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DIFF 11 | DAY 8 | Fictitious Countries

by Sarah Dawson, Roger Young and Sihle Mthembu / 29.07.2011

Sarah Dawson

I’m learning to decode the film festival booklet. When a film says “delivers ample rewards to the patient viewer”, you know that you shouldn’t expect terribly much to actually happen in the film, and rather that the film will mostly be about a particular mood or atmosphere, rather than any kind of complex plot, as such. This is true of a fair number of my film festival picks so far, which suits me just fine, because I am indeed on one of the aforementioned “patient viewers”. The joys of a film festival are of course the festival films. Not only the films that happen to be at the festival, but “festival films”. Those films that only ever really get seen at film festivals. Those films that are made to be enjoyed by people who specifically love the film form, and who are willing to go with a director to wherever it is that they need to go, to be able to say what they need to say, without being tugged in the direction of “marketability”. This space allows for the surprisingly subversive activity of not saying much at all, or rather, not speaking much out loud, and it’s such an enormous relief. In this hypermediated historical moment, I often feel like we’re being constantly being shouted loudly at, in ever ascending volume and pitch. There exists this overwhelming sense that every blockbuster director, or ad campaign, or pop group is competing for our attention by shouting over one another until there’s just an ambient global hum of vulgarity. Like a cicada in summer, you don’t notice it until it stops, and in that moment of unexpected quiet, an almost divine relief washes over you. A film like Silent Souls, which I saw last night, feels like the raging din becoming muted, and having a stranger whisper a beautiful secret in your ear and then disappear.

So I comb the programme for words like “moody”, “atmospheric”, “tender”, because those are the films who feel no great urgency to be the first, or the biggest. They are the films that are in quiet rebellion against the neurotic over-revving, wheel-spinning of not only mass culture, but even the haughtier art-films whose mode is pronouncement, with rolling Rs. They are the films that you have to find important, rather than the films that set out to be important. In an interview with Estononian minimalist composer Arvo Part, Bjork says (in her cute icelandic accent) something that I believe is equally true of minimalist cinema in the context of the current moment: “I like your music very, very much, because you give space to the listener. He can go inside and live there. But a lot of music from the last few centuries, you just have to sit, and listen.”

This year, DIFF has not failed me. Reflecting on my viewing so far, there has been plenty of this radical gentleness, all of the films I’ve seen wonderful in quite particular ways – Elena, The Giants, Small Town Murder Songs, Eternity, The Turin Horse, Michael etc. It’s indicative of programming based on an ethos of great integrity, because it risks unpopularity. Many people don’t like to be still with their thoughts. The prevailing desire is for film to think in place of the viewer. But DIFF, in the darkened theatres of many of this year’s festival screenings, is staging a very small, slow and muffled revolution.

I’m having a blast.

Sihle seems to be enjoying himself on the whole, and Roger’s fest has been a little more patchy than mine, but at least he got to see Play last night – something I’d hoped I’d manage, but didn’t.

SILENT SOULS (Russia 2011)

Like the large masculine hands of Aist and Miron, that gently wash and comb the hair of Miron’s beloved wife after her death, Silent Souls is gentle and lyrical, but also gruff and Russian and rustic.

It’s something of a road movie, as the protagonists take the body to the location of Tanya and Miron’s honeymoon to be cremated at the side of a lake, according to the traditions of the Merjan – an ancient, pre-Russian people, whose traditions still linger in the Lake Nero region of Russia.

It is an affectionate tale of a man’s devotion to his wife, but also of loss and the slipping of a living being into death, as water slips into being ice. These strands are woven together such that they cannot be separated, and none is more pressing than the other. Submitting Tanya with the proper Merjan funerary rites honours the ways of the old tradition, and fixes them together in a way that ensures that she can be followed into the afterlife, an afterlife that is found in the water. The film is soft, and sepia-toned, but, like water under a frozen lake, there are erotic, somewhat dangerous undertones that are ancient and mystical, in which longing and lust are two sides of one thing.

Sparing with dialogue, one line remains with me: “If something is doomed to disappear, so be it. So be it.” This is not a expression of despair though, it is closer to an acceptance of an old knowledge somewhere in the soul. The film knows that everything is doomed ultimately to disappear, but we can find solace in the unity of that experience. In this context, mourning is not about loss. It’s about longing.

A truly haunting piece of cinema that faces death with an earthy mysticism, and resonates in parts of your self you’d forgotten you had.

Roger Young

PLAY Dir Ruben Ostlund Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakite (Denmark, France, Sweden 2011)

Play offers up an incident and then offers two points of view on its outcome. Where responsibility for the incident lies depends on your personal political stance on European immigration. In light of the murders in Norway, I couldn’t help, post screening, but think the Ostlund has missed some of the intricacies of the issue, he seems to offer only two solutions for white Europeans; fight back or be overrun. Of course, the subtlety of Danish filmmaking allows us, upon reflection, to find in the various reactions a myriad of other possibilities.

First and foremost Play is a keen observation on the politics of power amoung early adolecents, as the chief antagonist observes late in the film, “Why would you show your cell phone to a black kid? Are you stupid?” The antagonist is Yannick, the black kid who has, with his gang, effectively kidnapped and subsequently terrorized the three young Danes from which they want to steal. It’s not that Yannick and his gang are dirt poor, they just have less but they play on the stereotype of the “poor black violent immigrant” in order to get what they want, all the while insisting that they “are not thieves, we will find a solution.’ The incident begins when three middle class white boys go shopping in a mall and the five black boys spot them and begin to follow them. The white kids are terrorized by the mere presence of the immigrants. The immigrants sense their fear and begin their campaign with merely following them onto a tram. The immigrants sensing their fear and being teenage boys, step up their intimidation campaign. The European kids seem helpless to defend themselves against the brashness of the “invader”, cowed by politeness.

Most remarkable about Play, however, is it’s visual language. Shots are long, in all senses of the word; they last forever, hardly move, and are from a distance. When there are close ups, characters are trapped in corners of the screen. Play sums up the incident in two single shots, both months later, both at once exposing the tangle of the immigration issue and the size of the dent it continues to make on Europe’s psyche.

THE ALGIERS MURDERS Dir Faith Isiakpere Cast: John Savage (South Africa 2011)

There is always one. I have no excuses this time. The Algiers Murders is a complete and properly finished film, I can’t dodge it. It’s no fun being mean to a kid who can’t defend himself. The Algiers Murders is plainly not shot in Algiers; it’s littered with South African faces and accents, sadly South African standard performances and the South African phenomenon of John Savage. Its painfully simple and preachy plot about corrupt cops, the drug trade and the mafia is made confusing by willful and disjointed cross cutting, half formed clichés and a naïve, obviously second hand viewpoint of street drugs. The introduction sequence could have been about three minutes, it drags for close on twenty, trying to make itself interesting by cutting forward and backward in time. It doesn’t work. It’s ham fisted, childish and deeply cringe worthy. Badly lit, contrived, ineptly conceived, full of good cop, bad cop, rogue cop, suicide cop, wise cop clichés, bad wigs, bad make up, bad everything. To continue would just be cruel. Let me leave you with this. There is a peripheral scene on a boat, someone is about to be shot, he sits with his girlfriend/moll at a table, the only props on the table are their champagne glasses and a bucket of champagne, the champagne glasses are full but the bottle of champagne is unopened. It’s the essence of cheap filmmaking; it’s just not bad enough to be amusing.

Sihle Mthembu

PLAY Dir Ruben Ostlund Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakite (Denmark, France, Sweden 2011)

Play is a very Danish film, it could easily be a documentary. Directed by Ruben Ostlund it is an unforgiving portrait into the middle class discomforts that arise when a black person is in the room. Ostlund uses long sustained shorts, for most of the movie the camera is stationery and the subjects flow in and out of the frames effortlessly. Ostlund’s style is very less about directing than it is about observing. With big wide frames, Play is a directors film and will certainly not be loved by actors who are in pursuit of rations of close ups.

The film follows three white boys as they are terrorized by five black boys. The film makes no effort to explain anything but it depicts the incidents as irrational and almost void of emotion. The prejudice that comes with back-story is avoided. Ostlund gives us people with no history but are rich on personal strength and character. Cut in between the boys terror ride is a scene that seemingly makes no sense. We see a train driver who constantly complains about a tram that has been left on the train and no one has claimed it. Although he can throw the tram out he does not use this option. The scene finds its roots in contemporary Danish suburbia. This is the perfect metaphor for a society that can sees the problem, but chooses not to address it and is all willing to carry the burdens of others if only for no other reason than to keep the peace.

As the three boys eventually lose everything to their adversaries the film climaxes when one of the culprits is later caught. It is a wrenching scene that is full of social violence without the bloodshed. Ostlund makes no assumptions about the place on which this film is based. As a director he has avoided making any sort of statement and rather he has decided to give the viewer the option of deciding the lines between right and wrong.

Day 9 Schedule

Roger Young

The TURIN HORSE France, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, United States 2010

RUBBER France 2010

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