EIFF 2012 - Unfair World and Los Mariziano

Dead pan and wry are often traits associated with the national character of Edinburgh International Film Festival’s own natives, the Scots. So it’s intriguing to witness Argentinian and Greek directors – Ana Katz and Filippos Tsitos respectively - tackling family drama or existential inevitability in a dry-as-a-bone manner. Whether Argentinians or Greeks are noted for irony is moot, but considering the economic histories of both, it’s probably fair to assume it takes more than mere irony to weather the social meltdown both are so brutally familiar with.

So any curiosity as to whether financial allegory might play a part in the stories of Tsitos’s Unfair World or Katz’s Los Marziano gave way as tales of moral mores and sibling rivalry unfolded in their unique ways.  Both possess humour at their accomplished cores, yet stand as sinewy, absorbing fables in their own right.

Los Marziano takes the trope of falling down unexplained holes to set up the absurdity of fraternal tension. Appearing in a golf course on the edge of oldest brother Luis’s country house garden, they establish the emotional topography of an estrangement with his younger brother Juan which has played out over a period of time never explicitly quantified - but it’s probably decades. Here are two men, who entering the third stage in their lives, are dealing with the legacy of well-worn family dynamics – the responsible, successful elder brother at odds with the hapless, genial younger who has remained financially in debt to him. Their sister brokers the physical and emotional gap between them and inevitably takes the brunt of both brothers’ inappropriate treatment. It’s a universal tale of the resentments and communication issues that beset any family and it’s a beautifully scripted and shot take on a theme that often prefers high drama and histrionics. This is a film that takes its time to tell the story by letting the men’s foibles and increasingly extreme ‘accidents’ develop the narrative. Katz’s film is smart, affectionate and funny, but wears its layers lightly whilst revealing the psychological cul-de-sacs of sibling rivalry.

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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012: The Ambassador

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Power, Corruption and Laughs. This was Danish director/protagonist Mads Brugger’s route through the failed state chaos that reigns in the Central African Republic in his documentary satire The Ambassador, premiering in the UK at Edinburgh International Film Festival this week. Tackling deadly serious subjects that involve diplomatic immunity, old colonial interference and blood diamonds dredges up images of dry investigative journalism. Brugger, instead, enters terrain that feels like the hard-boiled world of a noirish thriller but does so with arch irony as the means of keeping his audience on board his extreme and potentially calamitous journey into central Africa’s shady ‘business’ domain.

"less the territory of doc and more that of a Michael Mann thriller where an opaque network of men and meetings dance delicately and smilingly around ‘envelopes of happiness’"

Brugger adopts and acts the persona of international businessman, Mr. Cortzen, buying a Liberian diplomatic passport and throwing money before him as the means to grease his way to contacts, meetings and opportunities that are closed to him without his ‘diplomatic’ status.  (Where did he get all that money to so convincingly play his part?) And this status can lead him to the ultimate prize – the ability to take diamonds illegally out of CAR. This netherworld of fraudulent old-world diplomacy and glad-handing African ministers does what a good doc should: it allows us to understand the culture of a place, a situation - especially those only ever news worthy through atrocity or disaster. It is illuminating in shining a light on the twilight dealings only ever reaching our ears in the form of failed coups and imprisoned mercenaries. It is a world of characters and situations so extreme, it almost seems beyond parody.

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Brugger’s odyssey is less the territory of doc and more that of a Michael Mann thriller where an opaque network of men and meetings dance delicately and smilingly around ‘envelopes of happiness’ and crazy contractual clauses. These are the paths trodden of Mark Thatcher and Simon Mann, or ex-French Legionnaires and ex-security men who will broker you diplomatic status and ergo the capacity to get over borders with bags full of unchecked diamonds. Brugger paddles through some pretty hot water and his cojones can only be admired when one considers that the wrong step in the merry dance could, as he is warned, have him found dead in a ditch.

Brugger succeeds for the most part in maintaining the wry tone that exposes the bungs, ad hoc legalities and trenchant opportunism that are the day-to-day realities of this African country. However, it oversteps satire in fusing his character’s neo-colonialism/racism and the discrimination of fellow Africans in relation to CAR’s Pygmy tribespeople. Brugger’s impostor-diplomat may be in character dancing piss-takingly with drunk Pygmies - and who knows if this is the behaviour these diplomat-businessmen generally display - but without first hand contribution from these peoples who take the brunt of this disastrous world and are the butt of Brugger’s scams, it makes for queasy viewing, adding another layer of exploitation to what they have already sustained in this violent land.

Brugger’s film isn’t flawless and his mission doesn’t get him the grand coup de commerce he may have been after, but it gets the viewer an extraordinary and satisfying insight into a world that few of us would dare go near. This is no fantasy of dodgy geezers and lurking murder. This is the real deal. Or at least the real deal achieved via documentary deception and con.

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Sheffield DocFest 2012: Documenting politics and the politics of Documentary

from the sea to the land beyond 01With a new chair this year in the shape of Scotsman, Alex Graham, presiding over a delegate list now 2,500 in number and Aussie Heather Croall still proving to be an assured hand in the Director’s role, Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 is still on a steady and upward trajectory. Funding and making docs is tough territory but in these financial anni horribili the festival itself succeeded in not only keeping funders on board but even bringing ITV back into the supportive fold. 

Flavours and impressions from Sheffield run aneclectic gamut, from moshing to a Finnish punk band whose members have learning disabilities (main players from The Punk Syndrome; directors, Jukka Kärkkäien and JP Passi) to a standing ovation for the buzz film of the week, 5 Broken Cameras (directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi). Sheffield takes your head and heart through dizzying territory, reminding you that documentary can confound as well as meet expectations given the right circumstances, people and ethos.

The-punk-syndromeSheffield had two openers this year, neither piggy-backing on already established popularity as arguably the Joan Rivers and Morgan Spurlock choices over the last two years might attest to. The first, Inspiration Award recipient Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond, is a piece made specifically for Sheffield and partnered with the BBC, Arts Council England and the BFI. The result was a lovely 71-minute montage of archive footage, some of it a hundred years old, backed by live music from British Sea Power. Part of the BBC/Arts Council of England’s The Space project (thespace.org/items/e00009su), it was streamed live and is now viewable on line. It was a moving and revealing portrait of British life chronologically arranged from Edwardian blokes swimming in the sea with top hats on, to hardy holidaymakers facing storm force winds and crashing rain screeching, ‘I HATE Blackpool’. 

 The musical theme continued with the opening film, Searching for Sugar Man, one of those docs with an extraordinary personal story that appears to be the niche speciality of independent productions, and director Malik Bendjelloul’s first feature. Detailed description risks a massive spoiler, but in the vein of all good character-led work, it also gives us insight into political and social situations remaining under the radar in sweeping histories or current affairs. In this case, a perspective was given on the white community in South Africa in the early 70s who latched onto the music of Sixto Rodriguez – the protagonist in our film – as a conduit for forming their hopes for change in a society where media restriction was total and protest crackdown was fierce under PW Botha’s apartheid regime; no matter what the colour of your skin.

Marina Abramovic by Shelby LessigThe Special Jury Award winner this year was Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. Director Michael Akers is a graduate in sculpture who was extremely sceptical about performance art, which may be a contributory factor to the success of his film. Abramovic, now 63, was, and still is, a performance artist who does not compromise, and her earlier work was often harrowing as she subjected her body to brutal intervention; cutting, flagellating, drugging - all in the name of art. Akers' film leads up to another physical and psychological tour de force: sitting for 7 hours a day in New York's Museum of Modern Art for 3 months in 2010 undertaking an interaction of the gaze with individual visitors. The emotional impact of Abramovic's presence is extraordinary to watch, and was an entirely unexpected outcome for the film: there is a shamanic quality to her, and Akers - through specific camera decisions - succeeded in illustrating the charisma and force of her personality. His decision to do more than 'document' an artwork, which would have been the traditional art world approach, arguably broadened and deepened Abramovic's work: the film itself a part of The Artist is Present exhibition and performance at MoMA. 

5 Broken Cameras took us explicitly into troubled contemporary territory where brutal oppression still reigns. A collaboration between a Palestinian and an Israeli may suggest an idealistic reaching across the divides, but as co-directors Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi explained, the decision was based on mutual creative instincts. The strategy to interweave Bil’in villager Burnat’s family situation into a broader political tale of Israeli militarization and settlement impact was an attempt to create identification rather than provocation for Israel’s mainstream population - and it’s a powerful device for a deeply emotional experience for the viewer. Davidi, an Israeli Tel Aviv citizen, cited the denial of his fellow nationals in relation to the Palestinian situation. Neither director had grand hopes about the task ahead of them, but Burnat’s compulsive filming was his means of protecting his community during confrontations and healing the scabrous wounds both physical and psychological inflicted by land-grabbing and murderous occupation. He said there is no healing if situations are forgotten.

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Karma, Community and The Edinburgh Film Festival 2011

Off_the_Beaten_Track_largeProviding a write up for the Edinburgh Film Festival 2011, which came to a close yesterday, is not straightforward for me – Edinburgh is my adopted home of 28 years, and taking pleasure and pride in its cultural events is part of why it’s a great city to live in. But whether or not we wanted it, press coverage prior to the festival launch on 15th June was sharp, even nippy: the programme was not only slimmer, but possibly just thin and rather unappetising; contentious decisions had been made with regard to content as well as form – the omission of You’ve Been Trumped being the most glaring example; and a messy year of funding cuts and a departing director seemed to be finally taking their toll.

So it has felt like Edinburgh was being set up for a fall this year, even if it is the job of journalists to report barometer readings and keep organizers on their toes. The festival has sought to prove its worth on the international festival stage without the cosseting of the August culture extravaganza with its ready supply of tourists and visitors. But in doing so it is exposed to the harsher, very competitive world of film festivals, which are now in their thousands.  And so defining a festival and attracting what you want in terms of films or names becomes an ever-tougher task.

The early reporting options were twofold: join the criticisms and moan at some early shortcomings or alternatively, champion uncritically. But neither tack was going to help the cause of supporting the event.  Instead, I’ve waited till it’s all over, and opted for an appraisal based on what I, and others, saw and experienced. It’s not exhaustive research, but it’s a start. We all want Edinburgh to survive and flourish, so here’s an attempt to get beyond the carping and work out what happened over the last 10 days, but to be realistic about what may have to be faced given the tough climate it’s weathered during the last few months.

Documented Success

Firstly, the up side and what can be celebrated. Edinburgh was operating in conjunction with Sheffield for the first time this year to provide ‘joint premiere’ opportunities for documentary. This aspect of the programme was robust: as well as docs we’d seen in Sheffield – including Bombay Beach and Hell and Back Again - there were further strong inclusions: Project Nim, Shut Up Little Man, Sound It Out, Calvet, Mrs Carey’s Concert and Off the Beaten Track, were all name checked as solid and inspired film-making.

My Edinburgh preference was Off the Beaten Track  (above); a bucolic odyssey, with the tempo and beauty of an epic. It was a tale of a pre-industrial way of life now threatened by agri-industry in Romania.  Transylvanian shepherds accompanied their flocks along lorry-ridden roads to fresh pastures, revealling an agrarian world of genuine sustainability on its way.  With horses, donkeys and motley mongrels as the biblical entourage that trekked highways, dales and meadows in an attempt to maintain a way of life in the competitive and quota-determined world of EU membership, it was an exquisitely paced piece of direct cinema.

Fiction and the not-to-be-missed

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The choice of feature movies, unfortunately, felt less satisfying. Once the horror movies and films about psychos were put to the side, it required a bit more application to sate the appetite.  The Guard was a very unambitious choice for a gala screening: big names do not necessarily great films make. John McDonagh introduced his self-penned and directed tale by firstly slating the director of the previous film he’d scripted in 2003 - Ned Kelly – calling it ‘a cliché ridden pile of bourgeois bullshit’. I’d rather he’d just kept the comments off stage the night we all sat down in the Festival Theatre, as one negative word could infect the DNA of any other words uttered or written and disrupt the already delicate ecology the festival was attempting to withstand. And, as McDonagh had wandered down the genre path of comedy cop thriller, I did wonder just how unclichéd he was hoping to be with his particular outing. Turned out he was turning them all out for The Guard anyway. Yes, there were some great actors and some nice turns in choreographing the inevitable set pieces of a face-off and a shoot out, but beyond that Brendan Gleeson’s over-written smart-arsed garda, romping at times, rather than just comedying, through Oirland, was definitely one for the multiplexes. McDonagh made himself a hostage to fortune, and was burned in the process with his hubris. I don’t care about bad blood between directors and writers when the tone of an opening night should be upbeat and celebratory – McDonagh should keep it for his movie memoirs.

And if a film festival is a celebration of the less available and the more challenging, there was Béla Tarr’s ostensible swan song, Turin Horse, to take in, with long, long one take shots, references to Neitzsche and black and white photography all keeping the art house expectations met. Tarr had presented us with a bleak allegory about the apocalypse, yet claimed it was a celebration of life in the Q and A. Tarr was droll and genial, so I can only surmise that Magyar sense of joie-de-vivre is one lost a little in translation. But the horse - forlorn and masterfully captured in motion in the fabulous opening sequence - was wonderful, out-acting the humans as a being weary with resignation and burden. The father and daughter principal characters swore I thought too much for allegory, and the horse’s non-speaking part was a nice counterpoint.

But a film that had the hallmarks of its director’s black, black sense of humour played to searing effect was Post Mortem (above, right) - another macabre, unflinching trip into the history of Chile’s political past by Pablo Larraín. Following on from his second feature - the twisted, bleak, but very smart Tony Manero - this was the one film which had to be seen at Edinburgh for its UK premiere. Larraín is conducting a cinematic form of forensic research into what happened to the soul of a country that unspeakably abused its own. This time it’s the autopsy theatre that Larraín presents as the proscenium through which we glimpse Chile’s descent into hell as the 1973 military coup brings mass murder in its wake - all while public servants dissect its victims and type up its reports. Alfredo Castro from Tony Manero is again cast as a protagonist stripped of any morality or responsibility with regard to his fellow citizens, utterly absorbed in his own desires and disrupted masculinity, while Larraín drives the story with bold, spare images and a cold, comedic eye. Every frame grips in Larraín’s films, with each character, object and word rich with meaning. This might still be art house but it’s utterly compelling and absorbing – it’s a film, like Tony Manero, that gets under the skin and stays there. For the unrepresentative poll conducted for this article, it was the film that came out top – and for those critics who I heard were sniffy about the films on offer at Edinburgh, it was a missed opportunity if they felt nothing was worthy of a trip to the city. 

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Combative Filmmakers and Breakdances as Sheffield DocFest winds up

hellandbackSheffield Documentary Film Festival wound up on Sunday, with a brief interlude before the Scottish Documentary Film Institute hosts the Edinburgh Pitch on Tuesday and prior to the Edinburgh Film Festival officially kicking off on Wednesday. Filmtastic week. As was probably part of the rational to shift Sheffield to June (which it has wanted to do for almost 4 years), many of the commissioners who’ve come from abroad will also make their way to Edinburgh in the week. How well this plays out over the next fortnight, for ‘decision makers’ and film-makers, we’ll find out once Edinburgh gets under way.

But back to the closing weekend at Sheffield, which hosted a masterclass with Nick Broomfield, and a UK premiere of Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis - the movie everyone headed for on Saturday night. It struck me that at both events’ Q and A sessions, the curiosity - when not technical - revolves around the film-maker’s personality: what are the relationships with protagonists; how do they get the access; what are the moral implications at times for a film-maker’s politics?

Dennis’s film is an exquisitely shot work focused on a batallion posted 18 kilometres inside ‘enemy’ lines in Afghanistan, and more specifically on Sergeant Nathan Harris, badly wounded and recuperating back in North Carolina. This is Dennis’s first film; his background is as a war photographer, which results in a filmic aesthetic more often found in grand cinema than an on-the-hoof documentary.  Careful composition, stunning resolution and a shallow depth of field combine to take us a long way from the rather garish grain of the low-budget video look. The result is extraordinary considering that Dennis was a solo operator and his rig was a Canon 5D stills camera with a boom and radio mic combined and balanced on a monopod. As a man of slight build and quiet personality projection, that he was inches from where bullets and incendiary devices landed made one aware of the physicality of such film-making. But it also explained the film’s visceral impact: immediacy ensures the powerful imagery because the decision-making and shot-taking are simultaneously in his hands. Broomfield, in commenting on footage caught for Soldier Girls, pointed out that capturing extraordinary moments is about trust between collaborators – there often just isn’t time for discussions with crew when drama kicks off. He cites an example of a crew member being practically assaulted by Sarah Palin security when they were ejected from a meeting: Broomfields’s camera people were so freaked that they couldn’t shoot. For him, what happens on the way to filming is where the story is, so you need to know that the cameras will keep rolling, whatever happens. And as Dennis illustrated, at times with very graphic footage, backing off is not what he does at any point.

And this brings us to the issue of politics. Dennis side-steps them - the story is very much from the soldiers’ viewpoint. This does leave the Afghanistan sequences rather untethered, notwithstanding an instance of jaw-dropping irony delivered by an officer during one of many contretemps with Afghan villagers. He expressed the hope, in the course of a hearts and minds talk, that the villagers - whose homes and fields they’re trampling through or squatting in - will come in time to consider him a village leader. But US imperialism aside, there’s also the politics of editorialising, and Dennis included a scene of a horrifically wounded man (from a 100 hours of footage shot), which he said was necessary in order to represent the brutal reality of war. But this was an Afghan member of the platoon, and as this was a battalion who had lost 13 men in total, the sub-text of the question asked of Dennis was; would he have shown a US soldier in similar circumstances? The death of an American early in the film was respectfully unintruded upon.

Broomfield was dealing with politics of a different kind in The Leader, His Driver and His Wife – the latter two characters apartheid supporters, even if not of the venality of Eugene Terre’Blanche, ‘The Leader’ in this case. Broomfield maintained that it’s the place and time of a person’s birth which determines their politics – so there but for the grace of God go all of us. Broomfield’s intolerance is of dishonesty, or a subject window dressing their own representation on camera; generally his moral compass points to non-judgement. In relation to access, Dennis needed to clear a mountain of bureaucracy to get access to the platoon – Broomfield, one sensed, would get it with sheer force of will. I wouldn’t like to be up against Broomfield in a war of anything: I know who would win. But Broomfield is engaging and fun, and I imagine that the bug-eyed innocent face he deploys when in trouble with either his producer or Heidi Fleiss oils many a cranky cog in the production process.

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Personal filmmaking abounds at impressive 51st Krakow Film Festival

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Amateur: barely a few letters from Auteur - but what, in our social media world, is the difference? If there was a dividing line of the 51st Krakow Film Festival, it was between the crowed-sourced YouTube world of Life in a Day and the personal journeys of documakers turning their lives and experiences into art. Less a debate between high and low art, as between the home movie and the knowingly crafted self-expose. 

The journey of Daniela Creutz as her fiance arranged the wedding of his sister in Kashmir in Arranged Happiness. Thor Ochsner's award winning debut film 1989: When I was five years old, about the loss of his father in a tragic car crash as a child. Bente Milton and Mikkel Stolt's Second Life psychosis and recovery tale in My Avatar and Me (which demands its own review and discussion). 20 years of home movies for an Italian teenager-turned-IBM executive who reluctantly concedes to being the reincaration of a famous Buddhist lama, claiming a prince-like life as the guru to hundreds of thousands of Tibettans in Jennifer Fox's My Reincarnation (which just became the fourth highest earning film on Kickstarter). Wojciech Staroń's Argentinian Lesson - widely hailed as a masterpiece, picked up four prizes about transplanting his family to Argentina to teach Polish. All people turning their life and personal circumstances into art - a more informed version of something online video uploaders do every day, without the gala premieres.

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So, tho it was decried by some, Life In a Day, winner of the Audience Award, was an appropriate opener, I thought - like an extended trailer for the buffet of global human experience that the rest of the festival was serving up. It might have played a bit like an advert for an airline company (produced by one of Europe's biggest commercials companies, funded by Google) but it seemed to open the festival with that key question - who is a documaker? Is it simply the one with a camera who knows how to edit out the dross and emphasise the good? Or is it one who went to film school or who has the most Twitter followers or Vimeo views? And in a world where any human story can be repurposed as art, at what point does the artist become mosquito, their lens sucking the honesty out of a raw stretch of life for quick fame, views or laughs? I'm not sure I trust the anonymous trolls of the internet to handle that one. Potentially not just commodification of self, to quote Adam Curtis quoting Carmen Hermosillo's (shatteringly brilliant) Pandora's Vox essay, but commodification of friends, family and intimate personal history.

[Some filmmakers I spoke to disliked the way the film was cut - and we agreed it would be good if the films were in a pool where differerent people could cut together stories from that day. Then a few days ago YouTube partnered with Creative Commons to offer the remix friendly licenses to uploaders for the first time, making such collaborations possible.]

There were other highlights in a more traditional form - Swedish emigre to Poland Magnus von Horn's Without Snow, a short film about brutal Swedish peer-pressure amongst teenagers with tragic consequences; Papparazzi by Piotr Bernaś; a brilliant insight into the life of a super-mosquito, hunting small fry, then Polanski, and finally - in a critical twist - the brother of the President after the Smolensk disaster. Battle for Britain, by husband and wife team Jörg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht, a simple and heartfelt hymn to the hundreds of thousands of Polish who fought in WWII for Britain. Horses and Men, a little long but with a deft cinematographic hand and great music was a tender story about the rehabilitation of American prisoners thru horsemanship. A highlight in the fiction strand for me was Glasgow, from the Wajda Studio, which looked at a single mum left pregnant from a famous Scottish footballer - a reference, perhaps, to the curious Scottish law that lets a man who refuses to put his name on the birth certificate to be absolved of all parental and financial responsibility. A relative newcomer to Polish cinema, retrospectives of the Norman McLaren-esque animator Piotr Kamler, and Woyjeck Wiszniewski revealed talents I was unaware of. Wiszniewski's work in particular made me want to quit the world of html and pick up a camera again - his silent jazz-pulsing informational against heart disease 'Heart Attack was both brilliant - like a cross breed of Vertov and Goddard - and disquieting, given it was this that killed him at 34.

The city

It was my first time in Krakow and Poland, the home of my grandfather, and the source of my strongest memory of cinema inspiration, watching the Three Colours trilogy back-to-back in a cinema in Bradford as a teenager. My impressions could fill an article in itself - it is beautiful, buzzing and quite irresistible.

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The office where I booked my apartment was also selling a variety of bubble machines - and this seemed an appropriate metaphor as too long in the old town and it's easy to believe the whole of Poland shares the picturesque fairy tale Disney charm and affluence. It's hard to believe Aushwitz, grave to 1.5 million, is half an hour away, but it's only referred to by tour-guides selling trips alongside the Salt Mines and the mountains. The filmmaker of Descrendo, about a camp but likeable nursing assistant in an old people's home, was apparently warned that a film with a gay character would never win an award, and the walls sported the odd swastika. But it is perhaps unfair to make too much of this in a country that is but a few decades out of a repressive and brutal regime, bedrocked in Catholicism and struggling to position itself in the centre of Europe amidst the onslaught and lure of free market capitalism, when centuries of foreign invasions have culminated in an endless round of stag parties, puking and pissing their way around the city.

Yet despite the cheap flights and drunk stag mobs, culture runs fast thru its veins - stepping off the train, instead of being confronted with a Burger King or WHSmiths, there's rows of second hand book stalls. The impressive new museum of modern art Mocak had opened just before the festival and showed a city with its feet comfortably astride both the past and the future. On the grounds of the Schindler Factory - which has a moving museum about occupied Krakow that is definitely worth a visit - Mocak's launch exhibition is about the reflection of history thru art (you are eerily welcomed with a glowing sign 'Kunst macht frei'). The historical presence of the Schindler factory (a short walk from the grounds of camp that is central to the film), besides a well curated museum digging deeper into the past, coupled with a smart new polished concrete art gallery reflecting this thru the prism of the 21st century. Old and new not battling each other for centre-stage but comfortable side by side - or at least face to face.

And it felt like this was the strength of the festival as well - a festival adapted to the modern age, but not surrendering a focus on great stories told well, to eye catching initiatives. So there was a daily newspaper, a daily video bulletin (remarkably well put together), a pitching forum, industry events, nightly parties, networking, videotheque, a filmmaking challenge (which resulted in the most brilliant four minute film about umbrellas you will ever see), outdoor screenings, a host of prizes presented at a ceremony with a leading Polish jazz band, a beautiful city plastered with posters and banners made from stills from the films, and most importantly, a big programme of cinema you will probably never see on TV or at your local 'plex. It's not perfect but it was gimmick-free and unashamedly cultural and human-centered. And my week in the city soon became two - thanks in part to the good company of fellow Man City fan James Hopkin and a sense that you could spend months exploring the city. It was an overdue and much needed reminder of the pleasures of being part of Europe and I left feeling recharged - I should have listened to Laurence Boyce before (it was his eighth festival) and got myself there years ago.

The awards are listed after the jump.

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Marwencol, The Arbor and Life in Day – Sheffield Doc/Fest draws to a close

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Sheffield Doc/Fest wound up on Sunday night after 5 full-on days. Capturing a flavour of the event overall did mean sacrificing time spent in screenings, but I caught two films up for a Special Jury Award; Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (premiered at London Film Festival in October) and Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol (premiering in the UK at Sheffield).

Neither won, although Barnard’s film did get the Innovation Award also on offer. Being a fusion of doc and drama exploring the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, it was fascinating and effective in its lip-synch acting device. But it didn’t have me seeping tears during the Q and A as Malmberg’s Marwencol did.

Every frame of this beautiful film locks you into the delicate, inspired and utterly novel world of its protagonist Mark Hogencamp, a man who was beaten so badly outside a bar in Kingston, New York state, the resulting brain damage largely knocked out memories of his life prior to the attack.

After scant rehabilitation – the reality of US health insurance - Mark builds a miniature Belgian town, ‘Marwencol’, which becomes the site of a WW2 fantasy-scape populated by Action Men and Barbies. He creates and photographs endless scenarios, including SS sieges and Barbie cat-fights in the local bar (called Hogencamp’s of course). The dolls here represent Mark and the people in his life, including his attorney and the married neighbour he has a crush on, Colleen, whose name he utters in sighs. Meanwhile, his mother is a James Bond Pussy Galore doll, and it is this suspension of reality and its simultaneous connection to the narrative of Mark’s new life that makes his story a fabulous balance of creativity as therapy and the sublimely cockeyed. This Action Man- scaled world isn’t surreal and it isn’t ironic; instead we’re witnessing play as a life-affirming force. And it is the compassion the film brings, with humour and a deep respect for Mark, resurfacing into the ‘real’ world disabled and managing PTSD, that tilts Marwencol into the realm of the rather special.

Rather than extraordinary lives, it is the very ordinary that director Kevin Macdonald is seeking for his Life in a Day project, inspired by the 1930s Mass Observation social research organisation. However, this time it’s the entire planet, not just Britain he’s hoping to get on board. As a crowd-sourced movie it confounded expectations around user-generated content on a couple of levels. A million dollars isn’t exactly budget documentary, but it was all needed. With footage from 197 countries, it turned out to be the Byzantine admin and huge translation costs which were the main budget-munchers.

And the quantities of everything involved are eye-watering: 81,000 video clips making up 4,500 hours of footage shot in 60 different frame rates. Tackling this were 24 ratings deciders who whittled down the work pain passed on to Macdonald. He saw a couple of hundred hours of footage (only the 4 or 5 star stuff) but Joe Walker, his editor, saw it all. It’s a web project all right, but not the hand-knitted, cottage industry endeavour You-tube - sponsored by LG to host the project - is normally used to.

They also concede content was pretty US-centric as that’s where they got most clips from. Even spending £45,000 on 470 cameras for poorer countries still didn’t get round the problem of people not conceptually getting the film-yourself narrative.

"Us westerners might think we’re endlessly fascinating, but not all cultures share the west’s capacity for online narcissism."

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Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2010: Joan Rivers, Kevin MacDonald + the MeetMarket

If you want to meet documentary filmmakers from around the globe, Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is the place to be. The 17th year of the event kicked off on Wednesday evening with the UK premier of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Interviewed yesterday by the chair of the Festival, Steve Hewlett, Ms Rivers replied to the loaded question - ‘why did she make the film?’ – with the pithy, ‘because they asked me to’. La Rivers acknowledged herself she will grasp the opportunities for exposure whatever their form, and, as the subject of a documentary film, sanctioned the all-access  footage of her life now available for an audience.

If access to Joan Rivers was a key element of that film’s success, it is also one of the defining USPs of this Sheffield event. However, filmmakers are here for access , not to celebrities, but to the people who commission, distribute, fund, buy and sell documentaries. The Who’s Who session on day one was an opportunity to ‘meet’, in a panel formation, the people coming from around the globe (24 different countries) seeking documentary fodder to develop, co-produce or buy.

This event, lasting an hour and a half, was a fast-paced, minute-per-speaker intro to these Decision Makers, all available between 9am and 6pm over the course of the festival (which winds up on Sunday) for chats, pitches and ear-bending. Delegates were cutely but firmly warned no pitching or chasing of decision makers outside hours or in the loos. Each ‘turn ‘ succinctly  informed the crowd of what they did precisely and what they were looking for. Delegates were advised to do their homework and target their proposals to the appropriate person.

Beyond the stats of the £14million in sales negotiated at last year’s MeetMarket - where pre-selected projects are offered scheduled meetings with financiers and mentors - a reason to be at Sheffield if you’re not quite at the deal-cutting stage is the nature and feel of the event. Consensus (from a well-researched pool of two) was that Sheffield works for documentary filmmakers because of the culture it operates within: welcoming, casual, sociable. It’s easy to approach people, and the vibe is one of access and connection. Even one of the decision makers at the Who’s Who made a plea for a relaxed approach to pitching and project schedules. The implication is, even if deals are not cut here and right now, there’s still time. And as the Festival shifts to a June slot in 2011, it won’t be such a wait to update what may get off the ground here between the 3rd and 7th of November.

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London's Brazilian community out in force for Cine Fest Brasil:

brasil_film_festThe first London Brazilian Film Festival hit town last week with the warm and vocal audience participation of the city's expat community, and a couple of cinematic gems.

You get the sense that organizers ‘Inffinifo' want to express that there is so much more to Brazil, and it's cinema, than the sex, violence and poverty stereotypes reinforced by its big hits over recent years. However, and despite some works of interest in other areas, it seems that what Brazilian cinema does best - and what it's best filmmakers are doing - is to continue that exploration.  Stories from Brazil's most impoverished communities make for such good cinema because drama is at its most electric when following people in extreme situations.  The more the realist illusion is enhanced through the excellent documentary style techniques of ‘Cinema Novo', the more powerful these extremities appear.

last_stop_174Making this case most clearly was Bruno Barreto's exceptional Last Stop 174 (click for my review) - a fiction inspired by the real life events portrayed in the 2002 documentary ‘Bus 174'.  A gripping story enhanced by high production values and accomplished directing, this more than merits an international release.

Also explosively transporting life in Rio's ghettos to celluloid was Favela On Blast (click for my review).  Propelled forward with the raw exuberance of the music and characters within the clubbing scene in Brazil's favelas, rarely is a documentary so sexy, foul-mouthed and downright fun.

favela_on_blastA surprisingly fun and un-indulgent film was ‘Smoking I Wait', in which director Adriana L. Dutra uses her personal attempt to quit smoking as a base from which to explore the history and current state of the tobacco industry.  Well made and engaging, it did suffer from a problem evident in all the documentaries screened at the festival - an overestimation of its own playing time.

Special mentions should go to the crowd pleasing ‘If I were you 2'  and ‘The Childrens Orchestra', though the stageyness of teenage coming of age drama 'Before the World Ends'  only reinforced how well Brazilian's make the type of film that this was not - gritty realist drama's.  Compare it to Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' excellent ‘Linha De Passe' of last year and this feels a much less successful exploration of similar themes.

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