Recently I was fortunate enough to attend my first full film festival, in Belfast. It was fun. Armed with my festival pass, I saw upwards of 20 films over the course of ten days, averaging out just over two per day. From a cross dressing father mourning the death of his wife, to a 26 year old schizophrenic celebrating St Patrick’s Day, to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, the 15th Belfast Film Festival, while not among the biggest names on the festival circuit, showcased some of the most unique films I’ll see all year.
The festival provided a fine balance between locally produced independent and short films, UK/ world premieres of some of the most promising national releases this year, and the best of recent world cinema. It was this wide ranging scope and variety of selection, covering more than one taboo subject area in its breadth, with which I was most impressed – especially considering Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is a place not exactly heralded for its open-mindedness.
Enough personal input; I’m here to give something of an overview of the films I saw during my time there. Before I begin though, I must admit that even though it may seem I got through quite a lot of films, I didn’t even manage to get through half of them. Partly this is due to other distractions (i.e. family commitments) that caused me to miss a couple of slots I was aiming for, but mostly it is because of those annoying clashes between films that you tend to get at festivals. It pained me to miss the first ever ‘Iranian vampire Western’, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, because it was in the same Monday evening time slot as the premiere of Irish film Patrick’s Day, to cite one example of many unfortunate clashes. But I shan’t complain any further; this is a chance to celebrate an excellent event, rather than regurgitate past regrets – for which there will be much opportunity in future, I’m sure.
Monday 13th April: A Second Chance, directed by Susanne Bier. A stylish, gritty and uncomfortably entertaining Danish film that wasn’t technically a part of the festival itself but deserves a mention nonetheless. Takes a story that could have fallen flat if it hit the wrong notes, and instead makes it realistic and heartbreaking – mostly thanks to Susanne Bier’s direction. A social worker and his wife lose their child in a presumed cot death. Mentally unstable wife refuses to believe her child has died and continues to nurse him as if he’s still alive. Social worker takes the obvious course of action and switches the dead baby with another belonging to a couple of drug addicts, before taking the less obvious action of coming clean to his wife about his actions straight away. Wife seems fine with it, until… the story takes further twists and turns, keeping you guessing right until the end and leaving a mark that won’t be easily forgotten.
Thursday 16th April: I Am Belfast, Mark Cousins. This was the opening night gala; the world premiere of local film I Am Belfast, by local director Mark Cousins. I have my doubts about it getting a full theatrical run elsewhere for obvious reasons, but for locals and natives this film could be considered a bit of a cultural gem. It is a meditative, contemplative portrait of Belfast: her history and culture, told by people who lived there. All in all, an interesting and unique film, one that admittedly did not resonate fully with me, but I appreciate that it is trying something new and for that it should be praised. Gives some valuable perspective on Belfast as a city, from its early history, through the troubles and up to the modern generation, showing where we stand today.
Occasionally threatens to end up on the wrong side of sentimental gushiness, but who can blame it for that? The city of its title has indeed come through some tough times after all and is transitioning to a future in which its only wish is for everyone to stop using its blighted history as their only point of reference. The film hints at this aspect throughout the ‘narrative’ (if one can call it that – it’s more a metaphorical conversation the director has with a woman who represents Belfast). You get the feeling it wants ‘the troubles’ to be seen as just another chapter in history rather than the thing that defines our culture, and it makes sure to focus on other elements before reaching it. In fact this narrative flowed through the other local films in the festival as well – it felt like something of a ‘watershed’ for Northern Irish history and culture; a feeling of having ‘dealt with that now’ and wanting to be seen by those outside in other, more positive ways.
I liked this film – at least until an unnecessary, bordering on farcical final scene that I feel didn’t fit well with what had come before it and pushed the ‘feel good’ sentiment a bit too far. But a unique, memorable experience nonetheless.
Messiah of Evil (1973), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Vintage 1970s cult horror movie about zombies and questionable acting. Comes across very tongue-in-cheek, but is also surprisingly tense and atmospheric. An entertaining film, definitely worth watching in a ‘half asleep midnight viewing’ kind of way: the hallmark trait of any good B-movie. Also starred Michael Greer, notable for being one of the first openly gay actors to appear in major Hollywood films, and its co-directors went on to make the infamously terrible Howard the Duck (1986) with George Lucas.
Friday 17th April: Listen Up Philip, Alex Ross Perry. Self obsessed writer (Jason Schwartzman) has trouble maintaining relationships with the people closest to him. Thinks he knows better than everyone else. While he evidently has admirable talent, poor people skills and an unwillingness to take advice hurt his career prospects. Soon meets an older, similarly self obsessed but more successful writer who takes him under his wing and the two begin a self-deprecating relationship akin to a distant father reuniting with the son he always wanted; one who admires him because of the bittersweet character traits they share.
This cynical, insightful and humorous film was an early highlight of the festival for me. Admittedly that may be because I saw qualities in its main character that I could identify with, not all of them negative. Besides, positive and negative qualities are all relative anyway. What Listen Up Philip does best is portray the nature of subjectivity, from the point of view of a character turned somewhat tragic by his inevitable flaws – and deep down, he knows it.
The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh. Well made and atmospheric Irish ghost story, if at times a little formulaic. Nonetheless I found this an all-round entertaining movie with some nice moments and an ending I especially liked for its unwillingness to send the audience home comfortable (if you’ve just seen a decent horror movie, you shouldn’t be). A man, along with his wife and young child, moves into a new house that he soon discovers was the place of a murder a century earlier. This coupled with the discovery that said wife is having an illicit affair with one of her work colleagues sends him on a slow spiral to despair, which you’re never entirely sure is due to his own insanity or the ghosts that seemingly inhabit the house. For the most part The Canal lets you make your own mind up, at least until it shows its hand in a thrilling and pleasantly surprising finale.
Saturday 18th April: Carson Country, Dominic Behan. Originally a TV movie, set against the backdrop of Home Rule in 1912. Lord Edward Carson was the leader of Unionist opposition to the Home Rule bill at that time. This short film mixed fact with fiction, theatricality, social observation and a general mashup of other elements to create an experience that I found… disjointed and uninteresting, frankly. Almost sent me to sleep. Not exactly a highlight.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson. A comedy-drama film from Sweden, by a philosophically minded director who I feel could stand alongside Bergman as a respected auteur of Swedish and world cinema. Of all the movies I watched over these ten days, this is the one I keep namedropping to people when they ask. That’s not just because of its long-winded name; I genuinely thought it was an excellent film. Initially it presents a number of scenes that seem barely linked to each other, but later they tie together quite nicely – and at the centre of it all are two travelling salesmen selling novelty items such as face masks with a view to making people happy. They do this while appearing chronically depressed; a juxtaposition that runs through the films narrative in more ways than one as it seeks to say something important about society and, perhaps, the general state of Sweden as a monarchy. I’ll probably revisit this one at some point.
99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani. Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in more grounded roles than the superhero movies you’ve recently seen them in, this film is an interesting if not spectacular piece. The characters played by the two leads were a little two dimensional for my liking, and there really aren’t any significant surprises to how the story develops. Garfield plays a jobless father whose young family loses their home – before going to work for the corrupt real estate broker who evicted them. Sure, the film presents the morally grey dilemma of how far you’d go to provide for your family, but ultimately I guess I expected too much in wanting an ending that wouldn’t be a sugar-coated message about the value of honesty and owning up to your mistakes. If you’d like a nice spin on that old moral lesson and little else, you’ll love this film more than I did.
Sunday 19th April: The Old Irish Washerwoman, Carleton Rodgers. Sunday 19th was very much a day for Northern Irish independents to shine, and it was a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. The Old Irish Washerwoman is built around the premise of the mythical Banshee, whose wails are said to go unheard by those who are soon to die. That is the most interesting thing about the film – in particular an impressively atmospheric sequence where one of the two leads encounters the banshee in the middle of a lake – but overall it gets muddled in a frankly boring plot about friendship between the two young men around whom the story focuses. Furthermore I had problems with its casting choices, but hey, it wasn’t bad – for an amateur independent film at least.
We Are The Gifted, Diane Jessie Miller. Originally this was a series of five minute online shorts, and it was initially aggravating to sit through the stop-start nature of watching all six in one go. But let that not detract from these little gems, each of which are smartly written and stylishly made, with clever references to other films and cultural curiosities, complete with a signature Northern Irish sense of humour. Basically, a group of teenagers from Portadown receive special abilities, becoming ‘the gifted’, and are tasked with saving the world. Not very original, but entertaining while it lasts.
Lost Claws, Michael McNulty. Former detective turned alcoholic after his partner was killed teams up with a little girl who ‘hires’ him to find her cat. Has some quirky visual effects that accompany a creative script and (for the most part) fine performances to make probably the most accomplished of the low budget indie films on show at the festival.
Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas. Kristen Stewart continues to regain some respectability to her acting career with an excellent performance as assistant to Juliette Binoche’s character. The latter plays an actress with traditional, almost snobbish views on her profession, who becomes upset by another up and coming actress playing a role she once made famous. This was probably in my top 3 films of the festival overall; it is an entertaining satire about celebrity culture and the state of modern Hollywood. While this subject has been tackled recently in similar ways – as in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) – I felt this film provided a different prospective; itself almost the more conservative, traditional piece to Cronenberg’s edgier, damning critique.
Also features a couple of nice tongue-in-cheek references to Kristen Stewart’s own Hollywood-dominated career so far; particularly in one scene where she is arguing for the merits of a recently released fantasy blockbuster with Binoche’s character, who thinks such ‘nonsense’ is artistically inept and lacks any substance. Clouds of Sils Maria presents a balanced argument for both sides, but Binoche to the end shows the typical snobbish stubbornness that tends to cloud the views of the older generation – I think highlighting this was probably, at least in part, the film’s overarching point.
Monday 20th April: Patrick’s Day, Terry McMahon. Definitely one of my favourites of the festival, if not the year so far. I’ve touched on the film’s themes already; its portrayal of mental illness and those who deal with it as carers/ relatives is authentic, gritty and appropriately uncomfortable at times. 26 year old Patrick is loved and cared for by a mother who always has his best interests at heart – but this soon proves problematic when Patrick falls in love. Said mother, concerned that Patrick’s illness (schizophrenia) renders him incapable of becoming independent and forming other lasting relationships, goes to great lengths in trying to sabotage the potential romance ‘for his own good’. Is she right? Can we really hold it against her if she’s not? The film does not try to answer these questions for us, nor take sides in the carer/ cared for divide. Rather, it understands the struggles and difficulties facing both, holding nothing back in presenting a realistic and unbiased portrayal. Certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen at tackling an often misunderstood and sugar-coated issue.
Bugarach. A documentary about the tiny village of Bugarach in the south of France, which curiously became the subject of media attention in 2012 when rumours began circulating that it would be the only place spared in the impending apocalypse foretold in the infamous Mayan doomsday prophecy. The story is more interesting than the film itself, which I sat through not really knowing what was going on the entire time. Some funny moments, some weird moments, but not a satisfying whole.
Tuesday 21st April: Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s directing debut. Might soon be coming to a cinema near you, and it is certainly one worth seeing. Not just because of the reputation of its American director: Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. His debut is a compelling political drama about a journalist who is captured in his native country, Iran, while reporting on riots there. He is suspected of being an American spy while held in solitary confinement and, subjected to what his captors consider a modern form of interrogation (psychological, without the need for physical violence), he is faced with an authoritarian force that confronts and questions the value of free speech. I loved parts of it, as did the rest of the audience in the screening. Clever moments of humour are mixed in with the serious theme; all in all, an impressive, if slightly audience-pleasing debut.
A Kind of Sisterhood, Michele Devlin and Claire Hackett. Northern Irish documentary about female political prisoners during the time of the troubles between 1970s-90s. Very insightful, and if it comes across a little one-sided, that’s only because it’s trying to readdress the balance of opinion on what has been a much overlooked area. However, the film was unfinished, as its directors admitted during their speech (this was, as with most of the other locally made projects, a premiere) and therefore has some issues that made it less watchable than it could have been.
Wednesday 22nd April: Spirit of ’58, Evan Marshall. Documentary focusing on Northern Ireland’s “forgotten” 1958 football squad, which famously reached the quarter-finals of their first-ever World Cup competition in Sweden that year. A great little piece of history, but there were a few questionable absences, most notably midfielder Bertie Peacock, for which there was little explanation given aside from time and money restraints.
Those limitations clearly cost the film in other areas too – they apparently still have debts to pay off and there is no general release scheduled for the documentary outside of whatever film festivals are willing to have them. That in itself is almost worth marking the film down for, because if ever there was a piece suitable for BBC television, especially considering the national team’s current performances, this would be it.
The New Girlfriend, Francois Ozon. The new film from one of my favourite French directors gave its audience much more than they would have seen coming beforehand – which of course can only be a good thing. A grieving husband deals with his wife’s death by falling back into old habits; those old habits being a tendency to dress as a woman. The film is about challenging taboos related to identity and not being ashamed of who you are; a truism that extends beyond the aforementioned husband to include his deceased wife’s best friend as well. This is a fantastic, thought-provoking movie that one certainly has to see for themselves no matter what preconceptions they may take into it.
Starry Eyes, Sergei Loznitsa. Deliriously entertaining and ultimately shocking critique of the ‘Hollywood dream’ from the perspective of a struggling young actress/ waitress yearning for her big break and willing to do anything to get it. But just how far will she go to realise her ambitions? This film starts off as one thing and ends as another, and though I would not like to spoil one bit of it, I think the best way to describe it is this: think a cross between Audition (1999) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If you’ve seen either of those, or even both, you may be able to brace yourself for what this film has in store…
Thursday 23rd April: The Beekeeper, Mano Kahlil. Swiss documentary about a beekeeper forced to leave Turkey and move to Switzerland due to the conflict in his native country. But in Switzerland, beekeeping is not considered a form of appropriate employment and he is required to get a ‘proper’ job – out of which emerges one of the film’s main subplots; him trying to prove he is already 65 (and therefore of retirement age) instead of the 60 years old on his birth certificate. The reason for that is; his parents wanted him to have children before he was sent to war, therefore they said he was five years younger than he actually was, which was apparently common among Turkish families at that time.
I had a couple of issues with the film, namely that, at times, it doesn’t really feel like a documentary at all and seems overly orchestrated in places. Some parts also seem unnecessary. Why, for example, do we need to see the man sleeping in his bedroom during the night? But this is essentially nitpicking what is actually an educational film as it pertains to its central subject: bees, and the nature of beekeeping. This, in the end, is compared to the human family unit, as the beekeeper expresses regret towards the end that he wasn’t able to organise his family as well as the bees can manage theirs. In that there is an undeniable admiration for these beautiful, yet often misrepresented and feared little creatures. A curious documentary for sure, though one that some will find invaluably interesting.
Magical Girl, Carlos Vermut. Contender for best film of the festival, Spanish neo-noir movie Magical Girl features interweaving plot strands about broken marriages, chronic illness, single fatherhood and a retired teacher turned hit-man. While the film deals with significant themes, it does so with a wicked sense of humour that pops up often and unexpectedly, never taking itself too seriously. May initially come across as some kind of Tarantino-esque wannabe, but in reality this movie has its own unmistakable identity and deserves more respect than that comparison gives.
Friday 24th April: Shooting for Socrates, James Erskine. UK premiere of film set amidst troubles-era 1986 Belfast; the backdrop of the 1986 World Cup, in which Northern Ireland went to Mexico and played a Brazil team featuring Brazilian superstar/ celebrity Socrates towards the very end of his career. Hilarious in places; feels like it’s trying too hard in others. A case of over-sentimentality (the ‘World Cup brings both sides together’ theme is referenced frequently and feels a little too ‘in-your-face’), along with over-use of caricatures and stereotyping let down what was otherwise one of the most memorable experiences of the festival.
That’s it then, aside from the films I missed due to clashes or unforeseen circumstances. This included the closing night premiere of The Survivalist on Saturday 25th April, another highly rated Northern Irish production that I plan on viewing as soon as the opportunity next presents itself. I also missed a screening of Timbuktu, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards; Japanese ‘rap musical’ Tokyo Tribe; the aforementioned A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; and screenings of classic movies If… (1968) in the Great Hall of Queens University and Eraserhead (1977) accompanied by a live orchestral score. All of which I’m sure were worth viewing and I wish it had been possible to see every one of them. Alas, my experience at this film festival was positive enough to ensure it won’t be my last… Cannes, here I come (in the near future).