13th Bradford International Film Festival, 9-24 March 2007

The Anthropology of Film

by Philip Gillett Volume 11, Issue 4 / April 2007 19 minutes (4668 words)

The Bradford Film Festival celebrated entering its teens by proclaiming its international credentials. The event has always been international, but at least newcomers cannot mistake its aspirations. Apart from the staple festival fare of premieres and previews this year’s offerings included five retrospective seasons, a film and music weekend, the regular widescreen weekend (where else can you experience Cinerama?), the Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards, the Shine Award for the best short film, a cinefile strand of documentaries about film-makers and an exploration of the work of little-known and up-and-coming American film-makers. Thirty British and five European premieres featured among the screenings in what is one of Britain’s larger festivals. Every cinemagoer should find something of interest and there are plenty of opportunities to explore new areas.

The opening film was the UK premiere of Amazing Grace (Michael Apted, GB, 2006), the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign against slavery. The film was released in time for the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and has already been seen in America. In his opening address the director made clear that his aim was to concentrate on the politics rather than making a biopic. He succeeds to the extent that the Parliamentary scenes are the most successful parts of the film, but elsewhere it lapses into the standard biopic fare. The stock characters are there: the mentor (Albert Finney as John Newton), the friend who encourages our hero when the going gets tough (Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt) and the faithful, supportive wife (Romola Garai). The characters are believable enough to prevent the story from dwindling into an historical tableau, but the Great Man view of history is harder to avoid: abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson and John Newton are relegated to the periphery, while the social forces unleashed by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution are ignored. The flashback structure might have worked on the page, but it becomes confusing when characters fail to age. A documentary would be more telling and in these days it can be a commercial proposition.

A mock documentary approach is adopted for Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigrr, Australia, 2006), an Australian Aboriginal tale of infidelity, revenge and inter-tribal quarrelling. Switching between colour and black and white photography seems to be this year’s cliché, creeping into several films. It is used here to distinguish between the ancestral tale and the present, but this works against the emphasis on the unchanging rhythms of the Aborigines’ lives. Practices like building canoes and sleeping in trees to avoid crocodiles gain a ritualistic quality, so why do we need to place the story at a particular point in time? The arch commentary and the unseen camera point up the artifice of pretending that the last few hundred years have not happened. The interest lies in how we adapt to empathising with the tribe instead of the individual. A real documentary might have been more illuminating and some cutting might improve the pace.

White men never appear in Ten Canoes, but four films touch on colonialism from different perspectives. Catch a Fire (Philip Noyce, France/GB/S. Africa/US, 2006) is based on the true story of how circumstances turned Patrick Chamusso from an apolitical refinery foreman into an ANC activist pursued by Afrikaner security chief Nick Vos (Tim Robbins). The political context is more fully realised than in Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, but I was left not knowing what was true and what was made up, an uncertainty which breeds cynicism and indifference. Noyce has succumbed to the Spielberg syndrome: introducing the real Chamusso at the end of the film to make clear that this is history in the making and to heighten the emotional resonance. Instead the heavy-handed device proclaims directorial uncertainty: the story should stand on its own. Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb, France/Morocco/Algeria/Belgium, 2006) contains a similar scene in which one of the characters returns as an old man to view to the graves of his colleagues who died in the liberation of France. The story of North Africans who fought there is an unusual topic and the film has provoked soul-searching in France. The problem is whether anything new can be brought to scenes of fighting. Their impact is blunted by colour and the wide screen, which remind us that this is a modern recreation. I’d have preferred a greater concentration on racial and class tensions. Controversy has also surrounded Water (Deepa Mehta, Canada/India, 2005), with the director receiving death threats and the film’s release being delayed. Set in the 1930s when the movement for Indian independence was gathering pace (Gandhi makes a token appearance), this is an account how a Hindu child widow faces life in an ashram for widows. The grimness is leavened by a romance between a beautiful young widow whose prostitution supports the ashram and an Indian intellectual who advocates the modernisation of society. Progress and tradition are set to clash. The story fits into a fictional format more successfully than the films already considered, though the Hollywood ending blunts the effect. For Bread Alone (Rachid Benhadj, Italy/Morocco, 2005) is based on the autobiographical novel by Nobel nominated Mohamed Choukri, who died during the planning of the film. Choukri comes into contact with nationalism in prison and learns to read and write. I was left unmoved despite the character’s privations. This is a rites of passage film which seems too concerned with ticking all the boxes: brutal father, impoverished childhood, petty crime and conversion to a new life. Apparently the film follows the book closely. Perhaps it needs to risk being less reverential and more cinematic. And there’s that Spielberg syndrome to contend with again.

In the case of four films the circumstances of production are as interesting as the film itself. In January 2nd (Matt Winn, GB, 2006), a group of old friends now in their thirties gather in a remote farmhouse to celebrate the new year, but time has changed their relationships. This is a dialogue-based film which could be seen as another study of self-absorbed, middle-class characters. Certainly the isolated location excludes the outside world, but the film has wit, it is about real emotions and it explores the way friendships are put to the test. A question and answer session with the producer Ivan Clements revealed that the ending caused problems and was changed. My own feeling is that going back on the central couple’s decision to separate is arbitrary and closes the film on a false note. Targeting the thirty-something age group is a commercial risk and among the audience at the screening, opinions on the film were divided. Women liked it, as did men in their thirties, while older men felt that it covered well-trodden ground. There were few young people to ask. Dark Water Rising (Mike Shiley, US, 2006) is a documentary account of rescuing pets after the flooding of New Orleans. Some incidental details are intriguing like the prevalence of pit bull terriers scarred from fighting, the bonding of prisoners with the animals left in their care and the factionalism of the rescuers, but the primary interest resides in what the film does not say. With one exception the animal lovers seen descending on the city in their SUVs are white. Most are middle class. Nobody shows any concern for the fate of the citizens, with one rescuer confessing that while the sight of a dead human does not affect him, an animal’s body makes him shed a tear. Not surprisingly he separates from his wife after his experience. I am not sure whether this is a naive film or a subtle critique of American society. Tangshan, Tangshan (Kevin Chu, Hong Kong, 2006) offers no such equivocations. After an earthquake which leaves bodies draped decorously over the rubble, Han Wei brings up two boys, one from China and one from Japan, with the help of her admirer. This de facto family fragments when the Japanese boy is reunited with his parents and the admirer contracts cancer, but the family is seen again two decades later, by which time the admirer is restored to health and married to Han Wei, while the Japanese boy is a successful engineer who has returned to develop the region. This film eschews any criticism of communism and stresses co-operation between Japan and China. The politics are more interesting than the characters in this rose-tinted picture of life in China. Border Post (GB/Serbia-Montenegro/Croatia/Slovenia/Macedonia/Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2006) is the first cinematic collaboration between the countries of the former Yugoslavia, along with the UK. Recent wounds have not healed enough for the internecine conflict to be looked at dispassionately, so the film is set in the Yugoslav era, which is less contentious. The enemy is Albania, with troops at the Yugoslav border post awaiting an imminent attack which never comes. Meanwhile the post’s commander is cuckolded by the doctor treating him for syphilis. This film is in the Balkan tradition of black comedy, which is one way of coming to terms with the past. The Bradford audience found this an enjoyable film, though the sting in the tail stills the laughter. Infinite Justice (Jami Dehlavi, GB, 2006) resembles Syriana in its labyrinthine view of middle-eastern politics and Water in the centrality of religion (Muslim in this case). Based loosely on the death of Daniel Pearl, the film has done well in Karachi and at several European festivals. How it will play on the other side of the Atlantic is another matter: the final scene may upset some audiences. The flashbacks to one of the kidnapper’s miserable experiences in an English boarding school struck me as clumsy, while less action might have allowed more room for characterisation. This is a brave film which tries not to take sides in the conflict, but I was left unclear what point Dehlavi is making.

A high point of the festival was the work of the Chinese director Ying Liang. Taking Father Home (China, 2005) is his first feature which has been acclaimed at the Tokyo and Rotterdam festivals. A young man leaves the countryside which is about to be flooded in a development scheme and searches for his father in the city. His search is successful, but disillusioning. Ironically the flood comes to the city. Ying’s portrait of a developing society comes vividly to life without compromising the personal story. The Other Half (China, 2006) is set in the same Sichuan province, but uses ambient sound rather than music. The central character is a girl working in a law office, whose story is interspersed with the cases she encounters. Life is disrupted when an explosion at a local chemical works necessitates a widespread evacuation, parallelling the flood in the first film. Once again the societal and the personal are combined with exemplary skill, revealing Chinese attitudes to issues such as environmental pollution and youth culture. The film offers an intriguing glimpse at the Chinese legal system, while images of the girl wondering the abandoned city linger in the mind, even if the purpose of replaying one scene backwards at the end of the film defeats me. Ying is working on two more features which should not to be missed.

This has been a patchy year for European film. The stereotype emerging from the former Soviet bloc countries and evident in Border Post is of men who chain-smoke and drink copious quantities of vodka when not injecting themselves or devising scams. In Pitbull (Patryk Vega, Poland, 2005) it is policemen who ruin their lungs and livers, but we have seen too many films and television series about the effect of police work on the private lives of officers for this to offer anything new. On the other side of the legal divide is Zero (Emilis Welyvis, Lithuania, 2006), which draws together three stories about lawbreakers in a violent climax. I longed for a respite from their sheer nastiness, but it never came. The characters learn nothing from their experiences; neither did I. Tomorrow Morning (Oleg Novkovic, Serbia, 2006) was highly regarded at Cottbus and liked by some audience members at Bradford, though for me this account of a Serbian returning home after twelve years in Canada never got away from the glum stereotype. At least the women who stay at home are more interesting. Destined for Blues (Jan Kidawa-Blonski, Poland 2005) is the story of Ryszard Riedel, a rock singer who found fame in Poland before succumbing to drugs –a process which is shown in graphic detail. Whether the film portrays Poland in a state of change as the programme note proclaims is debatable. I found it too close to the conventional rock biopic to have a wider relevance, but perhaps that is the point: Poland is repeating the mistakes of other Western countries. More rewarding was The Feast of St Barbara (Maciej Pieprzyca, Poland, 2005), an update of the Cinderella story. Basia is selected to meet a soap star who is grudgingly undertaking a promotional tour which includes the Silesian mining town. The relationship which develops surprises them both. Deft handling by actors and director keeps whimsy at bay. The result is an involving story which conveys the texture of life in an industrial town where the values of the media age have barely infiltrated and religion still holds sway. Here I did feel society in a state of change. This second work by Pieprzyca was highly rated by the Bradford audience. He has already learned the art of being concise: the film runs for 76 minutes, which comes as a relief after some bloated efforts, though distributors may find it too short. Also worthy of note is Fresh Air (Kocsis Agnes, Hungary, 2006) which has done well at the Budapest and Cannes festivals. This story of an obsessive toilet attendant and her troubled relationship with her daughter who wants to be a fashion designer might seem unpromising material, but as in Pieprzyca’s film you care about the characters. Kocsis has an artist’s eye for colour and composition even in mundane surroundings. Nor is she afraid to hold shots, creating a sense of ritual out of the mundane. What comes across is the desire of a younger generation for a better life, together with the realisation that it may not be achieved.

A Summer Day (Franck Guerin, France, 2006) was the most interesting of the French offerings. This coming-of-age story follows Sebastien’s distress after his friend is killed in a freak accident. The impact of the tragedy on a small community is convincingly drawn and the class differences between Sebastien and his friend’s upper class family are explored, The narrative occasionally lacks clarity, but the mood of baffled helplessness is well captured. My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, France, 2006) is a slighter work in which a Parisian antique dealer discovers that he has no friends and asks an amiable taxi driver for help. Daniel Auteuil makes the most of the central role of François, but as François has built up a business and acquired a wife and a daughter, the laboured acquisition of social skills like some latter day Eliza Dolittle seems unnecessary. There is a more thought-provoking study of friendship and its absence to be had. Tell No One (Guillaume Carnet, France, 2006) is a convoluted thriller. A doctor’s wife disappears and eight years later he is suspected of killing her when two bodies are discovered near the site of her disappearance. The pace is hectic after a leisurely start, the story implausible and the chase through Paris exciting, but I had the feeling that I’d been there before. All the French films are well crafted and good to look at, but the experience of watching them resembled being wafted along in a well-upholstered limousine. Sometimes a white-knuckle ride on a motorbike makes a welcome contrast.

A seemingly permanent feature of festivals is the sumptuous Italian film about a photogenic boy who grapples with a world of nasty adults like descendent of the boy in Bicycle Thieves. This year’s example is Salvatore (Gian Paula Cugno, Italy, 2006). Salvatore is an orphan who is aided by a sympathetic teacher in his battle with the authorities and the business world. Everything comes right in the end and even the nasty characters turn out to have hearts of gold. The Caiman (Nanni Moretti, Italy/France, 2006) is altogether more interesting and was my highlight of the festival. At a previous visit to Bradford I talked to an Italian director who bemoaned the difficulty of making films under Berlusconi’s government. The Caiman was shot late in the administration and is a biting indictment of the media mogul cum politician. Producer Bruno Bonomo (Silvio Orlando) has passed the peak of his career and struggles to keep his marriage intact and finance his latest picture. Finally he abandons his struggles and goes ahead with an indictment of Berlusconi. Few directors whose work appears in the festival dare to tackle big themes head on and none succeeds so triumphantly as Moretti. His left-wing views are well known, but the film avoids polemics and seamlessly marries Bonomo’s story with the politics. As always with Moretti, humanity shines through. This ranks beside Day for Night and among films about film-makers.

Scandinavia was represented by two films. The Boss of It All (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2006) was eagerly awaited and shows the director sampling low-budget comedy. Ravn has failed to tell his employees that he owns their company, so when a takeover is in the offing he employs an actor to play the boss. This amiable satire on office life has a passing resemblance to the BBC’s The Office. The director’s gleeful disregard for the conventions of editing and continuity can be disconcerting, but this slight work was one of the funniest films of the festival. There are no laughs in Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/Germany/France, 2006), but there is an undercurrent of dark humour. This final episode of the director’s Finland trilogy follows another of Kaurismäki’s loners, a security guard who is lured by a beautiful girl into allowing thieves into the shopping mall where he works. Fortunately there is a girl who loves him, even if it takes him a long time to notice her. Kaurismäki charts the world of ordinary people pushed to the fringes of society. His films are short and dark, while offering glimpses of what life could be. My doubt is whether anybody would go to prison to shield a girl who has so obviously used him and whom he barely knows, but this is a study of faith in another person which is maintained against all the odds. Perhaps credibility has to be pushed to these limits. At least the ending holds the promise of something better. With the trilogy complete, it will be interesting to see the director in a different mood.

A film which could slip under the critical radar is Six Figures (David Christensen, Canada, 2005). A young professional couple find their lives turned upside down when the wife is attacked and the husband becomes the chief suspect. This is Strindberg country, the emphasis being on the imploding family rather than the police investigation which is sidelined rather too cursorily. We are placed with the characters in not knowing what happened, but experiencing the fallout from events. Those who like their mysteries resolved will be disappointed, but first-rate acting and taut direction make this chamber piece emotionally draining. The same can be said of Edmond (Stuart Gordon, US, 2005) in which William H. Macy is a mild-mannered businessman who takes a tarot card reading too seriously, leaving his wife and taking a walk on the wild side in New York. David Mamet’s play has been minimally adapted for the screen, but once the central premise is accepted, Macy’s performance grips the attention. Edmond’s sanity may be in doubt, but he never loses his spirit.

Uncharted States of America is an eclectic collection of experimental films, documentaries and conventional features by first-time directors. The most accomplished work among those I saw was Analog Days (Mike Ott, 2006) which falls into the third category. The influence of John Hughes is acknowledged in this loosely-structured account of students at a community college. We are at the end of the analog era, before mobile phones became ubiquitous. The characters’ activities are inconsequential, but Ott exposes the subtext of pretension, aimlessness and expectation which is adolescence. All the skills of the film-maker are already in place. Dance Party, USA (Aaron Katz, 2006) explores similar territory, with teenagers attending a party. Hormones are raging, but Katz concentrates on the conversations rather than the sex, catching the vulnerability behind the bravado. Relying on close-ups of talking heads with an untried cast is a risky strategy, but the film held my interest, which is a tribute to the director and his actors. More offbeat is Police Beat (Robinson Devor, 2005). A cop from Senegal known as Z covers his beat in Seattle on a bicycle. We overhear his thoughts (in Wolof, his native language) as he encounters a range of bizarre cases drawn from Seattle police files. This is a sad film which conveys a sense of drifting through an alien world as our hero dreams of home and of graduating to a patrol car. It is worlds away from other police films and leavened by flashes of humour such as when Z chases a speeding cyclist across the park.

Each retrospective was introduced by the director. Patrick Keiller specialises in the hinterland between documentaries and fictional stories. London (GB, 1994) may look like a conventional travelogue, but the narration invests it with a sense of mystery. The narrator is the companion or the lover of Robinson, who is never seen, but appears to be a loner and a seedy intellectual. The two men wander through London, unearthing its hidden corners as the artist Geoffrey Fletcher used to do in the 1960s. In a talk at the screening Keiller reminded us that Robinson was a character in Kafka’s Amerika. There is something of Kafka in our omniscient but unseen hero. The effect is unsettling. Keiller’s recent films are more polemical, resembling Ian Nairn’s cries of despair about our built environment. The pity is that Keiller’s work is not generally available.

Other directors who attended the festival to introduce their work were Denis Dercourt, Terence Davies, Ken Loach and Godfrey Reggio. Dercourt teaches music, but his family background is in the cinema industry. Most of his films combine his two interests. Floating World (France, 2006) is an exception. Shot in Japan on DV, it begins with a static camera recording in grainy CCTV images the comings and goings in a hospital corridor over the course of ten minutes. Eventually we home in on a girl who has to make a life-altering decision. This minimalist work divided audiences. Some found it tedious; for others it was hypnotic. I was in the former camp, but I’m willing to be converted. I preferred The Freelancers (France, 1998) a freewheeling and light-hearted story of freelance musicians. Later works like Lise et André (France, 2000) and The Page Turner (France, 2006) struck me as contrived. Terence Davies is the Delius of film and is open to the same accusation of formlessness as the composer. He reminds me of the boy at school who is too sensitive for his own good. Nor can he let go of the past. Distant Voices, Still Lives (GB, 1988) was shown in a new print and for me it suffers from too generalised a sense of the past (radio programmes from different periods go into the melange), while the choice of music is inept. This is epitomised by the ending. Why should an impressionist account of working-class life be accompanied by the folk song ‘O Waly, Waly’ which Pears and Britten transform into an art song? It is symptomatic of how Davies refashions his own childhood, an activity which has more psychological than cinematic interest. The film is altogether too precious. The House of Mirth (GB, 2000) works better, with Edith Wharton’s novel providing the structure which is lacking in Davies’s more personal works. I also have trouble with Ken Loach, whose politics can overwhelm his sense of drama. My Name is Joe (GB, 1998) was one of the most moving films in the festival because it concentrates on one relationship and sidelines the politics. Carla’s Song (GB/Germany/Spain, 1996) contains a potentially interesting central relationship, this time between a Glaswegian bus driver and a Nicaraguan refugee, but it soon loses its edge of gritty realism in favour of a Notting Hill type romance before lurching unconvincingly into Nicaraguan politics. The film was shown in the director’s cut which is twenty minutes shorter than the original, a sign of Loach’s own reservations.

This was a stronger year for shorts than 2006. The winner of the Shine Award was Miramar Street (Jon Garaño, Spain, 2006) in which a taxi driver is asked to take a passenger to an address he knows well. This is a neatly-plotted film which fails to exercise the imagination. My choice from the shortlist was Private Life (Abbé Robinson, GB, 2006), which has already won the Planet Out Award at Miami and the 2006 Yorkshire Short Film Award. This story of two girls working in a textile mill who have unexpected private lives held my interest, life in the 1950s is evoked effectively and technical standards are high. Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty (James Debenham, GB, 2006) is shot like a television commercial, but questions the values of the consumer society which are embodied in commercials. Debenham’s film never made the short list, but it has vitality and a great score from Big Strides.

This year’s festival was hit by more than its fair share of cancellations, so we are left to speculate about films like Klimt, which was withdrawn after an adverse reception at other festivals. DVDs made up for the non-appearance of prints, notably in the case of Dangerous Men (John S. Rad, US, 2005). The director died two weeks before the festival and police sealed his property, complete with all prints of the film. Fans of Ed Wood will love this riot of bad acting, inept dialogue and dodgy plotting.

As the Bradford festival closes for another year, it leaves me with several unresolved issues. First, the purpose of festivals needs considering. There are trade jamborees like Cannes, critically prestigious affairs like Venice or Berlin and a host of events such as the Bradford festival which bring a range of cinema to local audiences. This final category is by no means a poor relation. We need to understand past ages and other cultures and cinema can help us to do this. Festivals should disseminate and democratise film as well as highlighting what is best and what is new. If some films are destined never to leave the ghetto of the festival, we have to find ways of making festivals more enticing to audiences who do not normally attend. Secondly, audiences at Bradford were noticeably older this year, which presents the paradox that young people seem less adventurous in their cinema-going than their elders. The challenge is to attract the young if festivals like Bradford are to flourish in the future. Finally, watching a film can be a passive and a lonely experience, so ways of involving audiences are essential. Question and answer sessions with directors, writers and actors are popular at Bradford. Voting for the best film is another option, but even better are opportunities for audience members to talk about what they have seen. This is done informally if there is time, but timetabled slots for discussions led by enthusiasts for the films would be even better. Having said that, my abiding memories of the Bradford festival are the friends I made there and the discussions we had. Long may it survive.

Philip Gillett is a freelance writer on film and author of The British Working Class in Postwar Film (MUP, 2003) and Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema (Berg, 2008), a re-examination of the film canon. Other essays include “Capturing the true moment: realism in British cinema of the late 1940s, its antecedents and its legacy,” which appeared in Film International Vol. 4, Issue 24, Movember 2006. Gillett has a third book forthcoming entitled Film and Morality.

Volume 11, Issue 4 / April 2007 Festival Reports bradford film festivalshort film