The 25th Leeds International Film Festival

Mike  McKenny takes a mammoth look at the Golden Owl Competition selection from this year’s Leeds International Film Festival. 

Last month I spent a significant amount of time at the 25th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF). I split my screenings into two of LIFF’s multiple strands; the genre-focused Fanomenon and the more subtle and nuanced Official Selection. With respect to the Fanomen strand, I found that apart from some interesting efforts (the director’s cut of gender politics essay/Japanese sex-noir Guilty of Romance for instance), I wasn’t half as impressed as I was with the Official Selection. In particular, I was interested in catching films that were less likely to get distribution any time soon, if at all. This meant that I avoided all the wonderful retrospectives, along with letting the likes of Take Shelter and Shame pass me by, knowing that I would have the chance to catch these down the line. Although did indulge and watch Michel Hazanavicius’ charming silent film The Artist.

Of the films I did see then, there are some set for limited distribution early next year. For example Bela Tarr’s meticulous The Turin Horse and Karl Markovicz’s superb Breathing (my second favourite of the festival; see below for my absolute favourite). But what I was particularly interested in, and what I have given my impressions on below, is a selection of the films playing in LIFF’s Golden Owl competition. All films that play in the Golden Owl are UK premieres and it really is a fantastic way to give these lesser heard of filmmakers – hailing from all around the world – a really sturdy platform for their films to find a decent audience. Discovering these competition films was my highlight of the festival and have most likely convinced me to alter my approach next year, in order to try and see all films playing in the Golden Owl.

I must note that I didn’t see the winner, 22nd of May. It must be more interesting than the synopsis made out, because it read like quite a simplistic and manipulative narrative on terrorism. I am certain that this is an unjust pre-judgement, but when it clashed with other films, it didn’t seem as appealing. I will be keeping my eyes peeled, to see if it pops up anywhere in the future.

The first Golden Owl film I saw was in my favourite Leeds venue, the (almost a hundred year old) Hyde Park Picture House and was unequivocally my film of the festival. The River Used to be a Man is a German produced, African set, mystical and cerebral debut feature from writer/director Jan Zabeil.

A young German actor played by Alexander Fehling (who also has a writing credit) is travelling through an unspecified part of Africa, for unspecified reasons when he crashes his car into a herd of cows on the unlit road at night. The following day, he catches a lift down the nearby river with an elderly native fisherman. Taken deep into the swamp-like African wilderness, the protagonist awakens to find his guide dead. He is lost in a strange land, with the guilt of dealing with the man’s dead body.

The entire film is incredibly patient; it takes its time, and utilises the masterful cinematography (courtesy of Jakub Bejnarowicz) in order for you to soak in the natural beauty – along with natural peril – of the vast landscape. In contrast to this patience, and slow release of information, the film occasionally flaunts cinematic conventions by cutting out what might seem like important plot points; thus questioning exactly what is important within a narrative.

As the title would suggest, the river/landscape takes on a character of its own; a haunting, mystical and mythical character. Nature is prescient and in control. The fisherman has a mastery over the environment, which is told through the camera work. The wide, expansive, still shots while the fisherman is in control descend into scrappy, closer and more frenetic camerawork for a brief time when the traveller first finds his guide dead. He doesn’t know this land and has not mastered the navigation of it. In a further mystical and symbolic touch, illustrating the domination of nature in this landscape, once he is lost, technology – a lighter, or a boat’s motor for instance – fails to function for him.

The film is full of guilt, which plays into the initial premise of this nonchalant westerner cockily striding into this land, which is historically loaded with imperial legacy. He soon realises that this land is not at the mercy as he (representing the West) had seemed to assume.

Immediately after, I saw Summer of Goliath. Not as much of a masterpiece as the previous feature, but it did a few things really well and had some interesting things to say. It is written and directed by Nicolás Pereda, whose Perpetuum Mobile I saw at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2010. Summer of Goliath is very much Pertuum Mobile’s rural equivalent, but I found it a far superior offering.

The narrative skips between a few characters around a Mexican village. The characters sometimes converge (and sometimes don’t) in order to deal with two major themes. The most prominent is the effects on communities of absent father figures and the breakdown of the traditional family unit. This is approached from various angles and in a way that isn’t half as simplistic as the above sentence implies. The second and more subtle theme is most likely related to the film’s commentary on family unit breakdown; it is the inability/difficulty to communicate. This is told through the narrative, via various characters, but even more interestingly through the form. There are sections that take the form of a pseudo-documentary and the majority of the film that takes the form of general – albeit very low-fi naturalistic/realist – narrative film. The most fascinating aspect though, is that out of nowhere – and not dealt with in-depth at all in the film – there is a scene in pseudo-documentary form where two characters apparently rehearse a scene, which is a little later acted out in the main narrative of the film. This was a wonderful use of mixing up film form to throw into dispute what you are witnessing and therefore further comment on communication.

The film does some intentional and blatant playing around with focus, which again ties into the themes of communication/information (although it did occasionally seem to be more unintentionally out of focus as well).
The best thing about the film is the sheer length of some of the takes, with excellent naturalistic performances propping them up perfectly (take note Wuthering Heights).

On a different day, Interesting curatorial serendipity put two films together on my itinerary. The Prize, followed by Nana, both created their worlds through child protagonists. They both attempted this in different ways and to varying degrees of success, but both were innovative alternatives to the mainstream, without taking a disruptive or provocative avant-garde stance.

From the few people I’d heard from that had attended the previous screening of Paula Markovitch’s politically motivated The Prize, I didn’t have particularly high hopes. I hadn’t heard anything particularly negative, but I felt a certain amount of underwhelmed indifference towards it. This probably helped me to enjoy it so much, as expectations were low. Any criticism seemed to be aimed at its plodding, often uneventful nature, but I felt that this, to some extent, was part of its greatest achievement: to successfully convey the world as experienced by a child.

We’re introduced to the seven year old Ceci (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) and her mother living in a cabin on a remote, viciously windy beach on the Argentine coast. There is immediately a certain amount of mystery and secrecy to their life, as the mother, ahead of Ceci’s first day at her new school, goes through the clearly fabricated life story she must stick to.

The slow reveal of exactly what they are hiding from is another one of the many ways that the film allows you into the mind of Ceci. It is evident that it is political in nature from early on, but the way Ceci slowly comes to realise what this means and how it impacts on her life, is mirrored by the slow release of details to the viewer. In completing this approach, acknowledging the fact that a seven year old would not be able to comprehend what is a very complex political situation, we in turn are not allowed the entire picture. The sense of paranoia, suspense and the distinct weight that is given to mundane activities is further enhanced when a soldier visits the classroom – to let the kids know how much they love the army – and is further compounded by showing the tendency of children to reveal their friends’ secrets.

As referred to above regarding the pace, it is the form of the film that best places you in the mindset of a seven year old. There is a slow, at times repetitive nature to some of the long takes in order to remind how the child’s mind is much freer to take time trying to figure things out through play and repetition. This is particularly pertinent in the many touching scenes of Ceci taking part in intrinsically childlike activities with her friend. This pace is contrasted with the the rush and responsibility of adulthood clearly embodied in the understandably impatient mother.

It helps that Hertzog’s performance is perfect. It is so dangerous using child actors and had this performance not been so flawless and layered, the rest of the film would have collapsed around it.

The second film was Valerie Massadian’s Nana. The film is very simply a series of scenes showing a fascinating and confident four year old, independently (worryingly so) traversing her environment of a small farmhouse in France, as her disinterested – though in no way explicitly terrible – mother aimlessly goes through her daily routine.

As a direct comparison to The Prize, Nana is more instantly captivating and possibly more original in its use of a child, being that its lead here is only four and carries the entire film. Where it doesn’t live up to The Prize though, is that it is less able to get into the child’s mind and utilise film form to reveal the narrative through their experience. In effect, it is better at ‘showing’ you the narrative, but less able to ‘immerse’ you. This is especially evident when the scene feels particularly staged. In one scene, we see Nana get dressed and eat her breakfast all by herself, with the implication that nobody is around to help with these things. Despite how adorable it is to see her do this (along with many of the ways she struts around the screen confidently), and how harrowing it is to think of a four year old needing to do such things by herself, what she interacts with appears a little too conveniently set up (milk next to bowl, clothes all out) and took me out of the narrative.

This point aside, and back to how good the film is at ‘showing’, the four year old Nana (Kelyna Lecomte) is fascinating. The camera doesn’t have to do a thing, other than watch this character strut around, playing and saying the most interesting things. This awe was exacerbated during the q&a when Massadian explained that Lecomte naturally lives a city life far removed from the rural life depicted. This is amazing considering how naturally she dominates the environment on screen.

Removed from the portrayal of children, Colm O’Leary and Will Oldham both give powerhouse performances in R. Alverson’s meditation on contemporary American spirituality, New Jerusalem. I almost wasn’t going to watch this film at all whilst reading the synopsis; that is until the end where it said something to the effect of ‘essential for fans of a developing new wave of American independent cinema embodied by the likes of Kelly Reichardt’. Seeing as Meek’s Cutoff is one of my favourite films this year, I was sold. This film’s greatest strength is that it stays admirably ambiguous, despite its highly divisive subject matter.

Sean (O’Leary) and Ike (Oldham) both work in a used tyre store in the American Midwest. Sean has recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but pivotally – as he keeps reminding people – he was far removed from combat as he worked refuelling planes. Ike is fascinated by Sean’s experiences and is introduced to us as a sort of loveable ignoramus. It soon becomes clear that Ike believes (with all his heart) that Sean needs to follow his lead and fully embrace Jesus.

Sean is a very complex character and the film makes it clear that it’s not simply his duty in Afghanistan, or that particular conflict that has left him in his mentally conflicted state. Sean refers to events/experiences spanning throughout his life, even going back to striving to find meaning as a young boy growing up in Ireland. It is implied by the film that it is much more the case that the whole of contemporary society, how meaning is created and how belonging is found that are pressing matters for all in such a society.

I personally take a very strong (admittedly narrow minded) position on the matter of organised religion (won’t reveal which way; thus aligning myself with the result of the film) so I am quite a tough test, but it succeeded in leaving me at a loss as to what was best for the conflicted Sean. As his mental stability is put more into a question and possible solutions through religion seem to fluctuate between making all the sense in the world on one hand to being manipulative and preposterous on the other, it succeeds in making the whole area anything but black and white.

Hopefully reading this will help you track down some of these beauties. I imagine that at the very least New Jerusalem’s English speaking will help it to find its way to these shores. I regret that I didn’t see all the other films in competition, but will be rectifying this at next year’s LIFF.

Mike McKenny is an academic and writer on film. He writes for FilmAndFestivals magazine, and is the editor of Destroy Apathy. He can also be found on Twitter

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