One of the reasons why I haven’t written anything in a long time, is that I’ve been busy making the most of the just wrapped Bergen International Film Festival. As the place where I first saw not only Mysterious Skin, but other personal favorites like Shortbus and The Time That Remains, it has a very special place in my heart. My count this year ended at 25 films in eight days, which was not quite a record, but close. At the end of every festival I’m of course kicking myself for all the films I never got to see – and thus probably never will get to see – and for the some of the films I actually did watch that didn’t live up to my expectations.
I’m sure it’s hard to put together a festival that combines films of artistic merit with films that have some sort of popular appeal, but to me and other regular audience memebers, the challenge lies in deciding on in what way to approach the overwhelming numbers of noteworthy films. My first year at BIFF, in 2004, I hadn’t even planned to watch anything, so it was fate (thank you!) that led me to a screening of Mysterious Skin (instead of Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart, if I remember correctly. Fate, thank you again!). After Mysterious Skin won the Jury Prize, competing with no less acclaimed films than Oldboy and Head On, among others, I changed perspective for the next couple of years. I started concentration on the Jury Prize programme, hoping not only to catch the next Mysterious Skin, but also to get a broader sense of the breadth and essence of what the festival was really about. It gave me many good experiences, but after a while, I got a feeling that I was missing out on a lot of films I wanted to see, because I had decided to prioritize films I thought I should see.
This new me first strategy immediately paid off. 2009 was my first BIFF following this philosophy, and in my opinion, it was the best of my six years in the audience. Several of the films I saw there ended up on my Best of 2009 list (True Adolescents, Humpday, Art & Copy, In the Loop and the aforementioned The Time That Remains), and there where others that were great, but that didn’t quite make it. Deep inside, I knew that such a trove of remarkable experiences had to be the expection, but it nonetheless meant that I set myself up for a minor disappointment at this year’s festival. And true enough; while there were several good films, and films that I wouldn’t mind seeing a second time, none of them matched the 2009 level. Still, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see them.
So, when I started looking for films I wanted to see rather than a representative selection of what the festival had to offer, what kind of films did I end up watching? First and foremost, it meant that my schedule had more documentaries and more American films than it otherwise would have. It has always been my ambition watch as much fiction as possible, based on the experience that fiction traditionally has stayed with me longer than documentaries. Many otherwise commendable documentaries have a tendency to be told in a fairly conservative way, with less regard for narrative and visually compelling storytelling. Nonetheless, I knew that BIFF traditionally had been showing the kinds of documentaries that tend to appeal to me; films about pop culture and cultural history, and films that are unafraid of advocating a point of view. I want documentaries that are daring, and that understand that not every documentary needs to have the look and voice of a television special.
My penchant for American films is not grounded in any disregard for films from other countries. Some of the best films I’ve seen at BIFF over the years have been from Jordan (Captain Abu Raed, 2008), Palestine (The Time That Remains, 2009), South Korea (A Family, 2004, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2005) and Germany (Falscher Bekenner,2005). Rather, it’s a preference based on experience with the kind of films that you get to see at BIFF. The festival has been great at spotting American indies that surprise and entertain while not losing their vision, and steering clear of the self-indulgence that too often surround such films. Again, it goes back to Mysterious Skin really. A festival who decided to show that film before it had won prizes all over the festival circuit, must know a thing or two about what’s really interesting in contemporary American cinema.
To give you a sense of what I’ve been up to, I’ll simply do a quick write-up of all the 25 films I saw over the course of the last eight days, in chronological order. When you spend this much time in a movie theater, there is of course a risk that the individual experience is somewhat numbed down by the sheer volume of films, but I still feel that if a film is good enough, it should be able to stand out regardless of that.
This is the first part. The second part will be up in a couple of days.
Wednesday October 20
– Dos Hermanos (Argentina), my first film of the festival, had some potential, but eventually I was left unimpressed. Telling the story of a middle-aged brother and sister trying to cope with living together after the passing of their mother, it had a few scenes of genuine comedy, but the self-centeredness of the central characters never gave me the opportunity to get to know and love in the way that was necessary for the emotional turnaround in the second half of the movie to really touch me. The Latin American family culture has always fascinated me, and there is something really human about people who love each other despite all their flaws, but I didn’t feel like this film made me believe that the central characters had really learned anything.
– Speaking of learning nothing, the documentary Inside Job (in American cinemas now), was one my best experiences at the festival. Director Charles Ferguson made the excellent No End in Sight, which I saw at BIFF in 2007, and his take on the origins and immorality of the global financial crisis is no less masterful. Ferguson, a probing but never intrusive interviewer, paints a searing portrait of a culture of cameraderie and under-regulation by taking a longer historical view than what’s usually attempted. Making complicated financial policy and jargon understandable, and using his access to prime market movers to stand firm against their attempts at revising history or proclaim innocence, the films achieves a political poignance and indignant reaction that flashier filmmakers would never have gotten, simply because they would have made me distrust their their truthfulness. The core question of this film – why was no one ever held responsible for willingly creating this mess? – does not make it a one-sided propaganda film. It’s what makes it a film not only with a brain, but with a heart.
– Home for Christmas (Norway), will premiere in Norway in a few weeks, but marked the official opening of BIFF. If you’ve seen any of the previous films of director Bent Hamer (his heart-warming comedy Horten had a brief American theatrical run last year), you probably already know what to expect; a low-key, deeply humanist comedy about people who may not do or say much, but who just try to do their best. In general, it is remarkable how much warmth and humor Hamer gets out of his characters, and how little plot development you need if you know how to paint human fates with a light touch. Episodic and frequently absurd, Hamer continues to remind me of what a Roy Andersson film could have looked like if the Swedish giant (A Swedish Love Story, Songs From the Second Floor, You, the Living) had allowed a little more light into his films. It’s well-deserved that Hamer one of the Norwegian filmmakers who gets the most international attention. Hopefully, Home for Christmas will gain him an even wider audience.
Thursday October 21
– The People vs. George Lucas (USA): I not only watched the Star Wars films in the wrong order (I The Phantom Menace before I saw the older ones, which of course more or less turned me against the franchise from the outset), I guess I was a little too old as well. Star Wars was never a formative experience for me. Still, I enjoyed this documentary, in which Star Wars fans and pop culture folks talk about their love/hate relationship with George Lucas. Apart from diving into the ovewhelming amount of fan culture, hommages and spoofs of the Star Wars universe, the film raised some interesting questions that actually went further than the unavoidable who shot first discussion. Sample questions: When a film series becomes as popular as Star Wars, should the director be allowed to say that the original films will no longer be available, and instead release new version he thinks are more in keeping with his original artistic vision? And did he include Jar-Jar Binks just to piss people off? Was it in some sense wrong by Lucas to deny people the right to build their own Star Wars backstory by making those awful prequels? And why did people who hated The Phantom Menace still see it ten times? The People vs. George Lucas is the kind of documentary I most want to see, and over the years have come to expect to see, at BIFF.
– Howl (USA): Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) teamed up with Jeffrey Friedman to make this mesmerizing visualization of the obscenity trial that followed the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name. I say visualization because the term biopic simply cannot capture the richness of this film. James Franco is the charismatic poet, carrying most of the film on his limber yet vulnerable shoulder, whether it is in the dramatization of old Ginsberg interviews, or an intense performance of the poem itself, accompanied by animated vignettes that comment on the poem. The final level, and the one that most closely resembles the traditional biograohical drama is the scenes from the courtroom. Jurisprudential debates over literary value, freedom of speech and standards of decency take energy from the other levels of visualization, and creates a drama that, while steering toward an inevitable conclusion, manages to stay surprising and fresh every step of the way. Howl may have been my best experience at the festival.
Racing Dreams (USA): This films takes on one of those themes it should be absolutely impossible to translate to a European audience; the American obsession that is NASCAR. Sure, the focus in this documentary is gokart, but the goal of our three prospective race car drivers Josh (12), Annabeth (11) and Brandon (13) is to eventually make it into NASCAR. Like movies about (what Americans call) football, or even baseball, this subject could potential have been a cultural divide impossible to bridge, particular for someone like me, who didn’t even see the point in Pixar’s Cars (2006) much because I don’t have this part of American mythology in my blood. When Racing Dreams works, it is mostly for two reasons: 1) it has a stringent narrative, centered around the racing season and the fight to become National Champion, and 2) it wisely decides to zero in on its complex and charming main subjects, instead of trying to make some broader point about the racing business per se. I’m sure that could have been interesting too, but when you have characters like these three kids, at some point you have to realize that you can’t make them into supporting roles. There’s nothing flashy about Racing Dreams, but it’s a touching little film.
Friday October 22
Le Quattro Volte (Italy) won the Jury Selection Award, and it was a brave but well-deserved choice. Stylistically, Quattro, a dialogue-free meditation on nature and animal life, reminds me quite a lot of Gyorgy Palfi’s Hukkle (2002), which was also shown at BIFF. The non-narrative style blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, and it may take some time to let its unique mood suck you in, but what awaits you is a film full of absurd humor – particularly in scenes involved a dog and a goat – and cinematic poetry. I hope people who see this have the opportunity to see it and hear it on a big screen; there are so many delicious details both in sound and visuals that this film deserves the best treatment possible.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (USA): Apart from being one of the largest festivals for documentaries in Northern Europe, BIFF also has a special place for documentaries from the frontlines of contemporary politics, and a long-standing infatuation with different aspects of American politics and democracy. Thus, Casino Jack is a natural fit, even though the documentary is not very interesting, at least not for someone who knows a little about the Jack Abramoff story beforehand. The scandal itself is definitely worth a closer look, and this film provides that, with access to some of the key players. The problem with such an approach is that your may become too dependent upon your sources. From what I’ve read about the case, I have little reason to believe that people like former Congressman Bob Ney (R) is lying about his close ties with the Republican strategist/empire builder/lobbyist, but by based so much of its narrative on someone like Ney, himself convicted in the aftermath of Abramoff’s fall, the film in some sense forfeits the chance to nail Ney and other central players. Giving microphones to crooks may seem sometimes be necessary to unearth the truth, but in terms of how to question questionable characters, I think Casino Jack would have been wise to borrow a page from the Inside Job playbook.
Dreams in Copenhagen (Denmark)
Urbanism is another one of the recurring themes at BIFF, and I was really looking forward to this documentary about what shapes Copenhagen as a city, in terms of city planning and culture. Unfortunately, I don’t think Dreams in Copenhagen succeeding in being that films. A voiceover delivered some numerical about the specifics of the Danish capitol, while the camera was swerving around like it was observing the city from above, occasionally swooping down to listen in on random conversations that may or may not have been staged. While several of these “scenes” had a sweetness to them – among them scenes from car repair shop – the lack of narrative focus never managed to invite into the film’s universe. Being a sentimental soul at heart, I liked how the film made the case for Copenhagen as a city with a distinct voice, and as a place you can feel loyalty and love for, but in the end, these moments just weren’t enough to keep my engaged.
8: The Mormon Proposition (USA)
I watched The Mormon Proposition with a very vocal, sympathetic audience. There were cries of outrage, shock and defensive laughter in all the right places as Dustin Lance Black guided us through how the Mormon Church funneled money nationwide to undo the judicial recognition of marriage equality in California. And it is a moving, frequently enraging tale. I have always seen the marriage trough a very clear lense; to me, the absurdity and focus has been on the absurdity that someone would say that gay relationship are worth less than straight relationships, trying to keep the religious element out of the equation. That’s probably why the opening story of the young gay couple who married at City Hall in San Francisco, by a memory bust of Harvey Milk, on the day of legalization, moved me so much. This is the core of the issue. Still, when the religion issue takes front and center, the vitriol and bigotry brought tears to my eyes.
Much as I would have liked to say so, though, The Mormon Proposition, is not the perfect Prop 8 film, although it is the most comprehensive yet. Rather, directors Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet decided to make it a little too all-encompassing. A clearer focus on the Prop 8 issue and campaign and aftermath would have made for a more narratively stringent film. Instead, the film kind of loses direction after the tragic anti-climax of November 4, 2008. It’s definitely relevant and interesting to know about the atrocities committed against gay people in the name of the Mormon Church, but I keep feeling that it would have been better used in a different film. This film is best when it deals with the individual stories. Nonetheless, I was an empowering experience to get to see it at the festival, as a reminder that the fight against hate and for civil rights continues, on many fronts and even in the most advanced societies.
Saturday October 23
Teenage Paparazzo (USA): I’ve been meaning to write about celebrity culture ever since Kristen Stewart set the blogosphere on fire in late spring over comments in which she compared watching paparazzi pictures of herself to being raped, and maybe Adrian Grenier’s charming but surprisingly somber documentary could provide a way to get into the subject. Fascinating by a 13 year old on the paparazzi beat, the Entourage star decided to turn his camras on Justin Visschedyk, a rising star in the papping business. The process gave me new insights into what drives people who do things that we mostly condemn (while secretly not wanting them to stop), and it asks questions out of genuine curiosity and without condescension. Packed with banter, sociological insights and layer upon layer of meta-commentary, Teenage Paparazzo will leave you fascinated – and a little ashamed on your own gossip-craving behalf. At least I was.
Sunday October 24
The Invisible Eye (Argentina), another film competing for the Jury Prize, had an interesting premise, being set in a school in the waning days of the Argentinian dictatorship, but the result unfortunately was a rather banal film about the perils of an authoritarian state. A film like Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s The Lives of Others (2007) was much successful in channeling the indignities of a society based on a state set on spying on every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Teacher Marita, a loyal servant of the Big Brother school administration discovers a perverse thrill in spying on her students, something that could have made for a uncomfortable drama with potential to challenge on multiple levels. However, The Invisible Eye, whose visual style is as cold and conservative as the society it portrays, remains at a distance, which makes it hard to engage in on an emotional level. And the closing metaphor will stun you in its banality.
All That I Love (Poland) was my runner-up favorite for the Jury Prize, only eclipsed by the eventual winner, Le Quattro Volte. The film is a coming of age story of sex, punk and love from the frontlines of 1980′s Poland. Balancing elegantly between the naive enthusiasm of teen love and dreams of stardom on the one hand, and the political potential and subversion of punk music on the other, All That I Love tells the story of Janek and his punk rock band, who gains a following from playing politically subversive songs. This provocation wouldn’t have been so important to Janek if it hadn’t also been at the center of a personal conflict for him; between his father, a (somewhat reluctant) member of the Communist Party, and his girlfriend, sympathizing with the reformist Solidarity movement. This film has something that I keep returning to in the films about music that I really like; the ability to make music seem important again. I can’t hold it again Polish cinema that it keeps on absorbing its recent history, and All That I Love certainly feels like a necessary step on the way to a greater understand of that particular time, all the never overestimating the emotional investment of me as a viewer. It’s a well-balanced piece of filmmaking.
The Parking Lot Movie (USA): Slate’s Julia Turner once said of Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, one of my favorite films of 2009, that it was “so fucking short and perfect.” I got the same feeling watching The Parking Lot Movie, a 70 minute documentary about the special work environment in The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. I don’t care if all the witticisms and and semi-philosphical life lessons were provoked by the fact that there was a camera rolling. Most of the guys interviewed for this film were so self-deprecating about their prosaic line of work that what comes out of it is a kind of Clerks for parking lot attendants, minus the smugness and the terrible sequel. A definitive audience favorite at the festival.
Cold Weather (USA): For most of the films at BIFF, I navigate with the help of the presentation in the programme catalogue. In the case of this film, though, the presentation was so confusing that it may actually have helped me like it more than it might otherwise have done. Presented as a kind of gritty, noirish detective story, Cold Weather turned out to be a surprising witty and original thriller. I was impressed and entertained by the fact that the film, telling the story of the sudden disappearance of a hapless ice factory-worker’s ex-girlfriend , dared to remain true to its low-stakes premise, even when those genre conventions would have called for cynicism and grand gestures. One of the pleasant surprises of the festival.