Reykjavík International Film Festival

Published October 6, 2006

Turtles Can Fly
Turtles Can Fly, and so can Kurdish cinema. Director Ghobadi’s stated intent is to help breed a true Kurdish culture of cinema and just with this one film he puts many more established film cultures to shame. The film is a stunningly beautiful meditation on childhood in the midst of a never-ending war. Our main protagonist is Soran, always nicknamed Satellite since one of his many talents is to install those prophets of the newest CNN broadcasted war. He is the hustler of the town, but one with a heart of gold and all his dealings seem aimed to help the children in the village, since the adults seem to busy watching the news. We also have the clairvoyant Henkov, the most resolute armless boy you ever saw, his little sister Armin by whom Satellite is smitten, and a baby boy who turns out not to be their brother but just a child left behind by those who had killed their parents. Henkov isn’t the only one to be handicapped though, a lack of limbs is quite common with these kids and they move fluidly despite that. This is landmine country. But the nobility and purity of heart some of these kids display is enough to soften even the most cold-hearted critic. And Armin, Soran’s sad and haunted object of affection, has the grief of the world on her shoulders. If there’s any soul in us we will too by the end.
Princess
Princess is a pitch-dark morality tale of a priest who goes on a mission to avenge his dead porn-star sister, accompanied by the sister’s baby daughter Mia. This is not only the perfect answer to anyone who thinks cartoons are just for kids but also a bloody good movie. In an inspired move flashbacks are made from blurry live action footage, giving us the back-story on two very different yet close siblings, August the clergyman and Christina, the Princess of the title. While dead she is still very visible since the company she worked for sees no reason to recall her material after her death, meaning little Mia will encounter her mother in the nearest newsstand. The movie shifts easily between an icy revenge thriller to tender scenes where August gets to know his little niece Mia. Then it turns into the movie Fight Club would have been had it been made by an angry feminist but by the final scene we’re reminded of the unflinching morality of a Christopher Nolan film where the end never justifies the means. Perhaps not for the faint of heart but certainly full of heart.
Paradise Now
They are monsters to some and martyrs to others. But rather than judging the notorious suicide bombers of our time it wouldn’t hurt to try to understand where they are coming from. Here we have two childhood friends in Palestine, Said and Khaled, who go on a mission that goes awry before it can properly begin – and after that questions are raised about whether they should try again or not. These are ordinary men in hellish circumstances, having lived under occupation since birth. A girl they know challenges them on their methods and tells them they are harming the cause to no end. And while they may not share her belief in a peaceful solution one starts to feel they agree about the futility of their mission. The title is a clear indication of that, Paradise Now as in right now. Said repeatedly refers to life under the occupation as hell on earth and seems to crave the paradise he’s been promised on the other side. That actually raises interesting questions about religious fundamentalism, with its strong belief in a better afterlife. Can it be that such notions will always thrive in those hellish environments where redemption in the next life seems much further away than the supposed paradise of the afterlife?
Lights in the Dusk
Aki Kaurismäki is probably the one Finnish director you’ve heard of. His work has shown us the Finns as a nation of reserved people who talk little and move their other facial muscles even less. Combine that with a quirky sense of humour and you have the potential for a film as hilarious as Kaurismäki’s previous Leningrad Cowboys Go America. But repeat it often enough and you start to become a bit of a parody of yourself, and even guilty of reinforcing national stereotypes rather than exploring them. This, his most recent film, centres on a lonely watchman who falls in love with a homely blond. But later we see that same girl turned to ice by a different hairstyle and clothing and we immediately recall the icy blonds of Hitchcock and sure enough the story seems to be taking a Vertigo-like turn when it turns out she has been hired to manipulate him in order to steal some jewellery. But sadly the movie never comes close to the emotional complexity of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It does, however, always maintain the warmth Kaurismäki has towards his characters and that does go a long way.
12:08, East of Bucharest
There are some who say the Romanian revolution of 1989 wasn’t really a revolution at all, but simply a scheme cooked up by those next in charge to Nicolae Ceausescu who had grown tired and fearful of the tyrant’s idiosyncrasies. Those theories take strength from the fact many of those have remained in power and proven themselves well-versed in the corruption Ceausescu bred, although they’ve thankfully never equalled that royal family for sheer madness. Director Corneliu Porumboiu doesn’t try to ask those questions directly but rather wonders what exactly a revolution is and how you can be a part of it. After an aimless first half the movie comes to life inside of a TV studio on December 22nd, exactly 16 years after Ceausescu fled in a helicopter and relinquished power. It’s the talk show from hell, featuring a host incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera and two old men who reminisce aimlessly about the events, although one of them is more busy making paper airplanes from his note sheets. The other claims to have taken part in the revolution, but when viewer after viewer calls in doubting his words we start to wonder if cheering in the streets after it’s finally safe makes one a revolutionary or not. The main criticism is really that he had been too late for the revolution because after 12:08 everybody knew dancing in the streets revolting was perfectly safe (although that is surely a latter-day simplification). It is of course an absurd notion that one can be a few minutes late for a national uprising but puts the question of the nature of revolutions under the microscope. These questions are interesting, but sadly the scene (which is more than half the movie) goes on a little too long for the film to truly deliver.
Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait
In the beautiful Kurdish film Turtles Can Fly Zinedine Zidane is referred to, proudly, as a Muslim by a young boy. Shortly afterwards an armless boy headbutts our main protagonist to the ground. The film was made before the World Cup final but I don’t think anybody in the audience could help but think of the Gallic master at that moment. Zidane’s exit from the world of football last summer was probably the most dramatic and intriguing exit of any athlete in living memory. The highs, lows and subtexts of his German adventure would have made Shakespeare proud. Sadly, this is not a film of those events but of a forgotten league game against Villarreal last year. That is the filmmaker’s quest though, to capture the ordinary day – as exemplified with footage from events around the globe that same day. The concept, to follow just one player but not the game, is not a complete novelty (a German filmmaker once did a similar film with George Best) but courageous nevertheless. But it doesn’t quite work simply because one man walking around and running for 90 minutes can only be so interesting. They allow us into his head with the use of subtitles that enrich the film but the one beat they missed was letting us see what he saw; we always see Zidane but we never see they game from his perspective. The subtitle of the film (A 21st Century Portrait) is also puzzling. Zidane has always seemed a very classical, almost old-fashioned footballer who was more poet than athlete. The 21st century part might have suited David Beckham better. But special praise has to be given to Icelandic band Kimono for combining their haunting music with the noise of the players and the audience to create a truly stunning soundscape the visuals rarely equalled.
Clean, Shaven
In the early days of Icelandic filmmaking the major problem used to be the sound. It simply wasn’t good enough and the term “good Icelandic film” almost began to mean a film where you could actually hear what the actors said. But that was a technical problem. In Clean, Shaven it seems to have been an artistic decision. Like most artistic decisions director Lodge H. Kerrigan makes in the film it is a poor one. The film, for what it’s worth, seems to be about a schizophrenic who tries to reunite with his daughter on a eerie remote island while also being implicated in a murder case. He’s also very much into self-mutilation, including the one truly memorable scene in the movie. But all of the characters are distant and uninteresting, a worthy topic in itself, but since the camera (and the microphone) is equally distant and uninteresting we might as well all be at home. Reading the festival booklet it claims the film “immediately grabs the audience’s attention” and I couldn’t help but think of the girl three seats away who fell asleep five minutes in. I bet she had a better time.
Russian Ark
Aleksandr Sokurov wrote himself into the record books by filming the longest continuous shot in movie history, the 96-minute movie that is Russian Ark. It’s a walk through the many rooms of the Hermitage Museum with a cast of thousands that represents various aspects of Russian history. So many will probably call it a technical marvel. It is not, a technical marvel would be to do this well. Basically Sokurov’s achievement lies in knowing how to work a steadicam and the newest digital technology, getting a lot of actors to dress in period customs for the shot and not bother to cut the film. It’s not that the idea is bad, it’s actually brilliant. The problem is that we are accompanied by the cinematographer and a French marquis that both blather aimlessly throughout the whole film about absolutely nothing at all and hardly any of the talk seems in any way relevant to Russian history. A rich and fascinating history that, if you can read Icelandic, is covered infinitely better in Árni Bergmann’s short tome Rússland og Rússar (Russia and the Russians). But this ark sinks a wonderful premise – and it’s also often poorly lit.



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