The Stupid Cow

I swore that I wouldn't go back to this subject, but it's religion time again!

My bile levels have been heightened slightly by this anonymous piece in the Irish Independent, starting with the atheist bus campaign and going onto far darker things. The author has clearly written through their rage rather than checking any facts. For a start, the piece is written by one Mary Kenny, clearly fearful for her life what with all the 'militant atheists' hanging round her area has decided to omit her details for the piece. It's clear that she fears and loathes such people by the writing style employed, a mix of barely controlled anger and clumsy mocking of the subject. I guess that the Daily Mail rejected her rantings because even they could see that she was letting her emotions get the better of her.

Where to start? There are the small things, such as:

The "atheist bus" is already established in London...

Nope. For starters, there is no atheist bus - there is a slogan to put on the bus about atheism, but the bus is a plain old bendy one. The article suggests some sort of open-topped tour containing well-known atheists spreading their heathen word down her precious streets. Also, the ad slogans won't be running until early 2009, so another red pen mark.

The advertising campaign has cost around stg £100,000.

The advertising campaign was due to cost £5,500, which was the original justgiving target.

It was all started up by -- predictably -- Professor Richard Dawkins...

Nope. It was started by Ariane Sherine of the Guardian.

He put down a deposit of some £8,000...

Err, no. He pledged to match up to £5,500 if the justgiving page managed to get that far (which it did, in just over an hour).

...and the rest came from public contributions -- mostly from readers of The Guardian newspaper...

I contributed twice having never given the Guardian more than a cursory glance. The story of the atheist bus was also mentioned in several other newspapers, radio and TV. Hearing the blatherings of the arrogant, po-faced Stephen Green trying to hold his position by exclaiming that he had absolute proof for the existence of God (despite amazingly not carrying such proof around with him at all times - you'd think it'd be useful for a God carer) and scoffing loudly at anyone who debated with him was a potent catalyst for a larger audience than Guardian readers to stand up and have their voices counted.

Then there is a passage that seems to meander around the whole 'probably' word.

Not that the project has been without controversy, within its own ranks. Hardline atheists wished the message to be: "There is definitely no God." But it seems that those atheists who shade somewhat towards agnosticism prevailed, with their slightly more moderate "There is probably no God ... "

I dunno, what's an honest atheist to do? They put the word in to appease and avoid offence (and in my opinion, to be more factually accurate) and the religious lot mock and jeer.

And then it started to get personal:

They could put whatever they liked on a bus. Except that I found the atheists' coda "so relax and enjoy life" ludicrously implausible. I've never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters.

That's strange. I have numerous friends, colleagues and contacts, and most of them are varying degrees of atheist, the only religious contact they tend to have is the blackmail rituals they need to go through when they want to get a church marriage, or are badgered into some religious act or other by their families to keep a tradition going.

I find them to be generally happy, outgoing, carefree individuals, insofar as is possible with the world worries going on at the moment. I know a few people who have religious leanings, and they tend to be generally happy also; no more, no less, so I wonder just which circles Mary has been spinning in to find such contrasting personalities where the only dividing line is their (lack of) faith.

I've got a theory: perhaps they're miserable around her because she's always warbling on about God in their presence and insinuating they will go to hell for their lifestyle choice.

For your information, Mary, I find the notion of religious people 'relaxing and enjoying life' to be a little askew with logic. Not in the same way you do, by looking at a very small section of society and making conclusions based upon them, but by following the well-trodden path of logic that made me decide that God is not for me. If you'll indulge me for a moment:

A central tenet of religion, bashed into us from infant schools:

God is all-powerful and all-seeing and all-forgiving.

But, in life, bad things happen:

A plane full of people crashes into a mountain.
An innocent child a few days old is mown down by a runaway car.
Other children are born into the world with horrible, painful disfigurements.
Dictatorships rise and fall and in the process millions of people are massacred.

God must be aware of these occurrences, and yet he does nothing, thus:

Either he is too weak to do anything about them (bang goes the first bit) or he was looking the other way at the time (there goes the second bit) or he thought what the hell and let it happen anyway (and the third bit falls).

God is willing to let all these things happen without intervening, and thus if he does exist, I doubt he'll give a flying angel if millions of insignificant specks on one of his billions of planets don't kneel by their bedside every night and pray for a good day tomorrow. Thus following a religion is pointless.

And now, the point: If I were a religious sort, I would look upon the events happening every day on the earth, (and the news can only show a fraction of everything that happens) and start asking questions - what is God up to? Does he hate us? Are we an experiment? Are we just playthings? Is the devil as powerful as God? I went to church and then was mugged on my way home, so what have I done wrong?

If I was of the opinion there was a higher power controlling everything, these inconsistencies and questions would build up and up and up, and you can't tell me that's a recipe for a happy-go-lucky outlook on life. I'd be a pretty miserable blighter, as you put it, Mary. The only way of retaining my religious views and also keeping a sane mind would be to stick my head in the sand.

Don't think about it. It's ok not to; it's all handled by some higher power. Just concentrate on reciting your prayers every night, go to church on a Sunday - don't forget some pennies in the collection bowl - and if you remain blissfully detached from the niggling inconsistencies that bubble into your conscious from time to time and keep doing what your bible tells you to, you might lead a modest life with possibly something to look forward to at the end of it.

I can't do that. I like to think and question and challenge the world around me. If something doesn't make sense, then I will question it's validity and reject it if it cannot stand up to scrutiny. That's how things change; progress. The atheist bus campaign reassured me that there are other people - many people - out there who share a similar view. Some of them may have gone along with their bestowed faiths because it was just the thing to do because it was all around, but have now found a group, a voice, that answers their concerns.

I have faith; sure. I have faith in my friends and my family; I have faith that I will be able to do the things I want to do in life before I'm too old to do them. Faith is a good thing. Blind faith is a bad thing, and that is what religion requires to work.

So that is how I manage to be an atheist whilst still able to be a happy soul. I am free from these questions because of these rules: God probably doesn't exist, and even if he does, he couldn't give two fingers about whether I worship him or not.

It's also I suspect why religious people aren't quite as happy as Mary insinuates.

So I relax and enjoy my life. Because life is short and precious.

Anyway, back to the piece.

Well-meaning folk might suppose that atheists are simply searchingly honest persons who, doubting the tenets of faith and committed to reason and logic, conclude that they just cannot commit to faith.

No, the reason is not a question of commitment, it's a question of it not making sense to the person. They have perhaps tried to believe (usually because it's been a part of their education growing up), but too many facets of religion just don't work for them, and so they can't. Your wording also implies a sense of laziness, 'an atheist is someone who can't be bothered to put the work in'.

There may be some of this ilk, but militant atheists, in particular, are deeply unpleasant and caustically intolerant. Any time I have written about this subject, I have received offensive e-mails from militant atheists. While professing themselves to be campaigners for "freedom of thought", "reason", and "logic", their main tool of argument is often personal abuse; they quickly start shrieking that believers are simply "stupid", or, in the case of a female believer, "a stupid cow".

Militant atheists? Who they? I know of militant and fundamentalist religious types. You know, the ones who burn people at the stake, or kill black people with pitchforks and flaming crosses, or murder members of their own family for daring to divorce, or fly planes into buildings, or bomb shopping centres and buses, or invade entire countries and destroy all traces of native beliefs or religions in favour of their own. I know not of any atheist who uses anything but words to get their message across.

Maybe you could provide us with some real counter examples Mary, instead of labelling everyone who sends you an email reflecting their anger at your words as 'militant'.

There's just one more bit that I'd like to touch on, but it's the most insulting of all:

...I am convinced that this injection of atheism into the culture is directly responsible for the increase in drug-abuse, in crime and, most specifically, in the five-fold increase in suicide that we have seen in these islands over the last 25 years.

A life without a spiritual sense of purpose, or the moral parameters set by the Ten Commandments -- is a living hell.

I can sort of see the glimmer of some logical reason here, but it's highly skewed. One of the few advantages I can see to an organised religion is its instillation of a moral compass on its flock. This unfortunately hinges greatly on a 'fear of God' more than anything else - do good or you will burn in hell - which isn't really healthy to have bullied into you from an early age. Mary's central assumption - that atheists are a group cast adrift without the guiding moral compass of a vengeful God and thus must be to blame for all corruption in society (like asylum seekers, asian people, black people, women voters.. the latest in a long line leading back centuries) is thus flawed.

I, like most people, atheist or otherwise, have a moral compass and code. Like many others, I have taken part in charity events, I have picked up litter in the street, said hello to strangers, held doors open and given up seats on the train, I have supported my community and sometimes flipped a few coins into a beggars lap. But mine is based on a general respect for living things and a person's property rather than a set of rules laid down and backed up by threats of damnation.

You get these from good parenting, good relationships with the people in your community, and a safe environment where people can grow up not feeling the need to be in a group for fear of being outcast. No religion is required.

So, I'll take my moral compass over yours any day, Mary.

And then she drops the mother lode:

Troubled and immature young persons, given a nihilistic message that there is no meaning to life -- that we are just reasonably clever animals who evolved from a set of molluscs, quite by chance -- are easily driven down the road to despair.

Britain has been hugely shaken, over the last month, by the public tragedy of 'Baby P', and the tormented infant's young life has been taken as an all-too-accurate indictment of an aspect of British life today.

That is a life without moral parameters; in which fathers walk away from their children because the state provides all welfare; in which relationships are casual, and a variety boyfriends and serial stepfathers move in; in which mothers spend the day smoking dope, drinking vodka and cruising for sex on the internet, while their children die with broken backs -- among filth and excrement, dead mice and pet snakes.

A Hogarthian picture of an underclass without any sense of a higher moral and spiritual aspiration has emerged, to whom the atheist bus campaign is scant help, or indeed comfort...

And that's where it gets truly insulting. One minute she talks of atheists and their miserableness, and then she talks about social decay. She hasn't directly associated one with the other, but the insinuation is clear. The prevalence of a secular, atheist society is responsible for things such as a child being battered to death, drunken teenagers, squalid living conditions and urban decay. This 'implication by proximity' is an old trick, and it's sad to see it being used so blatantly here. My recently refreshed faith in the people of Britain gives me hope that most people will read this and see it for what it is. Inaccurate ranting and borderline propaganda.

Mary Kenny has such a vivid idea of the mind and actions of the average atheist, it's hard not to be tempted to wonder what sort of person she is. I see her as an old woman (in the style of Mrs Slocombe out of Are You Being Served) with a sash permanently round her neck and a blue-grey rinse, sat at her desk at home, amongst Jackie Collins novels, cigarette butts and copies of the Daily Mail, tapping in these inane, hearsay-based opinion pieces with only her index fingers and occasionally stopping her toy dog from yapping the house down by feeding it yet another vol au vent.

I salute you, Mary Kenny. You have managed to both offend and amuse with your ignorant, bigoted and factually inaccurate remarks. The title of 'stupid cow' is rightly deserved for you because you have demonstrated both your stupidity and your bovine intellect.

May you continue to rouse atheists to stand up and be counted for years to come.

The Golden Plantpots 2008

Since I've seen so many films this year at Cambridge and Leeds, I thought I'd have a little fun in an Oscars stylee, bigging up respec' to the best output I've seen this year. There are also a couple of awards for the stinkers out there in the shape of the Cracked Pots, or the 'Manky Sankeys'.

If you take issue with the decisions I've taken, please tell me what you would include instead.

Best Film - Black Ice (Germany/Finland)

There were funnier films and films with more impact, but Black Ice had great big gobs of suspense, emotion, some good laughs, a twisting unpredictable plot, and believable characters revolving around the concept of a highly spun web of lies. It won because it was the most complete film.

Honourable Mentions:

- Moscow Belgium (Belgium)
A funny, sharp and brilliantly acted slice of life story of a harassed 40-something woman and her chance encounter with a disgruntled truck driver, giving them both something they were missing in their lives. A really good film and top of the list for a long while.

- Empties (Czech Republic)
Growing old is not about giving up on life. This warm, funny end to the trilogy of Jan Sverak was consistently entertaining to the end.

Best Short Film - The Pearce Sisters (UK)

Comparing short films against full length features is unfair, so I separated them out. The Pearce Sisters is a fantastic animation that leaps out of the screen at you. A tight story, never dragging shows the desperate, lonely and often disgusting lives of two sisters living on a beach, making use of the flotsam that washes ashore.

Honourable Mentions:

- There's Only One Bob Latchford (UK)
Nostalgia for childhood is exploited to the full in this funny and warm tribute to young love and collecting football stickers.

- Skhizein (France)
An inventive animation which is told in an entertaining and accessible way. What would happen if you occupied a space that was a metre away from where you should be?

- You, Me and Captain Longbridge (UK)
An emotional window onto the world of a son who has lost his father and uses his imagination and the beautiful countryside he lives in as a way of coping.

- On the Line (Germany)
A short film about the power to make decisions and the consequences of doing them (or not). On The Line stirred up emotion and built suspense very well.

- Mother, Mine (UK)
A woman's seemingly innocent attempt to reunite with her mother starts as a quiet, personal journey, before taking a very dark and unexpected twist.

Best Animation - Mind Game (Japan)

Mind Game was a rollercoaster ride philosophising over the nature of existence, second chances, love and sex, and the human will to overcome and survive. These relatively normal themes were wrapped into a selection of comstantly morphing unique animation styles, with an inventiveness off the scale to the extent it felt like the brain-dump of a madman. You will never see anything like it.

Honourable Mentions:

- Sword of the Stranger (Japan)
This anime won no awards for originality, but it had a solid, complex plot, a recognisable, smooth style (from a good lineage) and kept up pace right to the end.

- The Pearce Sisters (UK)
The smoothness of the animation was a thing to behold in this short film, each character was given three-dimensional life on a 2D surface.

- Skhizein (France)
A unique concept and a likeable style made this short film very watchable.

Best Documentary - One Minute to Nine (USA)

This powerful and disturbing film opens up slowly to reveal the true extent of the devastation of one womans' life and her actions to protect her children. Quietly played without all the kerayzee zoom-in-zoom-out becoming typical of American 'factual' programs these days. Well made and effectively chilling to the bone.

Honourable Mentions:

- The End of Poverty? (USA)
The sheer amount of information packed into this film cannot be ignored, it attempts and succeeds to explain just how the world economy has got to this point; where slavery is more alive than ever and on a truly global scale.

- 1000 Journals (USA)
An entertaining account of an experiment. Send out 1000 plain journals into the world to encourage anyone who picks it up to express themselves in the pages. For such a simple concept, the film didn't drag and remained entertaining throughout.

- Blood Trail (UK)
The passion and determination of one man to do what urges him on - to go to the most war-torn parts of the world and commit whatever he sees to film is an accomplished chronicle of the last fifteen years of his life.

- Fire Under the Snow (USA)
The Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso spent many years in prison, suffering horrendous torture and seeing his fellow peaceful demostrators break and die, all for standing up for their right to practice the Buddhist faith. This film is testamount to the endless patience and forgiveness of the man, who is still actively involved in demonstrations today.

- Chomsky & Co (France)
Though this film suffered a little for being largely in French with subtitles, and thus sometimes hard to keep up with, it was still a fascinating look into the mind of the much acclaimed and criticized intellectual Noam Chomsky, his supporters and his opponents as they share their views on war propaganda, marketing and how people use words, not swords to get their way these days.

Emotional Kick - Time To Die (Poland)

Time to Die doesn't reveal itself completely at the start of the film. This slow burner took a good long while to get going, but by the end of the film, it surprised me just how much I cared about the central character, and the ending stirred up the strongest emotion of all films I've seen this year. If you decide to go to Time to Die, and I encourage you to do, be prepared for a slow burner.

Honourable Mentions:

- Blind Loves (Slovakia)
This documentary-but-not was very good at sharing the four stories with the audience. There was no voice-over narration, so it was left to the camera (and some affectionate animation effects) to tell their stories without judgement. A very nice film.

- Out of Time (Germany)
The ever-disappearing sight of bespoke shops on the highstreet, many of which have supported several generations of family is not one restricted to any part of the world, and this collection of stories of those who face the end of an era was increasingly touching as the film progressed.

- One Minute to Nine (USA)
The story of one woman's final days of freedom before being sent to prison for the crimes she committed was a powerful and affecting work.

Twist Award - Mother, Mine (UK)
The beauty of this short film was its ability to creep up on the viewer and change your perception of everything you had watched, in the last few minutes of celluloid.

Honourable Mentions:

- Black Ice (Germany/Finland)
The ability of Saara to move from contented housewife to amateur spy to spinner of tangled webs of deceit to get close to her prey was full of twists and turns as the stakes got higher and she teetered on the edge of being found out.

Cleverest Film - Black Ice (Germany/Finland)

The amount of inventiveness in the plot of this thriller means it gets another plantpot. There was no telling what was going to happen next or how Saara was going to handle it. Compelling to the end.

Honourable Mentions:

- Mind Game (Japan)
How to mess with the head. This film was inventive to a fault and had my mind racing long after it all ended.

- Rumba (Belgium/France)
Rumba gets in because it contained some of the cleverest physical scenes I've seen. The dancing silhouette scene in particular is extremely well done, especially as there are no computers involved.

- Dream (South Korea)
Kim Ki-Duk's latest was a solid effort, and the theme of two people locked together by their dreams was a great plot device.

- Skhizein (France)
The computer concepts of 3D space and transformations are made into accessible entertainment here as a man is knocked out of his own space by a meteorite.

Biggest Laugh - Dachimawa Lee (South Korea)

You can always leave it to the eastern countries to create the crazy stuff, and this year was no exception. Dachimawa Lee played like a cross between James Bond, Bruce Lee and Austin Powers, with a little bit of Dick Tracy thrown in for good measure. Constantly pacey, camp, clumzy, smart and slick, it kept everyone laughing to the end.

Honourable Mentions:

- Detroit Metal City (Japan)
Just a fraction below Dachimawa Lee, Detroit Metal City shows the contrasting persona's of a man trying to express himself in the worlds of cutesy bands and death metal rock. Funny, energetic, mad and more than a little rude, this had the audience in stitches many times.

- The Juche Idea (Korea)
Though this film had a number of weak areas, the loud orange man who took part in the 'English as a Capitalist Language' sections was so unintentionally hilarious as to make the whole film worth it.

- Mind Game (Japan)
It was just too mad not to be funny. Mind Game grabbed hold of you and didn't let go to the very end, entertaining and often amusing greatly as it went.

Best Indie to Show Your Friends - Black Ice (Germany/Finland)

It's got to be Black Ice simply because it has everything - high suspense, complex plot, emotion, laughs. It's the perfect all-rounder.

Honourable Mentions:

- Rumba (Belgium/France)
Rumba is particularly suited because it is largely devoid of dialogue, instead leaving it to the principal characters to express their feelings via their dance numbers. It sounds a bit rough on paper, but worked really well.

- My Name is Bruce (US)
If you love horror films, then this one is an ideal crossover into the area of comedy and spoof, with Bruce Campbell sending himself up brilliantly. If you don't like horror films, don't worry - there's enough laughs without including the horror film references, and the baddies are deliberately unconvincing to give that authentic B-movie feel.

- Dachimawa Lee (South Korea)
A great film to show people if they have any doubts an eastern film can be funny. Sharp and entertaining, and plenty of laughs both in dialogue and some excellent physical gags.

The Manky Sankey Awards

These awards are given to some true stinkers that I had the displeasure to see.

Biggest Let Down - She Unfolds By Day (USA)
This was just such a missed opportunity. The first warning sign was that the director of the film requested that a synopsis be read out prior to the screening. Then there was the fact that the film had been rejected once a few years ago and only accepted after heavy editing. Much less than a serious biography into the slow loss of a person to Altzeimers, and much more a choppily edited set of indulgant, repetitive holiday movies about the guys' dog, which ended inconeivably with the son and carer leaving the old bag to fend for herself.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- 57000km Between Us (France)
A film declared as a look into a family who is distanced despite the prevelence of technology around them that should enhance it descended into an arthousy flick that was French in all the wrong ways.

- From Inside (USA)
The premise of a film made by a single person has been done many times, often with an endearing and forgiveable roughness to it. Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star springs immediately to mind. Even though From Inside was far from awful, its disjointed storyline and use of a computerised train from all different angles became tiring and in some places, where it tried to be deep and meaningful, became the source of guffaws from the audience, who had clearly had enough.

- Drifter (Brazil)
The documentary was about the loneliness of the drifter on the streets of Brazil, and as such, you might rightly expect some of it to include quiet, sombre moments. However, it was full to the brim with them, the scene with the two streetlights and the annoying screechy music for five or more minutes being the worst, causing a good third of the audience to walk out.

Most Pretentious - 57000km Between Us (France)
There is nothing more unhelpful than showing your friends an indie film that just doesn't work and having them not wanting to touch another non-mainstream film as long as they live. This film is one such example, its depiction of perversion and stupid vomit-inducing closeups and drowning transvestites must have made the director think they were saying something very clever, but they were not.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Akmeni [Stones] (Latvia)
A man with some green plastic bags looks for men and boys for a mysterious purpose. Sounds like a reasonable pretence for a short film. Let me save you the trouble. The green bags meant nothing. The men and boys requirement meant nothing, because they could easily have been female. They were being rounded up to stand in a field to act as placeholders for some art git to place stones in their place for some sort of artistic statement. I wanted to hit them in the face.

- Drifter (Brazil)
Hugely pretentious. The actual content of this film could be extracted to make a half-hours TV documentary, including the many advert breaks you would get in something like that. The rest of the 80 minutes were taken up with filler, the director betting with himself how long he can keep a camera trained on a scene with nothing happening.

Most Drawn Out Scene - Drifter (Brazil)
It couldn't be topped. Drifter was made out of several stretched out and largely pointless scenes that stayed long beyond what a normal person would think of as a 'a reflective consideration of the hours of nothingness spent as a drifter' and well into the realms of 'I have nothing else to put in this film, so lets have five minutes of streetlamps'.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- She Unfolds By Day (USA)
There were plenty of scenes which were repeated over and over, barely changing each time, but the worst one was a protracted trial of endurance in the centre where the dog - the most bearable part of the film - spent many minutes running about the snow in the back garden. Again, and again, and again. What might be lovely for the director is not of much interest to the average filmgoer and was just an exercise in selfish indulgence.

- Halib Ix-Xitan [Hells Dispite] (Malta)
The twin drawn out scenes in question involved a snails-pace panning across the scene of an accident, first from the front of the car to the stunned occupants inside, and lastly from the front wheel to the woman sprawled out on the floor several feet away. Slow reveals are all well and good, but this took the mick right royally.

- Going to Sleep is Something Absolutely Certain in Life (Italy)
Though it was not the worst film of the festival by a long shot, the entire thing was one shot on a train, moving through the night and looking out of the window, only the light from the train to illuminate the scenes of devastation beyond. It had moments of shock as you got to see the effects of some serious natural catastrophe or the sticking plasters put in place here and there to get things working again, but largely it was fallen tree followed by knackered fence.

Most Annoying Film - 57000km Between Us (France)
A film that managed to actually feel malace towards it, it was so bad. The camera angles, the disjointed switching between story segments, the 'why did that just happen' moments... it went on and on, and we were clock-watching almost from the start.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Battery (UK)
Surrealism is often a subject that can divide opinions, and this short film just bothered me from the start. The ditchable scrawly art style, if it can even be called that was annoying, and the whole thing had no purpose. Bloke sat down to dinner with bird-people, who melted, and then he said something and then they were back again. Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.

- Drifter (Brazil)
Truly annoying. When you pay good money and end up looking at 5-minute segments of streetlamps and hazy back roads with a muzakal accompaniment that will set the teeth on edge, you know you've hit festival rock bottom.

Right. That's definitely all my festival output for the year. I don't care if I never see another film again. At least not till next time.

Japan 19 : Life on Earth

Even though Osaka is a huge place, today's brief jaunt would be out of town slightly in the ward of Minato, home to the Kaiyukan Aquarium. Since I was going to be out of the town by nightfall, I headed back to Osaka Station and put both my bags in a big locker. At 9.30 am this was down to luck more than anything, as the place is a major artery for thousands of worker drones, and the majority of the lockers had gone. Fortunately my train didn't leave for a little while so I got a ticket and then stayed near the lockers, waiting to pounce as soon as one became free.

The Osaka Chuo loop line stopped a block away and I made my way to the aquarium past a large ferris wheel. You can certainly tell it from the other buildings in the area; it's shaped like a huge fishtail pointing out of the ground. You enter at the bottom, pay the relatively pricy 2000 yen (about a tenner), and then make your way up a long escalator to the top where you descend back down on a gradual spiralling slope through several levels, each showing marine life from a different depth, with different tanks holding marine life from different oceans. It's very popular, or at least it was on this day. The escalator was heaving with bedraggled parents and over-active kids.

At the top was a smattering of shoreline plant life, overhanging trees, and some surface dwellers, such as ducks, penguins, turtles and otters. It was feeding time for a lot of them, and they all swam around merrily ignoring the massed ranks clamouring for a picture. A sloth tried to ignore us and catch some kip on its bamboo pole.

Heading down a bit, we encountered some of the fish and mammals that like to stay near the surface, a gathering of huge eels, and a gam of dolphins which were hugely active and just wouldn't stay still. A special event was going on where one lucky(?) punter was picked at random and given a swimming costume, and was then led into the dolphin tank where he was nuzzled in various embarrassing places and dragged around the pool. It was all very entertaining.

One of the sea lion pups in the next enclosure was especially interested in the little flashing things people were holding up to the side of the tank. He would periodically disappear back to the safety of his herd and then reappear when he saw another flash.

Once I had descended a few levels, the main, central tank became visible. This was an enormous body of water containing shoals of fish of many different sizes and colours, a few little sharks, looking shifty and getting out of the way when the big guy - a whale shark - came along. He was the main draw of the aquarium, and appeared on loads of posters and books in the souvenir shop, and even the ticket to get in.

Further down still, were a few other tanks which appeared to have nothing in. They were tall and relatively narrow, and only had a couple of tenants - a pair of huge turtles, who were flailing about looking for an exit, it was clear they were not happy. Next door to them was a huge and probably quite old Sun Fish, and there was a sign up asking not to use flash pictures because he gets scared by them. Bless.

Near the bottom, there were smaller tanks holding life from the sea floor; coral, crabs and burrowing fish all around. The crabs were enormous and walked slowly around on their huge spindly legs.

The smallest tanks were at the bottom, representing the very depths of the sea. These contained some of the smallest animals in the aquariums, and were housed in darkened rooms, the only lights being used to gently illuminate the tanks, or in some cases, the fish themselves.
After a poke around the souvenir shop, I headed outside for some clear air; it was very stale in there by the bottom. I went around the back of the aquarium to the port and took in the fresh, biting air and has a think. It was a great experience, and the animals and tanks all looked to be well maintained, but some of them (particularly the turtles) looked unsettled and wanting to leave.

At half past one, I headed back to Shin-Osaka, stopping off to pick up my bags. From Shin Osaka, I took the train to Hamamatsu, where I would be staying for the night. Finding the hotel was pretty easy, so I dumped the stuff off, and then started out to take advantage of the last of the daylight. Not wanting to do yet another castle, I looked up the Museum of Musical Instruments - Hamamatsu being a centre for musical instrument manufacture, with several businesses including Yamaha and Roland having their head offices there. There is a large music-themed sculpture just outside the station to get you in a tinkly mood. Unfortunately, the music museum was well out of my way and by the time I would get there it would be shut, so I made do with the Act-City Hamamatsu building, which has an observatory tower.

Getting inside is a bit of a fiddle, and I ended up going through the subterranean floors before finding someone who could point me at the lift to the top. Once at the top, there is a good view of the city, which turned out to be much larger than expected. Bordered by the pacific ocean at the south side, and a stretch of mountains to the north, the city stretches out as far as it can over the plains between. On a good day, when you look out of the east side, you can catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji, although today was no such day. I stayed until the owners started pacing round and looking at their watches, and then made my way back down. I had passed an Indian restaurant and decided to give it a go. The previous curry was at Nagano which was cheap and cheerful, and was looking forward to seeing a full-on Indian-Japanese experience. I guess my English expectations got in the way a bit, because it was not that well received; the range of curries was better, but when my Chicken Masala arrived it tasted a bit strange and had egg in it. There was crunchy bits in the naan bread, and the rice was sticky like the rice used to make rice balls. It cost a bit too, 3250yen is about 17 quid, which was about the most expensive meal I'd had. (in the UK that would be pretty standard price, but I was used to the cheap stuff!)

After getting filled up, I walked through the night air back to the hotel, answered a few emails and then piled into bed.

Leeds Film Festival - Day 13

L Change the World (Japan) (wiki)

L is one of the principal characters from the popular manga/anime series Death Note. Last year, the first two live action films were screened in Leeds, and, not knowing enough about the series I decided to leave them in favour of other films. Now that I am partway through the first DVD of the series, watching this film is kind of familiar, but not, with an enormous chunk of cat-and-mouse thriller missing from my brain that fills in the blanks between the rest of the anime and the films.

L Change the World is meant purely as a cash-in spin-off to the main Death Note story arc - which is very briefly - a student called Light acquires a Death Note, dropped by a bored death god Ryuk, for fun. Whoevers name is written in the booklet dies in whatever way is described. Light goes on a personal vendetta against all the criminals in the world, and the power gets to him. L is a mysterious detective who is assigned to bringing him to justice, without giving away his face or name. The anime is then a huge game of chess, with considered move against counter move between the two principal players.

Only L makes it through to this film in any major form; Light and Ryuk have cameos only, and the Death Note is burned pretty early on, but not before L condemns himself to a death by writing his own name in it. Why he sets a timer of 23 days, and why he tops himself anyway is left unexplained. He takes on the case of a virus outbreak, where a synthesized fusion of influenza and Ebola is inflicted on a Thailand village. Without an antidote, the virus is not released into the general populous as the owner would have no protection against it themselves, but a scientist is working on one, and many people want a hold of it.

It's a 'fan indulgence' film; I would think that those not familiar with the Death Note canon will become a bit confused about L's weird way of sitting, walking and holding things, and the character relationships that exist at the beginning assume a certain knowledge on the part of the viewer. When I saw it, there was much giggling from the audience; sometimes in light-hearted moments, but more often when it was trying to be serious and ended up just being a little silly. And that's what let it down the most; you couldn't take it seriously enough. 5.5/10

Detroit Metal City (Japan) (wiki)

This is more like it. Take the seriousness of L away and replace it with some hard death metal rock and a lot of laughs, and you get something approaching Detroit Metal City. Negishi is a country boy. Lanky and effeminate with a bowl haircut, he loves to make light, bouncy tunes about love and cuddly things. However, at some point during his time in music school, he ends up the lead singer of an up and coming death metal rock band DMC, unable to leave because of his timid attitude and sadistic boss.

Though he loathes the music he has to sing, when he transforms into his alter-ego - Johannes Krauser II - he becomes a devil-like creature full of hate-fuelled passion and loathing, which is ideal for the stage; the teen followers of the group lap his act up, no matter how gruesome the lyrics are. As with may devout worshippers, they end up considering him a demi-god.

DMC follows Negishi's path through the uncertainty of who he is, trying to win over his death metal-hating sweetheart whilst trying to keep the best of both of his worlds, with a dash of satire thrown in, poking at the way that kids will follow anything when it's cool. It's fast, colourful, crazy and full of laughs, and has received bids from the American film companies to be remade for a western audience. 8/10

My Name is Bruce (US) (wiki)

Bruce Campbell is well-known to horror fans the world over, playing many parts in various flicks including The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. His most well-known non-horror part was of 'Elvis Presley' in Bubba Ho-Tep. This self-sendup of Bruce the man is directed by 'the Chin' Campbell, where he plays a slimy, drunken version of himself relegated to starring in inferior sequels to his earlier films and living in squalor in a caravan with his alcoholic dog.

In a backwards American town of Good Lick, a rabble of teens go on a rampage through a graveyard and wake the Chinese spirit Guan-Di, guardian of the Chinese labourers lost in the mines and god of Bean Curd. Guan-Di as is usual in these sorts of films, terrorises the people whenever they come close, usually by removing their heads. After seeing Bruce kill off a load of zombies in one of his films, they mistake it for his purpose in life, and bring him under a certain amount of duress, to the village to rid them of the spirit. Bruce is up for a bit of that, but only because he thinks it's all a set-up by his agent, and by the time he's realised the danger he's in, its a bit late.

My Name is Bruce is a great film. I'm not much of a horror fan, but it was clear that the send-ups of both Campbell and the genre as a whole was done with a lot of love and attention, with loads of little back-references to his old films cropping up all over the place, but not so many as a horror novice would not be able to enjoy it - I certainly did. Oh, and Grace Thorsen, who plays Campbells love interest, is gorgeous as well. 8/10

Gachi Boy - Wrestling with a Memory (Japan) (info and trailers)

Igarashi is a high-scoring school prodigy, who unexpectedly turns up at the Hokkaido University Wrestling club with the intention of joining. The club is a man short, since losing their star performer to an uncompromising girlfriend, and the university is threatening to shut them down because frankly, their unconvincing staged 'fights' are rubbish. Igarashi arrives dutifully each day, enthusiastically taking polaroids of everyone and making lots of notes about his new colleagues, but seems to progress little with the training. It isn't until later that the mystery is revealed; Igarashi injured his brain after falling off a bicycle, and every morning he wakes up with no memory of the previous day, his second-class substitute being a bulging notebook of everything he needs to know post accident, which he must read every morning to have a chance at functioning normally.

Gachi Boy manages to be funny, slapstick, and also a little touching; the effect on his father, trying to encourage him to finish his degree, or when the team members are split into those that do know of the situation and those that do not provide real moments of emotion; Igarashi makes the mistake of omitting the fact that the fights are staged, so he gives each fight all he can, which lands him in trouble during the official competition that makes up the conclusion to the film, where not going by the script could end in someone getting hurt. It's all there, and though it drags a little in places, it is solid entertainment. 7.5/10


And that's the LFF over once more. Looking back over the 100 films I managed to see this year, there seemed to be more middling and duff films than in 2007, maybe because that was a strong year, or perhaps this was a weak one. But there was also many films that were really good, and I hope that I can encourage some readers to go out there and support them. Obviously, I went a little bit mental in the name of blog whoring, but there is a world out there of stories to be told, and it's up to us to look as well as listen.

Leeds Film Festival - Day 12

Yorkshire Short Films Competition

I wasn't sure weather to go see this and decided to after managing to raise my carcass in time. I'm glad I did because they included some of the best short film output of the festival. All these films were made locally. Hovis!

Tale of Teeth - A dark comedy shows the tooth fairy in dire straits. He owes Santa Claus a wad of cash and only has 3 days to get it. Then he realises that he can take teeth directly from childrens' mouths for much higher profit, and the children on Santa's naughty list look like ideal targets. A very student-y feel which made it charmingly rough around the edges, and no less entertaining. Not one to see with your kids though, or they will never go to sleep. 7/10

My Brother Steven - A slice of the lives of an ordinary family trying to bring up an autistic child. Steven throws tantrums and lashes out violently over the smallest things, leading to many stressful days, especially for the parents, and a few bruises for his two sisters who present the film in a home video style. The film shows the difficulties but also the good times when Steven stops being a walking nightmare and functions like any other happy child does. Warmly funny without being sentimental. 7.5/10

You, Me and Captain Longbridge - After the death of his dad a week ago, young Luke 'Stanton' Stanton disappears into his own world, skipping school and acting out swashbuckling adventures in the countryside with a model soldier as his first mate. Luke uses the figure as a coping mechanism; a substitute for his dad, and his imagination lets fly as the soldier turns real. An emotional hit of a film, and full of beautiful landscapes. 8/10

Mother, Mine - After grieving over the death of her adoptive mother, a woman attempts to trace her real parents. She manages to arrange a meeting, but it does not go to plan. A very good, tense film with a hellish twist at the end. 8/10

Joy - In a seaside fishing town, a miracle has happened. Someone has caught a singing fish! It's now singing for its life on the fishmongers' chopping board. Shot in sunny, windy Bridlington, the amusement factor lasts just long enough to fill out the film. 7/10

There's Only One Bob Latchford - For anyone who collected football stickers and stood in a playground chanting 'got, got, need, got, NEED!, got..', this is the film for you. It's set in 1978, following four children of the 'Brotherhood of Panini', relentlessly buying little packs of football stickers to fill their albums without resorting to the cheaters' option of sending off to Panini for them. One sticker is rarer and more prized than any other; that of Bob Latchford, and the kids will do anything to get it. Perhaps it would not so resonating to someone outside of the UK, but to any British man in his thirties, this is a great nostalgia trip, done very authentically (the football stickers, the packs, and the albums are all authentic looking, and the setting, clothing and haircuts are all completely convincing. A great, funny film. 8.5/10

Yakov, My Boy - Yakov is the Jewish grandson of a second world war survivor. On the day of his Bar Mitzvah, Yakov just wants to play football, and has no idea of the weight his grandfather has placed on the day. A quiet film demonstrating the importance people put in keeping certain memories alive. 7/10

In Pursuit Of.. Best of British Shorts 1

Stowaway - A documentary about the constant influx of Africans heading into Spain illegally, having to pay to sail to Europe, often having to swim part of the way, crossing deserts filled with bandits and predetors, and living in squalor in tents just a few kilometers from the high 2-level border fences. As well as footage of those who do manage to make it over, it also shows some disturbing imagery of those who are caught along the way. Even those who do make it through the obsticles then have to find work, which is practically impossible, even with qualifications and work skills. It certainly raises many questions, about what to do about the situation where people are prepared and able to work but cannot legally do so, but doesn't provide much in the way of answers. 7/10

Charon - The ferryman that crosses the river Styx in the Greek myth is given a rather scratty form here, as he travels to find his mortality after so many years. The stop-motion jerkyness and the look of the figure (a slithering lump of braided hair and clothing) mean you can rarely interpret any indication of what he is thinking or doing, and the end comes without warning, just as you're waiting for something to happen. 3/10

Let Me Show You Some Things - After some time apart a brother and sister, now well into their 20's, are brought together again when she needs accommodation. Childhood-influenced behaviours and bickerings begin to resurface as they talk about their memories of an innocent time, but the happy scene cannot last; he is introverted, sensible and straight; she is wayward, mischievous and unreserved, and they find life in his small, cramped flat quickly becomes strangling. A good, solid work about what happens after a time to grow apart, and how it can be healed. 6/10

Ralph - Ralph isn't the sharpest tool in the box. Proudly sporting his pikey attire and casual bling, he struts and struggles through the streets of France with a massive suitcase, looking for someone to help him dial his girlfriends' telephone number and getting angry when the people around him cannot understand what he is saying. As he gets more and more out of his depth, it is difficult not to feel some empathy towards the arrogant child, and when he finally makes a bit of headway thanks to a young waitress, that's just the wrong time for coincidence to strike. Solidly entertaining. 7/10

Dead Dog - A man and his girlfriend head to a farmhouse where he believes the farmer has shot his dog, having threatened to do so before when it trespassed on his grounds. When he arrives, he opens the boot of the car to reveal a shotgun. Will he be able to control his anger enough to avoid getting into more trouble? 6.5/10

Ryan - On a dodgy estate, Ryan struggles to find his spot in the pecking order of the local youths. Goaded on, he enters the house of an old man with the intention of nicking his stick, but things don't go well for him whilst inside. 7/10

Mind Game (Japan) (wiki)

A bit of a surprise inclusion, since it was originally released back in 2004. Nishi is a 20-year old who makes few ripples on the lives of others; when he sees that Myon, the girlfriend he has had a longing for since childhood has got herself a man - and not a bum, a decent, nice, hardworking guy - his reaction is 'he is the better man, I concede'. A chance encounter in a bar with a deranged football-mad freak ends up with Nishi dead in one of the least noble ways possible, and only then realising that his attitude on life is arse end up. Somehow earning a second chance, he takes immediate and insane control of the situation and speeds off, leading to a car chase that ends up in the belly of an enormous whale, where Nishi, Myon and her sister Yan have plenty of time to reflect.

Mind Game is just that, a story told with such intensity that it will continue spinning round in your head for some time after the last frame. That's not to sell the film short; the themes within are perfectly lucid and extractable, but they are bordered by a wall of technicolour eye hammerings that leave you breathless. It has a constantly morphing art style, using traditional cell animation for the most part, but departing from drawings of the main characters to using cut-out pictures of human beings in certain intense scenes. This is never explained, but I suspect it is to suggest that when the photographs are used, the characters are being at their most true, with no lies or misleadings between them. It's by Studio 4C who did the comparatively subdued Tekkonkinkreet shown at Leeds in 2007, and the art style for that film clearly has its origins here. If you want to see an example of how Anime can be the source of an enormous blast of air whizzing past you, then you should see Mind Game, perferrably twice; once to experience the visual intensity, and again sometime later to grab a flailing hold of its underlying themes. 8/10

Life, Death and Everything In-between - Best of British Shorts 3

I couldn't make all of this short film collection, but managed to see the first three offerings.

Battery - A sketchy, scrappy surreal animation where a man tries to dine with two bird-like beings at the same table. Periodically, the bird-things will melt, vomit or grin, the man will berate them, look at the clock, or get up and look out the window. Surrealism at its most pointless. 2/10

Wires and Bows - A short and simple but effective animation. A view from a moving car at wires slung between telegraph poles, to the accompanyment of a violin composition. The wires bow and bend and interact with each other in time with the music, and the telegraph poles correspond with pauses in the music. Well done, but thankfully it was only as long as the idea was interesting. 5/10

The Hunger House - In an alternate view of 1940's Britain, where the Nazi's have gained control of the country, an epileptic and a man with learning difficulties are rounded up to meet their fate in a correctional facility, echoing the treatment of the 'imperfect' Jews elsewhere in the world. Chilling to watch, and the imagination of what happens to these people is best not pursued. 7.5/10

Seaview (Ireland) (trailer)

At its peak, the Mosney Butlins holiday camp attracted 8000 people a year, providing cheap getaway breaks for a recovering postwar populous. It's transformation from holiday camp to holding centre for housing asylum seekers was completed in 2001, and as they wait for the Irish government to decide on whether to grant entry proper into the country, its inhabitants stifle and stew.

That is not to say the conditions are bad; it is considered by many immigrants to be one of the best places to go when in the limbo state, but whilst there, many feel it as a prison; they can go outside, but why bother? People arrive from all over; Russia, Nigeria, Africa, Croatia, Iran, Romania.. often with a desire and skillset to enable them to get straight into employment, but they cannot, and they are not able to enroll into the benefits system either.

The film interviews several asylum seekers held there at the time, plus some of the staff, a few of which worked there when it was a holiday camp and describe and lament the changes they saw, and the ones they had to do on themselves to accept a different kind of clientele.

It may have been the lack of sleep by this point, but I found myself unable to fully get into Seaview, which was an accomplished documentary revealing the voices of the asylum seekers, it could just do with being a little more varied in its content. 6.5/10

Sita Sings the Blues (US) (wiki)

Another animation project (similar to From Inside) where the animation, story and direction were done almost entirely by one person; Nina Paley. It tells two parallel stories, using several different art styles. The first, main story, is that of Sita, a character from a chapter of the Ramayana, an indian book of myths and legends. She is happily married to the lord Rama, but is stolen from his opulent grounds by the demon Rakshasa who fancies her more than a bit, and takes her to Sri Lanka. Sita remains loyal, but Rama doesn't believe her and demands a trial by fire to show her chastity, which she passes. However, when it is revealed she is also pregnant, he cannot trust her enough to believe that the children are his. This aspect to the main story is told in two parallel styles, one of static cartoon puppets, where the characters move across the screen with little or no animation, and another, more iconic style that resembles a flash animation; where Sita uses the music of Annette Hanshaw to describe her feelings of the situation.

The viewer is helped through the finer points of the story by a third style, using a trio of debating silhouette figures, reconstructing the story from their patchy memories and using traditional Hindu art representations of the characters in a scrapbook style slightly reminiscent of the Terry Gilliam Monty Python animations.

The other story thread is done in a fourth, completely different style, chopped into sections and inserted between chapters of the primary story, it is an autobiographical account of the artist's breakup with her partner, leading to the motivation for the film.

It all hangs together quite well, though it does suffer from a mechanical switching between one style and another; the silhouettes bicker about what part of the story comes next, then we see the static puppets do dialogue with each other, and then Sita reiterates the situation via one of her singing numbers. After a while of this, it started to grate that yet another singy bit was coming along, even though they were perfectly entertaining in their own right.

Unlike From Inside, Sita holds up far better as a piece of work from a single person. The quality and quantity of effort is definitely higher, and it has an appealing style all of its own, with bright, garish colours, smooth animation, and a soundtrack that bounces between authentic Indian source and banging techno tracks, sometimes merging at a point between. As a labour of love, it deserves to be seen at as many venues as possible, and no doubt the director will go on to do many great works in the future, but Sita lacks a little in the polish and varience departments to truly make it sturdy enough for general, less patient cinema audiences to go see. 7/10

Engrish Happy Mention Time!

As a fan of Engrish, when I went around Japan, I was determined that I would go and find some of my own, and one of my photos has been published on the premier source of unintentionally funny broken sentences, Much thankenings!

Leeds Film Festival - Day 11

Documentary Shorts Competition

Don't Shoot (South Africa) - Riaan Cruywagen is a seasoned newsreader on South African public TV since the late 70's, and has so been around to comment on the many events that have happened in the last 30 years. This documentary gives voice to both him and his critics; those who saw the riots and violence outside their windows, or worse, and had it referred to on the TV as a 'colourful demonstration'. Cruywagen responds repeatedly and vehemontly by pointing out he is a newsreader, not his place to either judge or compile the news; just read it out in an authoritative and convincing manner. This short documentary reveals the man behind the wig (it must be...) and his unprovoked self-justification is unsettling. 7/10

Plane Days (UK) - A group of plane spotters, old and young, male and female, sit in and around their cars outside Heathow airport, collecting airplane tail numbers like an adult version of football stickers. Some have gone to real expense, high-powered binoculars, laptops with specialised radar software and a direct link into the heathrow flight data. The way they track the planes mercilessly across the skies, which are pictured largely as skulking reflections in house windows, they seem to be doing it to satisfy some male hunter instinct, the women surely there because their husbands dragged them into it. It was an affectionate, non-judgemental window on the lives and motivations of these people. 7.5/10

Bidcatcher (Netherlands) - A strange fly-on-the-wall documentary about a netherlands auction house specialising in second hand large earth moving diggers and trucks, the sort whose wheels are larger than a man. Other than being slightly interesting to see huge machinery lining up like cars to the highest bidder, it wasn't very attention-holding. 5/10

The Consolation of Children (UK) - An affectionate tribute to the life of Arthur Worsley, and 'Charlie' his ventriloquists dummy, from his son and mother. Ed sullivans claims that he was the best ever were a little hard to swallow, until you saw him in full 'gottle of geer' flow, which showed off his talents perfectly. Since his death, Charlie has been resurrected from the suitcase and is often seen around the house, Arthur and Charlie were so inseperable that the presence of the dummy allows the family to retain a piece of the man. 7.5/10

52 Procent [52 Percent] (Poland) - The clinical, cattle-like process of finding the most suitable ballerinas from this years crop of young girls is troublesome to watch. And it's not so much a case of 'pushy mum' either - the kids want to get there more than anything in the world, and this is exemplified with Alla, who's legs are a little shorter than the 'ideal' 52% ratio of legs to height. Alla is given a second chance if she can somehow get those extra few millimeters, and puts herself through intense pain and suffering stretching her legs in all sorts of directions. Another well-made silent comment on an interesting section of society. 7/10

Going to Sleep is Something Absolutely Certain in Life (Italy) - A train heads through the night, the camera pointing out of the window, catching the dimly highlighted scenes of devastation outside. Occasionally, a passenger narrates over the imagery, fading in and out of a conversation with someone else. This film is a personal account of the devastation brought on in his home town, which I suspect but am not sure, refers to New Orleans, since there are American symbols in amongst the detritus of collapsed buildings and felled trees. As a personal record of the event, it has special meaning, but an entire film squinting to see what you're looking at began to grate. 4.5/10

Blauw [Blue] (Netherlands) - Three people interact with water in different ways; an aged fisherman on the blustery, rocky shoreline, a professional diver, and a young child messing around in a swimming pool with his dad all get to share their views. The kid was definitely the most smile-inducing to watch. 6/10

The Existence (Poland) (review)

This one is definitely not for the squeamish. Jerzy Nowak, an elderly actor has in the remaining months of his life decided to donate his body to scientific research when he dies, much to the shock of his family and friends. This is more involved than it sounds - the will has to be correctly worded so as to be compliant with the legalities of the situation, and when donated to science, the body in question ceases to be considered a person, and instead is merely an object, a property of whoever gets it to experiment on. At the start of the film, we see the sort of conditions such an ex-person has to look forward to; a submerged tank in a medical university vault holds one such specimen, and it is raised, dumped on a stretcher, hosed down and then carted off to be poked and prodded by some new medical students.

Norwak is seen preparing for the final day; having music composed for his funeral, visiting his lawyer to get everything sorted out, buying a suit and renewing his wedding vows, and visiting the medical university where he may end up spending two years before whatever is left of him is buried. It is a very good view of a man who is putting on a brave face, but occasionally emotion breaks through and his bottom lip begins to quiver, and it's difficult not to become affected by it all. If you can stomach the gruesome imagery (mostly at the start and end) then this is a well-done film. 7.5/10

From Inside (US) (site)

Based on a graphic novel of the same name by John Bergin, From Inside is an animation about a pregnant woman riding a train to an unknown destination, across a post-apocalypse wasteland, plowing through the remains of people and communities after some catastrophe. As the train ploughs on, it stops to pick up water, kill cattle for meat, and whenever it rains, in case of flooding the tracks. One day the train picks up a man with an injured dog, who begins leaving gifts for the woman, and as the birthing date gets ever closer, she suffers resentment from the other passengers for her preferential treatment.

From Inside is animation, but only just. Many scenes are simply a still or partially animated picture, with others being completely rendered in 3D, especially the train (which travels on tracks that have strangely survived when everything else has been obliterated). This restricted form of animation is sort of okay, especially when you realise that most of the animation has been done by Bergin alone, and the sketch style of the woman, often in silhouette against the train windows, fits well as an echo to its graphic novel roots. However, it just didn't hold much attention; it seemed a labour of love by the director, particularly the many 3D scenes that panned around the train as it went along as if to say 'I really spent a long time rendering this damn train and I'm gonna make sure I get my moneys worth..'. It all ended rather strangely as well, which I won't bother explaining, suffice to say it drew 'pfft's from the audience rather than the intended reaction which I think should have been quiet awe at what we had seen. I hear the novel itself is a very good one, but you should read that and ignore the film, for the latter spoils the former. 5/10

Sword of the Stranger (Japan) (wiki)

At last, a bit of anime. Leeds has been usually pretty generous with anime films across the years, but it turned up a bit short this year, with no Sky Crawlers or Ponyo to be seen. Sword of the Stranger had to shoulder my expectations pretty much on its own this year, and it did a solid job of it. Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru are on the run, sheltering in a remote temple where a ronin, Nanashi has decided to have a kip. Nanashi is your typical tight-lipped guy who refuses to fight again due to secret past blah but he can handle a sword like a pro blah, and he finds himself accompanying the kid through trecherous areas to return him to sanctury, for there are people out looking for him.

Various Chinese factions want to get hold of Kotaro, and have to do it within a few days or else they will have to wait a year to perform their mysterious rituals, creating a game of cat and mouse with each side trying to get hold of the kid for themselves, leading to plenty of bloody fights.

There was virtually nothing about Sword of the Stranger that could be considered original. It has typical anime feel and a predictable story ending in a showdown between the two main fighters. Made by Studio Bones, they of Cowboy Bebop and Wolf's Rain, with plenty of artistic ancestry on show from both sources. With such a pedigree, it was never going to be awful. Fluid animation, well coreographed fight scenes, and a good, solid story (although who was on who's side got a bit confusing), and though it did nothing original, what it did do, it did well. 7.5/10

Leeds Film Festival - Day 10

Blood Trail (UK) (interview, and a rather nice poster)

Robert King is a freelance photographer responsible for some of the most memorable and iconic wartime pictures to be found in the national newspapers in the past decade or so. He has an unfathomable but infectious passion for going to the furthest reaches of the war-torn areas and showing the world what he finds. This documentary is the gathering together of 15 years of footage of King, from his earliest days in 1993 where he flung himself into the middle of the Bosnian war with only what he had seen on TV to help him dodge the bullets; through assorted other destinations where the papers wanted someone to go in and risk it all for pictures; Bosnia, Sarajevo, Chechnya, Iraq... Showing his failures and rejections, through getting his first break where he went into the Chechen rebellion just as everyone else was getting the hell out, to the present day where he has matured from rookie to respected photographer.

Blood Trail, as the title would suggest, is not easy to watch in places. It contains both images and video of some of the most sickening effects of war on those who neither asked for it, nor could do anything to stop it. It also profiles Robert King the man, who as he describes himself, was 'self destructive' as he was growing up. This state continued through his early career years, with excessive drink, drugs and prostitution in the middle of the war just to get the images out of his head. His dark, sometimes cruel sense of humour (such as an addiction to letting off firecrackers in a wartorn city) may offend but this is a man constantly thrusting himself into the worlds most dangerous situations, it is his form of coping. Becoming a family man with a wife and child has provided a steadying influence, but his thirst to continue heading into the fire is still strong. The film provides a contrast by mixing in present day family life, his wife and son, and a camping trip with fellow photographer Vaughan Smith shooting deer in the Tennesee forests.

It's interesting on both a historic and personal level, seeing the familiar world events unfolding as King matures and learns and becomes physically more aged. It's yet another powerful, sometimes jaw-dropping documentary film chronicling one man's passion and trying to explain, however futile that may be, why he does it. 8/10

International Fiction Competition 1 - Incommunicado Shorts

This short film collection was based around the theme of how technology has hindered contact between people rather than enhancing it.

El Tiempo Prestando [The Letting Time] (Spain) - An elderly and infirm man has moved from his flat into the house owned by his son and daughter-in-law after an injury. As their lives merge and conflict, his requests to move back to his flat are ignored and increasingly he is cut off from them, for they want the flat for themselves. 6.5/10

Mobilni Snovi [Mobile Dreams] (Bosnia/Croatia) - An elderly couple don't talk to each other any more. In a last ditch attempt to get a dialogue going, the man buys a couple of mobile phones. Unfortunately, failing memories orperhaps bloody mindednes usurps his plans. 6/10

(UK) - In a similar but slightly unfamiliar Britain, where a few more anti-terror laws have been passed, it seems, a bunch of unruly students are about to get a cold slap in the face. The war has been going badly and the government has decided to provide compulsory training for all men and boys in the country. As the kids realise their situation, will they stand up for their rights or fall in line? Chilling and interesting. 7.5/10

Alexandra (Romania) - Alexandra is the daughter of a separated mother and father, whose remaining relationship has broken down due to distrust. Tavi thinks his ex is encouraging their daughter to not think of him as dad, and Lulia feels she is shouldering most of the responsibility for her upbringing. Things erupt when Lulia sets up Saturdays as piano lesson day, the only day when Tavi is allowed to see her. The poor new husband, who seems to be the best of the three of them, can only look on helplessly. A good insight into a broken marriage, but it meandered a little. 6.5/10

Pop Art (UK) - Toby's father is in depression after the death of his mother. He gets little more than shouts from behind the locked door his father has put himself beyond. He meets a new friend at school - Art, a mute, inflatable child - who he begins to bond with. A nice little film, and it was especially impressive in some of the scenes where Art seemed to move without strings or computers. 7.5/10

Tyttojen Ilta [Girls' Night] (Finland) - A single mother and her teenage daughter decide this will be the night to get what they want. The mother heads out to the local bar to meet a web boyfriend, while the daughter ends up back at the house trying to get a party going. Both end up realising it's not quite as easy to get what you want. 7.5/10

Studeny Spoj [Cold Joint] (Slovakia) - A young girl grows up in an industrial area, spending her time exploring the cold, giant buildings full of dangerous, clunking machinery. She'd rather be there than at the house, where her babbling, drunk father and ambivolent mother provide no comfort. 6/10