Providing 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.
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
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.
submitted by Encounters
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- 2 Best of British Awards. Prize: 1,000UKP* (all films qualify for BAFTA live action & animation awards)
- 2 Best of the South West Awards. Prize: 500UKP*
- A Documentary Award. Prize: 1,000UKP*
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- A Children’s Jury Award. Prize: 500UKP*
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Sheffield 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.