Transilvania International Film Festival 2019 Part 5: The River

From Kazahkstan comes Emir Baigazin’s THE RIVER (OZEN). Five drab figures in a drab landscape, unsmiling brothers, dressed in almost identical shifts of mud-coloured brown. It’s at first hard to place them historically. They spend their time toiling on the land, tending scrappy crops, above all making bricks for a new barn that you feel will never be built, almost becoming the mud they are manipulating. Their father is unloving and autocratic, their mother downtrodden and silent. The eldest boy, Aslan, is his father’s reluctant lieutenant, tasked with keeping them hard at work, hating it when he has to physically punish them for their inevitable lapses. They understand this and try to protect each other, united in their oppression. One day Aslan takes his brothers along to the wide river he has discovered nearby and they find enormous liberation in play in the water.

But everything changes when an alien figure arrives at the house, bringing the modern world and colour with him, and finally locating this as a contemporary scene – an asexual youth, in shiny silver jacket and bright yellow socks, riding on a hoverboard, clutching a phone. Turns out he’s a cousin from the village, bored, come on a visit, like an exotic bird that has strayed out of its usual orbit. Nose in his device, he shows little interest in his surprised hosts, occasionally allowing them a wondering look at the screen. Then one day they take him to the river. And everything changes.

This was the last, and one of the most striking films I saw at TIFF this year. Its political message, from an ex-Soviet state, is there for all to see. The grim monochrome landscape of labour and the glittery trappings of the alien world of capitalism, possession, are equally constraining, and only the river gives a sense of beauty and freedom. But it’s also a powerful, pessimistic story of the end of innocence, a version of the serpent coming to Eden with a dangerous gift of knowledge, except this time it’s already a kind of hell it’s bringing enlightenment to.

And so TIFF 18 comes to an end. The final evening in Cluj brought, as ever, the Awards Ceremony at the lovely National Theatre building. Sadly the winner of the Transilvanian Trophy for Special Contribution to World Cinema, Nicolas Cage, had already been awarded his trophy on a rainy night a week earlier – what a treat it would have been to see him rock up to the stage in those decorous bijou surroundings! On this 18th edition of the festival, a ‘coming of age’, Director Mihai Chirilov spoke of trying to bring together 12 competition films ‘not about politics – but speaking of relationships and about ourselves, intimate films’. Winner of the Transilvanian Trophy was the Colombian Monos, with May el-Toukhy receiving Best Director Prize for Queen of Hearts (Dronningen), with a Special Jury Prize for Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man (L’Homme Fidel). Best Actor award went to Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson for his stunning performance in A White, White Day (Hvitur, Hvitur Dagur). Romanian Days prizes went to Andrei Cohn’s Arrest, with the Debut prize going to Monsters (Monştri) by Marius Olțeanu, and a well deserved Special Mention to Nora Agapi’s documentary Timebox. Best Romanian Days Short was the excellent Opinçi by Andrew and Damian Groves, I do hope it gets seen in the UK, and best Shadow Short was Carlos Beinca’s Noria.

The end to another TIFF. Though I found no utter masterpieces there this year, it was as ever a week of pure pleasure, with the thrill of discovering the cinema of two countries – Albania and Kazakhstan – I’d never encountered before, Romanian directors established and new, a re-acquaintance with the ever invigorating György Pàlfi’s work, and clutch of fine documentaries. And what a pleasure to see films in the Arta Cinema again, restored to its former charms, even if the (hopefully temporary) seats are an endurance test.

I depart on the Sunday morning, down the hill and along the sunny boulevard where Betty’s Ices are just opening up, the pavement cafes are filling up, there’s a crowd outside the Victoria waiting to see a documentary about the death of Dag Hammarskjold, and many Clujeans are in their Sunday best for church or for graduation ceremonies, proud parents and grandparents with beaming young folk carrying huge bouquets. Then the sun’s shining as my plane circles above the hills surrounding the city, a landscape that always reminds me of the Yorkshire Dales, and I’m soon back, alas, to the land of Brexit…

Part 1 Here

Part 2 Here

Part 3 Here

Part 4 Here


Scotland Yard, Edgar Lustgarten, Ken Hughes, and me

Too darn hot today in England, the day that Boris becomes Prime Minister and the nation enters into a languid fugue state/ incandescent rage as our journey to the dark side nears completion. What to do but flop in a darkened room and indulge my secret vice, the ‘Scotland Yard’ B picture series on Talking Pictures channel.

As a young child in the early 50s I remember those family trips to the newest release every Friday evening at the Chesterfield Regal (now after many years of sad decrepitude a Boyes cut-price department store), where the series so often provided the accompanying filler, films it was OK to enter part way through as seats became available in the continuous screening system of those days. Yet it was those that made their terrible mark on me, and it’s down to them that I developed a taste for crime and grimy realism, in effect my abiding love of noir.

I’ve forgotten so many of the feature films I saw then, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, Call Me Madam, Wichita, 3 Coins in a Fountain, but the very name ‘Edgar Lustgarten’ still gives me the shivers. These were so-called real cases reconstructed for our delectation. Starting with a montage of the bustling chiaroscuro of London streets, the camera zoomed in over to Scotland Yard, where following a positively Kane-ian sashay towards a mysterious closed door and into the archive room, it would home in on a box file with a handwritten name on its spine. Hold it for a moment, a quick cut, and we’re over to the narrator, the highly sinister ‘acclaimed criminologist’ Lustgarten. The very sound of his voice made my hair stand on end, I even nursed the delicious idea that one of the murderers he knew so much about might creep out from the tasteful furnishings and do him in.

Once we embarked upon the tale (The Case of the Smiling Widow, The Blazing Caravan, The Dark Stairway, The Mail Van Murder, etc), we entered a land of England that now is so utterly gone, and even then seemed, in that northern town, strangely, weirdly, alien, of picture postcard villages or posh urban flats and clubs, dark streets, circuses and winding country lanes. But underneath it all lay The Darkness, bodies, unglamorous, discovered down drains, or sprawled across beds in posh frocks, broken marriages, lonely men, swindling and envy, jealousy and greed, all filmed in an unpolished realism that now reminds me of true crime photos of bodies and murder sites, even if it was a result of cutting costs rather than style.

Today’s offering, The Candlelight Murder, involved the body of an unknown man found  in a culvert in Sussex, a shack where a candle burned in the window every night and a harmonium played, a vicar and a blacksmith and a set of workaday policemen, including a semi comic local bobby with a curiously Norfolk-ish accent (suspicious? I should think so, specially when his big feet fitted the impressions on the mud…) The unnerving juxtaposition of stock noirish romanticism as a car bonnet swoops into the close foreground swiftly followed by a policeman plodding down a field and pulling on his wellies by a muddy stream is part of the attraction of these films.

I idly looked up its director and writer, Ken Hughes. Director of the first set of episodes, he set the style for all those that followed. And for him this was just the beginning. He moved on to Hammer, then went on to win awards and direct such films as Cromwell, The Small World of Sammy Lee (developed from his own TV script), The Trials of Oscar Wilde, part of Casino Royale, Mae West’s last film appearance in Sextette, and most famously Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But as far as I’m concerned, from the point  of view of  the directing none of those made greater impressions on the tabula rasa of my mind than those grainy, disturbing snatches of deliciously seedy 50s Britain.

Transilvania International Film Festival 2019 Part 4: 3 Documentaries – Timebox; No One Home; Emigrant Blues

TIMEBOX by Nora Agapi deservedly won a special mention in the Romanian Days section for its ‘lovely , sad and honest documentary portrait of a full life being gradually packed away’. The life is that of Agapi’s father Ioan-Matei Agapi, a distinguished documentary film maker, whose work covers over 50 years of Romanian life. He’s still living in the rented family apartment where Nora herself grew up in Iasi, but the council are emptying the building for renovation, and Ioan-Matei is the last to leave. The flat is crammed with ‘stuff’, mostly files and boxes and cupboards and tumbling piles of his films, all neatly labelled just like his father advised everything should be years and years ago. And it’s not just films. Items of family life lie around at random, old pots and pans, damaged toys, broken furniture, memories for father and daughter, and part of the pleasure of the film comes from hearing this spiky, warm man recalling his life and work and the sweep of history he’s experienced and recorded. What are we without our past?

Maybe photography, filming, indicates a desire to hold onto moments, and for someone who has recorded the life around him, these possessions and the memories they hold have become part of him. William Morris said our homes should contain nothing that is not beautiful or useful, but for some the ramshackle and the familiar have their own beauty. The dismantling of a home where everything has a meaning and a memory is the dismantling of a life. Meanwhile his daughter, loving but increasingly exasperated, tries to set him onto what seems like the impossible task of sorting and packing with a view to moving. Nowhere the council offer is big enough for this great store. One dreads the compromise that must come.

More house-moving in Andrei Udişteanu’s 40 minute NOBODY HOME (NU E NIMENI ACASĂ), but this time everything has to be packed up into a few big suitcases, and it’s lives that are expanding. The phenomenon of the younger generation moving to Western Europe in search of a better life for themselves is something of a tragedy for the country, but a profound decision that many make. Here we see the preparations of a young professional couple with two young children about to move to England, as many of their friends have. Whatever their qualifications may be, they will work in a care home there. Their families are sad but philosophical. The older daughter has mixed feelings, but the little boy is taken up with the adventure of it and won’t for a while realise what it all means. So they choose the toys they will take with them, while their parents weigh their suitcases and squeeze in what they can.

The film’s low-key approach doesn’t milk the situation, or the farewells, but there’s a sorrowful note throughout and you feel a mixture of sadness and admiration for this couple, mostly smiling through their misgivings about what might lie in store. The last shots of them, in England, playing with the children in a dull green, very English, park which contrasts so strongly with the colourful gardens and yards they have left behind, shows them apparently happy, unrelentingly determined to seize this new life. This film should be obligatory viewing for those English people who demonise eastern European immigrants.

A rather different take on the phenomenon comes from Radu Mitcu and Mihai Mincan in EMIGRANT BLUES, a clear-eyed depiction of the journey thousands make from Romania to Spain and back by bus, a 55-hour journey. Mitcu’s earliest films (Nişipuri, Australia) have often been little humanist gems with individuals at their heart. But here what we watch is more a process, a tedious and physically uncomfortable one, not individualised or eliciting any sentimentality, recapturing the stark experience of the travellers as they shuffle between lives and between buses (‘Madrid passengers this way, Barcelona that’), hang around waiting for connections, and try to sleep in the cramped coaches, enduring the long passage across the anonymous roads of Europe. It’s something they have opted to do, and they go through the process with resignation, the price to be paid for the occasional visit back home.

The second part of the film records the final return home of a Romanian – in a coffin. So many who die there have wanted to be buried at home, and a long journey is made longer by the bureaucracy of frontiers. It’s never easy to return home. Again avoiding making a personal story of the deceased, we know nothing about them, driven in in the back of a van by strangers, but they become the everyman who has gone far from home and is making their final return. A sober and austere account.

Part 1 Here

Part 2 Here

Part 3 Here

Part 5 Here

Transilvania International Film Festival 2019 Part 3: the Whistlers; Thou Shalt Not Kill; Morometii 2 – On The Edge of Time

Wednesday and Thursday of TIFF are the hardcore Romanian Days, and this year I managed to catch 3 documentaries and 3 features, including the much-anticipated THE WHISTLERS (LA GOMERA). So let’s begin with that.

It’s been a rare TIFF that hasn’t had a new film by Corneliu Porumboiu, and indeed he was once its poster boy in full football kit. He makes his films from little, common things – a grainy televised football game, two men digging up a garden, a local tv phone-in, a young police officer trailing a schoolboy drug dealer in the rain, a council worker with a vain obsession about changing the entire structure of the game of football. And yet out of this base material he brings great resounding truths. With his melancholy drollness these odd, inadequate figures are so taken up in their personal quests that we cannot but be on their side, and often towards the end of the film there’s a moment of heart-melting epiphany. And underlying it all is Romania, its ordinary people, its damaged past forever reaching forward into its often murky present. But from the moment this film crashes onto the screen at full tilt to the sound of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, we know this is going to be very different.

Set mostly on the lush Canary Island of La Gomera, this is a far cry from the grimy streets of Romania. Hyper-natural colours, Bond-like scenarios, glamorous women and dodgy dealers dance around in a fast-moving thriller with, of all people, that master of quiet menace Vlad Ivanov as Cristi, as a (probably) crooked policeman on a mission. With his deadpan ways he could be a cousin of that corrupt officer in Police, Adjective who’s so keen on grammar, and for a long time it’s hard to decide if he’s bona fide undercover or out for himself. He’s come to La Gomera to learn their ancient (and seemingly actual) language of very loud whistling (‘El Silbo’), with notes for syllables, because it is the one way to communicate securely without a chance of an outsider decoding. ‘They’ll think it’s the sound of the birds singing,’ quips his sweaty instructor. Ominously, the way to learn is by inserting the finger in the mouth like a gun at an angle which would fire a bullet out through one’s ear.

Fun is had at first with this, and it proves effective back in Bucharest, the tenements standing in for the craggy hills of La Gomera, but it seems mostly underused as a plot device. Pity, because the plot as it stands is, intentionally, rather opaque, and could really do with a little more either depth or daftness, preferably the latter. Speed, shocks and reversals it certainly has. The thriller staples are there, but for all its vigour in the end it seemed to me strangely toothless, and I didn’t really care what happened or to whom.

One great ingredient though, and apt in a film about a different kind of language, was the fabulous use of sound, music ranging from Iggy’s growl to soaring opera to the utter delight of Ute Lemper’s smoky rendition of Mackie Messer, her wildcat purr. The film was greeted with rapturous applause by a packed house, and indeed it was a bravura turn and an enjoyable, thrilling ride, but I did come away hankering after something a bit more – more dourly funny, more melancholy, more ambiguous, more, in fact, life-affirming, something I’ve always felt even against the odds in Porumboiu’s work.

In total contrast, Gabi Virginia Şarga and Cătălin Rotaru’s THOU SHALT NOT KILL (SA NU UCIZI) is a straighforward realist exercise that gains its power – and it is considerable – from its totally credible message. Cristian (Alexandru Suciu), a young surgeon, is suspicious when a child he has performed a small routine operation on dies unexpectedly from sepsis. His attempts to understand what has happened move ineluctably on from discovering that the disinfectant products used at the hospital are criminally diluted, leading to maybe thousands of unnecessary deaths, upward and outward through the layers of hierarchy to reveal that everyone either knows or doesn’t care about this fact. Even his colleagues and family don’t want to know, preferring not to rock the boat and fearing for their jobs. If there is a criticism of this film it is that hardly anyone else seems to face a moral dilemma about this. Cristian’s increasing instability, now isolated socially and unable to do the job he loves, demonstrates the near-impossible position of one man versus a huge conspiracy of government and business, a new kind of totalitarianism that has no need to resort to secret police or arrests in the night, that keeps the individual under control via fear of losing what he/she has. The young doctor we’ve seen routinely scrubbing up at the opening of the film is reduced in the end to a broken figure in the same position who cannot cleanse himself however much he tries. It’s a brave and relentlessly intense film and in Alexandru Suciu has a superb young actor who is almost ever-present onscreen.

That night I watched MOROMEȚII 2:ON THE EDGE OF TIME (Stere Gulea), in the increasingly chilly open air in Piața Unirii, the great central square of the city. To one side the huge gothic church of St Michael, currently swathed in scaffolding wrap, to the other the bookshop where protesters were cornered and killed in 1989, and on the corner the long-empty fin de siècle Continental Hotel, home of intrigue. The original Moromeții film was made in 1987, based on the first volume of a famous novel of 1955 which documents the lives of the Moromete family, peasant farmers in the years preceding World War II, with issues of land ownership, family strife and inheritance. Thirty years later this version of volume 2 (not written till 1967) looks at the larger changes immediately following the War.

At heart peasant life is still rolling along with the seasons in very much the same way, except that land ownership is an increasingly pressing concern, as Ilie (Haratiu Malaele) the paterfamilias, along with other farmers of his age, opposes the new coming communism with its collectivisation. Youngest son Niculae (Iosif Pastina), who was sent off for education in Bucharest, has returned, beguiled by the moral arguments for a fairer system, and comes into immediate conflict with his father. Ilie, finally alone and unloved, settles back into his diminished old life while Niculae, to be honest a rather vapid character who sits priggishly reading and writing while country life goes on around, goes back to the city to become a writer. When he takes on a temporary job as a journalist, he witnesses and is shocked by violence at a famous demonstration on the king’s birthday between pro- and anti-communists. Both Niculae and his father are coming to terms with the new world that is beginning.

Plainly told and with the script needing to bear a lot of explanatory narrative,  the film is a real pleasure to look at, beautifully shot in black and white, with a great understated performance by Malaele as stubborn old Ilie. Not knowing the book or the first film, and taking a while to acquaint myself with the family and its dynamics, it was nevertheless intriguing for this English outsider to see the little known situation here while we were adapting to postwar changes and about to welcome our new Welfare State. The fact that both volumes of the book were written under censorship during Communist rule, to some extent reining in its author, means that apparently this second film diverges from and adds to the scope of its original. To me it shows all the signs of a further episode, Heimat fashion, which should prove very interesting indeed.

Part 1 Here

Part 2 Here

Part 4 Here

Part 5 Here

Transilvania International Film Festival 2019 – Part 2: His Master’s Voice; Scarborough; Romanian Shorts

Wednesday 5 June

Wednesday is traditionally Hungarian Day at Cluj, and it was here that I saw György Pàlfi’s mind-blowing Taxidermia back at my first ever TIFF in 2006. I see that I wrote then that the audience ‘all feel we may have been shell-shocked into admiration’. Well, things don’t change with György. The silence greeting requests for audience questions at the Q&A following his latest film HIS MASTER’S VOICE (AZ UR HANGJA) said it all. We were stunned – intellectually and aesthetically, a bit psychologically too, as Pàlfi stirred up some deep archetypal hang-ups from within his brimming pot of sci-fi. The film is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, originator of so many films, most notably of course Solaris. Though reportedly this is a slightly differently angled version of the very complex book, taking a more personal plot line, which at least gives us something to hang on to.

The film begins with breathtakingly gorgeous, inexplicable, sequences of galactic activity that pin you back in your seat, and it’s quite a relief to return to the human condition and a plot with the Horvath family, who were abandoned by their father back in the 70s when he fled Hungary to become a scientist in the USA. Zolt (Adám Fekete), who makes up for his wheelchair-bound condition with a mind that fizzes with ideas and passion, is manically eager to find the father he scarcely remembers. He’s the moving force that sets elder brother Peter (Cşaba Polgá) travelling across the Atlantic in search of him.

The little the brothers do know is that their father was involved in gamma ray research which may have been implicated in some infamous accidents near the labs resulting in unaccountable deaths. Spontaneous combustion anyone? Horvath is tracked down in labyrinthine and somewhat implausible fashion as a renowned and mild-mannered scientist now known as Peter Hogarth (Eric Peterson), after Peter has poked around in the now dilapidated research labs, met a spooky old colleague, and made a genuinely scary night drive through the desert. Hogarth, with his new all-American family, turns out not to be the cold-hearted father of Zolt’s imaginings, and claims the ‘accidents’ surrounding his research were created by the military misusing the findings. And he crochets. Not granny squares in this case but huge blankets bearing the code of his scientific findings. So it’s pretty much all sweetness and light with Peter, though Zolt back home isn’t so easily won over. This all could be pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, but as well as his always startling style, Pàlfi has larded his narrative with compelling and thrilling oddities – as well as the splendid scientific animations there are dream sequences, imaginings, time confusions, orgies, even (though I’m not sure what purpose they served), that break out when you least expect. Confusing, yes, but enriching. It’s here that the mythic element puts in appearances – including Peter’s terrifying vision/dream of Cronos eating his children, the son’s fear of the father.

And so despite all that blinding with science and galactic visions, all that computer wizardry that’s too fast to take in, what is really interesting to Pàlfi is the old old mystery of family, the need for them, and the trouble they bring. Hence one of his eye-popping animations shows a family tree of figures descending ad infinitum as if hanging in space. So, stunned, baffled, as the lights go up we look wild-eyed at this magician of the screen who has charmed and probably bamboozled us. What just happened? It’s been a rough ride, sometimes annoyingly daft, sometimes irritating (oh get on with it!), but always compelling and often sublime. Not to be missed.

It seems to be becoming a feature of TIFF to screen a film made in northern England every 2 years – 2017: God’s Own Country, 2015: the under-appreciated Radiator – so how could I miss Barnaby Southcombe’s SCARBOROUGH, one of the films in the Transilvania Trophy Competition.

Scarborough was always the place for the more up-market dirty weekends of the Yorkshire middle classes. It’s a becoming-shabby but beautiful and physically impressive place, home of genteel retirement flats and seriously poor housing, a renowned Theatre in the Round and bingo halls, fine dining and candy floss, and a lovely opening credits sequence shows the mesmeric shallow tides running in and out of the bay. Two couples arrive at a slightly faded but still grand hotel in the Yorkshire resort, both are welcomed by an unctuous manager, and it’s soon clear that guilt-inducing and possibly illicit relationships are going on here. It’s hardly a spoiler, as it soon becomes obvious, to reveal that both are pupil/teacher relationships: serious Liz and eager, carefree Daz; dreamy Aiden and lively and child-like Beth. The film’s origin as a stage play is at first pretty obvious as each couple uses the same script, but a strength of this is that it forces us to question our own gender-based reactions to the two couples. And what the director has brilliantly done in a way that makes us soon forget any theatricality is to alter the structure from a straight chronological run-through of each couple’s story to an intertwining of the two, permanently moving from one to another as each goes sour. The tension set up by this method, specially as a huge truth begins to emerge, succeeds very well, partly due also to the excellent acting from Jessica Barden, Jodhi May, Jordan Bolger and Edward Hogg. It’s an interesting film and a promising first feature.

Although it wasn’t the best of years for Romanian Shorts, with only 2 programmes of competition films and another out of competition collection, there were standouts. A deft humour makes HAVANA, CUBA a real pleasure, but most of the offerings were bleak indeed, including the heartbreaking CUM INALTE UN ZMEU (HOW TO FLY A KITE), where a young Roma boy out with his father gathering sticks begins as a sweet-eating child ready to learn responsibility but after a confrontation with a policeman ends the day with his childhood over. Another woeful child is the little boy sold into bondage with a farmer in CELED, where the beauty of the landscape is in harsh contrast to the lack of love in his life. SPERANTA (HOPE) is an intimate documentary portrait of an elderly woman with health problems, whose whole life seems to have become concerned with illness as many of her friends also succumb. A grim picture of the effects of ageing, not just of the self but of one’s friends, but Speranța’s attitude is philosophical and like her name, hopeful and indomitable. EXTRASEZON (OFFSEASON) is a taut exercise in suspense, a mysterious two-hander where only at the last minute do we learn the shocking truth.

But most powerful of the lot was my own particular favourite and winner of the TIFF award. Crowd-pleasing doesn’t mean bad, crowds can be wise and appreciative of good things, and the audience’s reaction at the end of OPINCI (Anton & Damian Groves) was passionate. The use of a most unusual and technically brilliant kind of animation adds a deal of power and an element of wonder as a widowed father tells his daughter the story of his life, funny and very affecting, and with the unexpected coup of a live-action ending that doubles the power of what has gone before.

Part 1,  here

Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part 5 here

Transilvania International Film Festival 2019 – Part 1: Symphony of the Ursus Factory; Bota; Daybreak; A White, White Day

Bigger and more diverse than ever this year, reading the catalogue of TIFF on its 18th birthday is almost painful in the choices it forces on you with its array of films – just how many can you see in 5 days and survive? So many unmissable films, so many that just have to be missed. My priority this year as usual is films I probably won’t be able to see in England, pre-eminently from eastern Europe, including as always the Romanian Shorts, and I’ll try to get to at least two of the Focus Albania section, a cinema I don’t know at all.

And there’s always the serendipitous aspect of choosing a film one knows nothing about which happens to fall at a convenient time. So it was that arriving at 6.30 on a damp Monday night I immediately got stuck in and strode off across the city to Cluj’s biggest cinema the Florin Piersic for a randomly chosen Polish documentary  SYMPHONY OF THE URSUS FACTORY (SYMFONIA FABRYKI URSUS), devised and directed by Jasmina Wojcik and Igor Stokfiszewski. This clunkily translated title hides a poetic gem, remembering the once mighty Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw. And unlike other ‘Symphony’ films (see London Symphony), it actually uses the people who made it what it was (and who incidentally would have played a large role in the Solidarity movement) to create a poetic and musical homage to the work there, the biggest tractor factory in Poland. Beginning with extracts from a typically beautiful and idealistic communist film showing the heroic labour in such a factory, we move to the present where individuals, mainly of a certain age, are each embarking on a journey. That journey is to the old factory, mostly demolished, or in a state of sad dilapidation. And there waits the surprise. After hearing the men and women describing their experiences of working there, we see them begin to re-enact their actions in situ, their muscles remembering repeated acts, and vocally reproduce the sounds of their work, thumps, swishes and bangs of heavy labour, rattle of a typewriter, purr of a telephone, growl of a motor. Unlike the old soviet propaganda, the workers here cover the full spectrum of jobs, from heavy lifters (a formidable lady who was the only female in the job), smelters and fitters to laboratory workers and buyers.

Eventually the sometimes odd sounds come together in a harmonious whole, a true symphony, a tribute to the pleasures of working together despite its heavy demands, and the social activities that arose from it,  a community feeling that is now hard to reconnect with. It put me in mind of a Romanian film I saw here a few years ago I’M AN OLD COMMUNIST HAG (SUNT O BABA COMUNISTA), with the wonderful Luminiţa Gheorghiu as an old working class woman who misses aspects of the now despised communist past for the solidarity and community spirit it gave to the likes of her as a factory worker.

The finale is a parade of the noble old tractors, handsome beasts who perform a synchronised night time dance around the workers. It’s a fine record of an impressive community project. Stay for the credits, when you will see film of the preparation of the participants, letting them find their voices to make the extraordinary sounds.

Tuesday 4 June

True to my plan I head off to sample my first Albanian film, BOTA (Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci), the Albanian entry for Foreign Language film Oscar in 2016. A tremendous sense of place, the melancholy of an uncared-for little group of concrete communist-era apartments, like a circle of wild west pioneer wagons dumped in the salt flats beside a canal. A man herds his sheep along the road, a travelling fruit and veg van breezes along to sell to the isolated occupants, a figure cycles by. She is Juli, a resourceful young woman who lives with her fast-declining grandmother in the flats and works at Bota, a ramshackle bar-cafe which offers a food stop for the road workers and a night life of sorts to the local young people. It’s owned by Juli’s cousin Beni, who’s having an affair with her quicksilver best friend Nora. It’s all laid-back and cheerful enough, except that the air of disquiet that’s evident from the start begins to find a real basis as we learn piecemeal about the area. It was created as a place of exile for dissidents, and the building of a new road is unearthing uncomfortable evidence of what went on there, including a discovery that will tip Juli’s world over the edge.

Another Albanian Oscar Foreign Film contender, Gentian Koçi’s DAYBREAK ( DITA ZE FILL) opens with Leta (Ornela Kapetani) waking in bed with her baby and finding she has no milk to express, swiftly followed by a hammer on the door from a landlord demanding rent payment or eviction. A depressive start, this sets the tone for an increasingly troubling and gripping story of a good woman forced into difficult moral decisions in an increasingly downward spiral of survival for herself and her baby. Leta sets off lugging the child across the decrepit neighbourhood onto an overcrowded bus to the childminder’s (where she also is behind with payments), and as the day opens out we learn her situation. An ex-nurse (and we discover the tragic truth behind that ‘ex’ along the way) whose job is the daytime care of a bedridden dying old lady. She’s employed by the daughter, with a home and husband in France, who is off back there for an indefinite length of time. Full of her own problems, she’s not the most prompt at paying Leta’s salary.

Inside the other world of the well-furnished and orderly flat Leta is all efficiency and has a good, almost loving relationship with the old lady (a magnificent Suzana Prifti). But just as a leak in the upstairs plumbing is creating rot in one little corner of the flat – no-one’s fault just the faulty system – Leta’s problems deepen as she’s evicted, and desperation jangles behind that placid face. It’s a fantastic performance, and the story’s austere telling means the audience can’t but feel as riven by the moral choices as she is, or by the awful denoument. You don’t forget it in hurry.

Final film of the day was Competition contender A WHITE, WHITE DAY (HVITUR, HVITUR DAGUR) from Icelander Hlynur Pálmason, director of the enigmatic WINTER BROTHERS seen here last year. This is a film about unbearable grief and the bad things it can make people do, but more than this, it’s about love. The title alludes to a saying in Iceland that on white days, when you cannot distinguish the sky from the earth, the dead can speak to us. On such a day we see a fast-driven car take a bend too sharply on a winding road and crash to the sea beneath. Victim is the wife of local policeman Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson). Some time afterwards (neatly and beautifully expressed by a succession of images of the house he is renovating through the seasons) it’s clear he isn’t dealing with the loss and he begins to obsess that his wife was having an affair. An almost constant presence in the house is his lively 8-year-old granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), a funny, bright and glowing presence whom he looks after while her parents are at work.

Sigurdsson is great at playing the popular, tough conventional guy who just wants his family, his house, and everything else to be normal, and Pálmason showed with Winter Brothers that he has an understanding and curiosity about male aggression, but here there’s something more. The obsessive need for vengeance that comes to overwhelm Ingimundur is so strong that it’s likely to alienate the audience from him, not to mention strain their credulity in the plot. Yet it’s salvaged in the end by the strength of the grandfather/daughter relationship, despite everything (and let’s face it, it wasn’t Ingimundur’s beating up of his colleagues that made me give up on him but his cruelty to her). In the end it’s the two actors who save the film and stop it becoming the overwrought revenge movie you never wanted it to be, Siggurdsson ranging from delicacy and wisdom to mindless rage and back, while Hlynsdóttir’s is one of the best child- performances I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m looking forward tremendously to the acting career that surely must come. (Though you never know – look at the lad from Bicycle Thieves who  became a Maths teacher…)

[Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson received the Award for Best Performance at the closing ceremony on June 8.]

Part 2 here

Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part5 here


Out of Blue

Directed by Carol Morley

Lauded by many, this film left me in a quandary. I really didn’t know what to make of it as I was watching it, swithering between admiration, captivation and frustration, and several days later I’m still none the wiser.

Beautifully, troublingly shot, moving through dark nooks and crannies as baffling and full of mystery as the inner lives of its protagonists, it constantly veers from noir to a more Lynchian existential foreboding, centred on the troubled persona of investigating detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson). Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), a so-called brilliant astrophysicist, is shot in the observatory where she works after a TV appearance there, and Mike is put on the case. Despite a reputation for hard professionalism, she’s unaccountably spooked by the crime scene, particularly certain aspects such as the blood-stained hair of the victim, a shoe, the vague shadow of a man, and a pot of moisturiser which unaccountably doesn’t seem to have actually been there. Chief suspects are the boyfriend Duncan (Jonathan Majors), who seems a regular guy, colleague Ian Strammi (!), played by Toby Jones with his reliable schtick as likeable yet vaguely shifty dishevelled Englishman, and father Tom (a majestic James Caan), a patriarchal war hero. The odd damaged-seeming family also comprises dotty mother Jacki Weaver and suspiciously stolid twin brothers (Todd and Brad Mann). All mixed up in the brew is the fact that the modus operandi of the crime seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to a series of killings 30 years earlier. Something that looms larger and larger as the film goes on.

So the fact of Jennifer’s death isn’t the half of it, and when it appears to have been solved, Mike makes increasingly kranky and troubled moves to make sense of her odd feelings about it, developing an obsession with the family, moving like someone on the edge of one of Jennifer’s dark holes, about to get pulled in. Some deep truth still awaits. Jennifer’s belief in the parallel universe theory is what the film is actually all about, atmospherically but often rather muddlingly presented, with Schrodinger’s cat making a few appearances. Hence the brooding feeling that something else is constantly going on just out of our perception, as Mike wanders the apartments and streets of a mostly night-time New Orleans that itself feels only half really present. Morley is marvellous at this, and Clarkson splendidly watchable. So whenever she’s on screen, which is most of the time, the film is gripping.

But less so in other ways. Despite the dream-like beauty and menace throughout of what we’re seeing on screen, impatience and some resistance on my part crept in. The whimsical statement that we are made of stardust is supposed to fill us with awe (yet Joni Mitchell told us that in 1970), the overuse of Brenda Lee’s ‘I’ll be seeing you’ drains all the beauty and creepiness that it brings at first away from it. A few too many iterations of Mike’s mystery visions, or the frankly embarrassing episode where she, a recovering alcoholic, spectacularly falls off the wagon and sheds her inhibitions in a pole-dancing club, begin to feel hackneyed. At the same time characters seem incoherently imagined purely to further the plot and atmosphere – Toby Jones is underused once he’s fulfilled his plot duties, Jennifer’s mulish brothers have meaning thrust upon them after being bystanders, and poor Jacki Weaver’s Miriam goes from interestingly dippy to manically, incredibly gaga over a Chinese meal. As the film drew melodramatically towards it sombre ending, my rational heart failed to connect with the spiritual awe that many have found there. Interesting, though.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle April 2019