Posts Tagged ‘Warsaw Film Festival’

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


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


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


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


F*ck For Forest (2012) Kinoteka 2013

Director/Screenplay: Michael Marczak

Cast/FFF Team: Leona Johansson, Tommy Holl Ellingsen, Natty Mandeau and Danny Devero.
86min ***  Documentary
F*ck For Forest is a registered Berlin charity. But don’t get too excited or offended by the title: it’s not a porn movie.
Michael Marczak’s offbeat documentary kicks off in a luxurious modern home in Bergen where we meet a competitive horse eventer launching into a diatribe about his dysfunctional family. Next is a half-naked girl singing discordantly on stage about animal welfare. All very seemly, so far.
Tommy is in a threesome relationship and living in a nudist flat with other hippy-type animal lovers in Berlin. Another nudist who wonders around a woodland location is claiming F*ck for Forest has saved him from a nervous breakdown.  All these bohemian youngsters have opted out of the mainstream and believe that their venture is worthy and worth pursuing. We see them having a (cleverly edited) orgy enboldened by plant-based psychedelic drugs with some female moaning ‘I vant to be alone’.

So this is  F*ck for Forest.  The aim of the salacious title is to raise funds for environmental causes by commissioning and selling amateur porn via the internet. And there’s nothing really new to say about the content as we could be in San Francisco in the sixties instead of Berlin in the 2012. But the salient point is that these shrewd operators have cottoned on to the fact that nowadays there are people keen to offer up their sexual antics or naked pictures as exhibitionists. It seems to satisfy a natural desire to be voyeurs and flaunt their assets in a cheeky display of pride with total strangers all over the World. But isn’t  this really an excuse just to have a big sexual jolly? They all believe they’re making a difference in a world that’s ceases to care.

The action moves on to the Amazon in South America and so rolicking naked in the rainforest is not a hardship in all that humid heat. The film’s production values are of good quality and the dialogue is frisky with foreign accents adding a twist of exotic authenticity as a hotchpotch of sexual predilections is aired to tightly edited snapshots of kissing, caressing and cavorting.  “Do you get jealous when I touch his dick?”, “Sometimes I have a desire for rough sex” are afew utterances bandied around as souls and bodies are laid bare.  It’s a romp but the local Amazon villagers are less amused and feel taken advantage of and diffident about trusting such a weird venture; albeit in the name of charity. MT

F*ck for Forest was the winner of the Best Feature Documentary at the Warsaw International Film Festival 2012 and screens as part of the 11TH KINOTEKA POLISH FILM FESTIVAL 2013  – 7-17TH MARCH

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