Of what I saw in the 2011 edition of BAFICI, this was the most gratifying surprise, at least regarding the films themselves. I saw some films in the festival I'd place above it, but they were films I was already expecting great things from, unlike this which I had not heard much of at all.
In the film we follow the work of a German doctor, Ebbo Velten, working for an international fund in Cameroon in charge of fighting the malaria epidemic (often referred to in the film as "sleeping sickness" although both are different illnesses), during two different time lapses. In the first we see him after five years of work, ready to wrap up his stay and return to Germany, but then he's approached by a sleazy Frenchman with an unknown business proposition. Next we're thrown three years forward, now following Alex Nzila, a Congo-descendant French doctor who's come to Cameroon to make a report on Velten's work, yet he finds it near-impossible to get a hold of him, and the facilities practically abandoned and rudimentarily equipped, yet the epidemic has also been incredibly slowed.
What's interesting about this film is that it refuses to be seen as a criticism or essay on any particular third-world problematic, but rather treats many different problems belonging to these environments as well as their relationship with the first world as a single interweaving set of elements that cannot be analyzed without the rest. Thus it creates very complex views of the political system, of the relations with many of these NGOs, of how we see on one hand the dependence of these departments in international help while on the other how the people involved turn these acts of charity into a profitable project, while we have a third hand, and fourth and fifth, that tell us of the battles between idealism and discourse both on an outward, man-to-man level as on an personal one, the justifications of the necessity of international intervention, and how it is openly represented here the shortcomings of economic liberalism through the ever-expanding financial gap between classes, all the while being at the surface a character study instead of an openly political film. On the same manner the film keeps a back-and-forth defense of opposite stands on each subject, each character here is presented with their own set of dualities and ambiguity - Ebbo Velten, for example, is often seen as an idealistic man who's in love with the country and the culture surrounding him, yet simultaneously is often grumpy, has a general disdain to the people due to how he sees them progressively turning into a freeloading society, and finds himself involved in possibly illicit activities just as an excuse to keep on living and working in this country. He's a character who seems to be constantly and rapidly switching gears, thus completely breaking whatever conception or stereotype we try to adhere to him.
Despite the fact that many of these elements may seem like they could lead to a very sermonizing, sententious and heavy-handed experience, these are all elements that are not only left in grey space but are also there only if you care to look for them. It's because of the complexity of each character and each situation that the film is constantly leaving a lot of space with which to form your own interpretation and believe what one is saying or doing, or not. It's precisely because of the level of detail throughout that some less developed elements seem out of place in this context. Such is the case of the aforementioned "sleazy Frenchman", who is indeed just a cardboard stereotype, grinning slyly at everyone while trying to convince them of some idea he has through detestable means like sharing hookers and similar maneuvers. Some sequences involving Alex Nzila's arrival to Cameroon also seem somewhat far-fetched and almost ruin the otherwise quite believable and naturalistic portrayal of the country.
The ending is also utterly superb, very cryptic and almost metaphysical in a sense, but to tell it would be to ruin the experience. It is also why it makes me so reluctant to refer to this film as straight-up realistic - much like its protagonist, the film shifts back and forth between points of view, themes, moods, and focalizations that it's hard to define as a whole. In this sense the film it most reminds me of is The Profound Desire Of The Gods, though naturally not on that level of magnificence. Nevertheless, it is one really intriguing, really memorable film. Heartily recommended.
The title Tabu is one that looms large over film history recalling the collaboration of two pillars of silent cinema, F.W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty, about a forbidden love story (the film's taboo) between a fisherman and a holy maid, and splits its story between two clear sections titled "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost". In Gomes' film, we begin with a prologue of a Portuguese man's expedition to Mozambique in search of his lover's soul, ending in him being devoured by alligators and being reborn as one, before moving to the first section of the film, titled "Paradise Lost". In it, we follow María, a woman activist who's neighbour with a senile lady with a gambling addiction by the name of Aurora, and her African maid Santa. Aurora is poor and raving madly about her fictitious exploits in Africa and her strange dreams of being raped by apes, all the while being suspicious of Santa, accusing her of voodoo witchcraft. Eventually the woman's health declines rapidly, and as a last wish she asks María to look for a man called Ventura. María eventually finds Ventura but is unable to bring him to Aurora before her death. After the funeral, Ventura joins with María and Santa and begins telling the story of his affair with Aurora (played by the beautiful Ana Moreira), where he confirms she did actually live in Mozambique, and where he tells of his forbidden romance with her while she was pregnant of her husband's baby. Here we begin the section titled "Paradise", detailing the story of their affair and of their Portuguese social circle, back when Mozabique was still a colony, which makes up the larger bulk of the film.
One of the aspects that surprises outright is just how brilliantly Gomes manages to capture this story from an aesthetic point of view. Visually the film is of course emulating an older style of filmmaking, right down to the choice of working in an academic ratio (1.37:1), but his visual style is perhaps less reminiscent of Murnau's, and rather seems to emulate 50s Kenji Mizoguchi and early Satyajit Ray. There is that same remarkably organic, unimposing and ever so elegant kind of black and white photography which is harder and harder to find today (even the first half which is filmed in contemporary Lisbon), all the while the film works with a very limited array of sounds and music providing a background for a story told otherwise entirely through the voice-over of Ventura.
The voice-over eventually leads to many labyrinthine stories regarding the lives of many people he met in Mozambique, not least the members of his own rock n' roll band, specifically Mario to whom Ventura was a sort of right hand man. The stories are all vivid and told with great detail and humour, but essentially they are a smokescreen to what's otherwise a very simple tragedy of forbidden love, beautifully told. In many ways, even through these many decade-spanning branches, the film's narrative closely resembles the works of Gabriel García Márquez. The love story at the heart of it is one forbidden due in large part to the social aspect, that Aurora is a pregnant, married woman, but all throughout the film there's another side suggesting the nature of this affair's forbiddance is also of a divine kind - it is, precisely, taboo. There are many elements of magical realism at play, from the cryptic opening tale to the encounters with witch-doctors and seers, the latter foreboding the tragic end to the affair. Even the location, set around a fictional Mount Tabu, and the attitude adopted by Dandy, Aurora's pet alligator, seem to plot to make their fates meet. There is a strong mystical power at play, one that, like many of Márquez's most classic works, seems to exist as an unholy hybrid between local and European beliefs product of colonization.
Evidently, this affair is doomed from the start. The inversion of the original Tabu titles, leading to an almost sardonic remark over the latter section, allows us to see and know these characters' fate before we see their relationship progress, and thus the development of their relationship is all the more arduous and cathartic.
In the Q&A with Miguel Gomes, he mentioned that he had no ulterior motives to tell this story, no overlapping ideas as he does not consider himself to be a smart man and therefore does not consider his ideas "worthy" enough to sustain a film (perhaps in admitting that he's smarter than a vast majority of the filmmakers in the BAFICI), but instead he concentrates on catching glimpses, moments and developing a story out of them. Effectively this is not a film of big ideas and enlightenment, roughly the overarching themes could be related to adultery and natural law with hints of a cultural clash and the likes, but it's never really about that. It's about creating a story that's affecting like no other, and that he's managed to create. With this, Gomes becomes a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and one I'll be following very closely from now on.
Erosu purasu gyakusatsu (1969)
Dreaming of love and anarchy.
Possibly one of the most ambitious works in the entire Japanese New Wave, and certainly Kiju Yoshida's most experimental film (to date). As Yoshida and lead actress Mariko Okada said when they gave their rather extensive introduction to the film, what they wanted to achieve with it was to not just portray the protagonist's history as an event of the past but rather place both his story and struggle and the audience on a same temporal plain. The results might have been a lot more successful for its time of release, but it's still a fascinating effort all along.
Essentially, the film treats the work and death of anarchist Sakae Osugi as seen through the eyes of two characters in different timelines, being his long-time lover Noe Ito (Mariko Osada) and a teenage couple living out his "free love" revolution, going over his biography, who discuss and propose different scenarios that may have happened during his life, such as a notorious event when he was stabbed by his wife which is replayed and deconstructed in an almost Rashomon-like fashion.
Yoshida mentioned in his introduction that he wanted to structure the film like a dream, in a place where we could flow freely from past to present and back again but in a manner that seemed to make a narrative/structural sense, like how we forget of these lapses while we dream even though they were there. I found it interesting how he made reference to these two timelines as almost separate events joined through a mere montage trick, however, when the actual way he solves this temporal obfuscation is by blending both timelines within the same mise-en-scene, like these characters and stories are merely a panel away from each other. The modern-day characters are surrounded by the locations that Osugi once inhabited, whereas the love triangle developed between Noe, Itsumi (a former lover of Osugi) and the revolutionary occur in locations that are highly artificial and clearly modern, but which also reflect Osugi's ever-growing disdain towards the world he lives in and his conceptions of "free love". It's this quality of juxtaposing temporalities is what gives it a more oneiric feeling to me than the mere disjointed structure with which this story fledges out.
Another point of interest which struck me as odd considering the way Yoshida introduced his film is that, whereas he appeared to act very reverently towards the anarchist and how he seemingly was interested in conserving his ideology and not reducing the man to yet another historical figure of whom to make another biopic from, there seemed to be a pretty critical, even satirical tone held throughout to his ideology. There are some sequences within where he freely speaks of his notions of love and government, but these come as firstly apparently shallow, and secondly as little more than a lot of charlatanry. He speaks and writes a lot about these ideals but later says he's unable to defend them publicly because he's constantly surveilled, while on other sequences he seems to completely alter or even outright reject his ideals just to make an argument to defend his love (or lack thereof) to a woman or another. On the other hand, the students doing the investigation are also living in a time where much of Osugi's conceptions of love are coming to fruition, but they do so from the hands of people who seem to do that as a means to clash against the past and little more, and whose musings sound a lot like the classic college lefty monologues which just repeat vapid speeches and ideals against the "system" while drinking a can of Coca-Cola and wearing Levi's jeans and Nike trainers. In a sense, I feel the film is a deliberate case study on the vanity and frivolity in revolution, all the while not taking away merits from the essence of these movements' essential ideals.
There is, I believe, one problem that defines just why this film was not the masterpiece that so many of Imamura's films were, and that's a problem with the aesthetic. The visuals in this film, the very complex narrative structure, they're all fascinating elements on their own accord, and it's likely that the film would have never been this wonderful without them, but unlike the work of the aforementioned filmmaker, all of this aesthetic innovation appears as a forced, individual element in the film. You never feel like it is something that blossoms naturally from the development of the themes and ideas, or from the position of the characters themselves. Often you're drawn into just how amazing the form is, to the point that you occasionally forget what is going on. It's like both what is being told and how it's being told exist in two very different through equally mesmerizing plains. Also, the way in which the present is depicted in the film is something that refers a lot back tot he time it was made, and nowadays one can't help but feel like the film is a product of its time as opposed to the timeless products of Imamura, Teshigahara, Shinoda, Kobayashi and the likes.
Either way, it's an excellent film all around, certainly the best, the most complex and enlightening work I've seen of Yoshida, a definitive milestone for anyone interested in the 60's Japanese scene.
A grand-scope experimental documentary about illegal immigrants in Europe, about their journey into Europe, their expectations and reality, and their methods to evade the law and fight deportation. Sylvain George captured himself all of these images through a span of five years, and from the sounds of it, we still haven't seen anything.
Some of the images, situations and testimonies are absolutely superb, I have to say. We hear many of these immigrants talking about their experience being stranded in a wayward boat in the Mediterranean Sea for weeks, we see them burn their fingerprints away in an almost ritualistic fashion involving them holding bright-red screws and metal shards, we see some brutal, in-detail confrontation with the French police, and more elements divided into many narratively unrelated sequences, told through this raw, highly-contrasted black and white photography, this strangely grimy editing, with sudden freeze-frames, black gaps and a back-and-forth montage between images that seem to belong of different times and places altogether, paired with a very harsh soundtrack made mostly out of heavily processing the ambient sounds in each location, occasionally bursting into sheer white noise produced by an amalgamation of heavily amplified field recordings, such as trucks, waves on a beach and the likes. Merzbow would be proud. The fact that there is no actual music or narration which tries to empathize with these characters also helps enormously in keeping a distant, observational point of view rather than become engrossed in their journey. In many ways it just lets the characters speak for themselves, and in the end you end up strongly sympathizing with them, but never feel pushed to doing so by the aesthetic devices the film employs.
There is one major fault with the film, though, which is that it is not only too long for something of its nature (155 minutes), but feels interminable as well. I credit this fault to the particular structure the film uses, in which we are offered with several five to ten-minute sequences that fade in and out from a black space, and which are united through little more than a thematic arc. All of these sequences hold value entirely on their own merit, they almost feel like they're independent of a more global structure, be it narrative or thematic, almost like a series of short films. They're not linked by linearity or events or people, they depict stories of people who are in a same situation but probably never once heard of the other, let alone saw each other face-to-face, and the fact that all of these sequences are unified by black spaces makes it impossible for the viewer to get a proper sense of closure or development at any part of the film. By the time you feel you've had enough, you're still never sure if that fade-out will not fade back in to yet another sequence, and so you find yourself with no idea of when the film may stop or for how long you've been watching, and hoping for the last ten-to-twenty fade-outs that that will be the last one. At a time I literally felt that I had misread its running time and that it was in fact somewhere along the four-hour mark instead.
Nevertheless, it is a hugely interesting watch, and I probably would've been even more fascinated had I seen this in chunks and not from start to finish.
Meek's Cutoff (2010)
A foreign home.
Last year I was really surprised with the latest film of Niclas Winding Refn, Valhalla Rising, mainly because of how he was able to generate such a grand-scope epic with as minuscule a budget as he must've had. His production consisted basically of taking a group of actors, props and costumes into some stunning locations and start filming, just trying to capture the magnificence of those landscapes the best way they could. The result was somewhat awe-inspiring, a film that created some visions so epic that it made Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings look tiny and unimportant in comparison, almost like they had reversed budgets. in many ways, Meek's Cutoff does just that, although in turn it delivers a much, much better film as well.
The film is set during the travels through the Oregon Trail in 1845, where three families led by a contractual guide Stephen Meek get lost in the desert. Meek keeps saying they'll be there soon, but the route he promised took no more than two weeks to get through has already lasted for five, and they seemed nowhere close to the mountain pass they were aiming for. As he becomes more and more unreliable, and water starts running out, they come across a native, who they capture and want to force to have him lead them to water.
There are a couple of reasons why this reminds me of not only Valhalla Rising, but also Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath Of God before it. The most obvious connection between these films is that they all treat that notion of a group of people foreign to a particular land begin a journey through it and quickly lose their way, so much of the film we spend seeing them drift aimlessly through these landscapes, becoming more desperate about the growing shortage of food and water. Then, as I mentioned earlier, there's also the matter of the production scheme - Herzog did something similar when he made up these rafts and dressed a troupe of actors as conquistadores and went ahead and started telling his story. In the case of Meek's Cutoff, what we see throughout the entire film are a group of people, oxen and horses carrying a couple of wagons with them across some superbly shot arid landscapes, with the story needing only that to flesh out, but it is all so incredibly captured, so nicely treated from the sound and the atmosphere, that one can't help but be engulfed by what he's watching.
Much like Herzog and Winding Refn, though, what also makes this film work is that there is a constant sense of a metaphysical element working in the background. It is not just merely that these natural terrains hold an ancient charm to them, in a sense that you can almost imagine the world's history just by looking at them, but because all of these locations are heavily tinged by the native culture and beliefs, by their rituals and their own codes and languages. All throughout this journey, within each location one can notice several paintings on the rocks, carvings, and signs such as rocks piled up in an almost totemic fashion. This all becomes more apparent when the native character appears in the scene, and thus the protagonists are also forced to live with the culture and beliefs of this individual without being able to communicate with each other. There's an absolutely magnificent moment late in the film where a man falls down due to dehydration, and the native beings to spray sand on him and sing and everyone around him just looks. It's a sequence that reminded me a lot to that shot in Aguirre: The Wrath Of God where Aguirre is standing beside a man playing a traditional Andean melody on a panflute.
It's an absolutely wonderful film and I urge everyone to see it, a stunning meditation on the idea of the foreigner invading a land and culture he does not truly understand. The ending left me chills running down my spine.