Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

11:17:44 pm , 2172 words, 1787 views     Categories: Live-action

VIFF 2009 thoughts

I'm set to break my own record this year for films viewed at the VIFF - day seven and I've seen 15 so far. Such are the fruits of anomie.

Apart from finding myself more annoyed than usual at the various irritating theatregoer archetypes - the guy sitting next to you who does a little 'heh' for some cosmically unfathomable reason every thirty seconds, the dozens of people laughing hysterically at shit that ain't even meant to be funny, and ain't - I find a demographics issue really bothers me. You go to an Iranian film, it's largely Iranians in the audience. French film, French people. Korean film, Koreans. It's common sense. Obviously people want to go see new films from their homeland when they're alone across the ocean and homesick. But it's an international film festival. It's about celebrating and experiencing other cultures and directing styles by seeing films from lots of countries that you didn't even know were making films. So far I've seen films from Chile, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Tibet and South Africa. I'm excited about seeing the first ever film from Panama. It bothers me that in spite of the bounty of cultural richness being offered to our great city at this festival, and in spite of the illusion of cultural diversity in attendance, it feels like the same type of person who'd never go see a film with subtitles. Of course It's a sloppy generalization with I'm sure plenty of exceptions, since I didn't interview every audience member or anything, but it's something I noticed and wondered about anyway.

As for the films, maybe I'm becoming a grumpy old man, but I'm mostly disappointed so far. Mostly just so-so films and a few out-and-out bad films. Nothing mind-blowing. Keeping my fingers crossed something will excite this year.

One of the recurring problems I found with the films was that they were too long. I've never liked it before when people say a film should have cut off thirty minutes or whatever, but that's exactly what I found myself feeling at the festival for several films. I find that I'm more critical about wanting a film to know what it's trying to do, do it, and get out. It almost seems like filmmakers feel constrained to fill up the two-hour time slot even if they don't have enough material to do so and make it work. Time after time I would be sitting there saying to myself, "Great film! Hope it ends soon." And then thirty minutes later it's still going on, and I'm starting to dislike the film as a result. It's admirable when a film can pull off a 2+ hour length, but I think it's even more admirable when a film can have the restraint to pull in at under 90 minutes. I'm beginning to realize that most films can't justify their playtime.

Sea Point Days, a documentary about the process of re-integration in a seaside neighborhood in South Africa, was probably my favorite film so far - a perfectly edited and paced documentary that interweaves various threads to suggest connections and contrasts and unexpected interpretations, and does it all almost purely through the visuals, rather than relying on narration to establish meaning. This is filmmaking at its purest and most moving. The characters are all interesting and offer valid insights, and the film's central metaphor of the public pool on the promenade as a place of healing - national, cultural, physical - is convincing and moving. It's remarkable the degree to which the filmmaker makes us think about the various issues at play in the area at this moment in time exclusively by judicious presentation of simple, unostentatious shots of life on the street. The music was also in excellent taste, subtle and not manipulative. So it's disappointing that even this great film seems to suffer from excessive length. The film is broken up into 5 parts, and the film felt like it said most of what it needed to say in the first three acts.

I'm very interested in seeing documentaries on the subject of globalization and neo-liberalism, so Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy seemed poised to be the perfect film for me. But it's a good contrast with Sea Point Days in many ways. Just because it's a documentary doesn't mean all films are made alike. This film was the diametric opposite of Sea Point Days - a series of interviews stringed together with no cuts. Period. No editing, no fanfare. The figures interviewed were luminaries who provided great insights into the subject at hand, but the film was way too long (I started falling asleep two and a half hours into the film), and there was no unity or organization to the material, so the barrage of talking heads just left you with a jumble of unorganized strands. Rather than illuminating the subject, I found myself more confused than ever. The approach has its merit, but the audiovisual element contributes absolutely nothing to this film, and hence makes the film somewhat superfluous. The interviews might as well simply have been transcribed and published online.

Around the World With Joseph Stiglitz: Perlis and Promises of Globalization similarly promised to be informative, but disappointed. The famed economist is filmed wandering through the abandoned buildings of his hometown whilst discussing the negative impact of globalization on various parts of the world. This is again a case of a film about a fascinating subject that has at its center a great figure who knows his stuff, but it's a slipshod film. The images of Joseph wandering around entire neighborhoods left abandoned are quite powerful - shocking images enough when they're from some third-world country, even moreso coming from the world's economic powerhouse - but no mention whatsoever is made of what happened in his hometown. It feels underexplained. More importantly, the film is weakly argued and fails to achieve a strong, cohesive thread. Instead, we drift vaguely between subjects and shots of Joseph Stiglitz standing in ruins. Informative, but feels like it could have been better.

Moon at the Bottom of the Well was my second favorite film so far. A delicate, natural and convincing drama about a couple in Vietnam that presents a sensitive and nuanced metaphor for the evolution of social mores regarding love and relationships in that country over the last few decades (as I interpret it), it might have been my favorite but again was plagued by that same nagging specter - not ending when it should have. I've seen any number of films that take that slow, quiet approach to the directing that seems to dominate filmmaking in many parts of Eurasia these days - long shots, minimal dialogue and little or no camera movement - but this is one of the better executed that I've seen. Often that styles comes across as a tired stylistic ploy, but here the directing didn't feel meandering or pointless. It didn't feel like stylistic affect. The film meanders lovingly over the details of the couple's every day life. It feels directionless, but very subtly the directing is building up a portrait of the wife's decadent doting of her husband that leads her to tragedy. What felt like a spot-on drama in the first three quarters, unfortunately, abruptly shifted to melodrama following the husband's departure. Everything subsequent to that, I felt, cheapened a wonderful film. It would have been far better off leaving things up in the air at that point and cutting the last thirty minutes. Sometimes mystery is better.

Be Calm and Count to Ten, though from a very different country - Iran - also partakes of something of the same visual/directing ethos of minimal dialogue and minimal narrative of Moon at the Bottom of the Well. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is kind of the figure at the origin of this style, or at least is its unsurpassed master (Taste of Cherry and Close-up among his crowning achievements). He clearly influenced many filmmakers the world over, and the methods his films suggested to filmmakers for how to enter a real situation and film it and create fiction out of something real, mixing documentary and drama, have resulted in some gems from far-flung corners of the globe, and freed filmmakers from the chains of conventional narrative forms. At the same time, it's resulted in some just plain tedious filmmaking. Be Calm and Count to Ten is a fairly good film that injects a welcome vein of lightheartedness and absurd humor into a style that feels detached and documentary in spirit. The boy actor at the center of the film is convincing and vivacious in his role, and a good rhythm drives the film between speedy and exciting scenes of smuggling activities and quiet scenes of the protagonists wandering around the barren environs - no feeling of excessive length here. In contrast with Moon at the Bottom of the Well, the satisfyingly inconclusive conclusion leaves it up in the air what has happened to the protagonist.

Bakal Boys from the Philippines also features a cast of amateur boys at its center. The film was shot entirely in one of the country's big slums, and the director auditioned 100 local boys for the actors of the film, finally choosing a dozen or so. In the film, the boys are metal divers who imitate their fathers in diving to the bottom of the bay to bring up scraps of metal to sell to buy food to eat. The film is a half-documentary, half-drama fictional depiction of these boys' lives. This is exactly how they live, so you are in essence seeing real life, but invested with the meaning of a narrative about the search for one of the boys who goes missing on one of the gang's diving trips. The boy at the center of the film, young Meljun Ginto, is nothing less than a dynamo of energy and charisma, a true born star, and he steals every scene he's in. The scenes of interaction are all natural and candid and splendidly achieved, considering all the difficulties the director must have encountered wrangling a whole herd distractable boys to act out their lines on camera. Shooting apparently only took three days, if I recall correctly, which was shocking to hear. Even more shocking is to hear that this is Ralston G. Jover's directing debut. The VIFF hosts a 'Dragons and Tigers' competition each year for directors who have yet to receive widespread recognition. I've seen three or four of the others in competition, and Bakal Boys annihilates the competition. It also felt like it might have used a bit of tightening near the conclusion, but it's a minor quibble. This is a splendid achievement - at times devastatingly sad, but ultimately uplifting and deeply honest.

The Search, apparently only the second film ever to be shot entirely in Tibet that actually went through the proper authorization and censorship channels and will consequently be receiving legitimate distribution inside of the PRC, was the most obviously Kiarostami-influenced film of the lot, with its setup about filmmakers wandering around the countryside in a car (Through the Olive Trees), and long shots of conversation in a car and of the car driving across the countryside (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us). Filmmakers are driving across the countryside to find a renowned singer of traditional Tibetan opera/theater to perform in a play that they wish to film. The bulk of the film consists of the sponsor, in the car, over the length of the drive, telling a story about his first love, interspersed with auditions of villagers in various places. After the thirtieth minute of his story, it became a bit tedious. But the scenery was gorgeous, the situations were marvelously staged, the persons photographed (not 'actors') were all wonderfully ingenuous and real. It's an excellent example of filmmaking at the crossroads of narrative and documentary. The way various vectors of motivation intertwined in the film was satisfying - the filmmakers trying to make a film, and the girl singer they are forced to drive to meet her ex boyfriend (the singer), who we at first believe to be trying to get back together with him, but we find out at the end is made of tougher stuff than that. The scenes of various people they encounter along the way singing the traditional Tibetan opera were beautiful. There's no narrative other than this, yet there's a rich sense of purpose throughout. It's a quietly beautiful film that deliberately avoids emotionalism and drama yet manages to resonate. One particularly memorable scene in the film shows some young acolytes at a temple shyly fidgeting and zooming through a recitation of the sutras they've memorized. Boys will be boys, no matter the cultural context. The simple act of going around and connecting with people through art shows our common ground and breaks down barriers in a way that more direct political confrontation can't.

I'll stop here and continue with the rest later.

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