I've had worse starts to festivals. In 2001, the first film at the Odeon West End started twenty minutes late and almost kicked off an audience riot: in 2003, I spent the whole first day in Slough. By comparison, the late cancellation of the first film on my 2006 schedule, The King And The Clown, is rather small potatoes. Particularly when the last-minute alternative we chose is as good as this.
Lucy Walker's documentary introduces us to Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to reach the summit of Everest in 2001. His achievement becomes an inspiration to blind people all over the world: particularly Sabriye Tenberken, who runs a school for blind teenagers in Tibet. She invites him over to give a motivational talk to the kids, but Erik has a better idea - he'll bring over his climbing team, and they'll lead a group of half a dozen students up the Himalayas. Not to the top of Everest, that would be mental: no, the six blind kids who've never climbed before will follow the Everest route for the first 23,000 feet, then turn left for the summit of Lhakpa Ri next door.
Walker cuts between the progress of the climb, and pre-expedition interviews with the kids and their families. The most horrifying thing that comes through is the attitude to blindness in Tibet: more often than not, it's dismissed as the result of wickedness in this life or a previous one. You can vaguely understand the nervousness of strangers when they encounter blind people in the street, but this is what the parents are saying too: and most of them are convinced that their children's lives will amount to nothing. The film talks to all six teens, but finds a natural focus of attention in Tashi, a street kid abandoned by his parents at an early age, who finds it difficult to fit in with the rest of the group.
The key to a successful documentary is a strong narrative thread, and Walker (together with editor Sebastian Duthy) has an astonishing story to tell. Quite aside from the obvious achievement at its centre, the film gives you a feel for the intense preparation and constant decision-making required to pull off an expedition like this. But for all their advance planning. the team has failed to address one key question - why are they doing this? And when it emerges late into the climb that different people are doing it for different, incompatible reasons, the tension that develops is electrifying. Walker is careful to stay on the sidelines and not take sides, in what eventually turns out to be nothing less than a clash between Eastern and Western philosophies. The resulting film is a real emotional rollercoaster, with thrills, genuinely touching moments, and some unexpected humour. The cast and crew deserve their standing ovation at the end of the screening, though it brings you up short when you notice that Tenberken has to be told it's a standing ovation.
9.00pm: Forest Whitaker Screen Talk
The Screen Talk section of the LFF programme has a new sponsor - Five US, a digital TV channel that's been going for a mere four days at the time of writing. (I'm only linking to the site because I like their choice of Sufjan Stevens to soundtrack their idents.) Five US is dedicated to the best American imports that its parent channel Five can lay their hands on: as Forest Whitaker has recently been seen on there in season five of The Shield, it makes sense that he opens this year's on-stage discussions. The evening is hosted by Five arts reporter Tim Marlow, whose questions are sometimes a little over-wordy: but Whitaker can talk the hind legs off a donkey himself, and the result is a fast-paced, articulate, entertaining session.
Initially, of course, the focus is on Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland, last night's Opening Gala. Whitaker suggests that it's the contrasts between the various facets of Amin's personality that make him so fascinating - his desire to be a father figure to the Ugandans, clashing with his almost childish petulance when he doesn't get his own way. Whitaker didn't really get a handle on the character until he went to Uganda and saw that the people there have exactly the same conflicts - they're somehow able to reconcile Amin killing their relatives with the overall effect his leadership had on the country. Whitaker's performance has been seen in some quarters as making Amin sympathetic, but his own aim was much more basic: "I wanted you to be able to look at his face." In his eyes, the continual struggle to simultaneously embody the various aspects of Amin's personality is the performance.
The rest of the interview takes the usual chronological route, starting with Whitaker's introduction to acting at college (playing in Under Milk Wood, though apparently without the Welsh accent). He took a number of bit parts in various movies, but hit the big time with his portrayal of Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird, a role which helped him formulate the acting method he uses today. He'll research a role thoroughly beforehand, so that when he walks onto the set he knows everything about the character motivation and relationships: he'll then be open to any changes in performance arising from whatever happens on set, but they'll always be rooted in that initial preparation. He mentions that for his role as an English soldier in The Crying Game, he started out with a dialect coach, but during shooting he took accent tips from his driver. Sadly, everyone in the room is too polite to point out that his accent in that film is all over the bloody place, suggesting that he must have had a different driver every day but didn't notice.
As Tim Marlow points out, "you've worked with so many great directors: Scorsese, Schumacher..." - I have great admiration for the way he manages to say that without throwing up a little in his mouth. Whitaker happily admits he's learned a lot from the various people he's worked with over the years. Clint Eastwood sets up a perfectly relaxed atmosphere that allows actors to do their best: Martin Scorsese keeps an incredibly tight focus on whatever's happening: David Fincher obsesses about the tiniest technical details, but never forgets about the actors. Interestingly, when asked about his own directing, Whitaker suggests that being an actor helps him as a director, but being a director can sometimes be a hindrance as an actor.
The subsequent audience Q&A is an equally relaxed and fun affair. It's interesting to note the girlie shrieks from the audience when The Shield is brought up, and Whitaker is as fascinated as everyone else by the appeal of the show's uberbastard Vic Mackey. Sometimes he'll drift into Hollywood actorspeak about only picking roles that will help him grow as a person, but when the odd curveball question heads his way he fields it with grace and charm. When asked about the abortion that was Battlefield Earth, he defends it as a chance to work with his friend John Travolta ("I mean, I'm not a Scientologist, but..."): when an environmentalist welcomes him to Lambeth and hands him a bicycle map of the borough, he isn't fazed at all. ("And I just got a bike, too...")
This is the only actor Screen Talk I'm planning to do this year, and I think it was an excellent choice. And I'm not just saying that because Dustin Hoffman tickets are rarer than rocking horse shit, promise.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Boss Of It All
The Lives Of OthersThe Belated Birthday Girl - This affecting film was not originally on my list for this year: if it hadn't been for a cancellation, and subsequent re-jigging of my schedule, I would never have seen it. And that would have been a shame, as this made a very good start to my 2006 LFF. Set in East Germany in 1984 (before, as it points out, any hints of glasnost and perestroika in the East), it follows Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a committed, efficient, true believer in Socialism and the GDR, as he monitors writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to try to uncover any subversive activities. Although Wiesler has his own initial suspicions of Dreyman, are the motives of his superiors in ordering the surveillance as honestly motivated, or are they more to do with the lecherous desires of the Minister of Culture for the writer's actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck)? And how does what he observes affect Weisler himself?
Shot in muted tones, evoking mid-1980s Communist East Germany effectively, and with fine performances particularly from the central characters, this is a confident debut from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The script has many moments of well-judged humour, and is also suspenseful, moving and thoughtful. Although some of the supporting characters seem a little stereotypical at first, and the story begins seemingly a little obvious, the central characters, particularly the Stasi officer, are complex, and their motivations are allowed to reveal themselves. And as the film goes on, the story develops in far more interesting ways, and is engrossing and moving. As Buena Vista International are involved, this is sure to get a release, and is well worth catching when it does.