Artificial Reality

in 58th Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

by Joost Broeren

Although there was only one documentary film in Mannheim-Heidelberg’s main programme this year, the relationship between reality and fiction was very much a running theme in the festival’s selection. In fact, that documentary, the Turkish film The Last Season: Shawaks (Demsala dawi: Sewaxan), perhaps put more reflexive distance between itself and its subject than some of the ‘fictional’ films on show. Showing a year in the life of a group of Kurdish sheep herders, structured by the four seasons, the film adds a meta-cinematic touch in moments where the camera deliberately focuses on its own shadow, cast over the green grasses of Turkish spring, or the bleak-gray snow of winter. “What are you doing here, leave us alone!” shouts an older member of the Kurdish clan in a telling moment midway through the film. “I’m just doing my job, just like you are,” the director replies.

Such reflexivity cast on the filmic medium is far from the concerns of the Israeli Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani), winner of a Camera d’Or special mention at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and showing in Mannheim’s new section, ‘Festival Pearls’, which collected seven films that were previously awarded at other festivals. In both its style and its content Ajami approaches verite filmmaking, casting non-professional actors in roles close to their own lives. They are from the neighbourhood in Jaffa that gives the films its title, an Arab enclave in an Israeli city. As Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008) did for the Italian mafia, and the television series The Wire for the Baltimore underworld, so Ajami does for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It gives a street-level view of the conflict, without judgment or ideological agenda. Despite its loose, improvisational shooting style, the film has an intricate structure. Told in five chapters, each following a different character (an illegal immigrant from the West Bank, an Israeli police officer, an Arab with an Israeli girlfriend, and so on), the film jumps forwards and backwards in time to show several central scenes from different points of view.

Irish competition entry Running in Traffic (Dale Corlett) similarly draws from real life experience, although it does so on a more emotional level. Screenwriter and main actor Bryan Larkin based his story about dealing with loss and grief on his own experiences after the death of his father. Running through this is the story of Kayla (Anna Kerth), dealing with her own loss. Their lives crisscross on the streets of Glasgow, constantly connecting but never quite meeting. The two are each other’s antitheses; each is the puzzle piece that is missing from the other’s life. Although the film as a whole does not quite convince, their drawn-from-life quality lends immense credence to the two central performances.

Rather less convincing was the Norwegian competitor When Heaven Falls (Himlen falder) by Aghan-born director Manyar Parwani. Although based on a harrowing true story of incest that shocked Norway some years ago, Parwani’s overblown stylistic treatment of his subject matter leaves the viewer incredulous.

Many more films walked this line between reality and fiction in more subtle ways. In Miss Kicki (which was awarded the festival’s Fassbinder Award), Swedish/Taiwanese director Håkon Liu, making his feature film debut, retells aspects of his personal experiences growing up somewhere between two cultures. In Animal Heart (Coeur animal), Swiss director Séverine Cornamusaz adds nuance to her adaptation of Noëlle Revaz’ novel Rapport aux bêtes by weaving in aspects of the life story of her own grandmother (the film won not only the FIPRESCI-Award, but also the prize of the Eucemenical Jury and a Special Jury Award). And for La Paloma (Golubka), Russian Sergei Oldenburg-Svintsov utilizes a hyper-real, theatrical acting style to tell the true love story of two of his close friends, painter Genka and writer Svetka.

At the furthest end of this spectrum we find Optical Illusions (Ilusiones opticas), one of two Chilean films showing in the section ‘International Discoveries’. Director Cristián Jiménez has designed his shots in rigid symmetry. The relative flatness in the way the action in the foreground is framed gains depth against busy backgrounds, which is where the three interwoven stories often connect. While the deadpan dialogue and slightly surreal situations often recall the work of Northern European directors such as Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson, Jiménez drew on real life experiences from his home town Valladolid to create his patchwork stories. The artificiality of his style is only the facade for a story that is very much about modern-day reality in Chile.

Edited by Tara Judah