Festival Report: Bradford International Film Festival 2013

15 April 2013

Festival round-up plus a full index of reviews...

Note: an index of full reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.

Bradford is just about small enough to get lost in. With its landmarks situated in an area so concentrated you can view them all from a single vantage point, any visiting critic may enjoy the city’s annual film festival without ever needing to venture beyond that approximate triangle on which sit train station, main venue and the hotel in which festival guests are accommodated.

Whereas a bigger city will spread films across multiple venues, Bradford’s National Media Museum has three auditoriums in one building, and so a critic whose daily itinerary comprises breakfast and at least four feature films thereafter with little else will be pushed to find need or time to do much exploring. The one time I did just this – in pursuit of batteries for the camera on which the above picture was taken – I found myself navigating identical banked streets that seemed to carry some vague suggestion that, should I continue any further down or up any of them, I might never see another film at the festival.

Perhaps I’m just a clumsy navigator. Fitting, then, that my favourite film of the 19th Bradford International Film Festival was Alexey Balabanov’s Me Too (2012), a film in which all of its pilgrims seem to slip or bump into something at one point or another. I blinked and missed such moments when I first watched the film last year, but seeing it on the National Media Museum’s IMAX screen heightened my attention – and the film in general was transformed from a likeable but otherwise throwaway comedy with pretensions of social relevance to a subtly layered masterpiece that effortlessly manages that difficult shift from deadpan comedy to somehow poignant morality tale.

There are also gags based on trips and slips in Balabanov’s The Stoker (2010), about a third of which comprises shots of people navigating a city blanketed in snow – to various degrees of success. As hilariously deadpan as Me Too and sharing two of its cast members, the most curious thing about The Stoker is that it has been picked up for a belated but wholly welcome “key cities” theatrical run by new Edinburgh-based distribution company Filmhouse. It’s good to know that somebody else, somewhere else appreciates Balabanov enough to invest in what is an unexpected and frankly risky venture. But going by the few conversations I struck up with fellow attendees lucky enough to have caught the film, I suspect I won’t be alone in my enthusiasm for a wider appreciation of the Russian director’s work. And thanks to BIFF 2013’s small Balabanov retrospective, I can immediately count Cargo 200 (2007, above left) among the finest and most powerful films made within the last half-decade. It boasts images, narrative implications, suggestions of horror and at least one despicable villain that are still disturbing me deeply.

No other film left me as stunned as Cargo 200, but a few did move me in different ways. Though Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s Resolution (2012) throws in as many cabin in the woods clichés as it can to heighten the chemistry and tension between two old school pals, its sustained unease had me gripped throughout; I seem to be alone in thinking its third-act turn into self-commenting metafiction is not only unproblematic but logical. But these disagreements find their balance: Magpie (which received here its international premiere), Marc Price’s ambitious follow-up to debut feature Colin (2008), appears to have been well received by others, while I was unable to make the necessary leaps of faith demanded by firstly its premise and secondly its emotional contrivances, and was left thoroughly cold.

Some films threaten coldness from their outset, of course, only to accumulate emotional engagement as they progress. Two films of this ilk were An Anthropological Television Myth (2012, right) and Babylon (2012), two documentaries capturing very different socio-political tensions. Myth is an archive film that reassembles a Sicilian television station’s mid-90s output during a time of profound unrest amidst the working people of Catania on the island’s east coast, crowds of whom infuse the front-line reportage with righteous anger and a deep distrust of political corruption. Babylon, meanwhile, is a ground-level epic that depicts the experience endured by thousands of people fleeing from Libya’s civil war, who did so through the refugee camp set up on the most northerly point of the Tunisian-Libyan border. In differing ways, these docs engage with ongoing narratives in such a way that they’re cinematically unpredictable, trusting ordinary people to tell their own story.

Forced displacement is also one of many concerns in I Have Always Been a Dreamer (2012), Sabine Gruffat’s quietly remarkable essay film on Detroit’s bust and Dubai’s boom, and is at the very heart of Gone Wild (2012), Dan Curean’s documentary on the unresolved fate of humans and horses alike on Romania’s Danube Delta, suffering the prolonged economic and social uncertainties that followed the fall of communism in 1989 and the collapse of collective farming with it. The idea of humans coexisting with animals is a theme also shared by Tokyo Waka (2012), meanwhile, which examines the ways in which the Japanese capital’s upward and outward expansion has influenced its increase in wild crows, which feed off the garbage left daily by the city’s 13 million human residents.

As a result of its one-venue set-up – though there were a few screenings at different sites around Bradford – it’s important for BIFF to showcase enough films and filmmakers from untapped locales so that its “International” status is not merely a pretence. I’ll leave it to others to report on its tribute to Indian Cinema, which celebrates its centenary this year, but it’s clear from both the programme itself and the introductions given before each film that BIFF is in the hands of people with a detailed knowledge of those films whose distribution beyond the international festival circuit appears to be unlikely. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m fortunate enough to have counted festival co-director Neil Young as a friend since meeting him at AV Festival last year, and met his fellow-director Tom Vincent for the first time this week; both imbue this festival with an infectious appreciation of the undervalued and the rarely-seen – and are dedicated in this digital age to preserving, where possible, a film culture that values and emphasises the unmatched richness of projected celluloid.

Speaking of which, I was sure not to miss an opportunity to catch Sans Soleil (1982, above), Chris Marker’s seminal essay film, on 35mm. Having classed it as an instant favourite upon a first viewing seven or so years ago – and having not revisited it since – I found it surprisingly enervating; whereas I had remembered, correctly or otherwise, an English-language voice-over, this screening was in French with subtitles, which demanded more concentration than I had prepared myself for. At the opposite end of the spectrum, after four other features on Friday 19th April, I allowed myself the privilege of forgoing my notepad in order to sit back and take in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012), which following a straight-to-home entertainment release earlier this year received its first UK cinema screenings at this year’s festival. It’s not as cohesive as John Hyams’ own Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009), but it’s still a bonkers and intermittently thrilling comic-book videogame mystery action horror noir, all in 3D, which takes the Kurtz-like trajectory of Dolph Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, first set up in the 1992 original, to its logical conclusion.

If Marker’s palpable fascination with Tokyo as demonstrated in Sans Soleil chimed well with the aforementioned Tokyo Waka, though, the short that preceded it – also on film – chimed well with Gone Wild. This was Dream of the Wild Horses (1960), Denys Colomb Daunant’s strange and wonderful hymn to a group of untamed horses galloping along a shoreline. And what of that I in BIFF? Between them, Sans Soleil and Dream of the Wild Horses cover Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, Paris, San Francisco and the marshlands of Camargue in South West France. That’s a good start.

But I was also taken to Bogotá, Colombia by Juan Andrés Arango’s La Playa D.C. (2012), a coming-of-ager that avoids the perils of its well-trodden territory by way of understated performances and Nicolas Canniccioni’s impressive cinematography; to China’s Shanxi Province by Hao Jie’s The Love Songs of Tiedan (2012), a musical exploration of gender fluidity and the Cultural Revolution’s prolonged effects on its director’s home region’s folk traditions; to a mysterious small town in the Czech Republic by Olmo Omerzu’s A Night Too Young, an exploration of two pre-teens’ premature exposure to stuff better left to fantasy, which also boasted the best opening shot of the festival; to Sofia, Bulgaria by Kristina Nikolova’s Faith, Love and Whiskey (2012), a perfectly competent and sensitive film depicting the whimsies and dilemmas of a cross-cultural ménage a trois; to Mongolia and back (to Romania) by Bogdan Ilie-Michu’s epic DIY travelogue A Dream’s Merchant (2012); to La Paz, Bolivia by Diego Mondaca’s Citadel (2012), a fascinating documentary on a self-contained inner-city penal colony in the heart of the city; and, in two powerful mid-length films, to the dark realities of Europe’s sex slave industry and to the contrasting textures and temporalities of trauma and displacement, in Martijn Maria Smits’s Under the Weight of Clouds (2012) and Magdalena Szymków’s My House Without Me (2012) retrospectively.

Over the Atlantic, meanwhile, I was taken across New Mexico by The Rambler (2013), Calvin Lee Reeder’s rambling, anything-goes road trip horror movie; twice to Canada, by Kazik Radwanksi’s edgy character study Tower (2012) and Antoine Bourges’s impressive mid-lengther East Hastings Pharmacy (2012), a days-in-the-life-of depiction of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side; to the northeast of America by Nor’easter (2012), an original if uneven exploration of a close-knit community shocked by the return of one of its missing youths, and of a novice priest’s moral dilemmas relating to this; and to Austin, Texas by Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012), a fast, furious and occasionally hilarious film that managed to charm me even with a style and premise that might on a different day have sent me running.

Much the same can be said of Tuesday (2012), a short US film by Fantavious Fritz, whose generally cutesy tone was elevated by recurrent hints of dark comedy. A word too on other shorts: the best of those I saw was Out of Frame (2012), Yorgos Zois’s landscape film on Greece’s abandoned giant billboards; Doctor Bucketman (2012), Carlos Carcas’s documentary on a street drummer in Madrid, was a close second. Short of Breath (2012) showed Frenchman Guillaume Legrand’s impressive skill at eliciting and sustaining curiosity and emotional investment with an ambiguous and minimalist crime tale; Bellum (2011) is Danish director David B. Sørensen’s beautifully shot portrait of the economically-conscribed soldier as a young man; Will Herbert’s Inertia (2012) makes a meal of one young Mancunian’s clumsy attempts to return his ex-girlfriend’s keys through her letterbox, helped feebly by his pal; Return (2012) shows Israeli filmmaker Shay Levi’s aesthetic confidence, though it’s the kind of festival-ready short whose programme notes tell us more than the film itself.

My one regret of the festival was having to skip one of its tributes to Austrian distribution and production label sixpackfilm – owing to a hangover – though I did catch two of the shorts programmed within this strand that were commissioned by the Viennale: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Empire (2010) and Gustav Deutsch’s Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen (1995). And then there was Reconnaissance (2012), Johann Lurf’s silent landscape short on California’s now-disused Morris Reservoir, a former military torpedo-testing site. I saw the latter immediately before Fata Morgana (2012, above right) the film that concluded my trip to Bradford. There was a slight delay to Peter Schreiner’s film starting, and since I had a specific train booked to leave the city, I began and ended it looking at my watch – though for such a demanding work, the time in between flew by – which is fitting for a film about multiple temporalities (human, planetary, geological, cosmic).

Likewise, it probes spatial problems too: “What do upwards and downwards mean?” asks one of its two characters. What indeed? Perhaps because I endured a packed bladder for what seemed like the final two thirds of Fata Morgana, this line, heard an hour before my departure from the festival, conjured unwelcome if amusing memories of my first day there: on my way out of the National Media Museum’s ground-floor toilets, I had stretched a leg out to keep a closing door open when somehow, to my horror, I went my full length: rendered horizontal in a flash, and immediately shocked and embarrassed, I shot up to full verticality faster than I’d gone down.

It wouldn’t have been out of place in a Balabanov film.

Eye For Film Reviews

- An Anthropological Television Myth -
- Babylon -
- Cargo 200 -
- A Dream's Merchant -
- East Hastings Pharmacy -
- Faith, Love and Whiskey -
- Fata Morgana -
- Gone Wild -
- I Have Always Been a Dreamer
- La Playa D.C. -
- The Love Songs of Tiedan -
- Magpie -
- Me Too -
- My House Without Me -
- The Rambler -
- Resolution -
- Somebody Up There Likes Me -
- The Stoker -
- Tokyo Waka -

Scoped Capsules

- Babylon - East Hastings Pharmacy - Faith, Love and Whiskey - I Have Always Been a Dreamer - La Playa D.C. - The Love Songs of Tiedan - Out of Frame - The Rambler - The Resolution - Tokyo Waka - Tower - Under the Weight of Clouds -