New Simplicity and Challenges Without Response
Every well-organized festival has to have its thematic structure, which links the selected films. The organizers picked the right trend that is dominant today: social cinema as an analogue for art, festival films, or even radical expression. Postmodernist play on language and genres has now gone; currently, more straightforward discourses, open characters, and a clear motivation for action dominate the scene.
That’s why Ulrich Seidl’s visit to the Molodist Film Festival is so important. It is unprecedented in that this was the first time that a complete retrospective of films by the renowned Austrian filmmaker was screened. Besides, he spent a great deal of time talking with the public, critics, and the press, as well as young filmmakers. Normally short-spoken, Seidl willingly talked about the peculiarities of his artistic method, told stories of creating this or that film, and even discussed the present situation in the European Union and his — very warm — attitude to Ukraine.
While his feature films are more or less known, Seidl’s documentaries were a real discovery for the Ukrainian audience. These films, in fact, can hardly be called documentaries in a paradigmatic sense — by filming real people and their real stories, Seidl achieved a level of artistic generalization when any division into genres loses its meaning; he thus becomes a vivid example of being a social cinematographer without bias and ideological layers.
The decent level of work with social material made the best films of the competition stand out. We will now explore them further.
For the first time in 16 years of the festival’s history, Molodist awarded the Grand Prix to a student film. The short The Mass of Men (directed by Gabriel Gauchet, Great Britain) has the plot of a newspaper essay. In the prelude we see an event from criminal chronicles, which is not very clearly recorded by a surveillance camera: someone with an unknown instrument (later we discover that it is a riveting gun loaded with nails) breaks into an office full of people, uses the tool as a weapon, grabs a woman by her hair, and drags her away from her desk; the visitors run away in panic, the security staff rushes to their rescue, one of the petitioners — after hesitation — rushes to the desk where the victim just sat, and makes strange manipulations there after which he also runs away. All of this happens to the soundtrack of the aria “When I am Laid in Earth” from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell.
Then the director changes the angle abruptly and shows what actually happened from the point of view of the visitor who risked his life for some reason.
It turns out that it’s the office of the public employment service; the woman is a nasty and strict manager, and the petitioner an elderly (55-year-old) unemployed man called Richard, who was 3 minutes late for no fault of his own, but because of the delay he is moved back to the end of the line. All the events in the second part unfold in real time, like a live report with seemingly unambiguous division of roles. We see the oppressed man in the person of the worried, sweaty Richard, holding his documents folded in a pitiful plastic bag; and the state-oppressor, embodied by the implacable lady on the other side of the desk. She does not agree either to compensate Richard for the cost of bus tickets (even though this has been promised) or to forgive his lateness. Moreover, she puts pressure on him until he agrees to sign a punitive document. The conflict seems clear and predictable. The first nail that pierces the chest of the heartless official would be an act of revenge.
However, it is not that simple, and that’s where the director’s skill lies. Gauchet again switches semantic perspectives and channels the conflict into an unexpected direction, using just a few scenes and gestures. He shows that, in fact, there are two entirely different tragedies, and encloses the social conflict in a personal matter so that, what seemed to be an act of revenge and justice, ends ambiguously: instead of an exclamation mark there is an ellipsis. Perfectly acted, filmed, and composed, The Mass of Men received a well-deserved award.
Of course, the main part of the festival was the feature film competition, which was composed in accordance with the strategy that Molodist used in previous years: Kyivan selectors picked debut films from different programs largely of the Cannes Film Festival, which were predictably the leaders in the competition. However, the best feature film — confirmed by the appropriate prize — was Ilo Ilo from Singapore, which was screened on the penultimate day of the festival.
Ilo is a name of a province on the Philippines, which was the homeland of the maid in the house of film’s director, Anthony Chen. Ilo Ilo actually tells the story of a Filipino maid hired by a married couple of moderate income to take care of their rebellious son.
Chen manages to paint a portrait of modern Singaporean society with its crises, customs, and rituals through the story of an average family. The leitmotif here is hope. Everybody cherishes his/her own little mirage, except for the maid, who has an ample supply of love to stand and rescue everyone — after all, she also receives love from these people who are tired from their troubles. In general, Ilo Ilo is a very accurate sketch of the beauty and horror of everyday life, no matter what country this may be.
A lot is said and written about labour migrants, both legal and illegal. However, Mexican director Diego Quemada-Diez in his film The Golden Cage (a joint production between Mexico and Spain) found a way of dealing with the subject in an interesting manner. He uses the energy inherent in the genre of the travel-film. At their own risk three young Guatemalans — two boys and a girl — decide to go to the US, which for them seems like a promised land. The director chooses to remain as close as possible to the document, recording the events as they unfold in the canon of a fatal accident, as established in Italian Neo-Realism. Long shots of crowds of people on the roofs of freight cars, dozens of faces of real poor men with a truth of their own behind each face — this silent human choir accompanies the main story and gives the film some special value. In the end the three dramas merge into one, when the only young man who survived wanders in the United States on the cherished snow. A detailed scene with snowfall, which is initially something like a traveller’s dream, by the end becomes a symbol not only of goal that has been reached but also of the atomization and fragmentation of immigrants’ lives as they are stranded in an alien wasteland of reality between heaven and earth.
The Argentine film The Owners (directed by Agustin Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky) received a special prize of the Molodist jury. It is interesting primarily for the storyline with references to the famous films by Luis Buñuel Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Viridiana, where the servants try to take the place of their masters in one way or another, while the masters again and again find themselves in comical or absurd situations. In the film The Owners servants move to the estate every time their masters go to the city. Both servants and masters lead a double life, but for the peasants it is limited to borrowing a bit of somebody else’s comfort, while the lives of the masters are totally destroyed. However, this potentially satirical film lacks Bunuel’s irony.
Sarah Prefers to Run by Chloe Robichaud (Canada) received the “Don Quixote” Prize from the jury of film club societies. The film is more focused on existential moments, the problem of making a choice, which literally turns out to be a matter of life or death. The devotion of the main character to athletics at first looks like inspired careerism, but gradually it turns into a real challenge of destiny. There is a social component here as well: the main characters arrange a fake marriage to receive financial aid from the government, which will allow them to pay for renting a place to live.
As for the Ukrainian film Such Beautiful People (by Dmytro Moiseyev), which also participated in the feature film competition, an old problem was obvious here: the lack of good screenwriting. The dialogues sounded artificial, and the characters — despite attempts to give them some individual characteristics — did not develop. The story of a lonely woman and a missing loved one is no worse than others, but the lack of linguistic and psychological coordination between the main characters deprives the entire story of vitality.
A weak script, as often happens, is compensated by great camera work. If there had been a prize for best camerawork from Molodist Film Festival, it definitely should have gone to Serhii Tartyshnikov. The sense of space, composition of frame, and work with colours are gorgeous, especially in the shots taken at sea. Therefore it is sad that — despite such visual imagery — the director lacked social sense, in the broadest sense of the word: it is needed to fill the characters with blood and flesh of their everyday habits, with specific gestures, with disappointments and pleasures. Of course, Moiseyev should keep trying: he should try to leave the matrix of poetic cinema and master a somewhat different language.
The fact that a fascinating story with semantic depth, original metaphors, and nice images can coexist in a single work has been proven in the above-mentioned foreign film featured in the competition and some of the non-competition films. Therefore, the premiere of A Touch of Sin — a new film that received an award for Best Screenplay in Cannes — by famous Chinese director Jia Zhangke became a big event in the “Festival of Festivals” program.
The film consists of several parallel storylines, each of which tracks the fate of one character. An enraged, self-taught lawyer rebels against corruption in a mining town; a wandering marginal character earns his living by killing; a nice-looking young woman, who works in sauna, is attacked by a rich client and administrates her own justice; a young worker changes one job after another, trying in vain to put his life in order. Zhangke gets a sneak peek behind the facade of the present Chinese prosperity, or even more than that: experimenting with different styles and genres, he creates a unique cinematic world in which — it must be repeated once again — artistic and social elements are in perfect balance.
There is an acute need for such film that could become a kind of panorama of Ukrainian life and, at the same time, the manifesto of a new cinema.
The 43rd edition of Molodist definitely was a success, but it also stressed our lasting problems in Ukrainian cinema: the gap between form and content, the “short breath” of young scriptwriters, who are not yet capable of creating a convincing feature story, and also the unwillingness of Ukrainian cinema to face present-day challenges — both in art and in life.
However, treatment begins by making a diagnosis.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2013