Friday, 24 October 2008

The 16th Raindance Film Festival Review

The Rain Dance film Festival had it's 16th year this month, and as usual it was host to an international selection of challenging independent cinema. I interviewed festival organiser Elliot Grove, a couple of directors and have reviewed a few of this years offerings. Enjoy!

Hi Elliot, you must be very busy this year! What have you enjoyed most at this year’s festival?

Elliot: The big story this year is the attendees, the box office is up 40% which is astounding, and having done it for so many years it’s gratifying to see that people are finally getting out to find us, which proves that independent cinema is alive and well! Very much so!

So you think the future is bright for independent film And British cinema?

Elliot: Yeah, independent cinema is not for everyone, but it is definitely for people who want something a little different from the normal Hollywood fare, that you get at the multiplexes and the normal fare that you get at other film festivals. Our programming is much more underground and extreme than you’ll see elsewhere, certainly more extreme than you’ll see in the multiplexes.

Could you possibly pick a favourite?

Elliot: I don’t like picking favourites because all the films are favourites, but there is something that’s happened this year which is a bit different, there were three excellent films from Canada, one is ‘production office’, another is ‘Who is KK Downing’ a hilarious comedy and the actors are coming over, this is a comedy troupe from Montreal that feed into second city, the stand up club in Toronto which feeds all the big names to TV show Saturday night live, and is the route taken by all the big people like Jim Carey, Dan Akroyd, Martin Short, Mike Myers and so on so that film is great. And on Sunday Jeremy Podeswa, the great auteur, is attending with a film called ‘Fugitive Pieces’ which is a harrowing account of the holocaust, so those are all very different films, but I would heartily recommend any one of them to anyone, they have to be my personal favourites because I’m Canadian!

Congratulations on receiving the honorary doctorate, what kind of people do you think most benefit from your lectures?

Elliot: Anyone who wants to write a film, make a film or direct a film.

What will your next film be about?

Elliot: I’ve put all that aside for the past year while I’m working on the launch of our web distribution portal, so none right at the moment although I have some ideas, but I don’t really want to talk about them.

What things will be different at next year’s festival?

Elliot: I think what will be different is, we’ll have to address our infrastructure because we just can’t cope with all the people wanting to come, most things are sold out and people are damned lucky, if they don’t already have a ticket, to get a ticket which is unfortunate. So what we’re trying to do now is to address that issue and see if we can get larger screens and make the wonderful films we have from all over the world available to an even wider audience.

Did your Amish background affect your style of film making or your attitude to cinema in general?

Elliot: Yes and no, no in the sense that cinema and acting are my natural topics, but the yes is as a child I was exposed to all the story telling that you do in my community, that certainly affected the way I look at films, from a storytelling point of view, I love great stories, and the fact that there’s cinema means everything I grew up with has been enhanced. The storytelling I grew up with has made me particularly receptive to the visual storytelling of cinema, and wow! What a great way to tell stories.

You have a lot of contacts in the film industry but can you still get star struck?

Elliot: Yes, every time. Faye Dunaway came, on the one hand, I’m able to speak to her as I’m speaking to you now on the other hand I’m pinching myself thinking can this be real? I’m having dinner with Faye Dunaway, like wow! Its quite an experience that, in itself. And taking her through all the paparazzi and seeing all the pulling power she has, the pulling power that Adam Yauch of the beastie boys has, that Peter Greenaway, that Michael Winterbottom, that Bill Nighy, that Liz Smith the wonderful actress, that they have. They can do something that I can not, and I am forever in awe and respect of them. It’s a bit like going to the private show that Prince was doing at the O2, where he would play after the main show for 4 hours, he had done an energetic 2 hour set for 20,000 and then going with a few people and playing for 3 or 4 hours, My god, that’s something special. How does he do that? How does she do it? Amazing.

Heavy Load – Jerry Rothwell

A documentary film about a punk rock band from Lewes near Brighton called Heavy Load, the majority of it's members are disabled. The film begins with the director explaining his depression and shows how he uses the optimism and perceived happiness of the band as a vehicle to pull himself out of his misery, but as the film progresses and the band run into problems, he wonders whether by making the documentary he is taking away from their happiness. The band starts off playing only at disabled events, then progress to pubs and finish by playing at a festival alongside the Levellers and the fun lovin’ criminals. The disabled members of the band are very likeable and although the film is in no way patronising, it is slightly too sentimental for my tastes, and seems somewhat self serving, drawing no conclusions about the lives of the subject matter only that of the director. The drummer Michael’s expanding ego is one of the most entertaining aspects of the film, despite having barely mastered the drums after decades of playing, he becomes convinced he is too good for the band and threatens to start a new one. The director covers the subject skilfully and with sensitivity, he also uses the Sussex coastline to great atmospheric effect, ultimately this is no better than a feel good TV documentary about what strong little soldiers disabled people are.

The Blue Tower- Smita Bhide

The Blue Tower is this year’s winner of best UK feature at the Rain dance film festival. What I presumed to be a straight forward inter-racial romance story set in Southall, is in fact so much more as producer Jamie Nuttgens explained to me “the romance isn’t problematic like Romeo and Juliet.” In fact the sexual relationship the protagonist Mohan (Abhin Galeya) has with his wealthy aunt’s white care worker Judy is in fact the only thing that doesn’t directly create problems for him in this film, His wife is distant and unfaithful and her family particularly her brother do not respect him because he has no job and has not yet fathered a child, his mates are chancers trying their luck at get rich quick schemes and he is hoping desperately that another unreliable friend will come through for him with a job. His wealthy aunt doesn’t suspect her nephew and care worker of anything, even when they start stealing from her; she is too concerned with her vanity, which is exasperated by her creepy sycophantic neighbours and their plans to take her money. To escape from the mess of his life, he and Judy conceive a desperate plan. As his marriage and hopes of work look more and more bleak, Mohan becomes delusional and desperate, Director Smita Bhide skilfully uses the prominent red and blue towers that dominate the landscape of Southall as symbols of the security of Mohan's life and the menacing reality that lies behind the illusion.

The symbolism of the blue and red towers is very striking, where did you get the idea from?

Smita: When we were scouting the locations, looking for interesting landmarks, I just noticed them; they were sort of organically integrated into the plot. They are such amazing structures that we couldn’t really film there and not include them somehow. The shot where the blue tower emerges from behind the red tower is how it actually is, and that’s how that came about.

And was a lot of the plot developed organically in this way?

Smita: Well some of it was, I had an idea that we should make a short story featuring the three main characters, and I wanted to set it in Southall because that’s a place I know quite well. We wanted to make something that was set in that kind of Indian landscape, that’s also very suburban.

By the three main characters do you mean the lovers and the auntie?

Smita: Yes, I had a story that revolves around that, a bit like the Honeymooners, I love that 1950’s feeling.

So the secondary characters were developed later?

Smita: Yes, I wanted to expand Mohan’s life, to explain why he is the way he is, and why he is so protective of the old woman. Both of the other themes developed from this.

Is Mohan your favourite character in the film?

Smita: I really like Judy, she’s the one that I think is most interesting. In fact we had much more storyline involving her, but when we were editing, it was too long, and we ended up having to focus more on Mohan. Alice O’ Connell was brilliant as her, I think she was the character with the most layers.

Did Alice bring a lot of that to the character, or was this already created in your writing?

Smita: Well I wrote the part very much with Alice in mind, it’s such a shame more of the scenes with her in weren’t included, but you have to be discriminating when editing.

Who is KK Downey? – Darren Curtis

A Canadian comedy critique of the easily deceived, attention seeking hipster culture. The story concerns two failing creative artists, a musician whose band is laughable and a writer who can’t get his book ‘truck stop hustler’ about a drug addled trans-gendered prostitute, published on the grounds that he is too middle class to release such material. Together they create a fictional character named KK Downey who is presented as the author of the novel, but things go a bit pear shaped when their web of lies comes unstuck. The film is a hilarious spoof of the artistic and creative youth community that is done in an original and at times surreal way with all too familiar characters who despite their hopelessness are very endearing. There is a lot of very basic and vulgar humour, but the film never pretends to be anything it isn’t, taking the piss out of pretentious indie types rather than trying to entertain them.

Flick – David Howard

A rockabilly zombie comedy bonanza. The plot is feeble at times, and the character’s motivation unconvincing but the flawless style of the movie more than makes up for it, including the teddy boy clothing, zombie gore and classic comic book style framing with actual illustrated comic panels used in place of montages for the plot links. The cast is also very impressive including the Oscar winning Faye Dunaway as Lieutenant McKenzie , the one armed American cop partnered with detective sergeant Miller played by Mark Benton (The fat bloke from the Northern Rock ads) who had her flown in to catch a rockabilly serial killer in the dark decrepit environment of a modern Welsh city which lends itself well to the horror genre. There are some great one-liners and amusing Monty pythonesque blood squirting wounds that provide the comic relief from the rampaging zombie teddy boy murderer Johnny Taylor, whose insane mother played by Liz Smith (Royle Family) is the best part of the film.

Hollywood star Faye said she was happy to work on what she described as an innovative film, saying “I was very taken with this little piece, it was an honour to work with all of them.” Mark Benton added “I think Faye learned a lot from me.” Despite not yet acquiring a distribution deal, Director David Howard has high hopes for the film, saying “hopefully it’ll get a cult following!” I asked him where he got the inspiration to draw together the different elements that gave the film it’s style, he replied “We were aiming for a B-movie feel, also a comic book feel in terms of the framed sequences. I already had an idea to make a low-budget movie, then I heard ‘Teenager in love’ on the radio and I thought about killing a man in a record shop, as well as that song things like Roger Corman, American International pictures and all those B-movies that have enduring appeal and an innocence which I think is appealing, I also love David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock!”

Watch Out - Steve Balderson

Disturbing comedy about loveless self obsessed narcissist who is looking for work as a lecturer at a small town college, it features a hilarious scene where he tapes a picture of his own face on a blow up doll then fucks it. The subject is compelling and the parts with dialogue somewhat intriguing, but the film is mostly comprised of shocking yet tedious sequences showing the protagonist masturbating. The violent ending is somewhat predictable but quite satisfying; I think the whole film could do with being cut down by ditching a few of the numerous wanking scenes. The subject of a cold, almost inhuman narcissist who reads German philosophy and hates humanity is somehow compelling, but not enough to endure this very boring film.

Mao-ce-dun – Besnik Bisha

An endearing comedy about a roma gypsy named Hekuran who lives on a gypsy camp in Albania during the reign of the 1970’s communist government, he names his ninth child Mao-ce-dun, at first he is met with anger by the party as it is not a conventional Albanian name, but after he writes to the Chinese embassy, they show an interest and the party, eager to maintain a good relationship with China, award Hekuran with luxuries he has never before experienced. He learns to manipulate the party, but takes a greater interest in communism as the film develops, it is never clear whether he is manipulating the party for his own means, or he has just misunderstood the way communism works and merely wants to be a functioning member of communist society. By bringing his family into the world of politics, he puts himself and the security of his gypsy community in danger. Not just a critique of communism but also of hypocrisy and international political relations in general. The simple characters are easy to love, and their uncertain future weighs heavy on the mind of the audience, but the ending is unremarkable, unskilfully portrayed and would have benefited from a different pace of editing, or perhaps a different final scene.

Adrift in Tokyo
– Miki Satoshi

Adrift in Tokyo is a heart warming comic drama about luck, a common theme in Japanese cinema, but interesting nonetheless. The film’s protagonist Takemura is a law student with a debt to pay off, a debt collector named Fukuhara who visits his house and threatens him, offers him a way out, all he has to do is walk the streets with him. The untrusting relationship changes as the two learn more about each other, it has the feel of a road movie, with the friendship developing between the two men, with the underlying theme of luck shaping their futures, Fukuhara lost his child and Takemura was abandoned by his parents as a child, they end up posing as Father and son and gradually Takemura realises his luck is changing. This sentimental and somewhat obvious male-bonding plot is held aloft by hilarious secondary characters, unlikely comic scenarios and the beautiful cinematography that captures the full range of Tokyo’s landscape and atmosphere. Uplifting, thought provoking and at times very amusing.

The Daisy Chain
– Aisling Walsh

Female directors are too rare, particularly those willing to approach the horror genre. Walsh uses the beautiful Western Irish coast to create a bleak atmosphere of isolation and vulnerability. The plot is somewhat obvious, a young couple move away from the bright lights of London to raise a family, the wife is pregnant, and the husband has inherited his childhood home in Ireland, but the neighbour’s child Daisy is suspected of being a fairy changeling, born in a fairy ring on Halloween. The Neighbour’s son is killed under mysterious circumstances and the parents are soon to follow, the child is then adopted by the London couple, the motivation for this aspect of the plot is addressed but remains unconvincing. The superstitious locals become increasingly scared of young Daisy. The film lacks originality but has some redeeming qualities, the child actress Mhairi Anderson who plays Daisy is exceptional, providing a genuinely disturbing performance, the cinematography and score combine to give the film a unique character that is tense and engaging. The theme of fairies and the supernatural remains frustratingly unresolved, it is never made clear whether the girl suffers from autism, is very disturbed or is really a fairy changeling, a question left unanswered deliberately by the director, but in a clumsy way, that doesn’t encourage the audience to feel sympathy for the girl, who is properly identified neither as victim nor as aggressor. Despite the flaws The Daisy Chain, a combination of Straw Dogs and the Wicker Man, is a visually appealing and at times moving addition to the horror genre.

Fine, Totally Fine – Yosuke Fujita

This is a delicate Japanese comedy about how life can be disappointing, it features three main characters approaching 30, none of whom are satisfied with their lives. A nervous, shy girl with an unusual affection for fish sausages who aspires to be an artist but is too clumsy to hold down a job, a hospital manager who never confronts anybody and commands no respect because he is always trying to be nice out of fear that people won’t like him and the most compelling and amusing of all Teruo an obtuse, sadistic but dim-witted part time park keeper who likes scaring kids and dreams of one day building a super-ultra-haunted-house-deluxe, which will literally scare people to death. There is a brief sub-plot where the two men compete for the affections of the girl, but this is never resolved as she finds love with another man. None of their dreams are realised, and there are no scenes where emotional or hopes are addressed, or aspirations resolved. This is not a fantasy film, but a film about fantasy, and it’s stark contrast to reality. The film is charming, set predominantly in a second hand book shop belonging to Teruo’s father, despite the lack of a conventionally satisfying plot resolution; there is a poignant message about the pleasure that can be taken simply by enjoying each other’s company and being thankful for it.

The Tour – Goran Markovic

Based on Markovic’s award winning play of the same name, his anti-war comedy is a film about a group of failing actors living in Belgrade in 1993, depressed and drunk. They embark on a reluctant tour to the frontlines to perform for the Serbian soldiers, but they are constantly manipulated by different forces of the Bosnian war, over the course of the film they perform and socialise with doctors, writers, generals, Serbian soldiers, Croats and Muslims and they come to realise that the different sides are hardly different, the actors feel removed from the whole business of war, but learn that most of the people directly affected feel just as far removed from the horrific events. Markovic’s script is a fine example of his literary and comic talent, he also unflinchingly recreates the gritty, snow, blood and mud streaked landscape of former Yugoslavia. The comic addition of a somewhat ridiculous sounding folk score adds to the impression of the ridiculous nature of the war despite the tragic and horrific reality. I found the film a bit long, but the script never failed to entertain, as a script writer, and a storyteller Markovic is a highly experienced and accomplished artist, but he would benefit from fine-tuning his film making skills with attention to pace and structure.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Outlanders - drama about illegal Polish labour in London

could you choose between love and blood?

Outlanders is a very well written film, with the plot falling like a blade aimed directly at the heart of the issue of cheap illegal labour in Britain, without drawing obvious conclusions or shying away from the complicated reality of the phenomenon. The plot focuses around a Pole named Alex who goes to find his brother Jan who moved to London illegally years before, and has become involved in the exploitation of illegal immigrants. The direction features some wonderful obscure shots that help to depict an unseen part of London but the film suffers from a poor script, dodgy sound quality and lack of decent lighting at times. All the elements for an engaging drama are in place, a great plot, good lead actor and a director with an eye that appreciates the appealing nature of the obscure, and can construct atmosphere with impressive skill. But the failings of the film can detract from the plot, when script is barely audible and some scenes so dark that you can barely see the actor's expressions. I spoke to director Dominic Lees and lead actor Jakub Tolak who plays Adam Jasinski.

Dominic: It’s easy to market the film for the polish community in Britain, which is huge, and it’s an opportunity for the UK audience to discover new stars.

Were you very conscious of the different national markets when making the film?

Dominic: No, I didn’t think about it in market terms, it’s a film about brotherhood, but it’s set against the background of East European migration to London and Britain, so the universal story is about the relationship between the younger brother Adam, who is the hero and his older brother Jan who has been here a long time, he came when Poles were having to work illegally, so he’s worked on the black economy and has become a corrupt character. Essentially it’s just a film about brotherhood, but because I lived and studies in Poland and speak Polish, it was natural that the story was going to be about two Polish brothers coming here.

How do you anticipate the film being received in the two countries? I know you said you don’t think about it in market terms…

Dominic: Now it’s going to be really interesting because it’s one of the first films that’s going to be marketed at two sides of the British audience, the cine savvy UK audience who love independent film, they’ll have a natural interest in it, and festivals and so on it’s been getting a good reaction from those kind of audiences and separately there is a marketing effort to get Poles in the UK, I mean there’s what a million people, to be interested in a British film that can reflect their experience. That’s a kind of voyage of discovery, because no one has really done that yet. It may be a whole big new section of the British community that will come into film watching through that, you never know.

Jakub, how did you go about preparing for your role?

Jakub:It was kind of a process, at first I came to London just shooting for one week or more and I really wanted to feel abandoned so I went to the city a couple of times, walking around in the areas I didn’t know, and I wanted to feel totally lonely and I just wanted to feel the city, because I’ve been to London before, but I’ve never travelled just like that, I was always purposefully seeing something. The character comes here knowing nothing about the city so I kind of took the tube and just went somewhere, anywhere, got lost and watched different kinds of people, this was a very good part of it. The second part was a lot of talking, we had rehearsals, and we built up a back story which was pretty huge for this story.I knew what happened, I almost became the guy. I also tried to draw from my own experiences and put them into the character.

How does the atmosphere of London differ from that of Warsaw?

Jakub: In my opinion London is more alive, it has more different cultures, a mixture, it’s a bigger city. You enter London, and you enter London, there’s houses and houses, it’s huge, I can’t have a view of the whole city, it’s impossible for me. Despite the diversity it’s very much a whole, different races and languages, but the city is a whole, with the architecture, you can feel the spirit of the city. I think it’s on purpose, because I know English people really like the symbols of the city, red post boxes etc

How do you feel about the mistreatment of illegal Polish workers?

Jakub:I do have some friends who came here, to work or usually to study. But I didn’t have any experience with illegal workers which would have helped, but I knew that was a problem, and it’s a problem that is everywhere at the moment. In Poland we have people from the East or even the Far East coming to work illegally, I think that’s the normal way of history, usually when the country has better living conditions, people go there, the whole of America was made of illegal immigrants.

And have you any feelings with respect to the vulnerability of those immigrants?

Dominic: One thing the film does with these two brothers is compares their different experiences, because the older brother has already been here for 10 years, working on the black economy, he was really vulnerable and exploited. His back story is really sad and quite tragic and that compares with his younger brother who has turned up here after Poland has joined the EU and all he has to do is flash his passport and they let him in, he can work legally and he can do what he likes. Two completely different experiences of what it is like to come to this country. The older brother is corrupt in his own way and he now exploits workers from outside the EU, who he can get to work for cheap, illegally on construction site, repeating the same exploitation that he himself suffered.

Could you elaborate on the theme of the unseen “dark heart” of London?

Dominic: It builds on what Jakub was saying about the nature of London, it’s a beautiful city, its fabulously multi-cultural, it’s so varied but still has a unified soul to it. We have to be aware that a lot is built on the suffering of very vulnerable people, this film is about the way migrants from outside the EU are very vulnerable, and are ruthlessly exploited, and have no protection whatsoever. Every civilisation does this, from the Egyptians who built the pyramids with slaves and onwards, every civilisation has built itself on other people. That to me is the two sides of a great metropolis.

Jakub: I think netiher of us wanted to criticise the system or preach, just ask some questions about some general situations, some things that are going on, but we don’t want to answer we just want to ask. If people want to think about it they can, otherwise they can just see the movie.

Do you think the film will help to break you into Britain?

Jakub: I wouldn’t expect that, it would be na├»ve, my motivation to take part was neither money nor fame because it’s an independent movie, I wouldn’t expect that, we all knew that so that would be nice, but I just wanted to do such projects. I’d like to do more in England, as it’s very interesting for me as a pole, everything is new.

What attracted you to the role?

Jakub: I was attracted because it was an adventure, and the story is quite dense, a lot of things going on, interesting scenes, interesting emotions. I would say I treated this as an experimental thing because I was alone here; I purposefully cut contact with my family. Trying to find something more of myself.

Dominic: Jakub is being modest, one thing I’ve really enjoyed about the limited audiences that have seen it so far, people who don’t know the leading actors in this film, they say God! Who is that guy, the leading actor in this film!

Jakub: you didn’t tell me that!

Dominic: Haha! It’s really exciting because they have no preconceptions, this is an actor they haven’t seen, he’s come straight at them from under the radar, Jakub is very well known for his film work and television work in Poland. I was very excited to have him board.

Was the casting a difficult process?

Well I was certain I wanted Polish actors for the main two roles, twenty years ago Jeremy Irons played a Polish construction worker in the film ‘Moonlighting’ that today is absurd. You can’t have a British actor do that. Poland has a wealth of talent, but I needed to find two talented actors who could work English, which narrowed down my choices, in fact when it came down to it, there was only one actor I wanted to play Adam and that was Jakub and one to play his older brother and I was really lucky to get both of them.

You see Adam as being a hero? His role seems to be that of an individual with a difficult decision rather than a hero.

Dominic: when researching for the film, I asked my friends ‘if you knew you’re brother had murdered someone, would you shop them to the police or if they needed your protection would you protect them? And almost every single person said they would protect them. But they’re also thinking ‘I don’t like the fact that I’ll protect him even though I know I must’ that kind of tension is what the whole film is founded on. For me it’s a film of universal themes of brotherhood and morality, but set against very current phenomenon, but it’s not about that phenomenon, it’s opening questions about what it is to love and hate your brother at the same time.

Jakub: Many people ask if it’s a movie about Polish people in London, it’s not, it’s about immigration anywhere, I would like to see it this way. I wouldn’t treat the film as a story about Polish guys, but about brotherhood and immigration in general. The brothers do not represent their country.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Teenager gangsters involved in drugs, murder and arms dealing. Shocking. Or perhaps not so much anymore? A lot of films deal with this subject for two reasons, firstly these terrible things happen and secondly it’s entertaining. This film directed by Matteo Garrone is based on the book by investigative reporter Roberto Saviano, who experienced the subject mater of the Camorra in Naples which he describes as a “European problem” a Southern Italian organised crime ring, that is connected to countless criminal gangs who kill thousands of people, as many as three a day. The Camorra use their illegally acquired funds to invest in legal activity including the construction of the twin towers.

The cinematography is poetic, skilfully capturing the atmosphere of the diverse Naples environment ranging from abandoned buildings and farms to decaying flats in poverty stricken neighbourhoods. There are several central characters with whom the audience are encouraged to identify including a very young boy employed as a mule by the mob, an ageing mule whose life is in constant danger, a tailor recruited by the mob since childhood and most compelling of all a pair of resourceful teenage hoods, who inspired by Scarface and the arrogance of youth, believe they can take on the mob on their own terms. The various plotlines are taken from 5 separate stories in Saviano’s book, and are skilfully balanced in the format of this film.

Gommora is by no means a revolutionary film, and although it is revealing for those curious about the criminal underworld of Southern Italy, the actual subject matter has been dealt with so frequently in cinema everywhere from Britain with Kidulthood to Brazil with City of God and can be a bit tiresome after awhile. Despite the ‘seen-it-all-before’ aspect I enjoyed the film, the acting is convincing, the mise-en-scene a pleasure to behold, Garrone is clearly a skilful auteur as well as having an eye for the beauty of symmetry. The accuracy of the subject matter has been addressed carefully, and sympathetically. The effect is convincing and entertaining. It has already won the Grand Prize of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and when it is released in Britain on 10th October, is likely to attract more attention.