Reviewed today: Dreileben 3: One Minute Of Darkness, Elena, Headhunters, How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire, Shock Head Soul, Whores' Glory.
The documentary strand at the LFF has been getting stronger and stronger over the years, so it was only a matter of time before this happened - today, for what I believe is the first time ever, we're seeing only documentary films. (Okay, the definition of the term will be seriously stretched later on today, but we'll get to that.) The mid-point of our festival will be thus marked by an all-day binge of sex, insanity and drinking.
First up, sex. Michael Glawogger was at the festival six years ago with Workingman's Death, a stunning study of the hellish things men will do to earn a living. Whores' Glory does the same for women, but as the title suggests, it's going to focus on one profession in particular. The three parts of the film focus on three red light areas in separate parts of the world. In Bangkok, The Fishtank is a slick, professional operation, where the girls sit in a big shop window and wait to be called out. The City Of Joy in Bangladesh appears to be at the other extreme - it's basically just a slum with a few bedrooms attached. But, if anything, The Zone in Mexico is even worse: a couple of town blocks where a continuous procession of cars crawls in and out, all with one specific purpose in mind.
Inevitably, the three parts of the film play off against each other, with similarities and differences between them. In all three countries, the men are boorish apes with a peculiar sense of entitlement, believing that sex with anyone - ideally, not their wives - is what they deserve for spending a day at work. The women, meanwhile, have a resolutely practical approach to their job: unexpectedly, all of the nationalities depicted use a religious belief of one sort or another to get them through the day. The Thais are curiously upbeat about the whole transaction: the Bangladeshis are the most miserable, despite (or because of) theirs being the only operation managed by women: the Mexicans the most eye-wateringly frank. "Get an ice-cube up there and they start bleating like goats."
Glawogger treats all of the women with a sympathetic eye, and for the most part avoids exploiting their stories. That's not to say that there aren't grey areas in his depiction of what they do, and one of the greyest for me comes close to the end of the Mexican section. After getting used to the idea that we will never see the prostitutes at work - to the extent that two people going into a room and closing the door on the camera becomes a repeated motif - we suddenly get to spend five minutes in a room during a session. It may sound voyeuristic, but it's utterly justified in terms of the documentary: after a couple of hours of hearing the male customers bragging about the size of their dicks and the number of whores they've had, it's hilarious to see how the balance of power changes completely behind closed doors, with the john reduced to a mere customer and the woman totally in charge. But it's hard to watch all this without thinking about the level of collusion and pre-arrangement that must have been required to capture this scene on camera: and if you're like me, it ends up taking you out of the film completely.
Still, you wouldn't expect a documentary about sex to be without its uncomfortable moments. And to be fair, Glawogger addresses this point directly in his post-film Q&A. He talks about how the sex scene was set up, and its unexpected punchline - the two found filming the scene "so glamorous" that they're now going out as a couple. He gets very worked up at the suggestion that paying for access to people and locations somehow makes what he films less 'real': "making a documentary is not journalism." And he provides a fascinating postscript when he discusses what happened when he showed the film to its subjects upon completion, and how they reacted to both themselves and the sections from other countries. Whores' Glory is a pretty fine documentary in its own right, but it didn't feel complete until after the Q&A, which would seem to suggest that there's something missing from the finished film that currently makes it unfinished.
6.30pm: Shock Head Soul [official site]
This is the point where I start doubting if we really have seen three documentaries today. It's hard to say whether Simon Pummell's film is a drama with inserted on-camera testimony by experts, or a documentary with extended re-enactments. Whichever it is, it has a fascinating true story at its core. Two captions at the start set up the basic facts with admirable economy. Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Paul Schreber (Hugo Koolschijn) was one of Germany's most renowned judges. Ten years later, he was in his own courtroom attempting to prove that he wasn't completely insane.
There's no denying that the stress of his job was taking its toll on both his work and his relationship with his wife Sabine (Anniek Pfeifer). But what appears to have helped Schreber survive his wild delusions - a series of messages from God sent via a special machine only he could see - was that he was able to apply his legal mind to the visions he was having, and actually get them down on paper. The book he subsequently published, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness) became one of the key texts in psychiatry, and formed the basis of one of Freud's most famous case studies, despite the two men never meeting.
I first became aware of Simon Pummell through one of those animation programmes I keep going to at film festivals. (Incidentally, I've just written a summary of this year's LFF animation selections, as part of today's Mostly Film LFF roundup. Most of it may well be familiar to you.) I saw his short The Secret Joy Of Falling Angels at either Edinburgh or London in the early nineties, and didn't enjoy it very much: it felt a little too sub-Brothers-Quay for my liking, and that was at a time when I was sniffily dismissing the Brothers Quay as sub-Svankmajer. As much as the story of Shock Head Soul intrigued me, the worry I had before seeing it was that Pummell would merely use that story as the springboard for a barrelload of obscure artiness.
The big surprise for me, then, is just how clear and focussed a vision he's brought to the film. Possibly, you could argue that he's made it too clear. There are three distinct strands to the story Pummell tells here - the factual strand represented by a series of 21st century commentators talking directly to camera, the emotional strand which uses actors to show the impact Schreber's condition had on the people around him, and the artistic strand which uses subtle but effective visual devices (obviously influenced by Pummell's background in animation) to depict Schreber's mental state. If there's a problem with this structure, it's that the three strands remain separate throughout, and never really interact with each other.
Nevertheless, this is a brave and bold attempt to look at schizophrenia and our reaction to it. It's a beautiful-looking film: the heavy use of green screen brings an element of stylisation that somehow fits the subject matter to a tee. The balance between the factual and dramatised parts of the film is nicely handled, using the expert witnesses to put Schreber's illness into context not only with its own time, but with what we know of the human mind today. And Pummell is careful to balance the darkness of Schreiber's visions against his achievement in writing them down and creating something that would nowadays be considered as a work of outsider art. "As a visionary writer, Schreiber was only two steps to the side of William Blake," suggests Pummell in his Q&A. "They're a big two steps, though."
9.00pm: How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire [official site]
Documentaries on TV these days tend to have depressingly Ronseal titles. With so many channels on offer via digital telly, a film needs to have an entry in the on-screen programme guide that makes it immediately obvious to the passing viewer what it's about, which is why BBC Three is so full of shows called things like Fuck Me, Look At All Those Crisps I Just Ate. It's a shame that How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire blows one of the key surprises of its story as early as its title card: but it's playing to a full house at this screening, so the title's obviously done its job.
Daniel Edelstyn is a self-confessed unsuccessful filmmaker, and unsuccessful at most other things as well if he's honest about it (which he is, frequently). But the discovery of his grandmother's old diary is the starting point of a quest that will push him well outside of his comfort zone. Maroussia Zorokovich led a wildly Bohemian existence in Ukraine at the turn of the twentieth century, before revolution drove her out of the country and ultimately to England. Initially, Edelstyn plans to make a film of her life, despite the lack of any sort of budget whatsoever: he has to drag in his wife Hilary Powell to both play his grandma, and make a series of model sets out of bits of old cardboard. But a research trip to Maroussia's old village of Dubouviazovka reveals an astonishing fact: the Zorokovich family owned an estate there that included a vodka distillery. Edelstyn's plans to honour the memory of his gran slowly start to take a more alcoholic turn.
As Edelstyn's scheme starts to take shape, he keeps Hilary by his side with a video camera to document everything. The resulting film is an extraordinary patchwork, and couldn't really be anything else because of the way it evolved. It's a unique mixture of verite footage, cheap 'n' cheerful historical recreation (those bits of old cardboard are still in the finished movie), and confessional interludes, which manages to come together as a coherent whole thanks to Edelstyn's enormous personal charm. The ups and downs of his story are delightful to watch, and it's hard to imagine any viewer who wouldn't be willing him to succeed by the end.
It'd be nice to see this in cinemas - at the moment its main hope for future British outings lies with the money invested in it by Channel 4 TV, but the film's such an obvious crowd-pleaser that it can only benefit from being shown to some crowds. Besides, given the state things are in at the end of the story as told here, a telly screening might generate some controversy for being the longest booze advert ever broadcast in the UK. On a related topic, Edelstyn kindly invites the whole audience to the Skylon bar after the screening for some vodka, but we decide to head off home at that point: the line between films and real life has already been blurred quite enough for today.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - Roger is a stereotypical alpha male – he’s got a top job (in which he’s fiercely competitive) with a top firm of headhunters, he’s got a glamorous wife who mixes in the high-end art world, and he’s got a mistress on the side who he’s thinking of trading in for an upgrade. But Roger’s ultra-competitiveness is giving him increasingly bigger problems, because his ultra-affluent lifestyle means he’s living beyond his means. So he starts indulging in some dodgy practices involving high-end works of art, which inevitably mean he’s getting deeper and deeper into trouble. When his wife, at the opening of one of her art galleries, introduces him to someone very important, Roger sees that this could be a terrific opportunity – or a very big risk.
This was a really gripping thriller. It fairly fizzed along at a cracking pace, wholly unexpected twists and turns along the way. Acting was strong, action was good throughout, hugely enjoyable.
Shock Head Soul
The Belated Birthday Girl - The LFF programme referred to Daniel Paul Schreber's published memoirs as "one of the most remarkable studies of madness 'from the inside' ever written" and promised "fascinating insights from psychiatrists, analysts and social commentators past and present" in this film about Schreber's story. Early on in the film we meet some of the modern experts - dressed in 19th Century German garb, to make them appear as witnesses in Schreber's appeal against his confinement - tell us how important Schreber has been to modern perceptions of and attitudes towards mental illness. But I never felt that the film did enough to show why this was true, why we should be interested in Schreber's case at all.
The amount of insight shown in the film, either from the brief quotes from the memoirs - which were only examples of his delusions and not in any way revealing as a "study from the inside" - or from the modern day "experts" was really quite small, and took up probably less than a quarter of the running time of the film. The majority of the film was taken up in dramatic reconstructions of encounters between Schreber and his wife, or the wife and the doctors (much of which I presume is entirely speculative), or else in using animated typewriters to represent Schreber's state of mind. It all looked very pretty, but didn't amount to much, and certainly I didn't feel there was enough material in there to justify a feature-length running time. All in all, a slight film, which gave little new on the subject of schizophrenia and psychosis.
The Cineaste - This was a measured look at a late-middle aged couple and the subject of their inheritance – more specifically who will inherit their estate. As the title suggests it mainly considers the scenario from Elena’s viewpoint – a resilient lady who’s juggling conflicting demands on both her affections and her allegiances.
Elena and Vladimir have only been married for two years, and both have off-spring from previous marriages. And that’s the source of difficulties and conflicting interests. Vladimir, not in good health and fearful that he may not have a lot longer to live, wishes to hand over the bulk of his assets to his only daughter, whom he loves no end. This daughter Katya is a very unlikable character – totally self-obsessed, ungrateful and unsympathetic. Elena meanwhile spends her days visiting her son. Despite being married with a teenage son and baby daughter he doesn’t seem particularly bothered about trying to find work – putting more effort into playing computer games with his son, expecting that Elena will be able to land a hefty wodge from her husband.
The film is a wonderful study into the different interactions between the characters, and how they negotiate their contrasting hopes and expectations. The characters’ relationships are a great source of attention – although they rarely argue or raise their voices, there’s not much warmth or compassion between some of them, and they conduct their conversations with dignified stoicism.
Philip Glass’ haunting score provides a fitting backdrop to the sombre mood, and makes for an overall elegant movie.
Dreileben 3 – One Minute Of Darkness [official site]
The Cineaste - Back for more disappointment/punishment in Germany’s Thuringia forest, I’ve got to admit my expectations for this film were quite low. But heh hey! Those expectations were well and truly dashed as this turned out be a cracking film. As a recap it’s loosely related to the two previous parts, the link being the event of a criminal (Frank Molesch, played by Stefan Kurt) on the loose. Here we see events from Molesch’s viewpoint. And the film starts wonderfully with a clever reference to what’s happened before to show how Molesch effected his escape.
From then on we see how he strives to stay one step ahead of the police – director Christoph Hochhausler makes good use of the forest and the outdoors, with Molesch being able to sidestep rather inept police searches, as well as his need to find food and water. Meanwhile the police bring in an aging specialist to help them – and he starts looking at a previous conviction of Molesch and what the police can learn about Molesch from that. The whole piece progresses very stylishly. There are some surreal moments for Molesch in the forest, some moments of humour at the police’s incompetence, and there are some clever links to the other two films. Stefan Kurt gives a really strong performance as a man who’s ever so slightly unstable, which adds to the tension as you can’t be sure what he’ll do next. Good action all round, a pleasant improvement on the disappointing first two films.