In the first of a series of daily reports, our intrepid reporters Philip Bagnall (PB) and Amy O’Connor (AOC) report on the highs (and occassional lows) from London’s big screen at 58th BFI London Film Festival.
10,000KM (dir. Carlos Marques-Marcet) (Irish release date: TBC)
In 10,000KM, Alex and Sergi are a couple who have been together for seven years and are contemplating starting a family. The film opens with the pair engaging in some post-coital pillow talk about what their future child might look like. “I’d like it to have your mouth,” Alex tells Sergi. “I’d like it to get your tits,” he replies. “Not if it’s a boy. That’d be a problem.”
Their domestic bliss is interrupted when Alex, an unemployed photographer struggling for work in recessionary Spain, receives notification that she has received an offer for a year-long residency. The only problem? It’s in Los Angeles. Sergi, a music teacher, cannot accompany Alex, but encourages her to accept the position nonetheless. “We’re strong,” he assures her.
What ensues is a raw, heartrending examination of long-distance relationship. With 10,000 kilometres separating them, bedtime Skype conversations become a surrogate for physical intimacy as Alex attempts to find her feet in Los Angeles and Sergi acclimates to life without his partner. Soon, however, cracks begin to show and resentments quickly build as distance proves to be a greater obstacle in their relationship than either anticipated. It doens’t always ring true when films attempt to incorporate technology into their storytelling. In 10,000KM, however, there’s not a false note as director Carlos Marques-Marcet captures the pivotal and sometimes antagonistic role technology plays in modern relationships. Scheduled webcam conversations quickly begin to feel forced, while attempts at cybersex prove both awkward and unsatisfying. And yet, it’s all they have.
A controlled and confident film, 10,000KM owes a lot to its two main performers. As Alex, British actress Natalie Tena is a heartbreaker, as her character struggles with how to best marry her personal and professional life while facing accusations of selfishness. And as her paramour Sergi, David Merdaguer perfectly captures the pain of being the person left behind. It’s a testament to both performers that this two-hander is so engrossing throughout. Technically and formally speaking, the film is an exceedingly polished debut, which never deviates in tone. Taut, expert editing and clean photography contribute to the thoroughly contemporary feel of the piece. Music is featured only sporadically with “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” by The Magnetic Fields serving as a poignant musical flourish at two points.
A bittersweet, authentic portrait of a couple in flux, 10,000KM is a surprising gem in which the old adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is utterly disproved. AOC
Timbuktu (dir. Abderrehmane Sissako) (Irish release date: May 2015)
Timbuktu‘s prescience is scary. The film opens with a gazelle being hunted by Islamist militias in a van adorned in a black and white flag. As IS take over swathes of the Middle East and our headlines, Abderrehmane Sissako’s energetic and satirical drama arrives to consider the practicalities of living in such a scenario. When most of us would struggle to imagine such a thing happening, Timbuktu proves a valuable aid.
Based on the brief takeover of the titular Malian city by Ansar Dine forces in 2012 (though shot in Mauritania), Timbuktu efficiently and confidently encompasses the experiences of many characters attempting to cope with the strict regime bearing down on them. The central narrative thrust comes from Kidame (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his family, trying to live their lives in peace before being confronted with the full force of Sharia law. As is so often the case in life, the adults will make the mistakes and their children (in this case, Kidame’s daughter Toya, played by Layla Walet Mohamed) will be the ones to pay the price
Yet even the Islamists themselves appear unsure of their aims; watch as they struggle to remember their laws as they announce them to the locals. More leeway is given to some people as opposed to others. Their desired perfect religious state is clearly going to be a long work in progress. The film’s prescience wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year with this blend of fearlessness and humanity.
Timbuktu boasts a rich sense of humour, particularly early on. The resident enforcer and the local eccentric woman grab some giggles. Alas, like the encroaching desert, the harsh realities of life envelop proceedings. Timbuktu is grounded by a sense of futility; desperation looms like a sandstorm. Sissako’s foreshadowing is a touch obvious, but it doesn’t mute the effect of an all-but-inevitable denouement. Timbuktu proves a stark and necessary portrait of lives lived in the shadow of fear. PB
Rosewater (dir. Jon Stewart) (Irish release date: 2015 TBC)
For his directorial debut, The Daily Show funnyman Jon Stewart has adapted the memoir of Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist imprisoned and tortured for almost 120 days in Iran after an accusation of being a subversive and spy. There’s absolutely nothing subversive about Stewart’s treatment of the material, which (given his outspoken views and acknowledged media savvy) is a disappointment. For all its good intentions, Rosewater proves forgettably tame.
In a boggling piece of casting, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal stars as the Iranian-born Bahari. Bernal does fine in the role, but his casting is indicative of a certain lack of sensitivity in the film (as opposed to being willfully insensitive). It has a lightness of touch that belies the cruel story at its core. The material’s appeal to Stewart is clear; Bahari covered the 2009 Iranian elections, including filming rioting and military force in full show in the aftermath. This is a valuable ‘in’ to a compelling time and story, but the rough edges get too smoothed out. There is a sore lack of critical bite here. While Stewart attempts to show how Bahari’s ordeal was ended to an etent by the use of social media and public demand, the risk to Bahari feels regrettably distant.
The first half of Rosewater is primarily and unremarkably told in flashback, as Bahari arrives from London to chart what he and his educated contemporaries hope will be the ousting of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Alas, his activities lead to his arrest and a second-half of interrogation and ire. It’s in this latter half that Stewart’s inexperience begins to show, with momentum petering out and a few odd directorial choices seeping in. A particular use of a Leonard Cohen song is intended as joyful, but can’t help but ring false. There’s goodwill aplenty here, but Rosewater lacks the courage of its convictions, failing to grasp the rose fully for fear of thorns. PB
Waiting for August (dir. Teodora Mihai) (Irish release date: TBC, plays Cork International Film Festival on 12th November)
In the wake of the economic crisis, Italy and Spain became the favoured destinations for Romanian emigrants seeking employment. As of 2013, over one million Romanians were reportedly residing in Italy, with many leaving families behind in Romania as they seek better-paid employment.
In Waiting For August, we meet Georgiana Halmac, a fifteen-year-old who lives in social housing with her six siblings. Her mother Liliana has left Romania to work in Turin, leaving young Georgiana to serve as the head of the family, whilst simultaneously attending school and navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence. The only support she receives comes in the form brief phone calls and occasional grainy Skype conversations with her mother, as well as regular care packages from Italy containing treats such as Kinder Buenos, light-up trainers and balloons, much to the delight of the children.
As she cooks, cleans and generally keeps the machine ticking along, all the while studying for state exams that will determine what high school she attends, one is struck by Georgiana’s resilience and resourcefulness in the face of such responsibility and poverty. When she exclaims, “God, I am never having children,” at a particularly trying juncture while surrounded by her younger siblings, you believe her.
The film is shot in a documentary style and primarily takes place within the cramped confines of the family’s apartment. Directed by Teodora Mihai, whose own parents fled Communist Romania to seek asylum in Belgium, it’s a sensitively shot and fascinating glimpse into modern-day Romania, and never descends into sensationalism. Not once is the mother Liliana framed as a villain and the children, despite missing her, understand that her working abroad is a necessity and unfortunate by-product of the recession. The Halmacs, meanwhile, are a winning bunch with their sibling dynamics and familial rows imbuing the film with a degree of warmth and universality.
The film has already made waves, taking the title of Best International Feature at Hot Docs 2014 and getting a limited release Stateside. A low-key, charming depiction of life in recession-era Europe uniquely told from the perspective of children, it will make you eager to see what director Mihai does next.
Men, Women and Children (dir. Jason Reitman) (Irish release date: 28th November)
Reitman continues a losing streak begun by last year’s schmaltzy and tone-deaf Labor Day. After that film’s slushiness, the focus here is the Internet and social media; in particular, the Internet is EVIL! FACEBOOK WILL DESTROY US ALL! Hide your families! Oh, won’t someone please think of the children?! The film is a histronic, pompous shriek which does little beyond blemish the copybooks of all involved, plus Thompson and Carl Sagan. The film opens on the Voyager spacecraft sailing past Jupiter, with Thompson’s narrator explaining Sagan’s contribution to the Voyager expedition, and hints at the possibilities of deep probing themes. Then we land back on Earth with a horrid splat.
Centring on a group of Texan teenagers and their families, Men, Women & Children spends its overlong two hours wagging its finger at this cohort of unlikeables. Adam Sandler stars as one parent, but at least this film can’t put the blame on his shoulders (His dramatic work is pretty solid when you check back over it). The children here are barely characters, more like the worst of the Internet made flesh; one’s anorexic, another’s hooked on RPGs, another can’t stop watching pornography, etc., etc. The film isn’t subtle, which means it ends up feeling leery instead of probing,
Reitman, as both director and co-writer, appears oblivious to how out-of-touch and hollow his film is. Even the most concerned parents are given the chance to be terrible human beings (Jennifer Garner’s character may as well be called Bitchy McParanoid), while the younger cast’s (including Katylin Dever, Ansel Elgort and Elena Kampouris) emoting feels wanting when spouting Reitman’s self-serious dialogue. A manipulative gasbag of outdated, paranoiac ire.
OK, it can have an extra half-star for Rosemarie DeWitt and Judy Greer, but that’s it! Best avoided