Emir Baigazin's fable The River just screened at the Warsaw Film Festival, after winning the Warsaw Industry Days' Pitching Award the year before. Baigazin wrote, produced, shot, directed and edited what is now the third part of his Asian trilogy project. Currently traveling to Japan to feature at the Tokyo Film Festival, the Kazakh director has found warm receptions at Venice, Toronto and Berlin with his films, and has been nominated for Achievement in Directing at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The River portrays the life of five brothers living in a remote rural area. One day, their idle existence is upended by the arrival of the modern world and its temptations.
You films often portray family relations, and The River features a remarkable dynamics in the relations between the brothers. Is this something that comes from your personal experience?
It pleases me to think you have come to the idea that it might be something personal. But in fact, it is not – the films I make have nothing to do with my personal life. I don't even have any brothers, only a sister! The ideas come from outer sources, and I work thoroughly on their development. But in the future I might be interested in creating some really personal films based on my family and relations with parents.
There are other motifs that roam from film to film in your trilogy – I’m thinking of the striking contrast between the city and the countryside. It looks very precise, and what I find especially interesting is not only the clash that you show, but also the gradual blending of these realities. How did you come to this topic?
This all comes from the fact that I grew up in the province, where this contrast is already built into your life. There are cities with big malls, Burger Kings… maybe if I lived in one of them I wouldn't feel this way. But I was born in an aul, went to school in a small town – this is not even a real town, in fact – so I first met people from the city at my characters' age. This is not about some particular experience, but rather about two parallel universes that existed at some basic level in my life.
The point where these universes meet seems interesting – the city cousin appears from nowhere and threatens the stability of the system, but it all seems to move toward a balance later. Could you tell a bit more about this plot line?
The thing is that this character doesn't just simply come to destroy the brothers' world. He acts as a trial, a test, something that comes up to try out the relations of the brothers, because their heaven can't exist forever. Deeper ideas on this character are up to the viewer, but it is important to understand that without his appearance Aslan would not be able to get to catharsis, and no miracle could happen at the end of the story.
What I like about this character is that I imagine him more as a “what” than a “who”. He is the wind. We got very lucky with the wind scenes, and with the windows. I think it helps understanding him as this wind entity that sneaks into the house and starts lifting stuff up from tables – this is not just for beautiful imagery. The wind doesn’t just bring chaos, but fresh air, too. Note the fact that this character doesn't have a single close-up, and his presence gets more tense at the moment when he is absent – when he either drowned or just vanished.
In this encounter I have also noted the clash of collectiveness and individuality, and also of communism and capitalism. Were these dichotomies part of the thought process while making the film?
Sure, this was definitely present in the film. The first information that comes into the brothers' world from the TV once the guest fixes it is about North Korea. It is indeed a conflict between the communist and the capitalist worlds. But one more important line is that the world that exists around the family is also imposed through violence. The film's first part has two acts, and in the second one, when the Father expects the oldest brother to take after him, Aslan looks for a new way which won't be the way of force and power. It was very important to me, when I was working on the script, that this could become the way of love. So he takes his brothers to the river and life starts to change. They start to work better, even though they aren't forced to. But after Aslan discovers this way of love, his own trial begins. Another Prometheus comes to them. This clash between the river and the tablet is crucial for me, as this is Aslan's last test, a temptation of feeling the urge to destroy the opponent.
If we go further with this frame of the East and the West, where do you feel you are being positioned as an author and director?
It is not easy for me to speak about this. Kazakhstan is like a patchwork blanket, it has great cultural and social diversity. I am a bit out of this frame, but I love to discover the ideas that come from your background as a result of your inner development. I am interested in any ideas I can find. It is vital to study myself, but in terms of my work, what is definitely important is to make the film as a whole non-eclectic piece, having its own world and language. It should combine everything in a smooth and natural manner, especially in terms of dramatic composition.
I'd like to ask about the sound landscape of the film. During the Q&A session you mentioned that you had a great experience working with composer Justyna Banaszczyk, who is known in Poland as part of this new local electronic scene. Could you tell me more about this experience?
I didn't know that she was a star of the electronic scene in Poland! But our work experience was great. Sometimes you have a thousand meetings with the composer and you don't really get anywhere. It was a miracle working with Justyna, as she managed to create something inspiring from the first attempt. My sound director and I were impressed. We might have requested some slight changes, but that was it. It can be exhausting working with composers – this is why my other films have no music. And here the music could have been really minimalistic and primitive, but Justyna managed to add just the right volume. I am very grateful for her work. It spared me a lot of work, as the music was added after the film was finished. I hope we have the opportunity to work together in the future.
Another notable episode is the sandstorm sequence, where the sound is quite impressive. How did you come up with this part?
This was the initiative of my mix engineer Filip Krzemien - he is also from Poland. This is not what I usually do in my films, adding really intensive sound that makes you feel the Dolby capacities. But I am very enthusiastic about the fact that we could use it in such an accurate way right in the middle of the film to highlight this fear the brothers experience after a tragic event. It is a very special moment, and it only happens once. I am happy with the effect we created.
Because of the involvement of the Polish Film Institute, I also did the color grading here in Warsaw, and this was a great collaboration for me as a director of photography with Marcelina Gorka. Our collective work helped each other to get to a new level. This doesn't happen very often, but I appreciate the fact that we could work together and create something great for the film. Our priority was to keep its delicacy, harmony and wholeness. We followed this idea, and I am very glad we did.
I'd like to ask you about you work as a cinematographer. You have mentioned before that your work was visually influenced by Ozu, but also by stained glass compositions, is that right?
The idea about the stained glass, and all the rigorism, comes from the core of the film's story. So for me, it is not possible to invent the form of the film just as it is. It should be tied to the film's main concept, and in The River this concept was the miracle that happens in the end. Think of stained glass windows – they are simple, straightforward and light – this is what I wanted my film to be like. I didn't want to end the trilogy with something heavy. I try to move forward, even if some of my films' fans don't like it. I didn't want to do the same I did in Harmony Lessons, even if that was my most successful film, because you can become trapped by repeating yourself. It was crucial for me to set the characters free, and in this film Aslan doesn't kill – this is a very important liberating moment. On the other hand, it turned out to be more complicated to work on a lighter-toned film.
Stained glass windows in churches became an important reference in terms of style, because of their rigorism and simplicity. I didn't pick my inspiration from films, but I got some energy from Franz Marc's paintings during the editing. I don't think it is a good idea to watch anything while working on your own project, because you create your film in its very own universe. But paintings can be inspiring, as they discipline you in a way. I'll quote Cézanne here, “At each touch I risk my life”. Directors should risk their life with every new frame and cut: you have to make sure there is nothing excessive in your frame, and each image belongs to its place.
How do you feel you have developed while working on this trilogy? What are your current inspirations for future projects?
I am happy with the spiritual evolution this trilogy shows. The author refines together with the work. There are a lot of plans for the future, but I am moving under my own inertia, using it as an instrument, and driving my inspiration from different impulses. I catch a wave and follow it. Developing the visual style is interesting for me, although I don’t consider it my main concern. I like to work with time and tempo - without them, The River couldn't have its catharsis. You can't get the spiritual experience without feeling the weight of time in the film. So I always think a lot about the visual imagery, but the transcendental dimension is still more interesting for me to explore.
We are at the 34th edition of Warsaw Film Festival with Igor Minaiev, the director of The Cacophony of Donbas.
Călin Boto: Your film is a brief deconstruction of the Soviet propagandistic discourse regarding the Donbas miners. How did you get the idea for such a specific project? Igor Minaiev: It started with the story of Iryna Dovgan. She took part in the film. I saw a video of her on Youtube, and it was horrifying. On Ukrainian Independence Day (August 24th) she was tied to a pole, beaten and tortured. It was shocking. She was saved by a journalist. It’s an inhuman story. And I thought I should say something about that. It was the main motivation for the film.
Călin Boto: What are the sources for all the footage you use? Igor Minaiev: We had different sources. We worked in the archives – the Pshenichny one, for example, which is the biggest photo/video archive in Ukraine. I had also interviewed people who left Donbas, and included that in the film.
Călin Boto: There is a chronological gap in the film, namely between the 1950s and the 1980s. What happened with Soviet propaganda during that period? Igor Minaiev: There is no big gap in the film. I show Soviet propaganda from its beginning – with Symphony of Donbas in the early 1930s and until 1989. We followed it chronologically. Changes came with Perestroika, starting in 1989, when the truth began to appear on screens. All in all, Soviet propaganda didn’t change much from the 1930s until the late 1980s.
Călin Boto: Soviet propaganda is well documented, with a huge amount of audio-visual material. On what base have you selected yours? Igor Minaiev: I selected stories I was interested in, starting with specific topics. Some stories I remember from Soviet times, seeing them on TV. Some of them were ordered by Ministries - Healthcare, for example. Then we selected the most significant films, the ones with artistic value.
Călin Boto: Ukrainian cinema is showing a loud voice at the moment. Would you like to comment on the situation of Oleg Sentsov? Igor Minaiev: Oleg Sentsov’s situation is horrifying and unbelievable. He was wrongly accused and sentenced to 20 years of prison. This sentence is against any law. A couple of years ago, when Oleg was still only detained, people at the University of Paris held a protest in his support. I thought the best I could do was to translate his play Numbers into French. Later, Oleg made it into a screenplay and now there is a film in production. I read Numbers to the people in Paris so they could understand what sort of man he is, how he struggles. I hope he survives and gets out prison.
Călin Boto: What are your thoughts on found footage as a filmmaking form? Igot Minaiev: I think that all the ways of making films are good, as long as you’re making a good film. It’s not important whether you use found footage, home videos, etc. - the most important thing is that you have something to say.
The Odessa International Film Festival is often cited as an event with the ambition to be the “Ukrainian Cannes”. Do you have that ambition or did you give up on it?
I wouldn’t say we want to be like Cannes. Cannes is often referred to as a very glamorous festival. OIFF chooses films based on their audience potential. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t show arthouse cinema. We have an ambition to become the main meeting point for film industry representatives from Ukraine and neighboring countries – Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia. We have a geographical advantage, and also industry-wise, since the Ukrainian film industry is slightly bigger. We invite people who have a deep interest in Eastern European cinema. For instance, five years ago professionals came to Odessa just to have a look around. Now they are coming with a particular interest – searching for projects, films, connecting to certain people. Still, the Ukrainian film industry should also evolve in this case, and increase the number of cinemas, develop the educational system in film, and things like that.
How does the festival address the political and social issues in Ukraine? And how does this intention correspond with your wish to be an audience-friendly festival?
This is a common question for most festival managers, you know, whether festivals should reflect on politics and social issues. As for OIFF, we have special programmes for that. Of course, when we select films in the main competition, we go by different type of guidelines, but we cannot ignore the Oleg Sentsov case, for example. So we pick films that cover important topics in special out-of-competition sections. Also, generally speaking, selecting films for OIFF means we need to acknowledge the fact that Ukrainian viewers rarely got the chance of watching different types of films – starting with the Soviet period till now. Ukraine lacks screens and film education, as I said earlier. So the mission for a festival like Odessa is to showcase non-blockbuster, auteur films.
Up until a couple of years ago, a Ukrainian film festival would screen almost every local feature-length film that was submitted. Now, there is a selection process. What are the criteria for the selection of Ukrainian films?
There have been certainly more shorts and documentaries made over the last few years. As for full-length feature films, we start to follow them at the pre-production stage. Usually we manage to get all the films that we laid eyes on in the National competition.
Do you have a list of Ukrainian directors whose films you follow? And does the festival consider itself a platform to discover those filmmakers?
There are certainly some ‘festival babies’ – films that were pitched in Odessa, then came to the festival as work-in-progress and later were screened at OIFF. We also help Ukrainian films be considered by foreign international film festivals. I don’t want to name names, but let’s say there are some Ukrainian film directors who can send their films after the application deadline and still be considered and even accepted at OIFF.
How have the festival dynamic in Ukraine changed since Molodist in Kyiv moved its dates from late October to the end of May? I ask with regard to the selection of Ukrainian films as well, as both film festivals have Ukrainian short film competitions.
I don’t think that dynamic changed in a radical way. We didn’t sense any difference. Still, I’m not sure if moving Molodist to May was a good decision: spring and summer in Ukraine are pretty busy with festivals, while the fall season remains vacant.
What about Docudays UA? In 2016 you established a Documentary Competition at OIFF. From an international point of view, it makes sense – the Berlinale has one too, for example - but in the Ukrainian context it was seen as a challenge to Docudays UA, which is the most important documentary film festival in the country.
The Documentary competition in Odessa complements Docudays UA, rather than competing with them. In fact, we are friends with Roman Bondarchuk [the Art Director of Docudays UA], he was on our Jury once. His films took part in different programs. I hope to cooperate with them, in a way. Docudays UA has a clear profile: films about human rights. Meanwhile, we show audience-friendly documentaries.
As a film producer and a festival manager, how do you see Ukrainian-Polish relationships in our industry?
I think the cooperation between our countries is very natural – we are neighbors and at some point shared a common history. The film industry in Poland is much more evolved, so Ukrainian filmmakers can benefit from working with Polish colleagues.
Do today's political issues between Ukraine and Poland influence these relations, in your opinion?
Not yet, but my Polish colleagues and I follow the situation and hope that everything between Ukraine and Poland remains the same. I know that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinks that relations with Poland are of the highest priority right now. The Ukrainian Institute [a recently established state institution that deals with public diplomacy] also has Poland among their immediate priorities.
In 2019 you will have your 10th edition. Do you plan to make changes in the festival? What is your strategy for further development?
We are actually working on that strategy right now. The festival team understands that there are higher expectations for the 10th edition, and we expect that a lot of people will come: winners of previous editions of OIFF, stars, filmmakers, cinephiles. For now, we are going to change the rules and regulations of OIFF a little bit, but we don’t want to show more films. I think the amount of films at the OIFF is adequate. I would also like to establish a programme for children in the nearest future. I am not talking about just showing films for kids, but organising a full educational plan, so they could learn about arthouse and auteur cinema as early in their lives as possible.
Gabi Virginia Șarga and Cătălin Rotaru’s first feature Thou Shalt Not Kill had its world premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. It’s a drama about a pediatric surgeon who finds out that the disinfection system in his hospital is broken, which leads to the spreading of dangerous diseases. Based on true events, the film follows protagonist Christian in his fight against corruption in Romania.
At the screening of your film yesterday, I noticed people were very involved with the story. Reactions were strong.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Yesterday at the Q&A there was a local surgeon who told us that, here in Poland, it is the same story. Authorities hide true statistics of bacteria in hospitals.
Why do you think it happens in Romania and Poland (and, presumably, in other Eastern European countries)? Is it because of the post-Soviet corrupted system?
Cătălin Rotaru: Of course, the communist era in Romania left some marks. But the corruption there has historical roots, and I mean it started 200 or 300 years ago. Everybody buys and sells everything in Romania.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: When the scandal broke out, the press uncovered how many people took money to cover this scheme.
How long ago did this happen?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We found about this scheme 3 years ago, but the problem started 13 years ago. And for 10 years nobody talked about it – people were dying in the hospitals and we thought it was the flu. Because what could possibly go wrong if you go to the hospital?
How did the scandal end? Was anyone fired or prosecuted?
Cătălin Rotaru: Shortly after the scandal erupted, the head of this company [the one providing defective disinfection substances] committed suicide. The prosecutor arrested two of the top managers of the company, and right now the minister is trying to put an end to this scandal by covering all the tracks. The representatives of the company are now in the court. The important thing is that among the 350 hospitals that bought supplies from that company, only 92 hospitals testified against it in court. And once the hearings started, only two of them were still up for it. The others just don’t want to fight.
In one of your comments about the film you said that it is “fiction, but a personal one”. Could you please elaborate on that?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We are very angry, like many people in Romania right now. We regularly take part in manifestations along with protesters who have been fighting for almost three years against corruption in the country.
Cătălin Rotaru: The fiction in the film connects to reality. We did our research, talked to the doctors, found out all the statistics etc. Characters in our film are somehow “designed” after doctors we have met.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: All the numbers in our film are real, we didn’t make them up. The dialogue is partly taken from real interviews with the real doctors.
And yet you still made a fiction film, not a documentary. When you created the character of the pediatric surgeon, was it more important for you to address the issue in every detail or you followed the development of the character?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Both. On the one hand, we wanted to show all those numbers and facts for everyone to know what happened. But it’s not the only aspect. We also wanted to tell a story of how a man or a woman fights with corruption. It’s a universal story. Our main question is how far you can go in fighting the system.
Cătălin Rotaru: It’s an evolutionary process – we start from facts and reality, then move to something beyond reality. What we are interested in is the true nature of human beings. What is their relation to evil, and what is the origin of evil itself.
This is a metaphysical question, dealing with people’s beliefs and religion. I remember the key scene from your film, taking place in an apple-tree garden, and there are plenty of Biblical references in it. The main character’s name is Christian.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Yes, and all other characters’ names have a meaning, too. The child who dies is called Ovidus, which means “the man who is sacrificed”. Carbunariu, the family name, means “coal”. It’s a reference to the boy’s parents, who fight only for a little while and then give up.
Cătălin Rotaru: This is a typical Romanian family. They have the typical Romanian fatalism. “God didn’t want him to live” – the father says. It’s in our historical roots – to embrace our fate.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We are interested in our relationship with God. Our first short film is about a religious man who meets a guy claiming to be Jesus.
Cătălin Rotaru: We don’t what to deal with the church specifically. There’s no church as an institution in our film.
You said that you question the origin of evil. What do you think it is? Do you follow Hannah Arendt’s stance of banality of evil? Or is evil something else entirely?
Cătălin Rotaru: We don’t answer that question in our film. Christian is not an atheist, he’s just indifferent. He doesn’t want to look up to the sky, because he’s interested in solving problems down here. But his actions are entirely Christian.
How did you get the money for a film like this?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: It was a big problem for us to find money for this film because nobody wanted to be involved in this project. Potential sponsors were frightened that they would have problems with the authorities if they supported us.
But many people agreed to work on the production for free – actors, for instance. So we could use the money we had to get a good camera.
Did you receive money from the Romanian Film Fund?
Cătălin Rotaru: Yes, we got state funding. But it wasn’t enough, so we looked for sponsors. At first they were very enthusiastic, but after reading the synopsis they backed out.
Putting Lipstick on a Pig is a Finnish-Estonian documentary, directed by Johan Karrento. It tells the story of Päivi, a middle-aged woman working as an accountant, who steals 800,000 euro from her clients and gets addicted to online gambling. The film explores the aftermath of the case that has forever changed the life of a small community in Åland, an autonomous archipelago between Sweden and Finland.
You were born in Åland, so you probably heard about the case very early on. But when and how did you get the idea of making a film about it?
I know exactly when, because as soon as I heard the news that someone has stolen 800,000 euro from their clients, and it turned out that it was a middle-aged woman, I thought it was interesting. I’m very interested in what happens in a small community when somebody messes up. After that, it probably took me two years to call her and ask if she was interested in making a movie about it. Originally it was only about this woman, but then the victims’ stories and how online gambling works were added to picture.
We learn from the film that those victims are small business owners. Was it easy to convince them to talk about their personal experiences and share their thoughts on the case, including their accountant Päivi?
I didn’t really have to convince anybody, I think. I wanted to convince her colleague, who is not in the film, but she didn’t want to. As for the others, they felt like nobody was listening to them. This goes for all of them – even the gambling company. Nobody was paying attention to what they were saying. So everybody was happy to speak about this.
You’re very much present in the film, which probably has a lot do with your approach to documentary style. In 2005, you took part in the Berlinale Talents programme. Back then, you said your style that it’s ‘personal without getting exhibitionist.’ Was there any particular moment during the filming and/or editing process when you felt your presence was too much?
Oh, that was a long time ago, Jesus Christ! Well, it started one day when I was supposed to record the voice-over for the film. I was inside the summerhouse in Åland; it was incredibly hot there, and there was no wind outside. So I thought I could just record this outside as well. The way I set up my recording was that I had my camera there also, and just recorded the picture too. And the night before, I was watching movies to see what was a good reference film for this one, and I came up with Roger & Me by Michel Moore, who made a film about General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. I remembered this movie for so many years, and I could say that some bad things also happened in my hometown.
This is when I decided it is about my own hometown, and also about me. Along the way, I met a lot of people who said ‘there is too much of you in the movie’. Yeah, perhaps there is, and perhaps I’m an exhibitionist. But I’m also an islander, and although it has not happened to me personally, it involves me as well. I have the right to speak about this. And I think this made it a better story, with me standing in front of the camera. I think it’s more interesting visually, and I haven’t seen something like this before.
Making a film is always challenging. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome technically, or with the storytelling?
To put a large story together in an understandable way, and to get the pacing right so it doesn’t feel too fast. Knowing what to take out.
The infographics and other similar elements used in the film certainly help the audience understand the story better. How did you come up with the idea of using these as a way of dosing the information?
I started with my handwriting, and I thought ‘this is an interesting font’. This film was being developed with another company at that point, but I happened to watch Straight Outta Compton one day, and Ice Cube was angry with his record label. I thought: ‘I’m angry too, so I’m gonna start my own production company’. So I started my own production company just to make this film. I didn’t want to have a branding, just a company name, and I wrote it with a magic marker. Then I thought, ‘Okay, I can write the titles this way too’. That’s what I came up with, just to make it even more personal – or make it a bit more punk, I guess.
The film's music is quite distinctive, sometimes it resembles the sound of slot machines, sometimes it adds a note of mystery. How was the music born?
We worked a lot on this, me and the composer. He had this theme he came up with, and he sent me a lot of stuff. And I think the sound designer was also extremely important – he was able to cut down the music a lot, and thus make it more distinct.
Geopolitically speaking, Åland is a special territory. It is an autonomous region of Finland but populated by Swedish speakers. In the film, you refer a lot to both Finland and Sweden, and draw comparisons. Was it difficult to find the right balance in giving Finnish and Swedish examples?
I think it’s difficult. It’s a storytelling issue, and a very interesting question also. It think it’s interesting to tell a story about a small thing that happens in a small place because this makes it relatable to other people. I think you have to help people a little bit along the way, to say ‘Hey, it is happening in Sweden, and it also happens in Finland’. There was a version pointing out that this happens in Hungary, this happens in Germany, the same thing. But finding the balance… I think it’s a gut feeling. When do I make it too broad, you know? All stories that affect you, I think, have to be particular and detailed. A guy sits next to a monkey called Steven. It’s somehow important that you know the name of the monkey. It’s an important detail. That’s my philosophy.
The film has its international premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Where else has it been screened so far?
In Åland, we had a premiere, and we showed it a couple of times. It was also on television in Finland.
How did the audience respond to it, both locally and in Finland?
People get angry when they realise what happens. I think that’s the response. Common people get angry. And I think a lot of festival programmers are just wondering ‘What is this?’ I’m sure that normal people like knowing this kind of things. They get agitated, you know.
Do you think your film will have any impact in this sense?
It already had an impact. I’m no saying that I did this, of course. There was a public outcry in Åland after the movie came out. We rented a cinema in the city and screened it for three days straight. There was a feeling of, ‘Where is everybody going to?’ And they were going to the cinema. I have never seen anything like this with any of my films. People were interested in this.
Months later, in the summer, the gambling company announced they’re going to put a cap on how much you can lose, so you can now only lose 30,000 euro a year, which is unprecedented. It’s only Veikkaus in Finland that has a cap, and now Åland. With the others, you can lose as much as you want. This is very important. This is something that happened.
Babak Jalali’s latest feature Land portrays the life of a Native American family living in a reservation in the United States. Every day a new challenge emerges and they must overcome it one way or another. After its world premiere at the Berlinale, the film had a special screening at the Warsaw Film Festival, which was a good opportunity to talk with the director about the key themes, the casting, the Indigenous communities, and some issues related to cinema.
Since you are not a Native American, first, I’d like to ask you why you wanted to make a film about a Native American family.
I’m Iranian, raised in England, so very far removed from Native Americans. About seven-eight years ago in London, I read an article in a British newspaper, The Guardian, about a specific reservation in South Dakota, in the United States. Originally - it is my own ignorance, because I was interested in the history of Native Americans, but I didn’t know about their contemporary life - there were two striking things in the article: one was the images, which looked a lot like my hometown in the northern Iranian border, near Turkmenistan. And what was really shocking was the statistics that was displayed in this article about this particular reservation: 40,000 people living there, 90% unemployed, 88% alcoholic, 40% diabetic, life expectancy for men 47, for women – 49. And, you know, for me it was quite shocking that in the middle of the world’s richest country people were allowed to live this way. So I went to this particular reservation and I spent some time there, and, for the next few years I kept going back to different reservations around. That’s how it started.
There is an ongoing discussion about who has the rights to tell the stories of Indigenous people, as Indigenous artists and film-makers say they want to tell their own stories. As you’re not a Native person, what the films depicts is not your experience, and looking at the credits I haven’t really found Native Americans in creative roles, such as a writer, producer, or anyone within the crew. So I’m wondering how the film was produced.
I preferred to get that input from the actors – it would have been bizarre if I had cast non-Native Americans. Because the film was entirely Europe-funded, we had spending obligations. I had to take the crew members from certain countries. That’s one. Two, we talked to many consultants along the way. For me, the important thing was the involvement of the actors in how the story was shaped and formed. Like, for example, if anything that was written by myself in the script we did run it by them. And a lot of the actors did experience many similar things in their own life, some of them – far more shocking things.
Whether I have the right to tell their stories is a very good question, something I’ve been asking myself since the beginning. You know, when I was in America, whether researching or travelling around in these years in the reservation, I’d say the majority of the Indigenous population were very supportive when I said I’m Iranian and asked ‘How do you feel about me making this film?’ Some, yes, said ‘what are you doing?’ But the majority were very supportive. What I found was that most people against the idea of me doing this film were the non-Indigenous Americans, so white, Caucasian Americans. They were more like ‘What are you doing?’
What was their argument against you making this film?
Predominantly it was more like ‘It is not of your concern’, or just ‘Why telling such stories?’ Or they were concerned that it was going to be some form of, I guess, liberal propaganda, like situations, where I’m saying poor Indigenous people are being mistreated, look at what the whites are doing, this kind of things. Amongst the Indigenous population though, even the ones who were against the idea of me doing this, said ‘Better you than a Caucasian American’. Adding to the fact that there is a great deal presenting Native Americans in contemporary cinema.
You show this particular story, which offers a poignant reality, and it should be shown to people, but there is danger in it because maybe this is the only film they will see about Native Americans. So this will be the only Native reality they would learn about. But there are other realities, such as the ones of Native women running for office, or of those protesting in Standing Rock against Dakota Access Pipeline.
Yes, they are protesting, taking more actions. For sure, this is not at all a uniform representation of them. I hear what you’re saying about the constant representation of them as these people suffering in this way. I mean… The story I wanted to tell was more from an anger about how they were treated as opposed to telling an uplifting story, let’s say, about a woman running for office in Washington D.C. This is great and admirable, and I don’t want to downplay that. I think it is wonderful, but I don’t think it fits into the idea I had, and where that anger stemmed from.
And you know, I’m an Iranian, and, for example, there was a period in the mid-90s when Iranian cinema really exploded in the festival scene in Europe. A lot of those films were rural picture of Iranians, and the Iranian population living in Europe, in America and Canada, when they watched these films, you know, they were irritated and saying ‘Why are you constantly showing rural Iranians or poor Iranians, illiterate Iranians or farmers? You know we have doctors, we have surgeons, we have poets, we have authors. Why don’t you show that kind of stuff?’ And what I was taught and also confronted by, because my first film was about my hometown, which is also a rural area, when someone said to me that it’s not my responsibility to make Iranians abroad feel good about themselves, and 'Oh, we are also great and do wonderful things. Why are you always showing farmers?' My interest was to show a particular group of people and not an advertising board for progress, more of a presentation of something that is occurring.
No matter how many people become Indigenous rock stars, Indigenous politicians, this is happening and it doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere near stopping, you know. I haven’t seen anything that shows me 'Oh, actually things are happening that’s gonna stop this.' I don’t claim that my film is going to do that, by no means. I’m not one of those people who has faith in the power of cinema to make changes. Because if you want the cinema to make changes, then the director must be Spielberg, or someone who fills up multiplexes.
Arthouse cinema has no power to change anything because the audience members are like-minded people. But, of course, if they wanted to make such films, they wouldn’t sell all those tickets. The ones that sell are the ones with a subliminal message about Spiderman going up a building. Sony has such a subliminal message, and it gets through to people. I personally don’t believe in the power of unification and change, but it is possible to show sides of life people don’t regularly see. Certainly, Europeans and lot of Americans don’t know that this is going on.
So, maybe it is only Spielberg and other influential directors who have the power to change things, but there is a problem with representation. We don’t make such films because we think the audience won’t like them.
I think it’s a realistic thought. Right now making a film and getting it seen is far more difficult than 20 years ago. If you made a film then, the chance of getting a cinema release was still decent. Now it’s getting more difficult outside the spectrum of festivals. Because of that difficulty, it makes it more difficult for people to take risks – whether there are directors, producers or financiers coming and taking risks on something. Something like Spike Lee’s films in the 1980s. Someone took a risk on that guy and made these films, which are really important. It did make a difference, I think. Whether that’s to raise awareness of consciousness and everything. I don’t think those films could be made right now, in the current climate. If they were made today, they would be made in a much more obscure way, shown in a much more obscure setting as opposed to having Do the Right Thing on a billboard in New York.
Speaking of the hardships of filmmaking, what were some of the unexpected challenges you encountered while shooting?
Not that we didn’t expect them. A lot of Caucasian Americans don’t want to be involved in a project like this. I don’t mean only Republicans, but people covering a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs. And so we had a big problem getting involvement on the human level. Financially... let’s not even go there. The main problem was the bureaucratic nightmare of shooting a film entirely financed by Europe over there. Of course, it wasn’t an option to shoot somewhere in Europe. Obviously the plan all along was to shoot in a specific reservation.
Have the people in the reservation you visited seen the film?
Not yet, we’re still trying to show it somewhere in North America. Our sales agents have, let’s say, particular responsibilities they need to cater to before it is shown in reservations. The actors have seen it.
Based on the screenings organised so far, how would you describe the audience response?
We premiered in Berlin, at the Berlinale, and so far we released in the cinemas in France, and it’s gone to festivals. Based on the festivals or the screenings in France I went to, it’s been good. Many times that question comes up: ‘How come you made this film? You’re Iranian, not Native’. That’s the question I get often. But overall it is positive. Some came and said they had no idea this was happening, and have more questions about it. Others were asking how we found the actors, how we cast the film.
And how did you cast them?
For seven months, we did an open call in the United States and Canada, for Indigenous people, so not just actors but anyone, both urban and rural Indigenous population. There was a huge response, many people were coming. For me, it was not important at all that they were actors or not, or having any set experience. It was more about their personal experiences, and their presence as well.
Based on some quick research, the actors playing the family members are not from the same tribes. This somewhat strengthens the stereotype that they are all the same. Wasn’t that a problem for you?
They are not the same, by any means. That’s why I set it in a fictional reservation – Prairie Wolf doesn’t exist. Originally, the film was supposed to be shot in Pine Ridge, Lakota Sioux, South Dakota. Then we were supposed to shoot in New Mexico, Navajo. At different times – in Montana or in Wyoming. If it were in Lakota Pine Ridge, they would have been all Sioux, if it were Navajo, all would have been Navajo, if it were Montana, they would have been all Crow, for example. But that proved impossible casting-wise. And it’s primarily for that reason, once it was decided that there were not going to be an Indigenous language spoken in the film, that I set it in a fictional reservation. I don’t allude to what tribe they resemble or are similar to, regarding shared heritage or history.
As for a final question, why did you decide to shoot it in English?
The reality of contemporary life is that they mostly speak English. Amongst the elders, there is still a smattering of Indigenous tongues. Younger generations want to take up Indigenous languages but they are a minority. The common language amongst the generation is English. My actors speak Indigenous languages: the mother Mary, the young Joe, the young boy. They do speak it, but the majority who auditioned or among those whom I met in the reservation when I was there, it is not that common. Plus, I wanted it to be a contemporary setting. I avoided certain things like sweat lodges, for example. A lot of people actually go to reservations to visit casinos, sweat lodges and things like that. I purposely left those out, because I wanted to keep the focus on that particular relationship between Indians and whites – on a local level, the custodians. On the national level, the military.
Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay coined the term Fourth Cinema to describe Indigenous cinema, referring to films being shown more or less exclusively on the festival circuit. Besides Sundance's Native Program, started in the 1990s, Berlinale also launched its NATIVe programme in 2013, and several smaller film festivals choose to select exclusively Indigenous productions. Nevertheless, there is no real consensus on what Indigenous films really are. Scholar Houston Wood, author of Native Features, suggests positioning them on a continuum of non-Indigenous and Indigenous films, taking into consideration the crew members involved, the actors, the topics covered and the style used. Interestingly, the Canadian festival imagineNATIVE only accepts a title if a key member of the creative team, be it the director, the writer, or the producer, identifies as Indigenous; Jason Ryle, the artistic and managing director, would also prefer to treat Indigenous films as if they were German or Swedish and not as a genre, as it often happens nowadays.
Keeping all this in mind, Iranian-born Babak Jalali’s latest feature LAND comes across as a rather controversial case. In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about who exactly should have the rights to tell Indigenous stories. Looking back at many classics such as Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner, the outsider’s perspective has always been more prevalent, probably as a result of Native people being oppressed, and their homeland -- colonised. Thanks to the democratization of filmmaking, though, more and more Indigenous people are starting a career in cinema and bringing their own stories to life. Consequently, the number of Indigenous films, of various formats and genres, has increased in the past few years, and several of them have received recognition and/or prestigious awards. Yet, Babak Jalali’s film exemplifies how outsiders still dare telling stories without including Indigenous talent in the creative process.
As the title implies, LAND focuses on a territory co-habited by white and Native Americans today, and reflects upon the hardships of the latter group, which to this day is still facing discrimination. The film tells the story of Mary Yellow Eagle and her family, their everyday struggles, and their interactions with the local white community. It looks like the Yellow Eagle family is destined to serve the role of the ‘typical’ Native American family that mainstream audiences are taught to recognise. Just like them, many Native Americans live in reservations, are unemployed and addicted to alcohol or other illegal substances. Moreover, suicide rates are higher than for any other racial or ethnic group. Mary’s oldest son, Raymond, has left his alcoholic past behind and is now working to provide for his family. Mary’s youngest son has just been killed – or committed suicide – in Afghanistan while serving in the US military. Her middle child, Wesley, is unemployed and an alcoholic, whom she drops off at the local liquor store every morning. He spends his days with his girlfriend and pals, leaning against the wall or resting their elbows on their knees, showing little signs of life. This image can only be perceived as devastating and poignant, just like the fact that hundreds of Indigenous women go missing or are murdered every year. The film does not however explore this specific topic, electing instead to depict only one Native reality.
In this reality, verbal communication occurs solely to disseminate important information, as a reaction to conflict, or to express resistance and frustration. The main conflict emerges when the youngest son dies. The fact that Native Americans serve in the US military might surprise some people, as they are basically fighting on behalf of those whose ancestors took their lands away. As a matter of fact, Native Americans already fought on the US' side during WWII, and some Navajo veterans were in fact invited to the White House not a long time ago. Donald Trump's most-beloved national symbol, the American flag, indeed plays a crucial role in LAND. Despite the family's protests, the US Air Force insists on a military funeral for the youngest Yellow Eagle brother, so Major Robertson shows up with a coffin covered by that flag to remember him as a national hero who has died for his country. ‘He died for his work, not for his country’, says the mum to the Major earlier in the film, indicating her resistance to accept the USA as their homeland.
Mary Yellow Eagle and the rest of the women in LAND in general are either pulling the strings or outright leading their communities. As the conflict around Wesley escalates, the owner of the Bob’s Liquor Store accuses Mary of not being able to control her people anymore. She acts like a sheriff from an old Western, a genre openly referenced in the music of the film and in the typography of the credits as well. Considering the portrayal of Native Americans in Western films, the issue – and importance – of representation becomes crucial. Regardless of her age, Mary’s character demonstrates strength and faith in the future of her family and community. That is why it raises eyebrows that the family members speak English at home as if their Indigenous language has already disappeared. Similarly to other countries, the USA forcibly sent the Indigenous youth to boarding schools, separating them from their parents to assimilate them into the American dominant society. However, knowing that the actors acting as a family belong to different First Nations, the use of English makes perfect sense.
Foreign filmmakers such as Jalali usually miss out on this kind of nuances, and therefore they falsely strengthen the existence of one cohesive group of Indigenous peoples. Sometimes even Indigenous peoples are forced to act on the stereotypes known worldwide to achieve commercial success in cinemas. Without a systemic change and Indigenous filmmakers telling their own stories as they see fit, Indigenous cinema will never be able to amaze the masses and showcase diversity in terms of their ethnicity, interests, life, genre, and style. Babak Jalali’s LAND sits somewhere in the middle of the continuum of Indigenous and non-Indigenous productions. The vast, never-ending landscape in static long shots illustrates the essence of the Indigenous peoples’ respect for nature. It also counts as a characteristic element in Indigenous films. On the other hand, close-ups and medium shots take turns to fully capture the emotions on the characters' faces, mostly confined to interiors. The sparse dialogue, the long takes, and restrained acting result in a film with a measured tempo that probably seemed suitable for the contemporary life of some but not all Native Americans.
Israeli Yona Rozenkier’s semi-autobiographical first feature is a take on culture of violence, militarism, and masculinity - not necessarily limited to the director’s home country. Having debuted in Locarno, The Dive follows three brothers reunited for their father’s funeral and their different approach to military service in the early days of the 2006 Lebanon War. A family drama borrowing from the western genre, the film never really comments on the military actions of Israel, but rather keeps the focus on the soldiers’ perspective, dealing with topics of PTSD, and the cultural impact of the conflict.
The Dive is set in a nearly empty kibbutz, with only a couple of families left, and around the vast deserted lands nearby. Here arrives a solitary hero with a nebulous past, Yoav, to bury the father who always found him a disappointment. Having lost touch with his family for years, he is reunited with Itai (played by the director himself), a rather bitter but proud brother, and Avishai, the youngest sibling about to be shipped off to war after only a few days of training. The cleverly structured script gradually adds layers to the conflict between Yoav and Itai, but it seems to always circle back and return to the issue of fighting for one’s country. Itai finds it a duty, while Yoav doesn’t see any value in it anymore. We never really learn what happened to Yoav during his previous deployment, but his anxiety attacks are telling, as are his attempts to persuade the youngest, scared brother not to return to his unit.
The film shows us how violence and militarism are embedded in our culture. More often than not, issues between the brothers turn into some form of aggression, like in the scene set in the old ruins of a building where Itai ‘kills’ Yoav with a paintball gun, or during their war-like hunting expeditions on the trail of a wild animal. The film suggests we are so used to various forms of aggression in our culture – even in ‘innocent’ games – that we can’t see how they are connected to those horrors of war that we are always quick to condemn. In the most explicit (and somewhat in-your-face) condemnation of (pop)culture, Yoav looks at a poster of Clint Eastwood in ‘western hero’ mode before concluding, “This is all your fault.”
Such a stand makes the film rather universal – it focuses on a soldier who is pushed into the service (because it’s patriotic, or manly, or just right) and on a society in which this common occurrence is deeply ingrained. At the same time, the Israeli setting, with its own specific history of military service, can’t be ignored, though the film never tackles the merits of the ongoing Lebanese War. It rather shows how military service and the constant threat of war influence relations within the family and in day-to-day life. Yoav had to run away from his family and from the military culture it represents, refusing to forgive his father even after his death. And apart from its bursts of violence, the film also shows us inconspicuous details about living as part of such a culture: characters carrying weapons, often advanced automatic ones, way too often; or being so used to a state of war that they can only resort to making cynical jokes about it.
Far from being a pacifist pamphlet, The Dive dissects a culture that takes violence as the norm. And with Yoav abandoning his family even in times of need, it questions his moral compass while refraining from portraying him as a flawless hero. This is another moment that suggests the complexity of the problem and the impossibility of easy answers – which the film never provides.
May 2015: a multigenerational Cuban family is in the living room right in front of the TV, quarreling in an indistinct yet heated argument. An elderly woman interrupts at the highest point and points to the TV screen, where the news about the introduction of a new US – Cuba ferry line is being announced. This is a symbol of a new direction in the political course of the state, and at this very moment the film is setting its own direction as well, following in detail the absurd existence of the Cuban capital. From this second on, the city begins to live in the hectic anticipation of the ferry arrival, a historical moment of allowing “the capitalism” in, formerly depicted as the ultimate evil by the official state ideology during the entire lifespan of most of the film's characters.
The title speaks for itself – a collection of sketch stories connected through time and space portrays the nuances of Havana in BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES. There are three directors in charge of the camera, each contributing in a unique way, as the Spanish filmmaker Juan Caunedo Domínguez worked on the film concept together with his Cuban colleagues – animator Vladimir García Herrera and visual arts specialist Raúl Escobar Delgado. In their interviews, the team mentions they envisioned a film of many voices and many faces, never shying away from eclecticism but rather trying to embrace it at its fullest.
The film is under no illusion that life could ever run smoothly for Habaneros. The tour into their daily routine starts with a walk in the long concrete corridor of an imposing monument construction, scenting of communist heritage. Obstacles come up right away: the elevator doesn't work, the taxi car won't start, the driver tricks out more money than he should, but one should always stay calm. And in any case, are there really other ways to earn money in this city rather than getting involved with some monkey business? It is a reality that everyone seems to quickly get used to – swindle foreigners, sell drugs or come up with an original idea, like that bunch of young entrepreneurs. Theirs is the perfect business plan for the developing Cuban society: fooling a neighbourhood into paying for garbage disposition. “But they do like the garbage!”, skeptically remarks one of the aspiring stakeholders. “Some years ago you couldn't imagine any iPhones here, but here they are, and everyone is getting used to them.” Such answers sound reasonable and perfectly illustrate the film's attempts to paint the most popular attitude towards a bumpy period of transition, when iPhones appear before proper neighbourhood conveniences.
The time is ripe for a change, and in fact it has been for a while: Raul Castro took over the formal rule of the country in 2008, and since then Cuba's domestic policy has started the process of adapting the country to contemporary international reality at the sunset of Fidel's era. This did not result in freedom of speech for the Cubans, but at least it gave the people an opportunity to legally connect to the Internet and to start their own businesses. BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES keeps the record of this new emerging Cuba, where contemporaneity grows on soil that has been preserved in aspic for many decades. And yet the country doesn't have too much power yet. Moreover, being too far away in the future is of no help – an American tourist travelling a good hundred years back in time will not have any special privilege once he steps out to the city.
There aren't many opportunities in Cuban public space to talk about changes in a critical way. The film is rooted in the country's popular culture, which is constantly evoked through the over-presence of reggaeton music or by exploiting stereotypical anecdotal characters. It does not dig deep into the problems of society in any discernible way, despite the many hints – poverty, corruption, colonial heritage. The lack of instruments for discussion leads to quite an honest expression: a straightforward attempt to fix the absurd looks so unrealistic that it goes away from reality and into a superhero-cartoon sequence, ending up excluded from the “normal”.
BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES is packed with witty puns, the objects of its mocking all easily recognizable as familiar by audiences from post-communist countries. The many subplots framed by comical details create a somewhat chaotic experience, which contributes to another important feeling lingering around the film – the anxiety about an undefined future. Still, it is clear that even though the chaos might not be avoidable, humor remains the handiest tool in dealing with what the country is yet to discover.
Found-footage films have a very specific place in the history of cinema. Using pre-existent material in order to articulate a discourse about the present by referring to the past is as much paradoxical as it (still) is iconoclastic. Igor Minaiev introduces the public to the idea of found footage even from the title – he “found” Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM: SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS (1931) and by connecting it to recent events turned it into THE CACOPHONY OF DONBAS. The reasoning behind this title comes in clear focus since the beginning with the apparently omniscient voice-over, deployed as a deconstruction of the Soviet propaganda between the 1930s and the 1990s.
August 31st, 1935: Alexey Stakhanov, a miner who would become a national hero during the propaganda process imposed by the Soviet authorities in order to create a fake public image of the superiority of the socialist worker (the so-called “Stakhanovite movement”), breaks a world record by mining 102 tons in one shift. In the Soviet newsreels it is said that a miner’s salary is between 1500 and 7000 rubles per month, enough for a miner and his family to build a stable life in the USSR. When the miners’ problem with alcohol becomes public, the authorities declare everything under medical control. Minaiev disassembles old myths, propagandistic information and legends by contrasting them with the miners’ strikes from the 1990s. The record behind Alexey Stakhanov was made up, and so was the entire promoting apparatus of the Soviet miner and he eventually would die because of an alcohol-related illness – a series of vox-populi interviews with the miners who took part in the 1990s strikes under the Gorbachev regime show an angry, disappointed and fed-up category of the working class.
Sequences of newsreels, propaganda films, interviews and music videos are pieced together to highlight a certain discrepancy between the propagandistic discourse and the truth. And it’s not only the dramatic conclusions of his essay-like argumentation that is being highlighted by the compilation, but a certain type of humor betraying the ridiculousness of these materials to the contemporary public. The director eventually touches upon the subject of Donbas of the XXI century, but only after a transition between the brief intro to the dollhouse construction of Soviet propaganda and the appearance of more recent footage, namely an interview with the Ukrainian artist Arsen Savadov on his Donbass Chocolate project from 1997. What remains to be said about this considerably larger part of the film is that, even if the voice-over discourse moulds on the semi-academic essay and even if its strongest point is the usage of audio-visual material, Minaiev never actually brings up a source to empower his argument, and never shows any relevant audio-visual proofs that would 100% sustain his counter-propaganda observations.
The actual footage of the recent events from Donbas features interviews with two Ukrainian victims of the Russian separatists and home-movie type footage which presents a couple who organize their wedding as an ode to militarism. Minaiev never draws a socio-political conclusion but more of a romantic one regarding how much hate there is between people and peoples. Nevertheless, the thesis behind the usage of found-footage becomes apparent – after deconstructing and demolishing the roots of Donbas in Russian history, the events from 2014 suddenly seem pointless and unjustifiable, especially when the human element offered by the two Ukrainians is firmly established as the starting point in depicting the horrors of war.
Following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Orizzonti prize, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s directorial feature debut was presented in Toronto, San Sebastian and Busan where it attracted the attention of both critics and audience with its subtle – yet challenging to fully understand – aesthetic portrayal of everlasting immigration issues in Thai society; a slow-core story of a fisherman who finds a shot-down foreigner, and that of an ex-wife struggling to find her place.
Having dedicated his film to the Rohingya people – a Muslim minority from Myanmar who often try to emigrate to Thailand or Bangladesh – Aroonpheng sets MANTA RAY to a decidedly social tune while the plot, slow pace and scarce dialogue resemble Tsai Ming-liang’s style, especially I DON'T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (2006). This time, Kuala Lumpur is replaced with Mae Sot – a border town in Thailand populated by Thai and Myanmar people – and the symbolic, unrealistically big moths make space for local beliefs about the titular manta rays.
Just like in one of Tsai’s later works, the socio-political theme is depicted through relationships based on the unvoiced mutual understanding of two people: a wounded Rohingya exile (named like Thai popstar Thongchai), and the native Thai man who nurses him back to life – an immensely talkative misfit in shiny armor and blond hair, whose wife just left him. This monologue-based relationship revolves around situational humour, recurring magical realism and a certain romanticism. We follow them on a ride on a ferris wheel, and dancing together under fairy lights and disco balls. But beneath the surface of a sleek visual language (courtesy of acclaimed DP Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit), Aroonpheng actually lights up the metaphor of national belonging.
MANTA RAY is in fact the reworking of a short film directed by Aroonpheng in 2015 (FERRIS WHEEL), in which the symbolism of the amusement ride was used to grasp the meaning of the circle of life. In both films, the juxtapositions of reverse shots capturing the protagonists reflect the condition of human types in a modern world – the native outlawed by society and the trespassing, wounded immigrant who go up and down on the same wheel. No matter how high they get, eventually both of them will be taken back to earth to their identity conflict. The wheel represents the idea of going nowhere – like the war that has been collecting the souls of Rohingya people for decades. The reverse shots foreshadow an identity swap, allowing the director to seize an image of society in which the ‘stranger’ becomes its opposite. Therefore, there is some hope lurking in the corner.
Through this symbolic yet resonating depicting, Aroonpheng manages to create an ethereal voyage into his vision of modern Thailand, but the detour to the land of universal values certainly makes an appearance as well. Christmas bulbs and magical realism are the key to answering the brutality of everyday struggles, that is, reality - where on every corner there’s a subconscious feeling about committed crime. What is beautiful onscreen fails to prevail offscreen. While immersing into trippiness, one feels the disturbance of the pulsating bulbs worn by an enigmatic gunman who wanders through the graveyard of national identities. It takes time to lure a sea devil, but it’s rewarding when you actually see one, a manta ray.
To the outsider's view, Manila appears as a city full of disturbing contrasts. It is the midpoint of a densely populated agglomeration, homing state banking and commerce headquarters, tourist lures, international businesses and new media corporations including, ironically, centers for Facebook content moderation. All this is heavily seasoned with the remains of the colonial rule of Spanish, American and Japanese origin, the terrifying political course of infamous president Rodrigo Duterte, an incredibly high volume of child pornography, and the biggest population of homeless people in the world. Taking into account the local censorship rules, there is no surprise that Filipino cinema becomes more and more politicized. SCHOOL SERVICE (international premiere and competition contender at Warsaw Film Festival's 34th edition) by director Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio and the scriptwriter Rona Lean Sales does not go into radical activism territory, though it still has the confidence to expose the troubled reality of Manila's suburbs.
The film covers the 24-hour span after the 8-year-old Maya gets kidnapped on her way home from school and is brought to the outskirts of Manila to become a beggar. She is immersed in a completely new world and so are the viewers, even if the director refrains from using any explicit and shocking imagery. What becomes the film's key feature is the perspective of a child who is progressively losing its innocence.
The central character, a schoolgirl seemingly coming from a safe environment, enters the dusty city streets with an attitude as rebelling as it is ultimately useless. Escaping has got nothing to do with how hard you try: it is just impossible. Maya's attempts to run away leave room for optimistic expectations, playing with the conventions of children films, but as the story goes deeper, anxiety starts to take over. It would be easy to blame the kidnappers, but the film shines a light into a complex universe where oppressors are themselves oppressed, and enslaved to complicated social predicaments. With no right decisions available to make, violence becomes the only way out, and young beggars are quick to understand that they have to follow these rules to fit in.
There is an episode in which an outrageous dream built around the desire for things to be normal evolves into an animated sequence, echoing the opening titles and their idealized, crayon-drawn version of a family; an image impossible to chase, and impossible to escape. Meanwhile, the film's focus gradually shifts from Maya's individuality to the kids as a group, and eventually dusky Manila steps out as a threatening character of its own. The film employs a realistic visual style, and even though it is combined with children-focused storytelling, it is quite a sincere attempt to provide a take on poverty, prostitution and social stigmas.
SCHOOL SERVICE is a work that is inseparable from the context that inspired its creation. While it does not look as an immediate call for action, it is clearly intended to resonate with the audience and to engage the audience in public discussion. The film is produced with a clear aim at domestic release but it will also provide an emotional insight into the social issues for international audiences.
Emir Baigazin returns with his third feature, The River, which concludes his coming-of-age trilogy, consisting of Harmony Lessons (2013) and The Wounded Angel (2016). Consequently to his previous work, he decided to match the symbolism in which the dark times of modernity are presented in slow cinema form. The River offers not only an aesthetic experience, but also a check-up into the vitals of humanity from a contemporary perspective.
In a parched landscape, a family ranch of seven set in the middle of Kazakh, Baizagin paints a disturbing and almost dystopic picture of what it takes to become a man for these five boys. This image of patriarchy is biblical to say the least, because Aslan and the rest of the pack wouldn’t look out of place in an Old Testament story. In Baigazin’s version of one, on the 7th day God created the Internet, disrupting the lives of those down below. In addition to its commentary on the role of mass entertainment and its pervasive influence, it depicts a family living on the line of a pre-internet era - a bubble without consciousness of global events and a purer world that has yet to embrace the tempting power of digital media. When the stranger with a tablet appears, the bubble pops, forcing the family to re-assess the nature of their daily needs.
The Zygmunt Bauman-style concept of the stranger proves that modernity should be discussed within film as a medium, capturing the liquid essence of our times. The River becomes a statement on the descent towards abnormality, with the sudden intrusion of technology into the lives of these boys being contrasted with the panta rhei-esque fluidity of the river. In Baigazin’s world, this sacred body of water becomes an amusement park, a place to let your bad emotions float away, and an opportunity for shutting down your feelings. It adds a little mystery to the story that the other bank remains unknown for a half of the film. Due to the strong currents, crossing the river is the ultimate challenge, an act of transcendence.
One may say that Baizagin style revolves around minimalism, but in fact it is rather a maximalistic spectrum of symbolic references combined into a tale of disillusionment of modernity. On the opposite side of the river, the other is only imaginable through the lens of the media. What we care about is us and what revolves around us. Radio coverages from Myanmar or North Korea spice up the director’s commitment to conceptualizing an ideological point of view, simultaneously providing his characters (and the audience) with a form of counseling, and bringing up the topic of human viciousness.
Even the acting style, in particular those of the brothers, is performative; their dynamics and movements are carefully staged with an Ozu-esque eye for symmetry. On the one hand, they resemble primal creatures, as if the monkeys from Kubrick’s 2001 had finally evolved; on the other, you can’t shake the sense of how calculated it feels. An algorithmic nature and an exact mirroring evoke the contrast that modern society is situated in. We’re drifting between the primal and the mechanical. The condition of the individual illustrated in the film presents an alternative perspective on reality, one in which the media hasn’t influenced people enough yet, but it is progressively getting there. The wave of catastrophical information, sinking into a utopian bubble, irreversibly changes the biblical dimension of the brothers’ world. That’s when modernity kicks in: the intrigue starts, and the ‘black mirror’ of a digital screen invites people to be a god. Baizagin himself is worshipping it, delivering a profound, rich experience and an almost frightening re-envisioning of Lanthimos’ Kynodontas (2009).
Joost Vandebrug’s debut feature Bruce Lee and the Outlaw has its roots in his career as a photographer as well as in the very first representation of Romania as a “free country” in the international media back in the 1990s. The orphanages of horror, as the Romanian press called the shelters, in which thousands of children were kept in miserable conditions due to the chaotic state in which Romania found itself during the political transition, were much discussed in media and remain a stain on Romanian history. Nicu, also known as Haiducul/The Outlaw, takes Vanderbrug’s camera into the forgotten underground world of Bucharest.
This underworld is a home for homeless people. An extremely poor community is guided by the so-called ‘Bruce Lee’, a problematic paternal figure who shares everything with his ‘sons’, from love to drug abuse. The Jean Rouchian footage of the underground paint a shaky, unfocused and handheld picture of the out-of-this-world (or perhaps under) band of misfits and their day-by-day life.
Nicu is one of the many orphan children who found a home in the underground more than a decade ago. Vandebrug follows him around, a young boy în transition who ultimately turns out to be a success story thanks to a NGO activist (Raluca Pahomi) who tries to reintegrate him into society, with few of his companions sharing hopes of being so lucky. The material is tough, with Pahomi discussing AIDS and TB issues with the underground community, and Nicu visiting the grave of an 18-years-old girl, followed by footage of a scandalous TV reportage (“from underground to the ground”).
In terms of visuals, the film display a remarkable eclecticism, with the director mixing his own material with episodes shot by Nicu and his friends, Bruce Lee interviews, conversations between the children and Vandebrug, and striking moments of immediacy, like when the director has to stop observing from behind the camera to help Nicu who has fallen ill. The documentary author welcomes the pain of others, harking back to the cinéma-vérité experiments of the 1960s. The voice-over often comes by an older Nicu, chronicling his life in diary-like fashion. TV news footage alternates with documentary chapters to fully investigate the dynamic between the world and the underworld.
Nicu’s commentary on his past is helpful to also make questions regarding his consent essentially vanish. In the ongoing debate regarding the role of the director in observational documentaries, Vandebrug clearly takes a stand, letting his personal and social integrity overthrow his professional mission. It’s safe to say that his solution to the dilemma of whether you should ‘save a man who’s drowning, or film him’ (as Japanese director Kazuo Hara puts it in an interview with Film Menu) falls firmly in the camp of putting down the camera and diving in.
FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project
Călin Boto is a Romanian emergent film critic and the editor-in-chief of Film Menu, a film magazine edited by students of the Film University in National University of Film and Drama in Bucharest (UNATC). He has written articles for several cultural publications such as Dilema Veche,Dissolved Magazine, SUB25 and he coordinates Film Menu’s weekly cineclub. At the moment he’s working on a bachelor's degree on the films and film criticism of Jonas Mekas.
Barbara Majsa was born and raised in Hungary, but currently resides in Sweden and attends Stockholm University for Cinema Studies. She has worked as a journalist since 2009, and has covered several film festivals. Barbara is the managing editor at Cinema Scandinavia, where she interviews film-makers and focuses her work on artistic and cultural products that reflect upon society - films concerning social, societal, economic and political issues.
Yulia Kuzischina is a film journalist, based in Moscow. She studied visual culture at Higher School of Economics and later started to write for two film-related websites, RussoRosso and Kinomania.ru. Currently she also works at a film sales company Ant!pode Sales & Distribution. Her main field of interest is Eastern European cinema.
Tomáš Hudák is a programmer and a film critic based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Programming at independent cultural centre A4 – Space for contemporary culture, which focus on challenging and experimental art, is his main occupation throughout a year. He is also associated with IFF Cinematik in Pieštany, Bratislava IFF, and Film Festival 4 Elements in Banská Štiavnica. Regularly writing for film magazine Kinečko, his texts also appeared in other publications such as Senses of Cinema, Tess Magazine etc. In past, he worked as a film archivist at Slovak Film Institute and his archival research resulted in two papers on local film history.
Daria Badior is a film critic and a Culture Editor of LB.ua, one of Ukraine’s biggest online newspapers. Focuses on writing about contemporary Ukrainian cinema. Also she co-curates a project on LB.ua named Short-list about young Ukrainian filmmakers. Since 2017 takes part in selecting films for Kyiv Film Critics Week, a new film festival held at the end of October. A member of FIPRESCI.
Łukasz Mańkowski Half of the Asian Cinema focused blog ‘Referat Filmowy’, Japanese Studies and Film Theory graduate from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, specializing in Asian Film. Occasionally photographer, translator and theatre-film journalist who simply loves ramen. Previously member of 5 Flavours Film Festival People’s Jury, FEFF Udine Student Campus and EIFF Student Critics Competition.
TUTORS of FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project
Yoana Pavlova is a Bulgarian writer, researcher, and programmer currently based in Paris.Her field of work includes cinema, VR, digital culture, and the New East. She is the foundingeditor of Festivalists.com (a playform for experimental media criticism), with bylines fornumerous print and online publications in Bulgarian, English, and French. Contributor to thefollowing books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014,Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague(2012, Edno).
Tommaso Tocci is based in Italy, where he works as a film critic and translator covering filmfestivals across Europe for international publications. He has also worked for BerlinaleTalents and for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he currently serves as Co-Programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival in Switzerland.