Winter Nomads (Swi) (site)
Every year the same journey takes place across the snow-covered Swiss countryside. Pascal - an able but ageing shepherd is joined by a pack of dogs, two donkeys and roughly a thosand sheep. Leaving his farm he takes an annual path of 'transhumance' - leading his sheep on a long and finial journey between the winter and summer pastures, letting them hoover up whatever grass they can from the frozen fields they cross in order to fatten them up. Along the way, the flock becomes smaller as bunches of them are sold onto his trusted buyer for food, until they have all disappeared.
After 32 years of trekking alone through the winter and into the spring, Pascal has an assistant - 28 year old Carole has become sick of the rat run and launched herself fully and randomly into the role of shepherdess, and this is her first transhumance.
Winter Nomads, very simply and unobtrusively sits on their shoulders as they make the traditional trek through ancient fields and modern urban sprawl, each with it's own difficulties and dangers. Pascal has made many friends on his well-worn path through the years who know when and where to bring a hot pie or a drink, but the rolling years bring change; new housing erodes grassland, the snowstorms seem stronger and earlier, and some new farmers along the way are less than enthusiastic about a plague of grass-eating machines coming along and eating it all off their land for free.
Slice of life films rarely have much action and this is no different, so you shouldn't expect any. The most enjoyment to be had is to simply sit back and consider the journey a privileged experience - the master-apprentice dynamic, where Pascal berates Carol's every wrong move and yet they both still get along; the strange and poignant personalisation of each and every sheep having their own name, in a world where any attachment is ultimately fleeting. The inquisitiveness of the donkeys, the loyalty of the dogs and the blind trust of the doomed beasts as they follow unquestioningly onwards through mud and snow behind their masters.makes for a bittersweet journey of surprising depth and warmth. (and there are plenty of 'awww' moments with new pup Leon as he learns how to go nose to nose with the unimpressed sheep). 7.5/10
Golden Slumbers (Cam/Fra) (site)
Examples of Cambodian cinema, even for a film nut like myself is as rare as hens teeth, and this film highlights the devastating reason behind it. From it's beginnings in the 1960's up until an abrupt end in 1975, the popularity of home grown Cambodian cinema with it's populous was extremely high, especially as the Vietnam war was hotting up and people needed some way of entertaining themselves and getting away from reality for a while. But in 1975, Pol Pot's Communist Khmer Rouge army, by that point having a stranglehold on Cambodia, moved in on Phnom Penh, the capital of the country and also the fledgeling film-making industry, and killed it dead.
Seen as a symbol of a decadent western corruption to society, cinemas were targeted. Every single one was closed, and most were burned to the ground. The few that remain today have no cinematic identity and were long ago vandalised, stripped and looted of anything valuable. All but a tiny fraction of hundreds of miles of film was destroyed, and what remains has become largely forgotten by all but a passionate cinephile crowd.
Cambodia's liberation in '79 by the Vietnamese in the Cambodia-Vietnam war did a lot to put the country back on the right track once more, but it left a horrific scar. Actors, producers and directors were among the millions that were singled out and killed for their status and it's implied power, something that could not be tolerated in the new regime. The cultural identity of the country - artistic produce for film and television - and even songs and music, were almost totally destroyed.
Golden Slumbers tracks down some of the few surviving directors and artists that worked in the industry - individuals who, like many others had lost so much, but had their own special viewpoint on the oppression the country faced. Among them, Dy Saveth is one of a handful of surviving actresses, her wall of pictures is her way of preserving the memories of her old life as she teaches dance classes to young students unaware of her past. Ly Bun Yim still has the enthusiastic spark of a storyteller dispite losing all his films and work; he takes the opportunity to retell his films by voice and gesture while he has the attention of the camera. You can see it is a form of healing catharsis as he lets it all come out.
The subject matter is saddening but there is hope in the film; young film students try to recreate some iconic scenes with their own cameras and two cinephiles enthuse over which films they have managed to acquire in whatever format they can get hold of, and ultimately, the country is shown to be healing, slowly. A film that should be high up on any avid filmgoer's list, showing just how fortunate we are in a democracy. 7.5/10
Behind the Screen (Austria) (site)
My third and final documentary of the night began with an eye-opening (but not really surprising when you think about it) statistic. Every second around the world, seven computers are produced, but only four babies are born. That alone gives you a sense of what this film then goes on to highlight in some detail - that somewhere, somehow, a large and increasing pile of end of life computers (and TV's, DVD players, fridges, cars...) is being dumped on the riverbanks of a third world country. Those assurances that the big manufacturers were being responsible with their products once they are thrown away are pretty hollow when a Ghanean environmental worker stumbles over a mix of shattered glass, broken casings and putrid mud with a broken piece of Apple Mac in his hands.
Behind the Screen methodically works through the lifetime of the product from the point of view who have to deal with the working conditions in either it's manufacture, or it's disposal. Low paid workers pan for tiny specks of gold in pollited grounds that used to be farmlands before they were bought up by large mineral extraction companies. They risk cyanide poisoning from the chemical extraction process, or beatings and/or imprisonment if they are caught on company land. Gold buyers smelt and purify and sell onto western companies for tiny wages. Low paid migrant workers gather in eastern Europe to multinational component assemblers like Foxconn, since their willingness to work more hours for less appeals to the employers.
At the other end, undeveloped and third world countries get our detritus. Semi-working computers thrown aside from the west end up stacked high in African second hand shops, and for those bits of equipment too old and obsolete? In the same way those sights of Mumbaian indian children crawling over waste turned the stomach, so it is that places like Ghana have a similar, electronic equivalent. Children and young men, not expected to live much past 20 work through the burning toxic fumes to extract any metal of worth for a few dollars a day.
Packing a lot of things to be ashamed of into an hour long film, Behind the Screen forces us to realise that the high technology society we enjoy is currently only the way it is because of the thousands of wasted lives it uses to stay afloat. 7.5/10
The non-spacejumping director Stefan Baumgartner was present during this UK premiere for a Q and A afterwards, though unfortunately I had to go for my train so I missed it.