Here are my thoughts on the seven films I watched on Days 4 & 5 of the Sydney Film Festival – Corn Island, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Club, The Summer of Sangaile, The Wolfpack, Eisenstein In Guanajuato and the competition entry A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence.
Corn Island represented Georgia for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and was shortlisted (but not nominated). This is a film made for appreciators of cinematography. A grand feat of filmmaking – considering the premise and location – it is shot on 35mm and looks absolutely gorgeous. With less than a dozen total lines of dialogue, the narrative is reliant on these extraordinary images.
Corn Island is set on the Eguri River, which runs as a border between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, a territory that has been contested and been the cause of violent conflict since the early 90’s. Every Spring small islands of fertile soil are created – and one such island is territorially claimed by an elderly farmer; a new settlement for sowing corn and a haven of peace and tranquility.
Over the perfectly paced runtime we watch this island hypnotically grow into a functioning civilisation before our eyes, and the process is conveyed in meticulous detail. The territory – a neutral space between the conflict, as gun-toting soldiers zip past in their boat and give the old man a respectful nod – appears from beneath the river and begins as a bare strip of land. It offers the bare essentials and necessities; everything required to survive – food, water, shelter. But in times of conflict, every calm is at risk of threat.
The farmer, with the help of his teenage granddaughter, builds a house from the ground up with the lumber he transports over in his boat. They bring simple bedding. They cultivate the soil and sow the corn. We witness the passing of time through the growth of the corn stalks. They cast out a fishing basket for daily nutrition, cook by fire, and bask in the sun to rest. The simplicity of this existence is invigorating. The old man has an almost-unspoken relationship with his granddaughter, who observes his skills and we begin to follow her more as she takes on greater responsibility. We see her blossom into womanhood – and there are moments in her development that are dramatically punctuated. When an injured soldier seeks refuge they find the troupes that formerly rode past quietly are at their door, and they know that island life will never be the same.
I was blown away by this film. I have never seen anything quite like it, and it is a lesson in how to purely use the medium to tell a story and convey theme without dialogue. It is a tremendous achievement and one of the best of the Sydney Film Festival so far.
Diary of a Teenage Girl – And? So? This is a showcase of the talents of Bel Powley, who is a going to be a star, and features a pretty decent performance from Alexander Skarsgard, but is a forgettable film that doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the teen sexpolits canon. It is an adaptation of Pheobe Gloeckner’s acclaimed 70′-set graphic novel.
The problem: I have seen a lot of films recently that cover similar territory. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Molly Maxwell and Ask Me Anything to name a few. I hated Nymphomaniac, but the other three films are all far superior in my opinion. Molly Maxwell is a gifted artist who threatens her future by having an affair with her teacher, and in Ask Me Anything, a bright recent high school graduate chronicles her sexual exploits with older men on anonymous blog. Here, the affair is with her waif of a mother’s dopey boyfriend.
This is set in the 70’s and Minnie records everything on tape, but it accomplishes pretty much the same thing as Ask Me Anything does for the present day. On that note, outside of the aesthetic qualities that the 70’s setting brings, it adds little to the story. I just didn’t care about anyone in this film, and it doesn’t help that all of the characters around Minnie are thinly drawn fragments of her life. It is emotionally honest – and as ideally scattershot as the diary ramblings of a promiscous, sex-obsessed teenage girl’s diary – and Minnie’s experiences are candid and explicitly conveyed, but I grew pretty tired of this.
The Club – Pablo Larrain’s latest film won the Jury Grand Prix at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, and is the anticipated follow-up to his brilliant Oscar-nominated No.
Throughout this challenging and deeply affecting film I was dealing with a mounting sense of dread. Something awful was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. This searing film about the Catholic Church is set in a small seaside town and predominantly in the home of four disgraced and banished priests, who have been instructed to purge their past sins under the watchful eye of a female caretaker. They have a strict but stable routine, and communicating with anyone outside of the house is forbidden. Most of their leisure time is spent training a greyhound, which they race locally and bet on. Their sanctuary is threatened by the arrival of a fifth priest, a newly disgraced paedophile, who is recognised by a local fisherman mistreated by the priest in his youth. This altercation places the clan under a siege of condemnation, and leads to the visit of another priest – an investigator seeking a reason to shut them down. I dare not reveal the dark sequence events to follow.
The outed sins of the priesthood have been addressed recently in films like Calvary, but Larrain has brought this topic to his native Chile, and infused his own indictment with unnerving atmospherics and a deep-set sense of humour. He is undertaking a moral interrogation, somehow managing to avoid demonising the priests. I didn’t understand everything I witnessed in this film – but I have interpreted what Larrain was going for in my own way, and I am satisfied with that – but I have not been able to shake it. The discussion of sexual abuse, for one thing, is uncomfortably candid.
The acting is excellent and the score, punctuated by bell-tolling, spells foreboding. Another distinct attribute is the use of natural lighting, which sometimes creates a foggy-focused image that enshrouds the priests in a silhouette. As is clear with No, Larrain is not interested in conventional storytelling methods, revealing these priests at a jarring pace and offering repeated snapshots of their routine – notably the training of a greyhound on the beach. There is a theme of betrayal here, which extends to youths who have dedicated themselves to the Church practices only to find themselves mistreated at the hands of men they trust and are loyal to.
I feel like The Club is going to continue growing on me and may need another look. Whether I have the guts to do another go round will be decided when I get the chance to see it again. When that will be is uncertain.
The Summer of Sangaile, surprisingly the winner of Best Director at Sundance for Alanté Kavaïté, was about two things that didn’t really gel that well. I found one to be quite interesting. This Lithuanian drama is not a typical sexual awakening, ‘life-changing summer-experiences’ film, but it isn’t a particularly compelling one.
Sangaile has dreams of flying stunt planes but suffers from vertigo and is terrified of heights. Her anxieties and belief that she will never be able to pursue her aspirations lead to her cutting herself and being despondent and lacking confidence. While on summer holiday she meets Auste at an aeronautic show, a local girl of her own age who lives her life to the full. She works multiple jobs, takes photographs and designs her own clothes. She falls for Sangaile, inviting her into her posse of friends and into her room. The pair become sexually intimate, and after Auste learns about Sangaile’s secret she becomes the catalyst for her overcoming her fears.
This is a stylistically-heightened film. There are some gorgeous visuals of the stunning landscape, and an interesting use of music, but a lot of indulgent shots that don’t add anything to the story. The narrative is padded with [pretty] flight footage, obviously essential to the story, but I think this would have been better suited to a short film. I found the vertigo angle to be the most rewarding, but the romance involved too much rolling around in the grass under soft lighting for my liking. Despite the brave performances from the young actresses.
The Wolfpack tells an incredible, and very sad, story about the power of cinema as escapism, but unfortunately the assembly is not strong. The Wolfpack screened at the Sydney Film Festival to a packed house of film fans, perhaps expecting to see some accurate re-enactments of classic films. For the Angulo siblings the movies are all that they have. Locked away from the outside world in their Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, the siblings – six longhaired brothers are the core of this study, though they do have a younger sister – satisfy their curiosity and need to explore through their favourite movies. Some years they ventured outside a handful of times. Others none at all. Having watched the films in their extensive film collection over and over again they come to believe that they accurately represent the world they are being denied. Given privileged access director Crystal Moselle tells their story, tries to understand the reasoning for their ruled isolation, and observes them in their daily life.
The film doesn’t really delve into the creation of their exceptional re-enactments that much. We see one of the siblings pausing the films to write the dialogue, and explaining what their fantastic makeshift costumes are made of, but it isn’t a large part of the documentary. We don’t really understand what has inspired their father to inflict such a regime, either, and he is present for much of the filming. In the latter stages – following a relieving reveal – we do see the siblings marvelling at the most mundane everyday things, largely ignored and unappreciated by the average person. These siblings have a greater appreciation for the world due to their unique situation, and the hearts of every viewer should be with them for having endured such an unrelatable upbringing. This is a fascinatingly tragic story, but it is a disappointing film. Structurally it is messy – home video footage is thrown in haphazardly – and Moselle seems unsure of what to do with all of her material. Still, an inspiring tale of the strength of the human spirit and the power an imagination can yield.
Eisenstein In Guanajuato – I have never seen a Peter Greenaway film (mistake before this) but I have seen several by the legendary Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein. My admiration for his work is the primary reason why I booked in this film. It is something else. It is a crazy cock-out (literally) film about the legendary auteur coming to Mexico and not making a film, but finding himself in a foreign place and financially, politically and sexually vulnerable. I took this to be very (very) loosely based on an actual venture in Eisenstein’s life, and the experience that shaped him after he returned to the Soviet Union and recommenced his career. Top acting and aesthetic experiment-ing, but after so many monologues I left feeling talked out.
The veteran Greenaway has thrown in every flashy trick in the book here – split screens using footage from Eisenstein’s films, and photos of the people referenced, and elaborate tracking shots – and the smorgasbord of techniques used here is an enthralling marvel. The acting from Elmer Bach as Eisenstein has so much energy it is tiring just watching him. If you have no awareness of Eisenstein’s career you probably won’t get much out of this film, but if you’re adventurous you will find plenty to take away.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence – My second go-round with Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson (along with You, The Living – the second in his ‘Living Trilogy) and it is an expectedly strange experience.
The first half of this highly original and meticulous crafted film – the incredible sets are all built from scratch, the mise en scene is loaded with hilarious detail and the comic timing is of a brand all of its own – is very very funny, but the film gradually and purposefully takes a darker and more morally questionable approach to the commentary. For some, this will become a very tedious sit. While I am still trying to figure out what Andersson is going for in some of these late vignettes, most of the film is so clever and amusing that I resist the urge to be critical of the film as a whole.
We follow two characters through multiple vignettes – a pair of hapless novelty items salesmen – and the success trajectory of this film can be read through them. The initial sequences are brilliant. The latter, boring. I was reflecting today on some of my favourite moments from this film – and there are some incredible scenes – but the chances of me watching it again are very slim. I appreciate the filmmaking, but I don’t love the film.