Reviewed today: Capitalism: A Love Story, No One Knows About Persian Cats, Polytechnique.
1.00pm: No One Knows About Persian Cats (official site)
Here’s the story. Colin Firth, when he’s not poncing around in lakes and that, regularly gets approached by charities and other Non-Governmental Organisations to front their campaigns. Which is all well and good but, as he admitted yesterday, actors generally aren’t the best people to talk about political issues. What he was looking for was a way that actors could use their undoubted clout to help organisations get their messages across more efficiently. And he’s noticed that narrative cinema forges a connection with audiences unlike anything else.
So Colin Firth has set up Brightwide, whose aim is to use films from all over the world as a starting point for political debate. The films will be shown online on their website, or publically at events like today’s official launch. If viewers are stirred to take action after seeing the films, Brightwide will put them in contact with the relevant charities and NGOs. It’s a very neat idea, and if they can continue to lay their hands on films as good as No One Knows About Persian Cats, it could be a very successful one too.
Persian Cats is another one of those movies that exists somewhere in the grey area between documentary and fiction. It’s basically a depiction of the Tehran underground music scene, tucked inside a factually-based story acted by the musicians themselves. Ashkan Koshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi are an indie rock duo who want to play some concerts outside of Iran. This is a hellish operation to plan, requiring permits, passports and visas to be wangled by various under-the-counter means. Ashkan and Negar have to rely on fixer Nader (Hamed Behdad) to negotiate all this for them, while they search the rooftops and basements of Tehran for additional musicians to tour with.
The hybrid nature of Bahman Ghobadi’s film is ingenious. In part, it’s a showcase for a dozen or so Iranian bands who can barely be heard in their native city, never mind the rest of the world. They’re each given at least one full song so we can get to hear the wide range of music that’s out there, from metal to funk to rap. Meanwhile, the linking narrative is a collation of true stories from musicians, showing the stuggles that they encounter in a society where any hint of Western influence – be it musical style or, God forbid, lyrics written in English – is stomped on from a great height.
If this makes it all sound very worthy, it isn’t. Ghobadi’s film is energetically assembled, featuring more edits in its 106 minutes than in all the other Iranian films I’ve ever seen put together. The music sequences in particular combine performance footage with scenes from contemporary Iran to fine effect. Some of the acting gets by more on charm than technique, but Hamed Behdad’s fast-talking dodgy geezer Nader would be an instantly recognisable type in any language. And as Firth suggested in his introduction, the use of a narrative makes it a more engaging film than a simple documentary on the music scene.
The debate that follows gives a flavour of what Brightwide’s trying to achieve. Ashkan and Negar get the warmest reception, as they talk about how an entire generation of Iranians has become politicised by the government clamping down on everything young people like to do. Meanwhile, director Ghobadi reveals that investigating the underground music movement inspired him to make what’s effectively an underground film, one that’s condemned him to a future of working outside the official system. One amusing bit comes towards the end, when a bonkers woman accuses the movie of being a huge piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, insisting that things are just as bad in the West: “in the UK you have rave parties with thousands of people at them, and they’re all taking heroin…” Ah, yes, heroin, the notorious dance party drug of the 80s.
4.15pm: Polytechnique (official site)
Montreal’s École Polytechnique was, to be monstrously glib about it, Canada’s Columbine. In December 1989, a young man went inside the school with a rifle, killed fourteen women, and then shot himself in the head. Why did he do it? Helpfully, he left behind a statement complaining that feminists had ruined his life, which is why he started off by killing all the female students in an engineering class. So: crap at science and unable to get laid, then.
Twenty years after the event, Polytechnique is a film about the massacre. It ends up following three people on that day: the nameless killer (Maxim Gaudette), engineering student Valerie (Karine Vanasse), and her classmate Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau). Initially, when we see Valerie encountering casual sexism during an interview, it seems like the film will be attempting to suggest a source for the misogyny that led to the killing: but in fact, after the opening scenes, it’s more concerned with the perspective of the victims. Particularly the ones who survived.
It’s a curious film to pin down. A quick search on the web reveals that the Polytechnique massacre was a dark night of the soul for Canada, and still remains so twenty years on. So it seems like a dangerous story to attempt to re-enact, even in the fashion attempted here, where all the characters shown are fictional. The hook that drew me into the film was the director Denis Villeneuve, who was last seen at the LFF in 1998 with August 32nd On Earth. That film had a very distinctive cinematic style, and the same applies here. High-contrast black and white cinematography and unexpected camera angles combine to distance the audience from the horrors on screen, with equally bold use of sound to contrast the eerie silence of the corridors against the incredibly loud gunshots.
But it seems wrong to throw so much visible technique at a story like this, somehow. On a subconscious level, it’s a very disturbing film: you find yourself wishing for some sort of action hero to save the day even when you know one will never come, leaving you with an overall feeling of frustrating impotence. And it’s a feeling that carries over into the most moving sections of the film, the ones dealing with the people who were left to cope afterwards. Nevertheless, it’s telling that the final lines of the script – which carry an incredibly powerful message – are accompanied by a fascinating shot of the school corridor, which ends up distracting you from what’s being said. Polytechnique means well, and obviously the last thing on its mind is the exploitation of a tragedy: but I’m not sure what it’s really trying to do.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: Capitalism: A Love Story (official site)
You’ll have to trust me on this one, I’m afraid. After the previous night’s blowout at Asia de Cuba, tonight The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to the other extreme and had dinner at the Stockpot. It’s a cheap ‘n’ cheerful London legend that’s the ideal place to go on those occasions when you want to push the boat in. Inevitably, conversation turned to what the Surprise Film would be. I stuck with my original guess of Where The Wild Things Are: while The BBG, looking for an alternative from a selection of upcoming releases, settled on Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. She even yelled out the title during the introduction to the screening, but apparently Sandra Hebron didn’t hear her, claiming that nobody in the audience had got it right. So I’m here to state hand on heart that The BBG was the smartest person in Screen 5 of the Vue tonight, and I don’t care who believes me.
Meanwhile, the film. As Sandra said in her teasing intro, it’s made by a director who’s had prior form with the LFF. Michael Moore’s first appearance at the Festival was with his 1989 debut Roger And Me, in which he looked at how the actions of General Motors had ultimately destroyed his home town of Flint, Michigan. Capitalism: A Love Story is in many ways a sequel, and like most sequels it takes the premise of the original and inflates it: so this time, he’s looking at how corporations are destroying the whole of America.
The ongoing financial crisis is obviously the hot topic du jour, and in the early stages of the film it looks like Moore’s bitten off a lot more than he can chew. With his usual combination of face-to-face interviews and cheekily-edited stock footage, he skips around between multiple themes. He returns to Flint to talk to his father about the crisis: he visits several families who’ve been driven out of their homes by escalating mortgage payments, and the vulture entrepreneurs who buy them out for virtually no money: he discovers the concept of ‘dead peasant insurance’, where companies take out secret insurance policies on their staff so as to make a tidy profit if they unexpectedly die. Interwoven with all of this is the story of how, starting with Ronald Reagan, the financial system came to have such an impact on the way government works.
Remember when Michael Moore used to make weekly TV shows? For the first hour of Capitalism I found myself wishing he’d start doing that again, because there’s simply too much material crammed into a short space of time. I appreciate he’s trying to set up the background for how we’ve got to where we are now, but it makes the first half of the film incredibly unfocussed. He still just about keeps things watchable, though, and in the second half – concentrating specifically on the current crisis – he pulls it all together more effectively. He traces the crisis back to 2003, and a publicity photo depicting a group of idiots in suits waving chainsaws at a bunch of papers tied up in red tape. This was one organisation’s way of announcing that the restrictions on financial institutions had been lifted, and from this point on anything goes. Which it did. Although as Moore notes in the final sequences, people are ceasing to trust the banks and starting to take action.
I mentioned before that the LFF doesn’t have a documentary gala this year: is that because they knew they already had a documentary Surprise Film (their first, I believe) up their sleeve? Although to be fair, what Moore does is more polemic than documentary, and he’d always be the first to admit it. He’s got a viewpoint he wants to get across, and he’s doing it in the most entertaining way he can. Which is why it delights me that twenty years after Roger And Me, he still interrupts the serious analysis every so often to engage in childish pranks. When he discusses the incestuous links between Goldman Sachs and the US Treasury, what we should be doing is grabbing the boss of GS and flossing his urethra with barbed wire. By comparison, wrapping his office in crime scene tape and calling for his arrest through a megaphone may be petty, but it’s fun to imagine how annoying it must be for him.
This is Moore’s primary function, when you get down to it. Initiating debate inna Brightwide stylee is an important part of the films he makes: but when we can’t get access to the people in power, it’s always nice to know that there’s someone out there who can at least irritate the living shit out of them. And that includes the people I overheard whining as they left this screening, saying how terrible it was that someone can attack capitalism while they own shoes, or something. Suffer, bitches.