Sarajevo Film Festival presents: Panorama Programme 2011
"These Panorama films are selected with geographical, ideological, and formal diversity always in mind, even if overall quality of filmmaking is the primary criterion. That translates, roughly, into: They are intended to challenge your intellect, your conscience, and your emotions. The best take on all three."
By Howard Feinstein
PANORAMA PROGRAMME 2011
Mohamed Diab, Egypt
In his assured directorial debut, veteran screenwriter Diab courageously exposes the taboo subject of sexual harassment of women in Egypt. No black or white characters are to be found here: They are more gray, participants in a closed, repressive social order. The three harassed women at the film’s center are of different ages and social classes, and they argue among themselves about vendettas: whether to prick an overly forward man’s hand or stab him in the groin, for example. The men in their lives are also carefully shaded. Fayza (popular singer Bushra) is a veiled working-class mother who is forced by the family’s dire financial situation to take the bus daily. She attends a seminar conducted by Seba (Nelly Karim), an upper-class jewelry maker who wants to help other victims. The most promising in terms of social change and partner support is middle-class, aspiring stand-up comic Nelly (Nahed El Seba’i), whose experience is based on the true story of a woman who, with the support of her fiancé and against his family’s wishes, filed the first sexual harassment lawsuit in Egypt in 2008.
Gordon Grinberg, USA (short)
Grinberg makes this hilarious short in part as homage to the silent film but also because the silence performs a function to dramatize the end of the film, when the dialogue switches from being delivered through intertitles to actual sound. But then that is the punchline of the joke upon which the movie is based. He captures New York, especially Brooklyn, in a highly original manner, filming principally servants of the church and religious Jews as they walk down the street or haggle with the tailor of the title.
IN A BETTER WORLD
Susanne Bier, Denmark
A film about family issues placed in a broader social context, the title In a Better World reflects how much Bier and regular screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen long for one. Two preteen boys in Denmark become friends at school. One is the regular punching bag for the school bully; his father (brilliant performance by Mikael Persbrandt) is a non-violent doctor who treats the displaced in a sub-Saharan Africa refugee camp. The other boy is a brat who has lost his mother. His anger is displaced onto a social order he perceives as abusive, and he adopts the philosophy of preventive aggression. Bier is expert at making lyrical films, visually stunning but with small jump cuts keeping them from being overly aestheticized, that address big topics. Here the unspeakable violence perpetrated by an African warlord is placed on the same level as the more “civilized” violence inherent even in a bourgeois country like Denmark.
ALICIA, GO YONDER
Elisa Miller, Mexico
Filmed over three weeks mostly in the far south of Argentina, Alicia, Go Yonder is something of a diary film about two characters who come together only briefly, each on a geographical journey to help in mapping out their psychological and emotional turmoil. Miller and actress Sofia Espinosa worked closely together to track her character from Mexico City to Buenos Aires to Calafate and the glacier at Petite Morena, not far from Antarctica. She had Espinosa and actor Martin Piroyansky improvise, never shooting more than one take, but still rehearsing with them individually in advance. Miller composes her shots superbly, with unusual facial angles and light streaming through windows and leaving bits of matter in the air. But it’s cinematic through and through: This is a road movie, so movement is essential.
AND GOD WILLED
Flavio Florencio, Mexico (short)
This deceptively simple tale is about a very old woman (played by a centenarian the director met in a café) whose sons are too preoccupied working in the States to visit her in Mexico. Florencio cuts between men in a truck and the old woman struggling with a pay phone. The film has a textured placidity, possibly influenced by the many years the director has spent in Africa.
THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-75
Goran Hugo Olsson, Sweden (documentary)
Swedish director Olsson edits together footage of people and events from an important era of American black history, all of it filmed four decades ago by Swedish TV directors and cinematographers. Maybe it’s because the interviewers were not American, and maybe because some of the interviews were done in Stockholm and not Chicago or New York, but this rhythmically assembled documentary is strong. It’s as if no one had ever seen these sequences before. Contemporary voiceovers (Angela Davis, for example) describe old visuals. Great interviews with Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and many others alternate with scenes of black kids in the streets and protests; overlaid music, much of it by The Roots, gives this doc the hip feel of an enlightened music video.
Marcin Wrona, Poland
The overhead shots of modern Warsaw, sterile new buildings interspersed among the old, hint at something ominous. What that turns out to be is the collateral damage around the tight friendship between Janek and Michal, which began in small criminal gangs and grew while stationed together in the army. When Janek finally gets discharged, he heads to Michal’s lush apartment, where he already has a wife and baby and, he says, owns a lucrative window company and has gone legit. In fact, it is a ruse: most of the money he earns is blackmail money to the gang he had snitched on, and they are after him. Janek eventually joins that gang and tries to help Michal, who has asked him to be godfather to his child—meaning that if something happened to the parents, Janek would have to participate in raising the offspring. This three-hander of a film is tense and intensely violent, but beautiful in a rough way. Wrona achieves a delicate balance.
Andrei Zviagintsev, Russia
The title character chooses her biological family, including her ne’er-do-well son, over her wealthy second husband when the financial stakes become high. The docile ex-nurse from the working class becomes a murderer in order to insure the security of her child and grandchild, who need bribery money to get him into college in order to avoid the horrors of the Russian military. Nadezhda Markina delivers a tour-de-force in the role of the conflicted Elena. A lot rests on her shoulders: She is the embodiment of the schizoid post-1989 Russia, torn between traditional civility and contemporary money madness. The chilling tone is heightened by hyper, excited bursts from Philip Glass’s score. There is no doubt that the director strongly believes that any sense of morality in the Russia of the future is in serious jeopardy.
Marta Ferrer, Mexico (documentary)
Ferrer went to a rancho, a small rural community, in the plains of central Mexico. Some of the residents still work the land, some work in the three new maquiladores (assembly plants), where labor conditions are horrid but there are few options to make any kind of living. A high proportion of the inhabitants have migrated to the U.S., and their earnings sustain their families back home, yet their absence creates a void in the town’s spirit. She films the celebrations during the community’s patron saint’s day, then follows the participants afterward as they return to the drudgery on working the land, sweating in the maquiladores, or just hanging out on the street. Here one sees the terrible damage perpetrated by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Alliance) on small agricultural producers while large transnationals reap the profits. Yet the film is in its way beautiful and poignant, respectful of the locals and their attempts to maintain some dignity.
Kaushik Mukherjee, India
A fascinating hybrid of today’s marginalized but hip youth and the traditional Kolkota of Satyajit Ray, Gandu is the story of an amoral slum youth whose peers make fun of him, and who escapes drudgery through rap music, which he chants directly into Q’s camera. But this is not the Ray of propriety and withheld energy: The boy watches his mother having sex in exchange for free rent, he masturbates to hardcore pornography, and he befriends and shares crack with a drug addict. We do see many sides of Kolkota as he wanders around. Halfway through the film, a druggy feel takes over, and the line between reality and hallucination is blurred to great visual effect.
John Michael McDonagh, Ireland, 2011
In his first feature, London-based Irish director McDonagh, already a terrific screenwriter (NED KELLY), tosses together a vulgar, irreverent, one-of-a-kind Irish country cop, Boyle (the great Brendan Gleeson), and a black American policeman, Everett (Don Cheadle), who comes over to the Gaellic-speaking West of Ireland to help stop a drug smuggling ring. Everett is there as a comic foil; this is all about Boyle, a force of nature, his id barely hidden as he addresses his unlikely partner with every African-American cliché in the book. McDonagh blends genres in this astoundingly gorgeous and rhythmically paced film: this is a riff on the Lethal Weapon-model cop partner movie, a black comedy, an action film, a sentimental drama, and, at the end of the day, a classic western, for which the frenetic, Spanish-style music by Calexico has been warming up all along.
THE KID WITH A BIKE
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, France, Belgium
Once again, the Belgian Dardenne brothers use naturalistic means to display a deep-rooted humanity that emanates from those low on society's totem pole who seem to have no hope at all in a cruel world. As he did in The Child, among others, there is an epiphany by film's end, this go-round for the first time with music. The model is Robert Bresson, who filmed in what Paul Schrader terms a "spiritual style." An unwanted 11-year-old boy lives in a care home. He returns to his old apartment to find the father who disappeared and his bicycle. He is successful with the latter, but his dad, once he encounters him somewhere else, wants nothing to do with him, despite his desperation for parental affection. The kid is in complete denial about the truth and is aggressive toward those who mention it. Fortunately for him, he meets a woman, a hairdresser who provides him with some of the love and protection he needs. As usual, the narrative is pared down to the essentials, which lend an ethereal beauty to an otherwise unpretentious, earthy film.
Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina
A two-hander shot (creatively) almost entirely in the cab of a large truck, with small names and an even smaller budget, Giorgelli’s road movie depends on tiny gestures and the slightest of glances to advance the story of an Argentine driver and the indigenous Paraguayan woman and her baby daughter to whom he provides a lift from Asuncion to Buenos Aires. Las Acacias refuses to announce itself as some sort of cinematic achievement. The makes deceptively simple the journey from loneliness to attachment; the trip resonates powerfully in even the most hardened viewer. The film won the Camera d’or in Cannes, the best first feature in all of the festival’s sections.
Lars Von Trier, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany
Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in von Trier’s masterful Melancholia is a depressive, as von Trier says he was when he made the film. But it is less about her psychological condition and the impending end of the world than about her up-and-down relationship with sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a control freak. Von Trier divides the film in two, each entitled with one of the sibling’s names. In the first part, we observe Justine’s rapid decline from radiant bride at a beautiful wedding dinner to a maniacal nightmare in one evening (she deservedly won Best Actress), with Claire attempting to maintain some order amidst the madness. In Part Two, a completely depressed, nearly catatonic Justine returns for nurture to Claire’s estate, scene of the aborted marriage celebration. Yet when the planet Melancholia enters the earth’s atmosphere for what they realize is the imminent end to life on our planet—an astronomical echo of Justine’s state of mind--it is the unbalanced, but seer-like, Justine who manages their response, while ever-cool Claire loses her bearings. The weighty prologue to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde accompanies the director’s characteristic jump cuts, ellipses, and seemingly random camera movement.
THE MINERS’ HYMNS
Bill Morrison, UK, USA (documentary)
Except for a few contemporary color inserts, Morrison edits archival footage to play with or against Johann Johannsson’s original score, manipulating images, enhancing mood, and scoring progressive political points through his juxtapositions. The subject here is the coal miners of northeast England, in Durham, where the working-class had clout, and the now camouflaged coal mines that provided sustenance for the men’s families provided a cultural and moral identity that extended far beyond the workplace. The recurring annual celebration of their organizations is pure pageantry. But lest one get lost in such charming spectacle, Morrison regularly cuts to the dark, dank interiors of the mines and their Metropolis-like labor conditions.
POSITION AMONG THE STARS
Leonard Retell Helmrich, Netherlands (documentary)
Helmrich observed the Shamshuddin family in Jakarta for almost a dozen years. From his experience came a trilogy, and Position Among the Stars is the third and finest of the films. (It won first prize at IDFA, the international documentary festival.) The father of the family has problems with his teen daughter Tari, who has the potential to escape slum life and go to college. But she is subverting herself, so her dad goes back to his ancestral village and brings home his elderly peasant mother to set Tari straight. The girl has been “tainted” by the values of the West, and Dad wants to expose her to more rigid traditional values. All of this is shot verite style. It is as if the family members are not aware of the director’s presence, so much so that they feel free to argue, cry, and laugh without self-consciousness in front of the camera.
QUATTRO HONG KONG 2 (omnibus)
Stanley Kwan, Brillante Mendoza, Ho Yuhang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hong Kong
Four Asian directors film 15 minute shorts about some aspect of Hong Kong life. Having filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Stanley Kwan, and Ho Yuhang makes this particular portmanteau an exception to the plodding quality of the genre: It is exciting, each of the sections a different style and take on Hong Kong. And all are beautifully photographed. Kwan’s 13 Minutes in the Life of… takes place on a bus from the airport, following assorted conversations. Mendoza shot Purple, which follows a visitor to one of the city’s fishing villages and captures the rich textures of day-to-day life there. In Ho’s Open Verdict, the most dynamic of the four, a team of narcotics police act on tips from their Malaysian counterparts to check on the activities of a tourist with an exceptionally heavy suitcase. Weerasethakul shoots M Hotel almost out of focus, with a pair of filmmakers making a short from the 17th floor of a hotel.
REIGN OF ASSASSINS
Su Chao-Pin, co-directed by John Woo, China
Not just a series of rapid action scenes, this is more complex and lyrical than most films of the wuxia genre: martial arts films. The plot involves the competition between gangs for the remains of the monk Bodhi, so accomplished in both prayer and martial arts that possessing them will make the owner all-powerful. Drizzle is a young woman trained by the leader of the nefarious Dark Stone gang, but she decides to leave this life behind and disguise herself through plastic surgery to become…Michelle Yeoh. But relocation and marriage are not enough to hide her identity: she is recognized when she wields a sword to fend off bank robbers. And her docile husband reveals HIMSELF as a martial arts master when her life is threatened. What sets this film apart from others in the genre is that the love story takes center stage, the fabulously choreographed swordfights inserts in that narrative.
Andrey Stempkovsky, Russia
Without music, this film is set in the bleak industrial zone of an enervated Russian city in which glum adults say little and pass the time chain smoking. Stempkovsky has made an unnerving, strikingly photographed movie about the maternal bond and sibling rivalry, withholding energy and tucking it into off-camera actions, self-conscious framing, nearly empty spaces that reveal plenty of information, and the silences between utterances. In a provincial town, a distraught mother mopes, her soldier son having been reported missing in what seems to be Chechnya one month prior. She hides an illegal preadolescent Uzbek boy, possibly mute, who has been smuggled in by a criminal gang and has witnessed one of their murder sprees, and to whom she displaces her maternal affection. The son returns, but is goalless until he seeks revenge for what the gang has done to his “family.” As a series of chilling violent actions unfold, Stempkovsky seems to indicate that they are as pointless as the military intervention itself.
Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia
The imagery in this chilling film calls to mind Tarkovski, Sokurov, and Paradjanov, but it is a highly original evocation of the Russian “soul.” It haunts you and stays with you. Mostly an elegy to the wife of a factory photographer’s boss and to lost childhood, it is narrated from the beyond by the worker himself. The boss and employee, who hides adulterous secrets from his chief, embark on a car journey to cremate the dead woman by a lake in another town. The photographer tells us he is descended from the Merja, a Finnish-Ugric tribe with (according to him) set rituals and a strong attachment to water, which itself plays a part here. A sense of melancholy, of nostalgia for tradition, shadows the film.
Alexey Balabanov, Russia
Balabanov’s penchant for satire and violence are much in evidence in The Stoker, a fusion of black comedy and musings about the state of Russia in the mid-1990s, when assassinations and climbing for financial gain were rampant. The exception here is the central character, known as the Major, an ethnic Kanut, a shell-shocked veteran of Afghanistan, and a decorated military hero. He is too introverted at this point to get involved with these questionable goals, yet he chooses to remain oblivious when they hit home. He shovels coal into a large basement boiler and even resides in the stiflingly hot space; during his off-time he slowly types a short story about a Russian criminal who goes to Yakutia in the 19th century. The Major turns a blind eye when gangsters, including his ex-comrade in arms known as the Sergeant, toss corpses of their foes into the fire—until one acts hits so close to home that it pulls him out of his shell in order to perform one final heroic deed. Among many ironies here is the use of the oven for nefarious deeds in a culture where it is traditionally the center of the home, a symbol of life and warmth. Only Balabanov can get away with a rapid and high-volume Latin score to accompany this dark story.
A STONE’S THROW AWAY
Sebastian Hierart, Mexico
The fine actor Gabino Rodriguez stars as a shepherd named Jacinto who tends his flock in the San Luis Potosi region in the north of Mexico. One day, after a powerful dream about discovering treasure, he finds a key chain with an address in Oregon. Thinking it a divine sign of impending financial gain, he slips into the U.S., where he is robbed and beaten by both fellow Latinos and young gringos, but nevertheless follows through on his plan until he reaches a remote snowy mountain pass where the address is located. The narrative is elliptical. It begins with Jacinto being interrogated, presumably by immigration police, then flashes back to what could have been an idyllic life in beautiful fields with his goats, save for the always-present allure of a better life up north. Hiriart’s cinematography — he shot everything himself — is outstanding. His feeling for natural, urban, and small-town landscapes (most of the film takes place in the U.S.) is unique, as if the steady eye of a divinity were observing the world.
SUMMER OF GOLIATH
Nicolas Pereda, Mexico
One straight storyline cannot convey the indecipherable complexity that is contemporary Mexico; neither can the usual distinction between fiction and documentary. In this hybrid, Pereda interweaves two plot strands that take place during a hot summer in the verdant but poor rural community of Huilotepec - a microcosm of the Mexican social order. Rich digressions capture culturally-specific textures and help flesh out several characters. In the mix are semi-improvised documentary-style interviews and scenes providing additional information on the current state of the locality and its inhabitants, further delineating the internal tensions he lays out. In the primary plot, a woman has just been dumped by her husband. She is unable to adapt to unaccustomed loneliness. Her sole companion is her layabout macho son. The other storyline is the mostly doc-like portrait of Goliath, also known as Oscar, a 16-year-old boy accused of murdering his girlfriend. In this town, which has lost most of its grown males to the U.S. for jobs, fragmented families are the rule.
Paddy Considine, UK
Scotsman Peter Mullan is one of the few fine actors who can direct a great film; here he plays the main role, opposite Olivia Colman. Enter British performer Paddy Considine, a first-time moviemaker who has made a striking film set in a working-class milieu in a provincial British town. Most of it is uncompromisingly grim, but true to its subject. Mullan plays a self-destructive, aggressive drunk (he kicks his own dog to death in the pre-credit sequence) to Colman’s Christian do-gooder, who masks her abuse at home, and whom he meets in a charity shop. Gradually and subtly, they exchange personas. Colman, a comic in Britain, is brilliant here, as is Mullan, but then, he always is.
A USEFUL LIFE
Federico Veiroj, Uruguay
Like several other recent Uruguayan films, anti-glamour, and anti-Hollywood, A Useful Life features schlumpy but likable protagonists, a storyline close to his personal life, real locations, and a precise shooting style, relatively long takes frequently set up a bit obliquely—not symmetrical, but not expressionistic either. And no CGI. Veiroj worked for years in the film archive of Montevideo, as does the main character in A Useful Life. The place is in debt, and ultimately the hovering bills can not be paid. Once the archive closes, the archivist emerges from its safe confines into the real world, tasting life, and love, for the first time. With music and visuals, the director pays homage to several genres during the man’s journey toward self-discovery. Commercial? Suffice it to say, the film is in black and white and runs barely 70 minutes.
WALK AWAY RENEE
Jonathan Caouette, USA (documentary)
Caouette may have made an experimental documentary with this impressive film, but the plight of his mentally ill mother is at its core. As in his earlier Tarnation, he admirably edits together old family footage and abstract imagery, but the scenes of his driving his mother from an assisted-living facility in Houston to one in New York are relatively naturalistic. They also serve to balance out what might be considered the tendency among avant-gardists to self-indulge. Caouette is probably the most devoted son around, and his willingness to share the life of his damaged mom with the world is a testament to his love for her. Through time shifts in which he shows his mother at various ages and in assorted states, as well as footage of their interaction at different phases of their lives, we come to understand the strong bond that attaches him to her so closely that he puts his own needs aside to make sure she is not mistreated by the medical establishment.
WHITE, WHITE WORLD
Oleg Novković, Serbia, Germany, Sweden
In his third film set in the economically depressed, polluted southern Serbian mining town of Bor, Novkovic blends genres in a daring but ultimately successful way. The plotline involves an ensemble of characters who are interrelated, but the director doesn’t let the audience off easily: The viewer must figure out the connections, or at least be patient with their revelation. The central character, played by the great actor Uliks Fehmiu in his second film with Novkovic, is the town stud, a loner who thinks he can bow out of society by running a bar that brings people to him, and by working out in solitude. We meet his father, his brother, his ex-girlfriend, and his current main squeeze. What we ultimately discover is so taboo that he falls to his knees, and we feel like doing the same. Let’s just say that the oedipal narrative is a poor man’s updated Greek tragedy. The loner, like the town itself, self-destructs, and it seems that this thread is a prophecy of mankind’s future. In sad Bor of all places, the filmmaker has these downmarket characters occasionally break into song, without any signal for the spectator. In lesser hands, it would have been a complete mess. As it is, it’s a masterpiece.
Laura Israel, USA (documentary)
New Yorker Israel’s Windfall is as much the story of a small upstate New York community, Meredith, torn asunder as it is an expose of the massive wind turbines that split the residents. Energy salesmen from an energy outfit in Ireland offered locals money if they would agree to allow them to build the structures on their land. In a town with no zoning, the reps anticipated huge profits. The residents were split, mostly along lines of lifetimers (for) and weekenders and expatriates from New York City (against), culminating in a new slate of candidates for the municipal elections proposed by those opposed to the alternative power source—and Israel generates suspense by following the run-up to the vote. Windmills are cinematic by definition, and she uses them, as well as animated stop motion, to good effect. The film questions the “greenness” of wind energy, and exposes the psychological and emotional hazards that the 400-foot high structures impose when too close to human habitats.
(Blurbs by Howard Feinstein)