Spank's LFF Diary, Friday 07/10/2022
Spank's LFF Diary, Sunday 09/10/2022

Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 08/10/2022

Reviewed today: Boy From Heaven, Fragments Of Paradise, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, Into The Ice.

God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines12.15pm: God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines [official site]

It's a busy one today: four films, in four separate cinemas. We’re starting our day at Curzon Soho, which appears to have had a hefty refurb since we last visited. Screen 2 has been tarted up splendidly, with comfier furnishings and double seats in the back row. The tarting up of the loos is a bit more disappointing: sadly, they've taken down all the film posters that used to adorn the walls, so the gents no longer contains my favourite bit of graffiti. Hopefully they've saved it somewhere.

As for the film we're seeing, it opens with a surprise: Normski! That’s a name I haven’t heard in a very long time. He's there at the very beginning and end of God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines, because three decades and change ago he took a photo for the cover of Record Mirror which brought together six of the leading lights of the emerging Detroit techno scene: Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, people like that. (One of them admits to have been baffled at the time by the concept of a black guy with a English accent.) GSGEDM uses this photo as a jumping off point for a history of techno music, looking at those six people and what happened to them either side of that photo.

In the eighties, Chicago had house and New York had electro, but Detroit had techno and they don't want you to forget it. The common perception that it’s a European genre is one that this film is partly an attempt to correct. It looks at some of the key artists, how they used new electronic equipment initially to create new styles of music on their own, and then started collaborating with each other – not so much intending a meeting of minds, more a meeting of their bits of equipment to see what sort of noise they could make when combined. The Detroit musicians were fiercely proud of what they did, and were always concerned that once again, white people would barge in and ruin a black art form (brilliantly illustrated here by a clip of Little Richard's rendition of Tutti Frutti segueing into Pat Boone's). Did they manage to avoid that? Well, not quite.

It’s an entertaining documentary made in the hyperactive style I always associate with Julien Temple, with every line of off-camera speech illustrated by a bit of archive footage regardless of whether it's visually relevant to the topic being discussed or not. It's fun to watch, and as a historical document staking Detroit’s claim to the music it certainly works just fine. But there's a slightly hollow feeling at its core because there doesn’t seem to be that much of a story there: some people made some music on their own, then they pooled their resources for a bit, then decided not to any more. It’s perhaps significant that some of the most interesting images here are closeups of TR-909s rather than people. No offence, Normski.

Fragments Of Paradise3.15pm: Fragments Of Paradise [official site]

From there it’s on to NFT2, the least interesting venue in the BFI Southbank complex. For me, it's always felt like the one room in the building that wasn’t purpose-built for watching movies: it's more like a space they had left over and decided to see if they could show films in it, regardless of how poor the sightlines were. Whether that's true or not, it always feels to me like NFT2 is where the festival dumps the films it's least interested in, which is a bad mindset to go into a screening with. Though it does make it a nice surprise when you enjoy a film there, so there's that.

KD Davidson's film is a biography of Jonas Mekas, who I only really know by his reputation as a pioneer of experimental film. Davidson's certainly got plenty of material to draw on: Mekas documented virtually his whole life on camera, making a series of diary films between his arrival in America in 1949 to his death some 70 years later. As someone in the post-film Q&A suggested afterwards, these days he'd be making Instagram reels. Except most people filming themselves for social media are doing it to present the best possible image of themselves - Mekas was always striving for total honesty in his work, so he'd be a bit short on likes.

You could construct a film of Mekas' whole life from that seventy years of archive, which is an astonishing thing in its own right. But the film's structured to give a broader view from several viewpoints other than his own. It starts with his early years in America, which were ridiculously busy: making films, starting up America's first serious film magazine, and championing underground cinema through his Village Voice column and his foundation of the Anthology Film Archives. It then jumps back to his childhood in Lithuania before the war made him into a DP, or displaced person. And then the final section focusses on the family that Mekas brought up in a Soho loft apartment.

I only really knew Mekas by reputation before this film, but it makes him sound like a total dude. Jim Jarmusch, one of a number of celebrity fans interviewed here, sums it up nicely: he broke the rules of cinema in the same way that poets break the rules of language to get their point across. Mekas did that throughout his career - from the early film of stage play The Brig shot documentary-style in ten-minute takes with a single camera running around between the actors on stage, to the year he decided to make a ten-minute film every day. His insistence on taking a camera with him everywhere means he captures tiny moments of joy as well as some alarming low points - but he’s always honest and open, there’s never any hint of pretension in his work. Whatever your feelings are about his own films, it's undeniable that he helped countless filmmakers, both directly (though his reviews and curation) and indirectly (John Waters insists reading Mekas was his film school). Fragments Of Paradise is a portrait made with obvious love for its subject, and it makes me feel I should find out more about him. Luckily, it's his centenary this year, so there are ways.

Into The Ice6.00pm: Into The Ice [trailer]

Our third and final documentary of the day is showing at the ICA, whose long-term commitment to working with blind designers led to the recent unveiling of their terrible new logo. The cinema's still all right, I guess, though it could probably do with being a bit bigger, particularly for a film like this. There's been an interesting trend recently for documentaries like Fire Of Love and Moonage Daydream to get limited releases on IMAX screens, and you feel that approach would work very nicely for Into The Ice. In fact, it transpires that they've gone completely in the opposite direction for its release: it's going straight to TV, and it’ll be on BBC4  on Sunday October 16th. Still, it's nice to have had the opportunity to see it on something bigger than a telly.

The ice is melting and the seas are rising: everyone agrees on that, but nobody seems to know exactly by how much. Lars Henrik Ostenfeld's film follows three scientists on their research expeditions to Greenland to get more accurate data. Jason Box and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen are drilling and taking samples, looking at the depth of snow on top of the ice and the speed at which the ice is moving. But to get the clearest possible picture, you need to get right in there, and that's where no-bullshit British scientist Alun Hubbard. He's going to descend into a moulin, a gigantic hole in the ice that's a few hundred metres deep, to see what's at the bottom of it and find out what's underneath that.

He apparently didn't intend this to be the case originally, but Ostenfeld becomes a major character in this story. Filming in this environment requires the smallest crew possible, so the director is the one holding the camera for most of the time, most amusingly on the few occasions when he falls over. He's therefore reacting to what we see on screen with no cameraman getting in the way: the best example of this is when he's first lowered into the moulin while wearing a GoPro camera, and someone offscreen casually suggests to him "look to the right and then straight down." He gets the balance between science (represented by smart graphics) and spectacle pretty much spot on: you’re visually wowed throughout, but you're never allowed to forget the implications of what we're seeing.

Boy from heaven8.25pm: Boy From Heaven [trailer]

I'm now committed to writing something about all four cinemas I visited today, but to be honest there's not much to be said about the Odeon Luxe West End: one year on from its opening, it's lost that new cinema smell, but it's still a very nice place to see a movie. It's possibly more interesting to talk about why I'm here watching this particular film, because it's down to a single shot I saw in the LFF press launch programme: an overhead view of a huge crowd of people wearing red hats, and one person very obviously going the wrong way through the crowd. It's an incredibly distinctive image, and it made me want to find out more about the film it came from. It turned out I was already familiar with a couple of the key people involved because of my various Scandi trips for Monoglot Movie Club: Swedish director Tarik Saleh came onto my radar when I saw his thriller Tommy, while actor Fares Fares has been a solid presence in Danish cinema for years now, particularly in the Department Q films. This time around, though, I get to see them both with English subtitles.

The source of the magnificent millinery that caught my eye is Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest seat of Islamic learning. The Egyptian government hates it, though, as it's symbolic of a division between church and state that they'd like to get rid of. When the Grand Imam dies, the government sees this as an opportunity to get their own man in charge. The problem is that they'll have to rig a vote to make that happen. They need a patsy on the inside to find a way to nobble the rival candidates, and they find one: Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a fisherman's son who's just started studying at Al-Azhar. Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) is the secret service liaison put in charge of persuading Adam to help with their plans and kick off a literally unholy row.

As The BBG said afterwards, this is one of the joys of an international film festival: seeing familiar genres represented in completely unfamiliar ways. This is a perfectly constructed political thriller with all the ingredients you'd expect - betrayals, moral conflicts, the odd violent death - but set in an environment we'd never normally see. Saleh uses the setting well, contrasting the calm of the university with the roaring chaos of the big city just outside it. The machinations of politics in Egypt - where, apparently, this film has been banned for some reason - are balanced alongside the depictions of Islamic teaching, with a key scene taking place during a Koran reading contest that's filmed with the intensity of a rap battle. All of this enhances the thriller aspect rather than getting in the way, combining a gripping story with a daring portrayal of the country's attitudes to religion, politics, and all the grubby stuff that goes on in the gap between the two. At one point Adam is asked "so, what did you learn?": it's a question that's very deliberately left hanging.


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