One of the commonest questions I’m asked by people who know I’m coming to the festival – mainly by my mother, every year – is how I manage to keep all the films straight in my head. To me, that’s never seemed much of an issue. Consider my previous day at the festival: an American independent film with a stop-motion cuddly unicorn; a three hour, highly rigorous German film on domestic abuse; a dreamlike documentary about a half-finished African encyclopaedia; a German comedy about alcoholism; a documentary on the fight to legalise gay marriage in California; and a noir set in the American desert filmed in 3D over sixty years ago. Even half a week later, I have no trouble keeping them straight in my head.
But one of the many reasons I favour the cinema experience over watching films at home is the requirement to take in the whole film in one sitting, so even if a film struggles to engage me initially, quite often I’ll be won over at some point in the running time; that’s not always the case at home when I can get up and wander. Despite repeated attempts in the past, I’ve never managed to watch a Stanley Kubrick film in one sitting at home and large chunks of 2001 remain completely unwatched, yet sit me in a cinema with The Shining and I’ll be totally sucked in, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. What the festival represents for me now is an occasional test of that attention span, thanks to the need to occasionally watch screeners.
I’d agreed to host the Q & A for Ningen that afternoon, but had only done so the previous evening, so had a short window in which to catch up with the film before heading into Cambridge that day. By the time I had to get in the car, I’d seen two thirds of the film on my laptop, which was convenient as the film is neatly structured into three sections. My attempts to watch the remaining third in my spare hour at the cinema were met with constant internet issues, and repeated attempts to find the sweet spot of the office wi-fi met with failure and constant buffering. I finally managed to find a space in the bar, but by them time was against me and I ended up retreating into the cinema for the last 45 minutes of the film once it played, having first introduced myself to the directors.
My initial home watching attempt consequently came in one hour and ten minute stretch and about forty one minute chunks, testing not only my patience but also ruining the flow of the last act, which is the one most critical within that film to be taken in a single sitting. To cap it all off, when relating my struggles to the directors they mentioned they had a DVD of the film with them. Gah! Still, it’s worth making some small sacrifices to help with the overall festival experience.
In terms of keeping those films straight in my own mind, I do sometimes find myself having to recalibrate when watching a marathon. A couple of times on that extended Saturday I took my seat for a film, only to find my brain still trying to digest the previous couple of hours. At such points I do tend to close my eyes, count to ten, take a deep breath and allow myself to focus on the film at hand. However, I realised beforehand that even my brain couldn’t cope with going from hosting a Q & A with two such delightful and talkative directors to absorbing a four hour black and white German film when I’d not eaten and had little sleep the night before, so I had to reject Home From Home (a film prequel to the acclaimed Heimat series) in favour of something more easily digestible. I’m not 100% sure Four Corners was that film, but we’ll get to that.
Here’s the films I caught on day 4 of the Cambridge Film Festival this year.
Cherry Tobacco (Kirsitubacas)
I’ve had some great experiences with Estonian film at the festival, including hosting a Q & A for Estonian film Mushrooming and also discovering the brilliant The Temptation Of St. Tony on a cold, wet Monday morning. Cherry Tobacco continued that strong run with its tale of Laura (Maris Nõlvak), a girl approaching her eighteenth birthday struggling to find anything to interest her. Her mother still tries to control her, including setting her up on a date with a rather wet teenager whose interests include making hi-fi systems and designing T-shirts. Seeing an offer of a hiking trip with a friend as a chance to escape, if only for a short time, Laura finds herself unprepared for both the soggy realities of hiking in peat bog and for the eccentricities of the hiking group’s leader Joosep (Gert Raudsep).
I’d go as far as to say that Cherry Tobacco became my favourite film of the festival up to that point. The combination of awkward humour and acutely observed teenage frustrations is a real winner; there’s a lot of laughs here, but also poignancy and while the relationships that form are simple, they are also keenly felt and directors Katrin and Anders Maimik have a sharp sense of human failings and how to exploit them for comedic purposes without ever actually exploiting their characters. It’s well constructed (the initial date, with its clumsy attempt at seduction and bizarre T-shirts – and if you can tell me where I can get an Egg Mountain T-shirt, I’ll love you for ever- and that date is reflected in more than one way later in the film. I can’t say I’ve ever been a teenage girl, but there’s an honesty about young love and infatuation that should win over members of both sexes and of all ages, and it certainly got a great reaction with the Sunday afternoon audience.
The Score: 9/10
Normally I have to spend hours during the festival sat meticulously researching these description paragraphs, but the joy of a Q & A is the chance for an intense revision period over a film. And there’s a lot to take in about Ningen that’s not on screen – the cast aren’t actually actors, but real people that film makers Guillaume Giovanetti and Çagla Zencirci have incorporated into their loose version of a Japanese fable (with a little more Western myth thrown in for good measure). Although based in Turkey, a love of Japanese culture of the two drew them to Japan, where the offer of a crew and equipment seemed too good an opportunity to pass up and they embarked on their second feature.
The story is based on the Japanese folk characters of the raccoon and the fox, who one day make a bet over who can get a human’s treasure (the title literally translates as human). However, they eventually forget their old lives and become trapped in their human bodies. The film is broken into three chapters, each focused around one of the three characters, and each section has its own style and pacing. Masahiro Yoshino gives a great performance for a novice – even cutting off his own hair (now that’s commitment) – as the CEO of a struggling company who sees himself sectioned when unable to cope, and where the line between fact and fable gradually begins to blur. While the characters are all played by humans, weaving small details from their own lives into their characters and performances, the directors succeed in capturing the essence of fable and the disparate story elements work well together. A bittersweet piece of film making with some great location shooting that exists somewhere in a netherworld between reality and fanasty, it’s curious and affecting and I was glad I caught the last act on the big screen (where it was much more effective).
The Score: 7/10
The Q & A afterwards was one of the easiest I’ve ever had the pleasure of chairing. As well as a few starter questions on the background to the film I also asked them about their collaborative process. They take turns working with the actors and the technical side (on this occasion it was Guillaume who worked more closely with the actors, where with their previous film Noor Çagla took on that role), but they seem to have an easy chemistry from years of working together and we had to be dragged off from the Q & A after half an hour had flown my. Guillaume and Çagla continued to take questions on the mezzanine below the cinema before kindly posing for a quick selfie (sadly my screening wasn’t covered by the official photographers, but I already know what the back of my head looks like – that’s all you get to be in Q & A photos if you’re on the Q side – so I was happy to get one of the front myself).
Finally for the first Sunday of the festival, I swapped out my four hour German film for a film I had planned to see later in the week, but that had a special preview added. It’s one of those films touted as “Country X’s entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award”, and while I have a tolerate / hate / still slightly obsessed with relationship with the Oscars (and the Foreign Language award especially), this feels less like an awards candidate film than any I can remember. That’s not to say it’s not got things going for it, as it’s packed with characters, incident and plot lines – almost overstuffed in places – but it felt like an event TV movie at times, rather than something truly cinematic.
It’s also got a concept that might be slightly hard to swallow cold, as it’s the story of a young chess prodigy Ricardo (Jezriel Skei) who gets into trouble with one of two tribes of gangs. Affiliation is indicated by a number, 26 or 28, that the members of the various gangs on each side of the divide have tattooed to indicate their allegiance. On the other side, but attempting to put aside his gang allegiance and live a peaceful life, is Richardo’s father Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), who doesn’t yet know his son. Throw into the mix an old flame of Farakhan’s back from London for her father’s funeral and a cop Tito (Abduragman Adams) on the trail of a child killer who may or may not be related to the gang activity, and you can’t accuse Four Corners of skimping on plot. It’s kept moving at the pace of a thriller by director Ian Gabriel, but nothing’s ever really given room to breathe, some of the characters feel stock and you will need to pay attention in the first half before the plot lines converge on one another. It’s competently acted rather than any stand out performances, and while it’s entertaining and dramatic until the predictable ending, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to remember it in a week.
The Score: 6/10