SHADOWS AT LIBERTY : Leeds Int’l Film Festival 2012 — by guest-reviewer Brogan Morris

If the Leeds International Film Festival’s (LIFF) showings of high-profile new features trail, time-wise, in the wake of London, it’s the lesser-known pictures emerging from the underground that always provide the real interest. First off, the eye-opening, grassroots journalism of Five Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s film documenting the Israel/Palestine conflict, was a revelation. Finely edited from five years of home camera footage, Burnat captures some startling images – Israeli war machines belching out a fog of tear gas, a captured civilian shot in the leg as punishment, Israeli soldiers casually going about their day as a Palestinian dies in the foreground.  Its precarious footing (somewhere between political statement and humanist social document) diminishes the effect slightly, but the film is always captivating. In the most affecting scene, a beaten, vomiting protestor cries “You’re killing me!” at Israeli heavies standing over him, proof of how Five Broken Cameras brings the shock factor back to a conflict rendered familiar by media saturation.

Persistence of Vision
was a less competently-made documentary about a nonetheless interesting subject, and it’s that subject – legendary animator Richard Williams’ attempt to finish his masterpiece – that forms the appeal for the film. The amateurish filmmaking doesn’t distract too much, though, from the decent blend of archive footage, engaging talking heads and Williams’ peerless animation. But it was because this story – one of obsession for animated perfection – screened just before Alois Nebel that the Czech drama offended me so. The only thing worse than Alois Nebel’s uninspired characterisation and storytelling is the visibly glitchy and drab rotoscope animation, resembling a sub-video game cutscene, except minus any enjoyment the words ‘video game’ might suggest. Overall: dour, and frustratingly uneventful.

Much better was Vanishing Waves, the third feature from Kristina Buozyte. A filmic ode to dreams and nightmares, this Lithuanian sci-fi comes in the wake of Inception but nails the romantic subplot Christopher Nolan couldn’t pin down. After a team of scientists plug a test subject’s brain into an unknown dreamscape, the film unveils itself as a slow-build drama full of memorable, bizarre images – one dream sequence sees a room of writhing naked bodies coagulating into an orgiastic, fleshy mass. The plain, poorly-lit visual aesthetic acts as a hindrance to what is otherwise an engrossing alternative romantic tragedy and Buozyte needs to work on her endings (though a final, elongated chase across a midnight beach is astounding) – but, as a storyteller, she has much promise.

And promise is, unfortunately, exactly what the director of Iceland’s Stormland lacks. The problem with auto-biographical films about struggling geniuses is, even if technically proficient, they often lose to their sense of smug self-indulgence. Depressingly, Marteinn Thorsson’s picture doesn’t even make the grade of technical proficiency. Enjoyment ends at the plot synopsis: far from being a film about an ex-schoolteacher who ‘starts a one-man revolution’, it’d be much more accurate to say Stormland is about a man having an improbable, achingly boring mental breakdown. Thorsson depicts Hollywood rom-coms as the basest form of art in his film, but fails to recognise his own work features comedy as broad, characters as cardboard and a story as dull as anything that’s come out of Tinseltown.

Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico) possessed a similar level of self-indulgence, except director Carlos Reygadas at least possesses an eye for lyrical beauty, meaning you could have the film on mute in the background at an arty party. In silence is where it belongs – there’s nothing meaningful going on here, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that Reygadas knows it. If he does, he’s tried to cover it up by being self-consciously arthouse, delivering something akin to Tarkovsky’s Mirror: autobiographical to the point where no-one but the storyteller knows what’s happening. It’s always problematic to disregard the audience for the sake of your own artistic fulfilment.

Tizza Covi und Rainer Frimmel’s Austrian thesp drama The Shine of Day was also somewhat opaque, but much more accomplished. Although it so evidently wanted to say something profound about the nature of performance alongside reality, I found myself drawn more to its unflinchingly real, Lodge Kerrigan-esque handling of atmosphere and the impressive ease of the cast, down to every extra and supporting part. It was at odds with the ponderous Voice of my Father, another quiet and reserved documentary-style drama, for which slow-moving scenes join together to form a slow-moving movie, interested chiefly in drip-feeding details and not much more. Like a poem stretched, the pretty but one-note Voice of my Father – a Turkish film directed by Orhan Eskikoy – doesn’t really warrant a feature-length running time, but holds just enough understated impact to elicit some emotion.

Xiaoshuai Wang’s 11 Flowers suffered from the same problem – short on plot and low on mood, the film risks not making any impression at all. Set in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, 11 Flowers comes to life whenever its child actors are onscreen. A young boy nearing puberty, Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) spends his days playing and quarrelling with his friends; the rest of the time, like that spent in the company of Wang’s parents, the film looks great but the relentless realism drains the picture whenever the impressive Wenqing isn’t centre frame. As a metaphor for Mao’s repression, 11 Flowers’ style works, but it makes watching the film a somewhat hollow experience.

For the best fiction films of the festival, it’s a toss-up between Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar’s Ernest and Celestine (France) and Pablo Larrain’s No. Opposing each other at two ends of the scale, Ernest and Celestine is a light, charming French animation while No is an angry, gritty drama set at the end of Chile’s Pinochet era. Both are undeniably ‘old school’, Ernest and Celestine going for the hand-drawn storybook look, while No features visuals resembling scratchy, ‘80s-style videotape. Both offer triumphant, uplifting denouements and are as ultimately hopeful as one another, but they could hardly be more different. Ernest and Celestine is an innocent, glorious testament to friendship, whereas No is like a forgotten follow-up to Costa-Gavras’ Missing, with director Larrain displaying a similar affinity for tight storytelling, balanced by hints of outrage and emotional depth.

Special mention must go, too, to The Ambassador, which seemed to divide people for its uncertain morals (Danish documentarian Mads Brugger poses as a heartless African diplomat and shows how easy it is to become part of the blood diamond trade) but which I found to be a hilarious, almost nihilistic take on the third world expose. Brugger can’t claim his film is always a necessary evil (those ‘dim Africans’ are made fun of far too often for that) but you only need to look past his Borat-style approach to see his doc is revealing some quite serious truths.

Of the better-known features, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths was enormously disappointing, which is why I was dumbstruck by the wave of enthusiastic responses that seemed to greet it come the finale. Sightseers, the new feature from Ben Wheatley, was better, but another anti-climax considering Wheatley’s involvement and the deliciously dark concept. Fitfully funny and always well-directed, Sightseers is under-written and weirdly lighter than Wheatley’s last film (the mesmerising Kill List), despite the copious gore. Still, it’s an entertaining, and far superior to McDonagh’s In Bruges follow-up, which is Tarantinoesque in an age where being so is neither interesting nor original any more.

Francois Ozon’s In the House was a delightful surprise in its metatextual complexity, well on course for being the smartest movie in competition. That is, until Haneke. Not content with regularly displaying more intelligence than anyone else working in film, Haneke’s evidently also learnt to master emotional depth, too, with Amour. The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg’s wrong-man horror screened beforehand and seemed a contender (in the eyes of the audience, it was the best, the recipient of the Audience Award) – helped largely by Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful performance as a modern-age martyr – but that was before Michael Haneke subjected us to two hours of a love story in tragic burn-out.

However, the real coup for the festival was its acquisition of Shadows of Liberty, an excellent exposé of the corporatisation of the American media, and perhaps the very best of the festival in toto. Frightening, enlightening, anger-inducing, thrilling, this debut from writer/director Jean-Philippe Tremblay ticks the boxes for what every great political doc should be. The editing is tight and there’s some surprising star wattage in the passionate talking heads – Julian Assange, David Simon and a host of ex-news executives all discuss their experiences at the dark heart of American news. Even Danny Glover shows up for some reason, discussing just how “old for this shit” he is, a sentiment shared by many of the interviewees, all of whom act as harbingers of doom for a world tumbling into a pit of dishonesty and deceit.

Stories of corporate greed winning out over media values are hand-over-mouth shocking, told with clarity and focus where the film could descend into angry, polemical journalism. So you have the tale of CBS canning a story about Nike’s Vietnamese sweatshops because of Nike’s sponsorship in the station’s Winter Olympics coverage, or the story of the journalist led to suicide because lapdog media corporations bullied his newspaper into dropping his article, one posing a potential threat to the White House.

And while the speculation regarding the Navy downing TWA Flight 800 borders on conspiracy theory presented as fact, Shadows of Liberty’s message is ‘trust no-one – especially not the American government’, and will bring you round if you didn’t think it already. Shadows of Liberty became somewhat buried underneath the more high profile productions at the festival (ironic for a doc predominantly about how controversial news stories are buried by large corporations), but managed to make more impact on me than any of them.

Brogan Morris
November 2012