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Why I Enjoy the Filmfest Hamburg
by Jenny Mather

Films shown at the Filmfest Hamburg are almost always very different from those shown in the mainstream cinema. It’s interesting, often fascinating, to see another person’s perspective on life and a movie is a great medium to highlight it. Films from countries around the world open a window on people, places and cultures and turn a spotlight on them for an hour or two of the audience’s time.

The bloody clashes in the race riots in Gujarat in 2002, for example, were merely a photograph and caption in Time Magazine until Nandita Das’ movie Firaaq showed the agonies which people endured then. She reminded us that it is innocent little children who suffer most from adults’ stupidity.

Similarly, the bitter prejudice which Afghan refugees face in Iran was an unpleasant surprise. Another female director, Shalizeh Arefpour, seemed to be saying that love can conquer prejudice in her movie Heiran, which showed the love affair between a poor refugee boy and a young Iranian school girl. Hopefully, the three million refugees from the Taliban who were allowed to remain in Iran are gradually being assimilated into their host country.

There was prejudice of a different sort in Eyes Wide Open. Director Haim Tabakman showed how ultra-orthodoxy in the Jewish religion (though he could have used almost any other form of ultra-conservative religion) can have a devastating effect on those who don’t conform. (See review on page……

On a light note, the dialogue between the young Americans in Baghead showed how the English langauge is continually evolving. The four young people were perfectly intelligible but were not speaking the standard English usually heard in American films.

It was amusing, too, to note how quickly the subtitles in Road to Santiago kept changing to keep pace with the rapid speech of the Spanish actors and the fast-paced action of the plot. The turgid dialogue in this film contrasts sharply with Carcasses which was almost a completely silent movie. Similarly, the too few subtitles in 10 to 11 meant that the audience had to piece together all the parts of the story by instinct rather than information.

Hardly any of the movies was set in attractive surroundings. Istanbul and Jerusalem sound like romantic places to visit, but 10 to 11 and Eyes Wide Open were set in parts of each city which are definitely not on the tourist maps. By contrast, Coco Chanel’s country house seemed to be the ultimate in 1920’s French chic, but the glamour of the house and park made her affair with Stravinsky seem especially sordid.

Women around the world are still beaten by their husbands and kept in the kitchen; people are cheated, deceived and persecuted because of their faith and because of where they just happen to have been born; little children suffer at the hands of adults. So why do I enjoy Filmfest Hamburg if so many of the films shown are depressing? Perhaps it’s because I can compare my life to others and reflect on my good fortune in being able to live freely and happily in this beautiful city.

Here are my reviews:

Jay and Mark Duplass are talented brothers who have written, directed, and produced a witty and amusing film. They act in their films, too, but chose not to in this one.

Four aspiring but out of work actors watch a second-rate movie and then see the film-maker applauded and fêted for his work. They just know that they can do better if only they can come up with a screenplay.

The two men Chad (Steve Zissis) and Matt (Ross Partridge) decide to spend the weekend in a relative’s remote vacation cabin in the woods. They invite the girls along to help them brainstorm and come up with a plot. Chad has an ulterior motive, of course, and thinks that Michelle (Greta Gerwig) is interested in him. It soon becomes obvious that Michelle is interested in Ross rather than Chad while Ross is being pursued by Catherine (Elise Muller) who hopes to rekindle the affair they once had.

Ideas for screenplays don’t come easily and the path to true love doesn’t run smoothly. Everything is at an impasse on this first evening when Michelle decides to leave the others and have an early night. No sooner does she settle herself in bed when she is startled by a sound in the woods. Then she sees something outside which is moving closer to the cabin. Is she dreaming, or is there really a man with a grocery-store, brown paper bag over his head standing outside her window? Can it be Matt pretending to scare her? Should she take off her t-shirt to show that she’s interested in getting to know him better?

The man with the bag over his head continues to appear throughout this movie and is a little more sinister each time. Is the romantic comedy going to turn into a horror movie? This intriguing film grips the viewer to the end. When Chad says, “Quick let’s get this edited and made into a film and show it at a bunch of film festivals,” we laugh.

In her native India, Nandita Das is a well-known actress. Firaaq is the first film which she has written and also directed and this thoughtful movie is a credit to a clearly very talented woman.

In 2002 the Indian city of Gujarat suffered appalling religious riots. Hindus and Muslims had existed there peacefully since the time of Partition and so the outbreak of racial hatred came as a nasty shock. Ms. Das chose stories about a number of couples to demonstrate the hidden tragedy behind the riots and took care to give a balanced view of the effects of them on everybody.

At the beginning of her movie a young and very poor Muslim couple with a baby return to their burned-out hovel after hiding away for a month until events calmed down. The wife sets about salvaging her pitiful belongings but her husband plots revenge. He is convinced that the Hindu husband of his wife’s best friend has caused the damage. His plan to avenge the damage to his house causes further disaster. Meanwhile the two young women have to rebuild their battered friendship.

A Hindu housewife is wracked with guilt and suffers mental and physical torture because she didn’t help an injured woman seeking refuge from the mob. She offers help of a sort to a little Muslim boy who is looking for his father after witnessing the rapes and killings of his mother and aunt. The traumatised child has left the makeshift camp set up for homeless survivors of the massacre to search for him.

A well-to-do business couple, the wife Hindu and her husband Muslim, plan a move to Pakistan. They watch video footage of the furniture store which they co-owned with the wife’s brother and see it being looted by the rioters. The husband struggles with his conscience and tries to decide whether it would be more cowardly to leave his home than to start using his own Muslim name rather than his wife’s Hindu one.

An elderly Muslim music teacher is sickened by what has happened and tries to cling on to his belief in the goodness of humanity. His pupils are both Muslim and Hindu and he treats them all equally. He is especially fond of a young Hindu pupil and makes her a gift of his most precious possession: a musical instrument from his childhood.

Mr. Das said that the characters in her movie are fictional but are based on a thousand true stories from the riots. She has interwoven those stories skilfully, showing the horror of the situation while offering some glimmers of optimism for the future.

Heiran ***
In her first feature film Iranian director Shalizeh Arefpour chooses to highlight an area of injustice well known to the West. Her film focuses on intolerance shown towards refugees.

During the cruel and intolerant reign of the Taliban in the early years of our new century three million Afghanis left their country and sought peace and a better way of life in neighbouring Iran. Unfortunately they were not welcome in their new home and despite their common bonds of language and religion, they are still not being assimilated into Iranian society. Why should this be? Ms. Arefpour doesn’t answer the question but offers a love story which shows the current state of affairs in her country. Mahi (Mehrdad Sedighian) is a seventeen-year-old-school girl and the apple of her father’s eye. She is his only daughter and the eldest child in this poor farming family, but she is clever and is destined for university and hopefully a more prosperous life. Unfortunately for the family’s plans, there’s a handsome young Afghani (on Mahi’s bus to school each morning. Their eyes meet; soon they’re sharing Heiran’s lunch, and human nature being what it is, they fall in love. Heiran (Baran Kosari) may be a penniless factory worker but that doesn’t stop him from asking for Mahi’s hand in marriage. Mahi’s father (Khosro Shakibaei) is outraged and sends the young refugee packing, along with a torrent of racial abuse.

Heiran is honourable and tries to do the right thing. He tells Mahi that he’s moving to Teheran to earn money for university and disappears from her life. Mahi persuades her grandfather (Farhad Astani) to take her to the city to see him and they find him working on a building site. Mahi is so besotted with Heiran that she insists that she wants to marry him. She must choose between the penniless boy and her furious and unforgiving family. Of course, she chooses marriage and her life becomes a downward spiral.

The end of this film is upsetting for many reasons and shows that there is no easy solution to the problems refugees face. What will become of people like Mahi and Heiran and will there ever be a happy ending for them? Ms. Arefpour’s movie suggests that racial intolerance can be overcome if people care enough about each other

Road to Santiago
The glorious cathedral in Santiago, Spain, is shown at the end of this movie and the journey to it serves as a vehicle for the plot. Director Roberto Santiago uses a pilgrimage to the cathedral as a setting for a light-hearted comedy about four couples who are searching for happiness.

Pilar (Malena Alterio) is a journalist who is sent on the pilgrimage by her boss and is asked to write an article about it for the glossy magazine they work for. Unluckily for her, the photographer Nacho (Fernando Tejero) is also given the same task; Pilar doesn’t like Nacho because of an embarrassing incident in a restaurant at the beginning of the movie. Pilar’s boy friend has just broken off their relationship is order to “find himself.” So Pilar isn’t feeling her best. Nevertheless, she, Nacho and the others set off for the pilgrimage which is led by Olmo. He is an enigmatic guru who claims that he helps couples sort out their love lives during the six-day hike.

The other couples include a Korean pair who are bored with each other and their marriage; a couple who lost sight of each other when their children came along, and two young men who pretend to be gay while hoping to pick up girls on the way. There is a memorable scene when one of these men flirts with a pretty young girl in the communal bathroom at one of the stopovers on the route. The scene involves very vigorous tooth brushing, of all things, which leaves no doubt about what is on their minds.

The movie begins well, is fast-paced and funny. Unfortunately, we can soon predict the outcome of Pilar’s love triangle, though not perhaps, what will happen to the other couples. There are laughs along the way and a happy ending to a movie which was watched by millions of Spanish people.

When this French Canadian movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the International Press was “unanimous in its praise” and described it as being “enjoyably eccentric.” ‘Well, the other movies must have been dire if this one was singled out in such a way.

Director Denis Côté could have taken the opportunity to explore the reasons why an elderly man would choose to live and work in a scrap yard and spend his time sorting, stacking and sometimes selling some of his old junk. The collector (Jean-Paul Colmor) looks at the camera once in a while and tells the audience a little about his family and his girlfriend. He does this usually while he’s slurping soup or combing his hair! These people are mentioned but never seen and throw no light on why Jean-Paul lives the way he does.

One day four people wander onto his property and settle there. It is obvious that they have Down’s syndrome but no explanation is given as to why they are homeless. Jean-Paul lets them stay and offers a friendly hand to them before they leave again. Was he disturbed by them because they were mentally handicapped as well as homeless? Was the woman (Celia Lèveillèe-Marois) pregnant and was one of the three men her lover? Again, no explanation for their plight was given.

Denis Côtè is not new to making movies; he has directed short films and this is his fourth feature film. Carcasses looks and feels like an amateur production made by someone, who has been given his first movie camera, who wants to indulge himself while boring us.

10 to 11
If director Pelin Esmer had kept to her usual documentary style of film making to tell her story, she might have made a more satisfactory movie. Her film debut is too long and too slow but it has an interesting plot about an unusual man and the friend who takes advantage of him.

Mithat (Nejat-Isler) is an old and eccentric character for whom collecting is a passion. His wife left him when he refused to choose between the two and it is not difficult to see why. The old man’s flat is packed with junk, most noticeably old newspapers, which he has bought each day and stacked methodically for almost all of his life. He has weighted the stacks of papers and spread them around the flat in such a way that they are not a threat to the weight-bearing joists in the floor. He needn’t have bothered to take such precautions, however, because the other tenants want to sell the old building and move into a modern, earthquake-proof one. They cannot sell without the total permission of everyone, and Mithat doesn’t want to go. He watches them leave one by one until he’s the only one left.

Ali (Mithat Esmer) is the young caretaker who lives in the damp basement of the building. He is hired by Mithat to run errands for him, which includes buying copies of each day’s newspapers, when Mithat feels too frail to venture out into Istanbul to shop for himself. Ali seizes the opportunity to make a little money by embezzling Mithat and he gradually changes from a down-trodden menial to someone who gains confidence and grabs the opportunity to provide a better existence for himself and his family.

Does Mithat suspect that he’s being cheated? His body is frail but his mind is sharp and he has an educated scientific brain so it may be possible that he has suspicions. Mithat was lonely and perhaps felt that the warmth of their friendship allowed him to overlook Ali’s treachery and he delighted in Ali’s final act of kindness.

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky ***
What a feat to the senses the opening scenes of this move provide. The year is 1913 and a confident, well-dressed young woman strides into the Paris Opera House and takes her seat. She is about to watch the premier performance of the Rite of Spring performed by the Russian Ballet. She smiles in enjoyment while those around her erupt in anger and incomprehension at the strange, modern music and choreography. Behind the scenes the musician who wrote the score for the ballet is arguing with the choreographer and the dancers who are trying to interpret this difficult work. Eventually the dancers are booed off the stage.

The next time we see the young woman it is seven years later and some old back and white movie footage reminds us of the carnage of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Life is getting better, however, and the young woman is now a wealthy and successful one. She visits the musician and his family who are living in poverty in Paris and invites them to stay in her country house for as long as they want. Who could refuse such an offer? Certainly not this musician Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen), his wife (Elena Morozova), their four young children, and their nurse. The elegant young woman is Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and her patronage allowed Stravinsky to rewrite the music which was to be his masterpiece.

Director Jan Kounen did not keep up the momentum of the beginning of his movie and it became slow and almost tedious to watch. How many love scenes are needed to show that an affair is taking place and how many close ups of an unhappy wife have to be shown before it becomes obvious that she knows about it? The movie is based on Chris Greenhalgh’s book Coco and Igor which is supposedly based on fact. Was having an affair with the famous musician Chanel’s true motive for inviting him to her home? She seemed a cold and calculating enough person to contemplate such a thing. And was the newly found passion in the re-finished musical score worth the destructive affair which brought it about?