Spiritual Journeys

in 7th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

The RIFF competition section was called New Visions and consisted of 12 films from around the world, namely Europe, North America and the Middle East. These films were more connected than at first apparent which resonates the notion that so many disparate films had a spiritual element in common, reflecting this current time in world history.

At Ellen’s Age exemplified a film crossing the boundaries of continents, world politics and personal states of mind. After 10 years as an international flight attendant, Ellen is at the crossroads of her life in both career and relationships. She frustrates her partner by being away so much that he announces his ‘other’ girlfriend is three months pregnant. She then loses her job when she goes AWOL in Africa. These shocks are the catalysts for a period of erratic readjustment that will change Ellen’s life and conscience, eventually leading her back to Africa. Jeanne Balibar is excellent in the role of Ellen, as is Julia Hummer (a rare appearance these days) who plays a member of a pro-vegan protest group in which Ellen takes temporary residence. The film touches a nerve regarding the individual viewpoint and how transposing oneself into different environments, both at home and abroad, can give a clearer insight into the world.

Set in 2004, Mandoo was poignant for being a film made in Iraq and concerning the brave and traumatic journey of Iranian people trying to get across the war-torn land and back into their own country. Again, while depicting the horrors of war it also is a journey of the soul, a journey of identity and emotions, and ultimately differences in the lead protagonists, one of whom eventually decides to stay in Iraq and care for the war wounded. It is also unique in that the whole film is seen from the point of view of a wounded Iranian man who appears only twice and very briefly in the mirror of the van they are travelling in.

Tomorrow (Morgen) is a thematically similar film to Mandoo in that it is also about travelling in a foreign land. However, where the Iranians wanted to get back into their own country, the Turkish gypsy wanted to escape his, hoping for a new life in Germany. First, however, he has to get through Hungary and though a local is sympathetic to his situation and helps him with finding shelter, the authorities are less charitable.

The sweet American film Littlerock concerns two Japanese siblings travelling across California, where their ancestors were once WW2 prisoners. In the small town of the title, the innocent non-English speaking sister is befriended by locals and feels at home so decides to stay when her impatient brother leaves for San Francisco. Potentially alienated amongst a small circle of young men from a far-away land and culture whose superficial acquaintance is based around money and drugs, she is able to understand the sensitivity and accommodate the emotional blockage of the people she encounters.

The moody and dark Canadian film Jo for Jonathan (in French dialogue) confronts the disturbing real-life statistics of 600 Quebecers who are killed by speeding every year. 17-year-old Jo fights with but idolizes his older brother Thomas, a car enthusiast and drag racer. Both are in a car which crashes during an illegal race. Jo is uninjured but Thomas is badly burned and disfigured and asks Jo to help him end his suffering. Ultimately, nothing in this film is optimistic but it succeeds in creating a strangely compelling hellish world with even the minimalistic and somewhat two-dimensional acting seeming appropriate to the mood.

Fast paced changes in internet technology and communication, particularly the Facebook phenomenon, should accurately assimilate the zeitgeist of the French film Flowers of Evil (Fleurs Du Mal). A young, beautiful and outward looking woman from Tehran’s high society is packed off to Paris by her parents to protect her from the erupting political violence in Iran. She soon falls for Gecko, the acrobatically talented bellboy at her hotel but somehow can’t mentally leave behind the bloodshed in Iran she sees through the ubiquitous internet. The viewer is transposed from intangible voyeur into some eerie trajectory of the young woman’s fears, confusions and emotions. Flowers of Evil encapsulates personal traumas and shared paranoia’s with a 21st century love story, the global village and displacement.

The Four Times (Le quattro volte) was the worthy winner of the main competition Golden Puffin and the Fipresci prize for Italian Michelangelo Frammartino’s second feature. The director considers his film to be politically charged in the relationship between man and nature. Referring to four cycles of life, the film subsequently becomes a hypnotic mediation with virtually no dialogue and no music, but diegetic sounds and images from a quiet medieval village on the hills above Calabria in southern Italy. A sick old shepherd tries to prolong his last days by drinking in his water what he believes to be medicine in the dust from the church floor. From here we are transported on a journey of one soul that moves through successive lives. We see a dramatic shot of a new goat kid being born and follow its first steps, its early curiosity and sense of fun before it goes to pasture, then becomes lost. The journey switches to a majestic fir tree which peacefully stirs in the mountain breeze, gently accepting the changing seasons before man intervenes, nature coming full circle. The Four Times is poetic and engaging cinema which shows how the traditions of a timeless village still have to face the fragility of life.

In all, this was an excellent competition program which reflected many spiritual and tangible aspects of global society. Crossing countries and continents, the films in competition successfully showed a divide in a world which, through media and travel, is able to bring disparate cultures together to hopefully understand differences, fears and injustices.