Spank's LFF Diary, Tuesday 12/10/2021
Spank's LFF Diary, Thursday 14/10/2021

Spank's LFF Diary, Wednesday 13/10/2021

Reviewed today: Ali & Ava, Becoming Cousteau, Ryusuke Hamaguchi Screen Talk, Titane, Welcome To Spain, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi12.45pm: Ryusuke Hamaguchi Screen Talk [full interview]

The rise of the online Q&A over the last eighteen months has had a couple of useful benefits. The most obvious one is that overseas filmmakers no longer need to travel to a festival in order to participate in it. Less obvious is the benefit for non-English speaking participants, like Ryusuke Hamaguchi here (though his English here seems good enough for him to give a quick spoken greeting and immediately understand many of the questions asked). You can record an interview with them, strip out all the bits where a translator’s had to intervene, and replace them with subtitles to make the conversation flow better. Which makes it a pity that in the YouTube video of Kate Taylor’s chat with Hamaguchi (linked to above), there are interruptions every few minutes for adverts.

It’s the usual chronological canter through the director’s life, starting at the point where at the age of 20, Hamaguchi saw John Cassavetes’ Husbands, was impressed by how the characters had a life beyond what you saw directly on screen, and realised that he wanted to make films like that as a career. He worked as an assistant for Kiyoshi Kurosawa for two years, where he learned a lot about the camera and how it can immediately reveal anything that looks the slightest bit fake: and he made a series of documentaries about the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, in which he learned the importance of listening to people.

The latter had an impact on his approach to making his first feature, Happy Hour. He started by gathering a group of people to participate in what he called ‘an acting workshop without any acting classes,' and set them a series of exercises to develop their listening skills. As a result, he identified seventeen of them as cast members for the film, many of whom had never acted before, including all four of his leads. Unfortunately, he had to listen to them himself when they complained about the script he’d written for them, which is why the film took two years to make and lasts over five hours. The performances made it worth his while, though.

The studios came calling after that, and his followup Asako I & II was a slightly more commercial affair, which he was unhappy with because he felt rushed into it: he’s happiest when he’s got lots of time to set things up. This presumably explains the few years we’ve had to wait for his new work, and now we’ve got two films back to back – his Murakami adaptation Drive My Car, and the compendium of three shorts Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy (with another similar bundle to follow). The principles of establishing character and careful camera placement that he learned from Cassavetes and Kurosawa are ones that he still uses today (with Eric Rohmer apparently an additional influence on Wheel).

Coming in at a tight forty minutes (I’m guessing that if you put the translator bits back, it'd run to the usual hour), it’s an enjoyable interview with a director who, if the Oscar buzz is to be believed, could be a much bigger name this time next year. Just keep your mouse over the Skip Ads button as you watch it.

Becoming Cousteau3.20pm: Becoming Cousteau [official site]

This is the third and final film we’re seeing in this year’s documentary competition. From the looks of it, documentaries are in good shape right now, with all sorts of twists on the standard format: from the genre-bending complexity of A Cop Movie to the intensely single-minded focus of Cow. Which makes it all the more surprising to see Becoming Cousteau on the list, an old-fashioned National Geographic production to its very bones.

Those of us of a certain age remember Jacques Cousteau fondly, mostly for his groundbreaking undersea documentaries, later for his ecological campaigning. Liz Garbus' film fills in the gaps at either end of the story. We begin in 1936, when the young Cousteau becomes a naval airman, only for his career to grind to a sudden halt following an accident. Some friends take him out diving as part of his recovery, and Cousteau is instantly hooked. Within a few years, he’s invented the aqualung and led the expedition that found Abu Dhabi its oil. He decides that his mission in life is to present the sights of the ocean to the rest of the world, and he does just that with a couple of feature films and 52 TV programmes. But he comes to realise that the undersea world he’s documenting is in danger, and the theme of his work changes accordingly.

Aided by some voiceover from Vincent Cassel reading from Cousteau’s journals, this is largely a film made up of footage from his archives, and the chance to see it on a big screen is very welcome. And it’s interesting to watch how Cousteau himself changes over the years, and is prepared to own up to his past mistakes: like his first feature film containing a scene where a shark is beaten to death by his crew, which he admits was wrong. (We then get to see that scene anyway.) He was ahead of his time when it came to warning people about the environment, and it’s good that there’s now a film reminding everyone about that. It’s a shame it's presented in such a dull, conventional way, though. The closest thing this documentary has to innovation is title captions that go all wibbly wobbly like you’re viewing them under water, and that isn’t quite what I’m looking for.

Ali & Ava9.20pm: Ali & Ava [official site]

We seem to be doing quite a few Special Presentations this year: The BBG thinks it may just be that with the reduced scale of the festival, a higher proportion of the films are galas and big affairs like that. Tonight we’re at the Mayor of London’s Special Presentation, with the man that all the adverts call The Mayor Sadiq Khan doing the introductions. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been in the same room as TMSK, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever been to one of the Mayor's LFF Galas before this one. Possibly one during the Livingstone era, certainly none under that other dickhead.

This one is the new film by Clio Barnard, set in Bradford and telling a fictionalised version of the story of a couple whom she met up there. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a part-time DJ who’s going through a messy separation from his wife, and trying to keep it secret from the rest of his family, who live next door. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a teaching assistant, a grandmother, and recently widowed. Ali’s niece goes to Ava’s school, so it was probably inevitable that the two of them would get to know each other. Also, both their names are in the title.

What follows is a tentative love story given an edge by the racial divide between the two – or, more accurately, between their families, neither of whom are entirely happy with how things are developing between Ali and Ava. But Barnard treats this material with a light touch: there’s never the sense of constant impending doom you’d get from, say, a Ken Loach film on a similar subject. There’s a warmth and humour throughout the film, and it’s not just there to soften you up for some sort of catastrophe at the end: even in their darker moments, these are characters you’re happy to spend time with. It’s a slight little piece overall, despite the ambition implied by its wide-screen glamour shots of Bradford, but it's enjoyable enough.

Notes From Spank’s Pals

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

The Cineaste - Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has made a charming film here, three separate vignettes of women assessing, respectively, a dominance or friendship. Two friends chat about the new man in the life of one of them, whilst the other gradually realises he’s her ex, and ponders whether she wants him back: a pair of students in a relationship decide to play a honeytrap plot on their tutor, which veers strongly off the expected course; and two women, attending a school reunion, think they’ve met an old friend (or have they?), and chat away merrily.

These three scenarios unfold by way of langourous dialogue and lengthy takes (very long takes – the actors’ memories must be good). Hamaguchi has made this film in an engaging, attractive way. The level-headed, mature conversations the character have, the absence of any over-the-top histrionics, make this an elegant and eloquent trio of stories.

Titane [official site]

The Cineaste - Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has been in a serious car accident as a young girl. It’s left her with quite extreme behavioural deficiencies, which steadily escalate with compounding consequences during the course of the film.

Firstly, let’s get the positive out the way. Agathe Rousselle plays Alexia. What a staggering performance. Totally committed to the part, she plays it with eye-catching verve and swagger, a veritable tour-de-force in a very unsympathetic role. Huge, huge credit to her. And that, I’m sorry to tell, is all I can say compliment-wise about the film. Because otherwise it’s a hellishly loathsome monster of a mess.

Alexia, despite her affliction, is not a sympathetic character at all. She’s a murderous monster with a psychopathic dislike for her fellow humankind. Indeed, dislikeable characters overall, a risibly ludicrous wafer-thin plot, grotesque shock simply for the sake of grotesque shock – there really wasn’t a single redeeming feature (Rousselle’s performance apart) in the entire film. For me, the whole ensemble was a tedious cesspit of bombastic bollocks.

Welcome to Spain [official Facebook]

The Cineaste - This is a revealing look at the lives of various newly-arrived immigrants in Spain as they struggle to secure official status and attempt to settle in. Filming starts as they arrive in a refugee centre in Seville. Some speak no Spanish, several are well qualified. Director Juan Antonio Moreno lived in the centre himself for three weeks (without revealing his “job”), to experience the situation first hand for himself and to gain the trust of those whose story he wanted to tell.

Lynn Nwokorie’s preview implied a strong/growing anti-immigration sentiment in Spain, but this didn’t really come across in the film (apart from on one occasion, whilst filming at a polling station at the General Election in, I think, 2019). So, having gained the trust of a diverse group of individuals and/or families, Moreno and his crew simply follow them over the course of the next 18 months or so.

There’s a family from Libya, forced out by war; a quite well-off older man from Venezuela, who, tellingly, declined to give the reason for his immigration; a young gay Moroccan man, forced to flee Morocco by his sexual orientation; an older Venezuelan lady who had already been teaching for several years in Spain, but had not been granted residency status; amongst others.

One Moroccan family disappeared in the middle of the night. Moreno’s attempts to contact them drew a blank. The young Moroccan man headed north to Madrid (his intended destination), where, without residency status and therefore unable to claim any benefits, he ended up on the streets. Moreno’s crew followed him as he desperately sought work (unsuccessfully) as a waiter.

There was no logical start, middle and ending to the film’s stories (not a criticism, just an observation) – as Moreno pointed out (Q&A afterwards), he didn’t know how their lives would pan out when he started filming. And one or two simply fell out of contact.

Moreno has made films before about immigration, but always from the point of view of indigenous Spaniards. Here he wanted to view the situation the other way round, so to speak – how immigrants regarded Spain, and the Spanish. A bold exercise from the director, it was a thought-provoking and sobering film.

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