Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Tampere Film Festival report 2011

I visited the industrial city of Tampere to go to the short film festival they had. The fact that the festival is mostly for short films provides some problems on how to cover it in this blog. I don't want to analyze each of the shorts I saw seperately. So I decided to do a review on only the full-length films and the winning films I saw.

One of my most eagerly awaited happenings of the festival were the compilations of old 16 mm films collected by the American film freak Dennis Nybacka. These were showed at three seperate screenings that were organized by their respective themes. The first one I saw was called the Age of Oil and focused on the relationship America has with its Black Gold. The films from this screening were the most versatile and also the most interesting of the bunch. The screening featured first a few old educational fims about how useful oil is and where does it come from (1952,1953). The interests of the oil companies behind these older films are almost too obvious, looking at them from the modern perspective. Yet the film Toast (1974) is more illustrative - it shows just how much oil we waste to toast a single slice of bread. The show included also a couple of old one-reel comedies that revolved around the subject.  The W.C. Fields one, California Bound, was almost too fast for me to comprehend but still pretty funny. The more interesting one was It's A Gift (1923), a silent film by the forgotten comic Snubb Pollard. At his prime he used to be a rival for Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The film was about an inventor that had an alternative for expensive oil usage - using magnets to hitch a ride from passing cars. Some of the inventions by Pollard were almost uncannilly reminiscent of the ones seen in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

Although the second screening, Kill A Commie For Christ had a more provocative title, the films were a lot duller. The screening focused on the Cold War from the American perspective, yet didn't feature any outrageous anti-communist films but rather some of the Newsreels from that time. While it's certain that American newscasters at that time weren't FOR communism, the perspective isn't so over-the-top as to be funny. Yet the final film, All About Fallout (1961), grimly saved the day. On the same day as the earthquake in Japan damaged its nuclear power plants to the point of crisis, the festival audience got to see the most ludicrous "educational" film about shielding from atom bombs since Duck and Cover. Granted, it focused on just the Nuclear Fallout. Yet I do doubt that a single jacket would be enough to save oneself from it, even if one brushes it afterwards. Nor do I believe that one can eat nuclear potatoes by just peeling them, nevermind drink from polluted rivers as "water washes itself". But the most outrageous claim of the film is that "nuclear fallout disappears pretty fast, so one can come out from the Nuclear shelter after a week". Should an atom bomb be dropped and I survive in a bomb shelter, I wouldn't be so certain to come out if it wasn't necessary. Let's hope no one Japan doesn't have to make that choice.

The final screening was saved for the club Freaky Horror Night so that everyone could be able to get drunk and extra ironic on that one. It was called Good Intentions and featured old educational films for youngsters, and they all attempted to scare them straight. That's why we got to see teenagers suffer the consequences of such feats as drinking and driving, dropping LCD and shoplifting. They are pretty slow-moving by today's standards but the most hilarious thing about them is the wallowing in the tragedy that follows. The films usually have a main character that has an inner monologue filled with self-pity: Why Oh Why Did I Have To Do It?! What will my mother think? All of the films go on for far too long and at point I was certain we would get to follow the protagonist all the way into the grave, rotting away regretting the abrupt end of his life. Freaky.

Willliam S. Burroughs: A Man Within 
Director: Yony Leyser
USA, 2010

I wonder if it's hip to be a beanik again these days. In addition to the film Howl about Allen Ginsberg we have a brand new documentary about the author of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs. The film itself has an indie background. The director Yony Leyser started to make the film by just going around to talk to people who knew Burroughs personally. Everyone was happy to oblige and he also uncovered a lot of rare footage from these people - simple home videos that happen to feature the author. Eventually the project began to grow over as a full feature film. Leyser may be a first time director, but the documentary itself doesn't seem a drop cheaper or more simple than bigger-budget documentaries. Leyser even got RoboCop himself, Peter Weller, to host the documentary and Sonic Youth to provide for the soundtrack.

The film's strengths lie on the archive footage and the few fantastic ideas that create an inspirational feeling for the film. These include dividing the film into seperate subjects rather than following a chronological timeline. It's also a cool idea to feature a strange stop-motion animation made out of iron wire at the beginning of each of these chapeters. But this division is also a weakness as themes from Burrough's life don't get to overlap each other but are divided into seperate portions. If one is not too familiar with the author (like me), one can get a pretty clear idea of what makes him such an interesting character. Yet the chronology of his life and to some extent the cause and affect is lost on us. Burroghs met numerous tragedies and a lot of sorrow in his life, which must have taken its toll in his behaviour. I'm just not quite sure how.

There is also the fact that there are too many interviewees. While it's impressive to see the likes of David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge and Jello Biafra talk about their idol, it really undermines the interviewees who have a lot of the more deeper insights about the man, such as his former lovers. Leyser does get some emotion out of some interviewees and it becomes quite apparent that Bourroughs was a man who couldn't really handle the relationships he had. It is an intimate documentary, with the literary work taking the backseat, but getting the right amont of time to shine too. If anything, it awoken my interest to finally reading Naked Lunch, which has waited for me in my shelf for a while.


Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher)
Director: Jean Epstein
France, 1928

This was already the second time I saw Jean Epstein's silent film provided with modern rock being played simultaneously for its soundtrack. This time the sound was provided by the Finnish punk band Radiopuhelimet. The band is great, but it seems that they weren't quite up for the task. They couldn't create the kind of athmosphere needed for such an eerie film, nor could even rock it out as hard as they could've. The end result was nice but not earth-shattering.

As for the film itself, it tells about a man called Allan (Charles Larmy) traveling to The House of Usher, a place that the locals call cursed. Allan has been summoned by the house's owner, his old friend Roderick Usher (Jean Debaucourt) who is growing desperate over his wife's illness. He is painting a picture of her that is actually an attempt to preserve her alive as long as possible.  This leads to supernatural phenomena and eventually, the Fall of the actual House.

The film is not actually one of my favorite silent horror films. The classic horror story by Edgar Allan Poe is not one to suit any adaptation very good anyway as the horror is created by mostly lingual and methaphoric ways rather than with something you can picture on canvas. But nevertheless, Epstein does a valiant effort. The athmosphere is created with care and the dark and striking imagery, while not exactly unforgettable, services the darkness of the story well. The shortcomings come from having such a flimsy plot. And the ending actually feels oddly anti-climatic and doesn't really resolve the main plot in a satisfyng way. I refuse to believe this is because of some Haneke-like anti-establishment postmodernism rather than just sloppy screenwriting.


Director: Tod Browning
USA, 1932

Freaks was played at the festival in a club called Freaky Horror Night. I am very fond of the film and thus don't feel the background of drinking beer, listening to music and chatting with friends at the same time was of service for the film as much as it could've been. The film and it's deformed cast were used as a kind of sideshow for the club, planning to gather glances from the distracted club audience. This undermines the film's strong humanistic message about equality among people.

The first half of Freaks mostly just depicts the life of dwarves, pinheads and such other sideshows behind the scenes of a travelling circus. They are not the actual freaks of the title. That title goes to the "regular" people that mock and abuse those different from them, refusing to accept they are also human beings. One of such human monsters is the beautiful trapeze artist Venus (Leila Hyams). Initially she makes fun of the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) that is in love with her, but when he learns that the little man is rich, she agrees to marry him. The other deformed sideshow performers good-naturedly accept Venus to their tight group. But she actually has an affair with the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and they plan to poison Hans to run off with the money.

The film's director Tod Browning used to work in a circus himself and thus the film is apparently based on his real experiences with working with those that are different. The character of Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) may be something of an alter ego to Browning as his role is mostly to stand up for the sideshows and give them emotional support at times of need. It is impressive how Browning didn't resort to makeup or tricks to recreate his beloved circus world, but rather gave work to actual sideshows. By that time's (pre-Hayes code) standards this is a very noble film. By depicting the everyday life of the sideshows, Browning casts them in a natural light. They have the same small pleasures and nuicances in life as we all. For once we get to see them in their own terms, not in the middle of a circus, being cast in the light of being different. Browning is also wily enough to answer such questions as how does a man without arms or legs light up his cigarette, so the film is actually far from being a complete bleeding-heart humanistfest.

Not counting the final few minutes, Freaks is almost more like a film noir in a circus setting than a real horror film. The main character is almost destroyed by a treacherous woman and her schemes. Yet for a film about a community it also has a dark edge. One who decides to betray the trust of the closest of groups must pay a price.


The winning films:

The External World - Winner of Best Animation
Director: David O'Reilly. Germany 2010. 15 min.

The film is a compilation of skits where the rules of animation make anything possible. The film has a dark sense of humour and parodies our urban lives where the mundane enviroment mixes up with the colourful lives we follow in the media. To achieve this with large-eyed cuddly cartoon characters just adds to the punch this delivers.

How To Pick Berries (Miten marjoja poimitaan)- Winner of Best Documentary
Director: Elina Talvensaari. Finland 2010. 19 min.

The documentary depicts the views people in Lapland have for (and against) people from Thailand coming every year to pick berries from the wilderness to earn small wages from the local jam factory. The film mostly lets its images tell the story of the environment and let the voices of the interviewees tell that part. It is beautifully shot and perfectly realized, and tells a lot about the actual mindset of us Finns.

Silent River (Apele Tac) - Chosen As European Film Academy Nominee Tampere
Director: Anca Miruna Lazarescu. Romania 2011. 30 min.

Again I must look with admiration how a nation with such a small film industry as Romania can produce brilliant cinema year after year. This is another tale of the dark totalitarian Ceaucescu years, this time about two men and the other's pregnant wife who attempt to defect to Serbia. The storytelling is nothing short of brilliant - in such a small amount of time the director manages to fully flesh out the characters and to grippingly bring out the tensions, large and small. The end has the most thrilling suspense moments I've witnessed in years. Highly recommended.

The Tongueling (Kielitietty) - Winner of the Youth Jury Prize
Director: Elli Vuorinen. Finland 2010. 4 min.

The Tongueling is a one-gag animation. The gag itself is sweet and funny enough, even if it is a tad predictable.

Sweet Mov(i)e - Winner of the Risto Jarva Prize by the Finnish Film Foundation
Director: Jan Ijäs. Finland 2010. 4 min.

The experimantal short features a split screen where young women and men practice their fuck-moves in their underwear. The film is so banal from the use of music to the grainy black-and-white photography, that it works as a sort of parody from over-sexualized advertizing. Some jean commercials are not too far from that. Except they would probably choose better music over the cheesefest playing in the background of this great short.

The Illustrated City (Kuvitettu kaupunki) - Winner of Main Prize, Less Than 30 Minutes
Director: Jan Andersson. Finland 2010. 5 min.

Probably the most political of the films features a wall which is filled with graffitis and then painted over. Over and over again. The film seems to suggest that the unrelenting fighting against street art leads later on to fascism and a dystopian future. It really doesn't trust security cameras to say the least. Yet the film is beautifully animated and is a hoot to watch nevertheless.

Incident By A Bank (Händelse Vid Bank) - Winner of the Grand Prix, Winner of Best Fiction, Winner of the Audience Award of the International Competition
Director: Ruben Östlund. Sweden 2010. 12 min.

The biggest pile of prizes went to this very inventive and entertaining Swedish film. It depicts a bank robbery progressing, shot from the street in real time and with a single take. The director has taken a page from the films of Jacques Tati and utilizes various depths within the image inventively. It also has an unmistakable swedish sense of humour that is at once deadpan, realistic and quite silly. It also has a certain melancholic side to it and comments our times where the people witnessing the robbery rather set up their cell phones to shoot a video than call the police. Supposedly based on actual events, the filmmakers themselves got into trouble while shooting. Featured above is the cell phone footage shot by a character in the film.

I didn't get a chance to see The Painting Sellers (Finland 2010) - The Winner of Main Prize for Films Over 30 Minutes. But I promise you to do something to review the film once the DVD comes out. I'm very intrigued about that.

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