A Round-up of This Year's MIFF Look to the Sky By Henrik Uth Jensen
It’s hovering in the sky over the streets of Gothenburg. Obviously no bird, no plane, nor Superman. It’s a weather balloon, simply black garbage bags sewn together to form a giant helium-filled quilt. The purposeful purposelessness escapes the spectators, and in a way the film that created this final image, Ruben Östlund’s Guitar Mongoloid (Gitarrmongot), escaped its Moscow spectators as well, ranking low in the critics meter and the exit polls. However, the FIPRESCI-winning feature debut by the Swedish filmmaker is a clever piece often using Roy Anderssonesque sequence shots to create an image of a Sweden where the ordinary citizens cannot imagine alternative ways of living, even though they divert themselves with drink, self-destruction and playing their own version of Russian roulette. Just to avoid boredom? Guitar Mongoloid introduces the twelve-year-old Erik with his acoustic guitar, terrifying right hand strumming and his peculiar approach to life to shake this world up a bit, but hardly anyone notices.
On the border, nothing good comes from the sky. Especially if the border is to be negotiated. Falling bombs create giant craters in Kazem Ma’asoumi’s Left Foot Forward on the Beat (Tabl-e bozorg qir-e pai-e chap), where three men are caught in a trench surrounded by their unseen enemy. The only water in sight is just in front of the enemy line, impossible to reach without being exposed to the guns on the other side. Soon the three men’s attention is drawn away from the war and away from ways of reaching the water. The sight of a white flag moves this Iranian drama onwards to the predictable, but excellently handled final confrontation.
This film and its ending bring Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy to mind. With a script by fellow Dogma conspirator Lars von Trier, Dear Wendy investigates the nature of weapon and its influence on the ones carrying them. Widely seen as a critique of American gun culture, the real force of this drama about kids forming a society of pacifists with guns is a keen eye on the group mechanism in youth subculture. The story’s inherent paradox is, as all script writers will know, if you introduce a gun you have to use it later. Vinterberg’s stylistics reflect the characters’ flamboyant posturing with exhilarating montages and the intentional artificiality of the surroundings. In that way this critics’ favorite couldn’t be further removed from the Dogma aesthetics which Vinterberg and his scriptwriter initiated.
Juan Pinzas’ The Outcome (El desenlace) gives a taste of the Dogma aesthetic. Though this is the Spanish director’s third film bearing a Dogma certificate, it violates the spirit and several of the rules of Dogma. In its adaptation of Dogma to a stereotypical Spanish drama, stressing erotic relationships among creative people, it even produces a toy gun to provoke Dogma purists, but the outcome of the effort just demonstrates that without trying to follow the rules Dogma has no liberating potential.
Guiseppe Piccioni’s The Life I Want (La vita che vorrei) uses the same subject matter in a love story between a famous actor and a rising talent. The mirroring of fiction and reality is an inspired loan from The French Lieutenant’s Wife , but the storyline meanders and the slick handling of emotions makes it seem as though the script was originally conceived as a mini-series for television.
With greater scope and ambition, two other films use a love story to direct attention to historic events that had an enormous impact on an entire population’s self-identity. In Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati ochi), Radoslav Spassov calls attention to how the Bulgarians treated the Turkish Muslim minority. Faced with an unwanted minority the government chose to erase every sign of the Turks’ ethnicity. They were given new Christian names and their habits, rituals and way of clothing were prohibited. What happens to people stripped of their culture and all the things that distinguish them as a community? This story is seen through the eyes of the young man who is assigned to renaming the unfortunate Turkish families. An assignment that faced with love leads to madness.
Aku Louhimies’ Frozen Land (Paha maa) takes the Tolstoy story about a man wrongly accused of selling counterfeit money in the opposite direction to what Robert Bresson did in L’argent . Where Bresson cut into the bone, Louhimies with several twists and turns of the plot opens the story to form a portrait of modern Finland. Even judged on its on terms without comparisons to Tolstoy and Bresson, Frozen Land puts its insights about coincidence and destiny in the crudest possible form.
Finally, to return to a society where there are no financial worries, but everyone in one way or another is dysfunctional, Chumscrabber, Arie Posin’s ambitious debut feature about a young man lost in a world of miscommunication takes a very different route from Guitar Mongoloid’s fragmented realism. Dean (Jamie Bell, who also starred in Dear Wendy) fails to tell the adults about his best friend’s suicide and, from then on, every small attempt to communicate is bound to fail. With sardonic wit and an almost cruel sense of human foibles this crowd pleaser exhibits all the traits of ‘smart films’ like Donnie Darko, Happiness and Magnolia; the ironic stance and the narrator like a bemused God looking down on the quiet despair of all the characters. But with its lack of compassion with the characters, Chumscrabber also treads the very fine line between smart and smug in a way that is bound to give the film as many enemies as friends.
Even though both Asian and African cinema were missing from the competition section, the selection at Moscow International Film Festival showed great diversity in the choice of subject matter and style. In fact such diversity that it would be foolhardy to try to point out trends and tendencies in the selection, which though open for improvement showed an openness to all cinematic forms.