Dekalb Elementary (d. Reed Van Dyk), a huis-clos which deftly manoeuvres the politics of race and class in America, was the winner of this year’s Grand Prix at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. One of several notable films which gave its European audience the chance to take a look at an anomalous America, it exposes a continental curiosity towards what is still often America’s incomprehensible culture on the other side of the pond.
In this film, a foppish and evidently disturbed, but well-meaning overweight young white man storms into a grade school’s lobby with sub-machine gun in hand and requisite black backpack slung over his shoulder. The entire action takes place in the school office where a middle-aged black female receptionist calmly tries to talk the confused young man out of his decision. His repeated fumblings, desire to be helpful and phone calls to his mother in the middle of his hostage-taking attempt evoke sympathy for this boy, a down-and-out member of the disadvantaged white trash, a class which is rarely looked upon with any sympathy. The compassionate perspective of this film on this would-be terrorist is a rare look from the perspective of a group who, out of reaction to the contempt piled up upon them, have been mainly responsible for electing the demagogic and ineffectual Donald Trump to the presidency, voting along the lines of race and class for someone who had never had and will never have any intention of assisting his electors.
Dekalb Elementary takes an earnest look into the root problems of America’s troubles without ever mentioning them (obesity, alienation, powerlessness, race, class), while avoiding the often overly easy violent images (the gunshots, helicopters and police actions all take place efficiently and cheaply off-screen), offering a compassionate regard at the most invisible of the “other” – the lower-class white citizens who are voting en masse for nationalist solutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
The American perspective takes its political cues from the out-of-competition music video which opened the festival – “Nobody Speak”, directed by Sam Spilling from a DJ Shadow (feat. Run the Jewels) track, in which two groups of suited up politicians, disconnected Republicrat partisans, enter a Royal Rumble-like wrestling match with flying fists, head-on tackles and reams of office paper flapping in the air. The video ironically lays bare the smoke and mirrors game that the political horse-show has become, in which representative policies mean nothing and politics have been intentionally reduced into a distraction which allows both of the solidly entrenched and financially beholden parties to divert policy towards their own vested interests and those of their corporate sponsors. Not a surprising occurrence when the major news channels aim for market share and see themselves as little more than entertainment outlets.
The Republicrats in the video, their party unidentifiable, wail at each other in glee over a circular table reminiscent of Ken Adam’s War Room designed for Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, and their battle only comes to an end when the lead politician, nearly impaling his political rival on a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes, is interrupted by the admonishing disapproval of a clearly immigrant cleaning lady.
Both films offer a regard of critical insight into America, unlike the pompous and judgmental United Interest (d. Tim Weimann), which dangerously and deliberately confuses capitalism and fascism, presenting animated figures over an early 20th-century clip of a tram riding through San Francisco, with figures as banal and vulgar as dollar signs sprouting from the ground, or politicians sodomising Lady Liberty. Doubly unfortunate is that this moral high horse of a film produced in Germany goes so far as to blame German fascism on American capitalism, a revisionism of history which goes beyond cheap propaganda and exposes the dangers with which seemingly leftist ideologies swing easily full circle to the other side.
More wisely, thankfully, the majority of the European films took a look inward. In Sit and Watch (d. Francisco Forbes and Matthew Barton), a portrait of post-post-capitalist London, a documentary-like camera takes a deep look at seemingly disconnected events (a boxing club, a club of evangelical young Christians, a parliamentary session in the house of commons, a dispute on a public bus), drawn together into a single locus via a ferry ride down the Thames guided by a sardonic working class captain who gives a tour of the unaffordable city. With his proletarian drawl he shows his passengers public housing which has been built with public money later to be sold to private developers under Thatcherite ideology at cheaper than market prices to develop luxury apartments for those who don’t live in the city or need its housing. The captain’s monologue provides a true reckoning of the falseness of capitalist ideology as a zero-sum game in which wealth, rights and ownership are actively harvested from the average citizen to be redistributed as privilege to the corporate under the guise of science and progress.
The remainder of Sit and Watch reveals the fissures created in a society living in this hyper-capitalised capital in which property prices no longer react to any genuine notion linked to supply or demand, but in which the collusion of the political class supports the ultra-wealthy, and the corporate benefactors transform virtual money into property ownership by creating fake market paucity and subsequently writing off their acquisitions to avoid paying taxes to the society off which they feed. Dispossession through possession.
The tensions created by pitting citizens against one another in a system designed to be unjust boil to the surface (as they did in the London riots) on a public bus ride where through security cameras we witness a dispute as a young man picks a fight with a couple sitting in front of him. The row over a perceived personal slight seems trivial, but reveals how the economic tensions and competitive ambience cultivates an unhealthy enmity, leading the rapport of the city’s citizens to be based on violence rather than community.
But what else to expect when the individual is presented as the only societal unit of any value? Along with this individualist values, we witness a middle-class couple awkwardly and robotically perform a masked sexual act online for the gaze of others, an act which might be sexual in nature, yet has been depleted of anything resembling desire, intimacy, privacy, transgression, aspects which we would normally associate with sex. Like all other human endeavours, sex under the aegis of capitalism has been reduced to the transactional, and serves no purpose other than to kill the boredom or facilitate some sort of monetary exchange. No surprise here as citizens are but mirrors of the values of the society within which they operate.
Yet sex can also be used for transgressive and liberating purposes, as it was in the fictional portrait of the activist-prostitute writer Grisélidis Réal, in the film from the French program, Je les aime tous (I Love Them All, Guillaume Kozakiewiez), and which takes an unabashed and unsentimental look at sexuality from the perspective of a female sex worker, who has enough political- and gender-consciousness to think and write about her work. I Love Them All opens with a rare female regard of naked male bodies, presenting Grisélidis’ clients in their post-coital moments of peace after having availed themselves of her services (a regard sometimes reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s in Fish Tank, or Claire Denis’s in Beau Travail). Through a series of conversations in her apartment with her daughter, her closest friend and her many clients, the film advances Grisélidis’ ideology about sexuality, yet without attempting to spare us the regard of the toll her sex work takes on her aging body, as she washes herself after a john’s visit.
Aging and self-image of the female body are a theme also in Anna (d. Or Sinai), an Israeli film about a middle-aged sweatshop worker, a Russian immigrant in a Middle Eastern society who upends expectations in her quest for sex. Anna attempts to take advantage of the absence of her son on a hot summer day in which she unexpectedly has a free afternoon. Looking at herself in the mirror, her animal desire normally suppressed by her daily labour as a working-class woman resurfaces, and Anna dresses to re-sexualise herself, spending the day pursuing sexual encounters with men unwilling or unable to fulfill her base animal need, men seemingly made impotent by her reversal of the role of pursuer and pursuant. Although humorous and touching at times, the film doesn’t really get off beyond a simple role reversal which inherently assumes the sexual prejudices it attempts to expose, and ends with a conservativeness and sentimentality which doesn’t do justice to the intimate complexity of sexuality.
In another Mediterranean film from the International competition Battalion to My Beat (d. Eimi Imanishi), Mariam, an Algerian tomboy, will do anything to join the army. With a naturally petulant and tough nature she ignores the parents, teachers and soldiers to fulfill her dream of being like “one of the boys”. Battalion to My Beat plays a fine line between asserting a feminist perspective while retaining the pride of its cultural specificity, taking on how the West still often shows a colonialist regard upon women in the Mediterranean, projecting an assumption of neutral equality based on their own Western culture and expectations, upon an entirely different culture, which often ends up being portrayed as inherently “anti-female” and inferior. The climax of the film comes when the young Mariam literally takes control of the entire battalion which dances to her beat as she drums on the desert floor (impossible not to think of Claire Denis here again). Unfortunately, however, the young Mariam can only express herself as a young feminist by becoming a good patriot.
With the exception of Sit and Watch, which was in the more experimental Laboratory section of Clermont-Ferrand, the majority of the films in both the International and French competitions followed the traditional tropes and formats of the festival film. Yet two other films stood out for their cinematic expression.
The expressionist film And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool (d. Makato Nagahisa) follows four Japanese teen girls wallowing in ennui in their insignificant backwater town. The film was one of the few in the festival to ensure images had taken stock of the changes in how imagery is used and shared among younger generations. And what better world to explore than the image-making and image–sharing of social media in that peculiar world of teenage girls halfway precocious and cruel (the girls set up a fake date with a hopeful twenty-something for the express purpose of humiliating him) and halfway innocent and girly (singing a J-pop song while dancing an a karaoke bar)?
Nagahisa’s film makes deft use of cellphones, emojis, creative titling and quick editing in a film narrated from the perspective of the teen girls, narration which allows his cinema to expand the possible images in the film. Images recoded with professional cameras are mixed with cellphone images, with recordings from mini cameras placed in drinking glasses, vending machines, bowling balls (thanks Coen brothers…). This diversity of shots and formats is mixed with other omnipresent image sources, such as phone screens, Google Street and Google Earth, or those from the purikura booth (ubiquitous photo booths in Japan which allow you to print stickers and which comes from the English “print club”), all which convey well the feeling of an adolescence contemporarily expressed.
The young girls inevitably get into trouble in the idleness of their small town, dumping hundreds of goldfish stolen from a local fair into their school pool one summer night (hence the title). There is something delightful about their small transgressions which creates a bonding link in a film about the bizarreness and awkwardness that is childhood friendship, and creates one of the most visually standout films of the festival.
Another kind of unique friendship is on display in Le film de l’été (A Summer’s Film, Emmanuel Marr), the well-deserved winner of the Grand Prix in the French competition. This film too tells a tale of summer, of idleness, of amity, here between a 37 year-old failing filmmaker and his nine year-old nephew. If And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool is an erratic, excited and antsy portrait of friendship, A Summer’s Film is a melancholic, thoughtful, patient pendant, more impressionist than expressionist.
Phillippe, who is not so much having a mid-life crisis, as drifting down life’s stream, accompanies his brother and child on the way to an interview for a media job. Being somewhat of a disorganised and self-destructive artist, he never makes it to the interview because he loses the address and arrives late (both willingly, perhaps). Their road trip is unexpectedly extended when the boy’s mother leaves him with father and uncle for a few extra days, and in the idleness of this accidental road trip, they enjoy some pure moments devoid of goal or destination.
Reminiscent of the cinematographic freedom of 1970s French cinema (especially Alain Cavalier’s Le plein de super, from 1976, another road-trip film) and liberated from the necessity of plot, the film poetically drifts through the threads that bind the uncle and his nephew. The arbitrary dialogue, chance encounters, musical changes and unexpected pit stops trace with a weighty lightness the significance of a familial relationship through impressionistic moments in an accidental voyage. Shooting gorgeously in the Academy ratio, Marr gives a subtle touch to the disparate moments of this road trip, exploring the melancholy of idleness and the relationship between nephew and uncle. Poetic, thoughtful and existential, the significance of A Summer’s Film emanates from its imagery, from its colours and movements and words, as it should in the best cinema.
Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival
3-11 February 2017
Festival website: http://www.clermont-filmfest.com/