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Short-wave tower, Yamagata

I decided on coming to Yamagata that I would try to see all the films in the competition – which means a small fraction of the films being shown.  I intended to actually try to see them, sit through them, like it or not, though conflicts in the schedule meant I had to miss something, so I decided to sacrifice John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail as he’d given me a DVD of it some time ago.   So, following those I saw the first day, it was off to the movies.

Havana Suite

While I missed the first 20 or so minutes, having carelessly gone to the wrong cinema, saw one of the juror’s films, Cuban Fernando Perez’ Havana Suite.  It is a kind of mosaic of the prosaic in Havana – following the daily lives of a handful of characters – a young boy with something like Downs syndrome and his father; a ballet dancer, a man who emigrates, a woman who sells peanuts, and a handful of others.  Stitched together in a passing-of-a-day manner, morning to night, the film holds together nicely, and evokes a sense of Havana, worn down by America’s embargo and, if my reading-between-the-lines is correct, a critique of a failed revolution.  The sense of loss – of lives ground down – is palpable, as is the sense of hope.  A nice film, if lacking something indefinable to make it a truly great one.  Here’s another view.

Armadillo

Then in competition was a Danish film on their troops in Afghanistan, Armadillo by title, directed by Janus Metz.  It follows a handful of soldiers from their preparations in Denmark, with their families as they leave for their “peace-keeping” role, and onto their stationing as newbies at Forward Base Armadillo, out in the boonies of Afghanistan.   Very nicely shot, with a kind of intimacy that clearly demanded the trust of the soldiers for the two cameramen, one being the director, it revealingly shows the kind of brotherhood that military life imposes, from the crass pornography and crude macho behavior that is part and parcel of war, onto the boredom of patrols in which little happens, and then into sequences of vivid combat.  And then to showing blatant war-crimes which the soldiers enjoyed, and the brass then tried to cover up.   We also get ample glimpses of the distorted relationship of the soldiers with the Afghani’s who chronically suggest they should leave.    I had a major problem with the film’s use of sound, what with a huge pounding bass being used to hype the audience as the men went out on patrol, along with other places where I felt music was needlessly used.  I would much have preferred the real sounds to this superimposed and bombastic use of sound.  I knew it was coming when the opening credits included “sound design” which for me invariably seems to mean sound is used to make a mess of things.

Apuda

And then, going to a Chinese film, Apuda (He Yuan), ostensibly an ethnographic documentary, I spent an hour of a scheduled 2 and a half, watching very dark quasi-Rembrandtesque images in a cottage in Yunnan province, where a man lies still, gets up, laboriously helps his father get his pants on, and his father goes outside.  Done with very long takes, it was stultifyingly boring for me and I gave up thinking it would shift gears.  Some compared to Pedro Costa, but I think it is a superficial comparison as Costa animates the world he shows with artfulness; here the images are as inert as the characters.   Long shots in and of themselves reveal little – there’s something more needed.

So, having liberated a few hours, I went to take in some of Gianvito’s Vapor Trail, a long 4 hour item dealing with the US military’s contamination of the former Philippine bases Clark Air Force base and Subic Bay Naval base.  Along the way we get a didactic course on Philippine history, Spanish and American imperialism, and other matters of history and politics.  While interesting, I found what I saw too heavily dressed as a lecture, and the cinema side to me was too loose and aesthetically lazy: long shots of activists giving talks, driving in cars, casual street scenes, none of which really snapped for me as well-conceived or thought out, all a bit too rushed and casually edited.  I’ll give the DVDs a look when I get back to Seoul but I doubt I’ll have reason to alter this critique.

Vapor Trail (Clark)

Next in line for me was a Swiss film, The Woman with the Five Elephants, by Vadim Jendreyko.  A very nice, if utterly conventionally done film, its topic is an 85 year old woman,  Swetlana Geier, who works as a translator, and is famous as one.  Her story is sketched out, and life in the process intervenes, with her son injured and then dying from a accident, which prompts Geier to make a journey back to her Ukrainian homeland, for the first time since 1943.  Getting the back-story it turns out she was, after a fashion, a collaborator with the Nazi’s, a matter which the film largely skirts.  She’s a charming woman, with a sparkle in her eye and mind, and the film is well-shot, paced, and, as said before very standard fare cinematically.  And it made the process of translating/writing interesting to see and entertain.   It even has German TV’s ubiquitous voice-over giving information the cinema missed.  I liked, but, sorry, no cigar.

The Woman with Five Elephants

And, then I tried, but gave up exasperated in about 20 or so minutes, a French film titled What is to be done?  Set in a neighborhood of Alexandria, Egypt, it follows the dim fortune of a man whose house is chronically flooded by a few inches of water.   The shooting was competent, if nothing more.  And the interaction was for me deadening.  It runs 2 and a half hours.   Like Apuda (but not nearly so self-consciously composed) this film seems to be one of the styles evoked by digital media: long takes, using the camera just like a film camera, just showing things.  And showing.  And showing.  And aside from the inescapable matter of framing, and time, there seems little sense of artfulness involved.   I find this kind of supposed cinema dreary and lazy, as if simply by picturing something, it makes it “art.”  It doesn’t.  And it doesn’t make it “life” either.  Even if the pictures are “beautiful” and some things happen.  Art demands a lot more, though just what that “more” is is difficult to nail down.   The economics of digital media have opened this pandora’s box.  But perhaps practice makes perfect and those doing these will learn after a while.   The criticisms I make here of these two films I can well imagine coming from someone regarding my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida.   Though I’d not agree and point out the differences I perceive, and apparently many viewers share.

Embrace the River

And now just saw another competition film, Embrace the River, by Nicolas Rincon Gille.  Shot in Columbia it rather schematically tells of a river myth, a supposed spirit-being, Mohan,  which lives in the Magdalena River.   This is used as a rather clunky guide line, with obvious set-ups of people talking about Mohan and their imaginary encounters, or stories they have heard of it.  Shots of people on carved out boats, fishing and swimming in the river, all rather National Geographic in slick HD looks.  While the setting was ripe for something creative with the camera, it sticks to tried and true and lacks any creative spark, the camera used like a 35mm film one.  The flow then segues into stories of corpses in the river and goes through a long passage of talking bodies, mothers standing and telling about the paramilitary groups coming and taking their sons to kill them and dump them in the river.   The shots are static, long, compositions a bit rigid.  Occasionally the women weep.   Then a few more shots in the river and that’s it.  I found the film boring, its structure too fixed, and the end result rather as  lifeless as the corpses dumped in the waters.  I would have walked out but it was only 73 minutes, so….

Update: next morning went to The Collaborator and His Family, (Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash), from Israel.  It is about a Palestinian collaborator moved to Tel Aviv, and his family.   I lasted about 45 minutes.  While the “story” was of interest, the cinema was grab and go chasing the (alleged) reality, with pedestrian hand-held shooting.   Again, in my view, a lazy and careless way to deal with what could be an interesting topic.  There are about 6 billion other such interesting topics, and it is in how one reveals them which elevates matters to be worthy of one’s time and interest.  No go for me here.

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