BIFF 2011 - Day 6

Documentary Day!

Dance to the Spirits
(Cameroon/Spa) (review)

Mba Owani Pierre is a doctor in the small Cameroon village of Nsola. Though familiar with modern medicine, he supplements his modern knowledge with that of his ancestors, and their practices with traditional medicine and the rituals that go with it. This documentary spends a little time in his company as he operates as the locum for his village , sharing with us his thoughts and opinions of the wider world, and its good and bad influences on his culture, which he sees as being eroded.

The film is very non-judgemental, just showing the people as they go about their business, sharing their philosophies with the camera if they want to. A nice insight into a completely different life. 7.5/10

Disfarmer: A Portrait of America (Can) (site)

The first of a double bill of films connected by the twin themes of America and Photography. Mike Disfarmer (nee Meyers) was a square peg, the round hole he found himself in was Heber Springs, right in the middle of bible belt south America. He was short tempered, lank and irritable, and he was also an atheist. Rejecting his family name, he set himself up as a photographer, and charged anyone who wanted to a quarter to come in and have a picture portrait done.

Disfarmer died in the 50's, and his work lay forgotten for twenty or so years, when suddenly his simple style of capturing the moment started to appeal to the art world. His subjects rarely smiled, and the children often looked startled or grumpy, depending on what distraction he was waving behind the camera for them at the time, and they had to keep pretty still for a long time, since the shutter speeds were so low. This resulted in an honest, unsweetened, unsullied and raw images of the people and the trends at the time. This ability for the humanity to show through so vividly struck a chord with everyone who looked at them.

An art book came out in the eighties, showing off many of the photographs retrieved at the last minute from his studio before it was demolished, but it wasn't until a couple of years ago, that some people realised that, if you were to head out to the old place and do a sweep of the nearby houses, there would be original Disfarmer portraits stuck gathering dust in photo albums all over the shop. And they would fetch a tidy sum. Cue a massive scavenger hunt.

I'd never heard of Disfarmer, and the thought of looking at old photos of slightly weird looking townsfolk from the deep south of America didn't appeal on the face of it, but there's something about the pictures that demands you look into their eyes. It is a fascinating look through the eyes of a genius, only appreciated after his time. 8/10

An American Journey (Fra) (site)

A better known American photographer, who made a splash during his lifetime was Robert Frank, who took a trip across America during the 50's, and assembled a selection of the photographs he took along the way into a collection, released as a famous book called The Americans, which has just had a reprint. Though it courted controversy from those who didn't feel the pictures were representative enough of the whole country to deserve such a title, it was nevertheless hugely influential; it's snapshots in time capturing both the individual, and the group, affected by the cultural and political shifts taking place in the country at the time.

The director could have made a better job of this; the film was enlightening, but not that entertaining, and it paled structurally in comparison to Disfarmer. The director attempted to become part of the film, by attempting to trace his route and find some of the people and objects that Frank had snapped on the way, but it felt underachieved, as if he gave up a few pictures in after a string of disappointments. The pictures are interesting, but this film could be skipped in favour of the book. 6/10

From Far Away (Ger) (site)

Another film from Thomas Arslan to go in the retrospective; this one was made as a sweetener to let him make his next film. Arslan is originally from Turkey, and this film is a personal documentary by him about his journey through Turkey starting at Istanbul and working east toward the shores of the Caspian Sea. As he travels, the culture slowly morphs from the continental and western influences of the former to the more militarised and conservative, eastern cities, all the way driving through majestic and beautiful scenery, The Fuji-like Mount Ararat in particular is a beautiful sight, as is the human existence he captures on film on his way around, peeking into the lives of some of the people on the way.

Clearly influenced by the Qatsi trilogy, this film is an non-judging look at the people, places and life, given extra significance by the directors' personal connection, and the slowly morphing cultures depicted. 7.5/10

The Secret Friend (Bra/US) - An elderly woman, recently bereaved, receives a heavy breather call on the dot every hour. Unexpectedly, she becomes reliant on it as a connection to the outside world. A sweet little tale. 8/10

Le Quattro Volte (It/Ger/Swz) (review)

I switched to this at the last moment from Honey, which could also have been good, maybe I can see it elsewhere. 'The Four Times' is a unique and almost dialogue-free film tracing a thread of connectivity through events in a small Calabrian village. An elderly goat farmer on the brink of death, and the sheepdog (that's still full of life) he uses to keep his herd in check, perform their daily duties, until one day the inevitable happens. At the same moment, a new goat is born, and we follow it's early life until it becomes detached from the herd and has to fend for itself. Finally, the tree the goat shelters under is cut down for a festival. The beautiful, peaceful surroundings and the unfettered view of life's intricate connections are gently allowed to unfold on screen. It's likely to bore some, but it's a beautiful, cyclic tale of life and death. 7.5/10

We Are What We Drink (UK) - A novice coffee drinker attempts to integrate in with the fast food coffee chain crowd, but finds his options limited to his own personal circumstances. 7/10

Curling (Can) (facebook)

A real-life father-daughter pairing in the two main leads; Jean-Francois, a reclusive man and his overly sheltered daughter Julyvonne live in the beautiful but harsh snow scene that is Quebec. Inward, depressed and perpetually feeling sorry for himself for some misdemeanour's, he gets by with a few dead-end jobs, basically letting people walk all over him.

Though there is a tenderness between them due to their real-life blood relations, it is not enough to make this film much more than a wallowing in someone else's grief. I had a certain amount of empathy for his emotional cul-de-sac, until weird French things started happening, and possible plot threads just fizzled out without really going anywhere. It sort of reaches a conclusion suggestive of Jean-Francois' emotional healing, but there are too many loose ends just not tied up along the way to make it a satisfying watch. 5.5/10

No comments: