By Tanja Meding | November 8, 2008
For the 46th outing, from 26 September to 12 October 2008, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival offered the crème de la crème of world cinema to New York audiences. It was a real treat and a great preview of the upcoming slated art-house films. “Reality meets Fiction” seemed to be the subtitle for a large number of this year’s festival’s films. The selected works were either based on true events, portraits of real people, or conceived and filmed with the goal to be as authentic as possible. Another subtitle, “Family Rules,” might best describe works focusing on family issues throughout different parts of the world. Many of them resonated long after their onscreen conclusions. The following are highlights that fit the above categories.
Reality Meets Fiction
The opening film, and this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, was Entre les murs (The Class) by French filmmaker Laurent Cantet. Based on François Bégaudeau’s non-fiction book of the same title, the film follows François, a high school teacher, over the course of one school year as he teaches a highly diverse class of Parisian inner city adolescents. Together with teacher turned book author Bégaudeau, filmmaker Cantet conducted workshops with Parisian high school students to work on the story. During the 2007 summer vacation Cantet shot the entire film primarily in one classroom. Working with first time actors, developing the story through many workshops, and shooting mainly with a handheld camera, The Class has a documentary feel which contributes to its freshness and authenticity.
Another filmmaker who regularly collaborates with his actors to develop the characters and story of his films is British filmmaker Mike Leigh. His latest feature Happy Go Lucky (UK) received the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale for its leading actress Sally Hawkins’s performance. In a long and very generous q&a session after the screening, Leigh explained how he works and how he approached Happy Go Lucky. Rather than knowing that he wanted to make a film about a specific subject matter like adoption in Secrets And Lies (UK, 1996) or abortion in Vera Drake (UK, 2004), Leigh started Happy Go Lucky with nothing more than the notion of wanting to make a film about a positive character – an optimist who believes all people are fundamentally good. Together with actress Sally Hawkins, the two worked 6 months on developing, researching, and rehearsing to create Sally’s character Poppy and her world. As the two continued working together, more characters were added and slowly the story emerged.
Even though the film started off with only an idea of a character, after an intense development process, every scene in the film was set, rehearsed and polished before it was filmed. The result is a charming portrait of a disarming young woman that seems to be taken directly from real life. Not many filmmakers collaborate that closely with their actors – and one can only imagine how gratifying this process is – to invent, shape, and breath life into a character that one has created.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (USA), for which he received the Golden Lion in Venice earlier this summer, features another rough-edged character from real life. Randy (The Ram) Robinson played by Mickey Rourke is a veteran wrestler trying to patch up his private life while hanging on to his fading career. Mickey Rourke is perfectly cast in this tragedy that demands space and time to be fully understood. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are equally convincing as Randy’s girlfriend and daughter, respectively.
As Aronofsky revealed in a conversation with festival selection committee chairman Richard Peña, only one financier was willing to back the film, as no one else wanted to take the risk on a film starring Mickey Rourke. Aronofsky further explained that even though Rourke does not like to rehearse, the two spend around 3 months re working the dialogue to fit the character. In addition, Rourke spend another 2 months training and learning about wrestling. Although trained as a boxer, Rourke explained during the press conference that the two sports can not be compared to each other. Boxing is about hiding your moves and knocking out your opponent as quickly as possible, whereas wrestling is about showing your moves and cooperating with your partner in the ring. To create as much reality as possible, Aronofsky filmed on location and used the wrestling community as extras and consultants as much as possible. The sensitive camerawork of DP Marsye Alberti, with numerous documentary films to her credit, also added to the film’s realistic feel.
Moving on from true-to-life-characters to real ones, Steven Soderbergh presented his epic 4-hour film Che (USA/France/Spain) – which also had premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Soderbergh’s Che picks up where Walter Salles left Che Guevara in Diarios de motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries) (Argentina, 2004). The first part of Che focuses on the Cuban Revolution – and shows Che’s transformation from medic to military revolutionary. Benicio del Toro delivers an impressive performance as Che Guevara who despite the incredible violence of the war, always remains a humanitarian. The second part of the film portraits Che’s deadly attempt to stage a revolution in Bolivia.
Shot on the brand new RED camera, Soderbergh uses specific colors to distinguish between the different locations and times. In the first film, a black and white documentary style is used for scenes depicting Che’s visits to New York, and the UN, as a TV interview. Green is the dominant color for scenes in the Cuban jungle during the revolution. Hues of greens are used again for the Bolivian jungle, which change to warm earthy tones once Che and his group enter Bolivian villages and towns. Soderbergh and his team researched Che’s life and world for years and worked closely with some of the men who fought next to him. Keeping the entire film in Spanish also adds realism.
Another portrait film is Steve McQueen’s Cannes Camera d’Or winner Hunger (Australia) – a haunting and disturbing film about IRA member Bobby Sands, who perished in 1982 after being on hunger strike for 66 days. McQueen is an award-winning, British visual artist with several video works under his belt. Like Julian Schnabel, McQueen has successfully transitioned into the film world – combining his strong visual images with a narrative vein. As uncompromising as his main character Bobby Sands (played by a devastating Michael Fassbender), McQueen tells the dark and difficult story of a man with a deadly commitment to his cause.
Also based on a true story is Clint Eastwood’s Cannes entry Changeling (USA), starring Angelina Jolie. In 1928, Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) 9-year-old son Walter disappears in LA. A few months later he is found and returned to her by the LA police – however, Christine knows that this boy is not her son. With the help of activist and preacher Reverent Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), the two pressure the LA police to continue searching for her son. Apart from portraying a strong female character, the film also explores Walter’s disappearance and chronicles the story of a pedophile mass murderer. Elements of a socio-political drama as well as a horror-crime-thriller all come together in Eastwood’s compassionate work. Though the concept of the film is not new , its message has contemporary relevance, pointing out how easily authorities bend their own rules to cover up shortcomings and mistakes.
Starting with his own experience and transforming this to a universal message, Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (Israel) revisits deeply buried war memories. In the opening scene, one of Ari’s friends recalls a recurring nightmare in which he is being chased by a pack of wolves. When Ari hears about this nightmare, he realizes that he cannot remember anything from the Lebanese war – and so he set out on a journey to recover his memory. While visiting friends and associates who served with him during the first Lebanese war, Ari slowly starts to remember his experiences. The film reminds us of the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder and how it continues to affect people long after the war is over.
Right from the start Folman knew that this film had to be animated so that he could seamlessly weave reality, dreams and fantasies together. It took him 5 years to complete Waltz With Bashir. As Folman shared with the audience after the screening, he did not want to make a film that focused on the politics that lead to the first Lebanese war. He simply wanted to make an anti-war film – a film that states how useless and destructive war is. As Folman noted, even though he has worked on this film for 5 years, the process is never over. Many people approach him after they have watched the film to talk about their memories of the war – memories they often have never shared with anyone.
Instead of focusing on how the individual deals with the effects of war between nations, Gomorrah (Italy) gruesomely depicts the daily life of war within a closed society. This year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, Gomorrah, Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s feature film is based on and inspired by Roberto Saviano’s book of the same title. After observing and living close to the Camorra for a number of years, Saviano wrote down his accounts and published them world-wide. The book’s success came with a price, as Saviano now needs constant police protection.
In Gomorrah Garrone tells five individual stories about different characters struggling to find their place within the Camorra – one of the most violent and affluent Italian clans with world-wide connections in all areas of business, whether drugs, fashion, or waste removal. Garrone’s characters span every generation and socio-economic class that are the fabric of the Camorra – each one fighting for survival within this tightly knit hierarchy. There is nothing redeeming or beautiful in the film. I recall only one tender moment when one of the characters, Pasquale, a tailor, touches the fabric of a dress he designed. At the end of this devastatingly bleak and brutal work, it is a relief to see that two characters actually manage to escape the vicious circle of violence.
French filmmaker Agnès Jaoui’s latest work, Parlez moi de la pluie (Let It Rain), talks about politics within society, in families and relationships and between friends. Co-written with Jean-Pierre Bacri, who also co-stars with Jaoui in the film, Let it Rain continues the pair’s writing-acting collaboration. Jaoui plays Agathe Villanova, a feminist writer turned politician visiting her family home town to spend some time with her sister and family but also to take part in a political rally. While visiting, she agrees to be interviewed by Karim (Jamel Debbouze), the son of her family’s Algerian housekeeper, and his journalist friend Michel (Bacri) for a documentary about successful women. Within this setting, Jaoui and Bacri (with both humor and sincerity) address timely issues such as feminism, immigration, the current state of male and female emancipation. Most importantly, the trio take the time to listen to one other to better understand each other’s points of view.
Another French movie focusing on a family, and how globalization slowly erases its roots, is Olivier Assayas’s L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours). Three siblings – Adrienne, Frédéric and Jérémie (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier), living in New York, Paris and Shanghai respectively – have to decide what to do with their family home and art collection after their mother’s passing. Rather than showcasing a dramatic fight over the inheritance, Assayas shows this family coming to a decision calmly and rationally. The siblings take each other’s current circumstances into account before agreeing to sell the house and art collection – two vital pillars of their family’s history. In one telling scene Frédéric (Berling) and his wife visit his mother’s work desk – now a piece of the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection. Just a short while ago, this table was a well-used piece of furniture in a home , and now it has been transformed into a piece of art no longer meant to be touched. The idea for Summer Hours materialized when the Musée d’Orsay approached Assayas and asked him to make a film utilizing the museum and its art collection. In the process Assayas was given unprecedented access to its art work and facilities.
Staying in France, Arnaud Desplechin’s Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) explores a strongly matriarchal family and how the husbands and sons arrange their lives around the women in them. Catherine Deneuve is Junon, mother of three adult children and grandmother of three, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Only a donor who is a perfect match can potentially enable her to survive. Junon’s only two potential donors are her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who has been banished from the family by his sister Elisabeth (Anne Consigny), and her psychologically fragile grandson Paul (Emil Berling), Elisabeth’s son. Upon Paul’s invitation, Henri shows up for the holidays. His arrival triggers the unveiling of some family secrets and spurs attempts at resolving them. For A Christmas Tale Desplechin has assembled a beautiful ensemble cast, who deliver just the right amount of emotion for this many layered tale, which makes every minute of this family drama gratifying to watch.
Moving on to Argentina and another film with a strong female lead, Lucrecia Martel’s latest work, La Mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman), is a quiet yet intense piece about Veronica (María Onetto) – a middle aged dentist struggling with guilt and grief after a hit-and-run accident. She never clearly acknowledges these feelings and simply continues with her daily life seemingly unaffected, yet the audience can sense her inner turmoil. Martel dissects the turbulent conflict of her main character with a subtleness that quietly brings them to the attention of the audience. The Headless Woman is Martel’s third feature film and completes her trilogy of films pertaining to Salta, a region in Argentina where she grew up.
From Kazakhstan comes Tulpan by Sergey Dvortsevoy about living on the steppe – and how this harsh landscape shapes and influences family life. Ex-soldier Asa returns home dreaming to become a shepherd with his own herd. However, unless he marries, this dream will be impossible to reach. In this region unmarried women are rare – and Tulpan, his only candidate rejects him.
Tulpan is a poetic work with gorgeous long shots of this singular landscape captured by Polish DP Jolanta Dylewska. Much of the film’s beauty and charm derive from its natural elements, such as the weather and animals. As Dvortsevoy explained, once Dylewska and he started shooting some of the breathtaking footage of natural events, together with the reactions of the different animals, the focus of original story shifted slightly to accommodate such beauty. Dvortsevoy’s previous documentary work gave him the security and patience to know that spending additional time during production phase would allow him to capture the right moments for his film. At the end of the press conference, Dvortsevoy thanked all of his producers for their patience and generosity in letting him make the film he envisioned in the time that he needed.
Looking at family as a microcosm of society, Tokyo sonata (Tokyo Story), by Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, tells the story of a seemingly content Tokyo middle class family. However, once the father loses his job, and is too ashamed to tell his wife, this family slowly but surely falls apart. Kurosawa shows the devastating effects of non-communication on the entire family – between husband and wife, as well as parents and children. However, even though the situation seems irreversible, at the every end Kurosawa redeems his characters, and we are left with a glimmer of hope – that this family may be able to save itself after all.
In addition to the film screenings of the main program as well as the sidebars, there were a number of talks and panels with guests of the festival. For the fourth year, HBO sponsored the popular HBO Film Dialogues, a series of in-depth discussions between a filmmaker of the festival and a member of the NYFF 2008 selection committee. This year’s filmmakers were the China’s Jai Zhangke, Hong Kong’s Won Kar-Wai, Brooklyn’s Darren Aronofsky, and France’s Arnaud Desplechin. Taking their recent work at the festival as merely a starting point, the conversations spanned their entire body of work. Topics and themes included how they got started, what inspires them, whom they work with, and how they approach their art. After these enlightening one-on-ones, the floor was opened to the audience for an extended q&a session. Lasting around 90 min, these dialogues offer the audience valuable insight into the creative process of these exceptional artists. The elegant Kaplan Penthouse atop the Film Society’s offices provided a location that offers the right mix of casualness and concentration.
Overall, this year’s New York Film Festival was a visual feast filled with A-list festival highlights.
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