Archive for the ‘Warsaw Film Festival’ Category

Les Mots de la Fin (2021) Warsaw Film Festival 2021

Dir: Gaelle Hardy, Agnes LeJeune | Belgium Doc 74′

Real people share their innermost thoughts in confronting death in this humanistic and affecting film about euthanasia from Belgian co-directors Gaelle Hardy and Agnes Lejeune,

In a wise and compassionate move, the Belgian government Wisely has legalised euthanasia. And the results are truly enlightening. No longer fearing physical pain and emotional anguish, a weight is lifted being those suffering endless trauma allowing them to end their lives with peace and dignity. The mentally fragile or seriously ill often feel a burden on their relatives, and are no longer valued in society. Now they can quietly take control and slip away in security and comfort.

In a consulting room in a public hospital in Belgium. Dr Francois Damas reflects on the wider concerns of his patients: both men and women, often accompanied by a relative. Most of them are seriously ill, but not all. Madame Vinciane Bonsignore just feels tired of living and is sick of being told to ‘get on with it’, describing her life like ‘a house with poor foundations’. Now she just wants to end it all. And we feel for her and so does Dr Damas, although he advises her to talk to her son. The trauma of assisted death has a major impact of those left behind, but most of the friends and relatives seen here seem acquiescent. In the case of terminal illness, they only want the best for those concerned. There is a perception that society no longer values the aged and infirm and this impacts on their ability to bear their suffering, often making it worse.

But one patient, Ziegfried Pohl attending with his favourite nephew, Michel Purage, has actually changed his mind about dying, having gradually come to terms with the shock of his wife’s death after 60 years of marriage. But for Michel Lombard the gruelling nature of his terminal illness means death will come as a welcome relief, and his wife Agnes Ries is fully supportive of his decision. Off camera we share the tranquility of his final moments looking out on the pleasant countryside from his hospital room as the family say their final farewells.

A round table discussion amongst the specialised medical team allows us privileged access to professional debate and discussion. The overriding message here is of compassion and understanding. As far as circumstances and the law allow, these patients want to choose their death, and are able to go ahead after frank and intensely authentic consultations.

Hardy and Lejeune direct with extreme sensitivity avoiding sensationalism. One of the most affecting scenes sees Dr Damas dissolve in tears when visiting the home of Sylvie Guerin whose young daughter Clara Dupont decided to end her own life after suffering from cancer, gently describing the reasoning behind the decision. How comforting to know the date of your own death, particularly for those who have no one left to share their lives with. This must be the ultimate in self-determination. MT


Slovo House An Unfinished Novel (2021) Warsaw Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Taras Tomenko | Ukraine 2021, 120 min.

Taras Tomenko revisits his 2017 feature with a stylish re-creation of the early years of Slovo House, an artist’s colony in the Ukrainian capital Kharkiv, built in the late 1920s. Originally intended as a showcase for Soviet art, the Stalinist security forces and their compliant censors soon turned the creative idyll from a paradise to a prison where dozens were executed. But in the early years, before  the Soviet-induced famine known as the Holodomor (1932-3)  wiped out seven million people, Slovo was a creative haven for the literati. 

In a blissful sunny afternoon in Slovo House, the artists, among them Mike Yohannsen, Tychyna, Pavlo Tychyna, Rayisa Troyan and Epik, are seen playing volleyball in the courtyard . Enter Volodymyr Akimov, a budding poet. The artists welcome him into their well-appointed wing which houses a solarium, a rarity in the Soviet Union. Somehow Akimov feels an outsider, his archaic poetry clashing with the others’ avant-garde efforts. A beady-eyed security officer senses his apprehension, offering Akimov the chance to become a spy from the privacy of his room, complete with a surveillance suite that takes in every other apartment in the block. Crucially he also offers Akimov the chance for literary success, duping an established author, Mykola Khuylioviy (Yakimchuk), into believing his play is on the censors’ list, and republishing it under Akimov’s name. Akimov then joins the pantheon of literary stars: when Bertholt Brecht, Theodore Dreiser and Bruno Yasensky meet for the Conference of Revolutionary writers in Kharkiv, the German playwright congratulates Akimov for a play he has not written.

But the noose is closing around the artists: Raya Troyanker (Levchenko), a self-styled ‘femme fatale’ is the first to be expelled from the colony. Meanwhile, Khuylioviy and another brave writer, travel to the Ukrainian countryside to confirm ‘rumours’ about the famine but have no chance to publish their horrific discovery, with tragic consequences for all concerned. But the Stalinist Security apparatus still grinds on: Akimov’s overseer is mortified by Khuylioviy’s fate, having has lost the source material for his ‘protege’s’ putative success.

Tomenko fashions his sophomore feature in the black-and-white style of contemporary Soviet films of the era, and although this works well from an aesthetic point of view, not so successful is his use of a ploy adopted by the propagandist filmmakers of the Stalinist era: he paints the villain, Akimov, blacker than black, making him into a serial rapist, highlighting his impotence. These voyeuristic, graphic descriptions sensationalise the core material detracting from the overall impact of this otherwise enlightening slice of Soviet history. AS


A.rtificial I.mmortality | Warsaw Film Festival 2021

Dir: Ann Shin | Doc Canada, 74’

If you could create an immortal version of yourself, would you?

Don’t be put off by its tricksy title, this new documentary from award-winning Toronto-based Korean filmmaker Ann Shin is fascinating from start to finish. 

A.rtifical I.mmortality opens with a welter of technical experts fast-talking their way through their ground-breaking research. But the focus soon narrows on Shin, best known for her HBO title The Defector: Escape from North Korea, who is now working on how to capture the essence of her dying father who is rapidly sliding down the slippery slope of dementia. Is there a way to keep part of him alive, and leave something of herself for her own kids to reflect on? – she ponders while chopping away at those ubiquitous veg in her kitchen?.

Apparently there is. And Shin showcases each new discovery in a film that uncovers the cutting-edge world of AI: “what is it that makes us uniquely human, and cannot be recreated by a robot, however sophisticated?. The film’s first episode is possibly the least plausible and most confusing: we meet Lincoln Cannon, a leading proponent of the ‘Trans humanist Movement’ which believes in the ‘ethical use of technology to transcend human limits, even making death “optional”.’ Is this a load tosh, you may wonder? Well, watch on, it does get better.   

What follows is a deep dive into the realms of artificial intelligence, machine learning and biotechnology. Shin interviews specialists from the world of religion, robotic science, technology, philosophy and neuroscience.

She 52 year old mother of two then explores ‘mind-files’. Facebook and Twitter all possess these intensely personal impressions of us from the social posts that we share with them. So what if these could be downloaded onto a personal file and then uploaded and stored privately for our benefit on an avatar?. She talks to Dr Deepak Chopra has already created his own “digital Deepak” from his mind-file. The idea is to pass on the essence of himself and his accumulated knowledge for his grandkids.

Mind files can also be used for Chopra’s own commercial benefit, as a virtual mentor and guru.  He explains the difference between this unique personal version and, say, Siri. With your digital avatar you have a direct relationship with that tailored made ‘person’.  It can interpret your own feelings based on a personal knowledge bank, created by you in an AI version of yourself that you compile well before you die. 

Meanwhile in California, Profesor Alysson Muotri has found a way to replicate actual human brain cells in a petri dish using stem cellls known as organoids. These can produce a more complex and nuanced artificial brain material. So sometime in the future brains may be able to grow this material for positive uses, including the treatment of traumatic injury, and even to tackle mental illnesses such as depression or motor neurone disease.

Over in Japan where robots are very much part of everyday life, Hiroshi Ishiguro has pioneered ‘intelligent’ robotics. So lifelike is his own android that it actually fooled audiences into believing it was Ishiguro himself – but that’s possibly because he looks and acts more like an Android than a human, in the nicest possible way. 

One of the sceptics of the AI world is neuroscientist Dr Taufik Valiante who has been finding out exactly how memories are made in the brain. Very little is actually known about the brain and how it processes memory. But the significant issue here is how malleable memory is, and how much it is subject to individual and personal reflections. Memories are a ‘loved experience’ with a richness that AI does not have the capability of recording. Human cognition is an “embodied cognition’ far more complex that any AI can replicate. Robots, no matter how sophisticated, can’t smell, feel or touch. How could those elements be replicated by a computer?  Taufik heads up a think-tank at the neurological department of Toronto’s Krembil Research Institute and reminds us, reassuringly, that humans are capable of feeling exquisitely subtle qualities including ‘body memory’ that avatars are just not able to sense. This all very encouraging for those fearing a takeover by robots. The Japanese have coined an expression “sonzaikan” that refers to the unique presence of another being. So there’s hope for us real humans yet in the scary world of future intelligence. MT


Spiral (2020) Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Dir.: Cecília Felméri | Cast: Bogdan Dumitrache, Diana Magdolena Kiss, Alexandra Borbely, Theodora Uhrik; Hungary/Romania 2020, 93 min.

This first feature film by Romanian born writer/director Cecília Felméri is a moody character study about a lake somehow taking on the humans living nearby. Part poetic realism, part nightmare thriller, Spiral is enigmatic and beguiling, haunted by a macabre curse. It echoes the theme in Romanian folklore and literature of purification by fire.

Bence (Dumitrache) is an introverted character whose emotions run as deep as his lakeside dwelling in Szödliget where he lives in a comfortable wooden house with girlfriend Janka (Kiss), trying to make a living as a fish farmer. Lost in his solitary world the lake tethers him like an eerie umbilical cord his father having disappeared nearby long ago without a trace. Nourishing and caring for his prize fish provides him with a strange solace – they voraciously gobble up dead rabbits to birds. But his relationship with teacher Janka is fraught: there is a sexual connection but somehow Bence remains unreachable, lost in a perpetual reverie. Budapest beckons for Janka but Bence is keen to put down roots in their bucolic countryside dwelling, where the only internet connection lies deep in the heart of the lake.

Winter approaches and with it comes tragedy in the icebound lake with its chilly secrets. Bence finds himself alone again with only his ‘piranha-like catfish’ for company and random visits from his aunt (Uhrik) who is told that Janka “simply left” – but we know otherwise. Then government inspector Nora (Borbely) arrives to help him with an application for a grant. The two fall for each other and once again the physical is satisfying Bence then busing her away, convinced that the death of his cat is due to the lake casting a hex on everything he cares about. In a spooky twist Nora develops a penchant for his catfish finding them particularly tasty, possibly due to their rich diet. When his aunt finds with a buyer for the farm, Bence will have to make a decision: does he let the lake win?

Silence and subtle musical choices add to the eerie serenity of the piece which plays out appropriately to Mozart’s Miserere mei Deus. DoP Reder György constructs a magical twilight atmosphere where the lake plays a passive-aggressive entity. What starts as a romantic idyll, soon becomes nightmarish for Bence, haunted by the ghosts of the past. Bogdan plays him captivatingly, his morose enigmatic suggestiveness constantly open to interpretation. In her sophomore feature Felméri directs with confidence, never crossing the line to anything overstated – her subtle approach is rare in a beginner and leaves us guessing and ruminating throughout the film and for a long time afterwards. AS


Unidentified (2020) ****

Dir.: Bogdan George Apetri; Cast: Bogdan Farcas, Dragos Domitru, Vasile Muraru, Ana Popescu, Kira Hagi, Andrei Aradits; Romania/Latvia/Czech Republic 2020, 123 min.

Very much in the style of the classic French crime thrillers of the 1970s, Unidentified is a modern version of Yves Boisset’s Un Condé, tackling  racism and misogyny in one fell swoop in a tightly plotted murder story. Unidentified is the sophomore feature of Romanian director Bogdan George Apetri who also wrote and edited and co-produced drawing from his experiences of working in New York.

It sees scuzzy minor Detective Florin (Farcas) down on his luck, and in need of a scape goat to his appease his boss, Commissar Sef (Muraru). The sacrificial lamb soon fetches up in the shape of Roma security guard Banel (Domitru) whose been unlucky enough to have two major disasters occur during his checkered career, both seemingly connected to insurance fraud with Banel aiding and abetting the perpetrator, the owner of hotel where he was working.

Not that Florin is is squeaky clean from the personal probity angle either. Behind with his car repayments and mortgage, and he badgers his friend Mircea (Aradits) to give him more time to pay off his debts. But money worries are not the only thing getting the obsessed detective down. In Oleg Mutu’s fluid widescreen camerawork, we watch him on a hillside, overlooking a hotel and parking lot, spying on his fiancée Stela (Popescu) who is cheating on him with a married man. It’s hardly surprising given the way Florin neglects her and always seems to be in a bad mood. But what the hell? He hatches an ingenious plan to get rid of both of them in a double murder – the perfect crime. It will involve getting to know Banel and organising for him to work in the hotel where Stela hangs out. It’s got to be meticulously planned, so it looks like an accident: He invites Banel to his home, and makes him touch a beer bottle, which he will later use as a Molotov cocktail to kill Stela. So off he goes to meet Banel in the parking lot of the hotel at nine pm. But in that classic but always effective dramatic device – things don’t go according to plan for Florin. Not during the crime but afterwards, when his boss Sef picks holes in his story.

Apetri is certainly a master storyteller, overlaying his story of detective obsession with the serene score of none other than Chopin’s delicate piano music. Helicopter shots show Florin driving around manically, chasing his prey on a murderous mission. Even at two hours plus, Unidentified keeps us in its grip in exploring a psychotic law enforcement officer, crumbling before our eyes. And apparently there’s more to look forward too, Apetri’s  feature is the first of a trilogy set in small town Romania. AS

Special Jury Award, International Competition | Warsaw Film Festival 2020 | Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021



Scarborough (2018) ***

Writ/Dir: Barnaby Southcombe |Cast: Jodhi May, Jordan Bolger, Jessica Barden, Edward Hogg | UK Drama | 84′

Freed from the confines of the stage, for which it was written by Fiona Evans, Barnaby Southcombe’s seaside love story soars and never loses its footloose fun reflected in Ian Leggett’s energetic hand-held camera and limpid widescreen seascapes. It’s a more lightweight film that his standout noir I, Anna that starred his mother Charlotte Rampling as an enigmatic femme fatale. But his work is always charismatic and entertaining.

Intimate in scope but universal in its subject matter, SCARBOROUGH is a sensory exploration of love through a series of flirty and at times moving vignettes rather than a gripping narrative, and some of the dialogue feels cliched-ridden, but its lightly touching and thoughtful in its modest running time. And when people are coupling up or falling out, glib cliches often pour out volubly through guilt or even lack of imagination.

It sees two couples pursue impossible love stories. Both are generations apart and its clear from the offset that neither will be enduring. In love, longevity often trumps passion, and both the older lovers are in committed relationships that have stood the test of time, despite their downfalls, that seem connected to infertility on both sides.

The narrative sashays between the two couples. Jodhi May is lithe and luminous as a 45 year-old teacher in love with her muscular pupil Daz (Jordan Bolger), whose puppy-like naive enthusiasm could clearly wane. They’ve only actually spent 22 hours together during their snatched lunches and afternoon escapes. But she’s tried for years to get pregnant, and when the result comes through her demeanour changes. May brings considerable complexity to her role, despite its confines. His enthusiasm seems to dampen her ardour, and her maturity as a woman is shown through her skill as an actor.

The other two, Jessica Barden (Mindhorn) and Edward Hogg (Jupiter Ascending), are celebrating her birthday. He’s much older than the giggly twenty-something. Barden has a more difficult role and still feels slightly unconvincing. One always gets the impression she’s a kid and her duplicity makes things worse, especially with lines like “get her off the ‘phone, she’s proper ruining my day”, when he tries sensitively to split up with her girlfriend Chris over the ‘phone. This also seems to be the catalyst for some passionate love-making, yet great sex doesn’t always lead to commitment. Daniel York is particularly amusing in as the hotel manager in this extremely watchable drama. MT




Working Woman (Isha Ovedet) 2017 ****

Dir.: Michal Aviad; Cast: Liron Ben-Slush, Menashe Noy, Oshi Cohen; Israel 2018, 93 min.

Best known her documentaries Michal Aviad (Invisible) sophomore feature is more a study of make incompetence than female empowerment. It tackles the timely issue of sexual harassment in the workplace in a detailed casestudy of a woman who has her work cut out both at home and in the office.

Orna (Ben-Slush) is feeling really positive about her new job in her former army boss’s property company. “Benny knows I’m hard working”, she tells her husband Ofer (Cohen), whose restaurant is struggling. But Ofer has his head in the clouds, with his foodie vanity project. Meanwhile in the world of real estate, Benny (Noy) starts his campaign to ‘groom’ Orna, immediately asking to wear a nice skirt instead of trousers, and letting her hair down “because it suits you”. But when he kisses the working mother of three, he over-steps the mark and makes up for it by offering Orna a promotion and securing an alcohol licence for Ofer’s restaurant.

Benny then whisks Orna off to Paris on the pretence of using her language skills for some company business. Carried away by the ambience, the makes another move on Orna but sadly fails to perform: “You are driving me crazy”, he complains, putting the blame (in time honoured male fashion) on this highly capable woman. Orna immediately leaves Benny’s company, but when he refuses to give her a reference, she is forced to take things into her own hands.

Liron Ben-Slush is the heart and soul of this absorbing drama about a positive woman caught between two impossible men, who both want to exploit her in different ways, relying on her good humour and generosity of spirit to get their own way. Ofer is like a forth child, expecting her to take carry the whole family, while pandering to his ego. Benny is the typical male chauvinist, determined to have his way with Orna, and blaming her when it all backfires. Orna feels guilty and responsible, and has to re-invent herself to survive in this subtle chamber piece, supported by its convincing cast. Aviad creates an important chapter in the ongoing #MeToo campaign. AS

SCREENING DURING UK Jewish Film Festival 2018


The School in the Cloud (2018) **** Warsaw Film Festival 2018

Dir: Jerry Rothwell | Doc | 85′

“Do not limit children to your own learning for they were born in anther time” Rabindranath Tagore

What is the future of education in a networked world? With the words of Tagore ringing in his ears, TED Prize-winning scientist Sugata Mitra installs an unmanned Internet kiosk in a remote Bengali village to pioneer “The School in the Cloud”. As children encounter the Internet for the first time, will they be able to use it to transform their futures? Award-winning documentarian Jerry Rothwell decided to find out in his latest film The School in the Cloud  which examines the ups and downs of Sugata Mitra’s pioneering cloud-based educational model, as the leap from theory to practice proves to be its own fascinating learning curve, both in the developing and the developed world.

Three years in the making – in India and the North East of England – director Jerry Rothwell  (How to Change the World/Sour Grapes) explores the challenges of bringing the Professor Mitra’s vision of giving the next generation the opportunity to create a better and more informed existence for itself. If he’s successful, education will never be the same again. In his tweed suit, shirt and tie, Professor Mitra comes across as a kind and approachable presence. He began his self-organised learning experiments in 1999, when he knocked a hole in the wall of his office in Delhi, India, into a nearby slum and placed an Internet-ready computer there (that went on to become the Hole in the Wall experiment). Some of the children have never had access to the internet. His research had taught him that if children’s minds are allowed to wander in a chaotic fashion, they will crystallise around big ideas. And the experiment was a big success, initially. Children flocked to the computer and taught themselves how to use it. But Sugata wasn’t satisfied with that – he wanted them to be able to pass the same tests as children in private education. By introducing an adult into the mix who offered support and encouragement in much the same way a grandmother does, he found his answer. Both in India and in England, where children are already digital natives, this access to self-learning turns out to be able to change everything. The Indian system of learning tends to focus on stricter right/wrong answers, whereas British children are allowed to be more creative and playful at school. Rothwell’s film is a portrait of an idealist at work, and of an idea that can potentially create positive change for millions of children. But Mitra also has his (British) detractors who make negative comments about the difference in theory and practice of his idea. They talk of “educational colonialism” and “parachuting shiny objects into developing countries, and then hoping for the best”. But Rothwell the first recipient of the Sundance Institute/TED Prize Filmmaker Award in 2013  counters these naysayers: “Mitra is often accused of naivety about the way children learn, but I think the power of his ideas – even if they are utopian – is in challenging education systems that have failed to acknowledge how the internet has changed the world,” says Jerry, “During the film we see both the difficulties of implementing his ideas of self-organised learning environments in remote locations, and their potential for children itching to explore the world.” The children design their own ideal classroom.

Rothwell’s film is enriched by its widescreen footage of the Sunderbans scenery in the local villages of Korakati and Gurjala and and by the children themselves, both in the UK and India, who share their excitement, ideas and lively observations which bring fresh insight into the learning process. The School in the Cloud is a portrait of a positive idealist at work, and of an idea that can potentially create positive change for millions of children. MT

WARSAW FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 12-21 OCTOBER 2018 | Then at BERTHA DOCHOUSE | FROM 19 OCTOBER 2018 | Q&A with the director on the opening night | International screenings 

Lajko in Space (2018) *** Warsaw Film Festival 2018


Dir.: Balazs Lengyel; Cast: Tamas Keresztes, JozsefGyabronka, Tibor Pallfy, Anna Boger, Bohdan Benink; Hungary 2018, 90 min.

Director/co-writer Balazs Lengyel shows no fear: his satire about the first man is Space – of course, a Hungarian, not Gagarin, as claimed by the Soviets – is a relentless attack on Stalinism, but the re-write of history is always funny, even if not always done in the best taste.

Young Lajko, a gypsy growing up in the Hungarian country site, has always been interested in Space travel. Unfortunately, one of his first attempts sends his Mum into space, together with the outdoor toilet. As a young man Lajko (Keresztes) has designed a moored balloon to take him into the stratosphere – but he ignores the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and is shot down by the Red Army. He is the victim of waterboarding, but his torturer has shot through too much money over the previous year, and is put in prison. Lajko can count on the help of his father Florian (Pallfy) and uncle Jeno (Gyabronka), the latter a party functionary. The three are sent to Baku, where the Soviet Space programme is being developed. Lajko has to compete with a Mongolian monk, a Baltic counter-revolutionary and Helga Mengele (Boger) to be the first one in Space. Helga is very upset, that “the good name of her father is by now forgotten”, even though he created ten different prototypes of an Aryan super-woman – of which she is the only survivor. When Brezhnev (Benink) arrives at the Space station, Florian steals his ring, and Jeno falls in love with the Soviet leader, admitting that he is gay for the first time. Lajko finally wins the race to be the first man in Space; meeting his mother there in the process. Needless to say, the beastly Russians put Lajko, Florian and Helga in a work camp (so that Gagarin can claim to be the winner), and poor uncle Jeno is shot dead, having just come to terms with being gay.

This is a romp, sometimes crude, but always enjoyable. DoPGyorgy Reder is very inventive, using different formats for the historical scenes, sometimes speeding up the tempo, like in silent movies. It is obvious that everyone had fun shooting this feature, and Lengyel always manages to keep the careering plot on the road. AS



Yuva (2018) *** Warsaw Film Festival 2018

Dir/scr: Emre Yeksan | Drama | Turkey. 2018. 119′

From the depths of Southern Anatolia comes this exploration of subsistence in the wild. And although it very much connects with the narrative of the survival for remote communities; in this case, it sees a man trying to disconnect from his human companions in order to pursue life on his own in nature.

YUVA is writer/director Emre Yeksan’s follow-up to Körfez. Set in the heart of a wooded wilderness, Yuva relies on minimal dialogue and an evocative ambient soundtrack to guide us through a sensory rather than plot driven story of Veysel (Kutay Sandikci) who has left his urban past behind, along with his family, to seek solace in nature and the animal kingdom, Veysel is attempting to rewind his own process of evolution as a human, and so make a purer connection with his natural surroundings.

The verdant lushness of the scenery and the extraordinary otherworldly peace and quiet are the most pleasurable elements that Yeksan conveys together with his commendable sound designer and composer Mustafa Avci. Veysal appears out of the undergrowth carrying an injured animal to the base of a tree that will provide an enigmatic touchstone to this experimental drama (along with a red cross painted on the trunk), as the story unfolds. Veysel is clearly at one with his surroundings, hardly uttering a word until he is roused from his relaxed state of mind by his brother Hasan (Eray Cezayirlioglu) who arrives with some groceries and supplies. Clearly these two are close and very fond of one another and this is shown through kind gestures, one to the other. But the suggestive supernatural elements (poetic realist dreamscapes) are never properly developed. The pace soon quickens into something more febrile in the second act when this rural idyll is disturbed by the arrival of builders – the curse of modern day life – and their guns make it clear that Veysel is not welcome. Anyone who lives in an urban setting knows how miserable life becomes once the developers arrive with their schemes to make money, and more importantly noise and disruption, and this is will resonate with a worldwide audience. The coming of these sinister interlopers sees Veysel drawn back into the human sphere from which he has tried to detach himself. Perhaps Yeksan is hinting at a metaphor for a negative political climate, or even just the simple encroachment of family concerns that threaten to cloud our lives when we aim to escape for some respite.

YUVA eschews a traditional narrative and is experimental in nature, working best as a meditation in its woodland habitat, entrancing us with the ethereal sense of place captured by Jakub Giza’s mesmerising camerawork and breathtaking visuals that lull us into a sense of calm. When the ever loudening sound of chainsaws starts to rupture the placid serenity of it all, Veysel’s motivations seem entirely justified in his desire to escape. Yeksan creates a timely and innovative drama that echoes our atavistic human need to connect with nature, and to seek the peace that will contributes to our collective mental health. MT


Quit Staring at my Plate (2016) | NE GLEDAJ MI U PIJAT |Warsaw Film festival 2016

Dir.: Hana Jusic, Cast: Mia Petricevic, Croatia 2016, 105 min.

Marijana (Petricevic) has the misfortune to be a member of the most dysfunctional family in a small Croatian town. At 24, she works as a midwife assistant in the local hospital where the staff are all fearful of keeping their jobs. But life at home is even worse: her father is a tyrant, beating her with a towel when she gets on his frayed nerves. Her brother is an overweight layabout who has never worked a day in his life, but is protected by their mother, who, like her son, is only interested in stuffing her face with food. Marijana meanwhile is fit and slim, always trying to make the best of herself. Things go from bad to worse after the father suffers a stroke and she is forced to care for him whilst sharing a bed with her mother, who has fled the marital bedroom.

Without a boyfriend, Marijana takes up casual sex, but it fails to satisfy her emotional longings. Sliding more and more into a masochistic way of life. Marijana is finally ‘saved’ by her mother in an unexpected release. Although freedom now beckons, the young woman is not quiet sure yet what do with it .

Jusic crafts a fine portrait of a person who is driven to despair by her repressive family, and retreats into herself. Without a concrete identity – apart from feeding her family – she succumbs to her grim existence as a cleaner. Petricevic is brilliant, and Jusic observes her with distance and slight humour. Cinematography is also impressive, with particularly good use made of camera angles that swoop down on Marijana in her hopeless existence. Yet despite of its grim subject matter, Quit Staring is energetic and innovative drama. A little gem. AS


The Kings of Nowhere (2015) | Warsaw Film Festival 2015

Director/Writer: Betzabé García

83min | Mexico | Documentary |

The opening moments of KINGS OF NOWHERE—screening in the documentary competition at Warsaw Film Festival, and the first feature-length doc by 25-year-old Betzabé García—boast an intriguing twist. Though a low-angle shot of a man navigating an empty rundown neighbourhood is a decidedly familiar image, we infer from the way his body moves—or rather, doesn’t move—that he can’t be walking; in fact, as we quickly learn, these streets are flooded, and our subject is steering his way around them on a small boat. Allowing her camera to linger, García focus-pulls, so that the figure becomes blurred and the dilapidated dwellings behind him are sharpened. Here, landscape is as important a concern as any human character.

As shooting locations go, García’s is already halfway to being a readymade film set. In 2006, San Marcos—a virtual ghost town in the coastal state of Sinaloa, northwest Mexico—was flooded, with its population displaced and resettled following the construction of the much-opposed gigantic Picachos Dam, which began in 2006. Formerly host to 300 families, the town is inhabited today by less than ten people, whose daily lives—as García’s film shows—are lived out with a mixture of boredom, resilience, stubbornness, and outright fear of the armed gangs that frequently raid it.

Not that any of this is immediately clear. García is, on this evidence, one of those documentarians who prefers context to gradually emerge from a picture rather than being its framing device. In line with a great lineage of observational documentary makers, her strategy is to simply spend time with her subjects—though of course it’s never a matter of ‘simply’ doing anything when it comes to non-fiction. Indeed, the trick in storytelling terms is to carve one single narrative out of a swamp of material so that it can be a digestible entity which fulfils our received notions of character, setting, dramatic stakes and so on.

Winner of an audience award when it screened at SXSW in March, KINGS OF NOWHERE is a dispatch rather than a polemic. It reserves any on-screen text for a context-lending footnote, revealing the town’s population figures, and some information about Atílano Román Tirado, the radio journalist and leader of the Displaced Persons of Picachos—an activist group seeking compensation on behalf of 800 families in the region—who was murdered last year during a live broadcast. This last explanation gives retroactive gravity to those earlier scenes in which two couples—farmers Jaime and Yoya, and tortilleria owners Pani and Paula—have their porch get-together interrupted one evening by what sounds like distant gunshots. “Fireworks,” one of them remarks, though another can’t help but look over her shoulder into the dark. There’s a menace never far away from this post-apocalyptic locale.

Outside of Venice, the image of someone steering a boat through a half-submerged town is as surreal as something from a 1970s Herzog film. Due to the water that pervades them, the abandoned, eerily mirror-like streets of this rural colonial outpost reflect the skies above—and moments in which the camera floats, boat-bound and onward, sustaining its ineluctable modality without vertical bobs or jerky pans, are not unlike those tranquil river treks in AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD. Just like in that film, the key element in KINGS OF NOWHERE—for all the beautiful compositions containing streetlamps, overhead electricity cables and other markers of a civilisation now lost— might be its rich, evocative soundscape. Devoid of people, the town is enlivened by the sounds of lapping water, wood pigeons and the odd crash of thunder—all of which are cloaked by a gentle cacophony comprising cicadas, crickets, cows and cockerels. Here, animals mourn on humanity’s behalf. MICHAEL PATTISON


Night Shift (2015) | Warsaw Film Festival 2015

Director: Niki Karimi  | Writers: Niki Karimi, Ali Asghari

Cast: Leyla Zareh, Mohammad Reza, Amir Hossein Arman

96 mins  | Drama  | Iran

For middle-class Tehrani housewife Nahid (Leyla Zareh), nothing is what it seems. Asked by her GP—a personal friend—to pay a visit, Nahid’s first concern is understandably for her own health, but when it turns out that it’s her husband Farzad (Mohammad Reza Foroutan) for whom she should worry, her hitherto comfortable existence begins to unravel. Farzad, who works with Nahid’s friend’s own husband, has been acting strangely of late: despondent, adrift, and even suicidal. “I wish all of us would die,” he’s purported to have said, and has also invested in a gun with which to resolve his predicament. This is all news to Nahid, for whom there’s been scant trace of domestic discontentment—and it’s only the first of many mysteries to engulf her life. Discoveries of rat repellent, firearms, redundancy, loansharks and decapitated pet rabbits soon follow.

NIGHT SHIFT is the fifth feature-length work by Iranian filmmaker Niki Karimi. Best known in her homeland as the award-winning star of films such as SARA (1992), THE HIDDEN HALF (2000) and TWO WOMEN (2007), Karimi here confronts the pan-social, transglobal financial crisis through the local prism of a drama set in the petty bourgeois echelons of present-day Tehran. The film won awards for its script (co-written by Karimi with Ali Asghari) and direction at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival, prior to screening in competition at the 31st Warsaw Film Festival.

Karimi opens her film with a point-of-view shot of Farzad arriving home late one evening. From whose perspective we’re watching Farzad remains unclear, though off-screen voices imply gossipy voyeurism, as two unseen characters speculate about his recent behaviour. Though there’s no way for the anonymous spies to follow Farzad into his own apartment, Karimi continues the handheld aesthetic established in this first scene into subsequent sequences, instilling a kind of shorthand jittery tension upon domestic interiors that is offset by a piano and strings score that could be lifted verbatim from an old suspense film.

Indeed, NIGHT SHIFT’s increasingly melodramatic edge, which entails Nahid following her husband around Tehran like James Stewart does Kim Novak in VERTIGO, risks bloating initial mysteries into risible fluff. Karimi manages to keep a lid on things for the most part, though it’s difficult to say whether this is due to directorial restraint or the limitations of her performers. Zareh plays Nahid like a lost waif on the one hand and a resourceful detective on the other, though there are several instances where her acting is suspect. One such scene involves her hiding in her own wardrobe to elude suspicion from Farzad, as the latter hides a pellet-rifle atop the kitchen units; another sees her cornered by Rahim (Amir Aghaei), a cartoonishly bald-but-bearded loanshark who charms Zareh with threats and a smashed vase. In both scenes, Zareh plays to camera rather than the moment.

But NIGHT SHIFT’s real disappointment is how underworked Farzad’s characterisation is. No one can doubt Karimi and Asghari’s sincerity as scriptwriters here, but to sketch Nahid’s husband as an unflinchingly gloomy mope is both counterintuitive and too easy. The more rewarding challenge would have been to take his starting premise—that he’s lost his job as an accountant, and the implications this has on his personal pride and monetary situation—and to see him attempt to uphold the façade of happiness for the sake of loved ones despite an increasingly antagonistic system dragging him further into paucity.

But Foroutan plays Farzad like a man who not only doesn’t give a damn whether his obviously weird behaviour is noticed, but whose continued attractiveness for a trusting wife stretches the plausibility of the central drama. (“You can be so close to the dearest person in your life,” Nahid says with a twinkly lament, “yet so distant.”) Much of this might be down to Foroutan’s own shortcomings as an actor, but his performance isn’t helped by some harsh, ugly top- and side-lighting by cinematographer Alireza Baranzandeh, which illuminates the actor’s face in such a way as to expose the fact that he’s clearly caked in makeup, and makes his crocodile tears, in the one scene where Farzad finally opens up to Nahid, glisten rather distractingly indeed. MICHAEL PATTISON


New World (2015) | Warsaw Film Festival 2015

Directors: Elżbieta Benkowska, Łukasz Ostalski, Michał Wawrzecki

Writers: Izabela Aleksandrowicz, Maksymilian Nowicki, Monika Dembińska, Elżbeita Benkowska

Poland 2015 Drama

Warsaw is the place to be for the multiple protagonists of NEW WORLD, a three-part anthology by a trio of Polish first-feature directors, which updates the existential fables that might have popped up in a Krzysztof Kieślowski picture to an increasingly transglobal twenty-first century. Filmed in and around the capital city’s centre, and complete with seemingly obligatory nods to the ubiquitous Palace of Culture, the film was shown at the 31st Warsaw Film Festival (9-18 October) in the ‘1-2’ Competition, which is dedicated each year to debut or second features, following an in-competition premiere at Gdynia.

Named after one of Warsaw’s most important thoroughfares, located a few blocks east of the Palace of Culture, NEW WORLD was conceived as a kind of cross-section of contemporary Warsaw as experienced through the eyes of three foreigners who have elected to start a new life there. Segmented into three chapters, each named after its principal character, proceedings begin with Zhanna, directed by Elżbieta Benkowska, which follows a Belarusian mother (Olga Aksyonova) who has fled her husband, a musician and activist who has been arrested for his oppositionist views, and whose imminent release jeopardises her plans for newfound happiness. In ‘Azzam’, directed by Michał Wawrzecki, an Afghan (Hassan Akkouch) struggles to settle following a stint working as an interpreter for the Polish army in his home country. In ‘Vera’, directed by Łukasz Ostalski, a transgender woman (Karina Minaeva) has arrived from Ukraine to escape persecution and to undergo gender reassignment surgery; her new life is uprooted when her father shows up with her young son.

Given that each of its three directors worked with a different cinematographer, NEW WORLD has an absorbingly consistent visual palette. Poland has no shortage of great DPs to draw upon for inspiration, of course, and the director-photography partnerships do well here to create a coherent viewing experience, capturing this fine locale in all its flat-as-a-fart topographical glory. The work belies the multiple creative hands behind it. It’s worth mentioning this technical achievement, for it goes some way in elevating the film above the predictable shortcomings of site-specific portmanteau projects—namely an uneven visual palette and mismatched storytelling.

Painting Warsaw as a believably lit kitchen-sink backdrop that has nevertheless strived to outgrow the Stalinist architecture imposed upon after the second world war, NEW WORLD boasts an attentive verisimilitude that compensates for any of the scriptwriting inadequacies that occasionally threaten to flatten it. Here, the city seems torn between reinforcing the old threads of arthouse miserablism and embracing a new richness in colour. It possibly helps the work that its three directors aren’t Warsaw natives: Benkowska and Ostkalski are both Gdańsk-born graduates of Gdynia Film School, while Wawrzecki studied film directing in Silesia and scriptwriting in Krakow.

Fitting, then, that the film’s three stories should all intersect, in a climactic nod to Kieślowski’s THREE COLOURS TRILOGY, at the crossroads of New World Street and Jerusalem Avenue, with recurrent glimpses of Joanna Rajkowska’s ‘Greetings From Jerusalem’, an incongruous-looking 50-foot tall palm tree that was erected on a roundabout as a permanent outdoor installation in 2001, and which doubles here as a narrative anchor, lending a kind of everyday otherness by which newcomers may orient themselves amidst the more familiar brutalist apartment blocks of Eastern Europe. MICHAEL PATTISON


In the Crosswind (2014) | 30th Warsaw Film Festival

Director/Writer: Martti Helde

Cast: Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song, Mirt Preegel

Estonia Experimental 87mins

With invasion from Nazi Germany imminent, Stalin’s plans to ethnically cleanse the USSR of its Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian territories were first carried out in June 1941—and resumed between 1945 and 1949. It was the beginning of a mass deportation and genocide of men, women and children from these countries to the unthinkable climes and working conditions of Siberian labour camps in the north.

Dedicated to the 590,000 people whose lives were claimed by the Soviet holocaust from these regions alone (total estimations throughout all the USSR are between 1 and 1.5 million), IN THE CROSSWIND is Estonian writer-director Martti Helde’s visually stunning, cumulative suckerpunch of a debut feature, and screened in the 30th Warsaw Film Festival’s International Competition following its world-premiere in Toronto, and was awarded a prize by the Ecumenical Jury.

That Helde is still in his 20s is remarkable. Based on a mix of eyewitness accounts, photographs, memoirs and survivor-testimonies, IN THE CROSSWIND is a distinct contribution to a cinematic genre that must tread the delicate line between aestheticising and honouring a historical tragedy. Working with cinematographer Erik Pollumaa, the graduate of Tallinn’s Baltic Film & Media School conceptualises these catastrophically underreported-on episodes in Soviet history with a series of wonderfully choreographed tableau vivant (‘living picture’) compositions.

Said compositions are doubly posed: actors are arranged as if caught by a stills camera, trembling with contained energy. Pollumaa’s Steadicam moves with Tarr-like elegance through these scenes like a helpless onlooker to a visual snapshot that in the same instant invites participation but denies understanding. This moving elegy to resilience and hardship is fully aware of the cinema’s limitations in dramatising genocide.

Scenes depicted include those of anguished separation, as women and children are wrenched away from husbands and fathers; those of impoverishment and deterioration as women, underfed and humiliated, are put to work on collective farms; an arrest takes place, of a starving woman who dares to reach for a loaf of bread; men are placed before a firing squad and executed without trial; later, news of Stalin’s 1953 death comes resonating through on the radio. A vivid sound design animates these temporally paralysed traumas, while Pärt Uusberg’s riskily frequent musical score lends an unapologetically emotive swell whose impact is perhaps magnified by current developments in Crimea.

Chief among Helde’s sources of inspiration are the letters sent from one Estonian woman deported with her daughter to Siberia. Erma Tamm (Laura Peterson), a philosophy student, wrote without reply to her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song), who we learn was executed five months after his own deportation. Narrated and interweaved with other texts, Tamm’s diaristic dispatches heighten the frozen present-tense of her purgatorial trajectory. “The loveliest years of my life,” she notes, “passed at a standstill.” With knowing heartache, she laments not having fled Estonia before deportations began—instead living her life “held to ransom”.

The persistence of these scenes is brilliant. The fine line between a moving image and a still one, between life and death, is captured in the slight quiver of an actor’s sustained pose. Helde, keeping them in suspension as if filming a game of Musical Statues, reminds us that these are ongoing re-enactments that exist in time as much as space, by affording his actors the occasional involuntary blink, or allowing the odd drip of water from a creaky roof. The traumas of the Soviet holocaust persist. MICHAEL PATTISON

What a Wonderful World (2014) | 30th Warsaw Film Festival

Director/Writer: Anatol Durbală

Cast: Igor Babiac, Igor Caras-Romanov, Tudor Ţărnă

Moldova Drama 73mins

Born in 1970, Moldovan actor and television personality Anatol Durbală has taken his time to write and direct his first feature film, but the wait was worth it. World-premiering at Warsaw Film Festival – where it received the FIPRESCI Prize – ironically-titled WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is as gut-thumping a debut as any.

April 7, 2009. Petru (Igor Babiac), a student in his early 20s, arrives for a short visit to his native Chişinău from Boston, USA, where he has been studying for two years. Being taxied from the airport to his aunt’s home, he calls his Dominican Republican girlfriend Elizabeth, with whom he arranges a Skype conversation later that evening. Upon sorting through his old bedroom, however, Petru remembers that he loaned his computer monitor to a friend, Slavic. He goes to retrieve it from the latter’s grandmother.

Anyone familiar with the civil unrest that rocked the Moldovan capital and other major cities following accusations that its unannounced parliamentary elections had been rigged (in favour of the incumbent Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) will have been forewarned by in-scene news footage anchoring the film to April 2009. For others—and they’ll be numerous, for too little western coverage was given to such news—the narrative switch at this point will come as a surprise. Uprooting the previously established emphasis upon the quotidian—such as his protagonist simply walking from one place to another—Durbală has Petru, computer monitor in hand, suddenly attacked and arrested in the street by masked men.

Other ominous signs were present. The book on Petru’s lap as his plane lands in the opening scene is Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen. Indeed: whereas the film had teasingly suggested before this point that it might follow one lad’s dogged, neorealist quest to have an online video call with his girlfriend, the narrative thereafter brutally precludes any notions of romance. In the scene immediately following what looks like his random kidnapping, Petru is dragged out of a van and brought to lie face down with other detainees of similar age and appearance.

As a kind of statement of intent, the scene unfolds in one take, a De Palma-style crane shot that begins as a rooftop aerial view of shenanigans before descending with clinical precision to settle upon a helplessly limited ground-level perspective. Hereafter, cutting is sparse and misery is prolonged. Here, the end of a long take will afford the characters some kind of relief from the dreary, claustrophobic compositions in which they are trapped. “You want to turn us into Romania?” one character asks late in the film, which is presumably meant to double as a sly nod to Durbală’s neighbours, who have, with the likes of THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) and POLICE, ADJECTIVE (2009), pointed unrelenting lenses at their own nation’s crippling post-communist bureaucracy.

Petru is caught up in the violent police crackdowns that followed protestors attacking and looting governmental buildings. His computer monitor is mistaken for the government’s. Similar to Steve McQueen’s own debut feature HUNGER (2008), Petru’s arrest initially gives way to a more ensemble feel, as protestors are collectively held in close confines, in the cold and without water. In an office along the corridor, two police officers enjoy humiliating one prisoner by having him elevate a TV aerial so that they can watch Barcelona’s football team hammer Bayern Munich.

Though such scenes risk caricature, Durbală’s unflinching portrayal of police brutality makes it clear which side he’s on—though opening his film with the vague gambit that it’s merely ‘based on facts’, and ending with a muddled dedication to ‘all victims of violent protests’ may dampen the blow in the same way that an amateurishly flat sound design detracts from scenes in which young people are truncheoned along a corridor by swing-happy coppers.

The suitably gruelling qualities of Durbală’s long takes, however, make compelling set-pieces out of increasingly doomed scenarios. Again recalling HUNGER, and perhaps also POLICE, ADJECTIVE, the climactic showdown here is a conversation-cum-interrogation between Petru and a tea-sipping police major (Igor Caras-Romanov). While the former naively persists with the only truth he knows, the latter, a simmering pot of inherited prejudices, deeply-embedded fascistic paranoia and ad hominem accusations, bubbles cartoonishly as he erupts into nostalgia about Stefan the Great and spits with incoherent venom about some kind of national degradation.

Though Durbală’s chosen, fictionalised vantage point often lacks dramatic insight, his writing and directorial talents are evident. Taking its title from the Louis Armstrong number, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD is unapologetic in its deployment of such an overused but somehow never unmoving musical choice. Clichés can be effective too: in its artistic depiction of a painful episode in Moldova’s recent history, the film is all the more unremittingly gloomy for using a song whose beauty always felt melancholic to begin with. MICHAEL PATTISON


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