The 22nd edition of Films From the South opens in Oslo on October 4th and runs to October 14th. We had a very enjoyable time there last year and I would certainly recommend a visit to what must be one of the friendliest festivals around with a great programme of films and guests.
This year’s highlights include a retrospective of films from the major Japanese studio Nikkatsu celebrating its centenary. There are 13 films from Nikkatsu ranging from Ito Daisuke’s A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (1927) through to Miike Takashi’s Yatterman (2009) by way of Imamura Shohei’s Intentions of Murder (1964) and Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill (1967). The directors under the spotlight are Joko Anwar (Indonesia), Andrés Wood (Chile), Pen-Ek Ratanaurang (Thailand) and Faouzi Bensaïdi (Morocco).
‘Multicool Nord’ is an intriguingly titled strand that covers diasporic films made in Europe, including German-Turkish director Yasemin Samdereli’s comedy Almanya: Welcome to Germany and My Brother the Devil, a London-based drama from the Welsh-Egyptian writer-director Sally El Hosaini. Other films in the strand include documentaries made by Europeans in the South as well as other diaspora films set in Denmark and on a road trip from Holland to Morocco. The strand represents a new collaboration between Films from the South, Antiracist Film Days in Malmö, and Salaam Film & Dialogue in Copenhagen. The aim is to “zoom in on the ethnic and cultural diversity in Scandinavia, with the help of film, debate and lively dialogue”. There will be discussion and debate including contributions from some of the writers and directors involved.
On 11th October Nitin Sawhney will visit the festival and will play music to the silent film A Throw of Dice (Prapanche Pash, India 1929) in Oslo Concert Hall. The British Film Institute has now restored the film, and Sawhney has composed music to it. The show has had full houses in the UK, USA, Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy and Canada, and will now be performed in Oslo in collaboration between the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Films from the South and the Mela Festival. The ‘Film and Literature’ section has three Egyptian films based on the work of Naguib Mahfouz.
As well as these special events and strands, the festival has a wide range of films from Asia, Africa and Latin America both in competition and ‘out of competition’. Festival audiences get a chance to see films from new directors from parts of the world often criminally under-represented on screens in the North in the New Horizons strand plus a first glimpse of titles from better-known directors. Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon’s Gate (China-HK 2011) and Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant (Argentina 2012) are amongst the latter. So, why not spend a few days at the Filmens Hus and all the other conveniently located festival venues in Oslo? You are sure to have a good time as well as getting to see a wide range of material.
The Films From the South Festival closed on 16th October. I was there for the first five days out of eleven, so more of the festival actually took place after I left. Yet, I felt that I got a good overall view of how the festival worked.
One of the interesting aspects of Films From the South is the complete absence of Hollywood and any of the trappings of studio cinema. The only ‘stars’ on show are the directors of some of the key films in the programme. Oslo is a relatively small city and most of the festival venues are within walking distance of each other. The festival staff are mostly young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Festival director Lasse Skagen introduced many of the films himself. Overall, it’s a friendly and intimate celebration of the best of cinema from the South and I would recommend a visit to anyone interested in the diversity of film culture outside Europe and North America.
In the 15 posts that I made from the festival, there is one obvious omission – any films from Africa. There were in fact seven films in the programme listed as ‘African’ but for various reasons I couldn’t get to any of these screenings. Four of the seven were made by Europeans or Americans working in Africa, two were South African, one a documentary and the other an English-language action-comedy. The exception was Riva! (writer/dir Djo Munga, DR Congo 2010) the crime drama that has already been released in the UK. My observation is not intended as a criticism of the festival (or of European filmmakers working in Africa), but just recognition of the overall difficulty of getting access to popular films from across Africa faced by all festivals. The diversity of other films on show in Oslo is to be celebrated
The Nadine Labaki film Where Do We Go Now? won the Audience Award, which was no surprise since it is a very audience-friendly film. The other awards went to films that I wasn’t able to see but I’ll definitely be looking out for. The prize for the Main Competition, the ‘Silver Mirror’ went to the Argentinan road movie Las Acacias (dir Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain 2011) – earlier this year it won the Camera d’or at Cannes. The FIPRESCI Critics prize for the best film in the New Horizons section went to On the Edge (dir Leila Kilani, Morocco/France/Germany 2011). Finally, the best documentary in the ‘Doc: South’ section went to Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (directors Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama, Egypt 2011) – clearly a timely choice that made an impact on the jury. It’s good to see that two out of the four prizes went to women.
I very much enjoyed my time in Oslo and thanks must go to Ingrid Stolpestad, Pia Jensen and Kristian Takvam for their help in getting tickets and answering my questions. I learned quite a lot about cinema in Norway during my stay so look out for some further postings.
There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.
The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?
I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.
Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.
Part of the ‘Doc South’ strand of the festival, The Bengali Detective was perhaps the most enjoyable film that I watched during my festival visit, perhaps because it is set in Kolkata, a fascinating city that I visited in 2009. At its centre is the head of a ‘Detective Agency’, Rajesh Ji. British director Philip Cox had become aware of the rise of the private detective agency in India over the last few years and he saw this rise as a symptom of the widespread concerns by ordinary citizens about the ineffectiveness of local police forces. He met many other possible candidates for the central role of the detective in the film before settling on Rajesh and it is clear from the off that he chose well. Rajesh is massively engaging – enthusiastic, intelligent, well-organised, determined – and someone who seems to care both about doing a good job and looking after both his clients and his staff. But Rajesh also has his extravert side – leading his team in martial arts exercise classes and then entering them in a dance competition. He also has a difficult family situation because his wife is dangerously ill with diabetes and he fears for the future of his young son.
The documentary cuts between the home life of Rajesh, his time in the office as manager of the agency, his motivational work with his team and three investigations which the agency is following. We see raids on wholesalers and retailers dealing in counterfeit hair products, an investigation into the deaths of three young men, seemingly killed in a railway accident but claimed as a murder by a relative and finally a classic case of tailing a married man and the report of his extra-marital adventures to his wife. The three cases are well-chosen in that they represent the range of concerns of Kolkata’s residents. The middle-class wife is upset but needs to know the truth. Counterfeiting is a major problem in India. The relatively poor trader who is caught is perhaps more of a victim than a criminal but this kind of activity harms everyone and Rajesh needs the income from clients as important as the shampoo company. The murder investigation leads to a meeting with the police who listen to the careful presentation of the investigation carried out by the team but who clearly aren’t going to speed up their own painfully slow enquiries.
Philip Cox, like Pål Hollender in Finding Ali seen earlier in the Festival, is a European director who is clearly aware of what he is doing in representing South Asia. Unlike Hollander he doesn’t appear in his own film and he is supported by local filmmaker Sounak Chakravorty who he met via the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Kolkata. They were able to shoot with two cameras and this provided the kind of coverage of events that with tight editing gives a wonderful sense of street life in Kolkata. The film really bowls along seemingly at a frantic pace but I found it coherent and satisfying. Camerawork and music are both very effective. I’ve seen a criticism that the action cuts too quickly between the potential silliness of the dance sequences and the tragedy developing at home, but I don’t agree. I think Cox maintains a close observation that isn’t judgemental and is respectful of Rajesh who certainly seems sincere whatever he is doing.
The film has been very well received at various festivals including Sundance and in an unusual twist, the ‘rights’ have been bought by 20th Century Fox in order to produce a fictional ‘remake’. I’m sure that this must have happened before but it seems an odd development to me. I can’t imagine how a fictional detective’s story could quite top this documentary. The sales agent is eOne and Channel 4 have some money in the production, I think, so it should get a wide distribution and I imagine it will appear on TV in most territories – but I’d recommend it on a cinema screen. The print we saw was projected from HDCam and looked very good.
There is an interesting ‘Director’s statement’ on this site: Native Films (Production Company) Website
I met Eric Khoo the morning after the screening of Be With Me and Tatsumi. He proved to be an engaging character and generous with his time. Rather than a formal interview, we had a discussion based around a few prompts I made. He said that he was familiar with Japanese Cinema in the late 1940s (e.g. Kurosawa and Ozu) and that he was aware of how similar some of the scenes from Tatsumi’s manga were to scenes from the films of that period – in fact it was the cinematic quality of Tatsumi’s work which was one of the attractions for a filmmaker. When we discussed anime, Mr Khoo said that he wasn’t that impressed by most anime, even those from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, except for perhaps Princess Mononoke and Ponyo because they at least seemed to have some real drama. When I pressed him he agreed that there was certainly something to be said for Graveyard of the Fireflies (Takahata Isao, 1988, Studio Ghibli) in which we see the terrible impact of the fire-bombing of Kobe by the Americans towards the end of the war. Not surprisingly the boy in this film is shown in similar ways to Tatsumi as a young teenager only a few years later.
I suggested that Be With Me had been seen by some critics as reminiscent of the work of the Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsaio-hsien and we discussed how some elements of the film, such as the ‘presence’ of the dead wife, drew on aspects of Chinese culture that might not be easily accessible to Western audiences. I asked Mr Khoo if he felt like a filmmaker of the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and whether he felt connected to the industries in the Three Chinas. He answered this by saying that really he didn’t have that much connection with these industries. He recognised that the Taiwanese industry had revived a little recently but didn’t think that there were many opportunities yet and he said that he thought the Hong Kong industry was dead with all the main players moving towards mainland productions. Obviously the mainland industry is booming but he thought it was very difficult to break into Chinese distribution. He followed this up by commenting on the state of Japanese Cinema. He was quite pessimistic and suggested that only older people went to the cinema in Japan. On the whole he was more interested in what was happening in South Korea. Later he revealed that his wife was Korean and his daughter was fond of K-pop. I queried whether the hallyu (the Korean wave’ of media products sweeping across East Asia) wasn’t running out of steam. He assured me that it wasn’t and that the influence was everywhere.
At this point the conversation moved on to my second question: did he see himself as a ‘festival film’ producer or did he think that it was possible to move into commercial film distribution? I realised later, when I had done more research, that this was rather a naïve question since Eric Khoo is already established as both a festival name and a successful producer of films in Singapore, including genre pictures. He feels that currently in Singapore there is a real opportunity to build an industry. He referred back to the industry of the late 1940s–1960s in colonial Singapore and Malaya when the Shaw Brothers and later Cathay-Keris ran commercial studios that were Chinese-owned with Malay actors and Indian directors and technicians. Recently, changes in local tax regulations have encouraged Singapore-Malaysian co-productions (see my earlier posting on Chinese-Malaysian productions). There is now a strong production base in Singapore but with only a small population (5 million), commercial filmmaking is limited – but add in the growing Malaysian film market (within a country of 28 million) and commercial production looks viable. Eric Khoo’s production company Zhao Wei Films has just completed a ‘military horror’ film 2359 which Khoo has executive-produced. (Singapore has conscription for national military service and there are a number of local productions which reference this experience for all young males.) 2359 opens in Singapore and Malaya next month. Horror is one of the most popular genres in the region with both Thailand and Indonesia producing horror films, some of which are also shown in Malaysia. As well as acting as Executive Producer on commercial productions like this, Eric Khoo has also helped the other Singapore ‘name director’ on the festival circuit, Royston Tan, make his films through Zhao Wei. We reported on Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) by Boo Junfeng, another film exec-produced by Eric Khoo, from last year’s London Film Festival.
Singapore and Malaysia together constitute a film culture with three different language bases. Eric Khoo’s 2008 film My Magic features a central character from the Singapore Tamil community and it did receive a release of sorts in India – although it was difficult to organise. What seems clear though is that despite the enormous presence of India and China as major players, there is space for a regional industry in South East Asia and that it is possible to straddle the different worlds of the international festival circuit and the regional commercial market. It would be good though if filmmakers like Eric Khoo could get wider distribution deals for their festival films and via DVD and online were able to get local genre productions into more markets. Let’s hope that Tatsumi leads the way.
Carancho is directed and part-written by Pablo Trapero whose 2002 film El bonaerense achieved a wide international release. It’s a mainstream crime thriller of the kind that Argentinian Cinema does very well and it stars the most recognisable Argentinian actor for international audiences, Ricardo Darin.
In Spanish, ‘carancho’ refers to various birds of prey and the obvious inference here is to vultures. Darin plays Sosa, a lawyer who has been driven to become in US terms an ‘ambulance chaser’ – someone who waits around for a motor vehicle accident and then tries to grab the business of any survivors or relatives who make a claim. According to some of the promo material there are around 8,000 deaths on Argentina’s roads each year. This is a staggering figure. As a comparison, the UK (admittedly one of the safest places in the world to be a road user) has less than 2,000 deaths from a larger number of road users – but the US is nearly as bad as Argentina. I mention this last point only because there is already discussion of a Hollywood remake.
The plot is fairly basic. Sosa seduces a new young doctor on the A&E team of the local hospital, Luján played by Martina Gusmán. She turns out to be not quite as innocent as she first appears. Sosa is in some ways a classic film noir male character – a good man forced to do bad things. He is trapped by the vicious system which allows crooked legal firms to cream off a fat commission on any compensation claim. He needs to find a way to break away from their stranglehold and this means doing some dirty deeds while still keeping Luján on side. I don’t really like medical dramas – especially the soaps set in casualty wards – and the only film I can think of that has some similar elements is Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), a good film but not very enjoyable to watch. I think I enjoyed Carancho more but I still averted my gaze from some of the gory bits.
The real question is why this film attracted investment from three co-production partners and a slot at Cannes in Un certain regard. It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller, with a downbeat ending, that is very well made but not that unusual/distinctive apart from the originality of the basic premise. I was intrigued to discover that Martina Gusmán was a producer before she was an actor and she is exec producer here. Her presence and that of Darin helps to lift the film, but I’d still put it alongside French polars such as the two Fred Cavayé films Pour elle (2008) and À bout portant (2010), the first of which has already been re-made. Such films have an originality in ideas that Hollywood needs to feed on. What will Hollywood need to change about Carancho? Probably it will need to make the ending more upbeat and the characters less seedy. A studio will also have to find an actor/star who can do what Darin does so effortlessly – sleaze plus sex appeal with several beatings to withstand and that little pot belly. He’s a great role model for middle-aged men!
YouTube trailer for the US market:
The quality of films coming out of South Korea continues to be very high. When I read the festival’s blurb on this title I did wonder if it was really a good idea to watch it as the last film of three in an evening session. But around ten minutes in I’d forgotten about my reservations. Park Jung-bum is the writer, director and lead actor in a bleak tale about a North Korean defector (from Musan) trying to survive in Seoul. The film is over 2 hours long and it’s his first feature. But Park was previously an assistant on the much acclaimed Poetry and some of that film’s magic has certainly brushed off onto his own début.
Jeon Seung-chul finds himself sharing a small apartment literally on the edge of Seoul (there is a ‘demolished village’ next to the apartment) with a rather more ‘worldly-wise’ defector, Kyoung-chul, who has already settled into the capitalist culture of the South. Seung-chul struggles to earn a living fly-posting but is physically attacked by rivals, whereas Kyoung-chul has developed a lucrative racket in charging other defectors from the North large sums to send money home via his uncle in China. Seung-chul’s attempts to get a better job are thwarted by the giveaway of his North Korean identity which comes from the ‘125’ code in his South Korean ID number. His only relief from the misery of work and the inhospitable apartment is his visits to a church where he develops an interest in an attractive young woman in the choir – who he doggedly follows across the city.
As my brief plot outline reveals, this is essentially a neo-realist idea with the two obvious references being Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The former provides the hopelessness of the struggle for a proper job – often a process of one step forward and one step back. Like the old man in Umberto D, Seung-chul also seeks company from a dog – in this case a very appealing puppy. The neo-realist narrative idea is matched by a strictly functional camera style (shot on HD video). Any danger of sentimentality is avoided by making Seong-chul a very human figure, someone who is sullen and stubborn as well as honest and hardworking. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot development so suffice to say, things go wrong for Kyoung-chul as well as Seung-chul and in the last third of the film there is more action and an important revelation about Seung-chul’s past in the North. Seung-chul eventually meets the woman at the church and for a moment I was worried that he was going to find ‘salvation’ as a church member. (I’ve no animosity towards organised religion as such, but the idea of ‘redemption’ in this scenario threatened to undermine everything that had gone before.) But this doesn’t happen and the woman proves to be as false and self-centred as most of the other characters that Seung-chul meets.
There is a very annoying programme on UK Radio 4 called ‘The Moral Maze’ in which moral questions are explored by a panel of ‘experts’. I’d like to sit them down in front of this film. Its humanism poses very difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. Seung-chul is not a ‘hero’ as such in the narrative. But it’s difficult not to feel for him and then to question yourself about how you might react if you met him. If you do manage to see the film, have a look at the various reviews and they will give you a flavour of what Park Jun-bum has stirred up in his representation of a character and a situation based, I think, on real events.
I hope the film gets a wide international release and I noted that its Korean backer is the same company, Fine Cut, which was involved in co-producing the Argentinian film Carancho. The character behind Fine Cut, Suh Young-joo has a long history in the South Korean industry and the new company is emerging as an interesting player in the international market for smaller independent films.
Trailer for The Journals of Musan:
About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?
From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.
I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?
Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).
The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.
Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).
Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)
Trailer with English subs: