Mathew Barney at the point of completion and the beginning of decay in Cremaster 5

Now in its 57th year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) is the longest running film festival in the UK. It occupies a firm place amongst the plethora of events that hit Edinburgh each summer, from the Fringe Festival to the Book Festival. The Festival was originally established to celebrate documentary films, an intention that continues today while alongside celebrations of new feature films, retrospectives, music videos, shorts and animation. Artistic director Shane Danielson is really warming up to his new position (this is his second year as director) and can be seen throughout the event, introducing films, quizzing directors and even wearing a kilt on the opening night.

In a slow year for auteur cinema (with many directors missing that essential Cannes deadline) festivals can begin to look weak. But the absence of known figures didn’t upset this year’s EIFF program, which had set itself the challenge of tackling the theme, New Europe. Explored via a range of films dealing with issues of cultural identity, immigration, shifting borders and the growth of the European Union, this strand of the Festival program included a rare screening of Belarusian documentaries, a retrospective of the Hungarian master Miklós Jancsó, and films from Portugal to Lithuania.

One of the contemporary cinema highlights from the New Europe section was the Slovenian feature Spare Parts (Rezervni Deli, Damjan Kozole, 2002). This film focuses on the isolated inhabitants of the small industrial town, Krsko. Beginning with ironic footage of Tito opening the power plant that looms over the drama, we then cut to motorbike racers competing for local acclaim. Their circular competition becomes the film’s central metaphor. We then follow the initiation of the young Rudi into the illegal immigration racket, which involves smuggling people on the final leg of their journey to Europe across the Italian border. The emphasis is placed on the static lives of the traffickers rather than the fleeing immigrants. The routine escapes and tragedies that befall these migrating peoples subtly underlie the action. A strange rapport is created between these peripheral communities, the exploiters and the exploited, linked by their exclusion from Europe. An early sequence follows the silent struggle of a Macedonian couple whose eventual fate is glimpsed in the background of the action. The central drama focuses on the relationship between Rudi and his ill boss Ludvik (Peter Musevski proving himself an excellent actor after his appearance in Bread and Milk [Kruh in mleko, Jan Cvitkovic, Slovenia, 2001]). Rudi is destined to follow in Ludvik’s footsteps, and continue this vicious circle on the edge of Europe.

Tania and Rato on the road in Policewoman

Policewoman (Mulher Políca, Joaquim Sapinho, Portugal/Spain/France and Brazil, 2002) takes us to the other edge of Europe and into the lush and mysterious landscape of Portugal. Joaquim Saphino’s second film is an assured and beautiful tale of uncomprehending motherhood. In a small town, a single mother, Tania, is forced to flee with her son and his “girlfriend”, after he is caught stealing and then threatened with juvenile detention. The trio head across the country for Tania’s hometown, Lisbon. We travel through the landscape, shot in the deep crimson of sunset or the misty haze of early morning. Throughout the film there is a conflict with nature that takes the drama out of social realism and into a more operatic arena, from the rain drenched arrest of Rato, to the climatic image of the mother handcuffed to a tree, tormented by her emotions. The tone of the film is excellently sculpted by the flowing music (composed by Nuno Malo) that helps propel the minimal narrative. The film stumbles perhaps in depicting the vulnerability of the pair and the eventual tragedy of the mother, but is redeemed by the amazing and impenetrable lead performance of Amélia Corôa as Tania, the type of actress, as Shane Danielson put it, “that Bresson spent his whole life looking for”.

Shimkent Hotel (Charles de Meaux, France and UK, 2003) breaks with the depiction of a native community to portray the immature attempts of a group of French graduates to profit from the former Soviet Union. The film is shot in an improvised manner, yielding to incidental actions and chance encounters as the three protagonists travel further from home. It is marred by an eccentric but clumsy flashback structure but works well as a freewheeling portrait of a journey east from Europe. It also sheds a refreshing light on the naive superiority of Europeans’ attempting to exploit these derelict countries. Shimkent Hotel is a notable addition to the Anna Sanders Films, a French production company that has produced some of the most interesting work in the moving image, bridging the gap between the gallery and the cinema (as in the work of Dominique Gonzales-Foerster) and supporting innovative films from other countries (most notable is the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul).

Alongside such daring filmmaking was the more familiar French drama piece, Le Chignon d’Olga (Jérôme Bonnell, France, 2002), which follows a small family in rural France struggling to readjust to life without their mother in the long days of summer. The film’s obvious ancestry is the pastoral dramas of Eric Rohmer but the excellent use of colour and tender yet penetrating performances compensate for the familiarity.

Two auteurs that were represented at the EIFF were the eclectic François Ozon and the refined Claire Denis. Ozon returned to the Festival with his second film starring Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool (France, 2002). The film is balanced between the pulp fiction of 8 Femmes (France, 2002) and the more serious Sous la sable (France, 2000). It tells the story of an uptight British crime writer struggling to escape her niche and lifestyle by settling in her publisher’s villa in France to write a new novel, only to be disturbed by the publisher’s Gallic, over-sexed daughter (played with abandon by Ludivine Sagnier). She slowly lightens up to the girl and stereotypes are wilfully teased. But the film has a slightly static air about it, its portrait of the aging author is a little clumsy, and the more fantastical elements are thrown away in the films “twist” ending.

Much more successful is Denis’ masterly Vendredi Soir (Friday Night, France, 2002). This minimal tone poem follows a transitional night in the life of the 30-something protagonist (Valérie Lemercier) who is reluctantly preparing to move in with her boyfriend. She heads out into the streets of Paris only to be caught in a paralysing traffic jam. A pedestrian, to whom she offers a lift saves her from the dark smoky streets and the claustrophobic environment. A slow and silent love affair ensues, showing Denis’ mastery of the tactile nature of image and sound. The soothing strings are arranged by regular collaborator Dickon Hinchliffe. Denis’s film displays superb refinement of the components of narrative cinema and the confidence that enables her to create a film from fragments and fleeting moments.

Director Lucas Belvaux as the fugitive in The Trilogy: On the Run

One of the special events of the Festival was the ambitious three-feature project, The Trilogy (Lucas Belvaux, Belgium and France, 2002). All of the films are set in Grenoble and revolve around a close group of characters. They take place over the same time period with action often overlapping between films. But what makes the work so rewarding and fascinating is the shift in tone between the three works, from a taut prison escape in On the Run, a bourgeois comedy in An Amazing Couple to the final tense relationship in After Life. The films are thematically linked in that they all deal with communication and community. The first film deals with the struggles of a political fugitive attempting to resume the militant activity that sent him to prison. The convict, played by Belvaux himself, is a man isolated from his environment finding the ideals of his peers have shifted. It is a film about defeat and surrender with an excellent understated finale. An Amazing Couple, in contrast to the first film, deals with the paranoid misunderstandings of a well to do family. It is excellently paced and the central deceit slowly draws the whole community into the central couple’s absurd misunderstandings. The final film is the most painful. It portrays the thwarted relationship between the alienated detective (hunting the fugitive from the first film) and his addict wife. It is a tale of redemption and transcendence; a testimony to the possibility of salvation through love and devotion. This ambitious project is a real achievement, but leaves one wanting perhaps a little more formal innovation to make the final section really transcend the others.

Deborah Harry as Madame Fastideux in Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases

A project that lacks nothing in the way of ambition and visual invention is Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases: Part 1 – The Moab Story (Peter Greenaway, Spain, Luxembourg, UK, Italy and Hungary, 2003). Greenaway’s mammoth project is a self-declared manifesto for the possibilities of digital technology. This is Greenaway, the semiotician, constantly constructing and deconstructing cinematic convention with a barrage of visually and thematically stunning devices. The project’s ambition is to test the form of the encyclopaedia, whose endless potential has been curtailed by various idiosyncratic systems. The project is subtitled “A Personnel History of Uranium” and spans 60 years from the discovery of Uranium in Colorado in 1928 to the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989. This is the first chapter in the history of Uranium. The project is designed to span media and for the film to be answerable to other forms, such as the planned 92 DVD’s (92 is Uranium’s atomic number and an essential structuring device). Each DVD will contain information on one of Tulse Luper’s suitcase collections. There will also be books, a television series, a website (www.tulseluper.net) and another three films. The figure of Tulse Luper is an alter ego for Greenaway and has appeared sporadically throughout his work. The film is of staggering formal beauty and the fluidity of this language – incorporating talking head historians, introductions to individual suitcases, multiple actors in the same roles, etc. – gives a glimpse of the incredible potential of digital technology. Its real achievement is to ground its baroque histrionics in the 20th century and to incorporate personal as well as international history. In his recent work Greenaway seemed to be retreating from the world. Here he is stamping his mark on it.

No one in the UK (or the world?) can compete with the scale of Greenaway’s project but many might learn from his dexterous use of digital technology. Most new features in the UK are shot on HD digital video. Greenaway’s flamboyant use of the new technology is stunning and leaves us wondering why other filmmakers seem not to appreciate the potential of the medium.

Four Eyes (Duncan Finnigan, UK, 2003) is an ultra low budget comedy/drama from Scotland shot on digital video. DV has enabled various directors to show their talent, and Finnigan has been compared to Shane Meadows whose originality was first noticed in his videos. But Meadows’ skill with actors and his energetic approach to narrative are unfortunately absent here. Solid Air (Mary Miles Thomas, UK, 2002) is a much more polished production telling the morbid story of a son trying to come to terms with his father’s premature death from asbestos poisoning. The film is all muted tones and sombre light but it fails to transcend its bleak surroundings. Its rugged protagonist is a lost man, gambling his money away, but you tend to lose sympathy towards the end.

The new film by Dogme ’95 graduate Lone Scherfig, Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself) (Denmark, UK, Sweden and France, 2002) confronts its bleak subject matter head on (as the title suggests). It follows the lives of two brothers in Glasgow who have lost direction since the death of their father. The film is enlivened by a streak of black humour and charismatic performances, especially by the lead, Jamie Sives. It’s at its best with the ensemble scenes and shows that another potential of digital video lies in capturing authentic performances. The anticipated debut of local legend Richard Jobson, 16 Years of Alcohol (UK, 2003), shows a much more ambitious approach to cinematic language. The film follows the semi-autobiographical story of Frankie (played by Kevin Mckidd) growing up in Edinburgh, and really gets going when integrating personal and cultural history. The excellent soundtrack shows the slow evolution of the protagonist from the Clockwork-Orange-inspired droog to a conscientious and passionate man, seeking to evade the fate of his father (a ruined alcoholic) and slowly embrace life.

Joe's illicit affair with Ella in Young Adam

The real standout film from the UK though was Young Adam (David Mackenzie, UK, 2003). Appropriately awarded the Michael Powell Award for best British feature, this long cherished project announces a substantial talent in director David Mackenzie. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Alexandre Trochhi, a cult figure and Scotland’s own beat writer. The film starts with the discovery of a dead woman pulled out of the canal by two barge workers (Ewan McGregor as Joe and Peter Mullan as Les). From here the film tells two stories that converge at this point. One follows the life of Joe on the barge and, in the background, the accusation of an innocent man for the murder of the young woman. The second story follows the life of the woman and her relationship with Joe, up to her death. This intricate structure is handled with ease. We are submerged in the cold wintry atmosphere of 1950s industrial Scotland and the illicit drama that unfolds. Most of the scenes take place on the barge with Joe, Les, his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and child. The water’s coldness and unfathomable depths become a central motif. Joe, a struggling writer, is paralysed by a sense of guilt and a belief in his destructive presence. He drifts between women in an attempt to find solace for his uneasy mind. His relationship with Ella is doomed from the outset and destroys her marriage. But Joe’s dilemma is an existential one. Helpless and unfeeling, he is repulsed by the moral hypocrisy of the world around him. Despite its ’50s setting, there is a distinctly modern air about the film. Many of the images of the drifting boat create a mythical atmosphere bringing to mind the magical world of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (France, 1934). The depiction of the writer is distinctively beat, the most ecstatic moment being reached when he scribbles a note in a phone booth, testifying to the innocence of the accused man. This moment is what the film revolves around, the moment of beatitude, beautifully achieved in this dark and mysterious film.

Edinburgh provides an essential opportunity to take stock of contemporary British cinema, but also offers a chance to discover new directors and films. Thus the two programs of work by the underexposed Belarusian documentary filmmaker Victar Dashuk were one of the essential events of the Festival. The former Soviet country of Belarus is the only county in Europe still controlled by a dictator. The fateful history of this country and its legacy of oppression, occupation and war form the core of Dashuk’s project. But perhaps most important is the search for hope, life and a reason to live. War is Without a Woman’s Face (Belarus, 1982) focuses on Belarus’ struggle against Nazi invasion that left them with only 2/3rds of their population. In this documentary Dashuk pays tribute to the lives lived throughout World War Two and especially the women who fought on the frontline with the men. The film integrates interviews with archival footage, displaying a delicacy and lack on sentimentality rare to such films. Vitebsk’s Case (Belarus, 1989) is a similarly ambitious project, penetrating to the core of people whose lives are marred by stolen years. It is a disturbing study of a brutal serial killer who murdered over 30 women while managing to evade the police for 14 years. What is most disturbing though is the portrait of the corrupt police inspector and the lives he ruined in a hasty attempt to close the case – sending one interviewee to prison for 14 years.

“My main objective in making [films] is not to confront power, but to document the living history of the country and the times in which I live.” – Victar Dashuk

The latest film featured, Report from the Rabbit Hutch (Belarus, 2001), is vastly different in style, an underground agit-prop exposition of the brutality of Lukashenko’s dictatorship. The scale of Lukashenko’s control is hard to fathom, and the braveness of the work difficult to grasp. A stunned audience sat and listened to Dashuk talk about the fate of his country and the struggle to make, let alone screen, his films. On one occasion, a videotape he was sending to a film festival was confiscated in the mail. I only slowly came to grasp the significance of Dashuk’s film Parting (Belarus, 1980), a record of a state funeral of the Belarusian premier Masherov and the massive show of public mourning. The film integrates footage of streets lined with crying people, the funeral procession and archival images of Maherov before his death. Victar explained the importance of this leader to Belarusia and the subsequent repression of his film because no new leader could compete with the honesty and dedication of Maherov. The final images of falling autumnal leaves signals not only the passing of a great man but also the end of an age of innocence as the shattering final image of a road bathed in fallen leaves shows. This is a masterpiece of late Soviet period cinema, displaying the hope and tragedy of a fallen nation.

Film can provide an invaluable insight into a culture that is otherwise unknown in the West. China is one of the largest countries in the world but is relatively unknown and inaccessible to most cultures. Cinema from China is still heavily controlled and censored, if it doesn’t portray the country in the way the government thinks it should. The independently produced Blind Shaft (Li Yang, Hong Kong and Germany, 2003) is a penetrating study of two scheming mine workers in remote China. The pair manipulate a fellow worker into claiming to be their relative, so that after they murder him in the mine they are able claim compensation for his death. After their routine is established (and the money sent onto their family), the pair take a young man into their care with the same intention. The young man is seeking employment so he can fund his sister’s education. His innocence and naivety slowly charm the pair who persuades themselves that they cannot kill him without first getting him laid and letting him have his first drink. The film is excellently observed and acted giving an authentic picture of the expendability of human life in industrial China. But the surprising climax thwarts the scheming scepticism of the older men in favour of the young man’s innocence.

Alienated youth transfixed in All Tomorrow's Parties

Youth is a major issue in contemporary Chinese cinema and is explored in Yu Lik Wai’s second film All Tomorrow’s Parties (China, 2003). Together with Unknown Pleasures (Zhang-ke Jia, China, 2002) – which Yu Lik Wai shot – this film is one of a spate of new independent Chinese films exploring the rise of youth culture in China. In a country starved of “the individual”, these films embrace pop music and the demeanour of the loner (imagine a Chinese James Dean) in an attempt to examine the alienated individual. All Tomorrow’s Parties is set in an anonymous post-apocalyptic China where the masses are ferried from camp to camp and are constantly distracted by the threat of an unknown “disaster”. There is also an underground culture (a reference to Falun Gong) that the two protagonists are drawn towards. The film is highly elliptical favouring atmospheric long sequences over narrative exposition. It is beautifully shot and utilises digital manipulation to create its futuristic landscapes and amazing kinetic dream-like sequences. Digital video is an impure medium, without real blacks and whites and is fitted to the ethereal grey zone of muted tones and diffuse light. And this is exactly where All Tomorrow’s Parties sits, in the grey zone between the present and a vision of a future China as an industrial wasteland.

For me and many others the real treat of the Festival was the chance to experience the complete Cremaster Cycle (Mathew Barney, USA, 1994-2002). One of the most audacious and grandiose contemporary art projects, Mathew Barney’s five-film opus is an epic tale of the establishment of form. Barney, originally a sculptor, built the films around the process of sexual differentiation that takes place in the womb. Via different forms, the five films essay the process of biological transformation, be it choreographed dancers on the Boise football field in Cremaster 1 (1995), the building of the Chrysler building in 1930s New York in Cremaster 3 (2002) or Barney’s own transformation throughout the films with the aid of prosthetics and make up. The films were made over half a decade and out of chronological order, allowing the viewer to observe the progression of Barney’s own technique concurrently with the progression of the cycle.

The last completed film and longest of the set is the amazing Cremaster 3. This three-hour epic is the most spectacular of the cycle and draws the other films together. Barney as the “Entered Apprentice” is seen filling one of the lift shafts of the Chrysler building with cement in order to unbalance the structure, as cars in the basement slowly pulverise each other in a sadistic but elegant demolition derby. The idea of balance is present throughout; a young woman (paraplegic model Aimee Mullins) feeds potato pieces under a bar in order to unbalance this structure and frustrate the bartenders attempt to pour a pint of Guinness for the “Entered Apprentice”. Above all the action the “Master Architect” (sculptor Richard Serra) begins to build his own structures to reach the top of the building. A central interlude has Barney challenging various obstacles as he attempts to scale the interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The film weaves in various obscure references to Masonic rites and minimalist sculpture, Barney’s own rise to fame as well as the history and mythology of one of New York’s largest buildings. All the films draw heavily on contemporary culture to create their strange mythical language as with the positioning of two Good Year blimps above the football stadium to resemble the ovaries above a womb in Cremaster 1, the murderer Gary Gilmore’s theatrical execution on the salt flats of Salt Lake city in Cremaster 2 (1999) and Harry Houdini’s (played by Norman Mailer) famous transformation in Cremaster 2. The films incredible visual construction and invention make them constantly engaging almost surreal. They are filled with self-mythology, often concerning Barney’s near Oedipal struggle between himself and Serra, an acknowledged paternal influence. The film climaxes with the pair’s death at the summit of the Chrysler building (and by extension the summit of the Guggenheim and the art world). This ironic climax is also the integration of Barney into the structure he has not only fought, but also created.

The films’ real feat is to show that cinema is not confined to actors, scripts and least of all to story. Cinema is just as much tied to aesthetics, matter and form. The legendary queues to see Renais’ famously obscure Last Year at Marienbad (France, 1961) may not turn up for his new films, but to see the Cremaster films playing to packed houses in the local multiplex cinema is an event both mind boggling and inspirational.

Add to all of this a much overdue retrospective of Henri-Georges Clouzot, reinstating his position within classical French cinema, giving Festival audiences the chance to see such repressed classics as Le Corbeau (1943) and Quai des Orfèvres (1947) as well as the most well known films, all enlightened by the presence of Claire Clouzot. In addition, EIFF gave audiences a chance to see the new “circumcised” version of Mike Hodges despotic sci-fi The Terminal Man: Director’s Cut (USA, 1974), a new selection of experimental films and installations in the Black Box strand, new music videos and documentaries plus animations from across the world. All this and you still haven’t got to the theatres, comedy clubs or music halls that are packed throughout August – what more could you want?

About The Author

George Clark is a writer, curator and artist. He currently works on touring programs of artists’ film and video at the Independent Cinema Office.

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