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Panorama Europe 2016 Film Festival Week 2: Eastern Europe Via NYC

Home Care

(See the first week of coverage HERE)

The second weekend of the 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival featured recent festival hits from corners of Eastern Europe not usually seen on screen in New York City, with two directors adding background insight.  From the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), in Astoria, Queens, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall, six features over May 13 - 15, traveled with immersive realism for their New York premieres through Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Kosovo, and back in time to West Germany and from Belgium to Russia,.  Native speakers particularly enjoyed seeing their homelands on screen, and helped guide reactions for those in the keen audiences dependent on the English subtitles.


  • Home Care (Domácí péce)

At MoMI, director Slávesk Horák charmingly described the writing and production process of his mature first feature, after 20 years filming inanimate objects and models for commercials.  In a process drawn from life much like how Edward Burns’s debuted The Brothers McMullen in 1995, Horák not only returned to film in his native town in Moravia, in northeast Czech Republic, but to the house he grew up in, using what are still his parents’ garden, workshop and vineyard – and he co-stars, too.  Unlike so many first-timers whose autobiographical scripts are nostalgic coming of age/youthful initiation stories, this son actually listened to his mother and her entertaining stories from her career as a visiting nurse.  Then he re-created her as his central character.  

Vlasta (Alena Mihulová, in this role that revived her long career, when her Best Actress Award at Karlovy Vary Festival first brought this film attention) does not let rain nor car trouble, late buses, endangered frogs, nor barking dogs and locked doors stay her from her appointment rounds with colorful patients.  Whether her eccentric regulars are diabetic, senile, obese, or immobile, she literally goes the extra mile or hour to cheerfully help them and their families.  When she gets home, her second shift starts for her old-fashioned husband Láda (Boleslav Polívka, a long time comic star in Czech films, including the international 2000 success Divided We Fall, but here he’s telling Horák’s dad’s jokes and wearing his dad’s clothes).  Deep in his man-cave, he has no idea how, or inclination, to do domestic chores.  Vlasta keeps up the same protectiveness long distance with her daughter in Prague, and pretty much overwhelms her on a rare visit home with her new fiancé (Horák himself).

Vlasta is shook out of her rut, and the film out of just the quaint small town genre, when an accident leads to a health crisis, and she starts exploring changes to her lifestyle.  As encouraged by a patient’s daughter Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), her awkward dance class leads down the road to the alternative medicine of imperious self-help guru Miriam (Zuzana Kronerova).  Amidst adoring acolytes, Vlasta hopefully tries every instruction.  Veering from humorous to wacky to peaceful, through meditation, positive thoughts, bright colors, and slaps, her search for physical and spiritual healing includes slapstick in a grave and lust over broken slivovitz (plum brandy) bottles.  The Czech Republic’s submission to the Academy Awards, Home Care ends with a wedding, but the people stick with you.


  • The Wednesday Child (A szerdai gyerek)

Hungarian writer/director Lili Horváth slyly toys with Eastern European cinematic conventions from the past by opening with a policeman questioning sullen teenage Maja, and then a bureaucrat asking intrusive questions to fill out forms.  But in further developing the life choices of the girl since Horváth’s 2009 short film Sun Stroke, there have been some changes in the bleak outskirts of Budapest.  By the time the film circles back to that opening interrogation, her answers seem more complex.  Poverty is entrenched, but there may be some hope.

Maja is now played by newcomer Kinga Vecsei as realistically as if this is a documentary about her own life.  Her impatience (and theft) while cleaning up a community center in a public housing development has a purpose.  She’s not just being cynically rude or criminal – she’s on deadline to catch a train by visiting hours so she can spend her 19th birthday with her four-year-old son Kristian at his orphanage.  The tough administrator, seeing how he has become mute with her and more responsive to staffers than her, suggests she apply for custody.  

Can this Wednesday’s Child full of woe get to be a mother?  Back at her bare home, she cheers herself up playing a musical birthday card signed “Mother”.  In the morning, while she’s asking the local kids (who all seem to have developmental disabilities) if they’ve seen her baby daddy Krisz, her neighbor suggests she can get money from the community center.

The new project there is why the middle-aged social worker János (Szabolcs Thuróczy) was interviewing potential participants.  Under strict qualification rules, he is initiating an experiment in entrepreneurship through a micro-loan cooperative.  Dealing with his own reclamation, he sees potential in Maja, and though she presumes that can only involve sex (which does get messy), she glimpses a different future – if she could set up a laundry service.  Surprisingly, she reveals experience running the laundry at the same orphanage where her son is now.  Taking on this responsibility makes her positively grow and glow.  


But this past hangs over her in the large, violent person of Krisz (charismatic Zsolt Antal) as she goes through the application process and endeavors to follow the requirements.  More than just a stereotyped abuser, Krisz is still trapped in the aggression and corruption that protected Maja since their shared time in the orphanage.  (And tempts her back to buy Kristian’s birthday presents.)  Shades of a political allegory, suspense builds if the volatile Krisz can adapt, or if Maja can be strong enough to stick to the progressive community direction inspired by János and her son.  I’m surprised many of the international festivals, including where the film won awards, describe this as a portrait of a couple.  Horváth, in her debut feature, brilliantly keeps Maja as her fulcrum, and Vecsei’s performance rises to the heart breaking challenge.


  • The Spirits Diary (Rakijaški dnevnik

Hipster artisanal brewers have nothing on Eric Maria Strom who blends spirits that are both potent liquids and soulful time travel.  In director Damir Čučić’s 40th film, his third of feature-length, he used ten different filming techniques to recreate the atmosphere of Strom’s villa in northern Croatia where the so-called “alchemist” brewed and recorded all the sounds around him.

Through Strom’s audio diary narration, dated on screen in the 2000’s, the barely glimpsed sound engineer (portrayed/reenacted by Mario Haber with a gray-haired ponytail) retells family lore.  Franciscan friars visited his grandfather and taught him how to make brandy, and for the next forty years, the family faithfully followed their process to distill fruit liqueur in the basement (notoriously illegal).  The camera follows as he carefully goes through the procedures and operates the antique alcohol distiller.  Silhouetted against the window views of the changing seasons, he talks serial harvests of different crops, and which berries he prefers at what temperatures.  

Classical music fills the room when he’s alone, and he switches to jazzy tunes when the doorbell rings, bringing in convivial company to sample his brandies.  Other sounds that go on in his house are what he calls the “choir” of alcohol fermentation.  But as the steam fills the room, and the bubbles of fermentation fill the screen, the smells and tastes seem to bring on the past in Proustian flashes.  A dazzling selection of images is quickly projected on surfaces as layers of old photographs and home movies, sometimes prompting identifications and memories, but mostly as a ghostly mise en scène of the generations of people who have lived in that house before.

While this creative, experimental “documentary” brought to Panorama Europe a touch of MoMI’s annual First Look Festival partnership with FIDMarseille (Festival du Internationale Documentaire), where this film was shown, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is all an elaborate fiction.  It is curious that the only information on the internet about this character is from the film’s own publicity– not a single obituary appeared after what is said to be his tragic death in Summer 2014.  Whether hoax or fact about the alternative identity of the director’s long time collaborator, this is a uniquely-aged blend of audio and visual through time.


  • Babai

Kosovo's Ambassador to the U.S. Vlora Çitaku gave a rousing patriotic welcome to this second film from his country to participate in Panorama Europe, the country’s biggest production, award winner at Karlovy Vary and other international festivals, and its entry to the Academy Awards.  He prevailed upon Kosovo-born director Visar Morina to tape an introduction to this New York premiere of his first feature from his home in Germany, where he went to film school and is working on his next script, that he hopes will take less than the eight years for Babai (Father).  Morina wanted the audience to know the film is set in “a very special place” of the early 1990’s, before war with Serbia erupted at the end of the decade.  But certainly the non-Kosovars in the audience were drawn into the tensely involving story as seeming very current about economic difficulties pushing families into risky migration to Germany, as Morina’s family did more easily when he was 15.  

Filmed all through from the perspective of ten-year-old Nori (Val Maloku), alternating with tight close-ups on him, the wider economic and social issues all come down to him staying with his father Gezim (Astrit Kabashi), since his mother left.  They are eking out some income by selling cigarettes (what Americans would call “loosies”).  But the money has to go to the traditionally domineering uncle in exchange for squeezing them in with his own family, who have been scraping together money for his reluctant son’s arranged marriage (Kosovars in the audience chuckled at the verisimilitude of repetitive social rituals performed regardless of personal tensions).

Gezim wants to use the wedding distraction as cover for his get-away to accompany a friend to Germany.  Nori is desperate to not be separated and will do anything to follow him – throwing himself in front of a bus, theft, and blackmail are just his audacious local tricks to set off on a very challenging odyssey.  His negotiating acumen (let alone his penchant for vengeance) is cleverly awesome with Gezim’s friend’s blonde sexy wife Valentina (Adriana Matoshi) to convince her to pose as his mother to smugglers.  Their mutual need creates an uneasy alliance through different transports and a confusingly frightening maritime flight.  

Unlike any heartwarming Hollywood movie where characters miraculously transform, the calculating Valentina dumps the boy as soon as she’s reunited with her equally conniving partner, who repeats the ritualized expressions of welcome but rejects ethnic loyalty.  Nori’s dreams of a fond reunion are foiled by Gezim’s desperation to hang onto his place in a crowded, tightly regulated refugee hostel.  Cinematographer Matteo Cocco’s hand-held camera (in a very different style from the previous week’s Anna) picks up the contrast of casual normal play of citizens’ fathers and sons in the background to add poignancy.  

Even in a strange country Nori has more wits than his father, who is nearing emotional defeat and is ready to drown his sorrows in booze.  In an astounding role reversal for a father and son made terrifically credible by young Maloku’s towering debut performance, Nori is sure he has the strength to carry them both-- as long as they stay together.  Big-time producers noticed Maloku, too – he just finished doing Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife with Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, which Focus will release at the end of this year.  


Two films in the festival looked further back to the bad old days in the 20th Century of European disunity.


  • Cafard

Belgian director Jan Bultheel has been successfully using animation in commercials and children’s television series for 20 years and was looking for an artistic challenge to be his first feature, in both technology and a complex story for grown-ups.  With the latest in motion capture (mo-cap) developed for video games, he could keep the focus on the voices of expressive international actors who re-animate “The Forgotten of the Great War”, certainly forgotten to those outside Belgium.  The Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses (ACM) was the first, elite armored car division established by King Albert in 1914, who sent its 400 soldiers from the muddy trenches of the Western Front, across the Bering Sea to the Czar’s service on the Eastern Front, through the Russian Revolution (earning them the titular sobriquet for cockroach, an idiom for feeling depressed), across the continent to China, Japan, on to the U.S. for propaganda parades, and back to Belgium in time for the armistice, the flu epidemic of 1918, and facing a traumatized Europe.  

While archival photographs during the final credits show Bultheel’s historical inspirations, he drew out the most distinctive characters with fictional depth, romance, political commentary, and humor in writing the script, designing the line-drawn graphic style, directing the voice actors, editing and staging the scenes, guiding the animation team, and texturing all the models and sets.

Central is the powerful figure of Jean Mordant (voiced by Wim Willaert, based on the real Constant Le Marin) who is crowned World Wrestling Champion in Buenos Aires in 1914, only to learn of the German invasion and soldiers’ gang rape of his beloved teen daughter Mimi back home in Flanders.  Hell bent for vengeance, spurred on even more when he learns she’s pregnant, he sails home and enlists his erudite coach Victor (Sebastien Dewaele), his young radicalized nephew Guido (voiced by Maarten Thomas Ketels, based on the real Communist Julien Lahaut), and a stranded compatriot Edouard Coppenolle (Benoît Gob).

Like a character in a James Hilton period adventure, Jean narrates his experiences in letters to his daughter that he crumples in frustration (For the audience, the animated maps help too).  The grueling stalemate in France is familiar and quickly dispatched for an eyewitness look at Russian battles and Bolshevik violence that is thrilling and full of horrifying revenge, while the ebullient Guido is excited by workers’ solidarity (and discovering brothels).  When the Russian nurse Jelena Dimitrieva Doctorow (Dinara Drukarova) first patches them up (when possible), translates, then joins them in fleeing the chaos on a bartered train across the continent, romance blooms (Warning: brief frontal cartoon nudity).  Amidst the colorful exotica of Chinese rickshaws, Mongolian yerts, and the panoply of stars over the Pacific, thoughtful political discussions continue.  Jelena is rejuvenated by American optimism and opportunity for immigrants, where even in Spring 1918 the war is still all about flag-waving.  Jean, however, gets more and more cynical and can only hope his return home to his family can reconcile all he, his generation, and Europe as a whole have been through.  At this time history, that’s a happy ending.


  • The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer

Lars Kraume's film is the third fictionalized version in three years of how a heroic German prosecutor fought the East and West German judicial bureaucracies full to get Nazi war criminals into court in the 1960’s – especially in daring to go around them to facilitate Israel’s capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, and then, in Frankfurt, to try those who ran the Auschwitz extermination camp.  This version just won more German Film (Lola) Awards (six) than Giulio Ricciarell’s nominated Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth Des Schweigens) did last year.  The New York premiere at MoMI previewed the Cohen Media Group release in the U.S. beginning August 19, for formal review.

The earlier internationally distributed film quite oddly and inaccurately reduced Fritz Bauer’s role in these legal adventures to a distant office in order to focus instead on a fictional young attorney’s consciousness-raising about German culpability in crimes against humanity and the following twenty-year silence since the AlliesNuremberg Trials.  Though Kraume's film mostly follows the charismatic and fervent believer in the dignity of man, it, too, gets sidelined by another young fictional attorney’s consciousness-raising.  Here it’s his sexual orientation (and the gay underground) in order to stress that Nazi laws were still on the books and were being adjudicated by former Nazis, particularly “Paragraph 175” that criminalized homosexual acts -- which stayed in the German legal code until 1994.  The link to Bauer is his homosexuality (and the degree to which a police report of a bathroom incident is accepted as evidence), as if being a Jewish, Socialist, ex-political prisoner returned from exile abroad wasn’t enough to have him out of sync with those who never really left power (Countries like the U.S. and England had and enforced equally homophobic laws at this time as well).

Stephan Wagner’s The General (Die Akte General) --as in Attorney General-- broadcast on German public television this past February, included Bauer’s homosexuality in passing, but emphasized the wider political restrictions that limited his prosecutions in Germany, particularly the ex-Nazis in high government positions.  This third version was shown in New York at the Goethe-Institut’s accompanying, and very usefully insightful, series “Enemy Territory – Fritz Bauer and Postwar Germany”, inspired by Bauer’s famous quote “When I leave my office, I'm entering enemy territory”.  The series also featured other films that included Bauer himself on screen, among the few German films that touched on the self-examination he insisted on for German society: Murderers Among Us (Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns), directed by Wolfgang Staudte (1946); Yesterday Girl (Abschied Von Gestern – Anita G.), by “New Wave” director Alexander Kluge (1966) in a youthful perspective; and the documentary Fritz Bauer - Death By Installments (Tod Auf Raten), directed by Ilona Ziok (2010), comprised of extensive interviews with his friends and colleagues (including Thomas Harlan, the Nazi-hunting son of the director of the most notorious anti-Semitic Nazi film).  Compared to the other films, the documentary also included the longest excerpts from a famous 1964 TV program where Bauer was questioned by young Germans about their democratic future, and became an inspiration for the 1968 protests against the old establishment that he just lived long enough to see, before dying under mysterious circumstances.  It took almost until the next century for the state and federal governments to recognize and honor Bauer’s unique leadership by funding an academic institute in Frankfurt that studies and educates on the history and impact of the Holocaust and other National Socialist mass crimes.  So many of the films in the festival this year have shown the importance of not taking democracy for granted!  


Next – overview of the third weekend of Panorama Europe 2016.

To learn more, go to:

Panorama Europe 2016 Film Festival Week 1

Spartacus & Cassandra

The 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival played at my New York City home borough of Queens, at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), in Astoria, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall.  From May 6 through May 22, the slate was an impressive nineteen feature films, fiction and documentaries, including nine New York premieres and many filmmakers attending the screenings.  

That’s 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Malta (its first film in international distribution!), The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.  While there are people in Queens who speak the native languages of each of these countries, as noted by the EU’s Deputy U.S. Delegate to the United Nations in his Opening Night remarks, films are shown with English subtitles.  But there were many enthusiastic people in the audiences who didn’t need the subtitles.

Reflecting a broad range of European concerns past and present: there was historical epics, even in animation, to the plight of Romani (Gypsy) children, the ongoing crisis of refugees and migrants, and several focusing on women under extreme personal stress, caught in many different kinds of love from mothers to obsession to lesbian discovery, to hip hop.  Comedy, mystery, drama – and even a horror flick.

Program Highlights:

Anna (Per amor vostro)
Star Valeria Golino introduced the film and participated in Q & A with MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz.  After the film, the audience, including delegates from the 19 countries, enjoyed Chef Turi's pastries and treats, courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute.

Golino’s star power helped Gaudino just b-a-r-e-l-y cobble together the funding for his first fiction feature in over a decade.  The vivacious actress laughed how the "chaos" of the production was creative as well as financial, as cast and crew collaborated to unfold the story simultaneously on three levels within the head of her central character.  Wife (of a brutish lout), mother (of three teens including a deaf boy), newly promoted (and constantly sexually harassed) cue card girl on a TV show, “Anna” doesn’t just express the passionate dialogue through quick shifts into three languages -- Italian, Neapolitan dialect, and signing (presumably Italian Sign Language).  Channeling Fellini’s muse Giulietta Masina, her wide eyes sees three levels of reality in dizzying imagery (and won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival).

Anna is everywhere surrounded by the clamor of suffering from financial crises - lay-offs, evictions, her kids asking for money, and her husband’s usury, in the aftermath from banks leaving the city to even more nefarious lenders.  All around Naples, from the sea to the volcano, her quotidian world is in black-and-white.  Her psychological fears are in deep colors blown by loud threatening storms, and the winds of lust push her towards the seductive soap opera roué with a serious gambling problem.  Spiritual symbols ricochet her from demons that turn her commuter bus into a water-logged circle of Dante’s Hell, to folkloric Catholic rituals that lift her up as portraits of saints, sardonically rewarding her for her penitence and her bravery for finally breaking free of limbo.  

All this stunning action is narrated in song by Epsilon Indi’s updated take on a traditional Neapolitan folk opera style.  The soundtrack is downloadable on Amazon, a hummable souvenir of a rousing cinematic experience.  Cinematographer Matteo Cocco also photographed the pan-European travels of Babai in the festival.  

Spartacus & Cassandra - presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy
What is it like to grow up Roma (aka Gypsy) today when their insular communities in Europe not only face entrenched discrimination, but their traditional traveling ways are now caught in the backlash against migrants?  And what will be their future?

Ioanis Nuguet’s strikingly intimate debut feature grew out of an idea to document Roma camps after French President Sarkozy delivered an anti-immigration speech in summer 2010 announcing they were about to be dismantled.  But Nuguet got so immersed in their culture, while recording positive traditions like weddings and christenings, over several years he learned their language and moved in to his own trailer in the camp.  He befriended two young siblings who suggested he film their lives, even though they had never seen a movie.  

Spartacus Ursu, at 13, and his ten year old sister Cassandra Dumitru participated in every aspect of the almost year and half filming.  They enthusiastically followed suggestions to keep dream journals so their fantasies could be cinematically recreated in Super 8, grabbed Nuguet to come over when they were in the midst of confronting their non-French speaking alcoholic father and mentally distressed mother, and recorded the useful voice-overs during a year of editing.  Composer Aurélie Ménétrieux’s evocative score re-mixes loops of actual sounds Nuguet recorded on the film.

The brother’s sparse introduction sets the tone with intense close-ups:
“When I was one year old, I was already walking. At two, I was eating dirt. At three, my father was in prison. At four, I begged with my sister. At seven, I came to France. At eight I was stealing car radios.”  

What changes their trajectory from stereotyped failure is the mysterious angel he met at age nine – Camille, a young independent circus artist whose performance and organizational skills attract children to her small Big Top in the middle of their compound and gives them a creative outlet to channel the stories of their lives.  But when police scarily surround the caravans and the children are threatened with a foster home by a judge, she finds herself, at only 20, agreeing to take them in when their parents can’t acculturate to French strictures and angrily take off.  

Cassandra blossoms with school and structure, but will she be able to resist the importuning of her weeping mother who insists she needs her daughter to sell dawn-picked flowers in the streets and to shield her from her violently abusive husband?  Spartacus has great difficulty adjusting to school and his settled classmates, and the suspense builds if he can settle down.  Just when the school, the police, the judge, and the parents all pile on with demands, the amazing Camille, even when financially strapped, packs them both off to a country idyll of swimming, climbing trees, and fixing up a derelict farmhouse into circus artists’ haven.  A very French fresh air camp!

Left unsaid onscreen is that as the sole camera and microphone moved back for wider views of their changing context is what Nuguet has said in interviews  -- that he moved in with them.  He has taken them along as the documentary has played on the festival circuit, starting by swimming in the Mediterranean when the film debuted at Cannes.  Nuguet calls it their version of therapy; the audience witnesses profound empathy.

History’s Future - presented by the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York
For almost 20 years, Dutch artist Fiona Tan has exhibited film and video installations in art museums and exhibition settings.  Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), her debut feature opens in a theater, but at “The End” of a film with the audience leaving.  Then it rewinds to see how Europe got to what she called "rolling catastrophes" since 2008.  Like a rueful take on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the ravages of war and capitalism are seen from the perspective of a victim/guide.

On a dark street, a man (the linguistically adept Mark O’Halloran) is so viciously attacked, a la the dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange, such that when he awakes in a hospital in The Netherlands, he has amnesia.  A woman identifying herself as his wife fetches him and brings him home to their comfortable middle class house.  But when he ventures out, the sameness of suburbia confuses him, so he ends up attaching himself to another family.  “Where am I?” turns into acceptance: “Does it matter?”  

Going past “Have You Seen This Man?” posters, this “Missing Person” (MP) wanders, with slightly different neatness of appearance that changes how people perceive him in different places.  He goes ever farther, through railroad stations and airports, taking advantage of those drivers at arrivals terminals holding up businessmen’s names for pick-up.  Humorously, wherever he goes people seem to recognize him or “MP” is able to keep his conversations (in many languages) sufficiently vague and encouraging so that people think they’ve met before, a commentary on urban anomie and loneliness.  

Tan shot film as she was location scouting, as well as using archival clips, of abandoned buildings, stalled construction projects, homeless migrants, blowing trash, and protesters battling riot police in the streets: Barcelona, Detroit, Dublin, Leipzig, London, Newcastle, Paris, as well as scenes from Greece and Japan around the Fukushima plant.  She joked at  MoMI that she lost count of the number of countries she traveled through; the languages in interchanges with “MP” are at least Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish, in bars, gardens, and a shopping mall.

Precisely written in elliptical dialogue, the script was shaped with help of British film critic Jonathan Romney, each encounter is a gem of a short film enlivened by a notable international cast.  Besides “MP”s facility at picking up lonely women wherever he goes, the philosophical highlight is Denis Lavant as a blind French lottery ticket seller like a modern Diogenes.  In Dublin, the taxi driver is Brian Gleeson, as redheaded and talented as his father Brendan and brother Domhnall.  Not having worked with actors before other than for voice-overs, she said her biggest surprise was how helpful the actors were, especially in their willingness to try retakes in different way.

Surrounded by a metallic score emphasizing technological change, written and performed by Ray Harman, Leo Anemaet, and Michiel Weidner, a cacophony of visual images goes by: “MP” filling a storage unit with souvenirs; “Children in Spheres on Water” who reminded me of the climate change protests of The Yes Men Are Revolting; and Native American imitators (identified in the credits as “Hobby Indians”) teaching children the old ways.  Frequent masterworks of art hark back to Europe’s past heights of civilization.  Besides close-ups of the obvious allegories of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, she returns repeatedly to “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” by Théodore Géricault, which was commissioned for the first mental hospital in Paris, until the amnesiac becomes him.  Earlier this year, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s beautiful The Great Wall, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight, dealt with similar pan-European themes through architecture.  Fiona Tan, for all the high-concept structure and intellectual imagery, keeps her focus on the individual.

Lampedusa in Winter - presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum New York
Austrian director Jakob Brossmann first went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, about 127 miles south of Sicily and about 81 miles east of central Tunisia, when he was an art student in Vienna thinking of making a short film about the refugee experience in general, inspired by his own family's flight from the Holocaust, as explained at MoMI by just-as-young Co-Director of Photography Serafin Spitzer.  Then he saw how the media flock there in the summer, like the tourists, and just briefly report on the huddled masses from Middle Eastern wars and African turmoil who survive the storms or the wretched refuse who don’t.  He met charismatic environmental activist Giusi Nicolini, and when she became mayor, he determined to return with a small crew in the off-season.  Arriving just as the inhabitants’ lifeline to the outside, a commercial ferry, burned down in front of them, their sharing in the mounting tribulations this caused helped win the locals’ trust over four months there for revealing cinema verité.

Coming off a long Coast Guard tour with young sailors tensely following reports of stranded boats (and relieved to not face another unfortunate rescue), he finds onshore people who are also dedicated to helping.  Volunteer human rights lawyer Paola tears off the cemetery plaques put up by the previous mayor for “the Africans of black color” buried there to put up more considerate ones, and sympathetically advises the last group of hunger striking Eritreans protesting on the church steps that disfiguring their fingertips just delays their transfer off the island.  Two gloved and masked scavengers picking through the detritus of lives in abandoned wrecks turn out to be curators of a museum of maritime tragedies so careful to be respectful that they seek out those who can translate letters and diaries.

But daily life struggles on without international attention or assistance.  The local news and weather is reported by an upbeat D.J., and the very Friday Night Lights-like junior soccer team coach works hard to instill striving, cooperation, and good sportsmanship in his players, even when they face dominant opponents – a symbol of what the islanders go through in dealing with the Italian government bureaucracy, let alone the decisions of the European Union about refugee policies.  

As the last of the summer refugee stragglers are taken away by airplane, pent-up tensions erupt over the ferry disruption.  When the unresponsive private ferry company first lags in getting a replacement boat, then finally comes up with a small, rickety alternative, the fisherman lead a strike.  Already incensed because an essential public transit function has been left to private incompetence, the rugged, long-time fishermen can’t get all their catch out to Sicily, just when their catch has already been limited by national and international government regulations.  All the striations and personalities in the community play out before the camera, and the difficulties of community organizing.  Negotiating with all sides, the mayor is a stirring example of responsive leadership within a crisis.

While winning awards at many European film festivals since premiering at Locarno, Brossmann was most proud to screen it in April for the European Parliament, after a heated panel discussion on the need for safe, legal migrant routes.  When he comes to New York City to re-screen the film later this year, he hopes it will continue to raise consciousness about the issue, even as antipathy to migrants has risen in his home country.

Simshar - presented by the Arts Council Malta New York
Rebecca Cremona incorporates Lampedusa while making a big splash in deftly crossing two real, dramatic tragedies in the Mediterranean: a Turkish vessel that was stranded by international indecision when the captain chose to rescue a boat load of Eritrean migrants, and a Maltese fishing family capsized from the titular boat in a storm waiting desperately for assistance.  With an accessible touch of suspense and heart, she humanizes migrants while poignantly illustrating the ongoing impact on area fishermen and ships.  

At MoMI, she told of learning how to best combine artistic vision, social significance, and audience appeal from masters filming in Malta – working as an assistant on Munich, interfacing between director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, so she felt prepared to take on a politically and physically challenging production on land and sea.  The Maltese native tells the first authentic Malta story on film, primarily in Maltese, featuring Maltese professional actors within an international cast, local people portraying their real activities, and crew who up to this had been secondary on big Hollywood movies where their island masqueraded as many other actual and fictional locales through history (at least they left the largest water tank in the world she used to thrilling effect). 

Though the story of the fisherman was a well-known cause célèbre, she was able to spend a considerable time interviewing him to elicit a unique perspective in developing a broader script.  Set within an intimate and colorful portrait of Maltese families, financial struggles, religious festivities, and mutual solidarity, Simon (played by Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli) brings along his father and ten year old son (yes, Adrian Farrugia as young Theo pulls on heart strings) to risk finding a catch beyond the usual limits, helped by a hard-working Muslim immigrant from Mali (French actor Sékouba Doucouré).  The plight of the merchant vessel is linked through Maltese officials who have to go on board, beleaguered military liaison John (popular local comedian Chrysander Agius) and his best friend a doctor Alex (Mark Mifsud), whose reluctance and impatience are softened by a passenger translator (French actress Laura Kpegli).  Nature, from the sun beating down on the exhausted migrants to the stormy waves rocking the desperate fishermen, ratchets up the tensions and anxieties, as humans struggle to cope – who will survive?

After playing in Malta for three months, and entered as Malta’s first submission to the Academy Awards, Simshar traveled to film festivals around the world, and is now available on many VOD platforms.  But a small screen may diminish the view of this beautiful film by a new director who seems ready to succeed Spielberg.

Next – overview of the second weekend of Panorama Europe 2016.

All the Winners: The Prizes at Cannes 2016


A team of international stars, and a prominent Iranian producer, made the tough decision as to who got what in this year’s competition. Filmmaker George Miller served as president of the jury and he was joined by French director Arnaud Desplechin and Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes.

There were many actors on the jury: Kirsten Dunst from the U.S.; Italian actress, director, writer Valeria Golino; Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen; French actress Vanessa Paradis; and Donald Sutherland from Canada. Joining the crowd was illustrious Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi.

From the smallest to Biggest: Well, not really small, just short. The Palme for best short film went to “Timecode directed by Juanjo Gimenez, with a special mention to Joao Paulo Miranda Maria for “The Girl Who Danced With the Devil.”

The Camera d’or for best first feature film, was awarded to Divines,” directed by Houda Benyamina. First films from any section of the festival (not only the official competition) are eligible for this award. “Divine” was shown in the Directors’ Fortnight/Quinzaine des Realisateurs.

Best Performance by an Actor went to Shahab Hosseini, in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman. Farhadi also won the screenplay award for his very particular take on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

The female acting award was taken home by Jaclyn Jose for her perfomance in “Ma Rosa,” the latest film by Filipino cinema powerhouse Brilliante Mendoza, who seems to make at least one film a year.

ma rosa
Andrea Arnold took home the Jury Prize for “American Honey.” This was her third Jury Prize for her third film in the Cannes competition. Nice to get an award, but here’s hoping Andrea can claw her way up the palme food chain next time.

There was a tie for best director. The award was shared by Cristian Mungiu for “Graduation,” and Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper. The Romanian director Mungiu made his third trip to the stage. He won the Palme d’or for his drama “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” in 2007 and won the screenwriting prize for “Beyond the Hills” in 2002. Assayas, on the other hand, snagged his first award after having shown five films in the competition.

end of the worldThe Grand Prix went to Xavier Dolan for “It’s Only the End of the World. Dolan won the Jury Prize a few years ago (sharing it with Jean-Luc Godard). Notice that his prizes get closer and closer to the top prize; Arnold is kept in a holding pattern. But Dolan is certainly working his way up to the Palme d’or. Speaking of which, Ken Loach won his second Palme d’or for “I, Daniel Blake.

The documentary award, cutely titled the “L’Oeil d’or,” was given to the Brazilian film “Cinema Novo” by Eryk Rocha. Honrable mention went to Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya for “The Cinema Travelers” from India.

President of the documentary jury was Gianfranco Rosi (“Sacre Gra,” “Fire at Sea”). He was joined in deliberations by filmmakers Anne Aghion and Thierry Garrel, actress Natacha Regnier and Brazilian critic Amir Labaki.

cinema novo
This was just the second year for the documentary prize. And it hasn’t reached the big time yet; the award is given out in a separate ceremony the day before the competitions winners are announced. Perhaps one day we’ll see documentaries awarded on the same stage as the competition.

Still Voices Run Deep: Thoughtful Performances at Cannes 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Some film performances attract attention for being over the top. The lead performance of the father in Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” comes to mind. It’s a good performance, and you can’t help but notice it. However, sometimes actors are so quietly invested in their characters that the performances are extremely subtle and thus very moving and thoughtful.

Dave Johns in “I, Daniel Blake gives the kind of low key, modulated performances that rarely get noticed in the likes of Hollywoodland. Johns is a stand-up comedian who has appeared on British television, but director Ken Loach’s treatise on the bad treatment of the indigent by public services is his first feature film role. And, I would bet, his first dramatic role.

Johns plays the title character, one Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who is unable to work after a heart attack. He is caught between the classic rock and hard place: the medical establishment won’t give him an OK to work until he has recuperated, but in the meantime, social services won’t give him benefits until he’s tried to find work. And that’s putting it mildly.

Loach shows the bureaucratic establishment to be one stop short of a horror movie; there are so many catch 22’s that your head could spin. But the really devastating thing is when you realize that’s just a day at the office; these people don’t realize they are destroying people’s lives – they thing they’re helping.

As Daniel, Johns maintains an absolute calm and dignity about him, even as he tries to reason with people to help him as well as a destitute young mother. He is a guiding hand, but has nowhere to guide people (or himself) to.  Yet he is a rock for others. He is kind. Even when you can sense the anger rising, he is an upright gentlemen. A gem of a performance. May Johns see more dramatic roles in his future.

Paterson,” directed by Jim Jarmusch, showed me an Adam Driver I hadn’t seen before. Or maybe I had seen before, but didn’t care until the character of Paterson came my way. (To be clear, Paterson is the main character of the film, as well as the New Jersey city in which Paterson works. A typical Jarmuschian move.)

Driver’s Paterson is a bus driver (another Jarmusch tease?) who spends his off time writing poetry. He really has a poet’s mind, because not all is written. Paterson sees poetry in much of his mundane existence, so all is well. His is a reserved character, who sees poetry in everything, even the humdrum driving of a bus. But he takes in a wealth of ideas, information and, yes, poetry, from those he encounters on his daily run.

Paterson lives with a stay at home partner (played by Golshifteh Farahani) who lives in her own dream world. She bakes cupcakes and dreams of becoming a country music star (without benefit of musical knowledge). Paterson takes it all in, and deals with her in a loving, kind way. He never sees the need to tell her that her dreams may not come true. It is in this soft, taking it easy approach – that is also pure Jarmusch, by the way - that Adam Driver captures our hearts.

lovingRuth Negga is the exception to my rule that quiet characters don’t get Oscar nominations. In Jeff Nichols’s film “Loving,” Negga and Joel Edgerton elegantly and quietly dance their story. It is a still dance, when you see a couple on the dance floor who are so taken with each other that they simply sway, not moving. The story, now well known, is of the interracial couple whose desire to live quietly set off a court battle and landmark legislation.

As Mildred Loving, much of Negga’s performance is in her face, particularly in her eyes. Every emotion shows up there: love for her husband and family, rage at the injustices, fear as she is pulled from her bed and made to wait, pregnant, in a jail cell for a judge to deign to let her out on bail. Through all the tribulations, there is a beauty in her face and eyes that keep you riveted.

Joel Edgerton does much the same with his character of Richard Loving, but the intensity spreads through his entire body. You get the feeling that this man cannot say everything that he means, everything that he feels, but we see the emotion in the way he moves, perhaps hard at work fixing a car or the outside of their house, or perhaps putting his arm lightly but assuredly around his wife’s shoulders. This is a man who cannot articulate his feelings, but with simple statements and movements, he speaks volumes.

The Death of Louis XIV” is Albert Serra’s one-man showcase that he has gifted to the iconic Jean-Pierre Leaud. Playing the dying monarch, Leaud is on screen for virtually the entire film, and lying down in bed at that. In addition he balances an enormous wig on his head that looks as though it could be the cause of his demise.

louisThe Sun King does have some lines, but they are all delivered with the voice of one who is fading away. And as various doctors try different cures on him – each new concoction stranger than the last – Leaud grunt, groans and slurps his way into history. Low lighting and very close camerawork gives us an up close and personal view into his last days.

But lest one thing this is a dramatic, depressing performance, it is really anything but. Humor comes through constantly – by Leaud as well as the few supporting cast members. These are death throes that you want to enjoy.

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