Everything is Fine

by Peter Hourigan

The French-Canadian film Tous est parfait (Everything is Fine, Yves Christian Fournier, 2008) tackles the difficult subject of teen-suicide, with its story of the aftermath of a suicide pact. It’s a very professional film, well shot, seriously intended, non-sensational. We get a sense of the ripples that flow from such an event: the impact on parents who can’t understand how or why; the friends who remained behind, just as uncomprehending. They are absolutely part of this terrible kind of experience, feeling guilt or shame or confusion or remorse. And a film on such a theme could be, should be, almost unbearable.

But that was not my reaction to Everything is Fine. Unfortunately, it comes across as a professional film, well made and structured with scriptwriting manuals well in hand. Early on, we’re made aware of a DVD left behind by the suicides, but then it’s carefully dodged by the narrative until it’s trotted out again to give us – gasp, surprise – a startling dénouement. I didn’t feel I’d been witness to a real experience, rather that I’d been watching a professionally made entertainment on a potentially very moving theme.

Fados

by Peter Hourigan

Carlos Saura is yet another very senior citizen still making films; Saura is now 76. He made his name with films that explored aspects of life in Franco’s Spain, such as Cría Cuervos (1976). In the past twenty or so years, many of his films have been dance related and he is probably one of the best directors of dance on film at work today.

In Fados (2007), Saura is exploring the music of the very Portuguese style of song, the fado. This is distinctive, plaintive music, songs of love and loss usually accompanied by the guitar, and mandolin or similar instruments. Saura has assembled a seductive play list, moving from music that inspired the evolution of the fado from some of Portugal’s former colonies. There are some clips from films by several of the greats of the fado tradition, and many contemporary versions.

Unlike the flamenco (itself the subject of an earlier film by Saura in 1995), the fado is not really a dance form. But in this film Saura does employ dance – and it is exhilarating. Most of the film has been made in a small studio, but, with a few mirrors, screens, back-projection and imaginative filming, Saura makes sure that our eyes are never bored, just as the variety he finds in the fado always excites our ears. This is heady, thrilling entertainment.

Time to Die

by Peter Hourigan

This film could be described as almost a two-hander, between a nonagenarian and her dog. Pora umierac (Time to Die, Dorota Kedzierzawska, 2007) is the story of an old woman who has lived in her house since before the War. We assume that, under the communists, other families were compulsorily housed there in apartments carved out of the many rooms. Now, Aniela (Danuta Szaflarska) is the only person living in the crumbling but still magnificent old home. But there are those, including her son, who would love to get their hands on the property, bulldoze and develop. Not over her dead body!

Aniela is somewhat feisty. She is also always talking with her dog, Phila. This works as a device that lets us into her feelings, but it is also surprisingly convincing. One reason is the moving performance of Danuta Szaflarska, herself born in 1915. There is strength and experience in this old person. She’s not prepared to be treated as a fool and, although she still has some hopes for her son, she’s able to see the world around her for what it is.

The other reason for the strength of this film is the performance of Phila. Yes, the dog. She has such an important role in the film, and the director, and presumably a dogwrangler, have obtained a presence that communicates the incredible empathy dogs can have for their owners. It is so successful that I confess to being moved to tears at the end.

The photography is also wonderful. Eschewing colour, it reminds us of how ravishing and how expressive black and white can be.

* * *

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

by Peter Hourigan

The title for John Gianvito’s digital film work from 2007 does not really indicate what the film will be like – although the second part perhaps gives a hint. Without commentary, this is nothing but a succession of grave stones, monuments to the dead, historic site markers throughout the US. And often the soundtrack is just the sound of that whispering wind.

Gianvito leaves us to move around inside these images, to work out connections, ideas. Gradually we do discern patterns. These are markers and monuments to the many who have deserved to be honoured in the America’s history. The list is apparently inspired by a book by Howard Zinn, People’s History of the United States of America (1980), that a writer in Village Voice has described as “tenaciously influential”. Some of these names may be known here: Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill and Paul Robeson (heard on the soundtrack singing the homage to Hill).

Others we can get an insight into from perhaps an historic marker – Indians massacred by early settlers, unions trying to organise and the reactions of bosses. Some of these we know through the way a name has become attached to events – Matewan, for example.

Because we have the time and space to move among these images and ponder the lives behind the stones, the film can become a unique experience for each viewer. Of course, from time to time, Gianvito does nudge us a bit: shots of trees blowing in the wind provide us with some more time for our own thoughts; then we notice that the roadside position where those trees whisper above a marker to the site of an attack on individual liberties is in fact now dominated – visually, proprietarily, commercially – by an oil company’s signage and petrol pumps.

This was a work that I think can fairly claim to be unique. For me, it was certainly calmly provocative, thought provoking and satisfying.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

by Peter Hourigan

Eric Rohmer at 87 must be the second oldest director still making films – he’s got thirteen years to go to catch up with the incredible Manoel de Oliveira, 100 this year. Rohmer has about fifty films in his filmography, many of them small and intimate studies of people in various stages of relationships. In his latest film, Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea [sic] and Celadon, 2007), he has gone back in time, taking a 17th century novel by Honoré d’Urfé, a romance set many centuries earlier in the time of druids, nymphs and shepherds.

All these archaic elements are taken up with such pleasure by Rohmer. Here is a courtly 5th century tale of romance refracted through the sensibilities of the 17th century, refracted again through 21st century technology. Or, approached in another way, here is a man of 87 whose blood may be cooling a little, telling a story of tender love, of first love, and all its charm and folly.

Rohmer’s style is certainly undemonstrative – no flashy camerawork or editing, no soundtrack music attempting to shape our emotions artificially, long passages of talk. Some of this talk comes from the 17th century refraction – passages of dialectic delighting in exploring some philosophical or theological point. And, underlying it all, the sweet romance of Astrée (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Céladon (Andy Gillet) themselves. A bodice may slip and reveal a breast, a beautiful, firm milky-white breast – but in a way it’s also so chaste and delightful.

Take this film at immediate face value and it may seem trite. But surrender to the complex levels of ideas and attitudes and emotions, and it is up there among Rohmer’s most charming, fascinating films.

And congratulations to the projectionist at the Festival session I attended. Rohmer, with perhaps the indulgence an old man can claim, is still making films in the classic Academy ratio – and that was how we saw it. No matter that the side masking couldn’t come up to the image. The compensation was the ability to enjoy the spaciousness Rohmer had so frequently surrounding his characters.

* * *

The Debt

by Peter Hourigan

An accomplished thriller in the midst of a film festival can be welcome. And the Israeli film The Debt (2007) is certainly that. Directed by Assaf Bernstein, it’s the story of three Mossad agents who let their target get away, but have to go after again when he possibly resurfaces 33 years later, to keep their bungle quiet. Then and now are skilfully interwoven, and interesting elements of characterisation are developed. However, there is also a terrifying lack of interrogation of the actual practices of Mossad, and these original developments of the ethically questionable practices now used by the US under the name of ‘rendition’. Their target, the “surgeon of Birkenau”, is certainly an abhorrent character – even if in the post-war world he has become a gynæcologist helping bring new life into the world. But this reprehensibility makes it easier for the film to completely slide over other larger issues of ethics and morality.

Gomorrah

by Peter Hourigan

It’s interesting that Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008) is officially a Norwegian-German-French film, not Italian, despite its very Italian subject, director (Matteo Garrone) and source: a best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, who currently has to live under police protection because of the material he wrote about. It is surely deserving of the description of epic, with five different stories exploring and exposing the involvement of the mafia in the Neopolitan area. Drugs and waste management are two of the areas explored. The ruthlessness of the bosses, the eagerness of young kids to get involved, their foolhardiness in believing they can outsmart the bosses – these provide spines to the different episodes which interweave without any loss of narrative clarity.

Bleached colour gives an extra grain to the poverty of the area and the handheld camerawork is largely controlled despite the panoramic scope screen.

Gomorrah is one of a quite respectable line of films from Italy that attempt to confront the tentacles of organised crime. I don’t think that this stands out over the best such as Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962), or Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Elio Petri 1970). But it is surely important for the health of the Italian polity that films of this quality are still being made.

Boogie

by Peter Hourigan

“Boogie” is a nickname for Bogdan Cioazãnu (Dragos Burr), the main character in Romanian director Radu Muntean’s 2008 film. We share 24 hours with him, on a brief seaside holiday with his wife Smaranda (Anamaria Marinca)and 4-year-old son on the May Day holiday. She’s a little bit less than impressed when he runs into some old mates; he seems more comfortable spending time with them than helping her with looking after little Adi (Vlad Muntean).

This is a film where ‘nothing’ (in the terms of a conventional narrative) happens, but so much of a relationship is explored. There is obviously some tension in the relationship at present, and both spend some effort jockeying for their advantage at different moments – she’d like more support with Adi, especially with a new baby on the way. He feels he’s worked so hard in his business all year, and throughout the marriage, and now wants just a little space. The danger is that either might make one comment too many and destroy a relationship they don’t want destroyed.

This is not a dramatic tirade-fest like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966). Instead, it is a film of beautiful observation, from a sensitive script by the director and Alexandru Baciu. Muntean’s style is so carefully calibrated it seems non-existent. Scenes are frequently filmed in long takes, with an unmoving camera. But that camera is in just the right spot, to observe the ebb and flows of the relationships.

A Hollywood-style sense of closure – presumably and clearly happy – could have destroyed it all. But not here. The glances between the two, as Boogie plays with Adi, despite being dog-tired from his night on the town with the guys, say everything we need to know or feel. At the same time, we sense that in ways this may have just been a rough day in a relationship, and they’ve survived.

* * *

Occident

by Peter Hourigan

One intriguing thing about Cristian Mungiu’s début feature Occident (2002) is why it has been so unknown until the impact of his second feature, 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, 2007). This is such an accomplished and highly entertaining first film. Its structure is clearly influenced by Krzysztof Kieslowski. There are three chapters, each going over the same events, but from the point of view of different characters, with the lives and the stories, overlapping and intersecting. As the film progresses, a subsequent story fills in gaps or motivations from the earlier stories.

But this is no empty narrative exercise trying to ape a master (think of Tom Twyker). This comes across as just the most appropriate way to tell these stories of relationships in somewhat of a crisis, of lives feeling cramped by the society, of a world at the start of a new millennium, which may bring better things – or may not.

It is of course appropriate for a festival to screen this as part of a Romanian Wave sidebar. Conditions in that country are part of the frustrations weighing on the characters, a number of whom long to escape, anyhow, to anywhere. A beautifully woven in back-story takes in the pre-Ceausescu period, when even an inflatable sex-doll could be the means of escape.

But this is not only a film mainly relevant to Romania only. Its success comes from the fact that it is more than just a sociological dissection, but a truly universal human story. Difficulties with lives, relationships, politics – the whole world, in fact – are all seen with a light comedic touch.

In style, this is so different to Mungiu’s second film, but confirms him as a truly international filmmaker.

* * *

Sleepwalking Land

by Peter Hourigan

The civil wars in Africa don’t seep into our consciousness very much. Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land, 2007), directed by Teresa Prata, is a Mozambique-Portuguese co-production. Its opening could be from another more-hyped (but, in my mind, less-effective) film, Johnny Mad Dog (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, 2008).

An old man and an orphan he’s befriended on the roads made dangerous by the civil war hide from a marauding young gang. This gang has just attacked a bus, killing its passengers and burning it out. Among the wreckage and the bodies the boy finds a diary.

The travels of this odd couple are the spine of the film’s narrative as they wander the war-torn landscape. But all their journeys seem to lead up returning them to this burnt-out bus. From time to time, the boy reads to the old man out of the diary, and what he reads becomes a form of flashback. Gradually, we realise that those events are also connected with the boy.

These two elements of narrative are effectively woven together, creating a story with elements of magical realism that lead us through this devastated and devastating landscape.

These elements of magical realism seep so delicately into the story that we don’t dismiss them as implausible; instead, they help us view the almost unviewable, and give the final moments a strong sense of complexity and ambiguity. Is the ending something we should read like La Rivière du hibou (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Robert Enrico, 1962) and despair? Or is it a way we can see the story as hopeful?

* * *

Memories

by Peter Hourigan

Frequently, anthology films composed of several shorts don’t work. One film swamps another, or there is not enough time to reflect on one before the next has swept it aside. No such problems with the Korean-sponsored triptych, Memories (2007). Its three elements work separately, but even more stunningly in juxtaposition – for this viewer surviving even the sadly compromised technical presentation.

“Aufschub” (“Respite”), directed by German Harun Farocki, uses footage shot at the transit camp in The Netherlands for Jews waiting for transportation to “the east” during World War II. It documents how well they were treated, able to put on revues, take part in exercise sessions, eat well. But these positive images, these cinematic memories, are constantly interrogated by the use of titles. The footage is projected in dead silence – that term takes on a double meaning. Vision of camp inmates peacefully, perhaps even optimistically, boarding a train is intercut with titles asking us: Do they know where they are going? Are they optimistic because, if they’re being filmed, they can’t be going anywhere bad?

Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s short episode, “The Rabbit Hunters”, would seem to have no connection. His æsthetic is rough, low-tech video, seemingly shapeless, meandering, just observing. Two older men ramble on about their past, families, rabbit hunting and other memories. Its observation has a degree of compassion, but also a degree of distance. What is the point of this, really? Then, the coup de grace: the final moments are given to the official notice served on one of the men, legally informing him that, as an illegal Cap Verdian residing in Portugal, he is to report to the Police Station for deportation. Suddenly, not only the footage in Costa’s film but the material in Farocki’s opening episode collide and interact so compellingly.

I admit to not knowing the French director Eugène Green, but after his episode, “Correspondences”, I want to know more. At one level, it’s probably just a young guy trying to chat up a girl he’s met at a dance. Does she remember him, the guy with the woollen fisherman’s cap? All this is done by email. Visually, we see fragments, a foot, a corner of a table, a red fisherman’s cap. The emails are read on the soundtrack, beautifully but also somewhat objectively. Gradually, we are taken through the couples’ preliminary sparring – until they probably do set out to met in reality. But a lot more happens as well. I can’t wait to revisit this, possibly several times.

As the whole project was conceived as digital video-making, it will work wonderfully on DVD.

* * *

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame

by Peter Hourigan

One of the pleasures of a film festival is the way that some films will collide with each other, giving a richer perspective on one or two of their major concerns. Three films, Buda as sharm foru rikht (Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, Hana Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2007), Johnny Mad Dog (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, France-Belgium-Liberia, 2008) and Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (Kim Longinotto, UK, 2007), gave contrasting images of children in three different parts of the world.

Hana Makhmalbaf is the latest in the Iranian Makhmalbaf filmmaking dynasty. Hana, not yet twenty, has now made her first fiction feature following a documentary Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2003) about the making of her elder sister, Samira’s film Panj é asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003). Her new film is about a small girl, living in the shadows the mountain where the Taliban dynamited the gigantic statues of the Buddha in 2001. Her efforts to raise the money to buy a notebook so that she can go to school form the focus of the action, very much in the tradition of the children-centred films that are very much part of Iranian cinema.

To me, the most chilling sequence is one in which the little girl, Baktay (Nikbakht Noruz), is caught up in the games of a bunch of boys – games that reflect a Taliban fundamentalism. To them, it’s all play to force Baktay to stand in a hole while they dance around her, large stones in their hands and play stoning the sinner. You sense Baktay’s terror that, because she’s a girl, she can’t resist, but must participate in a game that may turn real.

Makhmalbaf uses a script by her mother, and has a competent style, using digital video. Scenes are generally allowed to play out, with no particularly strong visual eye, but an engaging performance in the leading role. Nikbakht Noruz is not unsufferingly cute, though some of the situations she is put in to have a sense more of being created to make observational points rather than because of a deeper psychological or dramatic motivation.

Johnny Mad Dog

by Peter Hourigan

Johnny Mad Dog (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, France-Belgium-Liberia, 2008) presents us with a picture of what the world is doing to some of its children – in this case, it’s Africa, where children are being pressed into becoming soldiers in bloody civil wars. They can be terrifying effective killing machines, because as this film shows they are easily terrorised and can be duped into believing that magic can protect them from bullets. We can see how their deployers basically see them as expendable weapons, not human beings.

The power of this film comes from the appalling situation it is presenting. It is less successful as a drama. Much of the film is based around incidents showing the violence emanating from the children as their commanders use them, but there is little sense of drama or emotion or any relationships. Events happen – full stop. We are left free to develop our own back-story for characters or project any relationships. So, even though we are given a frightening picture of a situation that reports let us know is only too true, the film didn’t have the emotional involvement that I would have welcomed.

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go

by Peter Hourigan

Kim Longinotto’s previous documentary, Sisters in Law (2005), followed a female judge in Cameroon. Her new film, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (UK, 2007), looks at the way a rich society can value its children. Perhaps a better judge of a society can be the way it looks after its problems and difficult cases. Mulberry School is a school in England, where about 140 staff look after 40 extremely difficult children.

These are children with extremely disturbed and disturbing behaviour. We see the infinite patience with which they are handled by their teachers and carers. Presumably hours of observation is edited into a narrative that is engaging. Gradually, the personalities of several of the children emerge, and we are there long enough to see some triumphs as several of them make enormous steps in being able to operate in “normal” situations.

We also get an insight into some of their families – which may be an explanation for how these children developed this way. And we marvel at the approach, the care, the resources allocated to help these children out of a life that looks doomed to future institutionalisation.

Of course, like many satisfying documentaries, it also stirs a number of questions, including a concern as to whether this intimate recording is a gross invasion of privacy – both of the children and of their families. The focus is always on the children. Though we obviously see their teachers and carers this is only in professional situations. I would very much liked to have had some insight into their lives – how they became involved in Mulberry Hill, how it effects their own emotions. It cannot be easy to remain cool and calm while restraining an eight year old who is spitting at you and threatening to kick you in the cunt.

While watching it, I was reminded of an earlier famous documentary that explored a similar environment, Allan King’s 1967 film Warrendale, that explored a similar institution in Canada. Now, that would be an interesting juxtaposition: to see these films, made 40 years apart, and so to explore what changes or developments their may have been both in working with troubled children and in documentary filmmaking.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

by Flora Georgiou

Just under an hour, John Gianvito’s film (2007) is a beautiful, slow and moving tribute to the pioneers of the suppressed voices of the American landscape – from the North American Indians to slavery and the early union movements of the late 1800s to 1930s. The film’s driving force is the vast landscapes across the United States of endless still-framed graveyards capturing poignant individual epitaphs signifying the fight for a better life by the struggling or oppressed people, inter-cut with the moving stills of rustling leaves as we chronologically travel through time. We move through graveyards in photographic stills with the occasional loose pan to a small gesture of tribute and remembrance, such as the Emma Goldman – an early suffragette of the Women’s Movement – monumental tombstone the camera cuts to a contemporary but faded 1970s badge, “Women Unite”, within a sketched fist, placed on the tombstone. Overall, the film is as reflective, gentle and punchy as its fighters. Rest in Peace.

Honeydripper

by Peter Hourigan

In his career, John Sayles has directed 19 films since his début with Return of the Secausus Seven in 1980. Many of these films are marked by the way he has brought an almost incredible range of locations to life – from Mexico and Texas to Alaska, from an historical baseball scandal to Alabama 1950 in his latest film, Honeydripper (2007). On one level, Honeydripper is the old Mickey-and-Judy shtick of “Let’s put on a show.” In this case, a knockout performance is needed to save a backcountry black folks nightspot from failure. But Sayles brings a lot more depth to the subject than this summation may suggest. All details of the period are lovingly recreated, from the physical artefacts to this music of this time before white folks usurped black music and turned it into rock ’n’ roll. At times, the story develops in ways that suggests it may turn into a fable like Walter Hill’s Crossroads (1986), but Sayles always insists on the integrity of the story and of the characters. Perhaps this leads to a certain slowness, and a sense that it may have been a tighter narrative if it had been trimmed of about twenty minutes. And the overwhelming power of the musical performance is nearly all saved for the exciting finale, making the film at times feel a bit under balanced. But, all in all, it’s a satisfying film, taking us convincingly into another time, and another milieu.

Night Train

by Peter Hourigan

The ending of Diao Yinan’s Ye che (Night Train, 2007) is stunningly enigmatic, and breaks a lot of narrative expectations for the audience. It happens so quickly that you’re left asking yourself just what did the heroine do? What’s going to happen to her? Does she want it happen? But this is by no means unsatisfactory but adds a delicious sense of our appreciation to what is certainly a very bleak film.

Diao Yinan’s film takes place in a most unpicturesque, remote industrial province of China. And much of the action is set in train by the grisly process of an official execution. The landscape, the grey wintry palette of the photography, the protracted gaze of the camera – these all penetrate into the psyches of the main protagonists, in a way that it both revealing and terribly unsettling.

This is an unexpected drama from China, but a powerful one. This is not only for the critical light it shines on aspects of official Chinese government practices, but for the clarity in which it explores the way that these can be spiritually deadening for more than the officially condemned. The confidence in its audience demonstrated by the ending is clear evidence of a filmmaker absolutely in control of his craft, and with enriching insights – even if depressing ones – to explore with his audience.

Melbourne International Film Festival website: http://www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au