Jun 102015


It’s been a massive day, but now we’ve passed the halfway point of the festival, with just five days remaining. Daytime subscribers saw four more films, including two competition entries. Let’s jump straight in. The day began once again with a documentary.

Fair warning: I was completely ignorant of Zimbabwean politics going into the first film, so I am likely to have gotten some details wrong.

DEMOCRATS was directed by Camilla Neilsson for BBC Four’s STORYVILLE series, which has recently produced major films including PARTICLE FEVER and THE GATEKEEPERS. The film documents the process, from start to finish, of the creation of Zimbabwe’s constitution by the unlikeliest of alliances. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for decades, but when he stands in front of elected officials here to claim he represents the will of the people, they act like he’s performing stand-up comedy. Following many years of controversial election wins, it was decided that a new constitution would be crafted, through actual debate and discussion with the country’s citizens.

We see the process grow and change, and old hatreds become worn down over the course of years. Two opposing parties, ZANU-PF and MDC-T are initially at each other’s throats, and the documentary team follows the leaders of each party closely. We see dirty tricks played and corruption runs rampant, but through the persistence of both the documentary crew and the two parties involved, good does come of the process. This is potentially impossibly dense material, but this documentary gives us characters to follow and makes the process as clear as I can imagine it being told. It’s a very impressive achievement.

I am not quite as taken with official competition entry TEHRAN TAXI as everybody else seems to be, but it’s a unique film with a fascinating format, and one which I enjoyed overall. Iranian director Jafar Panahi is currently banned by the Government from making films, following his arrest and imprisonment for documenting a disputed election. He is one of the bravest men alive, because this is the third film he has directed and released internationally during this ban.

In this bizarrely structured film, Panahi plays himself, but takes to the streets as a taxi driver, with a single camera mounted in the front of his car. He spends a day driving around Tehran picking up customers, all of whom have interesting and damning things to say in their own ways about the laws and Government of Iran. There’s also a great deal in here about films and filmmaking, including a wonderful moment in which a woman presents a rose directly to the audience for supporting the film.

It’s a short, episodic film which is perhaps closer to an educational film than the feature it appears to be on the surface. It’s smart and funny, and it feels subversive enough to be potentially dangerous to its crew. TEHRAN TAXI says more in 82 minutes than most films manage in two hours, and I’m glad to have had the chance to see it. I wish the best of luck to Mr. Panahi on his future endeavours, and I’ll be seeking out his other two post-ban films as soon as I get the chance.

VILLA TOUMA comes from Palestine, but it mostly avoids the themes common to the region, which typically focus on the ongoing conflict with Israel. I say ‘mostly’, because it’s impossible to ignore. It’s always there in the background, with gunfire rattling in the background and posters of the recently-killed visible on city streets. In the foreground, we find a tale we’ve seen told before, but never quite in this way.

An orphaned young girl called Badia is sent to live with her three strict Christian aunts. They’re appalled by what they perceive to be a lack of proper education, and berate her for not knowing French, or how to play the piano. All three older women are unmarried, and they take an unusual interest in marrying off the 19-year old girl as quickly as they can.

It’s a mostly dramatic film (and it gets very, very dramatic before it ends), but there’s a streak of black comedy in here, popping its head up on the odd occasion. I have to wonder if the comedy actually diminishes the plot somewhat, because there’s a powerful story here, but it’s hard to complain about a film having made me laugh. It’s a well-made film, shot with an austerity befitting the joyless household it’s set in.

VILLA TOUMA also screened with a short film called AVE MARIA, which played in the shorts competition at Cannes last month. It’s a hilarious depiction of the crossroads between race and religious restrictions in the region, and it’s the first short film I’ve seen here that I liked enough to mention at all.

The day’s final film was also its highlight, with the Australian documentary SHERPA making a strong impression in the competition. It’s an artistically-shot film from director Jennifer Peedom, who set out to make one film, but found herself making quite another when circumstances changed. The film follows an expedition to climb Mount Everest, which we learn has become an enormous international industry. Tourists spend almost a hundred thousand dollars to take part in these trips, with little thought to the danger the Sherpas face, as they make dozens of trips back and forth through dangerous areas of the mountain, carrying gear to the next camp site.

I’ll err of the side of caution and won’t describe the event which stalls the trip. With the delay comes frustration, and some ugly attitudes come out from the climbing tourists. One American casually describes the Sherpas’ employer as their ‘owner’. These people come out looking very bad indeed. This is a fascinating look at an industry I was unaware of, and the people it affects. It looks absolutely beautiful, and gives us a lot to think about through its surprisingly powerful story.

This was a pretty strong day. Tomorrow we’ll see another four films including two more competition entries. I’m particularly excited to see A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, which is just about the best film title of the year.

 By Shaun Heenan

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