Days 6 through 8 are where things get tough. Back to work, and squeezing in a double in the evening is sure to leave even an experienced festival-goer struggling. But, it was not to be. I have persevered through the toughest tests of stamina and have collated my immediate thoughts on seven more films. They are: Welcome to Leith, Cartel Land, Tehran Taxi, Dope, Black Souls, Our Little Sister and Victoria.
Welcome to Leith is set in the tiny town of Leith in North Dakota. 3 square miles. 24 residents. Including kids. Everyone knows everyone, and the place is peaceful. When the reclusive and mysterious Craig Cobb moves into a vacant lot (and starts buying up land for cheap), the locals becomes suspicious. It turns out that he is a notorious white supremacist and has been contacting like-minded people and inviting them to Leith. He knows that it wouldn’t take too many votes to gain power of the district. As his behaviour becomes more threatening, the residents unite and wrestle with democratic principles to fight back against their unwanted neighbour.
Filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s determination to see both sides of the story is what makes this a standout documentary. Funded by Kickstarter, it is a pulsating and extraordinarily balanced thriller – we are taken into the homes of the citizens of Leith as they try and figure out a way to get rid of this bastard, and the home of one of the NSM (National Socialist Movement) families as they cook dinner and express how they feel they have been violated. Both sides feel so strongly about their civil rights that they allow the cameras in, and often willingly supplied privileged iPhone footage.
We are immersed in this civil war – at the front of the siege, in the council rooms where the decisions are made, and within the homes of these panicked citizens trying to avoid life-threatening unrest. It is terrifying to think that this all actually happened. Ending with a cliffhanger, this taut and brilliantly constructed documentary will chill you to your core.
Cartel Land – Things sure are messed up in Mexico. With drug cartels taking over the lawless rural regions of Southern Mexico, a campaign is set up amongst citizens to rid the area of their influence. Led by the charismatic Dr Mireles, the initiative is to bear arms and function as a public defence – entering towns and offering their support. Some hail them as heroes, others fear they are as bad as the villains they are trying to eradicate.
Cartel Land is a jaw-dropping achievement by Sundance Director and Cinematography winner Matthew Heineman, made under immense risk. The line between the good and the bad is blurred in this explosively cinematic and nerve-shredding documentary, as Mireles’ campaign – already way outside the realms of the law – fires further out of control. These guys may at one point have been a beacon of hope for political support, but having amassed so much power that they have turned to extortion of the local people. Under the guise of civilian militia they have become a dangerous defence cartel.
The film adopts another perspective that perhaps isn’t as successful, but essential; a brigade of ex-soldiers patrolling the hills across the Rio-Grande. Set up at first as a private – and perhaps extremist – border control outfit, their direction has focused on eradicating these cartels (namely, identifying the scouts). These guys, when they apprehend they hand over to authorities (at least they do for the cameras, anyway), while further South the apprehended are put in the ground. Chilling stuff, and far far more potent than anything Hollywood has ever conjured up on vigilantes and corruption in a lawless land.
Tehran Taxi – Jafar Panahi is back with his third feature since a ban was imposed on him in Iran. Before this were This is Not A Film and Closed Curtain, two films that presented Panahi’s frustration at Iranian censorship. This wonderful new film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and while it still addresses the issues plaguing Iran today it does it in a much more hopeful and optimistic way.
The film opens with a impeccable long take through the front of a taxi windscreen as it cruises through the bustling streets of Tehran. When it stops to pick up a passenger the dashboard camera swivels and reveals Panahi behind the wheel. There is another camera shooting at the back seat. They talk with him about topics as varied as death, art and politics, and he lets them out. One, a merchant of pirated DVD’s, recognises him and attempts to boost his business by claiming that he is his business partner. This man’s iPhone becomes an additional camera when a desperate situation warrants it.
Apart from the merchant who recognises him, most of the other passengers in the film’s consistently amusing first half don’t. For a while we aren’t even sure if his journey is scripted. He may just be cruising around as a social experiment. The second half solves this mystery, and is just as fascinating. Among the new visitors are Panahi’s niece, who is making her own project film and discusses with her uncle what it means to steer clear of “sordid realism”, as instructed. Another is Panahi’s lawyer who helped him when he was imprisoned. In a tremendously touching moment she hands the audience an appreciative rose.
Tehran Taxi challenges the ways that real life and art collide, and the power of cinema as a political tool. But it is also just an ingeniously conceived and executed idea. Panahi has such charisma, cinema would be far less interesting without his films.
Dope – Film festivals offer up quality cinema; which more often than not ends up being more challenging than straight-up entertaining. Then there are films like Dope, energetic and enthusiastic independent films that are a joy to experience repeatedly. These sort of films are essential to programming a strong festival and after a day of heavy, thought-provoking dramas this was the perfect way to end. This is still a competent and well-performed film, but it has a lighter touch than most of the films I have been watching this year.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are geek outcasts in their tough, gang-ridden neighbourhood. They bond over their stubborn idolisation of 90’s hip-hop culture (and there is a hilarious discussion about whether Jay-Z’s The Blueprint can be classified as 90’s) and their punk band. Malcolm is trying to get into Harvard and just needs to keep his nose clean. But, a series of missteps – a girl, of course, proving to be the catalyst – leads to Malcolm and his crew being in the possession of a large stash of ecstasy belonging to a notorious local dealer. Forced to sell it, they use everything at their disposal – their nice-kid reputations and isolated access to the school science and computer labs – to get out clean.
Dope is a Superbad-esque buddy comedy set to pumping hip-hop beats with a perceptive online social media-influenced drug-distribution/marketing twist. Fast-paced and full of style and energy, though the latter is not sustained through the runtime, this is is a very funny film chock full of pop culture references and witty stereotype subversion. The success of the film rests on the comic timing between the central trio and they play off each other beautifully. Moore carries the film effortlessly, but Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is consistently the supporting MVP. The narrative is manic enough to have been a brisk 90 minutes so the story does drag on in the latter half and ties up disappointingly neatly, but as a hip-hop fan this was my jam.
Black Souls is a very slow burn thriller and requires a lot of patience to penetrate the story. It isn’t easy, but gradually the intimate ties within this family become clear. It feels like a descendant of the genre of old. Comparisons to The Godfather are not ridiculous, though this film is certainly not in that sort of league. There aren’t many bodies left behind in this film, but when there is incident it wounds unexpectedly. The acting is exceptional and the cinematographer has taken a leaf out of Gordon Willis’ book. It is also a film that rewards an audience’s trust with an astounding final act capable of multiple readings.
The film is centred around three brothers from a Southern Italian crime family, one of several that operate in the internationally respected ‘Ndrangheta criminal network. The eldest brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), has left the drug game behind and has settled into a simple life raising goats in the Calabrian hills. He lives with his wife and 20-year-old son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo). Leo is restless. He finds himself involved in petty crime and flees to join the uncles he idolises – Luigi (Marco Leonardi), still involved in narcotics trade, and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who has a head for business and relationships. When a feud with a rival family leads to a tragedy, Luciano is forced to confront what he left behind and tried to protect his son from. The feud becomes an internal struggle and the entire family is forced to confront a new cycle of violence escalated by immorality, inexperience and unchecked machismo. This is a rebellious genre work, and while it may seem to be conforming to cliche, it actually sidesteps a lot of what you expect in deft, intelligent ways.
Our Little Sister – The latest film from two-time Cannes winner Hirozaku Kore-eda (I Wish and Like Father, Like Son) came to Sydney straight from contention for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and it tells a very kind and touching story of sibling unity through loss and the desire for independence. His films often deal with themes of family ties, and the strength of love through hardships. It is a very smartly cast and directed film, and though not technically flashy or particularly complex in its ideas, it is a fundamentally perfect crowd-pleaser. It all takes place in a beautiful location, too. It actually reminded me a lot of the locations in Studio Ghibli films like Whisper of the Heart or Kiki’s Delivery Service. The cherry blossoms are blooming, the air is crisp and the rail cars bustle quietly in and out.
Three sisters live together in a large house in the city of Kamakura, inherited from their parents. When their father, divorced from their mother and absent for the last fifteen years, passes away they travel to his home town for the funeral. There they meet their younger teenage half sister, and taken with her shy demeanour but strong will, they invite her to live with them. The three sisters are all very different (but not to comic proportions), and are all in a state of limbo. They all work, but are seeking to advance, and they have not settled down with a man. Any dreams they may have had as a wide-eyed teen have not been realised. Suzu, mature for her age, fits in to her new school easily and achieves success effortlessly. As she comes of age, the older sisters make discoveries of their own and find themselves learning to prepare for a future of independence.
Victoria – This is the one-shot wonder that caused a big stir at Berlin earlier in the year, and it shot straight to the top of my Sydney Film Festival rankings. It is fitting that the first closing credit was for cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. Bravo! While his immense contribution – an artistic marvel and a physical gauntlet – is imperative to the film’s success, the actors – largely improvising their dialogue – are also superb. This is a romance, and a heist film, and the switch never misses a beat.
On one crazy night in Berlin Victoria (Laia Costa), a young woman from Madrid, meets Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his friends. They promise to show her the real Berlin – they have innocent drinks on the balcony of Sonne’s apartment building and wander the streets – but the night soon turns as a favour is called upon the friends from a dangerous gangster whom one of them owes. They must rob a bank and it has to be taken care of that very evening. Charmed by Sonne, and realising that these guys desperately need her help to achieve this, she agrees to join them.
Victoria has a runtime of over two hours, which seems long considering the approach Schipper has taken to tell this story. And it is. But, to build an emotional connection to these characters and allow us to accept Victoria’s decisions, it had to be. There is a substantial amount of time developing the relationship between Victoria and the charismatic Sonne, and this pays off gloriously later on when the pair of them are under extreme pressure and dealing with debilitating emotional stress, and have to trust each other with their lives (and their freedom). This is a bank heist film unlike any other I have seen, because it takes you into the psychology of pulling off such a thing. The group are terrified and react violently toward each other in the lead up. The emotive performances are so convincing that what you are watching transcends the fabric of fictional cinema. It becomes a visceral and immersive experience.
The sheer scope of this film is another reason why the feat is unfathomable. We journey all around Berlin with these characters. In the early stages, we intimately accompany them – and the hand-held work means that we feel like an extension of the group, and not removed or distracted by the dazzling premise – on empty late-night streets. But, during the robbery and in the aftermath, Schipper adds more elements (a police convoy, and two new key locations) that could potentially bring the whole project down. And yet they don’t. A masterpiece.