Cambridge Film Festival 2009 Day 1

Another year, another trip to Cambridge. It's over now, but the festival is still in full swing, but unfortunately neither myself nor Ms. Plants had the holiday entitlements or the money to stay the full course. But we did have four days of punting, shopping, beautiful sunshine, and of course, films.

Courting Condi (US) (site/wiki)

We started with an oddity of sorts; Devin Ratray is heading out of his thirties, he's generous around the chops, and sports a mullet that he contests is his defining characteristic. Not the best candidate for the wooing of Condoleezza Rice, previously the head of foreign affairs under the Bush administration. Making use of his piano skills, and enlisting the help of his film-making friend Sebastian, he sets off on a journey to discover who this woman is that has captured his heart, and win her over with his 'love discs' - love letters in song form. Maybe he will even get to meet with her. Leaving his parents he travels across the US, to the places where Condi grew up and her life decisions were made, taking us with him on a journey into what made her the woman she is today.

Though Devin is entertaining and often amusing, and he can keep up the pretence for a while, it does become clear that the hapless lovelorn romantic is an act, nothing more than a framing device for a documentary that tries to show that Ms Rice has forgotten her roots, turning her back on the idealist principles that brought her to the White House, and replacing them with the realist world view (if you can call it that) that replaced it under post 9/11 Bush, and the strategic power-shifts made as she worked her way up the ladder which arguably closed the door on those people trying to follow in her wake.

Courting Condi was funny, informative, and an original take on the documentary format that is becoming ever more numerous on the festival circuit. It did, however leave a slightly nasty taste in the mouth, because in being a 'docu-tragi-comedy' it began with the comedy part and then largely dropped it midway through, sneaking in the more serious concerns underneath when the viewer wasn't looking. It's not the worst crime in the world, but it felt a little dishonest, like if MacDonalds tried to sneak in vitamin pills with their Big Macs without telling anyone. 7.5/10

Mental (Japan) (site/interview)

In the same style as last year's Don't Get Me Wrong, Mental is a 'slice of life' documentary window into the lives of mental patients who maintain semi-independent lives in a downtown prefecture of Tokyo. The place is run on a shoestring, with very basic and diminishing government grants, supporting a doctors' surgery, a small cafe, and a walk-in centre for patients to use as they require; this film shows that they are in ever greater demand, even though Japanese society still views such conditions as schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies and learning difficulties as cultural taboo.

Never emerging from behind the camera, Kazuhiro Soda lets the patients and staff do the talking, asking only the minimum questions in order to get the stories to be told. One extended dialogue with a young mother who killed her first child and had the second one taken away from her is both chilling and heartbreaking.

There are also positive sides to the lives of these people reflected in the film. Dr Yamamoto is the surgery's only resident doctor, and it is clear that he is not there for the money. Working as a locum on a fraction of the pay he would normally get, he lends his considerable years' expertise both to the running of the surgery and on his many lectures to students at the local college. Of the most delight is the ageing Sensei's pearls of wisdom to the many troubles posed to him by his patients, often being accompanied by charming zen-post-it note diagrams to nudge the point home. Another star of the film is Sugoya, a toothy middle-aged man who spends much of his time alone, ostracised by his community and finding only the commune a place where he can share his thoughts with anyone. Finding himself in a small group, he finds the courage to share with other patients (and us) his book of poems and haiku, which were short but charming, if only he could get a publisher.

The film has only one major thing going against it, and that is, for a film which is purely slice of life, without the bangs and crashes of an action film, nor the revelations and shocks of an investigative documentary, its 2h 15m timespan will put off audiences already thinned out by the upfront premise; but if you have an interest in non-judgemental slice of life works, the unseen people who work to make our communities what they are, mental health issues, or the corners of society that could so easily be considered worthless or slip through the gaps, then I recommend giving this slow burner a go. 7.5/10

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