Monday 10th April
All good things come to and end. And bad things too. And all things in between. Last full day in Paris, last full day of the four-festival, three-week trip that started back on 18th March in Copenhagen (see below), then took in Vilnius and Saas-Fee. I can’t complain. Tomorrow I fly Paris-Heathrow-Newcastle and will be in Sunderland in enough time for my quasi-regular Tuesday night visit to South Hylton Working Men’s Club (Tuesday night is quiz/bingo/dominos evening at SH WMC.)
With documentary-section jury duties completed at the L’Europe Autour de l’Europe festival (which continues until Sunday; István Szabó’s fiction-section jury begin their work tomorrow), today was all about a trip to Maisons-Laffitte races, about 20 minutes from central Paris via RER. I squeezed in 30 laps at Luxembourg Gardens before my usual €1.90 baguettine/banana/milk breakfast from the Carrefour opposite my hotel (La Louisiane, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés), then high-tailed it over the Pont Neuf to the subterranean labyrinth that is Les Halles station for the train to Maisons-Laffitte.
Myself, jurors Clémence, Mathieu and Simon — plus festival-founder/chief Irena — congregated at the Pavillon Bleu, a humble eaterie not far from the track, much frequented by stable staff (unlike the big Paris tracks like Longchamp and St.Cloud, Maisons is an actual training-centre). We sat outside and had steak & frites, then repaired to the course where we all struggled to find winners; a couple of them had a couple of euros on the André Fabre-trained, imperious Al Wukair, who retained his unbeaten record with a stunning last-to-first triumph in the main event, the Prix Djebel (starting odds-on).
“Al” now heads to Newmarket for the 2000 Guineas in early May, and could well prove a superstar. Odds of 7/1 look generous, but I won’t be taking them — thanks to a catastrophe in the last race, when I backed five outsiders but stupidly overlooked one longshot… who of course obliged easily at odds of 29/1. This isn’t the first time gambling/betting/racing has kicked me in the teeth, but it will — I think — be the last.
In a stunned daze, I slunk from the course and sat in a small park dominated by an old (and recently green-painted) bronze statue of 19th century champion Dollar [above]. Standing in his comforting shadow, with the sun bright over his shoulder in the soft early evening warmth, I took a silent pledge: no more gambling. I’ve been at it for 40 (yes, forty) of my 46 years, pretty much, and I know now that it’s time to draw the line. ¡BASTA!
Sunday 9th April
After a “record” 40 laps of my Luxembourg gardens 50-second mini-circuit, met Saas-Fee juror Pascaline Sordet and her cold-suffering boyfriend at the nearby Pavillon de la Fontaine, an outdoor cafe under the trees overlooking the main part of the gardens — mid-19th century statues of France’s ancient queens and noble ladies surveying the scene over the parapet. Sun dappling through the leaves; park already pretty full at 10.45 on the day of Paris’s Marathon.
Later, in the afternoon, mainly found myself back in the area between the Place de la République and the Porte St Martin, back and forth along the Boulevard Saint-Denis / Boulevard Saint-Martin, a handy spot as it includes a PMU bookies’ (where I managed to “drop” €25 or so on the Chantilly card), an internet café, a PMU-connected bar (La Violette) and various small eateries and shops for relatively inexpensive snacks. Managed to squeeze in half an hour soaking up the warm sun on a bench, adding a bit of colour to my paling cheeks.
Final two jury films in the L’Europe Autour de l’Europe festival at 7pm and 9pm: Audrius Stonys’ already prize-garlanded Woman And The Glacier, and a French-TV documentary about a French astronaut. In between I nipped out to the Pont-Neuf and joined the sparse crowds watching the post-sunset scene upriver beyond the weirdly geometrical (from this precise angle, in this light) Eiffel Tower. Paris can be “class” (as we say in Sunderland).
After the astronaut picture four of the jury-members repaired to the Cafe Danton on Boulevard Saint-Germain to decide our prize — the other two jurors submitted their votes/opinions by email.
Meeting was cordial and pretty quick in terms of coming up with a result, to be announced later in the week. Once again I ended up eating pretty late — sardines just before midnight, in this instance, though I have had very little problem getting to kip here. Sleep delayed by (online) following developments at Augusta where the Masters golf boiled down to a playoff between Justin Rose and perennial nearly-man Sergio Garcia… who finally won his first major after 19 years and 74 consecutive attempts, to general worldwide relief and merriment.
Saturday 8th April
A rest-day from my usual Luxembourg Gardens running routine, but ended up getting an unplanned workout on the streets of Paris anyway…. Somehow lost my orientation around Les Halles on my way to 1pm lunch appointment with a punctilious American writer-director acquaintance, and ended up galloping along the banks of the Seine towards the Île Saint-Louis. Arrived 1.11 in a muck-sweat, very hot & bothered after dodging through the international crowds thronging central Paris on this sunny, warm Saturday in April — a nightmarish situation.
Scanning the tables inside and out: no sign of my acquaintance, whom I thought might have already departed in a chagrined state given my impardonable rudeness. But then up he ambled around 1.20, apologising for his tardiness. I later learned he’d emailed me at 12.58 explaining he was running late — not much use considering I don’t (and will never) have a smartphone of any description (of course, if I did use a smartphone I wouldn’t have gotten lost in the first place. Them’s the breaks.)
Lunch — at the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis, just over the little bridge that connects the island with the bigger, better-known Île de la Cité (home of Notre Dame) was decent value given the prevailing Prices: I had herring fillets and a tomato salad, unable to face red meat on such a warm day, especially in my uncharacteristically flustered state.
Further frustrating cock-up later in the afternoon when — after a mid-afternoon saunter around the Marais district (another few chapters of Martin Eden in the dinky, busy square du Temple park, I walked quickly back to my hotel to listen to audio commentary of the Grand National via tablet. made it just in time, only to find that the crappy technology of the gadget wouldn’t allow me to listen in. A little while later realised I could have watched the whole thing live at Corcoran’s Irish pub, just across the street from the cinema where my jury screenings take place.
Didn’t have a bet in the race (won by Scottish raider One For Arthur), but was still kicking myself for my clod-headedness when the first of the night’s two competition titles (Normal Autistic Film) started shortly after 7. Had to content myself with a midnight catchup via YouTube, following a late jury-dinner after the second picture, A Bastard Child.
Friday 7th April
Stymied from my usual circuit opposite the Senate in the Luxembourg Gardens: a section cordoned off with two bands of red-and-white plastic tape. So instead I improvised a longer, more public circuit around a big oblong pond facing the front of the Senate building, and managed half an hour — including a bit of dopey-selfie-stick-wielding-tourist-dodging here and there — the timing confirmed by the fact that I heard the Senate clock chime 9.45am a little after the start of the run, and finished up seconds after it struck 10.15. Third day of running in a row; I will rest tomorrow, wary of aggravating a leg-muscle injury which flared up late last year when I overdid things in Vienna…
Metro to Montparnasse, to the small flat of veteran Positif critic Eithne O’Neill — white wine, then downstairs to a small oyster/seafood restaurant on her street, La Cabane à Huîtres de Francis, where I had half a dozen Arcachon specimens in their craggy shells, followed by a plate of Brebis (ewe) cheese, also accompanied by white wine. Feeling a touch light-headed, afterwards napped on a bench in a nearby churchyard (Notre-Dame-des-Champs) before 5.10 screening of James Gray’s Lost City of Z at the punningly-titled Gaumont Parnasse.
After The Immigrant, another period-pic misfire from JG, capable of excellent stuff when sticking to a time (post-1985) and a place (New York) and a milieu he knows well. Main problem here was miscasting of Newcastle’s Charlie Hunnam in the central role of intrepid explorer Percy Fawcett — never looked comfortable, never sounded right (soft Rs, over-enunciated Ts), and he’s in pretty much every scene. No kind of “movie star” on this evidence. Ouch.
Slow walk back to my hotel from Montparnasse, including a few moments appreciating the vast frontage of the L’église Saint-Sulpice [above], fancier and bigger and more impressive than many cathedrals, with the 8pm light striking the pale masonry just so, and a 5/6-full moon visible in the darkning blue sky beyond.
Just the one L’Europe Autour de l’Europe jury-film for me today: 66-minute Turkish documentary The Others, after which I repaired to a nearby overpriced bar with fellow-juror Mathieu Lericq, to debate the merits and otherwise of Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz (which he saw earlier in the evening, and which I’d skipped having seen it montsh ago in Venice). Narrow streets of St Germain des Prés busy with tourists on this temperate spring evening; I headed knackeredly sackwards after just two six-euro bottles of Pelforth Brumatne.
Thursday 6th April
A less eventful run around my 50-second circuit near the Medici Fountain (which according to adjoining plaque dates back to 1630) in the Luxembourg Gardens today, 35 laps in half an hour or so, then met Hollywood Reporter colleague Boyd Van Hoeij for coffees in a nearby spot, the Café Tournon, which I thought might be good for breakfast but turned out to be a somewhat pricey kind of wine-bar (seldom cheap, Paris is now largely extortionate.)
One hour turned to two, and by the time I got back to my hotel, had some petit déjeuner (mini-baguette, banana, pint of milk — all from the Carrefour across the street) in my room, showered, etc, it was nearly 2pm.
Scooted across the river to the ever-crowded, jostle-tastic PMU betting-shop right next to the Pompidou Centre to watch the Prix Magister at St Cloud, where I had a pretty strong fancy for an outsider (16/1) irresistibly named Marathon Man (no, the fancy was nothing to do with his cinematic moniker). Stuck a small saver on the reportedly well-regarded Falcon Wings too, which proved wise when Marathon Man, having made the running, faded late on and was swamped by his rivals.
Staying on from the rear, Falcon Wings staged a late rally and very narrowly got up on the line [above] to beat the favourite, New Trails, by a nose. An impressive performance as Falcon Wings had looked lumberingly lazy in the paddock; he’ll doubtless go on to bigger things in the months ahead.
Afterwards had a wander round the quartier, reading more of Martin Eden with a €1.20 coffee at the bar of the Tabac du Temple, and ending up on the Place de la République before heading back towards the river — another couple of chapters in a small, leafy park (square Émile-Chautemps) in the temperate mid-afternoon sunshine.
Two jury-films in the evening at the St André des Arts cinema, accessed by the side entrance on the fabled Rue Gît-le-Cœur, in the Prix Présent section of the L’Europe Autour de l’Europe festival: Brother Jakob (Germany) and Maybe Universe Maybe Desert (Portugal), both potential contenders for our prize.
There are six of us on the jury, including Hungarian-born producer/distributor/man-of-cinema Simon Shandor, a burly chap in his sixties who looks and carries himself like something out of Game of Thrones, and who exudes the air of a chap who has been around every block and lives life to the full, as the saying goes. Potentially inriguing jury-discussions await…
Wednesday 5th April
I cheated death in the Luxembourg Gardens. Went for a run in the morning in a side-section opposite the Senate building, 25 laps in 21 1/2 minutes, a tight little circuit of an area adjoining the fabulous Medici Fountain (above). After warming down, I was walking along another side of the Senate when a large tree-branch came crashing down onto the pavement with a heavy CRACK, missing me by about six feet. Minimum damage if it had hit: fractures skull. A young soldier guarding the Senate with his pals saw the near-miss, called out in French that it must be my lucky day — I replied, also in French, that I should do the lottery. “Exactement!,” he agreed.
Any day on which one can view a James Gray classic on 35mm in Paris must be reckoned a lucky one, of course — this afternoon I was one of ten patrons watching We Own the Night in the Salle Langlois of the Grand Action on the Rue des Écoles, room complete with mural at the back depicting M Langlois peering over a wall. Film was a bit hard to hear at certain points but retains its impact 10 years on, and the very last scene will always hit like a velvet-wrapped hammer; though I was no fan of The Immigrant, have high hopes for his latest, The Lost City of Z, which I aim to catch here later in the week.
Evening excitements included being introduced to the Paris public at the Saint-André des Arts cinema — main location of the L’Europe Autour de’Europe festival, main focus of my visit — along with three of my fellow five jurors. I had already seen the film which then played, so repaired to a hidden little bar around the corner, the Vénus Noire, to make further progress on my 1970s Penguin paperback of Jack London’s Martin Eden. 81/348pp so far.
Tuesday 4th April
First full day in Paris — no festival jury-duties yet — a chunk of which was taken up with John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin, one of several independent cinemas showing (mainly) old pictures on the Rue Champollion in the Sorbonne district.
Whenever I’m in Paris I always try to take in several films at such “rep” houses, which until very recently always used to favour 35mm wherever possible. Digital has (sad to note) apparently become more acceptable to the programmers these days, and the Cassavetes was shown from a serviceable 2K. First time I’d seen it for more than 20 years; as I remembered, the whole thing hangs on Gena Rowlands’ full-bore commitment to the central role of a mentally unbalanced Los Angeles housewife.
Some sprawling indulgences along the way, and the longueurs proved too much for the patron to my left who muttered “OK!” to himself before bustling towards the exit. Afterwards I met young writer-director Isabel Pagliai (whose Isabella Morra is one of my favourite shorts of the decade) for drink around the corner at a reliably unchanging boozer, Bar le Duc. As we approached, I noted the presence of two (or was it three?) uniformed, twentysomething soldiers making their unhurried way along the street with automatic weapons in their hands on some kind of patrol — Paris evidently still on terrorism-wary, ostentatiously-militarised high alert.
Monday 3rd April
Saas-Fee → Visp → Zürich → Paris. A slightly ballachey journey, having to carry my heaviest piece of luggage (a large green canvas army-type bag) by hand rather than on shoulder when part of the stitching started to come away (with a dull but sickening snapping sound) as I walked from the Zürich train station to a nearby restaurant for a coffee before heading to the airport. Had plenty of time, after getting the bus all the way downhill from Saas-Fee to Visp mid-morning; crazily spectacular Alpine vistas throughout.
Train from Visp to Zürich via Bern, high over the virid green river that flows through the Swiss capital. This part of the journey I was finishing Less Than Zero, which I’d started in Winterthuir the week before; started Jack London’s Martin Eden on the hour-long flight to Paris. Arrived at Charles de Gaulle in warm early-evening sunshine and got the RER train all the way to St Michel station, then a shortish walk to my hotel — La Louisiane, former haunt of Bakers Chet and Josephine, E.Hemingway, etc.
I’m here as guest of the L’Europe Autour de l’Europe film festival — on the jury awarding the Prix Présent in the section devoted to new/newish documentaries. Screenings start Wednesday; one or two each evening. Finding my room in the deceptively labyrinthine Louisiane proved an arduous, brain-teasing puzzle, involving several trips up and down in the molasses-slow lift, but I made it in the end, awash in sweat and decidedly hot-and-bothered. A shower revitalised all jaded senses, then I headed round the corner to the Old Navy bar for an open-air pint or two with Paris-based writer-director Jérémie Brugidou (Bx46) — whose current projects include a documentary on “poaching” in South African game reserves, and a PhD on cinema in relation to bio-luminescence.
Sunday 2nd April
Last full day in Saas-Fee — no films, no duties, and not much temptation to leave the comfort of my hotel-room given the steady snow outside the window. Perfect opportunity to crack on with some work, namely an article for a Slovenian magazine on the use of Leonard Cohen songs in two recent shorts, and the interview with Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth I conducted in Copenhagen, and which I am in the process of writing up for (probably) Little White Lies. Progress slow, thanks to (a) my habitual laziness and procrastination and(b) a mild case of “the runs” which afflicted me well into the afternoon.
Eventually got going and made some advances on both fronts, before heading out around 7.30 for a final dinner with festival co-director Stefan Fichtner and others including musician guest Jarkko from Finland. Across the street audience-prize winner Mercy was playing at the Rex, in what might possibly turn out to be that venerable establishment’s last picture show if worrying rumours about its future prove correct…
After dinner Jarkko and I hit the town, so to speak: our late-evening goal was Nesti’s Skibar, open till 1am every night… but which was annoyingly shut for some kind of staff party when we tried to get in around 10.30. With Pic Pic also closed (as advertised) we ended up (after trudging the near-deserted, sleet-wetted streets of the town centre) in the somewhat unpromising-looking and -sounding Metro Cocktail Bar [above, in warmer months] near my hotel.
Appearances proved happily deceptive once we got inside this cave-like establishment, its rough ceilings bedecked with footy scarves, decent not-too-loud music on the jukebox and non-extortionately priced beer. Headed to bed after two rounds, wary of overdoing it on my final night with a lengthy day of travel ahead…
Saturday 1st April
Last day of the Saas-Fee Filmfest proper — tomorrow involves only the repeat showings of two of the winning films, announced at prize-giving tonight at the Cinema Rex; I was briefly on stage along with my fellow press-jury members Pascaline and Jan [above] to reveal that we had given our main prize to Ronny Trocker’s The Eremites (Die Einsiedler), with a special mention to The Stopover (Voir du pays) by the sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin. All this decided in a cordial, tangential discussion post-breakfast at the hotel — done and dusted in an hour or so.
Film-makers’ jury went for Austrian/Swiss/German sci-fi Hidden Reserves (Stille Reserven) by Valentin Hitz — who was present to collect his award, a small larch-branch set in a block of clear perspex, handled with respectful reverence [below] by various folk at the closing dinner at Steakhouse Saas.
Juries are generally “spoiled” at film-festivals, especially smaller events like Saas-Fee — raclette one day, fondue the next (pity the poor rube who confused the two!), plenty of local wine etc.
And the viewing schedule here was hardly an overload, allowing several visitors — including Jan — to make the most of the slopes during the daytime. Never having been one for skiing, I have adopted a somewhat more sedentary approach in this relatively quiet week before I head to Paris (for another jury!) on Monday.
Planned to do a bit of sunbathing (face-only) out front of the hotel in the early afternoon, but then the sky clouded over and by 3pm it was actually snowing — continued on and off into the night, which again concluded at Pic Pic bar; I had a go of the hammering-nails-into-treetrunk game and unsurprisingly proved pretty rubbish at it. You only get one blow per round, and have to use the thin end of the hammer-head; a game of precision and frustration, rather like my distant memories of golf.
Friday 31st March
Saw a bit more of Saas-Fee, schedule a little looser as no jury-lunch was organised today. Wandered round the compact centre, occasionally stopping to gawp at the snowy mountains rising up on all sides, tiny black specks descending the slopes with the side-to-side undulation of the skiier. Sent a postcard to my parents back home in Sunderland — no post office here as such, instead a newsagent near the bus station selling stamps etc. I also purchased a copy of New York Times International Edition (4.50CHF) and sat out front of my hotel in the intermittent sunlight perusing the pages with a coffee.
– Filling void, Pence guides boss in battle
– A state prison’s grim slide into violence
– Mosul’s terrified civilians
– Making ‘Brexit’ official, Britain enters uncertainty
– ‘Social discontent’ grips Ivory Coast
All this strife seems a very long way off here in the Saas Valley, needless to say, a well-heeled, discreetly affluent timewarp of a place which seems happily stuck in the… mid-80s, maybe? Such vibe particularly evident in a couple of apres-ski bars me and fellow juror Pascaline visited after the last of the evening’s three films (Quebec-set, Manchester By the Sea-ish Swiss production Mercy): Nesti’s and Pic Pic [above].
Nesti’s a small joint dominated by big horse-shoe shaped bar, to the extent that we had to squeeze our way around through the throngs of international, mainly twentysomething drinkers in various stages of jollity/inebriation. I had a bottle of Cardinal Brunette dark beer, taking in the various posters of ski notables of bygone years such as Jean-Claude Killy. We exited just after 1pm, when the lights had come on to signal an end to the festivities, and Bohemian Rhapsody was being played in what I took to be a nightly closing-time singalong ritual.
Pic Pic was similarly laid outbut a bit quieter, with an older, less rowdy crowd including the filmmakers’ jury — who were conducting their animated deliberations over in a corner. Among the excitements on offer: a kind of tree-stump with a loose hammer resting on top, to be used to knock in nails as part of some arcane Swiss bar-sport. Not exactly the kind of diversion likely to be offered in a British pub… A vaguely tipsy female patron came up to me waving the hammer around asking “are you my nail?” “No, but my name is Neil,” I deadpanned. Not bad for 2am.
Thursday 30th March
A more low-key day in Saas-Fee after yesterday’s Alpine excitements — instead of scaling summits, I spent much of the morning and afternoon revising an article for Sight & Sound (on Palme d’Or betting) using the slightly cumbersome computer in my hotel’s lobby (I travel with a Samsung tablet that has a keyboard attachment, but prefer a fixed machine and keyboard when working on written work of any length/complexity).
Evening was taken up by the second tranche of three films, including Ronny Trocker’s The Eremites, a steely and accomplished debut set in the Alpine-fringing, mainly German-speaking Italian area known variously as South Tyrol, Südtirol and Alto Adige. Picture not done any favours by the dark projection that has afflicted all screenings so far at Cinema Rex, this was nevertheless (for me) the strongest of the six contenders shown on the first two days.
And if we had a prize for best acting, the front-runner would surely be octogenarian Ingrid Burkhard [above] who is so convincing as a crustily self-sufficient mountain-farmer that I had to check IMDb to make sure she wasn’t a non-pro cast from a search of real-life villagers. Turns out Vienna-born Burkhard has credits dating back to 1963, when she played “Kunstgewerblerin #2″ (craftswoman) in some West German TV movie. She was also in Toni Erdmann, about which I had a spirited post-lunch discussion with Vienna/based cultural journalist and academic Michael Freund today — he is, shall we say, not a fan.
Day ended with two-hour, teen-oriented Italian hit Veloce come il vento, which sprawled somewhat taxingly beyond midnight. And so to bed… Sleeping soundly here, no doubt thanks to the carefully-maintained quiet of this valley town with largely wooden buildings, and from whose centre motorised transport is banned — instead, nippy little milk-wagon type vehicles traverse the narrow alleys, through which the earthbound skiers clump.
Wednesday 29th March
First full day in Saas-Fee, the Alpine village where I’m on the press-jury of the 4th Saas-Fee Film Fest. After a relaxed jury-lunch, enlivened by lots of bairns at the table, an intrepid party of two dozen or so ascended one of the mountains that overwhelmingly dominate all horizons here. We took two cable-cars and a funicular-type rail to the Allalin revolving restaurant — some 3,500m (11,482ft) above sea level [above], where a pair of enterprising black birds swooped around enjoying the view before alighting on the railings, watchfully eager for picnickers’ scraps.
I’d only worn trainers for lunch, and was going to pop back to my hotel change into more suitable footwear (sturdy Timberlands purchased north of the Arctic Circle!) but was advised by festival co-director Gabriel that I needn’t bother… Last time I’m listening to him, after mincing about in the snow up there feeling like the icy water was leaking through the soles (it wasn’t, as it turned out). Allalin is very likely the highest I have ever been without benefit of aircraft, 11,482ft being about triple the height of Ben Nevis, and higher than any point in Germany, Norway or Slovenia, to name but three. Made it, ma – top of the world, etc etc. But still no sign of Claire Denis…
Getting up to the restaurant took the best part of an hour — the descent was, as always, considerably speedier, affording vistas of vertiginous sku-rins — but exposure to the thin air had sapped my energy for the remainder of the day (or so I suppose). The festival competition comprises three fiction films (from Switzerland or its neighbours), shown at 5, 7.30 and 10.30 today, tomorrow and Friday. Pick of today’s trio was Ivan Cotroneo’s One Kiss, a bouncy Italian high-school love-triangle picture which delivers a knockout, dead-serious climax seemingly out of nowhere.
Intensity of impact perhaps boosted by the fact that I had to watch it on festival co-director Stefan’s computer in his temporary office, alone in the dark listening through headphones, as the DCP shown at Cinema Rex turrned out to only have German subtitles. Perhaps appropriate to watch an Italian film with German subtitles in Switzerland on the day the UK — via a letter from the unambiguously malign personage of Prime Minister May — finally triggered Article 50, meaning we leave the EU (but not Europe) on 29th March 2019. Alea iacta est!
Tuesday 28th March
Winterthur → Visp → Saas-Fee. After breakfast and later lunch chez the jovial, half-Italian, half-Scottish, all-Swiss John Canciani, got the train for the 150 miles to Visp (home town of Sepp Blatter; a school [still!] named in the honour of the ex-FIFA boss adjoins the train-tracks). A shuttle bus from Visp station took me, two festival guests and staffer Inga up and up and up into the mountains and the dinky ski-resort of Saas-Fee [view from hotel window above]. Population 1,621, which makjes it one of the smaller settlements in the world to host a film festival. Wikipedia says one of these 1,621 is Claire Denis, who I will be keeping an eye out for in the supermarket and post office, etc.
This year is the fourth installment and I am serving on the press jury with Pascaline Sordet from Lausanne and Jan Schulz-Ojala from Berlin, watching the nine films in the competition programme that makes up the vast bulk of the five-day programme. Opening ceremony in Cinema Rex, right in the town centre, sees the filmmakers’ jury and the press jury going up on stage one by one — to the piano accompaniment of Finnish musician/composer Jarkko Riihimäki — for a quick chat with festival organisers Stefan Fichtner and Gabriel Zurbriggen (who for a second I thought was actually Daniel Brühl, when he turned up to greet our shuttle). I get a round of applause by mentioning I think it is important to be here in the “heart of Europe” this week (Theresa May signed the Article 50 notification today and it will be delivered to the EU tomorrow lunchtime).
Opening film is Austrian comedy Wild Mouse, which is shown without subtitles — I give it a go, but bail out after less than half an hour and stand outside the cinema with Stefan and his partner, the actress Franziska Petri, sipping local white wine and nibbling local cheese. They are pro-active promotion-wise, handing out catalogues to passing tourists who are perhaps in need of cultural stimulation after a tough day on the slopes. I do my bit.
Monday 27th March
Woke up in Lithuania; went to bed in Switzerland. Departed Vilnius Film Festival lunchtime, after a productive morning in the sunny (but still a bit wintry) city centre that revolved around getting my hair cut at a hipsterish barbering establishment just over the Vilnia at Užupis, Herr Katt. I had to overcome my prejudice against punningly-named salons of this type, as it seemed to be the most ‘barbery’ of options in Vilnius, and I was reluctant to splash cash at equivalent (but more extortionate) establishments in my next destinations, Switzerland and Paris.
Herr Katt haircut was delivered by Alfred [above], a smiling, loquacious Armenian who spoke pretty fluent English after having lived in London for six years. Topics under discussion as he wielded the clippers and scissors frequently touched upon Brexit, with the Article 50 trigger looming on Wednesday. Alfred likes Lithuania but is considering a move back to London, depending on how all the Brexit stuff works out — I advised that he might have to wait quite a lot of years until such clarification is available…
Anyway, amid all the chit-chat Alfred did a good job: decent value for €17 euros, plus €3 tip. Rest of the day was largely about trans-European transit: festival car to the dinky Vilnius airport, flight to Warsaw, then another to Zurich, train from Zurich airport to Winterthur, where I stayed the night with my pal John Canciani, head of the city’s short film festival (on whose jury I served last November).
On arrrival in Winterthur (unseasonably warm) I got a text-message from John advising me to wait for him in the Ciel Bleu bar — I accordingly sat outside with a half-litre of Calanda beer, (re-)reading Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (first time in well over a decade) in the rapidly fading light. I had gotten through 68 pages by the time John turned up, such speedy progress in contrast to the snail-pace with which I slogged through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer: I started this 370-odd-page novel en route to California five weeks ago, and finished the thing on the Warsaw-Zurich flight.
My rule is that if I get past the 50-page mark of any book I have to see it out to the end; The Sympathizer is perhaps the worst new novel I’ve gotten to the end of for several years (along with Isabel Allende’s considerably longer Ripper), and I’m bemused that it should have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. Maybe I should stick to re-reads and dead folks.
Sunday 26th March
A visit to a foreign film-festival never feels complete without a decent-clip walk totalling at least 10 miles, ideally a straightish line from the city-centre to some remote, unprepossessing suburb which the festival organisers have heard about but seldom visited, and which they (ideally) counsel me against visiting on the grounds that it is too dull/dangerous/distant. Mission accomplished today in Vilnius, where in a four-hour gap between films at the Forum Vingis multiplex — Kedi, an enjoyable little documentary about street cats in Istanbul; and stark British costume-noir Lady Macbeth — I trekked north across the Neris river, and out into the Soviet-era estates of Šeškinė and Fabijoniškės. Five crow-fly miles there and back, though a couple could be added due to my occasional divergences from the shortest distances between various points on a greyish, chillyish day mercifully free of the perpetual Vilnius precipitation.
Fabijoniškės delivered the Brutalist behemoths I had been looking forward to, 16-storey blocks of flats in various states of mild dilapidation (these are by no means slums), while in Šeškinė a darting, Kedi-like grey cat happened to draw my attention to a strange structure adjoining the busy Ukmergė Road highway. This was a very long, low tunnel-like building, both of its walls lined all the way with lock-up garages, a dark interior but with light from a fenced-in grille at the far end. I duly walked the full length in the dank near-silence, occasionally having to step very carefully in the gloom, moving steadily towards the light in a way which strongly reminded me of testimonies from near-death survivors.
I later found a similar building in Fabijoniškės, this one artfully concealed under grass apart from its rusty-doored entrance, the far end a black void with blocks of flats above — examples of undocumented vernacular architecture in such parts? There was clearly some kind of repair-garage hidden near the entrance; I whimsically impaled my business-card on a noticeboard’s rusty nail. The return leg proved quicker than the outward — downhill, and I was surer of my exact route (eschewing smart-phone cheating, I relied on a rudimentary map and an old-school compass).
Had enough time pre-Lady Macbeth (very good up until the plot idiotically jumps the shark in the final act) to watch a bit of the England-Lithuania football international in a small bar a few minutes from Forum — very few customers present, in a country where basketball is much more of a draw. After Lady Macbeth, a last, late-ish nosh in festival restaurant Fortas and a late pint-and-a-half in a surprisingly pricey pub, Marsas, round the corner from my hotel. Also at my table: Ben Rivers, who seems to get to almost as many film-festivals as I do. But not quite.
Saturday 25th March
Wet, wintry second day at the Vilnius Film Festival; I lurked in my hotel working (mainly on a Sight & Sound article about bookmakers betting on the Palme d’Or) until late afternoon, when I ventured round the corner to the dinky, upstairs Kino Pasaka (a two-screen “cinemaboutique”) to watch a programme of 15 Lithuanian music-videos. As well as presenting my own short (see yesterday) I’m on the music-vid jury here, though will not meet any of my fellow jurors as I depart on Monday and they arrive later in the week. Voting is therefore points-based, with discussions via email to confirm the winner once the ballots are tallied.
After a quick nip in the rain to a nearby basement supermarket to get fruit (easy to eat badly on the film-festival circuit), I returned to Pasaka for the critically-praised French coming-of-ager/horror Raw — stomach-churningly grisly from time to time, but overall too daft, too implausible, too contrived in its plot mechanics and characterisations to make much real impact.
Nipped back to hotel to view the big races on the Dubai World Cup card (American champ Arrogate [above] confirmed his superlative status by breezing from last to first in the big race) via YouTube, then headed into the night and across the lesser of Vilnius’ two rivers, the Vilnia, to the up-and-coming “artists’ district” Užupis — where I’d been tipped off about as location of a rough-and-ready pub/restaurant reportedly recommended by local dude made good, Jonas Mekas.
‘Šnekutis’ turned out to be a bit more touristy than I’d been expecting, and I got there just after 10pm to find the kitchen closed. Having deliberately avoided eating much all day in expectation of hearty evening fare, I downed a quick pint of draught dark beer – top value at €2.50 – and headed off into the night in search of an open kitchen. No joy down the hill at Užupio Kavinė, a more locals-ish bar right next to the Vilnia, where I had another beer and read another chapter of The Sympathizer, and it was nearly 11 by the time I finally got to chow down at old-town festival restaurant Fortas, including a local-delicacy starter of chewy, tasty pig-ear strips.
Friday 24th March
First full day in Vilnius culminated (for me, anyway) with the world premiere of my 5 1/2 minute short, Vilniu Detroit [above], which I shot here in mid-November 2015. Was shown in an epic six-hour shorts programme that began just after 9.30pm at the Forum Vingis multiplex (where other screens were showing Life, Lion, Chips and Beauty & the Beast) and was scheduled to finish at daft o’clock. Fortunately VD was first up, meaning I could intro it (with my teenage Lithuanian collaborator Alanas Gurinas, now all of 18) and then do a Q+A afterwards.
All this a little weird, given how I have been on the other end of the microphone under such circumstances hundreds of times over the last decade. This is actually my fifth directorial outing (after 2009’s hour-long duo Superflex November and Rostropovich At Tsukiji, and the shorts Tatra and On the Road to Liberation: Ulica Oslobođenja, Pančevo, Serbia, 7th September 2015) but the first one accepted by a film-festival, the first shown to paying audiences (rough head-count: 35). Am tempted to say this experience was “surreal” but, having seen Eraserhead elsewhere in the same cinema earlier on the same evening, such a term now seems rather less than appropriate.
Like any good film-maker I spent much of the day banging the promo drum: a magazine interview (and suitably moody photo-shoot) in the morning, then an hour-long appearance on national radio show hosted by local celebrity Richardas Jonaitis. In between the chat with Alanas and myself, the DJ asked about my musical preferences — which meant the Lithuanian listeners got to hear one track by The Fall (British People in Hot Weather; Alanas was instantly bowled over, never having even heard of the band before) and one featuring King Krule (Mount Kimbie’s You Took Your Time; Alanas was of course already well up on KK.)
Afterwards ambled round the city in the bright (but not warm) early spring sun before heading to dark of the cinema for Eraserhead, which premiered 40 years ago this month but barely feels dated at all — audience of (mainly) twentysomethings received it with solemn seriousness, though I’ve been in screenings where the picture’s been received as the darkly comic affair I’m pretty sure Lynch always intended.
Thursday, 23rd March
Arrivederci Copenhagen, bonjour Vilnius. Short hop of 70 minutes (I am still on with reading The Sympathizer) took me from Denmark to Lithuania, landing amid mid-afternoon spring sunshine. Trying to cut down on flying this year after clocking up no fewer than 66 flights last year — by now I must have the carbon footprint of a sasquatch. Made my way from airport to hotel in the city centre and thence — after a quick dinner at a restaurant which offered a “themed” film-festival menu (including two dishes named after Joan Crawford, and one after Martin Landau) — to the multiplex to catch the 6.30 showing of Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts. Keen to catch Jude’s follow-up to the outstanding Aferim!, I arrived at the cinema 20 minutes ahead of time… or so I thought, until sickeningly realising that Lithuanian time is currently one hour later than Danish time, meaning I was in fact 40 minutes too late. Gnnnnnnnn…..
I scrambled for a Plan B and ended up watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a sprawling 163-minuter which managed to just about sustain interest through the meanderings of its episodic, breezily thin plot, and (crucially for a long picture) ended on a quietly euphoric high. I couldn’t abide Arnold’s feature debut Red Road (wasn’t surprised to learn she’d never even set foot in Scotland before production started) but this was another solid 7/10 effort after Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, with a star-making turn from Elvis Presley’s tough-faced grand-daughter Riley Keough [above].
Ambled back from cinema to hotel in the pre-midnight dark, through a city I had only visited once before — in rainy late November 2015, when I shot Vilniu Detroit (world-premiering tomorrow here) in two hours on my final morning. Feels odd after 16+ years of foreign film-festivals to be finally attending one primarily as a film-maker. But I could get used to it…
Wednesday, 22nd March
Last full day at CPH DOX, and a little lighter than the previous ones film-wise — partly because a chunk of mid-afternoon was taken up with interviewing Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth, whose docu-fiction hybrid (five sections, two of which are straight documentary, three of which are not) Gray House world-premiered in the main competition. Lynch is the son of David Lynch (and Mary Fisk, so is also therefore the nephew of Sissy Spacek); Booth has a certain renown in the art-world, mainly through photography; the interview looks like it will run on the website of Little White Lies, once I have gotten over the hurdle of transcribing the half-hour discussion which I recorded on an old-school dictaphone. Lots of coughings and splutterings from yours truly on the audio, no doubt, as my heavy cold — a pain in the arse at any time, especially bothersome at a foreign film-festival — is only slowly alleviating.
Cheap(ish) but filling spaghetti bolognese from a basement place near Nørreport station — stark red neon of the station sign (Copenhagen remains a neon-lovers’ delight) against the deep blue of the late-dusk sky — sustained me (on the feed-a-cold principle) through the evening’s films: James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ Common Carrier, a (genuinely) experimental semi-fiction portrait of Brooklyn artists (every image involving superimposition), and finally Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the classic 1956 short which somehow manages to do full justice to the horror of the Nazi death-camps in just 32 minutes.
Normally a back row, far-corner denizen, I sat in the middle of the front row for this one — shown on 35mm as part of a programme selected by Anohni. In fact, it was a double-bill, with the Resnais followed (rather crazily) by a rarely-screened Japanese picture from 1973, Mr O’s Book of the Dead by cult auteur Nagano Chiaki. I could grasp the midnight-movie appeal but soon tired of the wacky theatrical cavortings in a quarry and a piggery, and bailed after 20 minutes or so.
Back at hotel, one eye on the rolling TV news of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack (5 dead: attacker, cop, 3 civilians) I compiled a rough first set of odds for this year’s Palme d’Or: a hazardous enterprise several weeks before the lineup is announced, but my reckonings put Yorgos Lanthimos, Michael Haneke (bidding for an unprecedented three-in-a-row hat-trick), Todd Haynes, Lucrecia Martel and Sergei Loznitsa out in front. Within minutes a reader pointed out that Martel was unlikely to be in competition since one of her film’s main producers, Pedro Almodovar, is the president of the jury…. Eventually made it to bed at 1.30am, and slept nicely deep via a series of gruellingly wacky dreams.
Tuesday 21st March
I got fooled by the whole “first day of Spring” stuff here in Copenhagen: saw the morning sunshine and went out in trainers and without umbrella — only (still suffering my heavy, ill-timed cold) to get caught in a downpour that blew up out of nowhere around 1.45pm. I was scuttling towards to the Dagmar Cinema (formerly run by Carl Th. Dreyer no less — his bust [above] occupies a shadowy spot in the lobby) to see Kristoffer Borgli’s DRIB and made it just in time. Got the last ticket, in fact — front row for larkish, Los Angeles-set satire about a fictional energy-drink campaign that played well with the 20-something-dominated.
Layers of artifice and post-modernism pile up to amusing if ultimately somewhat so-whattish effect. Film is in no way a documentary, despite its presence at the “Copenhagen International Documentary Festival.” Programmers here love to challenge hidebound categorisations by programming quasi-docs, hybrids and fiction films at the festival, including in the top competition where winners have included the likes of Trash Humpers and Le Quattro Volte. All good sport, unless you happen to be a maker of a “proper” documentary whose film didn’t make the lineup, or which make the competition but lost out on the trophy to a non-doc.
And are we really so short of “proper” documentaries that documentary film-festivals have to pad out their slates with such unambiguously fictional (scripted, acted) films? OK, DRIB has some vague “documentary” elements and feature re-enactments of stuff that (supposedly) really happened, but why not go the whole hog and just show the likes of Moonlight? FIDMarseille eventually just changed its name and dropped “documentaire” in favour of “film” — a bit tricky for CPH DOX to do likewise.
In other news, my native country — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — announced that Article 50 will be triggered at the end of this month, on March the 29th (birthday of my dad and my brother!). I voted against Brexit, but taking the wider view — looking at what is best for the whole of Europe (and therefore the world) rather than just one country, maybe it’s for the best. I suspect the UK will be in for a long, tough spell, but am optimistic that the continent will be better off without us. And how can you leave a club which you never actually joined? No Euro, no Schengen — we always had one foot out of the door anyway. A clean amputation arguably preferable to painfully awkward half-measures.
Monday 20th March
At film-festivals, days can blur into each other; my 2nd at CPH DOX was in some ways a carbon-copy of the first: coping with sneezy, coughy cold while navigating chilly, rain-swept streets between screenings, the first of which (Scottish non-doc Eglantine) I bailed on after half an hour.
But then mattters looked up: second film was best non-short so far, namely Eva Mulvad’s A Modern Man, a world-premiere for the festival that will find plenty of takers further around the circuit. Intimate profile of 007-handsome star violinist Charlie Siem [above], son of a filthy-rich Norwegian industrialist and who, in-between fiddle antics models for Armani, Boss, etc, jets around the world’s glamour spots.
But, as he turns 30, wor Charlie is afflicted by a mild case of the existential jitters — exacerbated by his mysteriously inert love-life and lack of chums. Director makes no attempt to reinvent any documentary wheels here, but benefits from genial protagonist’s fumbling attempts at self-awareness and strikes proper balance between straight-faced respect and sly satire (see also 2015’s underappreciated mid-length French equivalent, Business Club.) MVP is, I suspect, Adam Nielsen — who has edited many of the better Danish productions of recent years and gives graceful 90-minute shape to what must have been a mass of worthwhile footage.
Monday’s second highlight was pre-midnight trip to the fabled Andy’s Bar in company of my US-born, Norway-based pal Martha Otte (head of Tromsø Film Festival up in the Arctic), where we had to move tables to avoid the attentions of a largely incoherent, vaguely pestish middle-aged drunk who at one point handed us a (wrapped) Snickers bar. The mumbling denizen thankfully didn’t stop Martha from endorsing my glowing build-up of the nicely unreconstructed upstairs quasi-dive, whose doors remain open till at least 5am every night. Civilisation!
Sunday 19th March
Midnight in Copenhagen, again. Rotten night: wet, chilly, snowy-sleety, perfect accompaniment to a heavyish cold which started making itself felt yesterday and blew up today into an energy-sapping pain in the backside. Just what I needed for a full, a five-programme day, my first at this year’s CPH DOX. I shall glide over Unrest (bailed after 30min), acknowledge that Death of a Child does what it sets out to do, note that I made it to the end of Stay Behind (despite it losing its way around the halfway mark) and was not unmoved by Waiting For The Sun… all four of them “embellished” with lily-gilding scores that have become the grim hallmark of the non-cinematic documentaries in the 2010s, complete with tinkling piano for the sadder moments. Yep, all four.
Day was salvaged at the eleventh hour with a 52-minute of (students´?) shorts shown under the banner Danish Artists’ Film / Video. Denmark is not exactly a hotbed of experimental cinema these days, shall we say, so the first two in the programme came as a pleasant surprise: Arrábida – There is Only One Earth by Tinne Zenner (15 min), a multi-textured survey of a remote, forest-ringed concrete factory in Portugal, shot and shown on 16mm and, even better, Air (VW Golf III) [above] by the gloriously-monikered Kåre Leander Ringling Frang, which takes just silent 131 seconds to chronicle — in elliptical fashion, showing only the catastrophic impacts as it is dropped repeatedly on the ground from what we deduce must be a considerable height, the scrap-yard destruction of the eponymous banger. The Zenner oddity reminded me strongly of Dania Reymond’s beguilingly weird Greenland Unrealised (2013), the Frang (even more so) of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Century (2012), though the likelihood of these being direct influences seems a longshot.
Speaking of longshots, my fiver on Subway Dancer went astray this afternoon as the he could only finish sixth (of nine) behind easy winner Cloth of Stars, going off at 18-1. I am watching the pennies here in the often-extortionate Copenhagen, where a bowl of soup (plus miniature bread-bun) and a glass of tap water cost me a total of 95 kroner (12 for the water!), i.e. £11 or €12.75 or $13.75. Bargains are thin on the ground, but they do exist: I picked up a 750g carton of mandarins from Irma mini-supermarket for just 10 kroner this afternoon, which helped sustain alertness levels through afternoon and evening, not to mention adding a little citrus fragrance to the screening-rooms.
Saturday 18th March
Midnight in Copenhagen; checked into hotel half an hour ago and am heading soon to bed, despite having toyed with visiting my favourite bar in the city — Andy’s, a decidedly old-school upstairs joint which I was delighted to realise is literally just around the corner from where I’m staying.
Been a long day, travelling since 2.30 this afternoon: bus to Sunderland city centre (20+ minutes late!), Metro to Newcastle Airport (reading Thanh Viet Thanh Nguyen’s [inexplicably] Pulitzer-winning The Sympathizer), then flights from Newcastle (eerily deserted) to Amsterdam (wet) to Copenhagen (chilly).
I’m here as a press guest of CPH DOX, Denmark’s leading documentary-oriented film festival: first leg of a four-festival jaunt that will next include Vilnius (where I will premiere my 5-minute short Vilniu Detroit), Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps (where I’m on the press jury), then Paris for L’Europe Autour de l’Europe, a lengthy, auteur-focused event where I’m on the jury deciding the ‘Prix Présent.’
Another factor against Andy’s: I had quite enough to drink yesterday, a deadly/fortuitous combination of St Patrick’s Day and the Cheltenham Gold Cup (big race won by Irish raider Sizing John), which saw me in various Newcastle pubs with various pals from 3.15 to 11pm, though “sensible” drinking was conducted and I made sure to wolf down a large and glorious kebab mid-evening (in company of Michael Pattison), thus meaning I could get stuff done today instead of shambling about like a zombie.
After checking my weight on the scales for the first time in a couple of months (85.2kg aka 188lb aka 13st6lb [I am 6ft0.5in and turned 46 thirteen days ago]) I packed, booked a Rome>Vienna flight for next month, planned a rough CPH DOX schedule, cycled into Sunderland town centre (damp on the way, raining on the way back) to pay a couple of bills, register my cashpoint card to use abroad, and also stick a fiver on Subway Dancer [above] in tomorrow’s big race, the Prix Exbury at Saint-Cloud, on my hunch that (because of his “unfashionable” connections) he may oblige at generous odds. My kind of bet.