57th Edinburgh International Film Festival
Report by Irmgard Spiegel-Stefani / FKC Dornbirn
The 57th Edinburgh International Film Festival from 13-24 August 2003 once again proved to be a showcase for both new talents in filmmaking and established art cinema directors. Grouped into different sections (Gala, Rosebud for debuts and second films, Director’s Showcase for new work from important filmmakers, British Gala for features produced in the UK, etc.), the Festival includes films not only from the typical sources such as France, Spain and the US but from all over the world: Tunisia, Brazil, Iceland, Iran, etc.
Apart from most recent productions, the Festival usually includes a retrospective to pay tribute to the life and achievements of one of cinema’s greats (this year Henri-Georges Couzot) and special events. Among the 2003 special events were screenings of several films directed by Miklós Jancsó, pioneering Hungarian director who never got the international attention he deserves.
Twelve days of intensive viewing, in my case combined with two courses organised by Edinburgh University - Introduction to Film Studies and Film Festival - served as the basis for regular interesting discussions about directors’ intentions and work methods. After having participated in last year’s Film Festival Course, the quality of the course and the Film Festival itself, together with the amazing number of Fringe shows and International Festival performances offered in Edinburgh every August, convinced me to come back to Scotland this summer.
Shane Danielsen, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, has characterised filmmaking as shown at this year’s Festival as “remarkable, powerful, enduring and profound”. Considering the difficult social background and context of many of the directors showing their work at the Festival, I fully agree to that statement.
Selection of Films
I picked out some of the films I have seen at the Festival. There are lots of others worth seeing - for more details go to www.edfilmfest.org.uk.
Scotland, UK 2003
Director: David Mackenzie
Opening night film. This feature tells the story of Joe, a young drifter with a strong interest in literature, who works on a barge on the waterways of Glasgow. An affair with his captain’s wife seems to be the only ‘adventure’ in his life. But then they find a young woman’s body in the Clyde, and his cosy world begins to fall apart…
The story is told non-chronologically; flashbacks tell you what actually linked Joe and the dead woman together. Based on a novel written by Beat generation author Alexander Trocchi, the film illustrates British existentialism and Trocchi’s view that true freedom can only be found in fleeting moments such as at orgasm… While the main character seems to be getting more and more restless and alienated - even if you can never be sure because you are not allowed to access his mind - this way of expressing existentialist elements seems to form a certain contrast with the beautiful images of the surroundings appreciating the beauty of nature and the world as a whole. For all Talking Heads fans: The soundtrack was written and produced by David Byrne - absolutely fantastic.
Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature 2003.
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Documentary. A typical middle-class American family - parents and three sons - the Friedmans have documented their life on super-8 film and home video. The documentary combines Jarecki’s work with the Friedman’s own footage and shows pictures of happy family life. When the three sons are grown up, their father Arnold, a respected teacher in IT, is charged with the sexual molestation of young boys in his computer classes held at their house and the possession of child pornography. The same charges are brought against his youngest son Jesse. What follows is a vast accumulation of material, interviews with numerous persons involved in the case, the family members themselves. Even though you can see the family break down under the pressure of what’s happening, there are so many conflicting and contradictory statements that you realise that there is no absolute truth. Arnold and Jesse finally go to jail, Arnold dies while still in prison and Jesse is released after 13 years. At some points the way the material is put together seems to create a fiction film or even a Greek tragedy. You leave the cinema still trying to figure out whose memory seemed most credible but realising that reality is ambiguous and objectivity is only possible to a certain extent.
Scotland, UK 2003
Director: Richard Jobson
Frankie lives in Edinburgh. He enjoys a drink, as most people do. At some point he realises that he is an alcoholic and tries to come to terms with his past. As a young child, his happy world was destroyed by him finding out that his father - his idol - betrayed his mother. He never ceased looking for the love that was since then missing from his life. But the impact of his past is so strong that he doesn’t seem to be able to handle his present relationships.
The main character’s inability to cope with everyday life is reflected by the violence he shares with three friends who eventually turn against him. Most of the story is told in flashback, with the opening scene being shown again at the end, and this is done with ravishing visual images even turning into photograph-like style at some points. This visual style would have been enough to express Frankie’s feelings, but there is in addition the voice-over - that actually distracts you from the images and doesn’t leave any room for your own thoughts.
Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)
Director: Claire Denis
Friday night in Paris: Due to a transport strike, the city has been brought to a standstill. A young woman on her way to meet friends on the evening before she moves to her boyfriend’s flat is right in the middle of one of the traffic jams. As has been suggested by an announcer on the radio, she picks up a stranger wandering in front of her car. They spend the whole night together in a little hotel. Laure leaves in the early morning while Jean is still asleep.
In her latest feature, Claire Denis moves even further away from traditional narrative and dialogue structures, in fact there is hardly any dialogue at all. Long shots of the city and close-ups of the characters create “visual feelings” leading to mental images of threat, dream and memory. The way of representing sex on the screen with close-ups and extreme close-ups creates an intimacy between the two characters even if they hardly know each other. This visual style is a play with colours, forms and shapes that sometimes creates images on the screen resembling abstract paintings. When Laure leaves the hotel in the morning, you can’t be sure if this encounter actually happened or if she was only dreaming, trying to escape from the real world in which she is giving up her independent life. Go see for yourself!
Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorgh)
Director: Jafar Panahi
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Award at Cannes.
First scene: Hold-up on a Tehran jewellery store; Hussein, the main character, kills the shopkeeper and then himself. His motivation for these acts is explained in flashback before concluding with the same scene (even though shot in a slightly different way). Hussein suffers from some illness caused by his participation in the Iran-Iraq war. He works as a pizza-delivery driver at night where he gets to see some of the richer and very rich parts of Tehran. His experience in the jewellery store, where he tries to buy a ring for his future wife, and his contacts with rich people underline his lack of wealth and sophistication.
Most of the film is shot outside, there are long shots of Hussein driving his motorbike and delivering pizzas. The fact that he is a non-actor contributes to the realism of the film - that new kind of realism to be found in Iranian cinema today. It provides details on Iranian society, the repression people face and the increasing gap between the poor and the rich. The script was written by Abbas Kiarostami whose feature “Ten” was shown at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival - another masterpiece of Iranian cinema. This collaboration between Kiarostami and Panahi works very well.
Spain & Denmark 2003
Director: Pablo Berger
Madrid in the early 70s: Alfredo and his wife Carmen struggle to make a living. Alfredo tries to sell encyclopaedias about the Spanish Civil War that nobody wants anymore. So he is ‘offered’ a new job by his company. He and Carmen are supposed to contribute to a new audiovisual encyclopaedia of human reproduction by filming their own sex life. Alfredo, fascinated by Ingmar Bergman’s films, already sees himself as the new Spanish star director, whereas Carmen’s only motivation to move along is her desperate wish to have a baby. Their films bring them money and security but after a while they start to admit the obvious - that their films are not being used for a purely scientific purpose. By writing a script - “Torremolinos 73” starring Carmen as the main character - Alfredo wants to move into legitimate cinema, and after finding out that Alfredo can’t have any children, Carmen starts to believe that this film is her last chance…
The ironic way of representing sex (in the 70s, with Carmen only driven by her wish to have a child) and Alfredo’s aspirations to become an ‘auteur’ create a great art-film parody. Impressive performance by Javier Cámara.
The Bookstore (El Kotbia)
Director: Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba
Jamil returns to Tunis after having spent years in the West Indies and in Paris. He starts to work at an old bookshop run by Tarek, who lives in the flat above the store together with his wife Leïla and his widowed mother Aïcha. Jamil lives in the same house. Even though all characters have their own specific motives and desires, they are somehow closely interwoven with each other. Leïla is bored and wants to move to her own flat, Aïcha has never got over the fact that her marriage was based on respect rather than love and Tarek seems incapable of meeting his wife’s wishes. Jamil plays the part of a passive observer, while both women set up certain expectations regarding him. When Aïcha moves away and Leïla leaves Tarek to start her career as a classical singer, Jamil remains the only one in the house to comfort Tarek. This, however, soon causes rumours…
The film is almost entirely set in the bookstore and the flat upstairs, which sometimes creates a very ‘staged’ yet pleasant atmosphere: matching colours and the lighting give the different rooms an individual ambiance. The director succeeds in representing the characters’ development in a very sophisticated way taking into account the city’s social context: Leïla who wants to have money and lead her own life, Aïcha who wants to be there for her son but at the same time also needs to re-establish her own independent life.
Feathers in My Head (Des Plumes dans la Tête)
Director: Thomas de Their
A young family in the small town of Genappe in Belgium. Jean-Pierre and Blanche seem quite happy, they love their five-year-old son, Arthur. When the boy drowns in an accident, Blanche reacts by completely withdrawing from the real world, incapable of coping with her son’s death. She strolls around in the marshlands and along the channel near her home, increasingly alienated from reality. When she meets a strange young man - a character as solitary as herself - she finally seems able to let her tears go and slowly begins to return to life.
With his distinct visual style and dialogue clearly subordinated to the images, the director achieves a perfect representation of the characters’ state of mind. The story is set over the course of four seasons, expressing change and renewal of nature - a process that might reflect man’s struggle to change and recover after a loss. The visual impact, the soundtrack and the combination of long shots and editing create a fantastic feature. My favourite!
Explosive Fragments 2
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Winner of a short film award at Cannes.
Eddie spends her pocket money buying fireworks for cracker night. When she actually lights the fuse of her first cracker, it falls over and sets the rest of her cracker bag on fire. A childhood experience she’ll never forget.
Simple style, very effective in showing the family background affecting a little girl who holds on to cracker night to try to forget about her quarrelling parents.
Director: Vicky Jenson
A young couple are celebrating a family dinner with the wife’s parents and siblings, who haven’t united for a family get-together in years. The husband gets very frustrated finding out about his wife’s family members and their obsessions.
The story is told with a mixture of irony and absurdity, dream-like flashbacks make you think about the existence of a “second” reality.
A Janela Aberta (The Open Window)
Director: Philippe Barcinski
A man, in bed just before falling asleep, tries to remember if he has closed the living room window.
The director uses editing and visual elements such as colour and lighting to express the main character’s increasingly confused state of mind. Brilliant.
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