Five films from the London Film Festival, Part 2

25 October 2010

This is the second part of a two-piece article. The first part can be read here. 

Manila Skies, a superficial portrait of a vivid social reality Raymond Red's Manila Skies (aka Himpapawid, 2009) focuses on modern-day Philippine society, in which city worker Raul (Raul Arellano) is desperate to return to the Romblon Island village he is from to see his dying father. Approaching his boss for time off, his request is rejected, and he is told that like everyone else, he has no holidays. Reluctantly, he leaves his job. 

Raul is an economic migrant living under very basic conditions that provide a haven for cockroaches. Unemployed, he spends a night with fellow workers, who tell him he is welcome to join them on a heist; preferring a more lawful route, he decides to file an application for paid work in Saudi Arabia.

The next day, the quest to file his application proves to be more difficult than first imagined. After waiting in a long unemployment queue, Raul is turned away by a clerk who tells him he needs his papers photocopied. Journeying across the city in search of a photocopying service, Raul becomes increasingly agitated, and when he returns to the unemployment office only to be told his passport photo is the wrong size, he breaks down in a futile rage.

Joining his fellow workers on their planned heist, Raul gets into a situation way over his head – a situation, in fact, way over all of their heads. When things go brutally wrong, Raul, even more desperate for a way out of this life, improbably makes his way through an airport security terminal with a gun and a grenade and turns to a confused, rather benign airplane hijacking in order to return home. 

Set against a seemingly authentic backdrop of unemployment and workers' strikes, Manila Skies is a promising but finally superficial film, whose vivid subject matter is let down by style and delivery. Raymond Red's directorial decisions are often notable for the wrong reasons; sometimes, they are terrible. 

If Manila in itself provides a setting evoking themes of social claustrophobia, emotional alienation and political unrest as well as economic instability, Red is too keen on moving his camera; more than being merely hand-held, the photography doesn't so much observe life as attempt to force it. In a quite unpleasant scene, for instance, Raul spies through his back window on a prostitute and begins to masturbate; the camera lingers on both Raul's face and the oblivious woman outside. Why are we being shown this? It's as if Red wants us to see the everyday normality of his character, wants to paint in a shorthand way a human side to him, a 'flawed' side, even (because humans are flawed, have private needs, etc.).

It doesn't work, firstly because these intimate, private moments of everyday life have never in themselves constituted 'character', but more importantly, because Red's point-of-view narrative becomes needlessly intrusive. Furthermore, as a matter of convenience, the film seems content to suggest Raul is already halfway to being mad: like a less subtle Travis Bickle impersonator, he sits in front of his television at night with the sole of his foot inches away from the screen, ready at any moment to kick it in rage; in the scene in which he finds a photocopying service only to find someone there who has paid for many pages to be photocopied before him, Raul's deranged, short fuse temper erupts without much if anything having provoked it. 

While some may see in this a 'darkness' or 'realism' – one website dedicated to Philippine films seems to - we must question the intentions behind this telling characterisation. If the essential facts of his story are social and political oppression – facts that currently underline many people's lives the world over, never mind Manila – Red's decision to paint an erratic, unsympathetic character is at the very least a curious one. More pressing, however, is the way in which Raul, in spite of such an essential backdrop, seems curiously removed from everyday life even well before he jumps out of a moving plane at 5,000 feet with the aid of a self-fashioned parachute. Far from the observational manner in which we observed itinerant workers in, say, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Red's film is a misguided let-down not without its moments. 

Aita, a quiet masterpiece of an 'art' piece
 José María de Orbe has dedicated his feature film Aita (aka Father, 2010) to his son, Marco, in an attempt, he explained in the post-screening Q&A, to convey feelings he cannot express in words. It might be the typical abstract appeal of an artist these days, but there's something unpretentious about both the director's delivery and the film itself. 

Filmed in de Orbe's own inherited and all-but-abandoned house in the Basque country, Aita is a deeply personal project, a product of over 70 hours of shooting (the film runs for less than 90 minutes) that in narrative terms is very difficult to pin down: part hymn to the house itself and the history of it, it also acts as a kind of document to Basque culture, in the way it involves a local choir, heard but unseen, and casts the real-life caretaker of the place and a local priest, to observe their unscripted verbal exchanges about death, life, history and so on; during some quietly beguiling scenes, it also incorporates early Basque film stock from the 1920s. 

It's not a storytelling film in the regular way,” says the director. “It's not a film with an explanation, and I like very much to shoot things that I like... Basque people, the way they behave, the way they talk, the way they walk.” This affection is immediately clear: de Orbe shoots with cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer – who won the Best Jury Prize for Best Cinematography at this year's San Sebastián Film Festival – in a strictly naturalistic manner, with a strictly static camera and a fine sense of space and framing. Its clarity of sound also evokes an affection for and interest in everyday life at the house, as we watch caretaker Luís Pescador go about his domestic business, visited every now and then by the priest, Mikel Goneaga.

As a film 'about' memory and history without directly investigating the nature of either, Aita evokes Tarkovsky's Mirror by way of a more austere and more confident sensibility than video installation: there is narrative here, of sorts, but it has to be 'experienced' in order to be 'understood'. In this way, de Orbe's film is the first in some time to have committed to such an 'artsy' premise and still engaged me with its open, honest ambiguities. It's narratively inviting and visually stunning, and is due for a November 12 release in Spain; hopefully, its critical reception will be warm enough to encourage wider coverage. 

Robinson in Ruins, another excellent essay-film by Patrick Keiller and the return of substance to 'slow cinema'

Patrick Keiller's latest entry into what is now his 'Robinson' trilogy, following London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), is another remarkable film and the best I've seen so far this year. It concerns itself with 'found footage' recorded by its titular researcher, of various sites in and around Newbury, south of Oxford, with accompanying commentary from a fellow researcher, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave. 

Redgrave's commentator traces Robinson's geographical journey and philosophical meandering, as he is released from open prison and believes he can now communicate with non-human intelligence – mostly, as the film develops, the otherwise unseen or overlooked lichen that dominate “8% of the earth's surface” and can be seen here on a motorway sign denoting Newbury.

The film utilises the same techniques as the previous works: an unmoving camera; careful, picturesque framing; a meta-narrative in which a 'fictional' narrator quotes Robinson verbatim as well as the texts that have influenced him – both of which are of course Keiller's own expressions. Redgrave replaces Paul Scofield (who died in 2008), whose laconic rhetoric met Keiller's other scripts so naturally, and if his successor doesn't have his immediate authority, perhaps she isn't meant to: this film, even more than its preceding parts, voices a clear anxiety as to the future of not only the English landscape as we know it, but of human life in general. There is also a progression in narrative style itself: there are segments in the film in which Redgrave's voice recounts 16th century riots and revolutions in much detail; others silence her altogether, allowing the images to speak for themselves.

Since idFilm reported on the film in August, it has screened at the Venice Film Festival, as well as at New York and London, and many reviews have been written in their wake. While many have noted the film's slow-burning accumulation of self-echoing information, none seem to have noted the way in which Keiller's new film fits into the wider trend of 'Slow Cinema', which has been a preoccupation of film critics for months now. This is, as Harry Tuttle would have it, a film that arguably enters quite comfortably into the confines of 'contemporary contemplative cinema' (Tuttle's words), in its blatant, literal contemplations and in the increasingly lengthy durations of its shots.

But if 'Slow Cinema' (Jonathan Romney's words) has itself become “routinised”, as Steven Shaviro writes (and with which I mostly agree), that is “a sort of default international style that signifies 'serious art cinema' without having to display any sort of originality or insight”, Keiller's film, whether intentionally or not, seems to challenge at every opportunity the notion of 'slow', or indeed 'contemplative'. Here we have information overload and then some, with Robinson's ruminations about subjects as wide-ranging as the banking crisis and the economic recession as a whole, the development of capitalism since the 16th century, US militarism and its impact on the UK landscape, political resistance and global warming all given to us against a stubbornly deliberate visual pace.

It's quite exhilarating at points, and reveals in its own way the faults of many non-mainstream films wrongly assumed to have substance through style alone. Robinson in Ruins is a dense film and at times quite esoteric – deliberately so, we can assume. Like its predecessors, it has the immediate impact of involving and exciting the viewer, and in its aftermath, its images alone demand repeat viewings; I will return to this film and Keiller's other Robinson cine-essays in more depth to aid its November 19 theatrical release.