CIFF 2012 Day 5

The festival carries on until Sunday, but this is our last day.

Freedom for Birth (UK) (site)

Another day, another documentary.  It can be a bit overwhelming to realise that there is enough going wrong in the world to ensure the documentary film-making strand has enough subject matter to keep it going, and growing, for some time yet.  In a bid to join the wave, some producers have perhaps chosen subjects that might be seen as not of the highest priority.  Not so here, as it deals with the most fundamental of human rights - that of a mother to decide how, and where, she has her baby.

This basic right seems obvious when stated directly, but many people around the world do not recognise it as such.  Many women do not realise it is their choice to make, and many in power do not allow the choice to be made.

The fate of two women on the receiving end of actual legislation to block this right are profiled here.  Agnes Gereb is a Hungarian midwife, currently under house arrest.  Her crime? assisting mothers to have their children at home, rather than in a hospital.  Anna Ternovsky is one of thousands of mothers who were helped to have a natural home birth by Gereb and went to the Court of Human Rights to fight for the rights of women to be reaffirmed and clarified, at least in Europe.  But around the world, and not just restricted to the crazy countries either, these rights are being continually denied.  Stories of women being forced by a court to have a hospital induced birth, maybe by invasive C-section, is something I never thought I would hear about in a civilised society in the 21st century.  But here it is.

Though Freedom for Birth certainly highlights some major injustices in our approach to the most important part of a human experience, it had some issues that stopped it being all it could be.  The film was subtitled throughout, even in the English speaking segments (I suspect because the film-makers guessed that the screenings would be full of mothers with screaming kids - which ours was) but the subtitles were not exactly what was being said sometimes, and were peppered with spelling mistakes.  The presentation also felt a little sloppy, as if the PR division of your nearest multinational had been taken on to do a commercial-style introduction to the film, and they had just figured out how to put scrolling, zooming text onto the screen and were determined to show people how good they were getting.  The whole film had this unfinished taint to it.  But my main criticism of the film was that it was very one-sided.  There was no option given to allow doctors to present their side of the story and give their account of why mothers are routinely denied the right to make an informed choice.  I have no doubt that the film was accurate in it's portrayal of Gereb, but it would have been good to hear the other side of the story - such as representative doctors and nurses, who allegedly deny these services.

But these flaws don't stop it being an important film that highlights some shocking practices, many at out front door.  8/10

Come as You Are (Bel) (wiki)

The exploits of three disabled friends as they organise a trip to a brothel sounds like a low-brow American goofball flick.  And somewhere, there will be a direct-to-dvd example that exactly fits this premise.  But this film was made in Europe, so there was going to be a chance it wouldn't be as horrible as it sounds.

Lars is disabled since his inoperable brain tumor rendered him unable to use his legs.  Josef has the use of his legs, but can barely see anything.  Philip is almost completely paralysed, and is completely dependant on others for help.  All in their twenties, they meet regularly and are good friends.

Secretly, they have been plotting the trip of a lifetime - one they wish to take without their parents. Heading through France and into Spain, getting a view of the world they don't see within their suffocating bedrooms.  After a little persuading, their parents agree to a heavily-regimented holiday with every minute accounted for, but the trio have missed out one detail - their intended destination is at a brothel in the heart of Spain, one that caters specifically for the needs of disabled customers.

A last minute setback hits Lars hard.  His tumor is growing aggressively, and the holiday is put off - by the parents, but not the friends, who enlist the help of Claude - an overweight, resigned minibus driver - to get them there on the quiet.

Come as You Are immediately reminded me of Third Star, with both films heading to a very similar conclusion.  The Belgium effort however manages to be a little deeper with character development, and a more evenly-distributed focus to the progression of the plot, although it's ending was a smidge weaker.  However both films are excellent examples of buddy-road movies with an emotional clout. 8/10

A Twitch in the Curtains

Hi, everyone. My blog has been pretty silent for a while because I needed some me time, or rather some us time, since Ms. Plants has recently decided to accept my offer to move in, selfishly bringing with her a whole person's worth of posessions. Added to that, my job, which was getting me down and causing lots of travel and incompetence-related stress, has been removed from my life and replaced with one where I can walk there rather than taking up two hours of every day in travel, and when I arrive, I have a good chance of knowing what to do in the day and have the ability to decide how to do it.

Consequently my life has been flip-turned upside down, as a great philosopher once said, and so during this transition period some things, including this blog, have had to be temporarily shelved. Sorry about that.

However, things are beginning to straighten out once again (not least that I can now get into the room containing the computer) and so there will be a normality of sorts slowly returning, beginning with, as you might expect, a trip to the cinema..

CIFF 2012 Day 4

V.O.S. (Cat/Spa) (site)

A last minute entry into one of the TBA slots in the timetable meant we could have a look at VOS.  Based on a novel about a screenplay within a screenplay, VOS morphs to a film within a film.  The romantic lives of two couples intertwine as two of them, Clara And Manu argue over how they should move on together after sleeping with each other, instead of their partners.  They also happen to be trying to create a rom-com film about the hijinks of two couples at the same time, and the lines between what is their own life and what is being acted out frequently blur and tease the audience, just when they think they have a handle on the situation.

Some may be frustrated with VOS's novel style, where clever story switches mean that the usual cutting between scenes is often replaced with the actors walking between wooden sets, and possibly their real lives, though again, it's deliberately hard to distinguish.  With a narrative a little like Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress, you will either relish the challenge of understanding the whole story from the clues hidden away, or you will become frustrated and give up as their reality changes again and again.  Personally, although the film was dialogue-heavy and subtitled, I found it an entertaining extra layer on top of an appealing and original work.  7.5/10

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (Swe) (site)

It might sound like the tackiest title for gay porn film you have ever heard of, but Frederik Gertten's meta-documentary is serious stuff from the get-go.  In 2009, he made Bananas!*, a documentary about a lawsuit against multinational fruit giants Dole.  In Nicaragua, a handful of plantation owners under Dole's control sued them as they believed the pesticides Dole was using on the crops were making them sterile.  As Gertten was about to premiere it at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole's lawyerbots sent out threatening letters to everyone connected - the festival, the sponsors, and especially Gertten himself, peppering the text with threats and denials, and making out the film to be full of lies, despite not having actually seen it.  When it did get shown, the threats of litigation were made real, and Gertten found himself with very few friends; least of all the press, who had swallowed Doles' early PR punch that they were wronged by a fraudulent documentary.

So this sequel of sorts was born of the experience, a fine example of corporate might brought down heavily to silence a small film company in Sweden by use of some plain nasty dark arts, practices and techniques employed all too often by dedicated PR firms for clients who want to silence any bad publicity.  Feating for his career and livelihood, and those of his staff, Gertten nevertheless recognised a precedent would be set if he did not fight his corner, and so somehow he did.

Though less impacting than yesterdays Call me Kuchu, and covering subject matter less immediately harmful than the earlier film that caused all the hoo-ha, Big Boys is an eye opener to just how much power still resides in the hands of those who least require it.  And techniques such as Astroturfing show that the internet is not as democratically free as you would hope it to be.  

Frederik Gertten was present at the screening which made for an enlightening half hour of Q and A (overrunning its timeslot in the process). As if there weren't enough revealing documentaries out there here are two more that I would recommend, on the subjects of third world mistreatment, and first world abuses of the justice system. 8/10

Shown under the Microcinema strand, dedicated to films made on a shoestring budget (the excellent 2007 film Kin was also shown here previously), Frank is an example of what can come of a film with creativity unrestricted by corporate interest, or trying to satisfy the most punters.  That can sound dangerous but in the right circumstances can expose new talent.

Frank is a single man with mental problems.  Fallen through the cracks of the social systems meant to care for him, he lives alone in squalor in a nasty part of a dying seaside town.  Franks heart is pure but he has no direction or role model, and no-one seems interested in helping him.  When not at the charity shop helping out, he whiles away his hours at the sea shore, where one day he makes a discovery - a dead body washed ashore.

What follows is a masterful, if gruesome playing out of a broken mind trying to make sense of the new things entering his fragile world.  Tideland by Terry Gilliam is a close comparison to the premise, although the conclusion plays out far differently; the part of Frank played to perfection by Darren Beaumont, surely a face that will appear again soon.  Gritty and gruesome but by equal measure gentle and beautiful, Frank is another example that a small budget can create big things in the right hands.  8/10

Guinea Pigs (UK) (review

And for our last film, we have a psychohorror from the UK.  The spotless and professional-looking surroundings of the fictitious Limebrook Clinic get a new coat of scarlet on the floor, walls and ceiling, as the testing of their new drug, PRO-9 on a gang of volunteers, goes horribly wrong.  In the order they were injected, each of the volunteers, isolated from the outside world, succumbs to the effects of the drug, meaning a lot of paranoid creeping around wrecked laboratories for the survivors.

Though guilty of a few unresolved threads and a couple of silly moments, Guinea Pigs kept the suspense ramped up high after a slow build-up, although the suspense went limp towards the end, which though it wound up things competently, felt a little disappointing given the build-up of tension to that point.  If you like being scared however and are willing to forgive a few slipups, you have a solid night's screaming ahead of you. 7/10

CIFF 2012 Day 3

Flying Blind (UK) (site/interview)

The ordered and largely complete life of middle-aged aerospace engineer Frankie just needs a man to fill the man-shaped hole left by her ex.  So when an exotic and eye-catching student half her age at the university where she lectures takes an interest, her heart (and hormones) start making the decisions for her.  Khalil's mysterious air moves from romantic to suspicious, and the more Frankie presses him for details on his life the cagier he becomes, until the lies start coming out.  

Flying Blind is a tribute to the power of the heart over the mind, encouraging the suspicions of the viewer to surface about the motives of the mysterious Khalil, who remains an unknown entity throughout.  Frankie's numerous discoveries and mistakes about when to step back and leave her brain to decide what to do instead of her long dormant and naive heart deliberately frustrate, but any gesturing to the screen will have no effect.  Nevertheless its a compelling romantic drama dealing with a contemporary dilemma. 7.5/10

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Jpn) (site)

Sushi is probably the most labored over of foods, with the explosion of popularity in the west during the 80's turning it from an expensive national delicacy to a literal conveyor belt industry available to the masses.  Still, in Japan sushi restaurants worth their salt do things the old fashioned way, and the modest little restaurant in Ginza train station owned by elderly Jiro Ono may be at the very top of the list.

Claims about Jiro's restaurant come with rare Michelin 3-star accreditation, unique in his profession.  Now 85, the still very active Jiro, his eldest son and their apprentices work from dawn til dusk repeating, improving and serving food to their lucky customers, who pay 30,000 yen or more to sit at one of the ten seats.

The effort and level of detail put into the preparation is unlike anything you have seen; the sourcing of the food to the right temperature of the handtowels are meticulous, and Jiro's apprentices have many years ahead of them before they are even allowed to touch the food.  It may sound pretentious to labour so hard on food that is gone in a mouthful, but Jiro's energy and philosophy are infectious ingredients to the film, which moves beyond the food, to concentrate on the family; most notably Jiro's legacy (if he ever retires!) and the fate of the restaurant in the future.

Beautifully accompanied with succulent shots of fresh made sushi for the eyes and some equally palatable music, the humanity behind the food however, is surely it's strength. 8/10

Khaana (UK) - a short film about what it is to live as a Muslim in the UK today.  A mother to be walks through town in a burqa with her husband by her side, showing how life is pretty much as it is for others in society, except for the staring and casual racism.  7.5/10

Tales of the Waria (US/Ind) (site)

In Indonesia, 'Waria' is a term that refers to transgender men, that is, those who are biologically male but identify as women.  As the country with the largest Muslim population, a religion not well known for its progressive treatment of non-straight people, you might think this condemns them to a life of self-denial and clositedness, or being chased through the streets.

However, in Makassar, Indonesia they are tolerated as historical throwbacks to the royal protectors who were tasked with taking care of the king.  Though this means they have a more tolerably pleasant life than the average gay Ugandan (see below) their existence is typically peppered with suspicion and complication.

The film focuses on a handful of Waria - men who live openly as women, many looking to achieve the same status and acceptance as an Indonesian woman, which often means finding themselves a husband.  Some are still looking, while others have been lucky enough to find men who are willing to love them even through the withering stare of a disapproving society.   Sometimes this means compromises.  Mama Ria, a middle-aged Waria has to share his partner with his wife, although she seems more than happy to have him out of the house for a bit.  Akmal on the other hand is in denial, choosing to leave the Waria lifestyle to have a wife and kids, though its pretty obvious to his family and everyone else he misses it terribly.

Similar to 2006's Paper Dolls, this film exemplifies how a group of people, typically oppressed by society can be accepted in the most unlikely of places, albeit with some complications along the way. After we have finished visiting their lives what we are left with at the end is not a nicely wrapped up set of issues with everyone living a happy life of acceptance, but instead a mishmash of fulfilled and failed dreams, but forever hope for the future.  8/10

Call Me Kuchu (Ug) (site)

Of all the places to not be in now, Uganda must be up there in the top three.  A massive AIDS epidemic, women and girls being raped, and the ever growing presence of fundamental religion, especially Christianity brought over from America by people such as the despicable Scott Lively, fueling fear, suspicion and hate.  Girls are tried, convicted and killed for witchcraft, and often have to live in excruciating pain due to FGM, passed on from mother to daughter for nothing other than tradition.

That's all before we even hit the subject of this film, but it serves as a dreadful backdrop to the other Ugandan atrocity: the atrocities committed against gay men and women across the country.  They are called Kuchu - a derogatory term for homosexuality. 

From all angles they are attacked; the government declares homosexuality evil and against the will of god.  The evangelicals preach with rabid vigor the need to purge the kuchu from the lands before god will allow any milk and honey to flow.  The corrupt police do nothing to protect and actively encourage violence; the newspapers have no truck sending out print with inflammatory headlines blaming gays for terrorism and rape, and calling for them to be hanged.  Finally, the public are stirred into action by these elements to do away with these people wherever they hide, as part of their civic duty.  And all of that is before the new anti-homosexuality bill is considered, making it punishable by death and carrying jail terms even for neglecting to tell the authorities of someone you suspect.

Given this awful situation, it is a testament to the bravery of those that do speak out, who challenge the laws and choose to stand up and protect them.  This is a massively important film shedding light on the day to day struggles of several individuals brave enough to be filmed, but in particular following the last months of the prominent activist David Kato, who was brutally murdered in 2011.  Powerful, direct footage on the front line will leave you angered and aghast, but this film needs to be seen by as many people as possible. 

A luta continua. 8.5/10

Comic-Con Episode 4: A Fans Hope (US) (site)

What with all the depression wreaked by Call Me Kuchu, we needed something to put smiles back on our faces, and the latest film by increasingly prominent director Morgan  was just the thing.  Anyone wondering if the Comic Con in Paul was a real thing should see this celebration of the event, which in the last 30 years or so has gone from a small niche gathering, sneered at or ignored by the news suits, to the largest event in the US.  The fans make the show, and they come in their thousands.  Cosplaying, collecting and above all, buying.  And the pop culture manufacturers have caught on.

To call it exclusively a celebration of a phenomenon is inaccurate, as it also laments the passing of the 'proper' con - the comic part is now largely sidelined in favour of movie tie-ins and big celebrity Q and As - but the film never gets in the doldrums about it, preferring to concentrate firmly on the exuberant geekiness of the whole thing, and show the fans in a (mostly) positive light, alongside several celebrities of the culture such as Kevin Smith, Grant Morrison, Matt Groening and a whole load more.

Spurlock wisely decides to keep to the other side of the camera this time, which works well as he is not really part of the phenomenon he is presenting to the viewer.  Instead, he just lets it happen without even a word of narration.  The result is a film that everyone can enjoy.  The 'geeks' (of which I count myself one) can indulge their passion while comfortable in the realisation that thousands of others do the same, while 'jocks' (for want of an equivalent english term) will laugh and feel a sense of superiority over their more computer literate enemy, at least until they see a boarding for one of their favourite TV shows and realise they are 'one of them'.

No matter though.  This is a fantastic, funny, warm and thoroughly indulgent film which will hopefully get a full release, allowing everyone to see what happens when you release these people en masse into their natural habitat.  I loved it.  8.5/10

CIFF 2012 Day 2

Blind Spot (Lux) (facebook)

The perennial figure of the stressed, broken cop forced to confront his life is explored once again in this drama from Luxembourg.  Olivier's brother is found shot in his car, just as he is booted off the team for a fiery temper - brought on by a combination of a stormy marriage and some personally compromising situations, for which he could soon be exposed to his wife and his team mates.  Sensing an immovable object, his ailing super brings him back on board for the investigation, on a tight leash.

With a slower pacing than Point Blank, and feeling a little like a movie adaptation of The Killing, Blind Spot moves decisively toward its conclusion, predictably with some unpredictable twists messing with your perceptions towards the end.  It won't leave you breathless like some examples might, but its a meaty, satisfying chunk of Danish murder drama. 8/10

Starbuck (Can) (wiki)

David's early adult life was well funded, it seems.  All he needed was a few quiet minutes to himself, a supple wrist and a relaxed mind, and several deposits to the sperm bank later, he was as financially solvent as a teenager ever ought to be.

Many years later this past life is about to catch up with him.  He is older, fatter and generally no more mature.  He can't keep to the duties of his job, his girlfriend Valerie is less than pleased with his attentions, and he has just found out that, due to his unusually virile deposits of yesteryear, he is the father of several hundred children - a good portion of which are bringing a court case to have his anonymity blown.

Fortunately, or not as the case may be his friend Avocat is a lawyer of sorts, not the biggest fan of his own children and slavering at the prospect of a big time case, he takes it on, with David only partly in control of his new destiny, but now with a dilemma - does he let curiosity about his many offspring get the better of him, or remain detached for the sake of keeping his responsibility free life?

It would be unfair to bill Starbuck a 'screwball farce' along the lines of The Hangover, which the CFF brochure did.  It's a far deeper and more satisfying chunk of family drama, curious 'what if'-ery, covered with some sharp comedic turns alternating nicely with genuine moments of pathos. 8.5/10

Fire in the Blood (India) (site)

'Big pharma' has a lot to answer for in the world - much of it good, such as the development of many new drugs for treating illnesses of every kind.  Drugs like aspirin have no doubt saved millions of people around the world, and eased the suffering of many others.  But the major pharmaceutical companies also create a lucrative trade for the patents industry, originally divised as a method for protecting an inventor from others profiteering from his hard work, the patents used and misused in pharma allow them to charge whatever prices they want for as long as the patent lasts.  Thus, life-saving drugs can be placed out of reach of the poorest countries' residents - often those who need them most.

Cheaper, 'generic' drugs can be made at a fraction of the cost but this relies on the national nature of patents and the lucrative laws that stop imports of generic alternatives from nations where the patents no longer apply.  People have been and are in jail for bringing a cheap generic drug into a country where it is not permitted, to save lives.

Fire in the Blood attempts in a straightforward manner to chronicle the ongoing patent war between the developing countries and the west and it's major pharma companies, with respect to the complex drugs used to treat AIDS, from their release in the late 90's to the current time.  Much like Countdown to Zero and Inside Job the bottom line is the driving force of complacency and corruption on one side and the attempts to get round the crazy laws as the third world counts its dead in their millions in the other.  And much like those there are some pretty unpleasant facts being presented which paint the US administration in particular as cold, heatless bean counters on strings.  A fine addition to the investigative documentary genre. 8/10

The Lodger (UK) (wiki)

Alfred Hitchcock is the subject of one of CFFs retrospective strands.  The Lodger is one of his earliest works as a director.  1927 is still in the silent film era and I for one was surprised his body of work stretched back this far (this is actually not even his first directing role). 

The lodger in question is a dark shadowy figure who comes to stay at the house of Daisy and her parents, as the streets are buzzing with news of 'The Avenger', a murdering cad hell-bent on killing every fair-haired young woman in London.  Mysterious and strange, his boyish good looks and dangerous smile capture Daisy's heart and distance her from her helpless parents and hopefully amorous Joe, the local detective and fellow lodger who happens to be on the Avenger's tail.

The Lodger shows influences from earlier silent films and its clear Hitchcock hasn't entirely found his own style at this point, but you can see little flashes of elements from his later films.  It would have been a perfect retrospective experience were it not for the unnecessary 'improvements' made by the restoration team.  The overlaid music was okay except for a few inexplicable scenes where they put a modern drum beat in the background and, even worse had some actual singing.  And the colour filtering on the different scenes was questionable too. 7/10

Tower Block (UK) (facebook)

The residents on the top floor of Providence House, a soon to be demolished towerblock for some reason don't want to leave.  Hardly a community, the isolated residents keep their eyes down and their doors firmly locked at the first sign of trouble.  Such tactics lead them into big trouble one day however, after a young teen is beaten to death and no-one wants to help find the killer.  Suddenly the block becomes a giant shooting range for a mysterious gunman looking for revenge.  No way to call the police and if anyone dares put a finger out the window it is shot off with high caliber fire.  Whoever it is, they don't have much concern for bystanders.

A plucky British offering on a low budget sees Sheridan Smith of 2 Pints fame as an isolated girl thrust into the centre of the chaos, next to a neurotic alcoholic Russel Tovey (Being Human), a possible love interest.  Bonus points go to Jack O'Connell from Skins as the horrible but strangely likeable chav Kurtis.  If you ignore the numerous continuity errors and a couple of mild head scratching moments, and just go with the flow you get a pretty good survival horror with a fair amount of blood splattery. 7/10

CIFF 2012 Day 1

Cambridge - city of people on bicycles trying to kill you whether you are on the road or pavement.  It was good to be back.

Cambridge also a city of great architectural beauty and around this time of year, also becomes home to the film festival.  It looked like CIFF 2012 would be missed off my calendar once again as it had been in 2010 and 2011 (in favour of Edinburgh), but a last minute decision to head down and see what we could changed that, and so here we go.

Grandma Lo-Fi (Den/Ice) (site/review)

A lovely documentary to start the festival.  Sigríður Níelsdóttir spent a large amount of her life artistically dormant, until finally at the age of 70 she started to write and compose her own music.  Beginning with just some novel percussion sound effects made from kitchen utensils and whatever other noises she could record from around her environment - in a charmingly lo-fi way we would do when recording tunes off the radio with a nearby cassette recorder jammed to the speaker.  Slowly but surely her confidence and output increased.  She bought herself a keyboard, and a 'proper' hi-fi unit with twin mixer decks and a microphone, and in time she had hundreds of hand crafted songs and nearly 60 home recorded albums.  She is somewhat of a cult icon in Iceland, and receives requests for her home-made CDs from around the world.

This recount of her life and celebration of the quaint, self-taught methods is all Sigríður's own, spiced up with the warming effect of several example songs put to cut out collages and 'covered' by musicians in a kind of lo-fi video celebration of her considerable work.

Whether you think her output to is entertaining or naff, you can't fail to be impressed by the place she has made for herself in the indie music scene.  It gets a bit repetitive, but it's made all the more interesting by it's grand implausibility and cosy Super-8 graininess, and Grandma Lo-fi charms the socks off all but the most cynical of stony hearts.  It's quiet, disarming, massively unpretentious and a comforting washed-out tea towel of a film.  And I mean that in the nicest way possible. 7/10

Salma and the Apple (Ira) (review)

Middle-eastern films have a tendency to be shrouded in a cloak of cultural fog, to the eyes of a westerner. So it is with Salma and the apple.  With echoes of The Temptation of St. Tony, (which is also being shown, but i'm not sitting through it again), we follow Salma as he takes a spiritual journey through his homeland after returning from religious school.
Young and idealistic, his belief of a life lived best though repeated reading of holy texts is tried outside of the narrow field of view given by his tutors, and into the day to day goings-on of his community, which seems to contain goodness in people largely detached from his daily flagellation.

But as the film moves on it becomes increasingly abstract, concentrating on Salma's minor theft of an apple dropped from a tree beside him while praying - the traditional biblical symbol of temptation - and his attempts to selfishly clear his mind of guilt by finding the owner of the field and seeking forgiveness.  He meets a string of characters along the way who attempt to help or confuse him, and challenge his notions as well.

But it is very abstract and quite impenitrable.  Though the film may be appreciated better by someone more familiar with an Islamic point of view, it falls a bit awkward on western eyes, and we must see it as a mysterious, not always explainable journey (with some beautiful music and scenery to content the senses) to get the most out of it. 6/10