The highs and lows of this year’s Wales One World Film Festival are celebrated, as A Story of Children and Film, The Best of Bollywood, The Second Death, and Fireworks Wednesday are examined with a careful eye.
A Story of Children and Film (UK)
This special presentation of writer, critic and film-maker Mark Cousins’s A Story of Children and Film, where he was on hand to introduce and answer questions after, was a fitting opening feature for the WOW film festival. His documentary essay utterly embodies the spirit of this festival of world film by illustrating his ruminations on childhood’s representation in cinema with an eclectic mix of obscure titles from all over the globe. The list of 53 films from 25 countries contain several that would be familiar to all – Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Charles Laughton’s sole directorial attempt, the still scintillating Night of the Hunter, Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table – but in the main the film draws on movies from parts of the world less renowned for their cinematic output while also spanning many decades, so even the most devoted of art house cinema enthusiasts would do well to recognise even half of these heretofore buried treasures.
The film opens with a turn from the precocious Shirley Temple (from Curly Top), all teeth and curls rather clinically tugging at the heart strings with a word perfect rendition of a saccharine vaudeville number, over which Cousins gives a charitably fair-minded verdict. Cousins is not one for scathing condemnation, though he is explicit in assuring us that this is not the story he wishes to tell. Using a framing device of a static camera in front of a pair of siblings (Mark’s niece and nephew) playing marbles who – at first – play up to the camera, then forget it is there, Cousins tells us that the uncoached, unguarded moments that slowly begin to emerge are the ones he wants to show us replicated in the best of cinema about children.
With his deliberate phrasing and soothing, delicate Ulster brogue that at times has the mental balming quality of a hypnotherapist, Cousins uncovers the magic moments in his selection with a forensic eye for the smallest detail and a big heart for moments of transcendent brilliance. It is not his mission to assess these films as complete works, but to cherry pick fragments, even frames, that he believes best capture the truth of childhood. Emblematic of this is a scene he chooses from The White Balloon, a film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, in which the featured girl behaves in that way familiar to all parents, in a Middle Eastern display of pester power, pleading and whining for a new goldfish. Her mother tells her she already has one, to which the child, full of indignation at the unfairness of the world, complains that yes but… hers is too skinny.
Similarly, in a scene from the Japanese picture Children in the Wind (directed by Hiroshi Shimizu), a gang of boys run to a lake, strip off to their Sumo style loin-cloths and run into water. One boy however strips off and realises he has no loin-cloth and is naked. Shamefaced, he cries to his friend that he cannot come in, yet his friend cannot see the problem and tells him to come in anyway. Obviously calculating the myriad ways they could tease, trick and embarrass him, he decides to stay ashore and look after the clothes.
In showing us scenes like this, it is obvious that one of the main purposes behind the film is to lay bare the universality of childhood and in so doing the universality of cinema. This is after all a story of Children AND Film and the fact that both can be understood across cultures is the film’s abiding message.
As important as that message is, though, this film’s real raison d’etre is as brochure for a number of great movies from diverse cultures, and the fact that it was resoundingly successful in adding to the ‘must see’ list of this moviegoer is its real achievement. It is also testament to Cousin’s salesmanship that he can make such slight, unheralded features so compelling.
As a final example, we have Willow and Wind directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi, the story of a boy who has smashed a window at school and, unable to pay for its repair, embarks on an odyssey to transport a pane of glass from his home via many obstacles, to his school. That the original film’s director, the child and Cousin’s himself can make this slight story’s struggle appear on a par with Scott’s quest to the South Pole or Hilary’s ascent of Everest, tells in microcosm why it is worth going out of your way to watch A Story of Children and Film. But if you think that watching this is a less forbidding task than sitting through Cousin’s 15 hour A Story of Film, just remember you will be clamouring to seek out at least half of the 53 films presented here after it. David Anthony
The Best of Bollywood, Live, by The Bollywood Brass Band
That this pop-up event, part of the WOW festival and a celebration of 100 years of the Indian Film Industry, was held at the Shree Kutchhi Leva Patel Samaj, as opposed to at the Chapter Arts Centre was instantly interesting. The world behind the ‘magical shutters’ on Mardy Street, Grangetown, is not one at least a third of the audience would have had an idea about prior to this event. For me, it brought back, in a wave of glowing nostalgia, memories of endless childhood weekends spent in such halls: all the same faces, young and old, compartmentalised plates, and a cultivation of sanskaar. In English sanskaar has no direct one-word translation; the closest is a cross between moral value, sense of respect and rootedness. Samaj is easier to translate – it means community.
Rabab Ghazoul, the organiser of this event, and of the WOW Women’s film club at the Chapter Arts Centre, expressed how the choice of venue was a conscious departure from the norm and a strategic foray into a multi-directional approach to bringing together different faiths, genders and cultures to link in with samaj – community in its true, full sense. The audience at this event was a celebratory picture of this vision: a full spectrum of age; Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and non-believers; a mixture of sexual orientation. The group behind me chattered in Welsh whilst the mother in front encouraged her young daughter in Gujarati. Chapter Arts at its all-encompassing, ideal best.
The food, cooked entirely by the Samaj volunteers, was delicious. The Gujarati fare – puri, shaak, dhal, rice and pudding – was served with hospitality, warmth and a welcome upon arrival. We ate, talked, looked at the Bollywood display lining the walls and took our seats, ready for some Bollywood brass.
The brass came with funk. The London based Bollywood Brass Band comprised an impressive mix of sousaphone, alto saxophone, trombones, trumpets, bass drum, tablas, and dhol. The set ran from Hindi film hits via popular qawalli to an all-dancing bhangra denouement.
Opening with a Raj Kapoor number from the early 1950s, the samples of film playing on the backdrop projector gave an additional dimension to the performance. A beautiful young Nargis being innocently romanced to such a pretty and simple composition endeared. A group of sari-clad ladies in the front row sung every word with gusto. This ran to a more recent number from the remake of ‘Bacchna e Haseeno’. In between, there were R.D. Burman and Asha Bhosle pieces with the dancer, Helen, slinky, seductive and bewitching on screen. The band’s own composition to Phalke’s ‘Raja Harishchadra’, the first ever film from the Indian Film Industry, was a real highlight. Another was the rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Mustt, Mustt’.
The alto-saxophone soloist was infectiously energetic and, in all her jumping around, raised the atmosphere. As did Sita Thomas, a Bollywood dancer from Tenby, who had most of the assembly up on their feet, snake-hips in action, heads in side-to-side motion and arms in air. The only bar to audience moves more enthusiastic was a lack of space; the event was a sell-out and the hall was full.
If the only recommendation for the improvement of an event was to remove of a piece of wiring impeding projection, it was clearly a success. Here was a model manifestation of multiculturalism, that occasionally divisive, regularly misunderstood and much-bandied concept. And it worked.
‘We need more of this,’ wrote someone on the feedback board on their way out. I agree. Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths
The Second Death (Argentina)
There are few sadder occurrences in genre cinema than when you come across a director who pulls punches. Genre cinema is all about exploiting the emotions, the nerves, the very human-ness of the audience; it is about getting a reaction, and for the exploiter’s chair to be taken up by someone with a sensitive stomach is the beginning of the end. The death knell of horror cinema is boredom. Santiago Fernandez Calvete’s The Second Death, a supernatural horror with aspirations to the emotionally haunting (not just psychologically haunting) work of directors like Guillermo del Toro and J.A. Boyana, is a film that paints its influences and ambitions in thick colours, and then leaves the paint dripping on the screen, not like gore, but like resin. Alba (played by the one expression of Agustine Lecuona) is a big city cop new to a small town, escaping a past (one that, when revealed, makes it very difficult to hold on to her with any kind of sympathy at all) that she has tried to cover up. In this new town people begin to combust, their smouldering corpses all bent into crooked prayer (or is it begging? – or is there a difference? – does it even matter?). In the midst of this is a young boy with psychic abilities, able to see fragments of a person’s past if he places his hands on a photograph of them. This talent, in the end, proves to be less useful to the police (and the plot) as you might imagine, as he chooses to speak in riddles and to often keep much of what he learns to himself. The boy is trapped in an exploitative (and probably paedophilic) relationship with the slobby Roca who leads him from town to town charging suspicious housewives for psychic information on their philandering husbands. Bodies bursting into flames, a cop with a secret and just the one expression, a psychic minor – we have a 1980s Dario Argento movie on our hands, surely? Sadly – very sadly – not.
The failure of The Second Death is not that Calvete makes soup of a thriller by clogging up a script that already moves like treacle with awkward and wooden GCSE theological debate between Alba and a local priest, or that the final revelations are not revelations at all, or that the plot makes very little sense and when it does is profoundly uninteresting, it is that the film is not scary – not for a second. The biggest fright of this screening came from the excellent seven minutes of the short that prefigured The Second Death, the exceptionally well-crafted Tin y Tina from Rubin Stein, a film made with one matter in the mind of the director, to unsettle and frighten the audience.
Calvete, it seems, has little interest in this, and certainly no stomach for it. The camera pulls back from all deaths bar one – and when the camera stays for that one it is heart-sinking in its fizz. Argento, certainly by the eighties when he made such enjoyable pap as Tenebre and Phenomena (where Jennifer Connelly helps track down a gory serial killer with her ability to control insects), could have been accused of terrible scripts, paper-thin plots, actors of one (or fewer) expressions; but he always gave you what you went for – those moments when you’re forcing yourself past your better judgement to keep watching.
A further failing of The Second Death is that it frustrates as much as it bores. There is no richer lexicon of imagery in the horror film-maker’s armoury to unsettle and horrify than that of the Roman Catholic church. Nuns, priests, crucifixes, gothic archways, veils, shrouds, chalices, altars, abbeys, stigmata, the raising of the dead, the torture of the righteous, the sexual repression, the vulgarity, the processional rituals, the chanting, the Latin, the esoterism, the obsession with death and putative earthly existence – it is all there, and not only does it have the power to frighten, it has the power to frighten omnia enim in tempora. Calvete’s set pieces take none of this up. He is given opportunity after opportunity to scare the bejesus out of us, but just doesn’t have the heart to do it. That The Second Death has been compared to Guillermo Del Torro’s sumptuous, frightening, and extremely moving The Devil’s Backbone in recent press exercises, but marketeers of this film beware, all that does is highlight just how inadequate this film is when it comes to its own ambitions. Gary Raymond
Lucio Porenza’s take on the true story of an Argentine family who unwittingly allowed into their lives Auschwitz’s most notorious doctor, Josef Mengele, is a subtle and well-crafted thriller, rich in subtext, and has at its centre a truly disturbing metaphor on the nature of Nazi eugenics.
Mengele, (a coldly charismatic Alex Brendemuhl) fifteen years on the run from those who would bring him to justice, befriends the young girl Lilith (Florencia Bado) and then her family. The German doctor hides his true fascination with the stunted Lilith; it is less avuncular and more ‘scientific’. He manipulates the family in order to test out growth hormones on her, and to inveigle his way into the confidence of her mother Eva, who is pregnant with twins. Anybody who knows even a little of Mengele’s ‘area of interest’ during the time he was nicknamed ‘the Angel of Death’ by the Auschwitz prisoners, will raise an eyebrow at the mention of ‘twins’. And it is here that the story begins to come together. In the background, mumbled by radio newscasts and closet Nazis, as our action moves through the beautifully shot Patagonian landscapes, Adolf Eichmann is being kidnapped by Mossad in Buenes Aires and flown to Tel Aviv for trial. Mengele’s notebook, bespattered with his own ghoulish sketches of his patient/victims and the effects of his dreadful experimentation, is perused by the camera lens, and in the most interesting tract of the movie, Mengele invests in Lilith’s father’s doll-making hobby, industrialising it, making row upon row of glass-eyed Aryan milkmaids with pumping clockwork hearts, a veritable production line of miniature Irma Greses.
This is (for better or for worse) the closest we get to an exploration of Mengele’s psychosis (which was undoubtedly psychotic). It is disappointing that Wakolda does not attempt to at least suggest the depravity behind Mengele’s gentlemanly exterior. Nazism, of course, turned bureaucrats into murderers, but it also gave psychotic serial killers uniforms and offices. Mengele was an example of the second breed, and a cursory knowledge of exactly what he got up to within the fences of Auschwitz I would have suggested to some film-makers that here was an opportunity here to explore the nature of the beast handed high-office. Nazism, after all, was little else.
But Wakolda is less interested in Marathon Man, which does touch on this subject in Lawrence Olivier’s performance, and more in Richard Marquand’s 1981 thriller Eye of the Needle. Wakolda’s plot is driven not by the concepts of good and evil or even by transgression and retribution, but by the threat of the unveiling of a secret identity. Just as Donald Sutherland’s Nazi spy, Henry Faber, tries to hide his identity from his landlady in Eye of the Needle as he awaits a U-Boat to take him and his stolen plans to Hitler’s embrace, so Mengele must also avoid detection from the family he is staying with while awaiting his pelagic escape. This is from where the drama of Wakolda ultimately stems. That it makes some interesting statements on the nature of Nazi eugenics adds weight to the framing rather than defines the film.
It also gives a peek into the post-Hitlerite Nazi movement, who regrouped in South America in the post-war decades, eventually to little avail and very far short of any sort of Fourth Reich. Hollywood (and writers like Ira Levin and Frederick Forsyth) have got good mileage out of ramping up the peril around the ideas of in-hiding Nazis re-emerging as a global threat. But in reality Wakolda perhaps gets it right; the war criminals of South America may have been well-funded, but they were beyond the margins of influence, a cossetted gentlemen’s club hero-worshipping its most depraved members who, without the legitimacy only a war or reigning fascist government can give psychotics as they go about their indulgences, are reduced once again to animals on the prowl. Gary Raymond
Fireworks Wednesday (Iran)
The screening of Fireworks Wednesday in the cinema at Aberystwyth Arts Centre was introduced by WOW festival director David Gillam. He received a round of applause for his announcement that the Arts Centre has agreed to programme more world cinema outside of festival time – clearly, there is an eager audience here.
Gillam went on to say that he would not usually put on such a relatively old film as this in the festival. Released in 2006 and recently selected by the Guardian as ‘The one film you should watch this week’ when it came out on DVD, Fireworks Wednesday has regained interest because its Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, won an Oscar for A Separation in 2012 and has since released another film, The Past.
All three of these works focus on married couples, but the real central character in Fireworks Wednesday is a young cleaner called Rouhi who is sent from an agency to clean a peculiarly messed-up flat in an apartment block in Tehran. The husband of the household does not explain the mess but we gradually realise that it comes from a combination of redecorating (because it might cheer up his wife) and having a massive row.
When he goes out, his wife comes home and starts asking questions of Rouhi. She is suspicious that her husband may be having an affair with the hairdresser next door. The film is a series of domestic scenes in both apartments, and sorties into the excitable world of Tehran at new year, full of firecrackers, bonfires and traffic jams.
It is an absorbing, beautifully filmed drama in which our sympathies move between the crazed, distressed wife (standing in the bath to eavesdrop through an air vent on the neighbouring flat) and frustrated husband (workaholic or womaniser?), but the full story remains intriguingly fuzzy until near the end.
Other reviewers have focused on the way that Rouhi’s hopes for her own forthcoming marriage are tainted as she sees the reality of one couple’s chaos and lies. But these were only fleeting moments. She is a young, innocent observer thrust into the middle of an embattled relationship and her presence makes us question how any of us let things grow so sour.
At the end of the film, when she is given a lift back to her rural area by the tricky husband, past frightening clusters of young men with their faces lit by fires they have built in the middle of the road, her own fiancé is waiting patiently for her, as if he will always be her place of safety, always be caring and faithful. And perhaps he will.
The director’s newest film, The Past, shows at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in May, and promises to be well worth seeing, especially if you want to show your support for world cinema. Helen Sandler