for this week’s ‘Tribune’ (1/2) : CROSSING EUROPE (Linz) film-festival report

The first of two reports from the sixth Crossing Europe film festival (Linz, Austria) is a general overview of programme highlights…

ONE of the joys of film-festivals is the out-of-the-blue serendipitous discovery: the film about which you know very little, but impulsively decide to "check out," on the basis that if the first 20 minutes fails to grab, you can always segue to an alternative programme in a nearby cinema. This was the state-of-mind with which I approached the Czech documentary René on the final day of the 6th Crossing Europe film-festival – the celebration of cinema that since 2004 has confirmed Upper Austria's industrial, Danube-straddling capital Linz's status on the cultural map (this year it's succeeded Liverpool as European Capital of Culture.)
   I'd heard absolutely no "buzz" about René, which had already screened once – on the seven-day fest's first full day of screenings – and I wasn't very encouraged either by the poster, showing a sallow-faced, stringy-haired chap showing off his neck-tattoo ("F*ck of [sic] people"), or by the catalogue description.
   I quote the latter verbatim: "The incredible story of a young man accompanied by a film camera from the age of eighteen, on his life's journey between prisons and short intermezzos outside. After another eighteen years, we leave him as a 36-year-old man, an unlikely writer, a seriously ill patient and unfortunately still an incorrigible criminal. The story of René … unfolds against the backdrop of significant political changes in Central Europe, the reflections of which remain omnipresent in the film. René's history opens in a prison full of socialist banners, continues through the 'Velvet Revolution,' and finds him back in prison at the time of the Czech Republic joining the EU."
   Well, after less than fifteen minutes, I was hooked. After an hour, I realised that René ranks among the finest achievements of European documentary in the past decade. The likes of Hunger and Bronson are all very well, but as a portrait of the institutionalised individual – intelligent, articulate, ornery, confrontational – René is in another class again. Director Helena Třeští­ková (born Prague, 1949) likes to make her films over long periods of time – and her many years spent interviewing René Plasil, from his first incarceration as young-offender at the age of 16, yield enormous dividends here.
   But as well as being an astonishing portrait of a remarkable individual – and a country in seemingly near-permanent transition – René the movie poses some complex and genuinely troubling questions about the relationship between the documentarian and the documented. In this case, it's a stormy kind of 'friendship' which at one stage sees René burgling Třeští­ková's apartment. The film places the viewer in a difficult position: we're enormously thankful for the insights that Třeští­ková obtains, but we marvel that she has such patience with a man who seems to take perverse delight in letting her – not to mention himself – down at each and every opportunity.
   René had its UK premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival last autumn, but is a film of such sensitivity and skill that it emphatically deserves to obtain theatrical distribution – in a just world, it would have at least as much exposure as James Marsh's Man On Wire, which it (rightly) beat for the title of 2008's Best Documentary at the European Film Awards in Copenhagen last December.
   Třeští­ková's terrific movie was the sole masterpiece I caught at Crossing Europe this year. But overall this was a strong renewal of a festival which concentrates exclusively on European fare – via a rather generous definition of the continent's borders, one which has more in common with UEFA's than the EU's. As in previous years, there was a commendably strong commitment to documentary, including the Working Worlds strand of films tackling labour-related issues (which will be covered in a separate report for Tribune next week.)
   Among the non-fiction highlights outside Working Worlds, I was beguiled by the French reportage movie Children of Don Quixote (Act One) by Ronan Dénécé and the brothers Jean-Baptiste and Augustin Legrand, chronicling the efforts by an activist collective – including all three directors – to highlight the urgent problem of homelessness in Paris and beyond. A rousingly rough-edged peek behind the headlines, the film functions both as a how-to manual for staging political campaigns in the 21st century (where success, as we see, relies on a savvy media-manipulation) – and also as a reminder that the spirit of 1968 is alive and well in France, no matter how strenously M Sarkozy might claim otherwise.
   A rather more ruminative and experimental use of the documentary form was presented by Lithuania's Audrius Stonys, subject of a retrospective-cum-tribute at last year's Crossing Europe. This year he was back in town – and in fine form – with his latest two works, a pair of medium-length films presented in a double bill. Four Steps skilfully juxtaposes footage of four weddings to present a tapestry of Eastern Europe over the course of four tumultuous decades; The Bell examines one particular local urban-legend/folk-tale, in which a deep lake may or may not hide a long-submerged bell – intriguing to find such shades of Iris Murdoch in the remote Lithuanian countryside. Of all Crossing Europe's presentations, few could match The Bell in terms of the sheer beauty and majesty of its undersea photography, though audiences in search of answers and "closure" may have been somewhat disgruntled by Stonys's poetically inconclusive finale.
   Conventional expectations were likewise pleasingly frustrated in the realms of fictional cinema – at least, among the festival's most accomplished examples of the form. Among the 11-strong competition field, my pick was Ruben Ostlund's Involuntary – an elliptical, bold, elusive compilation of fragmentary suburban scenes which, taken together, trace the slender social networks and fault-lines that go to define the state of modern Sweden. Ostlund's approach nods to the styles established by his acclaimed countrymen Lukas Moodysson (Together; Lilya 4-Ever) and Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) – but by my reckoning he's more accomplished and penetrating than either of those forebears, his film a hypnotic, ultimately devastating journey into individual neuroses and national psychoses.
   Elsewhere in the programme, audiences had the rare opportunity to sample all three chapters of Italian horror legend Dario Argento's 'Three Mothers' trilogy: his sensational 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, 1980's followup Inferno (projected via a German-dubbed print that detracted not one iota from the berserk majesty of the director's maverick, surreal vision), and then – long after midnight – his long-delayed third chapter, Mother of Tears (La Terza Madre). The latter is an utterly absurd but deliriously enjoyable fricassee of violence, mutilation and pseudo-anthropological mumbo-jumbo starring the director's uber-vamp daughter Asia, one that bodes surprisingly well for his brand-new offering Giallo – world-premiering in Edinburgh next month (see our Edinburgh Film Festival preview.)
   Argento wasn't the only veteran to score during Crossing Europe – local-artist Dietmar Brehm served up a selection of his latest shorts which, while unavoidably uneven, amply confirm his position among the more reliable and boundary-pushing avante-garde film-makers on the continent (best of the Brehm bunch: Ozean and Verdrehten Augen Videoversion 2.) 'Artist in residence' Inger Lise Hansen, from Norway, was on hand to introduce a full retrospective of her time-condensing shorts – the best of which was the first, 1995's Static, a delightfully jangly cross between Jan Svankmajer and Patrick Keiller.
   Meanwhile Hansen's countryman Eilif Bremer Landsend, all of 19, served notice of quite scary precocity with his eight-minute wonder Last Stop, executed with a confidence and economy that would be impressive in an artist twice his age. Five years older, Brazil-born German Iuri Maia Jost also marked himself as a name to watch with Building Site – part of a showcase of works from students at the art-school in Karlsruhe that were shot on old 16mm stock, developed in a bucket and then hung out to dry on a washing-line. Nice to know that, in this era of digital projection and megabudget CGI, it's still possible for aspiring filmmakers to get their hands well and truly dirty. René Plasil would undoubtedly approve.

Neil Young
12th May, 2009, for the 21st May edition of…

index-page of Jigsaw Lounge's Crossing Europe 2009 coverage


THE CHILDREN OF DON QUIXOTE (ACT 1) : [7/10] : France 2008 : Les enfants de Don Quichotte (Acte 1) : Ronan DéNéCé, Augustin LEGRAND & Jean-Baptiste LEGRAND : 75m
INVOLUNTARY : [8/10] : De Ofrivilliga : Sweden 2008 : Ruben ÖSTLUND : 99m (timed)
MOTHER OF TEARS : [7/10] : La terza madre : Italy/US 2007 : Dario ARGENTO : 98m
RENE : [9/10] : Czech Republic 2008 : Helena Třeští­ková : 85m (timed)

THE BELL : [7/10] : Varpas : Lithuania 2007 : Audrius STONYS : 55m
FOUR STEPS : [7/10] Keturi žingsnai : Lithuania 2008 : Audrius STONYS : 42m

BUILDING SITE : [7/10] : Baustelle : Germany 2008 : Iuri Maia JOST
LAST STOP : [7/10] : Siste stopp : Norway 2008 : Eilif BREMER LANDSEND
OZEAN : [8/10] : Germany 2008 : Dietmar BREHM
STATIC : [7/10] : UK/Nor 1995 : Inger Lise HANSEN
VERDREHTEN AUGEN – VIDEOVERSION 2 : [8/10] : Germany 2008 : Dietmar BREHM

features also seen (not including 'Working Worlds' section) - commentary upcoming
ANOTHER MAN : [5/10] : Un autre homme : Switzerland 2008 : Lionel BAIER : 89m
CAN GO THROUGH SKIN : [5/10] : Kan door Huid heen : Netherlands 2009 : Esther ROTS : 94m
DEAD SNOW : [6/10] Død snø : Norway 2009 : Tommy WIRKOLA : 90m
FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA : [5/10] : Cztery noce z Anna : Poland(/Fr) 2008 : Jerzy SKOLIMOWSKI : 92m (timed)
GANGSTER GIRLS : [6/10] : Austria 2009 : Tina LEISCH : 78m (timed)
HOME : [6/10] : Fr/Switz/Bel 2008 : Ursula MEIER : 97m
INFERNO : [8/10] : Italy/US 1980 : Dario ARGENTO : 106m : (German-dubbed print entitled Horror Infernal)
KATALIN VARGA : [6/10] : Romania(/Hun/UK) 2008 : Peter STRICKLAND : 83m (timed)
LIGHT GRADIENT : [4/10] Rûckenwind : Germany 2009 : Jan KRüGER  : 77m (timed)
MUEZZIN : [6/10] : Austria 2009 : Sebastian BRAMESHUBER : 83m (timed)
NORTH COAST : [5?/10] : L'exil et le royaume : France 2008 : Jonathan LE FOURN & Andreï SCHTAKLEFF : 127m {walkout after 80m}
PAPER SOLDIER : [6/10] : Bumažnyj soldat : Russia 2008 : Alexey GERMAN, Jr : 118m
STRONG SHOULDERS : [6/10 TV] : Des épaules solides : Switzerland(/Fr/Bel) 2002 TV : Ursula MEIER : 96m