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Raindance Festival Review: A Surfeit Of Celluloid
Robert Barry , October 26th, 2009 09:57

Robert Barry heads to Raindance and sees about a million films so you don't (necessarily) have to

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I can no longer remember how many films I saw at this year's 17th annual Raindance Film Festival. I can no longer remember how many times I charged through the crowds, from the temporary 'film cafe' on Poland Street to the Apollo Cinema, running late for another screening; or how many times I cursed under my breathe at the intrusive light of someone checking their phone in the middle of a film. I saw the best of films, I saw the worst of films, but more than anything Raindance made the world of film seem somehow less alien, less distant and aloof. Like a world that one could simply step into and take part in. Championing a pioneering independent spirit, with the firm conviction that modest budgets need not entail modest ambitions, Raindance is the cinematic front line, an IVF clinic for future film talent.

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Colin

Winner of the Raindance "Best Micro Budget Feature", Colin was made for a mere £45. For all the flaws in its technique, this south-west London set zombie movie nonetheless succeeds in creating a genuine affective connection between the audience and the shambling undead (anti-)hero of the title. Though Colin never speaks, his eyes look dead, and his face remains locked in a lifeless rictus, the narrative invests him with sufficient pathos to create a bond of subjective identification through the screen. If Mark Price is to become a director of significance he will no doubt one day dismiss this film as juvenilia, but there are enough ideas here, however primitively expressed, to suggest that such a scenario may be a serious possibility.

Borges & I

American actor Tim Harris drifts through London, filming the people he encounters with a secret camera borrowed from his day job as an insurance investigator. Along the way we are given a hazy investigation into the nature of identity, the self as constructed by its relations, that turns out to be just as much a manifesto of cinema. The film constrasts that which is not cinema — the static shots of Tim's day job in which he describes in voiceover everything that happens in the shot — with what is cinema: ie the actual narrative of the film, in which it is what we view (or re_view) which gives us an insight into human beings and their relationships. If this all sounds rather cold and pretentious, _Borges & I turns out to be remarkably warm and charming, coupling a vaguely Flight of the Conchords-esque deadpan with the crumpled pathos of Hancock.

Breaking Rocks

Alan Miles's documentary about a project called Jail Guitar Doors, led by Billy Bragg and inspired by The Clash. Since 2007, Bragg has been raising money to buy guitars to be donated to prisons. Following Bragg from prison to prison, handing out guitars with "This Machine Kills Time" stencilled on to them (an interesting substitution for Woody Guthrie's "This Machine Kills Fascists"), and simultaneously monitoring the progress of two 'graduates' form the Jail Guitar Doors programme, now out of prison and performing at Glastonbury. The paradox of the film is that, though the stated point of the scheme is to give out guitars in jail in order to help inmates express themselves, the much-trumpeted success story (if you like) is a young delinquent named Leon who already had a guitar and was already expressing himself quite happily before Billy Bragg came along. So the film ends up more like an episode of Jim'll Fix It or perhaps an X-Factor ex-con special. Also, despite a title card emphasizing the astronomical rise of female inmates proportional to male in recent years, no footage of the programme operating in a women's prison is included in the film. Evidently some doors remain locked.

Moths

Two Italian toughs attempt to out-idiot each other by the docks of Bari while waiting to meet a man from whom they intend to steal a Ferrari. While a plot about two hoods chatting bullshit and killing time before a heist may scream third-generation Tarantino knock-off, give the film some time and you can scarcely fail to be charmed by these two curiously ungainly figures as small talk gradually gives way to reveal their hopes, dreams and desires. The dialogue is written with a keen ear for slang and local dialect (sadly lost somewhat in the subtitles), and the locations and the plangent string music conspire to lend the film a classicism that might almost fool us into thinking we were listening to Iago and Roderigo plotting against Othello.

The Alexander MacKendrick Memorial Lecture - Terence Davies & Of Time and the City

I don't think I have ever heard anyone speak so joyously, and with such infectious enthusiasm, about cinema. One can hear the cheer bursting from his vocal chords as Terence Davies talks about being taken to see Singin' in the Rain with his sisters, aged seven, followed by Ealing comedies, American musicals, "women's pictures" by Douglas Sirk; memorising every shot, every line of dialogue, "It was like learning another language," he says. A language in which he is now fluent, as is more than demonstrated by Of Time and the City - a love song to Liverpool, doctoral thesis on memory, serenade to the silver screen.

Deadline

"You're such a voyeur,"
"Film-maker, actually."
"Yeah, like there's a difference."
A young woman decamps to a big old house in Baton Rouge for a week to escape her ex-con, ex-husband and finish a screenplay in time for a deadline. Wandering around the house alone, she discovers a box of camcorder tapes documenting the breakdown of a marriage as filmed by the psychotically jealous husband. If the story of blocked writer alone with the ghosts of a big old isolated house reminds us of The Shining, one gets the feeling that the camera knows it, and, every now and then, is willing to let us know that it knows it, though, thankfully, never quite enough for us to feel the cold hand of pastiche. Though the photography is not exactly anything to write home about, this is more than made up for by the sound of the film. From almost the first moment in the house, it is a deep otherworldly grown that lets us know something sinister is afoot. From then on in, the film's eerie atmosphere and edge of the seat tension are maintained by a wonderful texture of drones, creaks and whooshes. While this is no Peeping Tom, traversing similar thematic ground, it can hold its head up high in such esteemed company and from time to time has just as much capacity to send a chill down one's spine. Director Sean McConville, made one crucial mistake, however. We should never have seen the husband holding the camera - not until the end at least. It makes him less chilling, almost pathetically ridiculous in fact, and takes us out of the world of the main character, Alice (played by Brittany Murphy).

The Longest Night

Six childhood friends, having long since moved away from their home town, return to go camping in the woods only to be assailed, first by skinhead thugs, then by terrifying, photophobic monsters. Stories about the evil out in the woods are as old as stories themselves, and The Longest Night scarcely deviates from a template locked in stone from Friday the 13th to The Blair Witch Project. A such, one is almost forced to apply different crtieria of assesment, less those for a piece of art or craftsmanship than for a technical machine - does it work? And to this, the answer must surely be a resounding yes. Everything about the film is done properly: the monsters look good, the lighting's good, the music's good, the cast are good. No opportunity for building up tension is wasted. One can only hope director Till Kleinert will, in future, be addressing his clearly considerably talents to a more ambitious project.

Desire

Desire is basically a bad skinflick with all the dirty bits cut out. Only its a skinflick with pretensions, so we have to listen to the painfully posh lead actor prattle on about the ontology of desire like some sixth form poet while a meandering piano steals in from a nearby hotel lobby. The plot concerns a frustrated writer who hires a beautiful African au pair in the hope that fucking her might cure his block, labouring under the delusion that by having one of the characters say, "I'm very sensitive to issues of post-colonialism," will somehow magic away the implicit racism of the scenario. There may be some irony in a film whose characters make such a fuss about the difference between film and television, and the obvious superiority of the former, but which would look trite and amateurish next to the lowliest daytime soap. "It's a film," says main character, Ralph (Oscar Pierce), at one point, "A film called Desire. And I've trashed it." You certainly have, sir.

Popatopolis

"I'm not Picasso," muses B-movie maestro Jim Wynorski, director of over 75 films in under twenty years, including The Da Vinci Coed, The Bare Wench Project, and Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure, "I'm more like the guy who paints Elvis on velvet. But I love what I do." Documentary maker, Clay Westervelt follows Wynorski on the set of The Witches of Breastwick as he attempts to make a full-length feature in just three days, "You need three days," claims Wynorski, "to make a really good one." What comes across most strikingly in Westervelt's hilarious film, is Wynorski's extraordinary dedication and passion for his craft. Inside his home, every drawer and every shelf, not just in the living room, but also in the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom, is filled with videos, and books about film. Wynorski's mentor, Roger Corman, says at one point that he suspects, given more time and bigger budgets, Wynorski could turn out to be a first-rate director, and one can't help but suspect that, for all Wynorski's crudeness, Corman is right. After all, says fellow B-director Andy Sidaris (Fit to Kill, Hard Hunted, Do or Die and Guns), "Alphabetically, B is pretty close to A."

The Cry of the Owl

Pop video director, Jamie Thraves's Patricia Highsmith adaptation may be the best since Hitchcock. Capturing brilliantly the subtle, creeping madness of her books, the sense of an impossible situation developing inexorably and without warning. Paddy Considine is perfectly crumpled as designer Robert Forrester, a peeping tom who finds his prey (Julia Stiles) turning her attention back on him. In a Q&A after the film, Thraves revealed that former teen starlet Stiles was particularly anxious about the role. In the end, her performance has a rather wonderful flatness to it that suits the mood of the film and the quiet madness of her character. Thraves claims to have been heavily influenced by Highsmith's autobiography, seeing The Cry of the Owl as one of her most personal novels, and determined to capture her uniquely dark humour. Jeff Dana's score (his second Highsmith after Roger Spottiswoode's Ripley Underground) is ominously effective, recalling Howard Shore's work with David Cronenberg. As a Highsmith fan who has always found her books enormously 'cinematic' and been surprised by the seeming inability of otherwise strong directors like Wenders and Minghella to really get the feeling of the books, this film gave me everything I might have hoped for. It could've done without the pop music though, which only serves to weaken the film's dream-like qualities.

Exam

Genre-defying existential sci-fi thriller about eight applicants for a highly competitive position at a futuristic biotech company. Placed in the situation of a formal exam, they turn over their question papers only to find them blank. As the clock ticks away, the interviewees, each labelled with demeaning nicknames ('Brown', 'Black', 'Blonde', etc.) by one of their number, struggle to interpret the cryptic instructions of the invigilator, as tensions fray and personalities clash. Notably, one of the contestants, dubbed 'Deaf' at first, is French, and at one point called, first, 'a philosopher' and then, 'Sartre'. For Exam is basically a retelling of Jean-Paul Sartre's play In Camera, with its tagline, 'Hell is other people.' The film is gripping, tense (Hitchcock fans will recognise the role of the ticking clock here) and atmospheric, chillingly effective in constantly ramping up the claustrophobic pressure, but ultimately it is a betrayal of Sartre. Firstly, because Exam's paper without a question is ultimately revealed to have both a question and an answer (and it is the kind of asinine riddle beloved of school boys), but, perhaps more importantly, because Exam is a totally Christianised In Camera, with the boss of the corporation, a benign God-like figure who possesses supreme power over life and death. Far from the godless, meaningless universe of Sartre, Exam presents a world in which enlightenment and spiritual salvation are dished out by benevolent multi-nationals.

A Normal Life Please

Japanese documentary charting one man's struggle for union representation. After a colleague who had been denied sick leave dies in an industrial accident, Kaikura, a truck driver working a 552 hour month (leaving him scarcely over five hours a day to sleep, eat and commute), decides to join a trade union, only for his HR director to ask for his resignation. When Kaikura refuses he is intimidated and physically threatened, then thugs turn up at his mother's funeral and attack him (and the camera man). Ulimately, the stress, exhaustion and sheer physical degradation lands Kaikura in hospital with Crohn's disease. The film becomes a narrative of increasing politicisation - not just for the initially reluctant Kaikura, but just as much for the film-maker, Tokachi Tsuchiya. Tsuchiya introduced this moving documentary by saying he was excited to be showing his film in a country like Britain with such a history of trade union struggles, before admitting that it was also a British model - that of Margaret Thatcher - that inspired the relaxation of Japanese labour laws in the 1980's, leading to the kind of hardships experienced by Kaikura in the film. A Normal Life Please is the winner of the Raindance award for Best Documentary.

The Life and Death of Porno Gang

I had decided I didn't want to see any more films about frustrated film-makers and blocked writers, I didn't want to see anymore films shot entirely on handheld digital video, I didn't want to see any more films featuring non-diegetic pop music, I didn't want to see any more films which strive to explore the links between sex, death and artistic creativity, and I didn't want to see any more films in which the characters get stoned and wig out a bit. And then I saw The Life and Death of Porno Gang, which does all of those things but carries the whole off with such aplomb that one can't fail to be seduced by it. The plot follows Marko (Mihaljo Jovanovic), an aspiring young film-maker, sacked from his job as a porn director for being too arty, who takes his friends out on the road on a tour of rural Serbian villages as the first ever avant garde porno cabaret troupe. After a series of hostile receptions, things go from bad to worse when a sinister German businessman persuades Marko to become the first auteur of snuff. As the humour gets blacker, the narrative and imagery become increasingly depraved, riffing through rape, murder and animal cruelty with irreverent gusto. Several people walked out of the cinema (after the animal cruelty, naturally. We might call Bardot Syndrome the ability to endure, even celebrate, any imaginable cruelty towards humans so long as nothing happens to anything cute and fluffy). But The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is not without its pathos. The ghosts of war keep returning - the first time as farce (a hardcore film shoot is interrupted by bomb blasts), and the second as harrowing tragedy (a former soldier who volunteers to be murdered on camera). Rarely has a film displayed the scars of its country so brutally whilst simultaneously being so funny.

SOS Love

Hungarian romcom SOS Love begins with a smart enough premise: A single father hopeless in his own love life, runs an agency sorting out other people's. Unfortunately, from the over-lit photography, the over-made-up cast, and the over-the-top X-Factor-style soundtrack, it is clear that the producers had decided, for reasons beyond me, to make a Jennifer Aniston movie. Evidently the twin facts that most Hungarian films, indeed most of the videos sent in to You've Been Framed, are better than most Jennifer Aniston movies; and that the kind of people who go and see Jennifer Aniston movies are not, on the whole, the kind of people who will go to see a subtitled film with a cast they don't recognise, thus leaving the film with zero chance of success beyond the domestic market; are of no concern to the producers. The script, however, does have its moments - in particular, one scene towards the end in which, going a step further than the traditional sequence in Cyrano de Bergerac (or, perhaps even more, Steve Martin's Americanised version of Cyrano, Roxanne), in which the guy on a date is being fed lines through an ear piece, SOS Love presents us with a date in which both sides are being fed their lines by competing dating agencies. In a further twist, the two operatives at the other - i.e. opposing - ends of the couple's respective wires, are in fact in love with each other. Before long, the 'client' couple have become mere pawns through which the two operatives conduct their relationship. Unable to speak honestly about their feelings to each other in person, only through the medium of their two unfortunate clients are they able to express how they really feel, under the cloak of helping the dating couple in the middle. It is the perfect metaphor for the hyper-modern mediatisation of the emotions.

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