Common Ground film critics workshop; photo: Dokufest
Michael Pattison is one of the youngest well-established film critics, programmers, and mentors out there, as well as a strong, opinionated voice. In 2013 he took part in the Locarno Critics Academy, this year her returned with a handful of advice and not only that – so far he was invited on several festival occasions to share his experience as an aspiring professional, the latest one being the Common Ground workshop during Dokufest in Prizren. Here are some thoughts from him…
A QUINTET (2014) is an omnibus feature film that explores the different aspects of emerging filmmakers who are living and working in countries that are different from their homes. The film had its world premiere during the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival.
Elie Lamah’s short film entitled FRIEND REQUEST takes place in Berlin during the homonymous film festival. Rami (David Berton), a Lebanese director, spends his night in a bar where he meets Ayala (Maryam Zaree), a director from Israel. As expected, there is some high tension between them due to the unsolved conflicts of their countries. A walk and chat during the night will help them discover that they are not that different. Although, could they really be friends?
FRIEND REQUEST is trying to deal in the most detached way with the unsolved and crucial problems that the Middle East faces. Both Rami and Ayala are forced to present themselves as typical representatives of their origins and the harder they try to do that, the easier it is to lose all those seemingly unbridged differences. Their ideas and basically their identities could easily blend and coexist with each other just as they do during that night. Unfortunately, this process of embracement goes through some cliché topics that revolve around cinema, food, and culture. This lack of any true originality could easily restrict the film into an already predictable banality.
Elie Lamah delivers a film that could be watched pleasurably but at the same time loses some of the high targets already set. Apart from the final plot twist„ which could or could not be a surprise, the rhythm and the evolvement of the film are quite predictable. For that reason there is a constant been-there-seen-that feeling while watching the characters’ discussions.
To sum up, FRIEND REQUEST is a decently built short film that tries to touch on some highly sensitive issues. Despite the aforementioned problems in the storytelling, in the end the film leaves a bittersweet sense on how some unrelated factors of our personalities (like politics) could truly affect us, our thoughts, and probably our decisions on whom to consider as true friend.
THE HOUSE IN THE ENVELOPE is an episode from A QUINTET (2014), an omnibus feature told from the perspective of five international up-and-coming filmmakers who are searching to find their identity in the modern world. The five segments take place in different regions of the world, Germany, the United States, Italy, the Balkans, and Turkey, and yet they are all, in one way or another, connected to the cosmopolitan city of Berlin – the place where the five filmmakers (Sanela Salketić, Ariel Shaban, Roberto Cuzzill, Elie Lamah, and Mauro Mueller who also wrote the script) met each other for the first time.
The film is having its first festival bow at the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival, where it is being screened in the Feature Film Competition.
The first segment of the omnibus entitled THE HOUSE IN THE ENVELOPE, written and directed by Sanela Salketić, follows the Bosnian director’s short film success from 2013 2 CM MORE / NUR 2 CM. Set in Istanbul, Turkey, it focuses on a young Turkish woman residing in Berlin who comes back to Turkey to make amends with her family. In fact, it tells the story of a Turkish family who left its homeland to move to Germany, something the grandfather was opposed to. Later, the father dies, leaving the family house in his will to his daughter. The message behind THE HOUSE IN THE ENVELOPE is not only that families split up yet remain families nonetheless, but also that we have to live with our own differences.
The cast delivers natural performances that highlight the realism of the film’s premise. However, even with its noble intentions and premise, the film does not address deeply the issues it raises, unfortunately looking incomplete and insufficiently polished.
A feature film allows more time to develop a longer story, build characters, and try to figure out the relationships between them, but in a short film you have to do it very quickly. It is a difficult job, yet THE HOUSE IN THE ENVELOPE, the first part of the omnibus A QUINTET (2014), shown at the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival, Bosnian director Sanela Salketić does a pretty good job.
The story is about a young Turkish girl Layla who comes from Berlin to Istanbul only to finds herself in a situation, where she has to search for her grandfather and try to convince him to forgive his son (her father), so he takes the house his heir left him after he passed away.
The story starts and ends at the same point. In the opening we see Layla entering the taxi by the seashore. At the end she is sitting on a bench by the shore talking to her grandfather. She drives twice with the same chatty taxi driver. Two scenes, in which the character of Layla is developing – towards the ending with her grandfather she speaks about herself and her father, sometimes making pronunciation mistakes, which is natural for someone not living in Turkey. All this time Layla is trying to convince her grandfather to reconsider his attitude about her late father.
Demet Gül, a Turkish actress portraying Layla, is confident in her role; what is more, the screenplay is co-written by her and director Sanela Salketić. THE HOUSE IN THE ENVELOPE displays a fine sense of humor. It is an emotional experience and by far the finest film from the omnibus, A QUINTET.
French New Wave veteran Jean-Luc Godard was one of the thirteen filmmakers who were invited to participate in the making of BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO / LES PONTS DE SARAJEVO (2014), an omnibus centered around the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the outbreak of the World War I.
Godard had already tangoed with the cultural identity of Sarajevo when approaching the Bosnian War in his I SALUTE THEE, SARAJEVO! / JE VOUS SALUE, SARAJEVO! (1993),a two-and-a-half minute photomontage of a single color image – shot in 1992, in the Eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, by the American photographer Ron Haviv – which depicts three soldiers of the Arkan paramilitary Serbian troups with their guns pointed towards three dead corpses laying on the ground.
THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS, Godard’s section of the BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO omnibus, is more than an autonomous work and comes as an attempt to shed new light on the problems proposed by I SALUTE THEE, SARAJEVO! in 1993. “There is a rule and an exception,” Godard states once more. “Culture is the rule and art is the exception.”
In his piece BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO he incorporates parts of I SALUTE THEE, SARAJEVO! into a typical Godard-collage, combining archive material, photographs, paintings, his already classic abundance of jeux de mots, and countless cultural quotes and references; a polyphonic construction that makes more than a few faux pas, yet manages to remain one of the boldest in the omnibus with its discourse on a simulacrum of reality residing in war photographs that he calls playfully faux-to-graphs.
The constructed artificial views of terror spread throughout popular culture (like the Pulitzer winning photograph of a boy on the verge of being eaten by a vulture), terror that art must exonerate, is exactly what Godard addresses critically in his film.
And however purist it may seem, even though it is not even by far Godard’s toughest work, THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS remains one of the most accomplished pieces in the omnibus.
Sergei Loznitsa’s REFLECTIONS is one of the thirteen short films gathered in the omnibus BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO / LES PONTS DE SARAJEVO (2014). The project was coordinated by the film critic Jean-Michel Frodon and was meant to be released this year to commemorate one hundred years since the outbreak of World War I, which took as a pretext the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. Still, BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO does not restrict itself to this historical moment but reflects on different aspects of last century’s events related to the capital of Bosnia which shaped Europe’s pathway.
In his segment, the Ukrainian director renounces the pretension of originality and brings to attention a very common sense – that suffering in troubled times and immense human sacrifice are too quickly forgotten in more prosperous times. But he does so in an efficient way that gives to this exception a renewed power.
The film is a collage of sounds, photographs, and filmed material that bring in the same dimension a distinct moment from Sarajevo’s turbulent past and its quiet present. The black and white images shot by cinematographer Oleg Mutu (known for his collaboration with Romanian New Wave directors) of the city’s streets on a sunny day are superimposed also with black and white portraits of men that fought in the Bosnian War photographed by Milomir Kovačević in 1992. From the foreground each of the now probably dead fighters gazes for a few seconds straight at the audience, and the black and white image sharpening his features makes his presence more acute. Simultaneously, the peaceful life of the present time unfolds behind him.
With REFLECTIONS Sergei Loznitsa shows once again his interest in history and politics, as well as the preference for some stylistic choices, which he developed in his previous documentaries: the non-narrative structure in THE SETTLEMENT / POSELENIE (2002) or LANDSCAPE / PEYZAZH (2003), the using of archive material in BLOCKADE / BLOKADA (2006), REVUE / PREDSTAVLENIE (2008). Besides, this film and his most recent feature documentary, MAIDAN (2014), shown also at the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival, rely on sound to bring new meaning to the scenes.
In this segment from BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO Loznitsa operates a rather symbolic selection of the aspects he shows from the present, giving us motives of everyday life (children playing, trams passing, tourists discovering the city), but repeatedly making references to motives of religious diversity – also the main cause for the conflict in the area.
Some might regard this schematically. Still, the artistry with which the different material is assembled is probably hard to deny. In this crafted network every element becomes evocative, and thus sounds and images from our quotidian become very expressive. Banal sounds – like those of the people’s steps while walking on the streets or like that of a flowing river – are vividly recalling the blessing of the normal life.
Hungarian director Ádám Császi’s debut feature LAND OF STORMS / VIHARSAROK (2013) is a deeply emotional and visually impressive gay-themed drama that follows quite close the path of the Hungarian cinematic sublime allegorical tradition (Miklós Jancsó, István Gaál). Behind the cover of a tragic true story, Császi exposes homophobia which is a social issue that is still quite present in modern-day Hungary. Homosexuals are usually marginalized, stigmatized, and they sometimes also become victims of groups of extremists in their own country.
Land of Storms – which participates in the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival in the Feature Film Competition section – tells the story of Szabi (András Sütő), a young footballer from Hungary, who is living in Germany and is secretly in love with his colleague Bernard (Sebastian Urzendowsky). After a series of conflicts, Szabi is forced to quit his team and to return to his grandfather’s abandoned house in a Hungarian pastoral area. There, he accidentally meets the teenage builder Áron (Ádám Varga), and their encounter slowly evolves to an awkward and unpretentious sexual relationship. This relationship will help them to discover their true selves.
LAND OF STORMS is a film based on the perpetual quest of a new identity; a quest that is viewed through the prism of the conquering and threatening homophobia. Initially Császi follows a safe path by searching and reinventing the identities of his heroes. They are both lost in their current living situation and apparently they are missing a piece of themselves, so they are always struggling to evolve their personalities and feel more mature in a literal way. The way that Császi presents this journey is sometimes quite symbolical but also not that far away from explicit reality. To enforce his message, the director – who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Iván Szabó – creates a deeply allegorical religious film that juxtaposes biblical scenes and symbolisms upon these boys’ romantic drama.
Szabi, who could be easily described as a fallen angel or even as a prodigal son, is trying to discard his old profession and become a beekeeper, despite the wrath of his father’s (Lajos Otto Horvath) God-like figure. Áron, on the other hand, will need to struggle in order to shake off himself the overbearingly traditional religious society of his village and his mother (Enikő Börcsök) too. These experiences will bring them closer to one another, and they will both realize that they are in love with each other. Symbols also play an important role in this procedure. The cross is always present; the water in different forms is used as a cathartic tool, either to baptize the heroes into their new identities or to clear their conciseness for their committed sins. Confessions behind closed doors will also offer the necessary transcendence and a more powerful dramatic climax. As a spectator would expect, their acts will bring upon them the rage and violence of the local community – rage that would lead to scenes of public and private humiliation.
The judgmental religious subtext that is followed so meticulously throughout the film creates an asphyxiating environment for both the audience and the personages. Szabi, who leaves his anxious urban life, believes that a new and almost virgin landscape could be his land of opportunities – but instead he will only find storms. As a modern missionary, he is trying to spread his ideas to a new world; but it is clearly stated that under the powerful and irrational homophobic environment no one can really survive, so inevitably he should adapt. This claustrophobic sensation is especially enhanced by Marcell Rev’s cinematography that stays absolutely true to the Hungarian tradition of dramas set in wide landscapes. While LAND OF STORMS takes place in a sort of Eden, liberated and almost elegiac, everything seems locked down and cast upon the heroes’ lives and decisions. The openness of the fields will not be enough for anyone to escape and even when they seem to be free in the fields, they are truly enslaved by their conservative and dangerous society. The almost theatrical approach in the depiction of the most crucial moments also gives a unique depth to the viewer as the characters feel to be present and close to him.
It would not be completely wrong to assume that the aesthetics of Császi’s film is quite close to the real atmosphere modern-day Hungarian gays are forced to live in. LAND OF STORMS is not a film that wants to fight with anyone but tries to set a clear discussion on the topic of homophobia and to liberate everyone from an environment that could kill, slowly and sometimes literally.
Mike Leigh’s latest passion project, MR. TURNER (2014), premiered in Official Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was just shown at the Special Screenings section of Sarajevo Film Festival.
Indeed, William Turner (1775-1851), the famous English painter, considered the master of light, receives an appropriately illuminating biopic in an exceedingly beautiful and superbly detailed portrait of the artist as a moody middle-aged man, whose talent with the brush clouded his sometimes atrociously poor social skills. Mike Leigh’s passion for his subject is more than tangible throughout the entire film, which concentrates, in fact, on approximately the last twenty-five years of his life.
Meticulously evoking Turner’s paintings through Dick Pope’s lyrical and spectacular light lensing, Mike Leigh proves to be a cinematic painter himself. Just like Vermeer, a painter he admires, he is interested in the action taking place in a room filled with people, when not actually depicting Turner’s wanderings in the countryside. The film studies Turner’s relationship with his very small entourage. But, the relationships with his fellow artists and his family are deliberately left unexplained. It seems that Turner departmentalized his life in order to feel at home wherever he went. All this is tackled at one point or another but more depth would have been appreciated. The artist appears as a very grumpy, solitary, and lonely person, “happily” existing in his own solitude. In that sense, what is interesting is that the director, beyond showing the above-mentioned affinity to the subject of his film, also seems to identify with him. A character study, the film takes its time to carefully observe its protagonist in the last years of his life, lingering on every detail. On occasion, it may seem too slow, but it is precisely through the accumulation of these details that the director and his lead actor Timothy Spall build up their multi-layered and multi-faceted portrait of the painter.
In that regard, Spall manages to completely inhabit Turner, thus delivering an exceptional performance that has rightfully earned him the Best Actor prize in Cannes. Through his grimacing face and grunts that often than not replace the dialogue, Spall succeeds in brilliantly transmitting every thought that crosses Turner’s mind and every wince of pain that circulates through his fatigued body. The rest of the cast delivers uniformly good performances.
As far as techs are concerned, they are all top-notch, from the visually splendid production design by Suzie Davies and the elegant and lavish costumes by Jacqueline Durran. Both Davies and Durran impressively and most accurately bring the 19th century to life on screen. The music, however, is unfortunately scarce; but, when present, it makes sure to delicately convey Turner’s masterpieces and his roving and skittish spirit.
All in all, MR. TURNER is a masterpiece in its own right and essentially an admirable film about creativity on various levels. A spectacular work of art, it sends us back to a time and place in art and history that is most enjoyable to relive. In this film, Mike Leigh is truly a virtuoso of visual storytelling.
My professor used to say: “Just as we need technology to survive, we need art to help us go through our daily lives.” And Mike Leigh’s latest film MR. TURNER (2014) is indeed a remarkable piece of cinema art. MR. TURNER was in preparation even more so than Leigh’s other films were, for a very long period of time (from the 1990s), and I can easily say that is truly one of his finest features.
Once again, Leigh goes for a period piece, as in TOPSY-TURVY (1999) for example, but this time about one of Britain’s famous painters, William Turner. It is a serious challenge to depict faithfully a period in British history, in-between the Georgian and Victorian era, since the film takes place from 1825 to 1854. With great help from his regular collaborator, director of photography Dick Pope (for this film they used digital cameras for the first time and featured some extraordinary CGI shots), as well as production designer Suzie Davies, Leigh really captured and recreated the said period in history. The English countryside, cities, and towns, the White Cliffs of Dover – they have never looked so beautiful before.
No single shot in the movie is less beautiful than the paintings of William Turner. He specialized in watercolor landscapes, but what Leigh has decided to portray in his movie is William Turner’s passion for marine paintings, for which he was famous. Like all of Leigh’s films, he and his actors build characters doing lots of preparations and improvisations, reaching a unique and incredibly authentic result. At the beginning of the story we see William Turner in a beautifully crafted wide shot, standing and sketching, while the sun is rising, and at the ending he is sketching again when the sun is setting. Between those two shots Leigh puts together a collage made of bits and pieces of William Turner’s life: his relationship with his father, dealings with his fellow painters, his kind of a double life, his interest in modern technology such as trains and photography, him being ridiculed, and so on.
As the great John Huston used to say: “Half of directing is casting the right actors.” In MR. TURNER we witness the pure genius of Timothy Spall, the character actor, whose unforgettable performance truly deserved a prize for Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Helping him there are the lovely Marion Bailey as Ms. Booth, Lesley Manville as his housekeeper, just to name a few of those who have done a brilliant job. And when all this is orchestrated by a director like Mike Leigh, who knows that every single shot in the film is the most important one, the final result is one of the best movies of the year.
MISS VIOLENCE (2013), Greek director Alexandros Avranas’ second feature, was loosely inspired by a case of domestic abuse and incest that came to light in Germany in 2010 and resulted in the incarceration of the abusing father and the silent accomplice-in-crime mother. Depicted in the already canonized stylistics of the so-called “weird” Greek cinema that won international recognition in 2009 with Yorgos Lanthimos’ festival circuit sensation DOGTOOTH / KYNODONTAS, MISS VIOLENCE has been widely referred to by critics and the director himself as an allegory – in that same tradition of the Greek weird wave – of the social mechanics of violence at work both within the family and state institutions in contemporary Greece.
The film’s opening scene introduces us into a tight middle-class apartment that will serve for the rest of the film as a backdrop for Avranas’ exposé of the family horror scenario hiding behind this pastel-colored perfect world we seem to be entering - the camera sliding gracefully between the members of a family in celebration, quietly observing them. A mother and a grandmother are lighting a pink glazed birthday cake, the usual family photo is being taken, the little girls dressed elegantly in white dance with each other, while for the birthday girl is reserved the honor of dancing on her grandfather’s tiptoes. And there is nothing heart-warming about it. Avranas’ continuous long shots keep the spectators at distance, forcing us to observe in our turn their highly unsettling automatized movements (the signature trait of the Greek Weird Wave stylistics). Yet, it is only with Angeliki’s cold smile at nothingness – a straight forward look towards someone from outside the frame with whom the director might probably have wanted to force the spectator into identifying – a moment before she jumps off the balcony and plunges into death with which this doll-house world is first exposed for what it is.
The nightmarish reality of what is yet to be seen addresses the spectator from the very beginning, and what Avranas embarks upon is not an investigation but a demonstration of a greater truth that existed a priori, which we refused to see. More precisely, social relations in Avranas’ conception are dominated by violence, a mechanics we inevitably take part in, but often refuse to recognize as such. In the narrative of MISS VIOLENCE, this is almost didactically materialized in a scene, in which one of the children is punished in his turn for having gotten into a fight at school (violence now being transformed into a twisted educational method) by receiving the same treatment from his little sister, forced to assume the role of the one who punishes and thus becoming initiated in violence herself. So not only are we dominated by this mechanics of violence, but this is a vicious circle that we are drawn into. And as Avranas’ somewhat nihilistic demonstration goes on until the final coup that closes the film, it gets clear that this circle is one not to be escaped from.
But to go from this allegorical layer of the film to affirm that MISS VIOLENCE is an allegory of the social mechanics that brought Greece to the situation it has found herself for the last couple of years, seems an overstatement, since there is no particular evidence in the film that would support such a reading – except for the father’s unemployment and some governmental plan for reintegrating older people into the field of work that forces him to take on a humiliating job. And if we go further, even this particular information becomes irrelevant inside the main narrative construction, since the abuses to which this man submits his wife, daughters, and grand children seem to have started long before the economical crisis could have affected his career. For a change, what may encourage a political reading of the film is rather the elaborate backdrop of social indifference that Avranas manages to create, incriminating both social services and school, as well as family, as failed institutions.
It is actually in the concreteness of his approach that Avranas’ story fails to become an allegory of the sort of those born inside the Greek weird cinema. And that goes for both the narrative and the visual construction of the film – it becomes more and more naturalistic in the second part, as the story unfolds and the abuses are rapidly revealed, one after the other, in a progression that comes in contrast with the initial play with the spectator’s expectations, in which Avranas indulges himself the first part.
After the opening scene, that sensation of existential absurdness (that stands as the trademark of the Greek New Wave), through which the characters seem to float unknowingly, is lost. The long continuous shot becomes an instrument in manipulating the audience’s emotions, managing to keep us in a constant state of shock through a constant repetition of abuses endured by children to which we, as spectators, are forced into passively witnessing, as we are usually left in front of closed doors, incapable of action. The only exception, strategically placed towards the final resolution – a naturalistic single shot depiction of a teenage girl being forced into prostitution and then abused by her own father – functions as a final violent shift to the subtleties of the absurd allegorical tone of the Greek Weird Wave’s paradigm.
In the end, what Avranas’ film reveals itself to be is a crafted naturalistic family drama that may have the seed for a new direction in Greek contemporary cinema, one that was born out of the absurdity of the Weird Wave, yet finds its structural strength in the most sordid aspects of life, put on the screen in all their roughness. And what Avranas best knows how to do is finding the perfect narrative dosage when administrating them to the spectator, so we cannot escape the horror.