From Iceland — A Twilight Portrait Of This Year's RIFF

A Twilight Portrait Of This Year’s RIFF

Published October 7, 2011

Some afterthoughts on the Reykjavik International Film Festival

A Twilight Portrait Of This Year’s RIFF
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Some afterthoughts on the Reykjavik International Film Festival

For me, the last two weeks of September were all about RIFF. A lot of great films and a few boring ones, a lot of running through down town from Háskólabíó to Bíó Paradís and back; short nights at RIFF parties chatting with international filmmakers and journalists over one too many whiskeys. Two weeks of RIFF are damn exhausting but at the same time a lot of fun. I’d like to focus on this year’s main category, New Visions, including the film ‘Twilight Portrait.’ I also unfortunately have to bitch a bit about the professionalism in the execution this year’s programme, or lack thereof.

The main competition: New Visions
This year’s New Visions category was selected by a new programming director, Giorgio Gosetti, who focused more on realism than the formal cinematic experimentation spotlighted last year. RIFF’s 2010 selection featured outstanding films like ‘Mandoo’ (Ebrahim Saeedi, Iraq), which is shot consequently through the eyes of one main character; ‘Flowers Of Evil’ (David Dusa, France), which mixes film with YouTube videos; and the winning film ‘The Four Times’ (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy) did not feature any dialogue at all.

Aside from the experimental avant-garde films ‘Follow Me’(Johannes Hammel, Austria) and ‘Adalbert’s Dream’ (Gabriel Achim, Romania), this year’s competitors for the Golden Puffin, focused on strong social or personal problems narrated in a very realistic fashion. Films like ‘Breathing’ (Karl Markovics, Austria), which portrayed an 18-year old delinquent serving his time in a juvenile detention centre; the Icelandic contribution ‘Volcano’ (Rúnar Rúnarsson, Iceland), which tells the story of a grumpy old man who needs to take care of his wife after she suffers a stroke; and ‘Oslo, 31. August´’ (Joachim Trier, Norway), featuring a recovering drug addict who is deciding whether to kill himself. All of the aforementioned films accomplish intense portraits of people facing some of the most difficult situations life can give you.

From an artistic point of view ‘Habibi’ (Susan Youssef, Palestine) was disappointing. In a very literal fashion, without any room for interpretation or subtleness, ‘Habibi’ tells a love story of two people from different backgrounds that reside in Palestine. The remarkable thing is, that director Youssef made the first Palestinian film in fifteen years, shooting her footage in Gaza and the West Bank. She even managed to get sponsorship from a Kuwaiti phone company to sponsor a film that features a naked woman bathing! A documentary on Youssef making this film would definitely have made for a better viewing experience.

Two films made my ‘most interesting discovery’ category. Both were special, not due to any visual or aural experimentation, but because of their unpredictable storylines and the opacity of their main character’s actions. The eponymous character of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ (Sean Durkin, USA) spent a few years in a very strange cult before running away to with her sister. She has unlearned how to behave in normal society and, along with her sister, the viewer is surprised by her every action. The second film, ‘Twilight Portrait,’ won The Golden Puffin Award.

The Discovery Of The Year: ‘Twilight Portrait’ (Angelina Nikonova, Russia)
Three policemen are driving around at dawn. They spot a vagrant woman at the side of the road and proceed to rape her, as if that were an everyday routine of theirs. Marina, a well-off social worker, suffers from a streak of bad luck—her heel breaks, her purse is stolen and then she ends up being the next victim of these three policemen. Beside a blood curdling description of a corrupt police force and an indifferent community, ‘Twilight Portrait’ explores Marina’s ways of dealing with the situation. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that she reacts in an unbelievably unpredictable manner, befriending one of her rapists. ‘Twilight Portrait’ leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but this is not a bad thing. It is thrilling, hard to witness and leaves one speechless, in a very positive sense.

Professionalism (or lack thereof)
I know that mistakes can happen, and they do so at every festival and every cinema. Usually I take such incidents as charming human flaws and forgive them quickly. But if they accumulate, as they did at this year’s RIFF, it gets to you; it feels unprofessional and lacking in ambition. After the first days of the festival saw movies starting with the lights in the theatre still on, films spliced together in the wrong order and sound problems, my patience wore thin, and then it wore out.

In addition to these technical problems, there were other, non-technical ones. Going to see ‘Le Havre,’ I arrived at the theatre on time (the time listed in the programme, and also on my ticket), but the film was already twenty minutes in, because “there were some changes with the schedule.”

The low point was reached, when I went for a second viewing of ‘Twilight Portrait’ at RIFF’s closing night. I saw the first very shocking and intense sequence of a woman being raped (as I remembered from the first time) twice in a row for some reason—once in very pink and green colours (but with audio intact), and a second time with the correct image, sans sound. I mean, come on RIFF, this is really annoying! It diminishes the cinematic experience, and my chance to remember this year’s RIFF in bright and positive light as I would like to. Instead, my memories are sort of in twilight.

Awards Awards Awards
The jury, led by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, awarded Russian director Angelina Nikonova’s film ‘Twilight Portrait’ the Golden Puffin, which honours a director’s debut or second film as discovery of the year. The jury awarded this film “for the extremely inspired use of cinematic language and storytelling while depicting an intriguing and provocative subject matter with unsettling, realist sensibility.”

Italian director Andrea Segre’s ‘Shun Li And The Poet’ and Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s ‘Oslo. 31. August’ were honoured with a special mention by the jury.

Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s ‘Volcano’ was awarded with two prizes: The International Critic’s Award FIPRESCI and The Church Of Iceland Award.

The RIFF Audience Award is tabulated by using admissions and taking into account the size of the screening rooms and the number of screenings. It went to Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre.’

Irish director’s Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s ‘The Pipe,’ a story of a small Irish community divided by the prospect of a oil pipeline that will bring economic gains (but also destroy their way of life) was awarded with the RIFF Environmental Award. Trish Dolman’s ‘Eco Pirate: The Paul Watson Story,’ a documentary on whaling was specially noted as well.

Börkur Sigþórsson’s `’Skaði’ (“Come To Harm”) won the Icelandic Shorts competition and 

Haukur M. Hrafnsson’s ‘Ósýnileg mæri’ (“Invisible Border”) got a special mention.

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