Tendencies: Intimacy, Imbalanced Families, Disturbed Narrations By Miroslaw Przylipiak

in 57th Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Miroslaw Przylipiak

Let’s start with some statistics. There were 18 films in competition in Mannheim this year. Out of them:

— Seven had family relationships as their principal subject, by which I mean that a family was not only a natural milieu for protagonists, but that these films focused on the very nature of familial ties. Only in two cases — in Cyril Gelblat’s Cycles (Les murs porteurs), and in Aitzol Aramaio’s A Tram in SP (Un poco de chocolate) — were they so-called “regular”, ordinary families. One film — Alison Reid’s The Baby Formula — played out a lesbian fantasy about two women having children with each other, so in this case family was a happy but unorthodox one. All other families portrayed were disturbed, ranging from the absent father and family conflicts stemming from ethnical and racial tensions in Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life or the rejection of a child in both Freddy Mas Franqueza’s Awakening from a Dream (Amanecer de un sueño) and Linda Wendel’s One Shot, to the mental disease that wreaks havoc upon the emotional lives of all involved, in particular a child, in Lyne Charlebois’ Borderline.

— Three films played on a theme of solitude in a big city. They were Paula Hernández’ Rain (Lluvia), Vincente Pluss’ The Noise in My Head (Du bruit dans la tête), and to some extent also Arabian Nights (Nuits d’Arabie) by Paul Kieffer.

— Three (to four) films tackled so called “hot social issues”, such as child abuse and slavery around the world (Another Planet, Másik bolygó, by Ferenc Moldoványi, the only documentary in the competition); African boat people, trying to reach a “better world” at all costs in Gerardo Olivares’ 14 Kilometers (14 kilómetros), and national and ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, as seen in Zornitsa Sophia’s Forecast (Prognoza). The fourth, optional one is K.M. Madhusudhanan’s Bioscope — ostensibly a story about beginnings of the cinema in India, in reality a study of national identity in colonial and postcolonial times, and a role of cinema in fostering (or rather preventing the establishment of) true national identity.

As far as the film form is concerned:

— Seven films followed a path of “ordinary” fiction, with clear, chronological storylines and turning points; well-defined, stable protagonists; a recognizable, realistic milieu, functional cinematography and conventional editing. Three of them used traditional genre formulas — a cop story in Stéphanie Duvivier’s A Police Romance (Un roman policier), a crime story in Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen’s The Last Joint Venture (Den Siste revejakta) and a love story in Arabian Nights. That also meant most filmmakers — or perhaps the selection committee — tended to avoid clear-cut genre entries.

— Seven were “disturbed narrations”, deviating in many ways from classical norms. Deviations were in some cases justified by a protagonist’s state of mind. In Half-Life, this entailed fragmented structure, impressive animations which expressed the protagonist’s emotions, and some very dense imaginary scenes (my favorite being the one in which a wounded finger is miraculously healed). In A Tram in SP, the old age of the main character makes it difficult for him to distinguish past from present, which results in them overlapping. A similar device, combining several time layers in one image, is employed in Borderline, but with much greater intensity: The main character is burdened with a history of mental disturbances in her family; at the same time, she’s a writer, working on her book, and all these factors contribute to subjectivity in the film presentation, making some parts of it veritable streams of consciousness, taking advantage of all means of the film medium. The “deviant” narrations in Bioscope and Chi Yuan Lee’s Beautiful Crazy (Luan Qing Chun) didn’t search for justification in a protagonist’s state of mind, but rather in the conventions of poetic cinema, in which emotions, atmosphere and remote associations are preferred over reason and clarity. With Beautiful Crazy it didn’t work, partly because the narrative disintegration went too far, putting some parts on the verge of unintelligibility, partly because the intended emotions weren’t there. It is interesting, however, that both of the Asian films in the main competition followed this path. Does that mean that Asian cinema is moving towards some sort of modernism? The other two films from this group were Forecast and Maris Martinsons’ Loss (Nereikalingi zmones).

— Three films mixed documentary and fiction. Another Planet, predominantly a documentary, employed some staged scenes to make rather obscure and pompous references to the faith of South American native peoples. The Baby Formula documents pregnancy, as its two main actresses, playing pregnant women, were really pregnant in time of shooting; the shooting schedule must have been subordinate to medical demands. The images of the women’s actual bellies expanding certainly lend the film persuasive force, which is all the more important, as this film has been clearly meant to propagate a gay-lesbian stance. 14 Kilometers is a fictional story — though one based on actual events — but it was filmed in real locations and performed largely by non-professional actors. Disconcertingly beautiful Saharan landscapes make up the background to the ultimately harsh ordeal of refugees, shady smugglers’ shelters and overloaded trucks.

— Three films flirted with the Dogma style. Loss shows this style at its worst. Big close-ups, the camera jerking, making unexpected pans or tilts, or lingering over faces, must be justified by a certain more profound philosophy of filmmaking, otherwise it is just a collection of purely mechanical tricks — especially when produced without taste or feeling, as was the case here. One Shot is really a technical achievement, as the whole film was shot in a single take. On the other hand, that also makes it plain that this style of filmmaking may lead to theatricality. We are watching a psychodrama, a theatrical play staged on location. In effect, while the emotions within the story increase, the viewer’s tension is steadily dropping. Cinema is art of condensation, even the condensation of boredom or ordinary life. To some extent, that stems from the fact that each shot, lasting several seconds, is usually crafted in the space of several hours, the better to pack every last ounce of strength and tension into it. With one shot lasting almost 90 minutes, it’s simply impossible for actors to maintain such a high level of emotional involvement, and for the director to erase all the empty spots in time and space. The result is a strange feeling of emotional detachment. If this is what the director wanted, chapeau bas, but I somehow doubt it. The best usage of some Dogma devices was probably presented in The Noise in My Head. This very loose story reminds me of a “found episode” structure, once so strongly recommended by Siegfried Kracauer. The main heroine is picked up almost haphazardly, and abandoned in mid-sentence. People come and go, their paths cross and split apart; we know almost nothing about their pasts and can only guess at their motivations. All this is displayed with great sensitivity, thanks to wonderful camerawork and discontinuous, casual editing, adding up to the impression of stream of life.

Let us jump to conclusions now. Can we speak about some commonalities, avoidances, preferences? What was avoided were big social or political issues; wide, epic breadth; genre formulas; violence. (There were virtually no violent scenes in any of the films.) What prevailed was intimacy. Young filmmakers displayed great interest in the intimate links between people; they were attuned to their protagonists’ emotions and told their stories in such a way that a glimpse into a human mind seemed much more important than any external event. These were the prevailing tendencies in this year Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival, though one can never be sure to what extent they relate to what is going on in world cinema, and to which they simply reflect the tastes of a selection committee.