I like weird films, but my goodness you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the good ones. This one though, this one feels like a reward for a thousand terrible arty ‘weird’ shorts that I’ve sat through over the years. This one isn’t trying to be strange or kooky or off-the-wall, it just is full-heartedly weird. It’s decided to portray the viewpoint of our world through the eyes of an uncomprehending alien and its committed to the task utterly. Alien is what the film is, nothing is ever explained, and everything we know about Scarlett Johansson’s character we’re shown not told. We see our world through an alien lens and eventually, like her we come to see the beauty in the mundane alongside her.

I suspect that the film works better if you’re Scottish, there’s something about Scarlett Johansson puttering about Glasgow (walking through the Buchanan Galleries, driving a white van through scabby bits of the suburbs) that gives it an extra surrealness that I suspect you lose if those places (those terribly ordinary faces) aren’t familiar to you. Perhaps not though, perhaps the places they picked are sufficiently ordinary and anonymous that they could be anywhere but I suspect knowing Glasgow gives it a certain extra frisson. It was the closing film of the Glasgow Film Festival – I wanted to see it then but it was sold out, and I can completely see why, such a fitting film to premiere at GFF.

The sound design is excellent. Scratch that. The sound design is amazing. Strange and alienating, it commits to creating a detached and disconnected soundscape. When she’s out hunting the sound feels like it’s coming from outside a bubble, as though she’s listening from a distance, safe and untouchable, utterly in control. By the time the tables are turned on our alien protagonist, the sound is utterly in the place, she is reachable, touchable and very much a vulnerable part of this world and the soundscape reflects that. Most of the time you don’t even notice the sound design (always a good sign) its so subtle, but in the quiet, introspective moments it shows its true colours, reflecting her mood and adding to her character development. It adds to her thrall. The score may signpost threats in the narrative – to both other people from her, and of other people to her – but it’s the sound design that draws us into her world – there’s very little dialogue for large swathes of the film – makes us forget that she’s actually a serial killer, and makes us root for her survival. I need to see this film again purely to examine what the sound designer Johnnie Burn was doing at various points, because I was too wrapped up in the film to pay attention to it most of the time. Burn is not a sound designer whose work I’ve noticed before (IMDB tells me he was ‘additional sound designer’ on Glazer’s previous film Birth, but this appears to be his breakthrough film), but I’m in awe of his skill here, it’s the kind of sound that makes me go: that’s what I want to achieve when I grow up, something that strange and beautiful. Magnificent.

1. Samson and Delilah

So second round; first film.

Samson and Delilah is the story of two teenagers growing up in a dilapidated Aboriginal town on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Samson lives with his musician brother and abuses solvents, while Delilah looks after her Nana and helps her with the traditional paintings that are their livelihood.

To begin with the film follows their awkward yet somewhat endearing courtship, as Samson attempts to win Delilah over with all the grace and finesse of fourteen-year-old boys everywhere. They are both as stubborn and quietly determined in their courses of action, that they cause considerable amusement to Nana who clearly thinks that they will be a good match for each other. Almost as though knowing her granddaughter has found a suitable partner has given her a kind of peace, Nana promptly passes away. Which promptly throws both the protagonists lives into utter chaos.

While Delilah has hardly any dialogue and for much of the film seems a mostly passive character to whom things happen (mostly horrible things too, including assault, kidnapping and a car accident), the film is far more about her journey than it is about Samson’s. Samson spends the story trying and failing to prove that he can take care of her, can protect her. Delilah on the other hand takes a long and dark path to complete rock bottom, before coming to understand that she is the strong one and that she needn’t be a victim of her own circumstances. That he needs her to protect him from himself every bit as much as she needs someone to look after. There’s even a fairly symbolic moment with a wallaby for both of them that seems to demonstrate the way they swap roles towards the end.

Although the film never directly deals with the way the two worlds of Alice Spring do not overlap, in that none of the characters actually talk about it, it is nonetheless an aspect of the reality these characters inhabit that no one watching can avoid.

Despite the film having a, if not happy at least a hopeful, ending, it is not a sentimental or idealised view of life. Samson remains an addict and Delilah cannot escape the knowledge that love will not be enough to heal him. However, we get to see that she makes her choices with her eyes open, that this is the only way she can control her own destiny, that this might just work for them.