Towards the end of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a carpenter working in the eponymous London institution hesitantly holds forth on the ins and outs of his métier – carving picture frames from ebony. More than the rest of the squadron of docents and curatorial wizards that we meet over the film’s three hours, this particular guide is wary that undue attention to an artwork’s borders might detract from the focus on the contents therein. Perhaps he’s been reading his Derrida, for whom the frame is “a form which has as its traditional determination not that it stands out but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy” (1). And certainly, he is right to be anxious: the role of the frame is indeed a precarious one, forced as it is to blend in while simultaneously forming a buffer around the work, demarcating the singular achievements of a masterpiece from the homogeneity of the world around it.

The same is certainly true for the picture frame as it is for the Sydney Film Festival, this year in its 61st iteration. There are all manner of borders, official and otherwise, that mark out the cinematic territory in the city for the first two weeks of June: the takeover of the Town Hall by the festival hub; the various programming strands steering viewer selections; the reserved subscriber seats from which regular patrons are warded unfailingly away before each session; and, of course, the competition proper, with its mixture of submissions from home and abroad that are very accessible for the most part. The venues, too, are consecrated for the occasion. While the gilded and ever-imposing State Theatre seems somehow purpose-built for the affair, Event Cinemas on George Street requires its own temporary contraption to separate the sheep from the goats; a velvet rope forms a protective cordon sanitaire here, sheltering upstanding festivalgoers from the blockbusting rabble on their way to X-Men and its ilk.

Of course, the frame isn’t always successful in its bid to exclude (or contain), and even with the right preparations, sometimes a few bad apples get through (I’m still not sure, for instance, about the virtue of sure-fire fare like The Two Faces of January [Hossein Amini] showing to a packed house only a week before its nationwide release, while far worthier films go begging, never to be seen on these shores again). Further, the tight schedule still means that lunch breaks are taken in situ, with the unmistakable stench of flame-grilled Whoppers emitting from the hands of those normally too dignified to hold them – not, perhaps, the “Gourmet Cinema” envisioned by the programmers. Finally, the rumble of the train underneath the State Theatre, vying to be a part of the diegesis (especially apt for the screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer!), remains a festival touchstone, breaching the walls to remind us to start plotting our exit strategies. All of which is to say that a large part of the festival’s yearly appeal surely lies in the enframing, not solely in the works themselves, but also in the spaces between, the abuttals and downtimes, the intersession periods, the combinations as well as the selections, the solitude alongside the camaraderie. To a degree, the frame’s the thing wherein we can catch the conscience of this city. But of course, it’s not everything.

For Wiseman’s carpenter is on to something, too: the merit of any curated cultural event derives ultimately from nothing but the artworks themselves. Better to judge the quality of the festival by its films, and the unexpected conversations they enter into – even if those conversations are facilitated by careful (and frustrating) programming decisions (more of which later), and hemmed around by the bells and whistles of the assorted festival events. As a film that seems all too aware of this predicament, National Gallery toes the line effortlessly, sharing its screen time between the administrative side of things and the analysis of the paintings themselves.

The Great Museum

The Great Museum

By way of contrast, Johannes Holzhausen’s The Great Museum – a similar fly-on-the-wall effort with the addition of one gimmicky shot quoted from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – concerns itself almost entirely with the marketing apparatus that presents artworks to the public. Quite clear about his agenda, the director makes some worthy juxtapositions between the group of hapless wardens who man the frontline of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (also the setting for Jem Cohen’s masterful 2012 film, Museum Hours), and the managerial visage set up to appease the heads of state (witness the semantic jiggery-pokery that accompanies the use of the word “imperial” in the rebranding process, a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in the famous discussion of kaiserlich und königlich in Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities). Down in the archives, we glimpse the thousands of paintings that haven’t maintained their relevance to the paying customer. But the same fate befalls the superannuated curator of the arms collection, whose staff card is unceremoniously snipped in two, and his personnel file stashed away in the basement. The comparison is clear, but just in case we missed it, Holzhausen finishes his documentary with a pan up the surface of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, the camera ambling Tarkovsky-like over the masses labouring away at their doomed edifice. And yet the association seems more than a little disingenuous. Surely we should save our tears for real existing slaves, and those workers that comprise the lumpenproletariat of this world, rather than weeping for those who can at least rub shoulders daily with the works of Van Eyck, Dürer and Rubens? And anyway, Babel wasn’t all bad news (at least not until Alejandro González Iñárritu caught wind of it) – after all, it gave us a wealth of new languages, didn’t it?

But if Brueghel might have felt a little exploited here, there were other old Belgian masters who were able to speak for themselves. The Dardenne Brothers, a viable brand at any festival, presented their latest, the official competition winner Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night). Scandalously for some critics, the title wasn’t entirely accurate, as the film started on a Friday and ended on the Monday following (I imagine the heretics who first discovered that Christ wasn’t actually in the tomb for a full three nights would have had a field day with this gaffe. At least the Dardennes’ previous film, Le gamin au vélo [Kid With a Bike], remained true to its premise!).

Playing fast and loose with diurnal time wasn’t the only new trick in the brothers’ repertoire, and Two Days, One Night departed from their previous material in other ways. After losing her job at a factory that produces cells for solar panels, Sandra (an irrepressible Marion Cotillard) has only a weekend to bring the majority of her 16 colleagues onside: they must vote to lose their annual bonus so that she may be rehired. It’s a clear decision for each of Sandra’s co-workers, but not one that comes down solely to anything resembling ethics. Indeed, contrary to what many reviews have said of the film, the “moral” isn’t so much a triumph of the human spirit as the victory of the utterly inhuman managerial class – it’s not so much about doing right by one’s fellow human, as it is about an efficient and dispassionate system doing exactly what it’s been designed to do. Even compared to the austerity that marks the Dardennes’ previous efforts, this formal shift opens up a new tension for the directors between human affect and that which dulls human sensibility, or attempts to dull the impact of the human – Xanax (Sandra’s last resort), bureaucracy and solar power in equal measure. 

Indeed, it’s interesting to think seriously about the last of these three – which represents a greening of the workplace – even though it seems so inconsequential in the scheme of things. Materially speaking, solar energy is less intrusive, and here produces a colder brand of humanism than other sources of power. Compare this with the French occupational melodrama, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central (2013), in which an affair between colleagues at a nuclear power plant is both urged on, and threatened by, the spectre of radiation poisoning. In Two Days, One Night, the connection between the products manufactured and the workers who make them, is far slighter. But that disconnect – along with Sandra’s episodic petitions to her co-workers – truly makes the film, one in which the impression of the human is systematically effaced. In fact, it felt weakest when, in its most effusive moment, Sandra was offered the dramatic decision to take back her job at the expense of a contractor in the factory. 

Cashing in one of my tickets to see the Dardennes’ feature was a foregone conclusion, a gesture that says less about my own taste perhaps, than it does about the workings of the festival more broadly. Although I do make some effort to diversify, my viewing choices at SFF each year are shamefully governed first by the names of directors, and then by the festivals to which their films have gained entry. It’s a habit I aim to break, and I’ve started to disabuse myself of the notion that Cannes, Venice and Berlin form an inviolable holy trinity (or indeed, if they do, it’s because they are all distinct yet homogenous in some respects). 

But it’s difficult to throw off the shackles of the “A” festival when each year, with a certain regularity, a number of films arrive here at the 11th hour direct from Cannes. At this year’s festival, those offerings were thankfully more manna from heaven than crumbs from the master’s table, with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner, Kis Uykusu (Winter Sleep), Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu among the five films tantalisingly announced a day before the festival begun. But unfortunately, the consequence of staging this revelation as a kind of last minute rescue mission was that I wasn’t able to see any of these three films, which all invariably clashed with screenings already booked (at least Winter Sleep has now secured national distribution). But at least this missed opportunity allowed me to focus on some of the films less likely to find an audience here.

Abuse of Weakness

Abuse of Weakness

Shaking the hallowed nom de l’auteur will prove far more difficult, I imagine. Even Catherine Breillat’s haunting Abus de faiblesse (Abuse of Weakness) – which follows her own physical and mental breakdown a decade ago – strengthens the resolve of the imposing director. Recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2004, Breillat entered into a manipulative relationship with a non-professional actor slated to star in her next film, and would later write a book about the unsettling experience. The director, Maude Shainburg (a thinly-veiled Breillat), is played superbly by Isabelle Huppert, whose self-assuredness is such that the “abuse” seems highly improbable (and so all the more disconcerting). In the narrative, Shainburg is incapable of directing her star and is instead directed by his cunning requests for money; but in another way it is Huppert the actor, more than Breillat the director, who holds the work together, and delivers its most resonant line, an unconvincing explanation as to why she gave away almost one million euros to a stranger: “it was me but it was not me”, she reasons. Huppert’s masterstroke, playing someone who is a stranger to herself, was certainly one of the more moving performances this year.

But more than stars, it’s directors (and their restored classics) around which the festival’s retrospectives cohere – whatever the quality of the event as a whole, this act of framing offers the easy stability of the canon (as well as the chance to see films now rarely shown in their intended setting). Of the two headlining directors this year, Robert Altman received top-billing, but only because his running mate was the far more esoteric James Benning, certainly a titan of the experimental scene, but clearly not as recognisable a figure to festivalgoers. Altman was certainly a fitting presence, since many of his films already seem like shorthand for the festival experience itself: the overlapping, intertwining narratives of Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) mimic the saturation of stories that accosts any patron hopping from cinema to cinema over the course of a fortnight.

Benning is an entirely different quantity. His career, though beginning at roughly the same time as Altman’s, now continues unabated, and it was a pleasure to see him in the flesh as he addressed his small but dedicated audience at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The three works on show each made use of a different format, with American Dreams: Lost and Found (1984) and Deseret (1995) helped to the screen with the restorative hand of the Austrian Film Museum. The first of these, a 35mm print, represented one of the very few instances of celluloid projected at this festival, and the history of its production, too, demanded its presentation in this original state. American Dreams: Lost and Found reviews the years in that nation from 1954-1976 by combining various sounds (popular music and grabs from news reports), images (Benning’s collection of Hank Aaron baseball cards, projected sideways), and text (the diary of would-be political assassin Arthur Bremer handwritten at the bottom of the screen). What delights most about this montage is the way in which Benning painstakingly pieced it together (mostly by hand), an artisanal approach that yielded some delightful moments of unintended fusion between the elements. But for the most part, the separate components remain just that, paralleled loosely by the years in which they occurred, stunningly performing the disconnect between civilisation and its discontents.

It’s an unsettling affair, made worrisome especially by Bremer’s ominous sexual escapades. Should an optimistic narrative want to assert itself, it would be this: that in spite of the horrific attitudes and events that occupied the so-called “American century” (racism, sexism, murder, war), there were the triumphs of the moon landing (arguable), and eventually of the Civil Rights movement (definitely). Indeed, the rise and rise of Aaron’s career was consonant with the swelling tide of desegregation, and in this way, sport itself is made to look like more than mere divertissement, but rather an obsession, and a politically relevant one at that.

In any case, this time capsule offered a narrative more familiar than the second in the Benning retrospective, the 16mm Deseret. The film gives us, in voiceover form, a selection of The New York Times reports on Brigham Young and his latter-day saints between 1852 and 1992, read against a sequence of still shots of the Utah landscape. The newspaper commentary varies in its degrees of prejudice and truthfulness, clearly concerned for the state of the Union when faced with the potential secession of a part of its territory. These inaccuracies form what Benning called “history as it happens”, and are striking when revealed in tandem with the images of modern-day Utah.

Just before it reaches the turn of the century, Deseret shifts from black-and-white photography to colour, reflecting the “Gray Lady’s” change in ownership (and font). Nevertheless, all scenes were filmed by Benning in the mid-’90s, such that we are met with the incongruities of industrial buildings in the desert, and accounts of the prospective Mormon utopia in the 19th century. In keeping with this aesthetic, Deseret ends with a nod to the connectedness of everything, describing a gigantic rhizome in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. The collection of 47000 aspen trees and stems is “genetically uniform, and acts as a single organism. When the trees change color in the fall, they do so in unison.” After the Mormons – indeed, after all of Utah’s inhabitants – have left the state, life will go on, and go on changing, too.

Nightfall

Nightfall

If Nightfall (2012) – the final film in the Benning trio – was “about” anything, it was completely about “trees that change colour”. But for a film that was only (“only”) a single, continuous, 98-minute digital shot, it was also about much more. Indeed, in this slice of the Sierra Nevada forest at sundown, there was more drama, environmental commentary, and feeling for the sovereignty of the woods than in any feature film – and this all without a word spoken. Indeed, against the bush-based minimalism of Kasimir Burgess’ Fell, a would-be revenge fantasy after Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001), Benning’s sense of his surroundings proved a far more bracing experience. Indeed, “experience” is key here, since even though a portion of Benning’s DV oeuvre is available online, viewing a work like Nightfall on any other flattened surface would have undeniably spoiled what the director referred to as the audience’s “contract with the screen”. For Claude Lévi-Strauss, there was something resolutely mystical about the routine abdication of day to night, and here, as the trees gradually darken, one has a sense of what the French anthropologist was on about. But Benning is chasing more than the magic of the twilight hours, and the fading light is perhaps too convenient an allegory for the director’s late style (indeed, with digital, he’s just getting started). No, something more technical and prosaic is at work here: as a format, what significantly distinguishes DV from analogue is its capacity to rage against the dying of the light, to eradicate dark places on the screen. As the camera adjusts its lens to account for its impending loss of vision, and resolutely brightens every shadow in sight, so too does the viewer squint as a way of catching the last glimmer in the woods. Above all else, then, Nightfall produces an absolutely unique sympathy for the workings of the camera.

There were long takes elsewhere in the festival program, with Shahram Mokri’s single-shot oddity, Fish & Cat, clocking in at over two hours. But a little more cutting in the editing suite came from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, who this year brought us Manakamana, another strong piece to follow Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012). The documentary centres on a funicular that traverses a sizeable valley in Nepal, taking its passengers uphill to a prominent temple in around ten minutes. This also determines the length of each shot in Mankamana, of which there are 11, and in this way, the film’s structure has at least shades of Abbas Kiarostami’s Dah (Ten, 2002). Truthfully, the nearest point of cinematic comparison may well be Benning himself, although the photography of Luc Delahaye – who shoots portraits of unwitting passengers on the Paris Metro – might be even closer in kind. A major difference is that the characters in Manakamana have been cast for their roles – although they sit, seemingly oblivious to the camera before them, they know very well what is taking place in the cabin (well, all except the family of goats that we meet halfway through).

At the risk of sounding waspish, more than a few of the patrons in the session I attended should have probably walked out instead of attempting to deliver a running commentary on what was a mostly quiet and meditative experience. Having said that, Manakamana also provided – at least for this otherwise humourless reviewer – the high point of collective emotional outpouring at this year’s festival. One of the shots in particular staged a strangely reflexive moment of levity for the audience at Dendy Opera Quays: two elderly ladies sitting in the airborne cabin unwrap ice creams they have purchased for the ride, and almost instantly revert to a childlike state. One – who is a little more restrained – has the foresight to position a plastic bag underneath her dripping treat, while the other can barely contain the flow of melting dessert as it runs down her hand. Over the course of ten minutes, as the ice cream liquefied, the ladies gave vent to peals of laughter, and the spectators (grasping choc tops of their own) were helpless but to do the same. It was truly a joyous experience.

Partaking of a similar rhythm was the outstanding Na pian hu shui (Lake August), although its long takes never strayed far from a central plot. Indeed, as with Yang Heng’s other recent works (Binglang [Betelnut, 2006], Guang ban [Sun Spots, 2009]), this film combines a number of extended shots – mostly stationary, bereft of zoom – which follow a young man in rural China after the suicide of his father and breakup with his girlfriend. Absconding to a lakeside hotel, he starts a nonchalant fling with the caretaker, and remains uninterested in progressing to the next phase of his life. For the majority of the film, he is just as stationary as the camera; he’s a perfect subject for Yang since his inertia means that he rarely ventures near the borders of the frame. It’s all very oblique, but accessible to the last, and striking throughout.

Lake August

Lake August

As far as Chinese cinema goes, the most conspicuous director in recent years at SFF has surely been Jia Zhangke. Indeed, Jia’s disinterested (excepting Tian zhu ding [A Touch of Sin]) plural narrative approach, which refuses its audience many of their usual creature comforts, might stand as metonymic for an industry otherwise largely unfamiliar to Australian audiences. Yang certainly appears to have followed in his footsteps, while at the same time cementing what is now his own distinctive approach to cinematic storytelling, here enlarging the concerns of domestic drama to a much grander scale.

But there was also humour in the Chinese strand of the program: Diao Yinan’s Bai ri yan ho (Black Coal, Thin Ice), was uproariously funny in parts, as well as being a compelling crime thriller. I don’t know that it was deserving of its Golden Bear at Berlin – especially given the tediousness of its multiple false endings – but it certainly impressed overall. On reflection, the major appeal of Diao’s narrative lay in its amalgamation of surreal comedy and violent interruptions of the most vicious kind; in fact, it’s almost as if the Chinese director has been passed the baton from Bong Joon-Ho (his Salinui chueok [Memories of Murder, 2003], in particular), who has now moved away from his tried and tested Korean films and on to the world stage with Snowpiercer. This isn’t a criticism of Black Coal, Thin Ice so much as a naming of its influences, and it will be interesting to see the direction that Diao’s career now takes as a result of his victory at the Berlinale.

Snowpiercer itself stages a dress rehearsal for revolution, albeit in a world where the stakes have considerably changed. It’s still the 99 against the one, but in Bong’s frosty dystopia, the former are not strictly employed in the service of the latter. Instead, they occupy the more fraught position as a large standing reserve of human labour holed up in the caboose, who are not necessarily useful, but who must exist so that the whole pathetic ecology might keep going round and round. It feels odd to be writing about this film almost a year after its theatrical release in Korea, and odder still to think that it has struggled to prove itself to distributors worldwide, even after its clear success in Bong’s homeland. That Snowpiercer has been available online for some time now speaks volumes about the problems of Australian (and mainstream) film circulation, and about the reticence of Harvey Weinstein, who notoriously attempted to make the ending of the film a bit more user-friendly. But those challenges notwithstanding, Bong has changed tracks forever, and will hopefully continue to bring his unique brand of filmmaking to bear on English-language cinema.

Where Bong has shifted his goal posts from Korea to the world, two directors close to home have recently turned their attention to Asia. In their phenomenal co-directed feature, Ruin, the Australian filmmakers Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody try to make sense of a completely unfamiliar Cambodia. Their film tries to understand the country in some respects, but doesn’t aim to make narrative “sense” of the world therein, its aesthetic, in turns, both beautiful and uninviting. Indeed, the almost ubiquitous use of blurred images complicates the already elliptical plot in a way that is sure to alienate many viewers. But the series of stunning slow-motion, non-narrative textural sequences on display in Ruin (achieved with the aid of a Phantom camera) allows a refreshing visual break from those commonplace indie gestures that seem to parody one another into oblivion these days. Indeed, even the close-up – routinely a source of reassurance – offers not clarity but inscrutability here, making for a veritable onslaught of original images.

Amongst all of this visual data, however, the narrative still forcibly asserts itself, and for a very good reason, dealing as it does with child prostitution and the unalloyed violence that accompanies it. Even more than The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991), by the late Dennis O’Rourke (another Australian abroad), the sexual violence of Ruin should unsettle any viewer of sound mind. The specific scene in question should at least prompt discussion about the representation of rape on screen, but it might also lead us to query what takes place in terms of form – scenes of the most brutal aggression punctuating impressionistic passages without warning, and eliciting predictable revulsion from onlookers. It’s reductive of me, perhaps, to set up the juxtaposition like this, but one wonders about the robustness of this structure, and even more, about the danger of potentially ossifying into a formula, were it to be repeated.

Ruin

Ruin

At the same time, isn’t this just the mark of a budding auteur? Indeed, Courtin-Wilson’s (and Cody’s) vision is wildly distinctive in ambition, and in no uncertain terms, the work emerging from Flood Projects stands at the absolute pinnacle of contemporary filmmaking in this country. Even more than David Michôd’s recent contributions, it’s audacious works like Ruin (and 2011’s undervalued Hail) that cry out in the dark in a film industry seemingly averse to real experimentation, and beset by flawed marketing strategies and a moral panic over piracy.

Another standout film for me this year also focused on youth, this time in an Austrian setting. The word Macondo has been bandied about willy-nilly ever since Gabriel Garcia Márquez formulated it as the name of his fictional Colombian village over five decades ago. Since then, it has been attached to such diverse objects as the BP oil well that erupted in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and to a refugee community on the outskirts of Vienna, inaugurated after the Second World War – excess baggage indeed! Sudabeh Mortezai takes the last of these Macondos for the title of her first feature, and from it fashions a film worthy of that name, as it draws out the over-determined existence of a young refugee boy. Cut off from his native Chechnya, and fleeing from a war in which his father died, 11-year-old Ramasan is pressured from all sides: he must become a model son, brother, Muslim, and eventually, a good young homo economicus, if he is to be accepted in modern Austria. Stunningly, Mortezai manages to translate these burdens – and the societal expectation that the refugee will always reveal his true barbarous colours – into productive tension, as she adds to them our fears that the young Ramasan will run afoul of bullies, the law, or even sharp objects. It’s a deft directorial manoeuvre that can layer emotion like this, and Macondo marks an auspicious debut for Mortezai.

This year’s festival ended with an uncomfortable and sleepless handover to a media event with far greater global reach, the World Cup in Brazil. Witnessing Benning’s American Dreams: Lost and Found on this last weekend, and devoting equal screen time to movies and matches, I sporadically considered the worth of sport in the face of mass death and global starvation. How many Hank Aaron success stories would it take to make global sporting events ethically worthwhile? The answer lies in the question. Of course, athletic achievements can’t cure all (or many) of our social ills, and the showcase tournament in international football seemed this year, more than ever, as so much bread and circus for the impoverished masses in South America.

Of the films that addressed just this quandary, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Al doilea joc (The Second Game) was most perceptive, triggering the twinned emotions of enjoyment and boredom by employing grainy video footage of an old football match, and pairing it with a languid discussion between the director and his father, Adrian, the referee in charge. Building on the achievements of Hellmuth Costard’s Fuβball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before, 1971) and Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), this most recent depiction of a game in its entirety is less interested in individual players as it is in the sport as a whole, and the nation in which it takes place. The images are taken from a game between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest, the two biggest teams from the Romanian capital, in late 1988. Taking the struggle between the two teams representing the Army and the Secret Police (although, at the brink of the end of history, it should really be the communists versus the bourgeoisie, as they point out), the film adds an Oedipal layer to proceedings. In this way, every foul too dangerous for Corneliu is nothing but spirited roughhousing to Adrian, while the son sees “beauty” in the actions of the players where the father can only find “tenacity”. The most appealing effect of this intergenerational montage of old footage and new commentary is the ongoing dialogue concerning rules and their implementation, both in society and in football. On the one hand, the socialist state under Ceaușescu denoted a curbing of many civil liberties in Romanian society, while the regulations of the football match were less stringently applied, meaning that gameplay in the late ’80s was a visibly free-flowing affair (even in a Bucharest snowstorm). On the other hand, the opening up of the country to Europe and the free market finds a more manicured football culture, and matches that are constantly interrupted by the enforcement of the referee’s law. It’s a chiasmus that’s buried beneath the deceptive surface of the film, but one that Corneliu manages to prise from what his father constantly refers to as “boring” footage.

There were several other films taking football as the vehicle for various different political tenors – the country and the city (the awful zombie comedy, Thierry Poiraud and Benjamin Rocher’s Goal of the Dead), the struggle of the unincorporated territory on the world stage (Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s Next Goal Wins), and class resentment on the island of Sardinia (Paolo Zucca’s The Referee). But there were also a number of valuable contributions from the World Cup’s host country itself. 

Casa Grande, Fellipe Barbosa’s debut feature, forces the upper classes together with their counterparts in the favelas of Rio, those slums that simply refuse to retreat from the national consciousness. But the result is more happy melting pot than the powder keg of uneven development we saw in the similar Recife-based tale, O Soma o Redor (Neighboring Sounds, Kleber Mandonça Filho, SFF 2012). We see a teenager, Jean, on the brink of adulthood, yet still living the cotton wool existence of the Brazilian elite. In pursuit of his first love, the boy is subjected to some serious privilege checking along the way, and the gap begins to close between master and servant in the geography of the metropolis. The most impressive shot of the film was undoubtedly its first: a long take of the titular casa, a palatial three-story affair complete with swimming pool, as the patriarch relaxes amidst wealth earned by devious means. None of the scenes after this rivalled the film’s opening, but it is undoubtedly a very promising start for Barbosa, who has a keen sense for the multidimensionality of youth, and of class antagonism.

The Salt of the Earth

The Salt of the Earth

Finally, with The Salt of the Earth, a gallery of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s best work, we’re right back to Brueghel once more. The documentary opens with striking images of miners in Serra Pelada, clambering up their own Babel in search of gold; a fitting tribute to the Belgian artist. From here, Wim Wenders’ film (co-directed with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro) works its way through Sebastiao’s catalogue as a kind of photographic Pentateuch, moving from manual labourers in Latin America and the rest of the world, to the mass global exodus of asylum seekers in the mid-’90s (Afghanistan, Rwanda, the Balkans), and finally back to the collection he called Genesis, which strikes a more hopeful tone in its focus on the natural world, shorn of its humans. This should have merited at least some interrogation, for Salgado’s trajectory appears to have taken him increasingly away from the horrors of history, and towards that which was aesthetically comfortable. Likewise, Wenders’ endeavour as a whole is not an overly experimental one, and is mostly buoyed by the photos themselves, save for a handful of scenes staging encounters between the camera and subjects wholly unfamiliar with it. From a curious Yali child in Irian Jaya, to the Zo’é people of northern Brazil, Salgado’s subjects meet with their own images, perhaps for the first time, and instinctively understand what it means to frame the world.

Endnotes

1. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1987, p. 61.

About The Author

Stefan Solomon is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Film at the University of Reading, attached to the AHRC/FAPESP-funded project, ‘Towards an Intermedial History of Brazilian Cinema: Exploring Intermediality as a Historiographic Method’ (short title: IntermIdia). He is currently analysing the interplay of cinema and the visual arts in films associated with the Tropicália movement, as well as considering contemporary experimental developments in Brazilian filmmaking. Stefan also maintains an interest in the work of William Faulkner, and has recently completed a monograph on his career as a Hollywood screenwriter.