Close-Up Film writer Paul Fraser attended the 13th Raindance Film Festival and here gives us a rundown on some of the highlights, including his view on some of the films that could soon be appearing at a cinema near you, plus a full list of this year's winners.
The 13th Raindance Film Festival Part 1 - The Opening Days
This year's Raindance festival is only a few days old and already certain themes are emerging like islands from the cine stream. Doubtless this is partly thanks to the perspicacity of the schedulers, not to mention the predilection of any festival-flunky to spot patterns. Nevertheless, in any year, especially with increasing globalisation, there are likely to be similar preoccupations threading through the warp and weft of world affairs and you know, perhaps there are only so many stories. Thus far at the festival mind-benders such as the merging of fact and fiction, memory and visual media have zapped my always-tenuous sense of reality while the 'morality gap' of market-driven societies and the origins and consequences of terrorism have furrowed my brow. These narrative threads make a nice pullover, not too shabby although still unfinished, that serves to keep out the chilly banalities of more mainstream fare.
Top of the class so far come Buy It Now and Gingerbread Man. The former is the story of how one Chelsea McGann came to sell her virginity on eBay. 'I can get it over with and make a profit at the same time' she whispers to the camcorder that she uses to film herself, 'kill two birds with one stone.' As Chelsea writes in her entry on eBay: it's a unique product that has never been used. The film follows her from the sale of the 'item' to the consummation in a drab hotel room with some guy who has the same first name as me, and then the predictably traumatic aftermath. Her bedroom is wallpapered with icons of popular culture ('Johnny Depp: he's my king'), she takes cocaine and cuts herself, her parents are divorced and she sees a therapist. In other words Chelsea is the poster child for an atomised society, unable to find an outlet for her angst except in forms of self-annihilation such as screwing a stranger for two thousand bucks. In some ways teenagers are the litmus test for trends in society more generally because they feel things so acutely. If this montage created by Director Antonio Campos after the fact seems almost too dead-on-the-nose then I suggest you see the film. Suffice to say that the moral issue of whether everything should be up for sale is epitomised by eBay's request that Chelsea take down her advertisement.and re-post it to the adult section.
Gingerbread Man is an astonishing pseudo-documentary that tells how teacher Jon Simon pursued a vigilante crusade against a US child smuggling ring after his wife died in a car crash and his daughter was kidnapped and then killed by child smugglers. Filmed by his brother on raw DV this is America , the American Dream one might say, viewed through a glass and darkly. Yet child smugglers apparently operate all over the world and law enforcement has been unable to make inroads into their organisations lending Simon's shocking quest an air of moral complexity. While few will condone his actions perhaps fewer still will find themselves unable to sympathise with his plight. We watch incredulous as he simultaneously uncovers a continent-wide child smuggling ring and spirals deeper into his own tortured psyche intoning the increasingly beleaguered mantra: 'I'm the good guy, they're the bad guys'. Although the child smugglers are obviously operating illegally Gingerbread Man like Buy It Now raises questions about the tendency to view the market as the only morality. Equally in an age when we can download footage of decapitations at the hands of moral zealots in Iraq , Gingerbread Man raises questions about what is acceptable to be shown and for what reasons. Simon pursues moral extremism against the worst that moral relativism has to offer and becomes a double-edged blade cutting deeper into himself every time he cuts into his adversaries. It's a film in which you judge the facts for yourself.
Despite all this, and it sounds wrong to say, Gingerbread Man was something of a relief after the incessant adolescent whine of Peep TV Show , which in the manner of most sophomore projects had a couple of good, if not particularly original, ideas and then spun them out for what seemed like forty days and nights. By the final third I was willing myself to fall asleep because enduring the preening arrogance of the film was like taking cheese wire to my eyeballs. To give the film its due it was first released two years ago when its insights into 9/11 and the global media may have been fresher than they are now. One could argue that certain truths bear repeating particularly given that they aren't exactly mainstream. So here they are: the grief extended to the victims of 9/11 looks like hypocrisy when set beside the numbers dying in developing countries every day for which the developed world bears responsibility; the selective definition of terrorism to exclude anyone acting in the perceived interests of the United States and its allies is also crass hypocrisy; the footage of 9/11 became less real the more we looked at it; the increasingly multi-faceted global media detaches us from the consequences of our actions and those of others - diminishing our reality - and alienates us from each other while paradoxically enabling us to communicate instantaneously with someone across the world; this situation entails that 'reality', in so far as it equals the norm, becomes a 'Peep TV Show' where voyeurism and masturbation are the signature acts.
Actually put like that Peep TV Show doesn't sound too bad however it's so esoteric that it's hard to see how it will manage to communicate its insights to anyone who isn't familiar with them already. Perhaps it would have been better had it been (a lot) shorter. The Great Water could not have been more different. A comparatively gentle tale, it recounted the childhood days of a Macedonian politician from his deathbed. As an orphan he was placed in a camp run by the communists at the time when Macedonia was still part of the USSR . The strict regime, with a strange underlying sentimentality, was something of a microcosm of the broader communist state and in it the future politician made friends with a brave and otherworldly boy. Their relationship is at the core of the story and the film's tender conviction that events around the onset of puberty can decisively shape a life, to the extent that nothing else need be shown, is touching without being overly cloying. We imagine that the lead character went onto a very public life but it is these private memories of a perverse paradise lost that animate his final living moments. The old trick of defamiliarising things through a child's eyes to explain them is used to good effect although it rather robs the film of a meaningful political context either in the communist past or the democratic present. A pleasantly poignant film, it does not quite penetrate the depths of the watery expanse of its title.
Raindance Film Festival Part 2 - The Closing Days
The Raindance Film Festival continued to flourish right up to its closing gala screening of the Venezuelan film Secuestro Express with an eclectic mix of short films, documentaries and feature films. This openness is part of the festival's attraction and after thirteen years it has carved a niche on the circuit for edgy, innovative and offbeat material. Immediately prior to the closing film there was a screening of festival 'trailers' from the previous seven years. Some poor unfortunate getting kicked in the balls under the caption 'Independent cinema worth fighting for' from 1998 and an unlucky pub-goer kidnapped and forced to watch all the festival entries in 2000 - 'We watch them so you don't have to' - set the subversive tone. The determination to break down barriers between the audience, the organisers and the talent has been exemplary throughout the festival leading to intense after-show brow-beatings in which the directors tend to be left as spectators.
One such occasion this year followed the screening of Gingerbread Man - a film controversial for the way in which it depicts vigilantism - when director Jonathan M. Spirk stepped in to prevent a strident debate from degenerating into fisticuffs. Gingerbread Man won the award for best debut feature at the closing ceremony and Spirk was typically ebullient. It's no wonder he's pleased: the film took 11 years to get this far, was edited down from 140 hours of footage, and had been refused from almost every other festival for its controversial subject matter (the film's quality is not in question). It's rather typical, if depressing, that in an industry with a surfeit of vigilante thrillers this one should be sidelined because it deals with a genuine social problem such as child racketeering. Given the way in which Hollywood takes a sledgehammer to even the most sensitive topics, one would have to say that industry reservations about this film could hardly be due to matters of 'taste' unless flagrant hypocrisy is at work. The nub-of-the-matter is seemingly cowardice: no one wants to be associated with such incendiary material even though Gingerbread Man seeks to bring about some positive change.
There were numerous films of interest in the closing days of the festival. On Thursday 6 th Dead Girl gave us a story about a struggling actor in Los Angeles who falls in love with a mysterious woman and then kills her when she fails to reciprocate his affections. Developing an obsessive relationship with her corpse he becomes her agent but as her acting career takes off - spectacularly unimpeded by her posthumous status - jealousy drives them apart. Val Kilmer delivers an extraordinary performance as a nutty therapist in this cross between David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Robert Altman's The Player although it is not as accomplished as either. A mildly amusing satire and a moderately haunting dream narrative with moments of surreal humour and vibrant beauty, the film's joke is nonetheless too thin to support the weight of a feature. I think that it might have been better as a short film. I cannot let this opportunity pass without mentioning the lead actor's hideous perm: much more distasteful than his carnal relations with a cadaver.
South Korean action flick A Bittersweet Life followed: a title that, like many others from the Far East , seems to teeter on a knifepoint between poetry, self-parody and cod profundity. This continues with the film's opening salvo: 'which moves: the branches or the wind?' asks a pupil; 'Your heart and your mind' comes the master's sphinx-like reply. Protagonist Sun-woo feels the wind of change after seven years loyal service to Mafioso boss Kang when he is ordered to kill Kang's unfaithful girlfriend plus lover. Sun-woo decides to let them live and the consequences are bloody indeed. A Bittersweet Life conjures muscular poetry from juxtaposing sentimental pathos with sporadic bouts of ultra-violence. Lead actor Lee Byung-Hun brings a pensive intelligence to that familiar archetype, the killer with a conscience. Overlong, the film is gripping thanks to its star's charisma, a strong supporting cast and stylish cinematography by Director Kim Ji-Woon. Its nihilism is extraordinarily suffocating. During the closing massacre Kang asks Sun-woo why he's come and Sun-woo replies 'I've nowhere else to go.' It's a cold irony and make no mistake, for all its guts this is an extremely cold film.
On Friday 7 th The Art of Losing was pretty good. It's a film about a journalist in Bogotá who traces a political conspiracy through the strata of Colombian society. Intelligent and darkly humorous the film's title perfectly captures its downbeat tone. On Friday evening Hong Kong film Dumplings was undoubtedly one of the standout films of the festival. In the film mysterious Aunt Mei cooks dumplings sought after by the aging Mrs Lee for their rejuvenating qualities. Just don't ask what's in them. An understated horror, Dumplings is 'art cinema' in the very best sense: a beautiful, meaningful and poetic film that delivers a powerful inter-gender allegory of abortion and the quest to stay young. It's really very refreshing to see a film dealing with women's issues, but relating them to both sexes and to broader social concerns, in such an intelligent and entertaining way. This is highly recommended.
Also on Friday was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence , the animated sequel to the popular Japanese Manga. A series of murders lead special agents to investigate Locus Solos, a company specialising in 'more human than human' automatons. If you enjoyed the first film then it's unlikely that the sequel will disappoint although that's a mixed compliment given that the plot of the second remains as convoluted as the first. However the animation is awe-inspiring and the overall storyline is exciting. 'We weep for a bird's cry but not for the blood of a fish. Blessed are those who have a voice.' You'll need a high threshold for sage mutterings such as these as the police investigation once again becomes a philosophical enquiry in the Blade Runner style. The film's ambition in both form and content is commendable.
On Saturday 8 th I have to admit that I was ill-prepared for the opening sequence of Battle in Heaven in which oral sex hoves into view with the kind of gravitas reserved for a planetary alignment in 2001: A Space Odyssey . This is key to the style of Carlos Reygadas, Mexican director of Japon , who films the most unlikely, or neglected, material with an air of solemn portentousness (combined I suspect with a certain amount of provocation). The style is justified because it produces extremely intriguing effects both visually and aurally. In fact Battle in Heaven is particularly laudable for the way in which it manipulates its soundtrack to creative ends rather than simply conceiving sound as vision's poor relation. The story, such as it is, follows Marcos, middle-aged and muted, as he trudges towards his personal Calvary for the death of a child kidnapped by him and his wife. Ana, rich daughter of his boss, who performs the cosmic fellatio that opens the film, prompts him on his way. However narrative is hardly the priority here. Instead just go with the mood.
I saw two very different films on Sunday 9th, both of which were feature film debuts. The first was French film No Limits , which I found to be intensely irritating and superficial, geared for hipness rather than genuine insight. Chronicling the love-hate relationship of an inordinately self-absorbed couple the film lost my sympathy early doors and the inane twists towards the end simply made matters worse. The 'Emperor's new clothes' of No Limits were starkly exposed when compared to Secuestro Express , the closing film of the festival. It seems to be on the verge of sparking a social revolution in its homeland Venezuela because it has touched upon issues that were previously taboo in the national cinema. It's the first non-governmental feature film the country has produced and it's become the fourth highest grosser in Venezuelan history, beating the Hollywood blockbusters. Now it seems that the Venezuelan government would like to throw director Jonathan Jakubowicz in the clink for daring to speak openly about inequality in their society.
In Secuestro Express Carla and Martin, a wealthy couple, are kidnapped in Caracas , Venezuela , for a ransom of twenty thousand dollars each. They're taken on a journey through the Venezuelan underclass as the kidnappers debate what to do with the couple and the couple debate what to do with each other. Gritty, visceral and self-consciously bombastic there's no doubt that Secuestro Express is in-your-face filmmaking but this gives it the necessary immediacy, authenticity and relentless sense of danger. The film explicitly challenges the audience: 'When half the world is dying of hunger and half of obesity you have two options: fight the monster or invite him to dinner.' A fitting conclusion to a generally excellent 13 th Raindance Festival, remarkable for the range and courage of its programming. Roll on number fourteen.
FULL LIST OF WINNERS
Official Selection Feature - Canary ( Japan )
Official Selection Short - A Monk's Awakening ( France )
UK Feature - Rollin' With The Nines
UK Short - Six Shooter
Debut Feature - The Gingerbread Man ( USA )
Documentary - Punk: Attitude ( UK )
Diesel Film of the Festival - Right Place ( Japan )
Tiscali Short Film Award - Cricker Crack ( UK )
The Big Issue Short Film Award - The Ends ( UK )