FILM OF THE DAY :
Kristina Konrad's Our America
All films seen on Sunday 23rd October in Vienna during the Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival)
Our America : [7/10]
Unser America aka Nuestra America : Switzerland 2005 : Kristina KONRAD : 84m (documentary) : seen at Metro cinema
An unexpected treat to begin the day: a gripping, illuminating documentary in which director Konrad makes an emotional return to Nicaragua – the country where she'd shot another film 20 years before in the midst of the Sandinista uprising. Older and (perhaps) wiser, she embarks on a quest to find one particular young female rebel-soldier who she'd filmed quoting – in inspiring style – from a particular Ruben Dario poem.
Along the way she records her impressions of the country past and present, and interviews with a wide range of interested parties. Most striking are her encounters with several ex-Sandinistas – their articulacy, beliefs and memories undimmed by the fact that most of them seem to have settled into lives of more-or-less-cosy domesticity ("I'm quite happily married!") and/or religious devotion. Their figures padded by a diet heavily reliant on fried foods, they reflect on the ironic consequences of the Sandinistas' success, and whether or not their country is really much better off than when labouring under the painful yoke of President Somoza's dictatorship.
Konrad pulls off the tricky feat of making this very personal journey of (re-)discovery interesting and accessible to her audience: the picture stirs laughter and tears in roughly equal measure, and makes a range of points (political, philosophical and psychological) without ever straying into preachiness or futile elegy. Her decision to present all of the archive footage in black-and-white (even that shot in the mid-80s) is, perhaps, a slightly questionable one: it serves to distance a past which is, as we forcefully see and hear, still a significant factor in these people's daily lives.
But the footage itself is nimbly edited and integrated, and Konrad makes equally effective use of music to stitch it all together: among numerous highlights is a sequence in which present-day soldiers struggle to hoist a vast Nicaragua flag on a hilltop in the middle of a blowing gale. The cumulative result is as much a tribute to poet Dario – one of whose works gives the film its title – as it is to the Sandinista (why not 'Sandinisto'?) spirit, though we end up seeing that both are manifestations of the same romantic, proud, defiant, idealistic tradition. And it's one which Konrad herself, though hailing from far-away Europe, has – with this film – herself embraced.
Between the Lines – India's Third Gender : [6/10]
aka Between the Lines – Indiens drittes geschlecht : Germany /India 2005 : Thomas WARTMANN : 95 mins (documentary) : seen at Urania cinema
Another surprise-package documentary: I'd gone along with the intention of giving it 20 or 30 minutes, and if I wasn't hooked then I'd head for the exit. No need for such escapology: this is an engaging peek into a little-chronicled, exotic, anthropologically intriguing subculture – the transsexual hijras of India who are born men, dress like women, but reject identification with either gender, living together in what looks (and functions) like a cross between brothel, temple and sorority house.
Stalking the chaotically busy streets and promenades of Bombay (now 'Mumbai'), director Wartmann gains access to several hijra communities and individuals via the sympathetic, investigative lens of photographer Anita Khemka. She finds how the hijras have overcome hostility to take up a range of roles in their local societies – they're credited with all kinds of semi-mystical powers, dole out benedictions and curses as occasion demands, and even perform exorcisms.
Appraising, self-effacing observer Anita theoretically isn't the subject of the movie, but we become increasingly curious (reading 'between the lines' perhaps?) about why it is she's so very drawn to the hijra. "Maybe it's because I'm a woman," she herself (somewhat unconvincingly) muses. Then again, Asha, Rhamba, Laxmi and company are all such uniformly vivid characters that we rapidly grow to share Anita's curiosity.
Despite several conversations of disarming sexual frankness, however, there are many questions left unanswered (indeed, unasked) along the way – it would have been helpful to hear from the men who 'visit' the hijras instead of more orthodox female prostitutes, for example. Wartmann's technique – the presence of the camera is never acknowledged – is the standard combination of location "colour" and interviews, the soundtrack the usual mixture of 'ethnic' moans 'n' music, and (in adherence to a hoary film-making cliche) nearly every time Anita takes a photo, the image briefly freezes and turns monochrome. But these are really minor quibbles, as the experience of Between The Lines proves so educational and beneficial for all concerned: for Anita, for the hijras, and also for the viewer.
Toss Up : [4?/10]
Yazi Tura : Ugur YUCEL : Turkey 2004 : 102m : seen at Kunstlerhaus (walkout after 60m)
I somehow lasted an hour of this overcooked, flashily-directed melodrama before bailing out, my patience having been exhausted by the script's reliance on one daft coincidence too many. The structure is the most original part of the enterprise: after a scene-setting snowy-juddery prologue set during Turkey's war against the Kurdish PPK, we follow the fortunes of two soldiers who'd served together on the frontline.
First up is the tale of Ridvan (Olgun Simsek) an embittered, lovelorn amputee in a scenic village up in the mountains of Anatolia. After this sorry saga of grief-upon-grief plays itself out – ending on an unfortunate note of dopey irony involving the dislocation of Ridvan's prosthetic leg – we move on to story two, which focusses on Cevher (Kenan Irmizalioglu), an agoraphobic, hotheaded entrepreneur/gangster opening up an Istanbul railway-station bar. Unfortunately for Cevher and his kin, this is 1999 – and his part of the world is about to suffer the impact of a terrible earthquake: real footage of which is incorporated into the fictional narrative, a directorial decision of debatable taste.
Of course, what we're seeing are two sides of the same coin: the injuries of Ridvan are primarily physical, of Cevher primarily psychological. This is grim, somewhat trite material, and director Yucel can't quite get a handle on it. Instead he throws technique in our faces: the editing is distractingly jolty, the score a noticeably derivative form of manipulative muzak, and the fizzed-up, grainy-digital cinematography features an abundance of gratuitously distorted camera-angles.
The end result makes the film's English-language an unfortunate hostage to fortune – the picture isn't without merit, and if nothing else charismatic Imirzalioglu would make a charismatic lead if his character wasn't off-screen for so long. But making such conspicuous underuse of his big trump card is typical of Yucel's incompetence: on the whole F*ck Up might have been rather closer to the mark.
Childstar : [6/10]
Canada 2004 : Don McKELLAR : 97m (feature) : seen at Urania cinema
Amusing variation on Olivier Assayas' trouble-on-t'movie-set satire Irma Vep. Instead of Maggie Cheung playing herself, Childstar presents the entirely fictional (but very believable) Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall), a spoiled-brat American 12-year-old TV-star sent north of the border to shoot a daft youth-oriented White-House-set pic entitled First Son. The President in which is played, in a nifty nod to Robert Altman's Tanner, by the ever-reliable Michael Murphy.
But Murphy – in one of the picture's several missed opportunities – is reduced to little more than a cameo. The main focus is instead on the kid and Rick Schiller, the studio-driver appointed to be his teacher after the monstrous Taylor manages to exhaust a series of professional set-tutors. Schiller – drolly played by director/co-writer McKellar himself – is an experimental film-maker whose relationship with Taylor is complicated by the fact that he's bedding the child-star's very Californian mother Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
With his perpetual air of hangdog lugubriousness and sharp wit, McKellar fares rather better as an actor than he does as writer or director – because despite a handful of comic highlights (especially the gangbusters opening, in which we eavesdrop of the First Son pitch-meeting and see the project's pencil-drawn storyboards) there's a slightly underdeveloped feel about the movie as a whole.
Much more could, for example, have been made of Schiller's own background as a struggling experimental film-maker: we see a silly short entitled The Stupidity of God, which is essentially a self-indulgent moan at his ex-wife. The pieces are assembled for a juicy, savage satire – Eric Stoltz even pops up as Taylor's jazz-musician dad – but McKellar seems to content to playfully (and, it must be said, entertainingly) gum his target instead of ever really biting down to the bone.
You Bet Your Life : [6/10]
Spiele Leben : Austria (Aus-Swi) 2005 : Antonin SVOBODA : 95m (feature) : seen at Gartenbaukino cinema
One of the big buzz-events of Viennale '05 was the sellout world-premiere – in the city's biggest screen – for this nifty gambling-themed, mostly Vienna-filmed comedy-drama from Svoboda (one of the producers of last year's big Austrian/German hit The Edukators). Scruffy, lanky Sean Bean lookalike Georg Friredrich is Kurt, a perennial loser addicted to the thrill of the casino. When he comes into possession of a seemingly-lucky dice (or rather a 'die', as the subtitles pedantically put it), good fortune is apparently just around the corner. But Kurt underestimates both the cruelty and capriciousness of fate…
Shot with a casual brio on digital-video and snappily-edited to an economic length as a series of short, to-the-point scenes, You Bet Your Life maintains a steady winning streak right through its first hour, as Kurt emerges as a Teutonic cousin of Luke Rhinehart's famed literary creation the 'Dice Man'. This leads him to some unlikely avenues – including a stint as Austria's most laidback gas-meter-reader – and, later, an instant-classic hotel-room blow-job scene involving his blowsy girlfriend Tanja (Birgit Minchmayr) and a banana.
But having scaled this comic peak (it provoked spontaneous applause from the Gartenbaukino audience) we go downhill with vertiginous speed: it's as if Svoboda suddenly realises he's making his first film, and his scriptwriting touch deserts him in a home stretch marked by smart-alec metaphysical turns whose impact is entirely baffling (can it be a coincidence that Spain's Juan Carlos Fresnadillo suffered a similar fate with his gambling-themed debut Intacto a couple of years back?).
Despite this letdown, You Bet Your Life is worth catching as it represents a promising debut from Svoboda. Perhaps a second viewing, knowing what to expect, may yield greater dividends. Audiences experiencing it for the first time, however, are strongly warned that they must pay extremely close attention as soon as that banana sequence is over – if they want to avoid a feeling of being cheated by their crafty 'dealer'. Rien ne va plus, as they apparently don't say here in Vienna…
reviews initially written 24th October; updated and expanded 30th October
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or HERE for full A-Z of all films seen and Jigsaw Lounge's Vienna/Viennale overview