Two of our film guys watched some notable titles at the ongoing Reykjavík International Film Festival, RIFF, for your sake! And then, they wrote short capsule reviews, for your convenience!
(Dir. Camilla Nielsson) – Documentaries
In 2008, after Robert Mugabe brutally fixed his re-election to a sixth term as President of Zimbabawe, international pressure led to the creation of a committee to write a new constitution for the country, jointly overseen by representatives of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition party, MDC. Documentarian Camilla Nielsson received remarkable access to the process, from public forums (sometimes marred by violence and intimidation, with ZANU-PF supporters bussed in to repeat scripted responses) to the drafting and editing stages.
Camilla and her editors excavate clear character arcs from three years of footage covering subtle, heavily context-depending hyperlocal political wrangling; the portrait that emerges is of two men coming to sense which side of history they’re on. The MDC’s chief negotiator Douglas Mwonzora starts out wonkish and cowed, but gains confidence as he learns to leverage the infamous persecutions of Mugabe’s regime; the glib, toothy grin of ZANU-PF’s Paul Mangwana grows increasingly forced as he comes to understand the depth of his party’s cynicism. The film offers insights both specific and general, from Mugabe’s heavily suggestive, bullying rhetorical style (and the easy laughter of his sycophants), to the strategies by which powerful parties mobilize and mediate average people’s participation in the political process.
Dir. Daniel Dencik – Spotlight on Denmark
Daniel Dencik‘s debut feature depicts a feverish journey taken by an innocent white man into the heart of darkest Africa, in the days when Denmark maintained a colony in part of what is now Ghana. You can feel the fever and madness as our protagonist, Wulff (Jakob Oftebro), battles an illegal slave trade. Daniel also seems genuinely interested in the continent’s landscapes, a fascination which he delivers to the audience, along with the cruelty and inhumanity of the colonial masters.
Despite this, the film has one big—and all too familiar—flaw: the film’s hero is a white guy, the locals near-exclusively stuck in supporting roles, barely even speaking. ‘Gold Coast’ is yet another case of the white man confronting his own evil, very much on his own terms. However, ‘Gold Coast’ remains a powerful, albeit terribly white, film.
Dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven – Open Seas
Press in Cannes were quick to call Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut a Turkish ‘Virgin Suicides’, charting as it does the tragic sexual coming-of-age of five teenage sisters locked up in a suburban tower. More pronounced in ‘Mustang’ (like a darker ‘Fiddler On The Roof’!) is the way these lively, flirty, modern girls inspire a reaction in rural conservative traditions, as their moustachioed, domineering uncle builds up garden walls and window bars higher and higher, and their grandmother rushes to marry them off in rapid succession.
That the film is narrated by the youngest, fiercest sister, who describes events she didn’t see firsthand, lends the hint of a fable to the, but even the tallest tales within the narrative are filmed in a vividly naturalistic style. Keeping her camera close to her young actresses, Deniz builds a real, intimate world of sisterhood.
‘Queen of Silence’
Dir. Agnieszka Zwiefka – Documentaries
The ebullient ten-year-old Denisa Gabor is a deaf-mute Roma girl who lives in an encampment on the outskirts of Wroclaw, Poland. We get glimpses of her life, including fighting and playing with the other kids, scavenging for toys and begging for money; bringing her family into reluctant content with the state as she’s fitted for a hearing aid; and watching Bollywood DVDs, avidly mimicking the dance moves of Aishwarya Rai.
Agnieszka Zwiefka stages several elaborately choreographed musical numbers, enlisting the kids from the Roma settlement to dance alongside Denisa—these sequences mix movie magic with grim reality, and represent a creative and laudable attempt to allow a locked-in sensibility a platform to express itself. You may, however, be entitled to worry that the film also intends for Denisa’s disability and fantasy life to symbolize innocence and the pathos of escapism amid casual domestic cruelty and wider social prejudice; the film is also fascinating for what it doesn’t show—the unique challenges of Denisa’s treatment; the process by which the filmmakers ingratiated themselves with an insular community and even more insular subject—as much as for what it does.
Dir. John Maclean – New Visions
One thing has long puzzled me about the Western genre: the films are set during an era where people from all over the world were moving to the new world, yet in Westerns everybody seem to be locals, speaking perfect English.
This seems to be slowly changing, though. Last year we had a Danish western, ‘The Salvation’, a film that began as a very interesting depiction of a European coming into a world full of thieving psychopaths, before turning into a regular shoot-‘em-up. This year, with ‘Slow West’, we have an innocent Scottish traveller (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for his one true love, amid scoundrels of all kinds. It‘s not the most powerful Western I‘ve seen—but it has a way of twisting convention nicely and makes you more curious about the era itself than most Westerns do.
For more information on RIFF, see our listings page!