Monday, April 30, 2012

More from Bradford

Juan of the Dead, the first film I saw at the Bradford Film Festival this year, was by far and away the most 'Chopping Mall' themed film of the bunch.  The others were a curious bag of experimental and inventive footage that are certainly worth a mention though.  I seriously doubt any of them are in line for a DVD release any time soon, so they might be a little harder to track down, but they're all worth a watch - and as distribution moves more and more towards digital methods, they may well be available at some point.

First up: Vikingland!

Vikingland's story is a bizarre one (and possibly even more interesting than the film itself!). The blurb is worth pasting from the official website:
Xurxo Chirro has a passion for record keeping and works in the Archives Department of the local television company. During research, he came upon four video tapes that amounted to 16 hours of rushes and were titled ‘Vikingland’. Luis – an expatriate seaman and a migrant like so many of his fellow Galician countrymen – is the hero of this quite peculiar video saga. This is, indeed, no epic tale but a combination of anecdotes and Luis’ persistence. Between learning how to handle the video camera he has just acquired and the long hours working on the ferry-boat which sails from Denmark to Sylt Island in Germany, where he has been hired as a warehouseman, Luis recorded himself without respite for a whole winter. 
So... yes. This is amateur footage shot by a sailor, re-cut by a Galician archive-keeper into something that (supposedly) imitates Moby Dick (Melville is even credited at the end as a writer...). It's long and it's slow but also interesting and occasionally amusing.  Some of the scenes are almost painfully empty of any action (Luis sets the camera up to watch him moving boxes. We watch him moving boxes. That's it) but other moments are more compelling.

The extended Galician-sailors' Christmas dinner is a great scene. The wine-guzzling sailors introduce each dish to the camera and discuss how keen they are to show people what their lives are really like. In this sense it's a pretty fascinating  documentary about the minutae of behind-the-scenes life for the workers in the ship. It is too long, but apart from that it's got a lot to recommend it. Whether we believe Xurxo Chirro's story or not, his project is refreshingly real and democratic. There's no real attempt to make Luis a hero, to explain his history or future, but we're invited into his little cabin and get to see life as he does.

Next up: Moscow Diary.

Here, we're invited to follow Walter Benjamin's footsteps around Moscow, which he visited for six weeks in the 1920s.  It's shot entirely on a mobile phone and, as we wander the streets, parts of Benjamin's diary are read out to accompany the film.  Although he was partly there to have a look at communism in action, the main purpose for his trip was to pursue actress Asja Lacis with who he was apparently madly in love. Given that I only know Benjamin from his writings on aesthetics and technology and his academic reputation, being shown the fragile and human side to him was quite a surprise. His sad reflections on having waited up all evening in the hope that Asja would swing by are sometimes unsettlingly pathetic: it's hard to reconcile the philosopher with the lovesick boy.

Visually, the film's a bit uneven. The mobile-camera works well for the most part - it's held steady and the image is decent, if not great - but that makes Adam Kossoff's choice to occasionally use zoomed in shots puzzling because the low-resolution makes it look a right mess.  I'm pretty sure by now it's not a nostalgia-based illusion: low quality digital footage looks a lot worse than low quality film.

Moscow Diary  was paired with another mid-length film about Walter Benjamin (you wait ages for a film about Benjamin and then two come along at once...) : Les Anges de Port-Bou (The Angels of Portbou)

In this one, Parisian (?) Benjamin-obsessive Séraphin comes out by train to the border with Spain to recreate Benjamin's last journey, fleeing France for what he hoped would be safety in Spain, before eventually killing himself in the Spanish town of Portbou.

Instead of his friend, who's supposed to be walking with him, he's met by his friend's sister, Gabrielle, who Séraphin reluctantly allows to accompany him across the hills.  Their walk ambles between topics, taking in Benjamin's history, the lives of people in the region and the appeal of mystery amongst other things. It's a gently told story with plenty left open to interpretation but it's neatly done, looks beautiful and just flies by. I'd definitely be keen to see more by the director Vladimir Léon.

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