And Then the Phone Rang

in 44th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Göran Bjelkendal

And then the phone rang. This time, did the little tune come from the screen or was the source somewhere in the theatre? It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell, and filmmakers are using the un-certainty to make statements about this new development; sometimes they are just pulling the legs of the audience.

The use of cell phones has liberated the story telling in films. This modern equivalent of the messenger in early plays can be brought in anywhere. You don’t have to wait for the hero to come to the office or the phone booth in the street to further the plot, or before that to turn on the radio. Like a deus ex machina the cell phone can appear whenever it is needed. Of course there would be no drama if it always worked. As often as the old phone booth was out order as often the battery will be very low or the signal to weak, if necessary.

Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring Again” (South-Korea) seems to happen outside time and space at a tiny monastery floating in the middle of a tiny lake in the mountains. When two detectives from the big city break into this world, in chase of a murderer, they soon discover that there is no signal at all. It has by no way any consequences for the plot. It is Kim Ki-duk’s personal comment on the disease. (Long gone are the days when the first recognizable sounds out of a baby’s mouth were mammy’ or ‘daddy’. Today it is more likely to be the mother’s favorite ring tune.)

The ringing never stops at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. The audience has never participated to this degree in any public spectacle since the time of Nero.

Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Il dono” (Italy) is a pastoral film. Hardly a word is spoken. The lonely countryside is shown in long, quiet images, and then the phone rings. Except for the part of the audience that were busy sending SMSs there were hardly any who did not react to this intrusion, only to be shown in the next shot a cell phone lying on a small table outside the decaying cottage. There was no reason for a cell phone to appear in this environment, except as yet another comment from a filmmaker on this new disturbing trend. A similar use can be found in Manish Jha’s “Matrubhoomi” (France/India), which got a loudable reaction from the audience, since there had been quite a lot of ringing before that in the cinema theatre. Parviz Shahbazi’s “Nafas-e amegh” (Iran) on the other hand makes the use (and the stealing) of phones an important part of the characterisation in the first part of his film.

In Theo van Gogh’s “Interview” (The Netherlands) the phone is used as a constant disruption of the Pinteresk struggle between a political journalist and a famous movie actress. He is standing in for a sick colleague and has not the least interest, or knowledge, of his subject. Except for brief sequences at both ends the whole film takes place in her apartment. But her phone is constantly ringing, how often is difficult to tell, because she sometimes neglects to answer it and at least once it turned out to be a phone in the cinema. Commentaries on the use of the cell phone is clearly a part of the new cinema as two examples from films not shown at the festival confirms. Kjell Grede’s “Kommer du med mig då?” (Sweden) includes a scene with a man trying to carry on a simultaneous conversation on the phone and with a man in front of him. The scene is funny but has not anything to do with the rest of the film. More successful integration is found in Richard Curtis’s “Love actually”. This is also one of the few times an understanding is shown for what seems to be an excessive use of the cell phone. One woman is known for her constantly ringing phone, interrupting conversations, work and love making, everything. It is finally revealed that all her calls are from her mentally sick brother. So once again we have a phone message from the director: you can never tell which ones of all these annoying phone call can be really important and necessary. Benjamin Tucek’s “Devcatko” (Czech Republic/Slovenia) seems to be making a statement by excluding cell phones completely from a contemporary Chech suburb. The message of an old-fashioned answering machine is tellingly used as the last thing seventeen-year old Ema and her mother has in common.

Sitting at the back of a Thessaloniki cinema is almost like being at a pop concert when it is time for the slow ballad and all the lighters come out in the audience, except that here we get the lights in green, blue and amber when people are checking if any important has happen in their lives the last 15 minutes. Sooner or later there will be murder committed because of the cell phone, perhaps in the States where road rage easily could spread into other areas. At one time or another there will certainly be a need for a Cell Phone Anonymous (CPA). Soon you will be hearing courageous former addicts confessing.

– Hello, I’m Steven.
– Hello Steven!
– I’m a cell phone addict, and I haven’t touched it for two months now.
– Well, done Steven.