Reykjavík 2012 or Does Cinema Scream?

in 9th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Wieslaw Godzic

When my colleagues from the university learned that I was to be the guest of the Reykjavík International Film Festival this year, they gave me some tips and practical information regarding weather and touristic attractions. Literature specialists mentioned Halldór Laxness as a Nobel Prize-winner whose works would explain more complicated knots of Icelandic life in the 20th Century. After arriving on the island in the middle of a route between Europe and North America I learnt that neither weather nor tourism would be the main topic of discussion. Talking to “ordinary” people outside the film business in a broad sense I realized that there are, in such a small and compact society, a lot of true cinema lovers – reminding me of the French idea of film clubs and later on the eastern European movement of cinefiles. People of Iceland love cinema and still – amid the other aggressive media activity – believe that that old medium is able to bring some answers to such questions as: How should we live? and: What is good, what is bad? They are not naive – rather, an important part of their approach to other people incorporates film as a significant element of that process.

Therefore, for me it was intriguing to see how the world represented in the films of the 2012 Reykjavík International Film Festival looked. I am positive that watching the festival’s films, observing Icelanders and cinema-goers, one can trace the lines according to which the main tensions are displayed. We have to add that Reykjavik’s festival is designed for young and very young directors – only those with debuts (or the second film after their debut) are accepted in competition.

A peculiar treatment of violence was one of the main features of the films presented in Reykjavík.  In God’s Neighbours (Ha-Mashgihim, Israel, France, dir. Meny Yaesh) the director shows graphic violence “for good reasons”. Avi, Kobi and Yaniv play the role of guards of moral as well as cultural rules in the Bat Yam neighborhood in Israel. The conflict between a conservative and liberal moral approach is in the air when a Palestinian group wants to “culturally” occupy some places. When Avi fell in love with an “ordinary woman from the synagogue” he discovered her rights as well as his doubts of how to live in a world full of compromises and tolerance. I am not sure that we should believe in stable change on a broad scale. However, the story of Romeo and Juliet has no final resolution. It is strange that the violence in God’s Neighbours is visually graphic and awful – but on the other side: it is very symbolic. I disagree with violence in any dimension but appreciate the director’s skill in switching between modalities of violence – it gives the viewer a chance to ponder that issue.

Italy’s The Interval (L’intervallo, dir. Leonardo di Constanzo) has no graphic display of violence, but the entire world depicted is full of it. Veronica and Salvatore are  imprisoned by a kind of mafia organization in a strange desolated building in Naples. There are many tensions between them and the organization – but one is crucial. As a result the young woman has to forget about privilege to make choices on her own. She is a social victim; the boy is a victim as well as a mafia soldier who explains how “things are going in the world”.

Who wins? Is there a special social group that profits from it? Or, let it be put in a  different way: “We, the people” – can we communicate with each other? British film Broken (dir. Rufus Norris) displayed an interesting approach to answering the question. This is a very realistic picture – not in a television-style sense but in a very cinematic one – of British middle-class fears and doubts. The world is inhabited by insecure kids and fathers, hardly playing their stereotypical roles. An important note to film scholars: here there are no mothers (except one who’s very weak) – and everybody in movies needs them (besides screenwriters).

The world represented in Starlet (USA, dir. Sean Baker) – awarded by the FIPRESCI jury – is not simply a picture of the porn industry in Los Angeles. It is about a generational gap and the power of friendship as well as about all the trash culture into which we are about to sink. The majority of viewers know that the porn industry is a fake one – actors just play their sexual roles; there is nothing authentic. But it could be worthwhile to learn that the protagonists are not the duped and exploited ones. They do their work like teachers or priests… don’t they?

Winner of the main prize The Golden Puffin Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA, dir. Benh Zeitlin) shows the world after an ecological apocalypse. It is worth learning again that we live in a gigantic cemetery of things – rusty cars, and empty plastic bottles are on a top of an iceberg. Animals change into monsters, but what will happen to people? A lot of important questions are posed – but the answer is incredibly simple: “All you need – except a new cellular phone – is love.”

We can name a lot of films that raise important topics: a humanistic approach to death was shown by 90 Minutes (90 minutter, Norway, dir. Eva Sørhaug); while how to fulfill teenagers’ dreams when they are about to be mature was the theme of Mobile Home (Belgium, Luxembourg, France, dir. Françoise Pirot). But one issue was fairly absent from the screens of Reykjavík. It was politics, with its mistakes and false nature – there were no images of politicians; no fight against party officials delivering lies.  I can name only Turkish film Mold (Küf, dir. Ali Aydin) as the only one that shows the consequences of brutal politics. But the story of a father looking for the remains of his son’s body after being arrested many years ago brings to my mind only tragic human odyssey deprived of politics.

In some ways the films of the 2012 RIFF taught me what I have learnt already from contemporary sociologists. There is no reason for any rebellion in film as a channel for human communication. Things are going along steadily: we can expect more good films, that are well-constructed and narrated. On the other hand, they are not pretending to change – definitely and radically – viewers’ attitudes to the world. It seems that cinema is a little bit scared of its social position in the media system. It has turned away from the position of the French New Wave or even the Polish Cinema of Moral Anxiety. There is no time for screaming, or shouting that acknowledges an anxiety. I am worried that the real end of cinema’s capability to create (even to some extent) the world starts from this point.

Edited by Carmen Gray