Nice View

in 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Blagoja Kunovski

The title for my article is taken from a film screened in the program Bright Future, and I took it because of its double meaning, and the associations it bears to the film I am going to further discuss. To be honest, apart from the film awarded the FIPRESCI Prize, The Songs of Rice (Pleng Khong Kao), which deservedly won, I would like to underline that the film Bella Vista could have easily been a winner. The symbolic title for my article was chosen because not all ofthe selected films — eitherin the main Hivos Tiger Award Competition or the ones in Bright Future — were excellent, nor were all of their directors equally talented. The selection comes from the dedication of the Rotterdam festival to be at the center of the world’s independent and young cinema; its main goal to discover future talents. That aim could not be aprioristic for the programmed films and their filmmakers. It is fair to expect the best result without having aprioristic optimism for each film to be perfect and for each of the filmmakers talented. The really good films immediately present their values, first of all on a storytelling level; how the main characters are portrayed and most importantly whether you believe it or if you have reservations. As far as my experience is concerned, my rule is that within the first half hour, sometimes less, it is very important to capture the audience’s attention, so that the spectator will stay until the very end and not leave the screening any earlier. My choices from the Bright Future selection (with twenty-two titles selected having their world premiers) were whittled down to five voted for films, then less, so that in the end my three favorites were: the FIPRESCI winner from Thailand, The Songs of Rice, Georgian Brother (Dzma), Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) and for best feature the American film, Bella Vista.

Bella Vista is the debut film from producer and writer-director Vera Brunner-Sung. And, as far as Ican see, this is what a debut film from a first time director should look like. Inspired by the quiet provincial life in the Missoula valley in Montana, where the filmmaker also lives, we see a young female English teacher (Kathleen Wise is excellent in her first major role) surrounded by strangers. She teaches English to young immigrants who come to the US from a number of countries world-wide. They are total foreigners, but, she, paradoxically, feels more alienated, more estranged than they do, even though she is supposedly at home. The director’s approach is syncopation of story telling. The young girl is always in focus, and through her Vera Brunner Sung forms a parable about loneliness and alienation. From the very beginning, through a long shot with a still camera (and throughout the film, suggestively controlled by the cinematographer Alexandra Cuesta), we see the perspective of a winter forest landscape. From far in the distance, the young girl appears, suggesting the forthcoming of a cold life. Then, also in long shot, we see her in the interior of the rented room. In this long shot, looking at her, we start to make associations; about her, her feelings, her loneliness, and it creates a kind of empathy for her and an understanding about her life; what it is like alone, but as a part of a world wide sickness, a condition of modern civilization, not only an American one. Thisis, at any rate, one subject of the author’s observation. Then we see the class where she is teaching; gathered together with the foreign students, trying to build friendships with them, since she has no one more intimate to turn to; no boyfriend, and she is far from her family. In one moment, in an attempt to win over their friendship, she offers them a question and answer session, allowing them to pose intimate questions. The most common question undealing with alienation and loneliness, as one of the students asks, is about how many people in life one can rely on? Her answer is honest, though she only answers for herself. Then we see her in the pub, drinking a glass of beer, surrounded by more young boys. Even though she expected somebody to keep her company (the final banal seduction is a one night stand), Vera Brunner “left” her alone, returning to watch TV and eat cookies. Observing the young girl’s alienation is further shownthrough a group of very important associations with an address on the history of the US. The first of these sequences is where she, on a promenade in the surrounding Missoula valley, meets a native American man — whose identity in belonging to a reservation camp, given, as he says, “by the white people”, is sad and dangerous (connected with the far snowy mountain, as we see). His history is being forgotten. In this sudden meeting between the girl and the native American man, through a short dialogue, we see an allusion to the genocide committed in American history. For the young girl it is a moment of facing the historical truth about how bloody the creation of the new American states were. It is a blight on her conscience but comes from her predecessors. The second association, typical of US history and her shallowness is constructed when the lonely teacher visits the local museum in Missoula. There, outside, the visitors can see homage to history of cowboys and ranch houses. Most importantly, inside the museum, we see large photographs of once existing concentration camps for Japanese Americans and Italian Americans, who, after Pearl Harbor and the US engagement in the Second World War (from 1941-1945), were detained. This was one more step in national security against their potential enemy behavior, testing their loyalty to the US. The real title of the film comes from the name that the Italian prisoners gave to that camp in Missoula: calling him “Bella Vista” (Nice View). The meaning is laced with irony. Then there areother associations of how the US was so “patriotically” defended by McCarthyism and the communist witch hunt and Hollywood blacklists from the 1940s and 1950s. Last, but not least, is the Guantanamo Prison Camp (Assange and Snowden are our new “proof”). There are many important associations in this simple film; an everyday story about a lonely girl who is not existentially secure. Her stability is dependent upon the good will of her female boss, who, finally, and in cold blood, refuses to give her a new contract. The poor girl lives out her days in Missoula as anonymous as when she first arrived. We pity the Japanese student who wanted to give a present to the beloved and popular teacher, but the logic from each administration is just about profit. So, connected by the Montana origins of the stories, Bella Vista and Nebraska (which in Rotterdam won the Audience award from among the ten best films), are films that talk about the lost American dream. In Nebraska, it is through the illusion of an old man who, at the end of his life, is left with empty pockets and the cold truth of the “American dream”, falsely believing that he has won a million dollars in the lottery. In Bella Vista the lost American dream is weightier through associations from the life of the alienated girl, a new victim of the capitalist machine. Over all, the film Bella Vista is convincing and demonstrates the Vera Brunner-Sung’s talent. She will certainly be a strong voice in the new American independent Cinema, so long as she continues along the path her debut film has paved.

Edited by Tara Judah