Leeds Film Festival Report No.3

The final batch of feature films are covered in this post with a final report to come looking at the best of the short films I saw. Check back over the previous reports here and here.

The Strange Little Cat | Ramon Zürcher | 2013 | Gemany | 72 min

Set across one day within a single apartment The Strange Little Cat is a quirky, funny drama that makes the most of its one location to convey the little tensions that exist within any extended family unit. The most curious aspect of the film is that it is almost entirely shot from waist height in mostly static shots. It situates the audience right in the centre of the film and feels far more fly-on-the-wall than most documentaries. Occasionally the long shots of family members bustling about and getting in each other’s way are broken up montages of little household minutiae – spilt milk, a dead fly, the cat, etc.; but for the most part the camera is relegated to observing, not demonstrating.

The Strange Little Cat begins at breakfast and ends after a dinner party; beyond the preparation for the meal, there is no plot or anything pulling the narrative in any particular direction. Instead it’s just a gentle, humorous portrayal of a day-in-the-life of a family  each member of which has their own quirks and eccentricities, including the cat and the dog. It’s a film of amusing interludes, conversations and small insights into the family members’ inner thoughts. It skips along enjoyably enough and the unusual direction lends itself to establishing a great sense of time and place.

Vic + Flo Saw A Bear | Denis Côté | 2013 | Canada | 95 min

Malice and violence lurk in the forest in this deceptive Canadian noir directed with fluid control and injected with inescapable unease.

Victoria, serving a life sentence on parole, moves to live in her uncle’s run down sugar shack in Quebec in the hope of living a quite life – at 61 whatever crimes she has committed are long forgotten and she seems entirely reformed. Her uncle, whom she has not seen in many years is paralyzed and cared for by a neighbour’s son. She opts to take over the care for him, much to the anger of the neighbour’s family. Victoria is joined by her lover Florence who, though happy to be reunited, seems anxious to return to the city. But Victoria is happy where she is and enjoys her quiet life, punctuated only by visits from her probation officer, who Vic and Flo gradually befriend, and a friendly local who helps her with gardening. Infrequent arguments about love, and Flo’s desire to live elsewhere are, at first, the only disturbances.

But Cote’s direction and the outbursts of thundering drums on the soundtrack let us know that not all is well in this tranquil forest, and certainly not everyone is as they appear. When we see two people practicing target shooting in the woods that something bad lurks on the horizon but to specify what would be to spoil things massively because in this film nothing happens as you would expect it to. By the final credits I was in awe – this is a brave, original, and terrific film.

Wake in Fright | Ted Kotcheff | 1971 | Australia, USA | 114 min
BFFS Booking Scheme title: Available 11 April 2014

Previously thought to be lost, a decades long search eventually turned up one of the original negatives in a container in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, marked ‘For Destruction’. That print has now been remastered and will be available for the first time on DVD in Spring next year. The film’s reputation has grown thanks to endorsements from Nick Cave: “the best and most horrifying film about in Australia in existence”, Martin Scorsese: “it left me speechless” and others. It certainly provokes a strong reaction in its uncompromising depiction of masculinity, alcoholism, and depression  in rural Australia.

John Grant is a bonded teacher – in return for his university education he is contracted to work for several years in a remote town in the outback. On the way back to Sydney for the Christmas holidays John gets a train to the town of Bundanyabba, or ‘The Yabba’ as it is known to the locals, in order to catch a flight home. On his first night there he is coerced into getting drunk with a policeman who has taken it upon himself to show John round The Yabba. He is taken to a bar where the locals are playing two-up. John gambles for a few rounds and starts to win – seeing an opportunity to win enough to buy himself out of his bond he bets big and loses it all.

Unable now to afford a plane ticket John has to rely on the charity of the local residents who bully him into joining their lifestyle of endless drinking, a days long binge which culminates in a horrifying kangaroo hunt. John’s descent into depression and madness is encouraged by the alpha-male mentality of the local men he has been taken in by. Much of the film is a cacaphony of drinking and fighting, most of which starts playfully but soon tips over into real malice. The kangaroo hunt itself is responsible for much of Wake In Fright’s grim reputation. Filmed on an actual kangaroo hunt the footage is all real and it demonstrates the careless brutality of the hunters – a point that Australian animal rights groups encouraged the filmmakers to show. It is a horrifying sequence

Dirty Wars | Rick Rowley | 2013 | USA, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen | 87 min

Based closely on Jeremy Scahill’s investigative reporting and placing him in the centre of the film Rowley’s documentary feels more of a narrated news article than a film. The story it tells, about covert military operations throughout Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is disturbing, vital and deeply revealing. But the manner in which it is presented is at times frustrating and never inventive. It makes for a good documentary, in the sense of documenting something that really should be documented, but an underwhelming film.

Some of my problems with the film are superficial – such as the way that Rowley freeze frames all the interviewees in black and white while text is typed in explaining who they are, exactly like a cheap spy thriller. Considering how many interviews there are in the film it very quickly becomes irritating. Similarly the film constantly shows Scahill making all sorts of discoveries but these are cleared staged reconstructions. Scahill is filmed frequently pretending to get an email or an important phone-call. I guess it’s to fill in visual space while the voiceover, which is somewhat overdramatic, goes on, but this just reiterates that this is a lacklustre attempt to make the story work as a film.

Silence | Pat Collins | 2012 | Ireland, Germany | 87 min

Silence is a film without jeopardy or tension, rooted instead in place, time and thoughts. Following a sound recordist who returns to Ireland where he grew up to record places without any man made sounds, this is a film that is as much about incidental details as it is the deliberate events. Eoghan (named after the actor who plays him) spends much of the film out on the hills or in the woods but invariably come across other lone wanderers. Most of the locals he meets aren’t playing characters but themselves-  indeed I wonder if there was any script at all for their interactions. It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

More often than not the conversations come down to the nature of silence – Eoghan’s is an unusual task and it provokes interest and curiosity; strangely never scorn. Many of the people he meets are themselves isolated in one way or another, a woman who runs a small museum in her house tells Eoghan she spent a year in Belfast studying, couldn’t stand it and rushed back. In the film’s longest sequence Eoghan has dinner with a writer he met in the hills who has moved into his mother’s old house because he writes better in the quiet. Silence dwells on the past as well – as Eoghan is returning to his childhood haunts he inevitably looks back on his childhood and the history of the landscape. It’s a quiet, meditative film; calm and thought-provoking, and is beautifully shot.

Rio 2096 | Luiz Bolognesi | 2013 | Brazil | 75 min

This was most unexpected – I knew nothing going in apart from that it was an award winning animation about a 600-year long love story which made it sound a lot like The Fountain. What it turns out to be is a brief history (and future) of guerilla/revolutionary movements in Brazil told via a love story between a man who can’t die and his beloved who is reborn as different women over some 600 years. It’s a story that fuses mythology and real political events in order to relate the history of revolutionary struggle and the cycles of exploitation and oppression in a relatable and thrilling form. The jumps in time, often a hundred years or so at a time would be bewildering if it wasn’t for the continuity of the two central characters.

It is narrated by Abeguar who at the film’s first time period is a Tupinamba Indian who learns that he has been chosen by their gods to lead the people in the fight against Anhanga, the deity representing evil which in the film manifests itself as oppressive government regimes, the Europeans who colonised and exploited Latin America, and the army. Unbeknownst to Abeguar at the time is that this fight will last for many centuries and he will witness the destruction of his tribe, the death of his friends, his children and, over and over, his love Janaina. In the first act the tribe joins forces with the French, against Abeguar’s advice, to see off Portugese settlers but the retaliation devastates the tribe and Janaina is killed while her and Abeguar attempt to rescue the tribe’s children. Forlorn and depressed Abeguar attempts to kill himself by jumping off a cliff but instead is turned into a bird. He lives quietly in the jungle for nearly two hundred years until he finds Janaina again and resumes human form. Although a different woman Janaina possesses the same spirit and personality (and the smile which Abeguar first fell in love with) so in each reincarnation she is involved in political battles against oppression, either by helping escaped slaves, protesting military dictatorship or as an eco-terrorist attacking the water monopoly that is allowing poor people to die.

Rio 2096′s message is essentially the same as that given in Eduarda Galeano’s landmark book The Open Veins of Latin America that marks the persistent exploitation of Latin America, particularly its indigenous and poor people by colonial powers or wealthy elites; and the subsequent need to never stop fighting for equality, human rights and justice. But in this case it is repackaged in a much more accessible way – I overhead someone leaving the film who commented “all history should be told like this”. It’s a singularly impressive feat that the film balances it’s political and social messages with its central love story without leaving either half-cooked. In short: fantastic.

Big Bad Wolves | Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado | 2013 | Israel | 110 min

Big Bad Wolves concerns the police investigation into a serial killer who has murdered and molested several young girls. At the start of the film the police are ‘interrogating’ a suspect – the beating is filmed by a passerby and uploaded to the internet forcing the police office in charge, Miki, to go off book in order to continue his investigation. He starts to follow the suspect, Dror, and eventually tries to kidnap him but is hampered by Gidi, the father of the latest victim who kidnaps both of them and takes them to a cabin in the woods he has bought for the occasion. He convinces (without having to try too hard) Miki to help him torture Dror to find out where he his daughter is buried.

The film, which proceeds as a blend of pitch black comedy and gory thriller, keeps the guilt of Dror in constant question and is determined to put the audience through the wringer.  First we feel sorry for this nice seeming young man for getting beaten up by cops who haven’t bothered to collect any evidence. Then we feel worse when Dror, who is a teacher, starts getting notes from his students calling him a murderer. Then we feel absolutely terrible when Gidi starts to torture him. But, Keshales and Papushado, aren’t willing to keep it that simple and start to layer on the doubts, pulling the audience’s reactions this way and that by hinting at different conclusions as to Dror’s guilt. It seems as though Big Bad Wolves has a point to make – about the danger of making assumptions about someone’s guilt and criticising the way in which someone accused of paedophilia or murder can be victimised by others (see The Hunt for a better take on this issue). But it’s twists and turns get frustrating as you start to wonder if it will ever make its mind up or, if instead of gleefully torturing this poor fellow (and us viewers), someone might actually go and do some investigating.

I complained back in the first LIFF report that there were too many films missing a final act, Big Bad Wolves is the latest and worst culprit. It does finally make its mind up about Dror, but does so in a way that both undermines the point I thought it was making and throws up a glaring plot hole. At least, I thought it has set up the third act. But I was wrong, because the credits rolled instead. Cue a long sigh and a disappointing end to the festival.