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Frankly Madeira Don't Give A Damn: Micro International Film Festival
Dave Hamilton-Smith , February 7th, 2015 08:58

David Hamilton-Smith gives some thought to the questions raised by his visit to Madeira's Micro International Film Festival

Maybe it was just my anticipation, or a keen sense of journalistic openness and duty, but I couldn't help feeling as I first ventured out into the Madeiran daylight that the town of Ponta do Sol is inherently cinematic. Arriving after dark the evening before, the landscape had been hard to judge from the passenger seat of a taxi, but there was suggestion enough in the tunnels and ascending streetlight strings that this was a place of imposing altitude. From the clifftop hotel, a bridge leads the guests to one of three elevators required to reach the road below. And from there, steps down to the old town centre with its tiny harbour and seafront bars. Turning back to follow the irrigation stream inland, the valley narrows to a ravine, leaving the town behind and bringing the mountains in. The place is impossibly quiet.

It's the sort of spot that turns everybody into an amateur landscape photographer. With the two cheap disposables I bought at Gatwick airport, I was happy to abandon the possibility of checking and re-checking my focus and framing. Given that almost everywhere in Ponta do Sol is an advantageous position, it's common to see the other festival attendees from a distance as they wander around the resort during the idle daytimes. From my balcony I had a clear view across to the main venue of the MMiFF, the Cine Sol, and I watched as they set up the bar and PA system for the opening night rooftop party. The Cine Sol is an unassuming building aside from two defining characteristics: firstly, its wonderful sign – "CINE 1933" – built into the façade and tastefully crowning the first floor; and secondly, its position overlooking the town and harbour from the north-east.

By the time I arrived the first week of festivities was already over. The MADEIRADiG experimental music festival, now in its fifth year, had drawn to an apparently raucous close the night before, making way for its gentler cinematic sister the Madeira Micro International Film Festival. As a neatly appropriate bridge between the two events, a screening of Björk: Biophilia Live was arranged at the immaculate John Dos Passos Cultural Centre. Set slightly below the older buildings, the Cultural Centre is plainly in a modern style – square and white, flat-roofed with a glass frontage – but it doesn't steal any attention away from the historic cobbled charm of the centre itself. It struck me a few days later that this venue would have been a far more convenient space to host the entire festival, and yet the organiser's insistence upon the old Cine Sol is a most encouraging obstinacy. The MMiFF connects a pan-European network of multimedia artists with the island's long tradition of upmarket tourism – the kind of appeal that brought Winston Churchill and his easel to the island time and time again, and attracted the wealthier Madeirans to travel to the Cine Sol by boat to catch imported silent films in the 1930s. And so every year Digital In Berlin's Michael Rosen reprises the intrepid spirit of the cinema's founder in his determination to bring the show – films, technical equipment, chairs, audience and all – to Ponta do Sol once again.

Though this task isn't quite as formidable as, say, Fitzcarraldo bringing opera to the banks of the Amazon, it still demands belief and ingenuity. "I do it because I love cinema," he says. On the festival's first year Michael shipped rows of church pews over from Lisbon to furnish the disused screening room, but he has since learned to cater for the prevailing relaxation and comfort of Ponta Do Sol by shortening the programme and improvising a new front row out of vast black cushions. With the Cine Sol revived and the pop-up bar venue installed downstairs, the opening party sets a casual Mediterranean pace that's sustained throughout the weekend. On the roof terrace it's easy to spot the distinguished Madeiran guests among the majority of pale Northern Europeans. There's the owner of a chain of hotels, who is both sponsor and host to the better part of the festivals, and the Cine Sol's current owner Ricardo Borges, whose welcoming speech I missed through lateness (so much for my aforementioned journalistic duty). A few glasses later I saw Mr Borges holding court with some attendees, grandstanding loudly: "Forget it! It's Madeira." Laughing at the inward echoes of Chinatown, I then spent the rest of the week privately envisioning the whole town as run by movie-gangster stereotypes.

Elsewhere in the town, a few feet above head height, we were unexpectedly treated to a serial comedy drama in the form of the hanging of Ponta do Sol's Christmas lights. Every day they had made a little progress, a small team of three or four, with skill levels ranging from acrobatic to hapless, and with scant regard to personal safety or the proper use of ladders. It was a modest spectacle, if you'll permit the contradiction, and in the event far more engaging to watch than the result of their efforts, as displayed during the town's congenial street party on the Friday evening.

But on the screen itself, away from the many spurs to the imagination offered by our affluent sub-tropical setting, the abiding generic theme was, as it transpired, horror. Four of the six features had a distinctly monstrous central premise or revelation. These films re-worked various tropes and themes from the horror cannon, yet were informed by tones and registers of a more modern kind. For example, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows exhibits the obvious influence of 70s and 80s 'suburban horror' - Halloween's soundtrack and setting in particular – but in today's hyper-crisp digital, this translates into the same kind of soulless and dateless postmodernism as Nicolas Refn's Drive. In Spring and the early idyllic scenes of Honeymoon – both of which eventually emerge as creature-features albeit of very different stripes – it's the naturalistic improv-style dialogue of US indie comedy-drama that marks the films as 21st Century productions.

The programme as a whole offered many moments of friction, or even collision, between bold stylised fantasy and endeavours towards realism. Some films managed to balance both in thrilling tandem, and others seemed to make a feature of such incongruity, challenging the audience to either go with it or give up. Some people did indeed give up, including myself on one occasion. By the festival's third and penultimate day, a heightened kind of perceptibility had developed in me towards the other viewers. I found myself waiting for moments that would stretch or break their credulity, to which I responded with enjoyment or frustration depending on my own. And so while I must admit there were no real game-changers or future classics at MMiFF 2014, there also wasn't a single film that failed to grasp the audience and provoke us into some kind of reaction. This wasn't a festival for slow, slight, austere filmmaking.

Overhearing some less than favourable comments after the screening of It Follows, I supposed that this must not be much of a horror crowd. But then, what kind of crowd was it? The question had been niggling at me since my arrival. Michael was unperturbed about the mixed reception and how it bodes for the other horror films on the programme. "I don't really care what everybody thinks," he said, "I think they're all great." Very few people could say this without seeming arrogant, but Michael has a manner about him, leaning in and holding eye contact, that makes such a statement sound gentle and confidential. His selection of films was unashamedly personal, and the programme was a coherent statement of his tastes.

But it was also much more than that: it was an exhibition of film culture in the digital age. Being slow (and perhaps too cautious) to recognise a truly modern channel for promoting, discovering and consuming old forms, I had already known the answer to my niggling question, but was unsure of what it meant, and what the cultural implications were. What kind of crowd was it? Essentially: media types and artists connected with Digital in Berlin. But far from being a kind of coterie, the MMiFF is the celebratory outcome of an outward-reaching, extensive and extending network. In turn, it supports works that have been created in the same way as itself: laterally and collaboratively. Both of the second night's screenings (Rocks In My Pockets and The Babadook) had prominent credits for their many Kickstarter backers, and I gradually came to recognise that 'grassroots' support need no longer be localised for events and films such as these to emerge. This was always the potential and the promise of global high-speed digital interconnectivity, but very rarely the reality. And yet the films were made, and the show goes on in Ponta do Sol.

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is an Australian family drama depicting the long shadows cast by personal tragedy. It is also a psychological thriller, and an expressionist horror, and is as busy and sincere and ambitious as such a generic breakdown might suggest. It's already been released in the UK – breaking the box office top ten, in fact – so my written impressions here are rather late, but for what it's worth I found it very admirable. It's gripping, well acted and startlingly cruel in places, and if it doesn't quite reach the standards of its most telling influences – Tim Burton and Roman Polanski, to my eyes – this is only due to the sheer ground it attempts to cover in linking those reference points.

The festival's third night offered an American indie double-header in the forms of Spring and Honeymoon. Spring is the second collaborative feature from directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, whose previous works are largely a mixture of comic shorts and low-budget horror-thrillers. They have retained elements of both genres in Spring, resulting in an unusual concoction that I can well imagine some viewers might find grating and absurd. It certainly isn't afraid to take quite major risks with its storytelling; it's as if Benson and Moorhead decided that the best way of shaking up two very disparate subgenres – indie rom-com and supernatural body horror – was to collide them abruptly, trusting in the deadpan realist humour of the script to carry the audience through their incredulity.

The film begins in a down-at-heel American suburb, where a young man named Evan has been nursing his mother through the final stages of a terminal illness. His ambitions don't seem to extend much further than the local bar at which he works. After her death, Evan winds down the day of her funeral by drinking heavily with his equally hopeless colleague. An aggressive patron picks a fight, and though Evan is reluctant to engage him, the emotion of the day prevails. He lashes out and loses his job. In the impulsive clarity of the next morning's hangover, he realises that nothing is keeping him in the neighbourhood any more. Heading for the airport, he phones ahead: “Where should I fly to? People like Italy, right?”

My description thus far doesn't seem to fit a film that has as much comic intent as Spring does. The source of its comedy is a kind of male aimlessness and passivity, which continues as the story transplants Evan from his grim grey home life to the warmly beautiful reds and greens of Italy. He falls in with a couple of crass British backpackers, at whose repulsive turns of phrase I laughed a great deal more than the rest of the non-British viewers. They abruptly ditch him one morning – “It's too fucking expensive here, we're off to Amsterdam.” – and he is glad to be rid of them, especially since meeting a tall, dark, beautiful girl named Louise the night before.

The blossoming romance between Evan and Louise proceeds in an airy, bantering sort of way. She is a little distant and flighty, and he doesn't understand why. But the audience already knows: she is a kind of ancient vampiric creature, and her elusive behaviour is in fact an attempt to hide the ugly particulars of her existence from her admirer. From this point on neither the rom-com nor the horror elements can be taken at generic face value, and each feels like it's trespassing in the narrative and stylistic domain of the other. Moorhead and Benson have set themselves up with a real challenge: to be graphic but not gratuitous with the slime and gore; to be both sweet and deadpan with the dialogue. Mostly they succeed, judging by the placement of the audience's laughter. After the visually impressive scene in which Evan discovers the extent of his new girlfriend's condition, the humorous counterpoint comes in the form of a calm but awkward conversation. Louise timidly asks, “Are you afraid of me now?” Understandably struggling to digest this recent turn of events, he replies, “Yes.” This raises a good laugh, and proves that most of the audience is still onside. The deadpan realism mostly keeps the whole absurd premise on the rails.

Spring is certainly an oddity, but in the end it isn't much more than that. Its lightness of tone makes it feel incidental, and its portrayal of Italy doesn't go much deeper than a picturesque postcard. Yet, in its irreverent and skittish way, it does at least use its Italian setting to prompt small reflections on the constant changes in art, culture and religion over the past two-thousand-odd years. Despite her inhuman longevity, Louise can understand no better than Evan the shifting ideals, truths and motives of Western civilisation. Like him, she is merely reacting to circumstance and acting on impulse, with no grand plan in mind.

The last of the festival's horror-styled outings was the most drastically reduced and isolated. Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon is a paranoid little two-hander with the determination to follow its central crisis through to the blackest possible conclusion, thus providing us with the only genuine downer of the whole week. The titular honeymoon takes place in an old woodland lake house, and Janiak takes full advantage of the subdued light and shaded colours of the location. The handheld camera work and lack of obvious art direction comes across like a refreshing lack of affectation for such a committed genre film, despite the conspicuously generic bare-minimum box-ticking of the film's setup. (Beautiful young couple? Check. Scary old house in the woods? Check. Let's go!) Honeymoon plays it utterly straight and without any wry or showy self-awareness, introducing its newlyweds' initial happiness and optimism with sincerity. Theirs is an exciting, us-against-the-world kind of love, which makes their psychological dissolution all the more affecting. Once the freefalling story has made its inevitable impact, the film's most abiding emotion is sadness.

Outside the four films that represent the MMiFF's generic core, there are greater pleasures and more profound expressions to be absorbed. As enjoyable as the week's exploration of modern independent horror undoubtedly was, the best two films were nothing like them (and indeed nothing alike). Screened to a packed house on the closing night, Peter Strickland's The Duke Of Burgundy is a class act. With his third feature Strickland has emerged as one of the best and boldest of left-field British filmmakers, and this may be his most perfectly well-balanced yet. Initially appearing as an affectionate and faithful rehabilitation of 1970s European arthouse erotica (a marginalised and intellectually suspect genre if ever there was one), it gradually widens into a study in submissiveness and dominance that's both sharp and touching.

The Duke Of Burgundy elliptically chronicles the fracturing relationship of Cynthia and Evelyn, whose idyllic lifestyle in an evocatively vague Mediterranean village is gradually revealed to be a strictly maintained construction of role-playing and humiliation. The daily performance sees Evelyn cast as an innocent and childlike maid, held to obsessively high standards by Cynthia's cruelly authoritative lady-of-the-house. This repeating fantasy allows Strickland to toy with the kaleidoscopic soft-focus sensuality of the genre, while slowly peeling back layers of artificiality to show us the human frailties and unfulfilled needs that dwell beneath the surface.

And it's precisely this abundance of 'surface' that Cynthia finds difficult to bear. There is little comfort and freedom to be found in the lifestyle she has adopted, and over time we come to question her complicity. Evelyn's fetish for ritual humiliation becomes more extreme, and this forces a genuine power struggle to emerge through the cracks in the artifice. Cynthia's outward superiority rests on her academic status – she is a butterfly expert who regularly lectures a group of equally pristine and powerful-looking women – and Evelyn clearly identifies herself as the star pupil. This is where the film gets its title; the Duke of Burgundy is not a character (there are no males at all, in fact) but a species of butterfly, whose distinctly rich and delicate browns lend the film much of its impressive colour palette.

Butterflies seem to occupy a central symbolic position, but their significance is frankly beyond me. I wouldn't be surprised if the butterfly obsession is really just an adornment to the story, a visual motif harking back to the many sexually charged 1970s art films in which the excesses of loose or unaccountable symbolism can be easily found. The butterfly may not be intellectually consistent with the story in The Duke of Burgundy, but its connotations are perfectly apt for Strickland's visual style. Beautiful, delicate, elusive, mysterious... wait, are butterflies mysterious? Or has the film just made me think they are? Either way, it doesn't feel at all flimsy or unnecessary, and inspires a brilliant hallucinatory sequence near the film's conclusion.

The aesthetic of The Duke Of Burgundy is audaciously retro, even more so than his last film, but unlike Berberian Sound Studio it never outpaces or shatters the core reality of the story. Though the linearity gets a little hazy at times, The Duke Of Burgundy holds to its narrative robustly because, for all its layers of fantasy, it's the penetrating reality of the central relationship that delivers all the tension and catharsis. I'm always ready to praise Peter Strickland's vision and rigour, but it would all be for nothing without the intelligently nuanced performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna as Cynthia and Evelyn, and the watertight, highly strung and revelatory script. For its careful balancing of irony, emotional reserve, and spectacle, The Duke Of Burgundy is easily my favourite work of the festival.

But the esteemed jury disagreed, and gave the MMiFF award to Signe Baumane's Rocks In My Pockets. While I'll argue for the sheer skill demonstrated in The Duke Of Burgundy, Baumane's is the standout film in many ways and it's easy to see why it won over both the audience and the jury. Rocks In My Pockets is many things: a witty and expressive autobiographical project; a valuable twentieth-century history of a rather marginalised nation; a tactile blend of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation; an ambitious exercise in art therapy; and a profound oral history of mental illness across three generations of one family. Focusing on the plight of several specific relatives (from a much larger tree), Baumane speculates about the genetic inheritance of a characteristic susceptibility to mental illness, while also stressing the strictly repressive social and familial pressures faced by her cousins and grandmother in their native Latvia. Narrating over her various forms of handmade animation, Baumane is herself highly animated – voluble, sarcastic, cartoonish, self-effacing, brutally honest and occasionally rather unforgiving. Her eventual relocation to America seems to have jolted her out of a sense of powerlessness over her own life, affording her the possibility of looking afresh at her mental states, and developing an artistic sense of self-awareness within a community of like-minded New York-based animators.

Baumane frames her family history anecdotally, allowing for a conversational sense of lightness and free-association, but in fact the story is very deliberately structured. Beginning with her grandmother – whose life of hardship has been venerated, yet also rather unhelpfully mythologised by her parents and many aunts and uncles – and working chronologically towards herself, she allows for a beautifully hopeful thematic loop at the film's conclusion. The title refers to a story in which Baumane's grandmother supposedly attempted to drown herself in a river near her rural home. She was 'saved' by a fellow villager, who spotted her standing still in the waist-high current, with rocks in her pockets. As with many of the stories she's heard throughout her life, Baumane comes to question its accuracy and distrust the orthodoxy of family folklore. To her grandmother she attributes a strain of stunted artistic ambition and suicidal tendencies that have blighted the women of her large family. Rocks in My Pockets slowly accumulates real poignancy as its narrator draws her distant relatives closer by sheer empathetic imagination and a passionate drive to communicate.

Watching the film, I recalled the many line-drawn images and comic strips expressing the experience of depression that I've seen circulating online over the last couple of years. For whatever reason, there's something about these slightly rudimentary graphic styles that lend themselves to the subject. Perhaps it's the scope for extreme manipulations and mutations of subjectivity, in which strangely-anatomised figures are rendered in simple blocks and rough shading. I don't wish to venture too far into psychological particulars (of which I am generally ignorant), but as a mere film scribe it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to this trend, and if Baumane's visual style does indeed penetrate the depressive condition in a more relatable way than live action drama, I hope that it reaches the widest possible audience and inspires many other works.

Rocks In My Pockets was not the best film of the festival, but it was certainly the worthiest, and since the other serious contenders – The Babadook and The Duke Of Burgundy, for me – are already gaining plenty of publicity and screen time across the UK, I suggested to Michael that the jury had selected wisely. “It's a film that needs all the attention it can get,” I said. He set me straight immediately: “Just look on the internet – there is a lot of attention already.” And he's right too: partially funded by Kickstarter backers and gaining exposure by word of mouth and lower-key European festival successes, Rocks In My Pockets is digging in and finding its audience. It's another example of the international grassroots support for cinema that I hadn't properly perceived, like the MMiFF itself, and the mechanisms and mutual interests bringing it to fruition. It's an event with a tiny centre, and a very long reach.

A little after midnight, the jury convened by the DJ desk in the Cine Sol's pop-up bar to deliver their multi-lingual and modestly casual closing speeches. An amicable group of artists, musicians, actors and writers, they seem humbly amused by their responsibility of judging the work at an event such as this, which over a week has been gradually reclining into warm informality. Later that same night, a coach arrived to collect many of the attendees for their 3am flight home. I imagined the conviviality continuing, wearied, into the Berlin morning.