15 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Sunday

My last day of the film festival featured quite a diverse selection, and in that way it may be the best single day to show what kind of things the Wisconsin Film Festival has to offer. Of course, one of things I totally missed was some of the locally-produced films shown at the festival, despite the fact that the organizers strongly encouraged people to go. I certainly would be interested in seeing some Wisconsin-made films, but I guess I got caught up in the excitement of seeing a lot of new foreign films on a big screen. I also made a concerted effort to see as many Nordic films as possible, as that is my primary topic of study. Still, I missed out of Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006) as well as a Finnish short at the very least. But alas, I guess you can't see them all, right?

At any rate, the three films I saw on Sunday were Le quattro volte, The Light Thief, and Everything Will Be Fine. As before, there may be some spoilers ahead, although I do keep the ultimately twist of Everything Will Be Fine a secret.
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Country: Italy
Languages: Italian

This film is probably best classified as "experimental," or at the very least, "non-conventional." I put up there that the language was Italian, which is true to a point, but at its core, Le quattro volte was primarily a quiet, wordless film. All speech was incidental and was left untranslated—the film had no subtitles. Even the title seems to have avoided the touch of a translator, though for those curious, it means "The four stages" or "The four times."

The film begins with an elderly goat farmer who appears to be ailing from some kind of respiratory illness. That night, he mixes a strange black powder into a glass of water and drinks it. The next day, he awakes and milks the goats, then takes the milk around for delivery. When he delivers to the cathedral in his village, the woman there gives him a packet of holy dust, freshly swept from the floor. It is this dust that he drinks at night as medicine.

However, that day, while he is in the field tending his goats, the packet slips from his pocket, unbeknownst to him. That night, he searches frantically for the packet of dust, until he finally goes out into the rainy night and begins banging on the doors to the church. However, it is to know avail, as we cut away to his funeral. Just as they close up the catacomb in which his body rests, the film cuts again suddenly to the birth of a baby goat. The cut seems to imply a connection, as if his death and the goat's birth are directly related. Perhaps it is reincarnation?

We now see the goat begin his new life. Soon, he is old enough to go out with the rest of the herd to graze in the pastures. However, he becomes separated from the rest and wanders, lost and aimless, until finally he gives up in the shade of a large tree, presumably to die. The body must decompose and feed the tree, though. Later, the tree is cut down by the villagers for a festival, and then it is sent to be turned in to charcoal. The charcoal is taken and eventually delivered to the cathedral, when it is burned and turns into dust and ashes.

An experience
I'm very glad I went to see this movie, but it was probably my least favourite at the festival. I think that's how experimental films will often go. They push the boundries of what a normal film is and can be, and while the outcomes are often very surprising and interesting, they are often a little awkward too. Thankfully, Le quattro volte was still quite watchable despite its length, most likely because it played with narrative structure rather than pushing the visuals or audio into unusual territory.

The story was certainly unique, and I think its presentation of the cycle of life was pretty interesting. However, some of the links were stronger than others. In particular, the link between the man's death and the goat's birth is rather forced. I think I would've found it a bit more compelling if all the connections were more obvious in the scene of life. I mean, I think the overriding theme and message of the film is the interconnectedness of all life on earth, but that message is weakened when the connections themselves are weak. However, I guess they do help this a little bit by having the old man be a goat farmer, and thus he at least helps to raise and foster the lives of goats, much like the young goat that is the focal point of the film's second "stage."

Director: Aktan Abdykalykov
Country: Kyrgyzstan
Languages: Kyrgyz

Mr. Light ("Svet-Ake" in Kyrgiz) is an electrical engineer in a rural Kyrgyz village. He is building his own windmill to try to generate some electricity. He also has a habit of setting the electrical meters to run backwards for villagers who can no longer afford to pay for electricity. The authorities discover what he is doing and originally prohibit him from working, but he eventually gets his job back when it comes to light that one of Mr. Light's good friends is connected to a rich entrepreneur who wants to buy the village.

While drunk with his friend, Mr. Light bemoans his inability to have a son, as all four of his children so far are girls. His friend tells him that he must get a shock to expel all the feminine energy from his body, and so Mr. Light immediately scales a light pole and electrocutes himself. His friend and some of the villagers quickly bury him up to his neck to ground him and he comes to again, and notices an attractive young girl with whom he becomes infatuated.

Soon, the rich entrepreneur hears of Mr. Light's skills and tries to befriend him. Mr. Light tells the entrepreneur his dream of filling a nearby valley with windmills to generate electricity for the entire village, and the entrepreneur says that if Mr. Light can aid him in buying the town, he will help Mr. Light achieve his goal. The entrepreneur brings in Chinese investors and has Mr. Light set up the lighting in a yurt and sit in on their meeting. The entrepreneur lavishes the investors in good food and drink, and then announces he will put on an erotic show for their pleasure. When the entertainment in question happens to be Mr. Light's new infatuation, he snaps and attacks the investors and entrepreneur before fleeing. He short-circuits the entire village's electricity, plunging the village into darkness, and then continues to flee. They catch up to him and (presumably) kill him (the scene is a bit ambiguous). At that moment, a strong gust blows through the village, causing the windmill to break loose. As it spins, the solitary lightbulb connected to it begins to shine weakly.

Culturally dense
I liked the feel of this film, and I thought the characters where beautiful and very human. Mr. Light felt very genuine and although a little odd and misguided, felt like he had a good heart. However, I feel like I only really got part of the story. There were numerous moments where I felt culturally unable to completely understand what was going on. In particular, there were two scenes in the film where the electricity in the town goes out and everything is plunged into darkness. Both times, it was accompanied by slow-motion shots of donkeys going crazy. I feel like there had to be some cultural significance to this. It felt too out of place otherwise.

Cultural differences aside, I thought it was a very beautiful film, and I think it had a lot to say about life in Kyrgyzstan. I just wish I had a better idea of how to contextualize it. I want to understand it better. Perhaps with a bit of time, I'll be able to find some reviews where people can do so far me, as I hope I am able to do with those films where I am able to help explain context for my readers.

Director: Christoffer Boe
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Languages: Danish

Everything Will Be Fine focuses on a scriptwriter named Jacob Falk who is working on a script for a new film about war. However, he is stuck in writer's block, and decides to go for a late night drive to clear his head, but ends up accidentally running over a young man. The man was a soldier in the war who pleads with Jacob to take his bag and hide it. Jacob drives off and calls in the accident from a pay phone, without identifying himself. Later, as he looks through the bag, he finds photos of gruesome acts of torture committed by Danish soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

What follows from here is a thriller about Jacob's attempts to get information about the photographs and find a way to make them public. While he is worried about the photos, his wife continually nags him to get their adoption request forms and check over them, but he continues to promise that he'll do it the next day.

Unfortunately, the photos are stolen from his car, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and violent as the authorities continue to deny everything and seem to be arranging things against him.

Everything Will Be Fine was definitely the most exciting of the films I saw. It was fast-paced and left you on the edge of your seat. The film also had some very impressive cinematography with a strong feeling for lighting effects, and the film frequently features lens flare as a defining element of its style. There are also some clever compositions. For example, when Jacob calls in about the accident, he notices a security camera at the gas station. Back at his hotel, the mural painted on the wall above the bed is of a security camera that happens to point directly at his head. This is just one instance where the film creates a mise-en-scène that reinforces Jacob's paranoid mindset.

The film also uses tilt-shift photography extensively, especially for establishing shots. For those unfamiliar with tilt-shift, it's a photography technique in which the focus area can be squashed in wide angle shots (shots from very far away). That kind of focus area is usually only possible with very close-up images, like if you take a close-up photograph of a small toy soldier or a fly on the wall. When you take tilt-shift shots of cities, you often get the illusion that it is a model town. You can check out some examples of it here.

In films, an establishing shot is a shot of the setting that places the following scene within some context. Think of an American TV show where they show the building where the action is going to take place for a split second before cutting to the actual action. It's a fairly common technique that helps us place scenes into some sort of geographical scene of space. If you're not completely aware of these shots, that's okay; they are such a common part of the filmic language that we tend to automatically read right through them the same way most people don't really pay attention to every time there is a cut in a film.

Anyway, by filming the establishing shots with tilt-shift, Eveything Will Be Fine begins to create an uneasy feeling. For one, these shots become more visible to the viewer and disrupt the ease with which we can "read" the film. Also, the film draws a connection between the real spaces in which the drama occurs and the model diaramas that Jacob uses while writing his scripts to help plot out action. The feeling is unsettling, as if the characters in the film are pieces in someone's chess game, being controlled from afar by some omniscient power. Again, the touches of paranoia and conspiracy are obvious. This was, perhaps, the film's strongest point, as it was able to gently play with all the elements to fully develop and materialize the mental landscape of Jacob's mind into the visual space of the film itself.

The film also features some major twists, as any good thriller should, with the biggest one coming, of course, at the end. The ending is satisfyingly mind-bending. Think something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where everything finally clicks and you want to go back and rewatch it to find all the clues you missed along the way. Everything Will Be Fine would be my second favourite film at the festival, I think, after Medal of Honor. I would certainly recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a good thriller.

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