Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

Another year, another cinematic orgy.

This was my second time at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, which ran from November 18 to 27, and the lessons I learned last year as a newcomer enabled me to cram a full 16 screenings into nine days. Still, I didn’t even hit fifty percent. There were a total of 40 films from 29 countries divided into the two regular categories, International Competition and International Discoveries; and guest German directors Wim Wenders and Edgar Reitz received special screenings of their films in addition to the standard festival schedule.

Like most festivals, this was a mixed bag. The Scandinavian and Canadian films rated the highest with me for tackling the human universals in the most original way possible, while the UK-made films fared the worst for being pretentious pap and thoughtlessly imitative of Hollywood. This, of course, shouldn’t necessarily translate into any sort of negative generalization about these countries’ respective film industries. They were only a small and hardly representative sample. Edgar Reitz’s superb Heimat film cycle was a pleasant surprise, though the four hours I saw hardly made a dent in the overall running time.

There were markedly more digital features this year as compared to last, which is a good sign, but the filmmakers from developing countries haven’t caught on entirely. Digital equipment requires an expensive outlay and this might seem prohibitive initially. Yet they seem to overlook the fact that the long-term cost-benefit ratio is in their favor. As it stands now, a fair number of third-world films are easily identifiable from the outset because it looks as though they’ve been filmed on cardboard and the editing is patchy at best. Filming to digital (forgive the oxymoron) would solve a lot of these persistent problems.

I would have liked to have seen Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline (Canada), Doo Wop by David Lanzmann (France) and Folge der Feder (Follow the Feather) by Nuray Sahin (Germany), as these three scored relatively well with the public as well as the gaggle of critics who were polled every other day. Unfortunately, my already hectic schedule was too full to squeeze
in anything else and I didn’t want to trade a potential gem for one of the proven crowd pleasers.

I could go on about the lackluster organization, the apparent neglect of the official website and all the other niggling minor details, but what it comes down to is the films, and here MHIFF delivered once again with a varied selection representing an impressive number of genres and countries.

These reviews originally appeared at Eric J. Iannelli’s personal blog, charlatan.blogspot.com

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Silný Kafe (Bitter Coffee)

Written and filmed in the Czech Republic by a native Icelander and featuring an international cast, Silný Kafe nevertheless fits the excruciatingly familiar mold of the twenty-something relationship comedy. The male characters are egotistical jerks with soft sides; the female characters are balanced and mature but prone to fits of overreactive frustration. Director Börkur Gunnarsson uses the four of them to form two odd couples and then rehashes the Martian vs. Venusian problems of communication and ambition, more often than not with decent comic effect.

Maya (Kaisa Elramly) is a gainfully employed Finnish-Egyptian oppositely paired with the sardonic deadbeat slacker Tomislav (Zán Loose), the Ethan Hawke of the film, albeit Croatian and slightly more cool-headed. The petite actress Renata (Markéta Coufalová) finds her special mismatch in the asthmatic director David (Martin Hoffmann). Renata and Maya meet unexpectedly on a Prague street one day and, in a gesture we have come to expect from typical romantic comedy females, giddily plan a star-crossed weekend outing to their mutual childhood home in rural Bohemia.

The men are reluctant to go on what is bound to be a well-intentioned disaster but over time they grudgingly concede on the unspoken condition that they refuse to enjoy themselves. The prophecy is, of course, self-fulfilling and the excursion results in arguments, tears and minor betrayals. These spirited head-to-heads are the film’s meat and potatoes, though it feels as if they were conceived first and then loosely threaded together by an accommodating plot.

Coffee is introduced and consumed with gratuitous frequency throughout, as if Gunnarsson were afraid of not being able to justify the film’s title. In one of the more memorable scenes, a jar of the instant stuff gets dumped over Tomislav’s head along with the requisite milk and sugar, coating him in muck, and even the minor characters have at least one reference to it scripted into their dialogue. Its significance, if any, gets lost.

Additionally, some of the rapid changes to new settings make it difficult to orient oneself, and the tangential aside that introduces Lada (Ladislav Hampl) never rejoins the larger narrative. But neither of these oversights is as serious as the one that nudges Silný Kafe into the realm of high school rom-com (think Can’t Buy Me Love and American Pie), which is the final inexplicable pairing of Renata and the quiet nice guy, Lada. This event is compounded by the overuse of pop songs during the last twenty minutes as the heavy-handed soundtrack to the slough of rejection and the blossoming of new love. Here the film’s small claim to grown-up appeal takes a sharp downward turn toward the teen market.

Silný Kafe is a moderately enjoyable bit of fluff, and its cinematography is neither distractingly visionary nor overtly poor. It certainly beats most of its Hollywood cousins in terms of wit and dynamic; then again, that isn’t saying much.

Silný Kafe: www.silnykafe.cz

Über die Grenze: Fünf Ansichten von Nachbarn (Across the Border: Five Views from Neighbours)

Amid all the high-minded talk of “initiatives” and “strategies” coming from the well-fed mouths of the EU bureaucrats, it’s always interesting to hear what the people outside of Strasbourg and Brussels have to say about it. After all, they’re the ones who have to live with the decisions made more often out of economic interests than sociopolitical ideals.

Austrian in title and production credits only, Über die Grenze divided its filmmaking duties among documentary directors from five countries — Pawel Lozinski (Poland), Jan Gogola (Czech Republic), Peter Kerekes (Slovakia), Robert Lakatos (Hungary) and Biljana Cakic-Veselic (Slovenia) — in order to examine how the most recent expansion of the European Union has affected Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Generic similarities aside, the five directors have taken quite different approaches to the subject.

Lozinski films daily life in a town once overrun with German occupiers during the Second World War. As in Mila ot Mars (my review is here) , the necessary humor derives from the elderly locals discussing weighty matters such as their age and whether or not they used to smoke. There is a sense that their traditional way of life is threatened by cosmopolitan Germany, visible on the horizon, but little else is revealed.

Gogola’s segment is closer to the unifying theme as he questions a number of officials and businesspeople in a Czech village near the Austrian border. The long-haired “philosopher” offers some interesting but unoriginal thoughts on the arbitrariness and mutability of borders, and the officials are often duped into angry self-contradiction by their own florid, nebulous stump speeches (usually while mockingly perched atop the “border stone”). Few of them can explain convincingly how EU expansion has helped the Czech Republic, why it was necessary, or what connotes Czech culture and identity and how much-lauded diversity can be preserved in the face of this ferocious integration. It would work well on its own as a short film.

‘Helpers’ is the name of Kerekes’ piece, and he interviews a number of former do-gooders who, as civilians, turned in fugitives of the communist regime to the authorities in exchange for the illusory importance of a green armband and a secret telephone. He also interviews a celebrity who appeared on a regular children’s programme with her puppet companion. In one episode, she encouraged children to report suspicious activity along the border. The hook comes when Kerekes parallels the celebrity’s description of puppeteering and the occasional “need” to manipulate truth with the way the state controlled these so-called helpers.

In the least successful segment, Lakatos follows two shady business partners to a warehouse for lost and stolen goods (toasters, computer monitors and lots of junk) in Vienna. The pair of them seem to be playing up the hijinks for the camera, and it’s not entirely clear whether this is a documentary or fictional piece purporting to be one. The final piece by Cakic-Veselic is an excellent case study of the ludicrous restrictions some EU laws impose. Here two struggling fisherman can only sweep a three-mile stretch of water in the Adriatic because the rest now belongs exclusively to Italy and Croatia. Where an international polyglot fishing community once thrived, there is divisiveness and insularity.

Each segment has its merits and flaws, with Gogola and Cakic-Veselic sticking closest to the main idea behind the project. All of them run several minutes too long, pushing the overall running time to more than two hours. Individually entertaining and occasionally eye-opening, bundled together like this they tend to drag and bore. Another round of ruthless editing would have greatly benefitted this otherwise worthwhile project.

Detaljer (Details)

The beauty of Detaljer is, as one might expect, in the details themselves, and they are nothing if not intricate and abundant. The film’s four self-absorbed characters ultimately ignore the essential details of others’ lives and the world around them at their peril. Originally written for the stage by the acclaimed Swedish playwright Lars Norén, the story has been impressively adapted for the screen by director Kristian Petri and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg, though I must confess my surprise at seeing the principals in Dag og Nat (my review is here) reappear one night later in very different roles.

The story properly begins in 1989 with Emma (Rebecka Hemse), an attractive young writer, approaching Erik (Michael Nyqvist), the publishing editor to whom she sent her first novel, the appropriately titled Lost and Found, some months earlier. Their acquaintance leads to an affair in spite of Emma’s freshly begun relationship with Stefan (Jonas Karlsson), an impulsive, neurotic, up-and-coming dramatist and heroin addict. Stefan botches a suicide attempt, presumably after learning of the affair, and winds up under the medical care of Ann (Pernilla August), Erik’s justifiably dissatisfied wife. The two embark on their own doomed affair as what might be interpreted as a means of revenge.

Over the next decade their paths cross as couples and individually: at the Uffizi in Florence, literary-type parties, the gym, the café. This relatively straightforward primary narrative is interspersed with more ambiguous Bergmanesque arthouse scenes in which three of the characters — Emma, Erik and Ann — hint at their respective fates in the purgatorial setting of a decrepit and labyrinthine abandoned building. Stefan, notably, is missing. This device works exceptionally well both as explanation and metaphor, but it will instantly repulse anyone who likes his movies neat.

What is most striking about the film’s story is the way it comes full-circle in spite of the personal differences between the characters. Erik and Emma marry but are no happier than they were before, their marriage overshadowed by childlessness and Emma’s mental instability. Erik’s ongoing selfish preoccupation with the former invariably affects the latter. Ann still craves stability and affection, but what she gets from Stefan is exactly what she got from Erik: betrayal. All of them are so consumed by their own wants that they leave little room to consider how ill-suited their partners are to fulfill them. Stefan seems to be the film’s bleak anhedonist, but he is the only character who expresses some kind of genuine satisfaction with the original arrangement. The core triangle of lovers are either longing for the new or longing for the old. The final moments of the film, in which Ann and Erik are momentarily content, show them distracted by attributes they once took for granted — a smile, the curve of the cheek — and dangerously unaware of more important details about the road ahead.

Detaljer offers much for the willing audience to pick apart and digest, and is worthy of multiple viewings. Petri’s narrative method can be challenging and idiosyncratic, but it is engrossing despite the malcontent middle-class everymen whose tale is being told. Hemse, Nyqvist, August and Karlsson truly live the roles, imbuing the characters with just enough depth and substance to excuse, or at least explain, their tragic blindness.

Shelter

Benno Schoberth’s Shelter is a decent premise awkwardly realized. The film was made on a limited budget with young actors and filmed on Super 16, a format that here could pass for low-quality digital, so it’s possible to excuse individually the frustrating technical flaws that riddle the work. But the story itself has some unfortunate cracks that widen and split as it progresses, resulting in a feature that feels limp and overlong.

The film opens with wistful voice-over narration by Maria (Marilyn Soto Santiago; but the voice is, I believe, the novelist Angie Cruz) and shots of Ray (Ray Santiago) in his grey hooded sweatshirt wandering naively and aimlessly about the vacant lots of Brooklyn. He cares for his bedridden mother in the absence of his older brother, Spider (John Rafael Peralta), who has run away from home. Maria works as a hairdresser and shares her sister’s apartment nearby, but her own troubles will land her on the street before long.

Maria first brings Ray to Spider (how she knows where to find him is one of Shelter’s mysteries) when it’s obvious Ray can no longer remain in his mother’s apartment. Spider, however, is a drug-addled hustler living a rough squatter’s life. He is in no position to take on his dim sibling. He and a friend cruelly abandon Ray in Times Square on the evening Maria returns, this time because she herself has no place to go. The three of them drive to the shore in a stolen car and break into a beach house that has been closed for the winter. They hope to start their lives anew, but Maria, who is pregnant, finds it impossible to brush her past aside. Spider’s temper and fits of jealousy only exacerbate this volatile situation.

Though this outline sounds solid enough, the plot and the characters never cohere. Judging from at least one of Ray’s early actions and all the sage advice Maria’s voice-over attributes to him, Schoberth would like his laconic lead to resemble Chief Broom from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; but in fact he more resembles Plato from Rebel without a Cause transplanted to a gritty contemporary drug-sex-and-homelessness drama. It’s impossible to say how Ray manages all the poetic talk Maria attributes to him — nonsense about the “wind tickling the crabs” and the like — when he can barely muster the words to form ordinary thoughts and sentences. The rift between the intended and the actual is evident throughout: Santiago seems to be a genuinely bright actor trying his best to stupefy himself into fitting the role of a confused simpleton. The performance smacks of the artificial.

The film’s official synopsis claims that it is Ray who decides his own fate. If only that were true. Spider, in one of his aggressive outbursts, does give Ray the ultimatum of coming with him or staying with Maria, but it’s no wonder Ray turns to the supposed safety and tranquility of Maria’s company in the face of his threats. And gentle, misunderstood Maria leaves Ray no choice at all when she flees the beach house and leaves him cradling her bloody newborn. To say Ray has any hand in shaping his fate is simply wrong. Ray only makes one real choice during the film — to asphyxiate his dying mother.

Schoberth’s script also takes some liberties with time and credibility. Maria’s stomach appears to balloon overnight, and the trio enjoy some unseasonably warm weather at the winterized beach house. Consistently strong acting might have made these oversights insignificant, but the cast seems to be involved in a lot of “just act natural” improvisation exercises, some of which work well and some of which flop completely. When these fall flat, the massive outlay of sympathy and willful suspension of disbelief a film such as this require are lost.

Shelter: www.shelterthemovie.com

Dag og Nat (Day and Night)

“I wrote Day and Night as revenge,” 32-year-old Danish director Simon Staho has said. “It was my revenge on an actor I like, and a declaration of war on a certain philosophy of life.”

It might also be seen as a form of revenge on cinema itself. The film violates every unspoken rule of its chosen medium, and in theory should be a complete disaster. The camera never moves outside the confines of an automobile interior; the drama takes place rigidly hour by hour over the course of a single day; and the outcome of the protagonist is declared in the first thirty seconds. Amazing, then, that it works so brilliantly well.

On the evening of September 9, 2003, the 40-year-old architect Thomas Ekman (Mikael Persbrandt) will commit suicide. This much is never in doubt as we start to follow Ekman through his final day, driving from place to place and deliberately severing ties with everyone he knows — his young mistress, his estranged wife, his son, his sister, and so on — on the pretence that he’s moving to New York. Why, when his fate is already obvious, should we place any emotional investment in this apparently average protagonist? Why not just walk out of the cinema?

In essence this is the same principle of intrigue that drove Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. There is a reason why the corpse of Joe Gillis is floating in the pool of a former silent film star, and there is a reason why Thomas Ekman makes the momentous and irrevocable decision to kill himself. A mix of trust (that the director has a good story to tell) and curiosity compels us to stay to find out the reason.

Eventually that reason does emerge — but only piecemeal over the course of many conversations, each successively building on its predecessors and paving the way for the wholly unpredictable grand revelation. While taking his own turn in the passenger seat, Ekman’s best friend and mirror image Josef (Michael Nyqvist) contemplates the repetitious futility of existence, the same thoughts Ekman has likely wrestled with before buying his pistol, in as ordinary a way as possible without sounding contrived. And yet this isn’t just pairs of Swedes out for a drive discussing, Ibsen-like, bleak existential philosophies in the apposite setting of the McDonald’s drive-thru. The building tension over Ekman’s impending confrontation — he has determined that Josef is now his estranged wife’s lover — is what gives the scene its drive. Staho’s method of “revenge” against Persbrandt should also be more than evident here: it takes a gifted actor (or actors, in this case) to make an engaging film about a man hosting various friends and family members in his car and then shooting himself. No wonder the absolutely superb supporting cast is a who’s who of Swedish cinema.

Equally surprising is how we, the audience, have been trained to expect things from our movies, and how Staho violates these expectations too. Even with an ending carved in stone, there remains throughout the senseless hope that Ekman will recant. As lightning flashes and rain beats down on the car, he puts the pistol to his head and we think maybe, just maybe, the opening narration was a lie. Don’t optimism and happiness always prevail? Or at the very least, tidiness?

Dag og Nat could be interpreted in part as an indictment of modernity. The mobile phone and related devices have not facilitated real communication as much as the logistics of the rendezvous; and material comfort does not guarantee happiness — viz. the angelic loo attendant (Hasse Alfredson) who is the most serene character to take the seat next to Ekman as well as the film’s comic relief. More than all this, I think, Dag og Nat fails to adhere to a certain “point” or “message” because it is about the people it presents and touches on all the universal extremes of human existence: love and hate, life and death, speech and silence, solitude and company, denial and acceptance. Staho’s revenge therapy has therefore resulted in one of the best films I have seen in a long while.

Day And Night: www.dagochnatt.se

Solid Air

Too little, too late. Scottish writer-director May Miles Thomas’s Solid Air drags on and on and on, beginning with a predictable, high-stakes, low-intensity poker game and ending with a predictable, high-stakes, low-intensity poker game. Somewhere near the end of its sluggish to-ing and fro-ing it manages to throw a welcome curveball, but all possible reasons for interest have long since vanished, lost in the film’s noir shadows and whispered dialogue.

Combining the jacket-and-tie underworld of gambling with the plush high-rise office interiors of a law firm, the film tries to twist a John Grisham legal thriller around a typical British gangster film. One’s emotional stake is first divided among the two plot strands, and later dissipates entirely when neither seems to be moving anywhere. This isn’t just a matter of the excruciatingly slow-burning pace; there is little, if any, proper depth given to either story or the central character.

Robert Houston, Jr. (aka “Junior”; Brian McCardie) puts himself £20,000 in debt in the opening poker game. He returns briefly to his fiancée but leaves surreptitiously — perhaps because of guilt, perhaps because of self-pity. Looking, I suppose, for refuge or understanding, he visits his father (Maurice Roëves), who is suffering from abestosis and has a claim pending against his former employer with the dubious assistance of a coldly ambitious lawyer, Nicola Blyth (Kathy-Kiera Clarke). Junior discovers the claim and suddenly resolves to fight for a significant settlement fee, not the piddling £8,000 the company has offered.

Or so we gradually piece together. What isn’t mumbled is omitted. Frequently Thomas mistakes artistic ambiguity for downright obscurity, and the dialogue she stuffs into Blyth’s mouth means the only female lead is incapable of discussing the weather without couching it in legalese. The symbolism here is taken too far.

The crux of the film rests in Junior’s motives. Is he genuinely out to help his father (story #2), or is he out to pay off his debts (story #1)? Unfortunately, McCardie is so one-dimensional, constantly pouting and stomping about (admittedly, the script doesn’t offer him much support), that he is more spoiled, impulsive baby than man. Again, like Blyth’s tedious legal vocabulary, this flat juvenile behavior is certainly intentional, but it trades humanity for metaphor. So it’s hardly surprising when McCardie can’t muster any real tears for the emotional climax. Neither can the audience.

Solid Air: www.elementalfilms.co.uk/solid_air.htm

The Corporation

Whether you happen to think of Michael Moore as a loudmouthed snake oil salesman, a fearless prophet or someone falling between the two extremes is largely irrelevant. The entire documentary genre — especially that of the muckraking, whistleblowing variety — has been revitalized by his Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, putting it on equal footing with the billion-dollar escapist features. Audiences appreciate the revelatory nature of these films, outrage as entertainment. Producers like the cash they bring in.

This is not so much a good or a bad thing as a simple case of activists figuring out a way to adapt to the times. Today Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring would have to appear as a film to have the same impact as it did in the 1960s. Concomitant with this heavier reliance on visual media, the public has become more immune to subtlety and shading, the stuff only language can properly deliver. Therefore the dystopian scenarios of even narrow mainstream films such as Gattaca and Minority Report aren’t quite enough to leave ordinary cinemagoers pondering the big issues for longer than thirty seconds. It’s now necessary to spell things out. Forget Dickensian reform and Orwell’s quaint allegories: the folks in power are up to no good, and we’ll tell you what it is. With frightening evidence.

While directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot benefit from Moore’s trailblazing, they thankfully do not follow his self-subverting example. The Corporation begins with a lesson learned from Voltaire — “If you would converse with me, you must first define your terms” — and through promotional films, “expert” talking heads (e.g., Harvard professors, No Logo author Naomi Klein, Milton Friedman and the usual suspects, Chomsky and Zinn), and archival documents, aims to arrive at a definition of a corporation. From here a breathy female voice gives the history of the corporation as an economic idea and an actual entity, its strengths and flaws, and how the popular conception of the corporation evolved into the demonized American version of today.

The argument they use is both dialectically clever and valid. If a business’ charter of incorporation recognizes it as a single person, and it is legally granted the same rights and privileges as a person under Article 14 of the US Constitution, why should its behavior not be judged as a person’s? Using real and theoretical case histories, they subject the corporation to the World Health Organization and the DSM-IV diagnostic test for determining psychopathic tendencies. The corporation, of course, fulfills every single criteria to the letter.

But Achbar and Abbot are also astute enough to separate the CEO from the company he or she ostensibly commands. Former Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, for instance, makes a case for his own environmental awareness — which may be true, but as the film also notes, Shell Nigeria persisted throughout his tenure (and still does) to release horrific amounts of toxic pollution into the region.

Giving a voice to the “culprits” and defenders of the corporation usually helps the film’s cause far more than it hinders it. Carlton Brown, a commodities trader, gives an honest if not particularly uplifting assessment of where his and his colleagues’ stony hearts lay. “In devastation there is opportunity,” he explains. “When the September 11 situation happened, the first thing you thought about was, ‘Well, how much is gold up?'” Michael Walker, president of the Fraser Institute, can barely conceal his delight at seeing every square foot of the earth privately owned. Why this is so he can’t quite say.

The surprise personality of the the film is Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer. Before a dutiful keynote speech at a 1994 business ecology summit, Anderson read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and had what he calls an “epiphanic” experience. Eloquently and with genuine passion, he describes how he came to regard himself as a “plunderer” and subsequently resolved to make his global carpet business fully sustainable (i.e., with a zero ecological footprint) by 2020. His testimonial would seem to confirm that most corporations operate in blatant ignorance of ethical considerations until a more constructive ideology succeeds in taking root and they begin to hold themselves “personally” (per the charter) accountable.

The Corporation doesn’t conclude with its psychological assessment and grim head-shaking. It offers a glimpse of the future as well. Now that DNA has been mapped, the isolation of certain genes can be patented, effectively giving private companies legal control over the very makeup of all species on earth. So if a genetic cure for cancer is discovered, it will only be provided to those who can afford it. And as corporations accumulate more wealth and power, they will become the only actors in the international arena. Politicians, supposedly acting selflessly for the greater good, will be almost wholly supplanted (or politely kept on as figureheads) by corporations, openly and willfully operating on behalf of self-interest and profit. Attempts to expose the collusion or abuse of power through the regular channels will be denied, silenced and erased — as has already happened with two reporters’ investigative story on Fox News. Finally, and most importantly, it recommends sober courses of action.

So many other voices have weighed in on The Corporation that it makes mine seem like a squeak among the din. I do, however, find it surprising when critics dismiss it as a left-wing “screed” that is hopelessly one-sided — particularly so when the film’s closing message is clearly that corporations are not inherently evil, but they must be regulated and contained, ideally from within, in order to limit their capacity for harm. Moore himself appears before the camera and says as much without mincing any words. There is an undercurrent of anger and contempt in The Corporation, to be sure, but who is superhuman enough to resist anger in the face of such wanton disregard for our very survival? And which is more excusable, contempt for humanity or contempt for those who actively destroy it?

The Corporation: www.thecorporation.com

A Pessoa É Para O Que Nasce (Born to Be Blind)

This documentary by director Roberto Berliner was filmed over several years and first broadcast on television in his native Brazil in 1998, and shortly thereafter reworked as a short film and released to festival audiences worldwide. Since then it has been updated and “re-released” as a full-length with more recent footage of the lives of its subjects, the blind trio of impoverished Barbosa sisters, who have played the ganzá (cylindrical shakers) and sung folk songs on the streets of Campina Grande in northeastern Brazil while soliciting spare change for nearly five decades.

The semi-literal translation of the title is “You are what you’re born for,” a simple motto and affirmation of faith repeated throughout by the eldest and most loquacious sister, 56-year-old Maria (aka Lia or Maroca). She and her sisters Conceição (aka Indaiá) and Regina (aka Poroca or Little Poroca) do not begrudge their shared fate, seeing it as part of some larger design. “Since we were little,” Maria explains, “the wealthiest [sic] thing for us to have was sight but we didn’t have it. We still don’t. Now people say that we were born blind because mother is married to her cousin. But I don’t agree. It was the will of God.” Likewise Maria’s aspirations are touchingly modest. Her dream was to be married and have a child, and she is continually grateful to have realized this some years ago, even though her second marriage had an especially tragic outcome. In fact, all three of them talk openly and without resentment — jokingly, even — about their lifelong suffering and setbacks, though this doesn’t mean the convoluted biographical details fall neatly into place. The helter-skelter proliferation of nicknames is just one amusing example.

To draw out their personalities as well as provide relief from the straight-shooting style of most documentaries, Berliner uses various audio and camera techniques such as multiple exposures, time-lapse, jump cuts, and accentuating the sisters’ speech with astral electronic notes. During one sequence the director gives the camera to the sisters, who pass it among themselves, caressing and twisting it around; during another he hands them colored lights and has them walk about a darkened room. These don’t always work, as it’s not always clear what metaphorical value or positive narrative effect they have. Occasionally they can feel taunting, stagey and exploitative.

The film is by turns uncomfortably and refreshingly self-referential. Berliner does not shy away from covering the attention his filming has brought to the sisters — a classic case of the media manufacturing stories out of the media — or the way they are forgotten and abandoned after the novelty has exhausted itself. One rather ambiguous scene pulls aside members of the 40,000-person audience during a Brazilian percussion festival emceed by Gilberto Gil, polling them for reactions to the Blind Girls from Campina Grande. “They have so much presence!” exclaims one. “So pure, so beautiful,” says another. Cynics could be forgiven for wondering if they would have had the same gushing praise when passing the sisters on the street before or after their run-in with fame. It’s almost as bad as the jaded and manipulative female reporter who asks above the visiting media throng: “Maria, is there something sad in your lives, something that happened in your childhood, that you could tell us?”

Another private interview with the sisters results in Maria confessing to her crush on Berliner. He is forced to step out from behind the camera and explain to her the purely platonic nature of their relationship; this gentle and moving let-down in front of everyone leaves her listening dejectedly to a love song blaring from the radio. At first this seems overindulgent, even frivolous, but on reflection it encapsulates so much of what A Pessoa É Para O Que Nasce is trying to show. The film is the most momentous thing to have ever happened to the Barbosa sisters. Its impact on their lives, for better or worse, can hardly be overestimated. Trying to make the camera invisible would be like ignoring the proverbial elephant in the kitchen. And for all their rightful insistence that they aren’t children, the sisters often prove to be more trusting and naive than Dalva, Maria’s young daughter.

The final stretch of the film, the “Two Years Later” and “Two Years Later” (still) segments, starts to drag, and could have been edited down without sacrificing its sad depiction — the sisters have had their moment in the fickle spotlight, and have now returned to begging and busking. Death and the future weigh heavily on their minds, reducing them to a rare moment of tears. The closing scene, in which Maria, Indaiá and Regina strip naked and bathe in the sea, has a certain poetic quality, but their natural clumsiness seems here more like discomfort. It ends this very affecting story of three blessed and cursed singers on a false note.

The Halo Effect

The halo effect is a psychological theory of extension and inference in which one salient good quality is assumed to be indicative of an individual’s (or in marketing circles, a product or a brand) overall character. It is sometimes invoked to explain why, for instance, a competent sports figure is also assumed to have comparable talents as a movie actor and musician. How it came to be used as the title for this film is anyone’s guess, though my own suspicion is that it is was intended to lend a very shallow storyline and a motley assortment of underdeveloped characters an air of complexity and meaning. Or maybe it was done in the hope that the audience will overlook the film’s innumerable flaws and focus instead on its few likeable aspects.

The Halo Effect, Irish director Lance Daly’s second feature, seems to be more a case of a clique of old friends deciding to make a farce together than a proper professional endeavor. Half the time the actors can barely keep straight faces — this is particularly true of Simon Delaney as “Rock Steady” Eddie and Kerry Condon as the photography student Jean — when dishing out their caricatured lines with equally caricatured gestures, and the incessant coming and going of the incidental characters (the irate dwarf, the debt collectors, the psychotic crash victim) suggests that the set was an improvised free-for-all with everyone jousting for equal time in front of the camera. The cumbersome number of short tangents gives it the feel of sketch comedy, and Daly’s script ekes as much peurile comedic mileage as it can out of the word “fuck.”

The film is primarily about the ironically nicknamed Fatso (Stephen Rea), the gambling addiction that threatens to lose him everything, and his eponymous chip shop on Dorset Street in Dublin. While Fatso sneaks away to wistfully watch old 8mm family movies in the storage room and tend to his secret indoor garden, the fast food joint becomes a magnet for down-and-outs: staff and clientele alike. Some of them share Fatso’s weak spot for gambling, the same that apparently cost him his wife and child years earlier, but all of them manage to cause him no end of trouble. And yet the Samaritan in him gives these ne’er-do-wells chance after chance to start afresh — the same golden chance Fatso aches for as he places his next wager.

Fatso’s teary-eyed replaying of home movies is a tired Hollywood gimmick, one which a young filmmaker should be keen to avoid. Likewise with the quiet philosophical bromides (like the oft-repeated “Is it better to let something die than to struggle to keep it alive?”) that appear in Fatso’s narrated thoughts. The rest of the characters, as I’ve mentioned, are all stock cut-outs; only Rea and Grattan Smith as hapless, girl-crazy Mick are able to fashion anything worthwhile out of the roles.

Parts of The Halo Effect are amusing, but the film as a whole never rises above a sloppy, ill-conceived mix of Animal House, Clerks and Trainspotting. It will find its most welcoming audience among the university crowd’s stoners and swillers looking for a source of new in-jokes.

Mila ot Mars (Mila from Mars)

To sixteen-year-old orphan Mila (Vesela Kazakova), the elderly inhabitants of the border village to which she has just escaped could easily be Martians. Their peculiar habits, their inane conversation, the apparent futility and naïveté of their lives… it’s as if they’re from a different planet. To the elderly villagers, the same could be said of the new arrival.

Much of the film’s comedy — and there is a great deal, despite the looming threat of Mila’s abusive boyfriend and her bout with postnatal depression — derives from this abrupt meeting of traditional and modern, old and young, East and West. The scene to draw some of the most laughs is a simple sight gag: the stooped and shawled grandmotherly villager walking arm-in-arm with lanky Mila in a microskirt and fishnet-stockinged legs that seem to reach to her shoulders. The way they later fuss and fret over her newborn boy and come to regard him as a village savior, going so far as to jubilantly name him Christo, is as disturbing as it is hilarious.

Bulgarian writer-director Sophia Zornitsa’s feature debut takes on more than this odd couple pairing, veering off into more serious and surreal territory with dubious results. She forces in a few twists that don’t quite work, ranging from a tattooed born-again Buddhist with a dodgy past as a NATO soldier, to a villager’s son who paints everything blue, to a clumsy thriller-style ending; and in a related gesture (perhaps to support some of these twists), she tries to weave Mila’s ex-boyfriend Alex a bit too deeply into the fabric of the story. Mila’s dialogue with the mysterious Zen-aspiring stranger known as The Teacher hits a real blue film low at one point: “I want you to take me and split me open so my soul can fly away and be free.” And the ensuing sex scene is a colossal error in directorial judgement. The scoring shifts from bad to worse.

But it’s important to recognize Mila from Mars for what it is: one of the first independent, low-budget films in Bulgaria. It was shot digitally, proving that ambitious films can be made by less profligate directors and crews in countries where cinema is historically tied to funding from the government or major commercial studios. Other would-be filmmakers should take note and heart.

Nor is it only deserving of consolation prizes for effort. The film progresses at a brisk pace, meaning that any one of its flaws is several frames in the past before long; the rest is buoyed and propelled by a unique charm. Among other qualities, the amusingly absurd and circuitous dialogue between the villagers — pressing topics include who has a daughter and when exactly the mobile grocery is due to come around — calls to mind the quaint rural schtick of Guillermo Casanova’s Viaje hacía el mar at last year’s MHIFF. (Incidentally, professional critics sneered at Casanova’s film but it scored well with the public — including me. This year the critics oddly seem to be more receptive to Mila so far.) It could be argued, however, that Viaje hacía el mar is robust enough to satisfy repeated viewings, whereas Mila would not.

On the Corner

Canadian director Nathaniel Geary’s debut feature film is accomplished, compelling stuff, a rough and dirty, vérité depiction of street life in the manner of Kids set in one of the seedier districts of Vancouver, BC, the Eastside.

The shaky, neo-documentary camerawork of this film combined with its particular subject matter has been attempted before and with less-than-thrilling results, often as government- or council-funded cautionary tales (a genre in which On the Corner) has mistakenly been binned by many critics) about the dangers of drug use and street life’s mere illusion of freedom. But one of the requirements of cinema vérité is that it portray an unbiased reality, something Geary’s film does almost too well. The humanity mingles with Kurtz-like horror. As the meager remnants of their dignity give way to complete degradation, sympathy for the characters is stretched to the breaking point.

Sixteen-year-old Randy (Simon Baker) sneaks away from foster care and arrives at the derelict Pennsylvania Hotel looking for his elder sister, Patty (Alex Rice), and word of his absent father, David Henry. Patty, as he slowly and uncomfortably discovers, now goes by the name “Angel” — deeply ironic, given the circumstances — and sells herself by night to fund a daytime heroin habit gladly supported by the menacing dealer Wade (Brent Stait). Over the next few days she introduces her impressionable teenage brother to her friend and business partner, young Stacey (Katherine Isabelle), Stacey’s layabout addict pimp-boyfriend Cliffie (J.R. Bourne), and the burly sober Indian, Floyd (Gordon Tootoosis).

Patty has difficulty setting the example, and her repeated curse-filled urgings to Randy not to get mixed up in the drugs and shady dealings around him aren’t quite enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. He abandons the inglorious but legal opportunity of “binning,” or collecting bottles and cans, with Floyd in favor of earning easy money as a street dealer for Wade — an idea first suggested by twitchy Cliffie. This leads to inevitable sampling of the wares, or “fronting.” Which leads to money problems. Which leads to lying and running away. Which leads to more fronting. Which leads to robbery, and so on. Thus runs the cycle of addiction.

The double tragedy is that while Randy is being sucked into this foul quicksand, his sister has cleaned herself up while recuperating in hospital and is ready to make a new start of things. Unfortunately, all her immediate plans for the future include her brother. The last few scenes of the film are open-ended, without suggestion or implication, but one is left with the feeling that Patty will be back with her brother before long, a half-circle now made full. Because misery, as the saying goes, loves company.

The potent brew of excellent acting and excellent directing make the characters in On the Corner credible and rounded. Some generalizations apply; stereotypes do not. They are on the whole overgrown children who fail to appreciate the consequences of their impulsive actions or take responsibility for their self-created situation. In one telling scene Stacey agrees to look for an apartment with Randy and Patty. “It would be great to get out of this dump,” she says, looking around her in disgust, entirely unaware of her own contribution to the squalor. The building is to blame for her condition. When they do finally go to look for an apartment, they do so together, and they likewise fail together when one doesn’t show. There is a perverse loyalty at work here, powered by fear and feelings of worthlessness.

Filmed digitally and transferred to 35mm, On the Corner is less concerned with film theory and cutting-edge moviemaking techniques than with its characters. As exasperating and pitiful as they can be (with the exception of Floyd, who narrowly escapes the overly familiar role of sententious, serene Indian), this concern carries over to the viewer. Geary and his cast have not tried to make a film about struggling addicts; they have tried to capture some small essence of truth.

On The Corner: www.onthecorner.ca

Nuan

Nuan is, in a word, beautiful. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted, beautifully developed, beautifully told, beautifully scored. Based on Mo Yan’s novella The White Dog and the Swing, it is an unabashed romance, but in the very capable hands of Huo Jianqi, director of the award-winning Japanese film Nashan Naren Nagou (Postman in the Mountains) (1998), it doubles as a poetic love letter to the cinema and all its visual and emotional possibilities.

At the request of his childhood teacher, Lin Jinghe (Guo Xiaodong) has left his wife and baby in Beijing to visit his home in Maoyuan, an ancient village in the rural Jiangxi province. He has been away for a decade and is ambivalent about his return. “I began to feel sorry for no reason,” he confesses as he nervously cycles toward the village. “Was it because I stayed away too long? Or because I had returned in haste?”

He meets Nuan (Li Ja), the real reason for his ambivalence, on his approach as she is hobbling across a wooden bridge, burdened with a load of branches. She is cold and abrupt. He apologizes for some mutually understood past wrong. She rejects the apology. He asks about her happiness, and she firmly concludes the conversation by saying says she has a young child by her husband Dummy. (This cruel or comedic name could be a matter of questionable translation. “Dummy” is a simple deaf mute.) Slightly stunned by the news, he continues on to his teacher’s home. But he somewhat predictably abandons his plans to leave the following day and stays on in the village, visiting often with a now less hostile Nuan and reminiscing about their childhood.

Through a series of delicate and nostalgic forays into the past, each suffused with the golden light of autumn, the story of how Lin came to fall in love with Nuan, her initial rejection of him, his humble persistence, and finally his promise-filled departure to university in Beijing ten years earlier slowly manifests itself in full. The reasons for Nuan’s physical handicap and her marriage to Dummy become clear as well. But as the couple wistfully recall their past together, the oppressive weight of all that has happened in the intervening ten years effectively nails their flights of fancy to the floor. The mistakes of the past cannot be undone, nor can they always be righted in later attempts. This friction between hope and despair is what gives the film its poignancy.

Avoiding melodramatic touches, Jianqi does not overplay the flashbacks, and instead integrates them well into the action of the present. In this way it suggests that Jinghe has pedalled back into the past, that the village of Maoyuan is wholly bound to Nuan and his love for her; and further, it apposes past and present, highlighting the conflict between them. Laws of physics notwithstanding, the past and present cannot coexist in harmony. One must give.

I would withhold an unequivocally perfect rating from Nuan for its few unfortunate slips into the hackneyed and formulaic. In rare instances the score tends to be heavy-handed. Lin’s closing reflections also steer dangerously close to sentimental cliché. The “Now I know…” and “I have learned…” type of ending has been done a thousand different ways, many of them with excruciating bathos, and it is not helped here by the fact that the protagonist seems to be reciting the mild paradoxes of ancient Chinese proverbs.

Hitler’s Hitparade

HITLER’S Hitparade is composed entirely out of archival footage from 1933 to 1945. This goes beyond the usual Leni Reifenstahl pomp and pageantry to commercials, cartoons, propaganda, documentary and feature films backed by a soundtrack of showtunes, Schlager and other popular music. The aim of all this, according to the one-sheet, is to demonstrate how the German public was seduced by the cult of Naziism.

While interesting, Hitler’s Hitparade does not really convey the seductiveness of Naziism as much as it stresses the sick ironies of Hitler’s regime. A cheery song about the simple joys of music accompanies shots of Hitler’s fervid public rallies, for example, and a section extolling the wonders of modern transportation is spliced together with scenes depicting the savage treatment of Jews as they were herded on to freight trains and sent to their deaths.

The film seems to be proud of the idea that it has eschewed conventional narrative; nevertheless, narrative frequently creeps in, but it is of a distorted and manipulated kind. In one of the ten or so thematic sections, color footage of Nazi official displaying to a crowd a lampshade and a dissected head submerged in formaldehyde is followed by monochrome footage of women sobbing and looking as if they’re about to vomit. Was the public repulsed by this spectacle (and what was the spectacle exactly? a morbid auction?), as this seems to suggest? Or were these tormented, nauseous women Jews who escaped death and were being freed from the concentration camps? It’s impossible to tell because, while attempting to put this disparate footage in some kind of context, directors Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze and their editing team have in fact stripped it of context. All we know is that what we’re seeing took place at some point during a twelve-year period. Everything else is assumption and speculation.

Hitler’s Hitparade does elucidate the façade of normalcy and goodwill that persisted as people were being slaughtered and it provides more than a few illustrations how the Nazi axioms such as Kraft durch Freude and Kirche, Kuche, Kinder subtly slipped into films, radio and television. For these reasons I can hardly describe it as a poor or unsuccessful project. But I wonder if Axer and Benze were aware of the inherent irony in their own work — that is, the process of cutting and pasting diverse footage to “fit” a particular song or rubric relies on the same decontextualizing effect as the propaganda to push the Nazi agenda. It lends this blackest of comedies a sinister quality.

Heimat 3, 4, 5 & 6

It is particularly difficult for a non-German to understand the significance and impact that Edgar Reitz’s trilogy (itself subdivided into multiple parts) Heimat, first screened in 1984, has among the population it attempts to chronicle in miniature. In the limited space I have here, I’ll try to show instead of tell.

The first series of the film cycle follows Maria Simon (née Wiegand) (Marita Breuer) through the years 1919, when she is 19, to her death in 1982. Naturally, it’s impossible to document the life of this one person without also documenting the lives of the people around her, so the cycle actually covers a circle of friends and family in the small town of Shabbach in Germany’s rural Hunsrück region. Thus we meet the Great War veteran, Paul, Maria’s future husband, a radio enthusiast who vanishes one day while at the pub; Paul’s sister, Pauline, who marries Robert Kröber the watchmaker and moves to a nearby town; Lucie Hardtke, the status-hungry brothel madam from Berlin, who marries Paul’s ailing brother Eduard and persuades him to join the Nazi party; Maria’s younger brother, Wilfried, who sees an opportunity for advancement and importance as an SS officer; Otto Wohlleben, the engineer (and later bomb disposal expert) who lodges at Maria’s house and falls in love with her; and Maria’s three sons, Anton, Ernst and Hermann, the latter of whom will carry on as the central character of Heimat 2. If the war hasn’t already destroyed these characters by the end of the first series, modernity and doomed romances have at least given it a try.

Because Heimat deals with the larger events of the 20th century as well as life’s minutiae from a personal, pan-generational and domestic perspective, there are few native Germans who cannot identify on a visceral level with some aspect of the cycle. It is a purely fictional life (or, more accurately, lives) — but then, the best fiction invariably has spooky parallels with reality.

After seeing back-to-back screenings of Weihnacht wie noch nie (A Christmas like never before); Reichshöhenstraße (Highway of the Reich), Auf und davon und zurück (There and back again) and Heimatfront (Home front) covering the years from 1935 to 1943, I still don’t feel entirely qualified to give Heimat a full and accurate appraisal. It would be like meeting a man at a dinner party and then sitting down the next day to write his biography. Yet it’s possible to draw some general conclusions, nearly all of them positive.

Reitz skillfully juxtaposes black-and-white film with color to balance the historical nature of the work with the immediacy of storytelling, and despite the obvious cosmetic difficulties of making static actors appear to age as characters or the inevitable omissions when distilling a year’s events into an hour of film, there is a real sense of continuity. Young Ernst and Young Anton become Older Ernst and Older Anton rather too quickly, and Lucie’s car accident is too staged to have the effect that it ought to; but the vision, dedication and ambition necessary to carry a project like Heimat out to such a consistently high standard overshadow quibbles like these. Based on my impression of just these four parts out of eleven total, I believe the world would be better off if every country had its own Edgar Reitz. And though his film has a special resonance for Germans, anyone regardless of nationality can appreciate such fine filmmaking as this. I look forward to renting (or someday owning) the DVD box set, due out in a week or two.

Heimat in German: www.heimat-fanpage.de• English Summary: www.zonix.de/html40/arts/reitz.html ** Edgar Reitz: www.mannheim-filmfestival.com/en/Film_Programme/Special_Screenings/Edgar_Reitz

O Herói (The Hero)

ZÉZÉ Gamboa’s first dramatic feature film draws its story from a source that is rich in possibility: the Angolan civil war, a complex and gruesome conflict that lasted for nigh on three decades and drew in discreet political and military players from all over the globe. For all its horror, misery and strife, the artist struggling for inspiration will find no lack of material here, much of it powerful and heartbreakingly tragic.

Gamboa’s overarching problem is that he has cast his net too wide. Rather than center on a particular case among this tragedy and unravel its complexities, he has tried to envelop every sociopolitical aspect of the civil war and its aftermath — right down to the occasional power outages, the post-colonial free-for-all, teacher strikes and tangential romantic sub-plots. To convey this mass of detail to the viewer in the least amount of time, the script often resorts to using the actors as role-players in an educational video, reciting historical tidbits and tedious background information as dialogue.

For our human entry points into this larger narrative, we have Manu (Milton “Santo” Coelho), a young boy whose missing father went off to war seven years ago and whose mother has inexplicably fled. We have Vitório (Oumar Makéna Diop), a thirty-five-year-old war veteran who endured twenty years of fighting, now demobbed and crippled after stepping on a landmine. His postwar plight echoes that of Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, painted here with a broader brush. And in slightly secondary female roles — though one typically stiff exchange reminds us that women fought and suffered too — are the pretty, idealistic schoolteacher Joana (Patrícia Bull) and the prostitute with a heart of gold, Judite, aka Maria Bárbara (Maria Ceiça).

Early in the film, the viewer half-expects to see Manu mature into Vitório. He is, after all, the title character. When it becomes clear that these fictional lives are in fact two (and later four) separate threads, the question is how the threads will intersect and, if all goes according to the apparent plan, tie neatly together. It is to Gamboa’s credit that they ultimately don’t — at least, not as mawkishly neatly as they might have.

Though it manages to avoid this Hollywood pitfall, O Herói is still deeply uneven. Ceiça and Coelho turn in fine to excellent performances; some of their most emotional scenes are real highlights. But Diop, the hero of the film’s title, parallels the directing and script as he moves from the compelling to the adequate, stuck in the uncomfortable emotive limbo between ambiguous nuance and the painfully obvious.

There is certainly much to learn from O Herói by virtue of its subject matter, but it stumbles and drags when it actively reminds viewers of this, putting didacticism before drama. And when it tries to restore the balance, the introduction of unnecessary moments of tension and romance causes the film to teeter too far in the opposite direction.

Mannheim Film Festival: www.mannheim-filmfestival.com

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