Making Ways by Making Music

in 9th Off Plus Camera International Festival of Independent Cinema, Krakow

by Hugo Emmerzael

“Making Ways”, the main competition of Off Camera Film Festival 2016 highlights emerging independent filmmakers from all over the world by including only debuts or sophomore efforts. As a result, a lot of the lucky directors – eleven this year due to Black, the tag team effort of Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah – in competition are still quite young. Maybe this is just a coincidence or I’m just reading too much into it – considering that I myself am a young critic of twenty-two -, but this year the age of many film directors seems to be reflected in their genre of choice, the coming-of- age story. For most of the protagonists of the competition films growing up (or at least assuming more responsibilities) is the main issue at stake. In most of the films, like Marina Person’s California, Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, Ramzi Ben Sliman’s My Revolution and in the afore mentioned Black, the main characters are teenagers, who have to deal with failed expectations, closeted homosexuality, or romance in politically tumultuous times and gang violence in neglected communities. Other films, like Tobias Nölle’s Aloys, Kaweh Modiri’s Bodkin Ras, Nicolette Krebitz’ Wild and Gregory Kirchhoff’s Dusky Paradise feature somewhat older adolescents, dealing with different problems: the trauma of being orphaned, the anxiety to flee from your past, the discovery of your unconventional sexuality, and the hardships of just giving a damn about life in general.

Although all the films mentioned above share a coming-of- age narrative with some recognizable tropes, conventions and beats, every film felt like it contributed in its own way to the (important) theme of growing up. I was very pleased to see that the festival programmers have included films dealing with issues not only surrounding masculinity and heterosexuality, but also femininity, homosexuality and other forms of– one could say – unconventional forms of identity politics. Wild, for instance, challenges the patriarchal ideals of sexuality through the portrayal of a romantic and sexual relationship between a woman and a wolf. In its most euphoric scene, where the woman finally embraces her newly found sexuality, slick electronic music by James Blake filled the movie theatre, embalming the audience with electronically altered voices over a sensual beat. Thus the film incorporates tropes of the video clip as the heroine celebrates for the first time her excitement of sexual liberation.

This scene and the celebratory role music played in it made me rethink the films in this competition as not only coming-of- age tales, but also as films in which music makes a difference in the life of characters. If I look back to my own (continuing process) of growing up, I recognize how music can be a huge personal and developmental stimulant. Not unlike cinema, music can convey stories, emotions and communal experiences that we, as unstable identities, can tap into. Take California, a film about a teenage girl from São Paulo in the eighties, who establishes her identity almost solely through the music she listens to. With favourites like The Cure, Joy Division and David Bowie, her taste comes through as very American, so to speak, and reflects her main goal in the film: to go to California with her uncle. However, her excitement about going to the States is juxtaposed to the crushing disappointment when she finds out she could never travel there with him because of his terminal illness. Thus music only gives her the possibility to escape her fears and cope with her newly found sorrows.

Although there’s some mix taping going on in California, the protagonist’s relationship with music is mostly based on consumption. In other films, like Aloys, My Revolution and Bodkin Ras, we can also see the communal and healing functions of performing music on display. In its portrayal of real life characters from the depressing village Forres (Scotland), the hybrid fiction film Bodkin Ras focuses partially on rugged, drunk men, stuck in this godforsaken place. For them music is a way of pouring out their souls, as it is a way of letting it loose for the drunk artist who’s got no place to go other than the local bar. In some of the most interesting scenes Modiri interweaves these documentary-styled musical performances with the fictional story of the mysterious, adolescent title character, dealing with his deeply-seated problems.

The performative and liberating aspect of music also finds its way in the labyrinthine love story Aloys. In one powerful scene the protagonist, a recently orphaned private detective, performs an imaginary song with his imaginary girlfriend for an imaginary crowd of imaginary friends. Although every aspect of his performance is imaginary, the protagonists’ emotions are nonetheless very sincere: he’s finally the centre of the party, something he has never succeeded in being in real life, where he is a full time voyeur. It’s no coincidence that this scene displays an infectious joy that the film never seems to be able to summon again.

It looks/sounds as if music has become an essential way for many films in the “Making Ways” competition to connote emotional progress – sort of “making ways” by making music, I guess … To give you another example: In My Revolution music makes explicit the implicit tension, simmering under the surface of the film, which follows the young and lively French/Tunisian Marwann, who tries to achieve more popularity at his Paris high school by posing as an ardent supporter of Arab Spring. He however overdoes unduly his newly found identity to the point that his family decides to migrate with the young rebel to Tunisia and join the actual cause. Here, along with the real protestors, he attends an impressive hip-hop concert with his uncle; an event, which encapsulates perfectly the political anxieties people around him experience on a daily basis. The rap rhythm functions therefore at the same time as a celebration, as escapism and as a form of political disobedience. This is probably the reason why after the concert Marwann actually feels already a little bit older.

Although films like Closet Monster, Black, Halal Love (And Sex) and Dusky Paradise put less emphasis on music, certain songs and musical motifs still play an important role. Belgian crime drama Black relies heavily on French/Belgian gangster hip-hop to illustrate Brussels’ gritty Molenbeek district as a place where the local youth culture is an inherent part of gang culture. Closet Monster features a scene not unlike the one previously described in Wild, where the protagonist finally comes to grips with his sexuality during a booming house party. Halal Love (And Sex) illustrates how people (sometimes by default) associate certain songs with certain romantic partners. And Dusky Paradise features a musical segment that finally urges the lethargic and impassive protagonist to actually feel something about the recent loss of his parents.

Yet there was one film in this competition, which incorporated music on a whole new and different level. In The Lure (the only Polish film in competition) first time fiction director Agnieszka Smoczynska incorporates eighties euro-pop in this exhilarating mishmash of musical, horror, traditional folklore and post- modern pop culture. Here two siren-like young mermaids surface in Warsaw at the beginning of the eighties and take on a job as singers in a local nightclub. Through her lush shots, Smoczynska tackles the musical as if she is the logical successor of, let’s say, Baz Luhrmann. No matter how weird and idiosyncratic it may be, because of its many and eclectic musical numbers, Smoczynska’s film portrays a unique image of (post) communism, populated with strong characters, emotions, plot twists and pop-cultural references. It sounds chaotic, but the music binds everything together as a fully satisfying, original film. It would be no surprise if, after The Lure, Smoczynska tries her luck with a big budget, highly stylized American film. After all, making music is probably a way of “making ways” for her too…

Edited by Christina Stojanova