Sunday 10 October 2010

A Week At The London Film Festival

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
It's Monday 4th October. The week holds fifteen screenings of as-yet unreleased films - some will see the light of day in your local cinema, some will not. I collected my press pass from the opening to the NFT1 and headed into It's Kind Of A Funny Story (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2010), a nice and lightweight way to start the festival. Around 50 minutes in the guy behind me was snoring, but it didn't matter. This was the moment I'd been building up to for years. I came out of the film wide-eyed and refreshed (it was a funny and life affirming film, which helped) - by the end of the week, I was considerably more tired and bedraggled. But I'd seen some magical films. This article (a few days late and admittedly rushed) will highlight four films out of the fifteen I saw. Four films you need in your life... when they get released of course.

1.) Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2009)
Waste Land, the new documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Lucy Walker (who started out on kids TV show Blue's Clues, 1996-2001) quickly ran away with my heart and the honour of being the "best film of the festival" - of course, I still have three weeks to go. It follows Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he travels to Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill site in the world. There he proposes a unique opportunity - he will create portraits of the workers at the site, sell the work, and the money he makes will go back to the people in order to improve their way of life - a life that brings happiness and sadness equally to the community. Some are proud of their life as 'pickers', declaring it a "noble profession". Others see it as a go-nowhere pit - a place to end up when all other options in life dry up. With a non-judgmental and kind-hearted spirit, the film always feels like an honest portrait of life in what is, fairly, a slum. People here speak their mind and their views, positive or negative, are not edited. Walker and Muniz observe the people and the film evolves emotionally as we warm to them and the project. It helps that Muniz himself is a kind spirit who grew up on the same streets... and now his genuis (and he is a genuis) is going to help clean them up. The final scenes of the auction, the visit to the Museum Of Modern Art, and the delivery of portraits to Gramacho are incredibly moving. Indeed, amid the constant laughter and warmth of the film I cried not once, not twice - but three times. With a soundtrack by Moby, this is a beautiful film about beautiful people... and the one man who cared enough to let these people help themselves - as human beings and artists.

2.) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Winner of the Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival, this human epic should, if there's any justice in the world, go on to win the Best Foreign Film OSCAR at the 2011 ceremony. As the press notes declare, there really are things in this film that you've never seen before - themes that expand beyond life and death; questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic. He's proven himself to be an artist of unmatched excellence and honesty. It's a deeply spiritual film; an existential film that explores the literal and metaphorical boundaries between the worlds of life and death. As Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) nears his final hours these worlds mesh in astonishingly powerful ways. The photography and lack of score (naturalistic sounds inform the mood) draw you into the world of the film and as the story unfolds, you become hypnotized by the way men, animals and spirits collide. The scene with the catfish will leave some laughing, some scratching their heads and some crying. It left me in awe, its tranquil philosophizing having an almost religious quality. As the film slowly heads into the dark, deep and dank caverns of death the film only becomes more confusing, life-affirming and beautiful. By the time the reflective final scene had concluded and the pop soundtrack had kicked in I was left bewildered. It's not perfect, but at the same time it is... and when you see the film, you'll understand that perfectly.

3.) Self Made (Gillian Wearing, 2010)
Grotesque theatre meets performance art in this fascinating and powerful documentary. The idea could be indulgent - artist Gillian Wearing placed an ad in newspapers, online and in job centers calling for volunteers to take part in an experiment. The ad read: 'If you were to play a part in a film, would you be yourself or a fictional character?' Seven people were chosen to take part in the events that were filmed and indulgent is the last thing it turned out to be. Much like Waste Land, the beauty of the film lies in the respect and non-judgmental honesty the filmmakers bestow upon their volunteers. The idea slowly becomes something more; each of the volunteers has a troubled past - a memory or a person they find it difficult attaching themselves to. Slowly the film develops into therapy through 'The Method' - a style of acting that demands the channeling of life experiences into a character. It doesn't patronize or edit anyone and at times the film can conjure an almost religious quality - Ash imagining himself in the bathwater being an oddly affecting example. Shocking, funny and human, Self Made explores the dark side of human nature and what it takes to push us over the edge and actually just... feel something. Watching the volunteers confront their pasts, their fears, their loves and losses is a moving experience and the short films they produce are both works of art and lonely confessions. Hard-hitting and brilliant; Ash's film will leave you breathless with shock.

4.) Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
A good Western is hard to come by these days. Not because the quality has dropped - Open Range (Kevin Costner, 2003), The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) are all outstanding - but because there are so few of them. We're lucky if we see one a year. But somehow they're always worth waiting for. Westerns are now an open canvas on which to paint existentialist and elegiac stories of life and death; explorations of identity - both personal and communal. Much like the extraordinary Seraphim Falls (David Von Ancken, 2006), Meek's Cutoff takes the personal route - channeling Malick and Tarkovsky in its approach to minimalist beauty exploring place and person. Reichardt is no stranger to slow cinema (see Wendy And Lucy, 2008) but this takes things to whole new levels. Silent for at least half of the running time, the film picks up a band of travelers and their suspect guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) without any explanation of how they got there. Slowly, as they appear more and more lost, relationships begin to break down and trust is lost. With the arrival of The Cayuse (Rod Rondeaux) the group become more tired and thirsty... and violent. The ending is one of the best in recent years - with the blind leading the blind, Meek ends the film on a perfectly ambiguous note, not far from where we started. "I'm following you now" - the possibilities are endless.

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