A Certain Tendency

in 53rd International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Peter Keough

Watching some two dozen movies in about a week as a member of the FIPRESCI jury, one inevitably sees patterns emerge. Some are random, idiosyncratic, irrelevant and no doubt symptomatic of sleep deprivation or low blood sugar. Others may be revelatory, or seem so at the time. I noted both kinds of patterns at the Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival.

For example, what do we make of all the movies featuring an abused or pregnant heroine on the run? They include Bulgarian director Zornitsa Sophia’s Mila from Mars (Mila ot Mars), Serbian director Srdan Koljevíc’s Red Colored Grey Truck (Sivi kamion crvene boje), German director Nuray Sahin’s Follow the Feather! (Folge der Feder!), Norwegian director Annette Sjursen’s My Jealous Barber (Min misunnelige Frisør) and Spanish director Pietro Jona’s Move! Where are You Going? Or the proliferation of coffins, unburied fathers, lorry drivers, petrol stations and women in a car who have to pee? Or exclamation points in the titles? What does it all mean?Nothing, probably, though in the paranoia-inducing meta-reality of a film festival such weird serendipities can, momentarily, seem profound. Some patterns, though, linger as significant even after the festival haze lifts. One such was the tendency of films to start out strong, with inventive and original narratives, styles and themes, and then deflate in the last thirty minutes or so into tired, convoluted and contrived convention.

What a letdown that is in a film like Canadian director Nathaniel Geary’s On the Corner. His authentic, splendidly acted recreation of the down-and-out community of drug addicts, teenaged runaways and longtime losers in Vancouver ‘s Eastside (where Geary himself was a social worker for five years) settles into a frantic family melodrama in the third act. Or director Maria João Ganga’s Los Olvidados-like Hollow City (Na Cidade Vazia), an uncompromising portrait of a war orphan lost in Luanda that cops out with a shock ending.

More frustrating is Norwegian director Mona J. Hoel’s Chlorox, Ammonia & Coffee! (Salto, salmiakk og kaffe!), winner of the International Jury’s top prize. A ferociously inventive screwball comedy, for the most part it generates the exhilaration that the caustic combination of the title suggests. The characters and their situations might be familiar – a jilted mother in her final month of pregnancy; a pissed off teenager who hates her mom and deals drugs; a lovelorn, loveable local cop; an immigrant shop-keeper who endures prejudice and promotes tolerance – but for Hoel that’s just the starting point for an eruption of absurdist detail, surreal sight gags and hilarious non-sequiturs. For example, in one comic-dramatic scene late in the film a horse trots across the frame for no apparent reason. Is it an allusion to Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds ? An on-location accident that they decided to keep in? We don’t know, but we all love the horse.

Unfortunately, Hoel has already decided at this point – it’s about 90% into the film – that enough is enough, the fun is over, and I have to make this look like a real film. So she tries to combine the unlikely ingredients of Clhorox, Ammonia & Coffee into a bland puree where all eccentricities of character, plot and incident are reconciled neatly. In short, everyone meets in the emergency room and hugs. My advice to Hoel is to stick with her most radical instincts; when Disney, say, buys the rights for the American remake starring Renee Zellweger and Tom Hanks they’ll homogenize the story for you more than you could ever imagine.

For over fifty years, Mannheim Heidelberg has prided itself on discovering and showcasing the filmmakers of the future. Kieslowski, Jarmusch, Fassbinder, Wenders – who this year receive the festival’s “Master of Cinema Award” – and many others got their first international exposure here. The tendency demonstrated this year of talented newcomers cramming their originality into a Hollywood mold makes that future look iffy.

Despite these cases of creative timidity, however, enough of the new filmmakers at Mannheim-Heidelberg remain true to their own offbeat impulses to keep hope for the future alive. Maybe two or three decades from now Norwegian director Annette Sjursen (what is it with Norwegian comedies? It’s like they mix Finnish zaniness and Swedish despair with a Prozac chaser) might be receiving her own Master of Cinema of award. Her My Jealous Barber is a flawless miniature of endearing absurdity from beginning to end. Or Portuguese director Margarida Cardoso, whose The Murmuring Coast (A Costa dos Murmúrios) is a dense and haunting portrayal of the political and personal pathology of imperialism. Or Srdan Koljevíc, whose Red Colored Grey Truck underlines the nightmare of the Yugoslavia Civil War with dark hilarity and steadfast humanism. Or Miro Bilbrough, whose semi-autobiographical, 52 minute Floodhouse is like a concentrated dose of Jane Campion and Wes Anderson combined. Or David Lanzmann whose Doo Wop , winner of our FIPRESCI prize, hints at a New Wave of the past and offers promise of another to come.

Peter Keough