People inhabiting places: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Mekong Hotel” and Vladimir Todorovic’s “Disappearing Landscape”

Mekong Hotel (2012).

Mekong Hotel (2012). Photo: IFFR.

The Mekong river is ever silent, always moving and giving life to its banks, vegetation and animals. Along its way, a sturdy hotel stands in Thailand, permanently inhabited by stories and ghosts of past visitors. Staying the night means interlocking with the history of the place.

Switch to Singapore: humongous block buildings, motor ways and loading docks dominate the land. Messages (SLOW, SPEED CAMERA) turn ordinary language as alien as the objects feel huge and foreign. You cannot leave your mark anywhere.

Poetic and thoroughly impressive cinematic works, Mekong Hotel and Disappearing Landscape share many things. Both films study people and their relationships to their surroundings. Both avoid traditional, symmetric shot-reverse shots. Takes are unusually long and editing is sparse, camera still and framing elaborate. Greenish night and twilight are among the most popular hues.

Both films belong to the top of the 2013 IFFR’s selection.

Disappearing Landscape (2013).

Disappearing Landscape (2013). Photo: IFFR.

World-famous Thailandian director Apichatpong Weerasethakul continues in Mekong Hotel the themes of his past films, of which Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), a lucid celluloid dream of reincarnation and family ties, won him a Palme d’Or.

Mekong Hotel is just the perfect holiday spot. Diegetic music, produced by a classical guitar player, soothes us into the lives of the inhabitants: two young couples, artists and Aunt Jean, who just might be a Pob, an all-devouring female ghost. Dialogue marries military history, government’s flood politics and everyday worries about which T-shirt should I wear without any worries.

Most striking is the universal kindness, respect for things slow and past generations found in Weerasethakul’s oeuvre.

Serbian visual artist Vladimir Todorovic formed his second feature of three parts: starting from Singapore, a relatively new supercity, through rural Serbia and landing in the old continent Barcelona. Often people move through spaces, rather than inhabit them. Human connection, however, can make a home out of any place.

In a few scenes, modernist architecture shakes hands with hard surfaces which are tainted with posters. Leaving your mark is, after all, possible.

Cosplay photoshoot in Disappearing Landscape. A sign of alienation and the power of human imagination? Photo: IFFR.

Cosplay photoshoot – Sign of alienation or the power of human imagination? From in Disappearing Landscape (2013). Photo: IFFR.

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Industry Talk #2: Creativity and Script Development

Moderator Mary Davies discussed with script editor Anita Voorham (Torino Film Lab), creative producer Titus Kreyenberg (unafilm) and filmmakers Fien Troch (Kid) and Fernando Guzzoni (Carne de perro) how a writer and creative producer can get a filmmaker’s script into a potentially filmable and fundable project, and the role of script developers compared to producers.

Industry talk panelists: (2nd left) Guzzoni, Kreyenberg, moderator Davies, Troch and Voorham.

Industry talk panelists: (2nd left) Guzzoni, Kreyenberg, moderator Davies, Troch and Voorham.

Filmmaker panelists Troch and Guzzoni took the producer’s role in helping the director-writer getting ideas on screen as an advisor, who believes in you and gives the needed artistic freedom. As an example, Troch’s producer got money from other film-related projects so he was able to support her projects without any financial friction getting the way of artistic vision.

Guzzoni worked with three producers on his first feature Carne de perro: “The most important thing is they respect your opinion and you can take the last decision on everything.”

Established film producer Titus Kreyenberg stressed that producers should get involved in script development as early on as possible. Open communication is crucial.

“If I get a script or treatment, I comment on it by typing my comments on the treatment. I always tell the writer/director: Read the comments, think about them and use them as a hint, if you’re stuck. Do whatever you like with them, but think about them”, Kreyenberg told on Sunday’s Industry talk.

Anita Voorham shared good experiences from Torino Film Lab: “Reason we call the Lab “script and pitch”, is because pitching really helps people figure out what their voice in the project is. That’s the most important thing for us, to really figure out the core connection between filmmaker and the project.”

Script consultants eg. in Torino Film Lab work in groups with other producers. Voorham advised that script consultants can be a safe way to develop the process in the short run, as producer’s have a much longer relationship with filmmaker.

Brussels-based Fien Troch developed a script at Cinéfondation residency in Paris where residents often read each other’s scripts. Pretty soon friendships were established and being truthful became harder.

“I think I needed 3 films to accept somebody to help me. It’s such a fragile process, that person beside you has to know how to approach the problem.”

Panelists also discussed cinema as an inspiration and a profession, how a producer can hope to limit the financially challenging vision of the filmmaker and the importance of exchanging imagery to get people lured in to your projects. According to Kreyenberg, producer’s role in post production is to help filmmaker achieve the final edit via creative discussion.

“Producer and director have to have the same vision. If the director loses it, producer’s job is to find it again and bring it back”, he added.

Sunday’s audience questions ranged from how to cope with the changing ideas of a filmmaker to developing a baby film industry like Sudan on international festival platforms, like the IFFR.

Industry Talk #1: Small Step or Giant Leap?

On Sunday morning, Edinburgh Film Festival veteran Mary Davies talked with Greek film producer Konstantinos Kontovrakis and first time feature filmmakers Visra Vichit Vadakan (Thailand) and Sebastián Hofmann (Mexico) about making the transition from shorts to features, funding your films and the future prospects for film.

Discussion in action.

Panelists in action: Kontovrakis, Davies, Vadakan and Hofmann.

Hofmann and Vadakan are both at the IFFR with their debut films, Halley and Karaoke Girl, while Kontovrakis has produced 4 films. All felt making a short film or a sample, whether a fake trailer or material to be included in the actual film, is crucial in getting funding for your feature.

“It was a very good investment: people could not just read the script but see the visual look of the film in advance”, Hofmann told about the making of a fake trailer for Halley.

Kontovrakis’ background is in journalism and film criticism, so he had already knowledge about how to go about in the festival circuit. As a result, he started straight from producing features. Visra Vichit Vadakan expressed her admiration for the short form.

“It’s really hard to touch someone in 10 minutes. Features may have short scenes that do that, but with shorts, you have to opportunity to touch more people because of the internet. I expect more people will watch the trailer of Karaoke Girl than the actual film.”

Outside the film, Vadakan directed short content expanding Karaoke Girl’s main character and offered to the public on the film’s website. According to panelists, this shows how different the experience of making short films and moving to features is from 5 or 10 years ago.

Karaoke Girl (2013).

Karaoke Girl (2013). Photo: IFFR.

For Hofmann, the actual transition from shorts to feature came naturally: “I was 30. I thought if I’m going to make a film eventually, now it’s the time to try.”

Vadakan talked about a leap of faith, how different the long form is from short one and how first feature was an exploration of new kind of audience and crew relation:

“I could’ve made a 100 shorts and it would not have prepared me for the long. It’s the changing relationships with characters and audience. You’re not asking them for 2 minutes, you’re asking them for 2 hours.”

Discussion also rose about the difficulty of making the infamous third feature. Festivals like IFFR concentrate on first and second features while huge pressure is built on the following third. Press and the industry feeds on newcomers like vampires.

Producer Kontovrakis gave advice for newcomer filmmakers: 1. Do not expect to make any money (“I went through several training programs as a producer and nobody tells you that.”). 2. Build really good relationships with your crew (because you’re going to need them to adjust, from time to time, to difficult situations). 3. Know your audience.

Panelists disagreed on to what extent filmmakers should be aware of their audience before making a film. To Hofmann, every film should be about ones own artistic flair. Vadakan brought up that caring more or less about audience can also be an artistic choice of the director.

Kontovrakis, however, maintained that filmmakers should be able to visualize their potential audience, even if there are just 3 people you’re aiming at. It doesn’t have to do with box office results but knowing who you’re addressing the story to helps to shape the script, too.

Cinematographer steps up in the enjoyable “Frankenstein’s Army” (Richard Raaphorst, 86′, HDCam)

Karel Roden (Hellboy) does a memorable cameo as Dr. Frankenstein.

Karel Roden (Hellboy) does a memorable cameo as Dr. Frankenstein. Photo: IFFR.

Audience reactions at the World Premiere of Richard Raaphorst‘s splendidly gore and funny Frankenstein’s Army suggested that we were all trying out a new themepark ride rather than buried deep into our cozy seats in Pathé 4 theatre, watching guts, brains and blood gush on the screen: gasps, laughter and spontaneous ovations slit the musty, anticipation-filled air like an eye in Un chien andalou (1929).

But there are more than one points of departure that set this Dutch-Czech Republican production, initially named “Worst Case Scenario”, apart from the rest of the candidates for the FIPRESCI Jury Prize in the Bright Future section.

Frankenstein’s Army is audience manipulation at the purest, a Nazi Zombie intersection of splatter and gore that uses every known trick to surprise us and get us hooked. Soviet soldiers get lured into the secret lab of Doktor Frankenstein whose insane experiments in combining human and machine parts are meant to save the world from both Communism (left side of the brain) and Nazism (right side).

Most of the debut feature films in Rotterdam are smaller in scale, ambiguous and undefinable rather than genre per se, like Frankenstein’s Army. The film took 10 years to complete. It shows, in a good way.

Instead of forcing us to image what fun this could’ve been, as with recent films of the same genre (War of the Dead: Stone’s War, Dead Snow), Frankenstein’s Army delivers, from the concept (Stalin’s handpicked war photographer follows a combat team on a mission, later footage is found and hence, the film) to its execution (characters address the camera, ie. the audience directly) and cheezy dialogue spoken in bad, Eastern European accents.

Computer games are obvious source of inspiration to the “dungeon” scenes where all hell breaks loose. Key to their effectiveness lies in the rhythm: intense rampage is generally preceded and succeeded by quiet, strength-gathering phases. Sound effects are, faithful to the genre, loud and expressive.

That particular drilling sound still haunts me.

Huge and fragile build-up succeeds. Frankenstein’s diabolical man-machines – designs that even Guillermo Del Toro could envy – get crazier and meaner the deeper we stumble into the madman’s lair. Diegetic use of camera is maintained throughout. The wall between infront and behind the camera, however, isn’t.

And here comes the prize: a film like Frankenstein’s Army, that could so easily be overlooked on an arthouse festival, does for cinematographers what Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (and more recently Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, also playing here at IFFR) did for sound recordists.

In a few ingenious turns of events, Richard Raaphorst makes the DoP’s work (à la Bart Beekman) visible to audiences in a way they might have never thought it before. The question posed is: What is it like, staying behind the camera?

The answer, given at the gloriously fun and bloody end of the joy ride, must be shared by most of the directors and cinematographers in the world:

Better than being in front of it.

Introducing Inside Iran: “Parviz” (Majid Barzegar, 102′, DCP)

Parviz director Majid Barzegar at work.

Parviz director Majid Barzegar at work. Photo: IFFR.

Political climate in Iran is not for film. Artists and thinkers have been captured and imprisoned to their homes or facilities. As a result, many have left while others have stayed and continued their work in partial secrecy, in a striving underground film culture unlike any other.

Tehran-based director and screenwriter Majid Barzegar is one of them. His second feature Parviz (2012), a bitter, restrained and original tragedy about the loss of compassion in modern Iran, is one of the recent works from Iranian filmmakers living in and outside Iran screened here at IFFR. Signals series labelled “Inside Iran” includes films from directors ranging from Paris-based, Iranian nouvelle vague director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to young more-or-less established newcomers, among them Alireza Khatami, Mania Akbari, Mani Hanighi and Vahid Vakilifar.

Shot in 20 days, Barzegar’s Parviz – already noted by NETPAC award – unveils striking social criticism in a realistic drama. It will not get distributed in Iran, apart from some independent screenings in local festivals. After the screening on Friday the 25th, Barzegar said that he didn’t get a permission to make the movie at all, but he did it anyway, independently:

“There are people unseen and unheard in society. I wanted to see what they would say and do.”

Like the recent, Oscar-winning Iranian drama Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (2011), Parviz addresses individual’s conflict with morals, society’s secularization and general alienation via a strong dramatic lead.

Portrayed relentlessly by Canadian theatre actor Levon Haftvan, Parviz is a sad figure; a 50-year-old, seriously obese man still living at home with his father, in a working class block building midst suburbian Tehran. He is practically invisible, unless needed for some small maintenance work or tasks like picking kids up from school. Foreman at the dry cleaner’s where he works insults Parviz at a daily basis. His unloving father can only feel frustration and anger towards his ill-equipped offspring.

Parviz (2012).

Levon Haftvan in Parviz (2012). Photo: IFFR.

When father remarries, son is forced to move out. The act sets the narrative in motion. Parviz becomes a pariah who is rejected by the same community that used to treat him as a member, albeit reluctantly. Accompanied by zero coping skills, Parviz starts to fight back. Barzegar’s intuitive film follows his quiet resistance with honesty and empathy producing, in effect, a cumulative narrative. Not laying judgement on the protagonist shows a respect for audience’s intelligence; an attitude recognized in general in the Iranian cinema.

Opening scene of the film catches Parviz alone in his room. Sound world is set: heavy, dragging breathing accompanied by the hopeful hum of the city. Documentary-style camera is usually positioned facing Parviz – always in the same, gray t-shirt –  framing the actor in full, at the same time sustaining constant, tiny movement.

As the story unfolds, Parviz shows to be unable to feel compassion, attachment or pity. We can see why: Parviz shows how a lifetime without kindness affects a human being. Father-son relationship is embodied in a short scene where Parviz and his father’s bride sit in the dark of the living room, discussing their mutual appreciation for soft, forgiving natural light, only a moment before the father returns from fixing the electricity and immediately turns on the harsh, articial light. Emotional deadlock is eased in a radical, yet carefully balanced and even comical finale as the tables are turned and the oppressed graduates as the oppressor.

Parviz is a noirish fairytale-take on how power relations work, its occasional surges of horror wrapped in socioeconomical realism. It is easy to see why Iranian authorities have taken it “the wrong way”, as Barzegar stated after the public screening. Devoid of compromising closure, Parviz manages to stay true to itself.

Film Review: Après mai (Olivier Assayas, 122′, DCP)

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is still fascinated with the continuation of human cultural tradition, what we can learn and what we in turn leave behind when we go. With Après mai, Assayas moves from the family value-laden art objects of L’heure d’été (2008) to an even straighter-forward statement.

We can’t so easily abandon our cultural alphabetics. Mutiny against the establishment is simply the necessary step on the way to adulthood, part and parcel of the compulsory, empty movement that is vital in creating the tension upholding the present.

Christine (Lola Créton, middle), one of the children of the revolution. Photo: IFFR.

Yet, Après mai is not cynical at any turn, but achieves something unique: it tackles the paradoxically hygienic revolution of the hippie generation (our present status quo!) with surprising warmth. A retrospective look could turn things ugly, a failed opposition of all things easy and fun a sad joke. There’s so much to chuckle at, but you can’t help falling in love with the children of the revolution.

Along the way, cinema shows its many faces as an agitator, educator, creator and, above all, as an artifact of memory.

Set in the immediate aftermath of 1968 student revolution, Après mai starts with refreshing political fervour. Camera glides into a violent demonstration where leather-jacketet, Naziesque riot police beat skinny protesters. Bushy-haired Gilles (Clèment Métayer) and his friends are active and resourceful, their evident narrow-mindedness extremely productive. They put up posters en masse, plant fires, destroy property. Instead of walking they run. Assayas portrays the hasty young agitators with surprising gentleness, though the hypocrisy is evident throughout.

Gilles’ character is, naturally, the most symptomatic, raised in a cultural home filled with books and social capital. Like changing between jackets or falling in love, Gilles experiments with the arts without boundaries. Starting with Jackson Pollock-style drip painting and moving on to portraits, naivism, psychedelic illusions and finally, film, the main protagonist suggests an auto-biographical reading. Featuring idiosyncratic characters and funny dialogue (“I study sacret dance”), Assayas’ effortless storytelling refuses labeling and ordinary chit-chat. Dreamy and descending visuals, hues ranging from dawn to sunburnt guide us intuitively from spring till autumn.

At the end of that journey, the beginning is already nostalgic, as Gilles’ visit to the experimental cinema screening shows. By putting the distance between, analytical ability to measure appears. But something is lost in the experience.

Assayas plunges into final, banal joke involving Nazi officers, a submarine, a curvy woman in leopard skin and a B movie monster, most likely suggesting the absurdity of ideals lost. Gilles smiles and leaves,  now walking instead of running. We may exit the theatre laughing, but the parable of compromise remains as a sting in our chests.

Good night, snowy Helsinki! Hello sunshine and Rotterdam!

Hi everyone!

My name is Jutta Sarhimaa and I’m done packing. Which means: I’m ready to start my IFFR 2013 Young Film Critic journey!

Very excited about meeting everyone (my fellow critics Agustin, Carlos, Kiva, Polly + all the film & festival people in Rotterdam Film Festival!). Anxious about things I may have forgot to pack/take care. I’m sure it’ll be okay.

Approximately 5 hours before I have to wake up so I should hit the sack.

Oh, it’s DocPoint, the Helsinki International Documentary Film Festival here in Finland at the moment. It’s also snowy and freezing.

See you soon. Be sure to tune in from tomorrow onwards!