Reels Of Fun

19 May 2013

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By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
The sixth European Film Festival, held from May 1 to 14, offered the movie-going public a break from the otherwise Hollywood-centric cinema in the country. This year featured 27 films from 19 countries of the European Union. The selections from the first week come from 13 countries and most appear to have been chosen, mainly, for their crowd pleasing value. And what genre of film pleases the majority if not comedy? If, as Clint Eastwood famously said, “Emotions do not need translation,” chances are a hilarious scene in Madrid is a hilarious scene in Maitama.

Thus the festival opens with the hilarious Irish film The Guard starring a few familiar faces: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle. The film starts with a bizarre murder discovered by Gerry Boyle, a local police officer which investigation uncovers an international drug trade carried out by criminals who quote Bertrand Russell in their leisure— says one after shooting a police officer, “He took it quite philosophically…” The film belongs solely to Gleeson who as Boyle carries all of the vices associated with the Irish— he drinks, patronises hookers, and utters racial jibes deadpan— with a grumpy dignity sidestepping caricature. Cheadle’s FBI agent provides an entertaining counterpoise to Gleeson’s Boyle, their frequent verbal altercations produces several laughs, elevating the film above regular thrillers into a reasonable examination of a relationship between officers with uneasy duties and overlapping jurisdictions. The focus on buddy cop relations leads to less screen time for the crime and criminals: The Guard becomes the Gaelic Rush Hour. Like in that film, racial profiling becomes no more than playful chiding over which two characters bond.

Cool, the comedy from Greece, announces its intentions (and merits) in its title: it features good looking, cool young people. They have as much money and time as they have daddy issues. Presenting the lives of different young people from various backgrounds whose lives intersect a little too neatly in the third act, it wends its way via a rash of confusing plotlines and manages to use up all of its goodwill a long time before it gets to the big Freudian, if patricidal, payoff. It has a few laughs, but the often astonishingly good looking youth and beaches of Greece is Cool’s sole asset.

France’s The Intouchables and Italy’s It Can Be Done dabble with the political. While the former focuses on the present (it was released in 2011) and on racial politics between Philippe (Francoise Cluzet), a rich quadriplegic white Parisian and the black immigrant Driss (Omar Sy) whom he employs as caretaker; the latter reconstructs an earlier time in Italian history, in the 80’s, when the Basaglia Law was promulgated leading to the closing of psychiatric hospitals. A former trade unionist, Nello, is put in charge of a cooperative of mental patients where, dissatisfied, he decides to alter its workings. Based on true events, it is an inversion of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest— here, McMurphy becomes a caregiver rather than patient. His marriage suffers, a patient commits suicide after falling in love, but he succeeds in inspiring the country and upgrading the welfare of mental patients in Italy in the 80’s. The Intouchables is the funnier film; It Can Be Done the more political.

The French film provides laughs not only based on class differences but on the physical predicaments of both characters, the contrast allowing the audience a keener appreciation of the acting of both leads: while Driss is big, healthy, and often dancing, running, or shrieking in paroxysms; Philippe is still, sitting in a chair for the duration of film having to channel his emotions he feels through subtle, but remarkable feats of facial contortions. Driss, was brought to France as a child, and this arouses the suspicion of Philippe’s family showing the other side of racial relations in Europe; but the film focuses on the light— every film with characters of different race cannot always be a portrayal of the dark side of the immigrant experience. Although several scenes show aimless black men in street corners hinting at this darkness, the film belongs surely, solely in the light. This being Paris, it ends on a romantic note, as Driss strolls under a radiant Paris sun, effectively banishing all immigrant darkness into street corners— and perhaps other pictures.

Romance is the rage in Turkey’s Love Likes Coincidences which announces its main plot device in its title. It is this: boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-part, years later, boy-meets-girl again. The story uses several gimmicky flashbacks to give faux-complexity. Although containing a few good lines of dialogue— “Ankara is like somebody’s child, when it smiles you love it; when it cries you want to run away” —the script is rife with coincidences. It is also backed by a noisy score, and save for its use of REM’s Losing My Religion, the soundtrack consists of disorienting music. Love Likes Coincidences eventually dissolves into bathos and predictability, desperately reaching into some tear ducts to produce a few misty eyes in the cinema hall as the credits rolled.

Germany’s Head On gave the festival its first glimpse of grit. Cahit Tomruk (Birol Unel) a Turkish born German bum is blackmailed into a marriage of convenience by Sibel, a suicidal woman. He unexpectedly falls in love with her and is sent to prison for killing a man obsessed with his wife. Years later, he leaves Germany for Istanbul in hopes of rekindling lost love. The film is broken into sections by Turkish folk songs by a band on a seafront in Istanbul.

It speaks powerfully of a concept of home, seeming to imply home may not be one’s homeland but where one lays his head: upon his arrival in Istanbul, Cahit boards a taxi driven by a German who is ecstatic at meeting someone from his original country but he doesn’t plan to return. Cahit, on the other hand wants to return to Mersin the town of his birth with Sibel— whose life careered dangerously and has married another man— fleeing the life he had in Germany. Head On presents another side to the rootless man tale in Alain Gomis’ Andalucia presented by France at last year’s festival— in that film, a Frenchman of Mediterranean descent undergoes a spiritual transformation upon arriving home, here the characters have all too varied (and often visceral) ideas of home. Sibel wants to ‘live, dance and fuck’ in Germany but in Turkey she is forced to ‘wake, sleep, {and} work’; Cahit wants to live responsibly in Mersin after his disastrous existence in Germany. Neither fully realizes the hopelessness of the situation. Together they, and the film itself, provide a moving notion of home in 21st century Europe: a theme running through several films at this year’s festival.

The Netherlands’ Bon Voyage and Poland’s My Father’s Bike are concerned with journeys— between states and between hearts. In Bon Voyage a family comes to terms with maturity and death individually and as a family when they learn Bob, the maternal grandfather has cancer. The elder daughter struggles eagerly to lose her virginity, the only son grapples with lost friendship while the youngest daughter adopts a literal approach in dealing with grief insisting on knowing what becomes of her grandfather after internment.

An estranged grandfather, son and grandson embark on a journey to look for and reclaim their matriarch who has run off at age 75 to be with another man in My Father’s Bike— her son, perplexed and frustrated, says, “At 75, you don’t go looking for love, you look for a place in the cemetery”. The journey brings all of their grouses to the fore: the son, a concert pianist, cannot forgive his father’s negligence when he was a child; while the grandson resents his father for maltreating his mother. They go looking for the materfamilias but find each other. The journey embarked on in My Father’s Bike and disembarked from in Bon Voyage both have the characters undergo their own rites of passage, making this pair of films an ideal family entertainment as they bristle with warmth.

While My Father’s Bike and Bon Voyage are family entertainment mainly for adults, Finland’s animation Little Brother, Big Trouble: A Christmas Adventure is family entertainment especially for kids. It is the story of a young reindeer, Niko, disappointed when his mother explains she has met a reindeer whom she wants to move in. Having hoped his parents would reconcile, the news hurts him. The complications include the new reindeer’s ordinariness compared to his father who as one of Santa’s Flying Forces is endowed with powers, and his young son Jonni. When Jonni, who insists on calling Niko big brother, is kidnapped, Niko is forced to reconsider his stance.

There is a conceit here, or perhaps some condescension— if all of the characters were human, this would easily be a heartwarming family drama. It handles its material maturely, succeeding in portraying the reality of single parenthood with its complications:  the kid longing for reconciliation; the mother in need of companionship; the new younger son facing rejection from what he hoped was a new family; and the new ‘lover’s’ failure to live up to the old. In keeping with its form, the story is sprinkled generously with humour— some jokes too intricate, like in Shrek, are obviously intended for adults in the audience.

The Austrian presentation, Mount St. Elias is also for adults. It is a documentary about 3 ski mountaineers attempt(s) to ski the world’s longest (near-) vertical line covered in snow: the summit of the titular mountain to the beaches of Alaska. The 3 men are supporting characters to the mountain which is a formidable protagonist. The men’s initial attempts fall through, but like in most tributes to the human capacity for adventure and resilience— “this isn’t Hollywood, you can’t just quit” says a skier— they overcome eventually. Some events are recreated for both clarity and for some intimation of conflict without which the documentary itself would fail. For a Nigerian audience, despite some plodding sections, it is not too arduous to watch, as the cinematography as well as the wonderment— what drives these madmen?— is sufficient incentive to follow the documentary to its conclusion. And maybe provoke a cheer from the not too cynical.

“Cynical” may be right adjective to describe Christian, a young boy who alongside another young boy, Elias, form the heart of Denmark’s In A Better World which won the Oscar for Foreign Film for director Susanne Bier. On his first day in school, Christian witnesses Elias being bullied, and helps him avenge weeks later. Meanwhile across the seas, Elias’ dad working as a doctor in a refugee camp in Africa learns of a warlord called Big Man who mutilates women. Returning home to his troubled marriage and bullied son, he is assaulted by a bellicose parent on a playground with both boys watching. His refusal to respond and the boys’ refusal to accept this non-response as response, leads the kids to pressure the doctor and when he is assaulted again— he insists that retaliation and counter retaliation only produces war— Christian urges Elias to take part in violence that consumes both families and across the seas, culminates in a confrontation with Big Man. In a Better World presents questions: is turning the other cheek courage or cowardice? Is there some virtue in vengeance?

The script offers no answers. It is a complex film probing the origins and nature of violence, suggesting that the violence between small ‘unimportant people’ is no different from that between powerful people— both can lead to wars. It is a sentiment that should resonate with Nigerians, forced as we are to witness or partake in minor differences between individuals and small groups that have escalated into ethnic, settlement/indigene, and any number of wars stalking our county’s history and plaguing its existence. If we lived in another world, in a different world, these matters would be settled with the calm forgiveness of the doctor rather than the cynical vindictiveness of Christian.

In the last film of the week, Serbia’s How I Was Stolen by the Germans a reclusive writer pines for a different world— this time, a world in the past, and perhaps, coloured by nostalgia. His hermetic existence is altered when a former lover’s child is deposited at his doorsteps after her death; as he drives to take her to an orphanage, he tells the half listening, half sleeping child about growing up in Yugoslavia during the Second World War. The present day is captured in sober gray tones while his childhood is portrayed in colour, a visual cue to how he considers the past. He becomes narrator and commentator over the flashback scenes, telling the story frankly— talking about his conception, he says of his mother, “Physically she might have been the seductress, but in all other ways, she was the one seduced.”

The irony, central to the story, is he sees a German officer, occupying his mother’s flat, as a hero because the officer was the only adult who cared for him as a child— his family was preoccupied with communist meetings. After the war, it would appear he was vindicated as people are dragged from homes and executed on the streets, under posters of a deadpan Stalin. His mother, a blond willowy beauty (played by Jelena Djokic who recalls the winsomeness of Hollywood’s Amy Adams) falls into bed with the German officer in an excellently framed scene which distils the beauty of the film’s cinematography. However she persists in her meetings, undermining him and eventually bringing his ruin. The soldier’s fate mars him forever, and when he says to the little girl: “You can’t have love and freedom, but you don’t need both,” he may be speaking for himself or for his country.

The audience may disregard the statement, but not this soul-searching, and yes, very sad film.
––Aigbokhaevbolo writes from Abuja

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