Olivia (Tea Falco) and Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori)
Here’s a ‘good news’ story. The maker of wonderful films of the 1960s and 1970s returns after an absence of nearly a decade with a modest film that’s very good and one that you’ll want to recommend to people. In the 1980s and 1990s Bertolucci became known for epic films (most of which I confess didn’t go to see) made with Jeremy Thomas and smaller films that were sometimes controversial in their representations of teenage sexuality. Stealing Beauty (1996) comes to mind. At first Me and You looks like it is in line with many of the earlier films – a dysfunctional family and the possibility of ‘socially unacceptable’ sexual relationships. There was a moment when I thought that this was going to be a kind of re-run of La luna from 1979. But although there are shared plot elements, Me and You turns out to be something else.
Lorenzo is a 14 year-old boy living with his mother who has ‘escaped’ into his own company. Challenged by a psychiatrist he claims to be ‘normal’. When a school ski-ing trip is being planned, he decides to tell his mother that he wants to go, but secretly organises his own hideaway week in the basement of their apartment block. All goes well until his older half-sister arrives unexpectedly. I won’t spoil what then happens but you will create your own expectations of a drama played out in a confined space and mainly as a two-hander. Before the screening Festival Director Tom Vincent suggested that Jacopo Olmo Antinori who plays Lorenzo is a star of the future. He is certainly very good in this film, but an important element of his success – and that of the film overall – is that we as the audience contribute to the success of the performances by making our own evaluations and then see them challenged. Tea Falco as Olivia, the half-sister is also very good. This is a ‘slight’ film in some ways, as other festival critics have reported, but it works very well. It’s satisfying to see a great director back on form. The film has been acquired by Artificial Eye for UK distribution and it is scheduled to open next Friday, 19 April. Make a date, you’ll enjoy it.
Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in ‘To Kill a Beaver’
Given the number of national governments who agreed to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ and to send military personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, there must be a whole sub-genre of ‘returning vet’ films being produced across many film cultures. To Kill a Beaver is a Polish entry. It’s a thriller with sex and violence but also quite a lot of talk and some very interesting ways of representing the trauma of action.
On the face of it, Eryk (Eryk Lubos) is now some kind of freelance killer working on a contract who has returned to his home region, perhaps even his own abandoned farmhouse (this isn’t a film in which you can be very sure of anything). He begins to set up surveillance but he’s interrupted/disturbed by two ‘intruders’. One is a teenage girl who seems to have set up a bolt-hole in the house and the other is a pair of beavers who have damned the local stream. Eryk seems determined to kill the beavers and they are clearly symbolic of something, possibly as a metaphor for invaders or refugees (who have every right to be there). Eryk’s talents are many, including the ability to speak Russian – not always a sensible thing to do in Poland I’m told. How did he acquire this facility? Where has he been a soldier and what has he done? I won’t say any more in the hope that you can get to see the film – though as the still indicates, man and girl do get together.
This film was a hit at Karlovy Vary, the most important festival for showcasing Central European films, last year. Eryk Lubos won the Best Actor prize. But just as films about the impact of war on soldiers struggle to win audiences in the US, so it seems do they similarly fail in Poland. No one wants to know about post traumatic stress or what Poland’s ‘special forces’ (GROM) get up to as this report from Karlovy Vary by the Polish Film Institute suggests. There is a lot going on in the film which ought to mean much more in Poland than it does to international festival audiences. Director Jan Jakub Kolski argues that he makes auteur films – i.e. for himself first. I think that if picked up for wider distribution this film could do well in many countries and perhaps then it would get the recognition it deserves at home. It’s the most striking film I’ve seen at Bradford so far.
This print restored by the BFI provides a glimpse of the possibilities of ‘global film’ just before ‘hegemonic Hollywood’ began to exert its control with the coming of sound. German filmmaker Franz Osten had already worked in India on two films with Bengali actor-producer Himanshu Rai – Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) 1925 and Shiraz (1928). These were the fore-runners of modern co-productions. Osten brought in German crews and the backing of a German studio (Ufa). According to IMDB, two British studios were also involved. The script seems to have had both German and British input into what was initially an Indian story scripted by Niranjan Pal who with Himanshu Rai would eventually set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 as one of the major studios of the sound period. The British contribution seems to have been ‘supportive’ since the main creative and technical roles were undertaken by Germans and Indians. Much of the film was shot on location in Rajasthan.
The 2006 restoration includes a Nitin Sawhney score that I was a little wary of at first but eventually I found worked very well. The camerawork by Emil Schunemann is excellent and at one point he gave us a stunning tracking shot seemingly out of nowhere. The film’s title neatly describes the narrative which involves two kings who are cousins, neighbours and inveterate gamblers in a period before the arrival of Europeans. It’s all fairly predictable stuff in the sense that they compete for the hand of a beautiful girl with one of them rather more devious than the other. But the story isn’t the main attraction – with 10,000 extras, footage of tigers in the jungle and ceremonial elephants, palaces and stunning landscapes, this is an action melodrama (the two terms once meant the same thing). One thing that struck me about the camerawork was that several of he compositions can be seen as being imported from German cinema and then incorporated in later Indian popular cinema narratives. I’m thinking in particular of some of the fight scenes on cliff tops and a couple silhouetted on a mountain skyline. The spectacular German cinema of the 1920s was very interested in the ‘exotic Orient’ with Murnau travelling to the South Seas for one of his early Hollywood titles in Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang in aspects of Destiny (Germany 1921). (He would later return for his two-part film The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1959 based partly on his script for another 1920s film.) What we see in A Throw of Dice I think is not so much a German view of India as an example of the potential of Indian cinema to take the technical skills and creative vision of Osten and Schunemann and use them in developing the Indian cinema that would flourish in the 1930s.
Before the main feature (74 mins), BIFF elected to show an extract from Raja Harishchandra, the film usually taken to mark the beginning of Indian feature films in 1913 (and therefore the key film for the 100th Birthday tribute). The film was originally a ‘four reeler’ of 3,700 feet running around 48 minutes at silent speeds. Producer-director-writer Dadasaheb Phalke had travelled to Germany and to the UK to acquire the skills and the technology to enable him to become the first Indian filmmaker of note, completely in control of his own productions in Bombay. Later he founded Hindustan Films, but the company struggled and Phalke’s brief career which should have flourished in the 1920s was cut short. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the founders of the film industry in Bombay and the Indian genres of the ‘devotional’ and the ‘mythological’. The extract was presented from Blu-ray and there seem to have been problems in transferring the material (I think that the original was lost in a fire at the Film Institute Archive in Pune). I confess that I found what was presented was quite difficult to follow but in 1912 when Phalke was making the film, cinema worldwide was in a state of very rapid innovation. To pick out a few points, there is still a reliance on what might be termed ‘proscenium arch’ shots with a tableau of characters as if on a stage, some occasionally looking at the camera. There are special effects and it is possible to see links to the Ramayana (Phalke is said to have been inspired by Christian narratives). The main plot involves a king who loses his kingdom and his wife and child through various accidents and by deceit but who then recovers them because the gods wish to reward him for his moral integrity.
There is a documentary on Phalke and the making of the film on YouTube (it’s not the ‘complete film’ as it claims) and it’s interesting to see the variety of comments (including the surprise shown by some Indians that Indian cinema goes back so far). Well done to BIFF for showing this and giving us all a chance to consider the whole 100 years.
‘Happy Birthday Indian Cinema’ started with a recent Indian ‘festival film’. Director Manjeet Singh gives some of the background in this interview from the Abu Dhabi Festival in October 2012 which is well worth reading. His inspiration for this, his first feature, was his childhood memories of the annual Ganesh festival in Mumbai. The film’s title refers, I think, to the large figures of Ganesh carried to the beach by each district (somebody please correct me if I’ve got this wrong) during the festival and the protagonists are two of the boys from the Lalbaug district of the city in what is essentially a neo-realist film. It will remind many audiences of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (India/UK/France 1988), but inevitably Singh has had to field questions about Slumdog Millionaire – which aren’t really helpful except to allow him to explain why it is so difficult to submit an Indian ‘independent film’ to international festivals. He argues that most festivals have only a limited number of slots for South Asian films and that increasingly it is the Bollywood studio backed ‘indies’ which usually get those slots. The fact that Mumbai Kings got a slot at Toronto is clearly key to its international circulation. Singh himself is largely self-taught in terms of filmmaking with only a short course after his engineering degree according to this Toronto ‘Talent Lab’ interview. However, he did work in the US as an engineer before moving back to Mumbai – which means that presumably he earned some money and learned about North America. He got his chance to make the film partly through the support of the Film Bazaar programme in India, although he had to find the funding himself, including via ‘cloud-funding’. His next project is going to be discussed as part of the L’atelier Programme at Cannes in May 2013. He seems to have several script ideas put together over the last few years. But for now, how does Mumbai Kings look?
I think my overall impression is that this is an enjoyable film which does give a sense of what it might be like to live on the outskirts of an Indian metro city. It looks right and importantly sounds right. The sound mixing is a bit rough at times but that possibly helps in the realism effect. Singh shot the film on a digital SLR camera and he used mainly non-actors from the district. In this sense it is a neo-realist film. There is a music score for the film which is used extensively in some scenes. This doesn’t invalidate the neo-realist tag but I think that the social issues, those ‘real life’ incidents that drive a neo-realist narrative, are perhaps not developed enough. The source of narrative drive is a violent father and the impact his behaviour has on the rest of his family. I think that you could argue in the film’s favour that it leaves the issue ‘open’ as to what will happen in the future, but I worry that this will exclude the film from wider distribution in India – though it certainly works in a festival setting.
The film also made me think about other communities and other settings. For instance the Ganesh festivities were sometimes reminiscent of the sequences set in Little Italy that appear in Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films or of the carnivals in Trinidad or Rio. Although Lalbaug is in the centre of the city, the boys seem to play in the outskirts, so they find streams and hills where the skyscrapers of the city are not visible and I got a sense of being in a city like Hong Kong – with the bustle of the metropolitan centre, yet films being made only a few miles away in the hills. This feeling was intensified by the way in which Singh included little set pieces when the boys steal some potatoes or when a lyrical music-backed sequence shows them bathing in rock pools. I think I’m suggesting that the film seems to represent a kind of global mega-city environment. Is this an ‘independent’ or ‘festival film’ that might have been made in Mexico or Brazil or Taiwan? That’s quite a big question and it may indicate a danger for filmmakers like Manjeet Singh. I think it is important that his films get seen across India. Indian cinema(s) are changing but they want to change on their own terms, not as sanctioned by film festivals in the West. It’s a real dilemma but here is a filmmaker with talent and determination who should be supported. I hope he gets the openings he deserves.