Posted: 10/01/2003

 

The 47th Times BFI London Film Festival

by Jerome de Groot



The 47th Times bfi London Film Festival runs October 22 through November 6 this year. Click here for the official website.


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The London Film Festival is nearly a half-century old, and going strong. This year’s programme lacks the big hitters of Cannes, Venice or Berlin, but the sheer range, vitality and dynamism of the programming lends the event a buzz all of its own.

This energy is due to the scope of work presented, both geographical and intellectual. The festival showcases work from 45 different countries, including dedicated French and European strands and a World Cinema programme that presents work from South-east Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa. Much of this work is political and committed. This ranges from big issue filmmaking such as Zimbabwe Countdown by Michael Raeburn or Oliver Stone’s take on Palestine (Persona non Grata), to more intimate documentary work such as Frederick Wiseman’s Domestic Violence 1& 2. Stone’s work particularly comes with its very own controversy-in-a-can kit; the NFT bar afterwards should be an amusing place to be. Similarly, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama, the first feature from post-Taliban Afghanistan, should be an interesting experience.

Five (!) new Iranian features (At Five in the Afternoon, Joy of Madness, Deep Breath, The First Letter, and The Wind Carpet) present very different views of the country and demonstrate quite how fertile its filmmaking is nowadays (although two of them are made by members of the same family…). African film, amazingly still in its infancy, is showcased and Train Train Medina, The Forest and The Legend of the Sky Kingdom should go down well with audiences. The South Korean, Indian, Cambodian, Japanese and Argentinean films presented here should make sure you never ever set foot inside a multiplex again.

There is also the innovative/bonkers ‘Experimenta’ strand, which this year celebrates subversive filmmaking whilst testing the stamina of the audience. The European premiere of Ken Jacob’s Star Spangled to Death is 6 hours in total, whilst the Chinese film Tiexi District: West of Tracks is a stately 9. Crazee! Actually, Jacob’s work particularly is influential and the showing of this labour of love is prefaced by a Masterclass entitled ‘Beneath Consideration: A Lecture on Failure’. Go Go Go! The LFF’s commitment to avant garde and cutting-edge filmmaking is one of the things that makes this festival stand-out, and the Experimenta programme—together with the Shorts and Animation strand—should ensure that this reputation is consolidated further. There is a dedicated ‘Avant-Garde’ weekend (Nov. 1-2) for those of you that can’t get enough of the mad stuff including pieces by Michele Smith and John Smith. Expect collage and chin-stroking aplenty, particularly in the sessions which consider the influence of Amos Vogel and Jonas Mekas.

If you’re not done with eclectic, cerebral, mind-blowing stuff, head back for the French strand. This year there are many new directors on show exploring sexuality, existential existence, violence, moody gazing and general faffing about. There is a lot of interest in these new faces, particularly Andre Techine and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (and, along with Iran, France seems to one of the only countries in the world which is producing—or at least letting loose—a number of talented women directors). Me, I’ll probably be heading for the Cinema Europa section although this year other than some interesting looking Czech films Europe appears to be relatively quiet this year. German film still languishes, Italian film similarly going nowhere fast.

And what of the British? The LFF New British Cinema strand presents debuts from Emily Young, Alison Peebles, Penny Woolcock (hang on a minute, we appear to be producing talented women too. Note to self: revise earlier comment). Young’s film Kiss of Life and Peebles’ Afterlife consider issues of death, mortality, humanness and disability, whilst John Furse’s Blind Flight tells the story of hostages John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. My, we’re a cheery lot.

The controversies/ headlines? Dogville is making enemies and dividing audiences everywhere it plays, and Thirteen has had a mixed reception in the US. Expect breakout films from Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu who presents 21 Grams, his follow-up to Amores Perros (2001). Neil LaBute adapts one of his plays, but since Nurse Betty he is a busted controversy flush, content it seems just to make damn good movies. I’ve already mentioned Osama and Persona Non Grata, which should set tongues wagging. Depressingly enough, on many levels, the media discussion (this column notwithstanding) will probably centre upon Meg Ryan’s explicit/ erotic (eeeeeech) performance in Jane Campion’s In the Cut which opens the festival, and Gwyneth Paltrow doing her best to send Sylvia Plath spinning in her grave with her performance in Sylvia. Expect high production values, fights with dour Ted Hughes, gazing slightly madly into the middle distance, and suicide. This year’s The Hours, sadly (in all senses).

My recommendations: Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Best in Show) returns with A Mighty Wind; Casa de Los Babys, a typically unremitting John Sayles movie; Bill Siegel and Sam Green documenting The Weather Underground; Dogville; 21 Grams; anything made in Iran. The British films should be good. But then I would say that.

Individual Film Reports

The Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper, 2003)
My first reaction to this was—it has to be a parody!? Playing in the same festival as the new film by Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap), it is hard to take this documentary seriously. Stuffed full of weird, half-insulting talking heads from the rock world 1960-present day, this plays like Almost Famous meets Zelig. Rodney Bingenheimer is a face, someone on the LA music scene and always there—but, as everyone keeps on saying, who has never ‘made it’. His non-fame meets almost-fame is contrasted with several of his friends and proteges who want very desperately to be something (anything). Maybe Rodney knows he will never make it and is happy enough just being part of it—certainly those interviewed who did (Dramarama, Cher, Gwen Stefani, Debbie Harry) don’t seem any happier than him and many are extremely transient. Perhaps Rodney is the most innocent and profound of them all—understanding the false face of fame and not caring. Actually, if I had Bowie’s phone number I might not care either (and Elvis Presley’s driving licence too!). The film is odd and strangely affecting—two scenes particularly stand out:

Rodney scattering his mother’s ashes on the sea at Brighton is a lovely, poignant moment at the end of a film full of the beautiful people wondering how someone who helped so many people never succeeded himself (Question: ‘Would you like money?’ A: ‘Well, it would be nice’ cuts to various millionaire stars saying what a ‘groupie’ he is—well fuck you, Jagger); second, showing how the heart of this film is fandom and respect of the music, an amazing moment when Rodney plays Brian Wilson Ronnie Spector’s version of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ that Wilson has never heard—Wilson’s face is innocent, beautiful, and profoundly sad.

The Weather Underground (Sam Green, Bill Spiegel, 2003)
‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’. Consider the following scenario: America in the midst of an unnecessary and unpopular war, disenfranchised population feeling their voices aren’t heard, political corruption, civil rights issues. Yep, it’s the early-70’s—but the parallels with today’s political climate are profound, meaning that this well orchestrated and fascinating film is as timely as it is absorbing. A documentary about the US Weather Underground student movement in the late 60s and early 70s, this film is also interested in showing quite how close to civil war the US was during the 70s. It is an interesting sidelight into events that have been somewhat swept under the carpet, apart from brief films or novels (particularly Philip Roth’s American Pastoral). The Weather Underground radicalised in the face of increasingly repressive government, particularly the continuing war in Vietnam but also the civil rights outrages post-King’s assassination in 1968. They went underground and embarked on a campaign of bombing the military-industrial complex (often humorously and humiliatingly for the government). The film has little sympathy for the government, although is balanced enough to suggest that the Underground’s campaign of bombing was nothing more than violent mayhem. They proudly—if with skewed logic—point out that the only people that they harmed were their own people who blew themselves up in Greenwich Village. What comes across clearly is the hysterical and revolutionary mood of early 70s America—Black Panthers, CIA murders, riots, Kent State, the list is long and occasionally the odd logic of ‘bringing the war home’ makes some sense. The members of the Underground interviewed vary between pretty unrepentant and relatively distressed still about their involvement. Few of them regret it and most, it seems, would do it again.

That said, one of the sad things to come out of the film is quite how beaten the American left appears to be now—no one seems to be asking the radical questions they were then in the 70s, no one is rallying the marginalised and the young. OK the Weather Underground were unhinged and young, but as one of their number says, ‘90% of the things we wanted were right’. This film implicitly suggests that the swing to Reagan and away from popular dissent and revolt is a direct reaction to the violent militarisation of the left-wing in the 70s, be it Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigade. They are responsible, in their goofy, insane way, for destroying what little consensus dissident politics ever had in the US, handing the right the moral high-ground on a plate, and indirectly you might argue landing us in the anodyne, heads-below-the-parapet state we’re in.

Milwaukee, Minnesota (Allan Mindel, 2003)
The story of ‘retarded champion ice fisherman millionaire’ Albert and various attempts to gain his money and his love, Mindel’s directorial debut feels like The Grifters meets Fargo using the cast of Rain Man. The film wears its influences on its sleeve honestly enough, but manages to imbue this story of intrigue and bleak blackmail in the Midwest with its own quirky sense of itself. This is in no small part down to Troy Garity as Albert, providing the film with a moral and emotional centre that skirts around caricature and gives us a quiet sense of happiness and contentment. Which is perhaps a problem—had the film been true to its roots in hard-boiled writing, and the work of Jim Thompson in particular, the neat happy (ish) ending we are presented with here would have been far away. Albert lives with his mother in Milwaukee and wins large amounts of money ice-fishing (he can hear the fish, he says). Slow, near-autistic, innocent in the most profound sense of the world and relatively helpless, Albert has odd, stilted relationships with his mother and his boss (who seems relatively more interested in Albert than he should be). Yet these stilted, immature, relationships are mimicked by the ‘normal’ adults throughout the film. Albert’s innocence becomes a force for some kind of redemption for at least two of them. No one here really knows what they are doing, and they just claim to do so—the film’s motif of the fish responding to hunger, sunshine and bait suggests that humans are equally easy to manipulate. Strong performances and a nicely banal setting give this film bite and warmth.

Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio, 2003)
This fictional account of the kidnapping and eventual murder of Italian politician Aldo Moro in 1978 focuses on the dynamic between the four-strong Red Brigade cell which snatched and held him for several months. The centre of the film is Chiara, a young woman who is part of the group yet starts to sympathise for her charge—a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome. The film traces the relationships between the cell and Moro, and their trial of him and his eventual execution.

The film’s gender politics are questionable—Chiara is marginalised in the political process by her male companions (she is not involved in the actual kidnapping, she cooks, she does not speak to Moro) but equally she is marginalised by the film, as its emotive, weak centre. Her reaction to the kidnapping confirms her male companions’ opinion of her—that she is dangerous because of her femaleness. This caricature does not get much light and shade, despite a muddled back-story involving her father. The politics of the film generally are a little skewed. Chiara’s memories of her partisan father suggests in many ways that revolt and violent struggle are worthwhile stages of the political process, and the happy ending of the film (before the actual ending presenting footage of Moro’s state funeral) seems to celebrate his forgiving nature before brutally destroying it.

The film joins a trend for revisiting recent political events—in such company as Goodbye Lenin! and The Legends of Rita—but doesn’t really do it in any kind of a considered, active way. This is more a historicised than a historical film. The setting is nearly irrelevant, oddly enough—there is no comment on political process or even a dynamic between the captors that might suggest a debate. This is a consequence of the staginess of the dialogue and the script, and the whole thing feels like a psychological play that just happens to use the Moro kidnap as a setting.

Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill, 2003)
Nick Broomfield has been accused of dumbing-down recently, his documentaries—particularly his films about Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur—receiving a number of critical reviews suggesting he was too interested in celebrity and that his gonzo style of filmmaking had become too overbearing and loose. In returning to the case of Aileen Wournos, subject of his 1992 Aileen Wournos: the Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield has set those critics straight, and then some—and this work has been recognised, the film winning ‘Best Documentary’ at the Tribeca film festival. This is impassioned, important documentary making at its very best, and should get much more coverage than it, sadly, will actually receive (for details of screenings go here).

In the early 90s Broomfield travelled to Florida to make a film about the case of Aileen Wournos, accused of the murder of seven men on a Florida highway over the course of a year or so. Female serial killers are unusual and the media attention given them seemingly outweighs that assigned to men because of the fact that it is suggested women must be fundamentally evil to kill, whilst men are more prone to it. Women who kill are witches, fascinating but repellent at the same time. Myra Hindley has never been forgiven and she has become a cultural totem of evil, but the death of Ian Brady—arguably much more important in the Moors murders—would arouse much less media interest, for instance. Wournos suffered, it is alleged, for this gender bias. Her biography had salacious details—a lesbian past, accusations of incest and abuse—and her story was huge. So huge, in fact, that police officers, a lawyer and her adoptive mother were all implied in a conspiracy to sell her story to Hollywood during the trial.

In 2002 Broomfield was subpoenaed to appear at Wournos’ final appeal, and his film submitted as evidence. The film Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer follows the legal process of Wournos’ execution and questions the society that created her. Interviewing her childhood friends, past lovers, family and legal counsel, the film is deeply involved in the process of understanding her guilt (as Broomfield is in her trial), but fundamentally confused about how to do this. Broomfield suggests that American society is sickening, a horrific state in which the abused and the needy end up living in the woods for years taking drugs and selling themselves. It is a moving and a difficult film, harrowing but angering, too.

The film’s clear logic is that the violence, drugs and social disability of Aileen’s life contributed to her horrific descent, without a safety net, into a world of hitchhiking prostitution. According to this thesis, because of the lack of support and care she came into contact with horrific men (her first victim, who she originally alleged had anally raped her, had several previous convictions for sexual offences). Her initial defence had been self-defence, and she argued to her death that the police had known about her and had ‘let her kill again’ to encourage media interest. Indeed, she argued that the only reason she was called a serial killer was ‘the number’ which allowed the police to sell the rights to a higher bidder and increase the media witchhunt against her. It seems, however, a simplistic notion that she simply ‘lost her mind’ after the first killing. By its own reasoning, the film lacks sharpness on this point. She killed another six men within 12 months of the first, and pled self-defence for them all. She is either a serial murderer or insane, but the film can’t quite work out whether it is arguing for innate natural madness or socially conditioned insanity. Either way, it is obvious—as Broomfield points out in his briefing to the press at the end—that Wournos was not in full possession of her mind in the years before her execution. Whatever her mental state during the murders, she was evidently insane. Broomfield’s distanced persona and gravitas is crucial at this point—he simply allows the audience to make their own mind up. I would suggest that all those sitting in the theatre with me when I saw this disagreed with Jeb Bush’s official 15-minute psychological evaluation of her mental fitness to be executed (although, much like the version of her guilt or lack thereof, this is highly contingent and subjective).

You still have those seven victims, but, it feels at the end of this film, that Wournos herself becomes number eight. It is clear by the end of the film that Wournos wants to die because of the horrific pressures of Death Row. She has been consistently ill-served by the law, her family, the community and the media. The film indicts the entire weird, warped society of the United States as complicit somehow in her case, and in the horrific consequences of her actions.

Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003)
Easy Rider. Zabriskie Point. Deliverance. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Duel. Venture into the Californian desert and you can’t complain that you haven’t been warned. Full of rednecks and inbred madmen, right? Well, for the first 110 minutes of Dumont’s new road-cultureclash-horror movie, your fears for the central couple are allayed. They wander around the desert, swim, fuck, fight, eat and generally hang out. The film considers issues of estrangement, exile, cultural identity and language—all focussed through the central, enigmatic relationship between American David and French Katia. The shifting between French and English is at first uneasy for the audience and then seems wholly natural. The scenery is beautiful, and allowed to look amazing. Dumont builds up an underlying tension with lingering shots and amazingly precise use of sound and colour. Given that much of the dialogue and acting appears to some extent improvised, too, his effects are extraordinary. What appear to be casual shots are in fact effects deployed to unsettle the viewer without specifying the problem or the issue. One in particular stands out—as they chase each other down a dark street, fighting, the actors run out of frame and back in again, bringing both naturalistic and antidiegetic ideas into play. On the one hand the camera is an eye, on the other it is totally false framing device. The acting is incredibly naturalistic and the near monosyllabic interplay between the characters at once settles the audience and gives us a problem. We are given no traditional ‘in’ to these people, they don’t explain things and their relationship does not develop in a standard filmic way—and this is again at once verité and simultaneously vaguely unsettling. The film develops this sense of foreboding and dread, of misunderstanding and thinly disguised violence, particularly through the sexual relationship between Katia and David. This is incredibly violent, although not fetishistically, savage and primal. Normal things are made to seem strange—in a way that echoes David Lynch and particularly Mulholland Drive.

Yet the underlying dread and foreboding in many ways are unacknowledged. Generally the film is interested in gently getting us to drop our guard. The conclusion is shattering and traumatic just because of the gentle, offbeat and naturalistic calm that has pervaded the rest of the movie. We finally decide that this is going to be a nice two-handed film that explores strange locations and American-French relations, as the film explodes into shattering, brief and extremely visceral violence. The audience I saw this with were very obviously shaken by it—the traditional film festival ovation was rather muted and nervous—and it is certainly a hugely effective conclusion. Humiliation, America, brutality, sex, offbeat relationships—contemporary French cinema at its finest.

Jerome de Groot is a writer and film critic living in London.



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