The festival is relatively low key but with plenty of buzz around the principal venue at the Arts Picturehouse and if the three screenings I attended today are anything to go by, attendances are pretty good. The three films that I chose are I think representative of the range of material being presented.
First up was Gravy Train (Canada 2010), an indy comedy thriller from the writer-director team of Tim Doiron and April Mullen (who also play the lead roles). Doiron and Mullen’s first feature was a crowd-pleaser at the 2007 Cambridge Festival and this time they were in attendance. They’d already done a Saturday session, but here they were on a Monday afternoon doing it all over again and clearly enjoying themselves. Their second film is full of silliness based around a backwoods town with a 20 year-old murder mystery and a classic melodrama plotline. Much of the fun comes from the 1970s throwback setting and I’m sure that I caught whiffs of cheesy US cop series mixed with Russ Meyer (sans the enormous breasts) and Mel Brooks. On top of that the film features spoof local TV news, fantasy sequences and a plotline that was once a mockumentary on indie filmmaking.
I’m not sure that I found Gravy Train quite as funny as the publicity claims, but I’m not really the audience. What I did recognise was the skill and commitment that went into its making. It looks very good on screen and the RED 1 camera is certainly going to gain some more fans. Excellent production design utilising primary colours also helps. Mullen and Doiron have attracted some major players as well and they are clearly thinking about how to develop as producers.
Although made close to the border in Niagara Falls, this is very much a ‘Canadian’ film with some touches of British humour and it did get a brief cinema run in Canada via Alliance. That means that there will be a Region 1 DVD release if this kind of silliness is your bag. April Mullen and Tim Doiron are two likeable and talented filmmakers – I hope they get more chances.
The Miracle of Leipzig (Das Wunder von Leipzig – Wir Sind das Volk, Germany 2009) was screened in the largest auditorium which was nearly full. This is a conventional documentary combining archive material, reconstruction and witness interviews. It’s skilfully made but I was a little put off by some rather heavy-handed musical scoring and an English-language voiceover that I found quite irritating. I wonder why this voiceover was necessary – or rather why it had replaced the original German. I’m guessing that it was thought necessary in order to sell the doc to TV in America and the UK where the extra subtitling might be thought onerous. Fortunately, the story is so gripping and the witness interviewees so engaging that eventually I stopped noticing the voiceover and even the music.
The ‘miracle’ is the great demonstration in Leipzig in October 1989 that was one of the major factors in the collapse of the East German state and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. After several weeks of gradual build-up with many dissenters imprisoned or harassed by the Stasi, 70,000 marched around Leipzig city centre in open protest, chanting ‘Wir sind das Volk – we are the people!’. This was too much even for the combined might of the police, Stasi, paratroopers and workers’ militias, many of whom were not prepared to face their own relatives on the street. The film’s producer was at the screening and he made the telling point that the ‘miracle’ occurred only a few months after the Tiananman Square massacre. The fact that the demonstration passed peacefully with no violence was indeed a miracle. (Though there had certainly been violence from the police in the weeks leading up to the march.) The other interesting point is that there was relatively little archive material and virtually no ‘social media output’ at this time. It was effectively banned in the DDR – few people had cameras and few were prepared to be seen using them. Much of the ‘official’ footage was destroyed by the authorities fearful of how it might incriminate them so that the events of just 20 years ago are much less well covered than those of the 1930s and 1940s.
I had to leave the Q & A because my next film was starting, but I think that this film is likely to turn up on TV around the world and it’s worth looking out for.
The Hunter (Shekarchie, Iran/Germany 2010) also deals in a way with protest by ordinary citizens and is also funded via Germany, but it’s a very different kind of film. Rafi Pitts is writer-director and star, best known in the West for his previous film It’s Winter (2006), his third feature (which I haven’t seen). The Hunter focuses on Ali who works as a security guard in a car factory in Tehran. He works the night shift and sees little of his beautiful wife and small daughter and we discover that he has been in prison and that wife and daughter kept him sane. The opening third of the film offer us a real sense of Tehran as a city, contrasting the busy nightlife of the old city with the more alienating environment of concrete highways and high-rises in the suburbs. The film is very slow-paced and I confess that my attention wandered so that I might have missed a few clues, but there seemed to be some questions about Ali’s past – and possibly about the wife and child.
One day when Ali is out hunting in the hills away from the city, there is an incident back in the city and his life goes into turmoil. Ali reacts violently and the closing third of the film becomes more like a crime thriller when he goes on the run. All these events take place against the backdrop of Iranian elections and unrest on the streets (although we don’t see much of this). There is a sense that the film is metaphorical about persecution and the capacity for individual action, but I think that audiences are going to need a little more guidance to get the most from the film. Artificial Eye have picked up the film for UK distribution, so we might discover more. (The film’s pressbook is available here.) Rafi Pitts trained in the UK at Harrow/PCL (now Westminster) in the early 1980s and then moved to France. The final scenes in the forest work well in the ‘human drama’/thriller mode, but I’d like to see it again to get more out of the first half. You can tell that my attention wandered because I kept wondering if the Iranians once drove on the left not the right – this is what happens when it is your third film in a row!