Reviewed today: Croma Kid, Fallen Leaves, The Klezmer Project.
12:45pm: The Klezmer Project [trailer]
Here’s one synopsis for you. Wedding cameraman Leandro Koch is making a documentary about the history of klezmer music. With clarinettist Paloma Schachmann in tow, he’s travelling from his native Argentina across eastern Europe to discover the roots of this vanishing form of Jewish music. As well as filming the musicians he meets, he also keeps the cameras rolling as he negotiates the logistics of filming in multiple countries. This may be a mistake, as the production seems to be hitting one obstacle after another, notably his inability to find any klezmer bands at all. Meanwhile, there’s another layer featuring an old folk tale about a young gravedigger, which runs throughout the film without having any connection to it.
Here’s another synopsis for you. Directors Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann have made a film about what remains of the old Jewish music in eastern Europe. They’ve interwoven footage of the musicians they encountered with a fictional narrative thread about how Koch’s struggling to make his film, while Schachmann becomes more disillusioned with their relationship. Meanwhile, there’s another layer featuring an old folk tale about a young gravedigger who tells an outrageous lie to attract the attention of a woman, which runs throughout the film without having any connection to it. Or does it?
Documentaries are going through a very peculiar phase right now, and I’m all for it. The Klezmer Project straddles fiction and non-fiction in a ridiculously bold fashion throughout, and glues your attention to the screen because it never goes too much in either direction. It's not just postmodern games: there’s also some serious background research into the history of this traditional Yiddish music, and why it was allowed to die out. (Briefly, its archaic image was felt to be unsuitable for the modern, Hebrew-speaking Israel. Also, it’s a bit girly.) But we still get the clips of tiny ensembles recreating the music, as frustratingly minimal as they are, and they all build towards a final shot that’s a staggering technical achievement as well as a huge explosion of joy. If you’re prepared to go along with the film's hugely playful approach, you’ll have a blast.
6.00pm: Croma Kid [trailer]
It's the 1990s in the Dominican Republic, and that’s not something I get to say very often. Emi (Bosco Cardenas) – and for a British person of a certain age, that’s a strangely comforting name to see written all over a big set of tapes – isn’t having what you’d call a normal childhood. He and his parents live with his grandpa, who has a home studio where the whole family works on his greenscreen FX-heavy TV shows. They’re all just about getting by, until the day that Grandpa’s chromakey unit explodes while mum and dad are wearing green suits, thus causing them to vanish completely from the face of the earth. Nobody else is going to do the job, so it’s down to Emi to get them back.
I’ll say this for the screening – it has a really good Q&A. Director Pablo Chea talks about the history of Dominican telly production, and confirms that yes, people really were putting together programmes in their home studios and getting them broadcast. He describes how his crew managed to assemble the battery of old video equipment that Grandpa has access to. He’s proud of Croma Kid being the first Covid era production to come out of the Republic with a clean bill of health, and discusses the challenges of keeping both old and young cast members safe in a bubble.
Chea seems like a decent bloke with a ton of good stories: it’s a shame that his film doesn’t have one of them. His aim was to create an all-ages family movie, like Hollywood used to do in the 80s and 90s: it's a lovely plan, but the problem is that he’s got just about enough material here for a short film, but no more than that. There’s a lot of padding in the story, including a sketchy subplot involving a female schoolfriend to make it look like a coming of age tale, which it isn't really. If Chea had been able to crush this down to a pacy 20 minutes, then maybe the handwaving of its will-this-do resolution wouldn’t seem quite such an insult to the viewer. But still, I enjoyed the Q&A.
9.15pm: Fallen Leaves [trailer]
I remember the first Aki Kaurismäki film The BBG and I saw together – it was The Man Without A Past in 2002. The shot that sticks in my mind the most is of two men having a conversation, at the end of which they shake hands, nod once, turn sharply away from each other and walk directly out of frame. She laughed her head off at that, and I felt happy with my life choices at that point - there are people out there who simply don't understand what Kaurismäki does, and it was reassuring to learn that The BBG wasn't one of them.
It’s a moment that we're both reminded of tonight, because it kinda sorta repeats itself in Kaurismäki’s new film, as a small emotional beat between its two main characters. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is a lonely shop worker whose kindly nature is going to get her into trouble: Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is more likely to get into trouble at work because of his chronic alcoholism. Our discovery that this is a key plot point in the film makes our decision to take a couple of tinnies into the screening – ‘it’s what Aki would have wanted’ – feel a little hollow. This might be the first time in one of his films that the Finnish tendency to get blind drunk has been shown to have consequences.
Somewhat predictably for a Kaurismäki film, these two broken people find each other and start a tentative romance. In fact, most of Fallen Leaves will seem familiar to fans: the deadpan acting style that points up the staggering number of funny lines, the overly dramatic lighting schemes, the background actors with the most astonishing faces you can imagine. But we only get one of these films every six years or so now, and nobody else makes them, so we should grab them and make the most of them when they turn up. This one is just as warmly funny and melancholic as all the others, a blend that the director's made completely his own.
Fallen Leaves also, by the way, gives us a lovely introduction hosted by the new LFF boss, Kristy Matheson. Not with Kaurismäki himself, obviously – he’s not come over to the UK for a film festival so far this century, as far as I can make out. Which is a shame: his slightly pissed, slightly depressed on-stage introductions used to be the stuff of legend. But his two stars give a fascinating insight into his working methods, particularly the almost psychic shorthand he uses to communicate with his long-time collaborators. ‘Someone blinks, someone else coughs, a light moves...’