ISLAND OF THE ALIVE : Izola Film Festival 2007

seen Thursday 31st May

USA 1968/1971 : William GREAVES : 70m* : seen at Art Kino Odeon
A bizarre, sui generis bit of self-referential, semi-larkish, deconstructionist, late-sixties experimenta: deliberately-dizzying film-within-a-film-within-a-film stuff in which a fractious, articulate and youthful crew (the film's real crew, it seems), under the leadership of a genial but somewhat pretentious director (Greaves "playing" himself), shoot a screen test in Central Park. The 'action' (we're told it's from a movie to be entitled Over the Cliff) consists of a fortyish husband and wife engaged in a vicious, relationship-severing argument, but this is merely the initial 'text' for a multi-layered investigation of reality, representation and the nature of film-making. A significant debt to Godard is evident from time to time, and the essential nature of the project involves an obvious risk of self-indulgent pretentiousness, but although the stylistic tricksiness (much use of double and even triple split-screens) occasionally gets out of hand, there's a welcome streak of humour (especially in the actors' unguarded "off-camera" comments) that stops proceedings from disappearing up their own fundament. The brisk 70-minute duration is a definite plus, while the "frank" sexual language and general anything-goes atmosphere contribute to what's often a genuinely (and impressively) ahead-of-its-time feel.

Banditi a Orgosolo aka Bandits of Orgosolo : Italy 1960 : Vittorio DE SETA : 98m : seen at outdoor screen, Manzioli Square
Admirably tough, bracingly atmospheric tale set among the starkly picturesque hilly interior of Sardinia. The life of men and animals is implicitly a function of this landscape – and so, too, is De Seta's film (which must have been an absolute nightmare to shoot.) The story is Biblical in its simplicity – and its implacable harshness. A shepherd, tending his scraggly flock with his young brother for the purpose of cheese-making, becomes wanted by the thuggish local carabinieri after they mistakenly conclude he's part of a murderous bandit gang. This proves to be only the start of the hapless shepherd's woes as he suffers the vicissitudes of a particularly capricious Fate – a downward spiral which eventually reaches a stunningly bleak and piercingly ironic conclusion. Though we're informed by the opening voiceover that the film is set in "the present" (i.e. 1959/1960), much of what we see could have taken place at any time over the past few centuries, the presence of guns and the carabinieri's uniforms being the only noticeable "modern" detail during the rural sequences which make up the vast majority of the narrative. The shepherd does make brief visits to visit his family in the nearest town, an environment which sinister and alien to us, just as it does to the protagonist whose perspective we so closely come to share. Photographed in striking black and white, the film boasts utterly convincing performances – this despite the fact that all of the dialogue is (as was standard among Italian productions of the period) post-synched, while the sparingly-used score is deeply, suitably ominous in effect. Some viewers may take issue with what could be seen as the more melodramatic turns in the narrative, but it's De Seta's achievement to make even the most cruelly extreme circumstances seem entirely of a piece with the characters and their milieu.

23rd February, 2007  (Mekas, 2007, 12m?) **** (out of 5)
Kino Otok 4 Festival Trailer (Meden, 2007, 1m?) ****
           programme of Chinese animation, curated by Igor Prassel:
366 Footloose (Chen, 2004, 14m) ***
Lotus (Duan, 2005, 10m) ****
Delicate Accordance (Song, Dong, Zhang, 2004, 3m) ****
About Live aka About Life (Yu, 2005, 14m) ***
A Mid-Night Story (Wong, 2005, 6m) ***
Stairway to Heaven (Yuan, 2006, 9m) ****
The Legend of Shangri-La (Chen, 2006, 15m) ****


seen Friday 1st June

As Tentaçőes do Irmăo Sebastiăo : Brazil 2005 : José ARAUJO : 147m : seen at Kino Culturni Dom (Culture House) – walkout after approx 45 mins
The idea of making a film in which issues of religion are explored in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic context is an intriguing one – see the Chinese film All Tomorrow's Parties for a brave if flawed attempt. This Brazilian version is several cuts below even that uneven effort however – or rather, this was the impression I received from sitting through the first two reels. After a choppy series of prologues taking in Christ's crucifixion, the martyrdom of St Sebastian (the first of several unintentionally-amusing sequences), and the torrid, lit-by-lightning birth (in 1992; more giggles) of the film's protagonist, the action proper unfolds in 2030, when half the world's population has been wiped out by an unspecified  »plague «. The survivors cling to their faith for consolation and salvation, said creed being a rather heightened form of Catholicism. Its adherents include our hero Sebastian, a scrawnily neurotic sort whose life consists of devotion, supplication and flagellation (further inadvertent humour), but who may be about to be tempted by the pleasures of the flesh… Consistently ugly to look at, muddy to ponder and painful to listen to (the dialogue is a heady, indigestible pseudo-philosophical, quasi-theological stew), this is a film which takes itself so impossibly seriously that baffled, blasphemous bemusement is the most sensible reaction. These Temptations are, then, all too easy to resist…

HARVEST – 3000 YEARS : [7/10]
Mir Sost Shi Amit : Ethiopia 1976 : Haile GERIMA : 137m : seen at Art Kino Odeon
What begins as a seemingly conventional and predictable anthropological depiction of village life rapidly becomes something much more radical and interesting in the hands of Gerima: this is an experimental feature, tough, abrasive and angrily polemical in nature, taking a startlingly uncompromised approach to the economic woes of mid-seventies Ethiopia. Given what was to unfold in the country over the next decade – the apocalytpic famine which propelled this area to the very forefront of the world's consciousness – the exploitation and mismanagement chronicled here take on a hideously prophetic air. But even audiences unfamiliar with Ethiopia's recent disasters would surely appreciate the force and originality of Gerima's depiction of his land and his people. Shot in black-and-white – the images sometimes poetically lyrical, sometimes jaggedly gritty – the film tells a relatively simple story (a cruel boss is opposed and ridiculed by the area's sardonic, volatile troubadour/renegade) in an elliptical and enigmatic fashion that constantly keeps the viewer off-guard. Full of unexpected and powerful incidents, the film occasionally crosses the line from stylistic innovation to flashily self-indulgent gimmickry – and it's certainly too long by at least half an hour. But the climax, when it does finally arrive, is so chilling and overwhelming that all objections fall away like corn under a scythe.


Seen Saturday 2nd June
Le salaire de l'artiste : Switzerland 2000 : Jacqueline VEUVE & Laurent VEUVE : 60m : seen at Art Kino Odeon
TV-style documentary about Laurent Veuve, a Swiss artist who received a measure of renown after emigrating to Manhattan in the early eighties - only to soon after fall into tough creative and financial times. The twist is that the film is made by the artist himself in collaboration with his own mother Jacqueline – the latter being one of Switzerland's leading post-war documentarians. This familial aspect adds a certain spice to many sequences, most notably when Laurent shows Jacqueline a series of his canvases and asks her to tell him what's going on in them – it turns out they depict his own life in the womb, and experiences during birth. Main problem is that Laurent isn't an especially forthcoming individual – taciturn and uncomfortable in front of camera, and clearly hoping that his work will speak for itself. But from the evidence we're shown, Veuve (junior) isn't any great shakes in that department either, and he was perhaps fortunate to arrive in New York at a time when good-looking, personable young artists of (relatively) exotic provenance found it quite easy to become media flavours-of-the-month (see the novels of Tama Janowitz, etc). The documentary covers a long span of time – plus monochrome, poignant-in-the-context footage shot when Laurent was a beamingly optimistic youngster – but the fact that Laurent hardly ages over the course of a decade and a half makes it hard to gauge the chronology. There's enough fibre and substance in the mother-son relationship to ensure that the film remains watchable over the course of it brief running-time, but one often feels that the Veuves haven't quite made the most of the autobiographical material available to them. Sequences of Laurent messily painting in his studio – to the accompaniment of pounding rap music – are faintly, and inadvertently, comic in their effect. 

SCHUSS! : [5?/10]
France 2006 : Nicolas REY : 123m : seen at Art Kino Odeon (walkout after approx 70 mins)
Intriguing in concept but uneven and wildly overlong in execution, Schuss! is an experimental documentary – mostly shot on 8mm – which starts off as a collage of images and ideas related to Alpine skiing, before detouring into the weird history of aluminium. Rey has crafted a complex and intricate structure based around repetition within episodes, but this proceeds with diminishing effect as it continues – so that the viewer rapidly wearies of the smart-aleck tone and aggressively quirky content. 8mm footage of skiing is a consistent delight, the limitations of the medium proving a neat match for the white-out environments depicted – and Rey scores with his interpolations of home-movie material shot by Alpinists in the early part of the 20th century. On and on and on it goes, however – Rey doesn't seem to be able to achieve any distance from his material, and the results would be twice as effective if roughly half the length. Worth a look, but langlauf endurance is a definite requirement…


Seen Sunday 3rd June

Jin tian de yu zen me yang? : Xiaolu GUO : UK/China 2006 : 83m : seen at Art Kino Odeon
Don't be put off by that oddball title – once you've seen the film, you'll realise it fits the picture perfectly, as well as having at least three interpretations based on various contexts. This is a disarmingly post-modern, deconstructionist story about a would-be screenwriter struggling with his latest script: a fugitive-on-the-run tale entitled Northern Lights. The fictional protagonist is as active as his creator is passive and static, but both dream of escaping to Mohe, China's northernmost and snowiest town. Twin narratives thus unfold in tandem, the film alternating between planes of reality – with some documentary interviews of passers-by chucked in for good measure. Sounds like a potential recipe for arch clever-cleverness, but most resoundingly isn't: instead, this is a genuinely intelligent, poignant, wryly comic and – despite the seeming limitations of the low budget and the digital-video format – cinematic film which says an awful lot about both the creative process and the state of modern-day China (both urban and rural), works very nimbly on each of its multiple levels, and thus heralds the arrival of a striking new talent.
    …………………NB: essay on this film (for Ekran magazine) available HERE

Address Unknown (Guo, 2006, 11m) ****
Fire Islands (de Seta, 1955, 11m) ****
Surfarara (de Seta, 1955, 11m) ****
Easter in Sicily (de Seta, 1955, 11m) ****
Farmers of the Sea (de Seta, 1955, 11m) *****
Parable of Gold (de Seta, 1955, 11m) ***


Seen Monday 4th June

Lettere dal Sahara aka Letters From the Sahara : Italy 2006 : Vittorio DE SETA : 123m : seen at Art Kino Odeon
   There's a simple, bold, original and thought-provoking idea underpinning Letters From Sahara: one which is first illustrated (by the film's involving, incident-packed drama) and then, finally, spelled out for anybody who hasn't worked it out for themselves: the west is in dire crisis, and if it is to be saved then it must embrace certain African ways of life – specifically, community spirit, cohesive family bonds, and altruism. This is, of course, the exact opposite of how western voices usually address the "problem of Africa": the war-torn, famine-ravaged continent can only be rescued, we're repeatedly told, by intervention from richer and more "developed" nations elsewhere in the world, and by African nations embracing western-style economic and political practices.
   Such a radical perspective is especially surprising – and welcome – coming from a figure such as Vittorio de Seta: an 83-year-old veteran who, despite considerable acclaim and prizes in the 1960s (for films such as his feature debut Bandits In Orgosolo [see above] and followup Half A Man) has been absent from most cineastes' radar for decades. Indeed, Letters is his first made-for-cinema fictional feature since 1969's The Uninvited – a title which would perhaps be a closer fit for this project than the one De Seta's chosen. The "uninvited" in this context are the illegal immigrants who risk life and limb for a better life in Europe – such as the educated, well-spoken, religiously-observant Assane (Djibril Kebe), a lad in his early twenties who leaves his village in Senegal, treks across the Sahara, and nearly dies when (along with many fellow-travellers) he's tipped overboard by people-smugglers within sight of the Sicilian coastline.
   The action begins with Assane's chaotic struggle for life in the waters of the choppy Mediterranean, then follows him around Italy – including sojourns in Florence and Turin – as he tries to eke out a living and, perhaps, obtain the crucial documentation that might allow him to stay. There are all manner of ups and downs along the way – some of them skirting perilously close to melodrama – before Assane finally makes a trip back to his native village where he meets his eloquent former teacher (Thierno Ndiaye), a firebrand orator who has very trenchant views about Africa's place in the world…
   For the most part, Letters From Sahara is a conscientious, well-made, rather old-fashioned kind of picture (despite being made with very contemporary digital-video technology), in which our well-meaning but slightly hapless protagonist suffers the vicissitudes of fate and circumstance. It's easy – perhaps too easy – to sympathise with Assane, a genial, attractive and intelligent sort who seems designed to appeal to well-heeled, liberal, western audiences, and who perhaps isn't entirely typical of most illegal immigrants to the EU.
   But there are many aspects of the film, both minor and major, which indicate things aren't quite so straightforward as they seem. Just as Assane seems on the way to become an implausibly saintly and sympathetic figure, he reveals a rather stern streak of Islamic fundamentalism (he disapproves of his 'westernised' cousin's living "in sin" with a man with whom she isn't married) that catches us completely off-guard and adds an intriguing extra dimension to his characterisation.
   Then there's the issue of the title: though we're told that Assane has had to traverse the Sahara in order to reach the Mediterranean shore, this isn't shown or much talked about in the film itself – and the only letters we see him write are in and about Italy. This structural anomaly links in with the climactic sequence set in Assane's home village, where he's asked by his teacher to give a speech to pupils about his experiences since leaving home.
   Assane's tale – as he tells it – is extremely truncated, and is rather different in style and emphasis from the tale as told by De Seta (who wrote the script as well as directing). What had been a rather episodic, conventional narrative becomes, in these latter sections, something altogether more impressionistic and elusive, culminating in a scene of joyous, near-ecstatic communal dancing. These are powerful moments, in which we look back over all that's transpired over the previous two hours, see Assane's story in a rather different light from the way we experienced it at the time, and feel the impact of what may well be De Seta's valedictory "statement" long after the end credits have rolled.

Travis WILKERSON : USA 2006 : 73m : seen at Art Kino Odeon [original rating 8/10]
Third time I've seen this and it gets better every time: the ambiguities and complexities deepen; the deadpan humour becomes more apparent; the scale of Wilkerson's ambition becomes more evident. It's a piece of politically-engaged American folk-art that's about the limitations, the dangers, and the glories of politically-engaged American folk-art. The occasional longueurs around the middle are a piddling price to pay for the sledgehammer power of the stunning and rather beautiful finale (though exactly what has transpired, and why, is a matter of subjective interpretation and fruitful debate.)


Neil Young
June 2007