October 20–November 4, 2004
Subtitles allow viewers to believe that they are in some way in their own country. But for this film it’s annoying because the viewer who reads subtitles is not listening to the language of others. Those who watch a film while reading subtitles in fact only see about 5–6% of the film.
– Jean-Luc Godard
Godard’s statement is a useful guide to navigating any film festival. His Notre Musique (2004) is divided into three sections: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Purgatory, the longest section of the film, is set in and around Sarajevo during a cultural conference. In it, Godard combines Straubian long takes travelling round the city, surveying ruined buildings and the redevelopment, with scenes featuring overlapping dialogue in different languages. Purgatory, as Godard would have it, is a cacophony of voices, where everyone is entitled to speak but no one is able to listen. One character states that a country is invisible, that it doesn’t exist without a poet. Our fate is to be drowned in the multiplicity of voices, each nation presenting itself to each other nation. The danger of subtitles is that you fail to acknowledge the difference between countries, between different languages. You fail to acknowledge that you don’t understand.
Film festivals, like cultural conferences, fill out all the criteria for Godard’s Purgatory. There are hundreds of films vying for your attention, all seemingly as valid as the next. Any route through a festival will be guided as much by arbitrary decisions as conscious choices. The London Film Festival in particular has a lot to compete with. I find London the most difficult festival to attend: as a resident I can’t get away from the responsibilities of my everyday life as well as other events happening in the city.
The documentary Mondovino (Jonathan Nossiter, 2004) explores the dangers of the “global village” through its investigation of the international wine industry. The film’s sprawling structure takes in a vineyard in the south of France protected from big business by a communist major, to the huge monotonous vineyards in California, USA. In France, the arguments for and against the protection of local produce are presented alongside American arguments for debunking elitist European wine production (and the aristocratic families behind them). The film though is an impassioned study of the fight by local producers around the globe, against the domineering conglomerates. The rise of commercialism in Central Europe is tackled in the fascinating documentary Czech Dream (Cesky sen) (Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, 2004). The film is built on a central conceit: the two filmmakers (still at film school when they started the project) invest a government grant in advertising for a new supermarket that does not exist. Alongside the exploration of the rapid development of a consumer lifestyle, the film delves into the oppressive pro-European Union advertising campaigns issued by the government in the build up to the Czech Republic’s ascension to EU status. The project skillfully avoids becoming dogmatic and succeeds admirably in provoking debate, not least amongst the hundreds of Czechs who turned up for the supermarket’s “opening”, only to find empty space.
The changing face of central Europe is reflected in many films from the region with varying degrees of success. Dealer (2004), the second film by Benedek Fliegauf, builds on the ambition of his first film with the benefit of brilliant mobile camerawork. The structure is episodic, detailing the various clients of a drug dealer in contemporary Budapest. The tone is mordantly dark throughout but often is lightened by an absurdist sense of humour. Unlike Fliegauf’s debut Forest (Rengeteg) (2003), its various scenes are linked together by a central figure, whose routine is gradually burdened by the responsibilities of his life (friends, lovers, family and possibly his child). This drives him towards the film’s self-destructive climax, ironically set in a “Eurogym”, a place designed for personal improvement. The film has an underlying theme of integration; in relation to the protagonist’s failure to fit into any of the lonely groups he serves, but also in relation to the wider future of Hungary now it’s a member of the EU. The hypnotic sound design and muted tones work slowly to create a persuasive vision of the underworld, a society populated by somnambulists struggling towards the light of day.
Tragic-comic lost visitor to Granada, throw your watch to the water.
– José Val del Omar
The title of Eugeni Bonet’s film Throw Your Watch to the Water (Tira tu reloj al agua) (2004) is an instruction to tourists visiting the ancient paradise of Granada, where Andalusian culture meets Arab culture. This instruction, taken from the original writings of José Val del Omar, a cinematic pioneer, is a guide for any festival attendee, as it’s an instruction to “give time to time”. This film is assembled from the incredible footage Val del Omar shot towards the end of his life, working through various cinematic ideas, techniques and processes. The film as it stands now, assembled into a feature length project, is an amazing tribute to Val del Omar’s cinematic process. The material ranges from meticulous studies of the architecture and surrounding gardens of the Alhambra, intense alchemic montage reminiscent of Harry Smith, to the final poignant images of Val del Omar with his family. Throw Your Watch to the Water is an inspiring tribute to the life, obsessions and vision of Val del Omar, a great artist.
The new film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Une Visite au Louve (2004), was presented at the festival but its offerings were restricted to those who understood French (which excluded me). The reason given was that the highly staccato way the French is spoken could not be adequately expressed in subtitles (but there were rumours of another motivation; that the filmmakers were putting their foot down after the mistreatment of their film in Paris, where only half of it was screened on the principle that the other half was too similar.) The half-hour I sat through was an austere experience, with wonderfully photographed exhibits lingering on the screen accompanied by the unusually delivered French narration. A film that revealed itself more easily, but still retained its austere veneer, was Le Pont des Arts (2004). This third film by Eugène Green focuses on the urban artistic lives of an ensemble of characters. The various narrative strands, which are broken down into chapters, are linked through the preparation for an operatic performance. The tone is somewhere between romantic sincerity and absurdist satire. The humour draws the film into focus, allowing the characters’ vanity and passion to be put in place. Le Pont des Arts revolves around the tension between the private redemptive meanings of art and the more sinister public business and manipulation of art (brilliantly satirised in the chapter “On Revolutionary Thought”). This sparse film is often remarkably beautiful, and is something of a manifesto for an art stripped of its baggage.
The Future of Man
The future of man, if we follow Hong Sang-soo’s appropriation of a line by Louis Aragon, is woman. The most staggering French film in the festival was the debut full-length feature of Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Innocence (2004) is a meticulously designed fantasy of female coming of age. The opening images chart the delivery of a young girl to an old house in a forest. She is met by a group of girls dressed in white, each wearing a hair-ribbon whose colour corresponds to their age (and reveals an internal hierarchy). Slowly the film describes the enterprise of this strange world, detailing the educational rituals the girls undergo – and left me wondering, is this their training for womanhood or servitude? Much has been made of the film’s pseudo-paedophilic imagery, which points to the film’s real feat: its meticulous balancing act, innocence, is in the eye of the beholder. The tone is beautifully modulated throughout, the rituals move from the familiar to the suspicious. Innocence reveals none of its secrets, but beguiles and entices with possibility throughout.
The school is a paradise and a prison at the same time.
– Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Lucrecia Martel’s second film The Holy Girl (2004) is a rigorous drama which interweaves a large ensemble of actors and multiple narratives. The film takes place in a large hotel during a medical conference. The hotel is also the home to various families whose daughters meet to discuss their catholic faith and vocation, while also secretly chatting about their desires. The film presents a tremendous matrix of overlapping lives and intentions, fuelled by misunderstandings and misconceptions. The story revolves around a mother and her daughter, who becomes infatuated with an older man, seeing his anonymous lewd advances as a sign, a signal for her religious vocation. The Holy Girl brilliantly lays out the various overlapping desires of the characters to obliquely explore Catholic morality, guilt and sexual longing.
A more mature female figure, played with intensity by Isild Le Besco, leads us through the episodic À Tout de suite (Benoît Jacquot, 2004). The film is a tightly observed character study with not an inch of extraneous material. The episodic narrative carries the protagonist from her comfortable Parisian life in the 1970s to one lived around Europe after linking up with some opportunistic thieves. As the narrative progresses it becomes apparent that the turmoil and movement of the character is not caused by outside conditions but the protagonist’s own passionate wish to throw herself to the wind and see where it leads her.
Hong Sang-soo’s new film is typically evasive: Woman is the Future of Man (2004) slyly tackles male self-delusion and idiocy. Two men reunite – one a filmmaker, the other an art lecturer – and decide to track down a woman they both knew in their youth. Filled with repetition and variation, the film is subtle and subversive, exposing the men’s deeply flawed conception of themselves. A brilliant scene exposes these two sides. We see the art lecturer charming his adoring students, and then once this is revealed as a daydream, we see him meet his students, this time for real, for an awkward meal before feebly exploiting his authority to seduce a student in a drab hotel. The subtle humour at the heart of Hong’s work raises his films above the squalor of their characters’ delusions. With men like these, it is difficult to argue with the film’s title.
Split paths and misconception fuel many films from South East Asian countries undergoing rapidly modernisation. Uniform (Diao Yinan, 2003) follows a dispossessed tailor, struggling to support his ill father and despised by his neighbourhood who have mistaken him for an informant after a workers’ revolt. The protagonist’s life begins to change when he decides to wear a police uniform left at his laundry. The authority he can now command leads to a nice earning on police bribes and the beginning of a relationship with a young woman. The slender narrative gives the film the power of a fable following the absurd reversal of fortune with patience and through subtle performances.
Zhu Wen’s new film is a product of China’s attempt to “recuperate” its underground filmmakers and is a beautifully observed drama of missed opportunities. Yunnan, the tropical south-western province, has mythical resonance for the Chinese, and for the elderly protagonist of South of the Clouds (2003), it’s the place he could have lived his life. Now a pensioner in a grey northern town, he finally takes the opportunity to travel south that he passed on 40 years previously when he stayed with his (now dead) wife in the north. Riddled with feelings of resentment for this missed opportunity, our protagonist – and, by extension, the film itself – evokes the generation who lived under the promises of Chairman Mao. The visit to the south is anything but idyllic as he is imprisoned in his hotel on the suspicion of lewd conduct with a young woman. But his encapsulation affords him a blissful reverie when he travels to a place presided over by the Mosuo minority, a matriarchal Buddhist tribe, where it is forbidden to work. Zhu Wen’s statement sums up the film’s melancholy tone “when one life is the fact, the other life becomes a dream.”
The World (Jia Zhangke, 2004) directly explores the changing face of modern China and the disparity between what it wants to be and what it is. The film is set in and around the phenomenal World Park in Beijing, a tourist park representing all the wonders of the world in scaled down versions. The setting is at a time when China is opening up but its people becoming more anxious to leave and see the world. The narrative revolves around a performer in the park and her relationship with a security guard. The brilliant Zhao Tao leads the film as the performer, linking the various characters, from villagers coming to work on dangerous jobs in the city to a Russian woman escorting business men to get the money to return home. “As time goes on we are drawn further and further by the waves of rapid urbanisation…I wanted to capture our soul searching right now”, states the director. Jia’s film is a brilliant multifaceted portrait of modern China, capturing the country’s current outward gaze and the international allure of a different world.
Approaches to Japan
Hou Hsiao-hsien made Café Lumière (2004) as part of a project to commemorate the centenary of Yasujiro Ozu. The story details the relationship between two young Tokyo residents: a woman conducting research into a Taiwanese composer who lived in Tokyo, and a gentle-natured man who owns a bookshop and collects field recordings of train sounds. Hou beguilingly creates subtle links to Ozu through the young protagonist’s relationship with her parents, at the same time as creating links to the filmmaker’s home Taiwan, through the composer, and to the future, through the archive of train recordings. The changing culture and landscape, both physical and emotional (the woman is pregnant and determined to have the baby on her own), is evoked by the search for Café Lumière, which the composer used to frequent, leading the film on a survey of the changing face of Tokyo.
Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004) explores contemporary Japanese culture though a family of children left by their single mother to secretly raise themselves in a small flat in Tokyo. Shot in sequence over the course of a year the film delicately traces the changes in the children (including the 14 year-old protagonist’s voice breaking mid-shoot), their home and the seasons outside. Inspired by a scandalous news story about parentless children living unknown to the wider society, Kore-eda chose to approach the material from the view point of survival. “There must have been a richness other than material, based on those moments of understanding, joy, sadness and hope,” he states in the production notes. Nobody Knows is a quiet revolt against the oppressive forces of family and society.
On the other side of the spectrum, Miike Takashi’s Izo (2004) discards humanism to explore chauvinism and man’s capacity for violence. Beginning with a bombardment of archival material from Japan’s military conflicts (reminiscent of Godard’s opening Hell montage from Notre Musique) the film deliriously trawls through time and space following the murderous rampage of the reincarnated Izo, the personification of negation, a contradiction that emerged from Japan’s perfectly ordered society. Izo is at once a philosophical treatise on the perpetual existence of evil and a carnivorous rampage through the male psyche.
The City As…
You could charge LA as a co-conspirator in the crimes the movie relates.
– Richard Schickel on Double Indemnity
Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is a patchwork portrait of his hometown Los Angeles, as seen in a broad section of films and documentaries. Anderson’s epic illustrated lecture is divided into three sections: “The City as Background”, “as Character” and “as Subject”. The first section is the most meta-filmic as Anderson reads the lives of buildings and architects through a variety of movies, ranging from cheap horror and softcore porn to noir and sci-fi. The final section provides sociological insights as it explores what Anderson refers to as “neorealist” independent films about ethnic minorities, including Kent MacKenzie’s brilliant The Exiles (1961), which explores the integration of Native Americans into Los Angeles. The tone risks becoming didactic but it’s an impassioned and informed polemic nevertheless.
New York, a city that has no shortage of cinematic tributes, was explored in two new films at the festival. The Time We Killed (Jennifer Todd Reeves, 2004) is an introverted study of self-willed social exclusion. Shot on high contrast black and white film, scenes of the protagonist in her flat are interspersed with home movies and accompanied by a laconic narration and poetry on the soundtrack. The film suffers under its elliptical narrative and dense associations but manages to describe the ennui of a generation of Americans at odds with their country, typified by the line “Terrorism got me out of the house; the war on terror got me back in.” Meditations on Revolution, Part V: Foreign City (Robert Fenz, 2003) is a much more focused exploration of the city, by a resident still enraptured by its textures and people. The film is a free form portrait ranging from the city’s streets and subways to a profile of Jazz trumpeter Marion Brown, reminiscing about his life and career. This iridescent film is both mysterious and familiar; New York is a city of movement and this is exactly what is celebrated. The presence of filmmaker Robert Fenz, who delivered a brilliant post screening Q&A/lecture, made me realise for the first time that I was actually at a film festival, which I should be excited about. This highlighted London’s major failure in my mind, its general inhospitality, it’s a sadly unwelcoming festival and this excellent screening stood out (unfortunately) for its rarity.
Towards the end of the festival is the Avant-Garde Weekend where one can see all the programs of experimental work together with a selection of features. This is one of the most important events of the festival as it manages to inject some atmosphere as well as presenting a diverse selection of work from across the world. Various known figures were represented with new works, not all so good, as was the case with Bruce Conner’s disappointing Luke (2004), although the new films by Robert Breer and Jonas Mekas didn’t fail to satisfy. What Goes Up (Breer, 2003) is a typically quick-witted animated collage of drawings and photos involving autumn leaves, reclining nudes, air travel and erectile dysfunction. Travel Songs 1967–1981 (Mekas, 2003) compiles footage shot on various trips around Europe, paying tribute to cities and landscapes that have marked Mekas’ life. Frank Biesendorfer, a student of Peter Kubelka at Frankfurt, interweaves home footage leading up to and following the birth of his child, with a sound recording of the preparation for a Herman Nitsch action, to create a beguiling anti-portrait in the film Little B & MBT (2003)
Canadian filmmaker Mike Hoolboom seems to have hit his stride, his new feature length collage Public Lighting (2004) complimenting last year’s Imitations of Life (2003). Again divided into chapters and using appropriated images from diverse sources, the sections here each present a personality case-study. Re-appropriated footage is rarely used with the fluidity and dexterity present throughout this film, from a tour of bars where the narrator was dumped, a portrait of Philip Glass, to a model’s recounting of a disturbing juvenile encounter with a photographer. In an original way, this most recent pair of films by Hoolboom explore the effect of the media, images and recording devices on our everyday lives, solidly grounding his work in our media-saturated present.
Comprised entirely of archival footage from the First World War, Oh, Uomo (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucci, 2004) couldn’t be more rooted in the past. But to linger on the remarkable material presented is to miss the filmmakers’ subtle structuring of the material in order to tease out its complex significance. The images of injured or starving children are difficult to watch but provide a counterpoint to the image of wounded soldiers and the process of their slow rehabilitation. The second half of the film speaks of a wider horror that is the process of war and the structures that sustain it. The rehabilitation of the soldiers, the creation of fake limbs and the reconstruction of damaged faces, expose the mechanisms behind conflict and the pressure to turn people back into productive units to pay the price for war.
The Liberation of Images
Morgan Fisher’s new film [ ] (2003) seeks to release insert shots “from their self-effacing performance of drudge-work, to free them from their servitude to story”. Inserts are the shots of hands opening letters, or twisting door handles, feet stepping into the light, sign posts and watches. These are edited into a tapestry of gestures without outcome, leaving them free to intermingle in the viewers mind. These gestures and repeated movements are also what make up the new film by Peter Kubelka, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit) (2003). Originally made to illustrate a lecture and not for distribution, Kubelka has allowed his fascinating collection of advertising outtakes to be released. The collection of out takes is carefully selected with little editing to allow the gestures unwittingly made to reveal themselves. The project is an anthropological time capsule, giving a glimpse of the fundamental “poetry and truth” that can be found in ready made objects, from a narcissist and his double (a man gazing at his reflection) to the Immaculate Conception (a series of women being fed chocolates). Poetry and Truth reveals Kubelka’s sense of humour, always present in his lectures but rarely in his films.
Nineteenth century landscape painting is often seen as the route to twentieth century Abstraction. In film, landscape can represent something purely cinematic – outside of people, narrative and language. Peter Hutton’s Skagafjördur (2004) relates to this tradition of landscape painting and still photography, the accumulated images of Northern Iceland recreate a strange and enchanting place. The images shift from stark black and white landscapes to muted colours capturing the subtle transformations in the landscapes. As the filmmaker states, “…the more time you spend actually looking at things, the more they reveal themselves in ways you don’t expect.” Emily Richardson’s Aspect (2004), the conclusion of a trilogy, takes a less meditative approach to landscape. Her use of timelapse photography, to chart the shifting light, creates a distinctly alive and visceral environment. Aspect was shot over a period of a year in a large forest and the images record the changing of seasons from lush green to rusty oranges. Images of shifting light conditions on a tapestry of leaves could almost be from a hand painted film. The excellent soundtrack by Benedict Drew uses recordings made in the forest of the movement and growth of trees, groaning under their burden, making the film an illustration of change both internal and external.
The material used to construct Arktis – Zwischen Licht Une Dunkel (Jürgen Reble, 2004) was taken from a variety of films about the arctic region. These clips were then heavily treated, manipulating the texture, duration, saturation and contrast of the images. The film looks like an unknown world, through perseverance though you become accustomed to the dark pulsating and mysterious landscapes. Arktis is deeply engrossing, drawing you into its “half-world” of twilight images, neither abstract nor literal. The gradual alienating effect gave me the increasing sense of seeing a world not meant for humans. This sublime world is perhaps the inverse of Godard’s Purgatory, a world devoid of expression, of peoples and nations.
It’s free cinema, and it’s open to interpretations. For me, the two halves of the film are like two magnetic poles that push against each other but have to co-exist.
– Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Finally, I will conclude with Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004), a work of incredible assurance. Building on the excellent Blissfully Yours (2002), Weerasethakul creates a vivid and subversive portrait of male desire, divided into two halves, one resembling a Thai teen movie, the other a sublime journey into the jungle and Thai folklore. A meticulous blend of styles, Tropical Malady is a hybrid of different forms of narration, moving effortlessly from the strange romance between a solider and a young man, to a wordless fable about the hunt for a mythical man-beast. The stark shift forces you to make associations between the two halves, but also moves the position of the viewer from an objective one to an intimate subjective one, enshrouded in the darkness of the jungle and the tensions between the hunter and the hunted. The final scenes of whispered dialogue are aimed directly at the viewer; the audience becoming the hunted creature. Tropical Malady is utterly captivating; the final evanescent images are terrifying, hypnotic and immensely thrilling, something like the intense romance between the two characters in the first half. As the hunter/viewer “makes his way deeper into the jungle”, in Weerasethakul words, a final transformation must take place, “he must learn another language with which to speak to the spirits.”