Swetlana Geier is in her 80's. At a time of life where most women are waiting for God, she doesn't have time. Many of that age would be wearing glasses to find their way around, but Swetlanas' eyes are still shining bright and apparently in full working order. Good job, since she is currently translating one of many works of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky into German. The 5 elephants of the title are some of his weightier works amongst many books by Russian authors which Swetlana has painstakingly translated (sometimes more than once) over the course of the last 65 years. Since the early 1990's she has been concentrating on the Dostoyevsky works, with only the help of her typist and proof-reader, both long-time confidants who she trusts and relies on implicitly.
This quiet, absorbing documentary lets Svetlana talk quietly about the translation process, about how the German and Russian languages are so different as to lose so many of the subtleties of the original, and the subtitle people must have had it doubly so, attempting to keep the meaning into her own translated version. As well as dealing directly with the books, the film spends some time touching on Swetlana's past, growing up in Kiev and forced to leave during the Nazi uprising, narrowly missing her fate as one of the thousands of victims of the Jewish massacre at Babi Yar. We learn about her current life, her son lying in hospital with head injuries, and the fate of her father at the hands of the previous Stalin regime. Swetlana hadn't returned to the Ukraine for the last 65 years, until her invitation during the making of the documentary to speak to a class of undergraduate translators. The cameras respectfully keep a little space for her to reflect on her past in the few areas left existing from her childhood.
I really enjoyed this film, it was yet another example where a subject matter I am indifferent to was made intellectually stimulating and interesting, showing a window onto an otherwise unknown world. 7.5/10
Sinful Davey (UK) (wiki)
Showing as part of the John Hurt retrospective, in this early entry he is cast as Davey Haggart, a perpetually selfish and nihilistic young rogue from 19th Century Scotland. Going from his impatient desertion of the Scottish army in preference in living up to the reputation of his highwayman father. His ultimate aim: steal from the Duke of Argyll, something his father could not managed and died trying.
At every corner, his pickpocketing ways result in rooftop chases and plenty of overturned applecarts, and occasionally, jail. However he always manages to charm his way out, often with a comely wench between his legs for good measure. Though a complete blaggard, Hurt manages to come off as a likeable anti-hero, and his eventual encounter with the Duke turns out not as you would expect.
It's showing its age now (not least this cut, which had a few battle scars), but it's still a roguish, energetic, bodice-ripping tale (based on a Haggard's own autobiography) and a pleasant hour spent. 7/10
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (US) (site)
Though it sounds Godzilla-like, Beetle Queen is a documentary that, at least at the start concentrates on the Japanese obsession with insects, particularly the various types of horned beetle, that small children often keep as pets. A whole industry and culture has grown up around this in recent times, satisfying the requirements of trapping nets and little plastic cages, bedding and food, pre-prepared larvae nests you can stick your grub into so it can pupate, and a range of cartoons, comics, video games and more to keep the kids clamouring for more. Adults too keep bugs, often preferring the 'crying insects', such as crickets and cicadas, whose chirruping and leg vibrating are often seen as natures therapeutic music.
But the film doesn't stop there, its Japanese narrator goes on to explain the origins of this fascination, reaching back into the principles of Shinto and later Buddhism, where everything is considered to have a spirit, and every life on the planet should be treated with care and respect. The Japanese rice paddies caused an explosion in insect populations at the same time that it's people were miniaturising the environment around them (e.g. managed gardens, bonsai trees, and more), the insects were brought into sharp focus.
Beetle Queen seemed to meander into slightly preachy territory at times which grated a little as it moved away from its general bugs theme and into an advert for Shinto/Buddhism, but it remained an interesting look at an unknown subject matter (the popularity of pokemon over there now makes a lot more sense). It contained some beautiful scenery and situations (some gorgeous shots of rural Japan, and a lovely scene involving a family, a bedsheet and a few powerful halogen lights in the middle of the night), but went on for just a little too long. 6.5/10
The Sickness Is Coming or, The Blind Man's Television (UK) - ..and it seemed to have already arrived by the time the film started running. This overly long experimental short was supposedly based on an obscure book, but it seemed you had to have read it before the film itself made any sense. Three teens living in a shattered future seem to be able to change the world to be whatever they want it to be. They head off to see the last film ever made to see if that is better than the life they have now. That's the blurb, but how it was put on the screen was amateurish, badly scripted and shot, badly narrated by someone who only passingly knew English, and had no hook points for people to grab hold of and make any sense of it. I've given it too much credit by writing all these words on the damn thing. 2/10
Greenberg (US) (trailer)
Florence, a woman in her prime, has yet to become satisfied in where her life is going. She gets a bit of cash by working as an au-pair in the Greenberg residence in Manhattan, made up of the normal 2+2 family. Dad Phillip is taking his family to Vietnam for a holiday, leaving Florence to call in every so often and take care of the family dog Mauler (a soppy Alsatian), and Phillips' slightly autistic brother Roger, played by an unusually serious Ben Stiller.
Roger was in a band, but they split when he turned down a lucrative once-in-a-lifetime contract on a feeling without involving the others. Since then his confidence has dropped, and he cannot seem to relate to other people, getting frustrated and angry when confronted with social situations he feels under pressure to attend and enjoy. Florence and Roger somehow make a start at a relationship, rather unbelievably since Roger's mood swings end up leaving her scared and confused at what she thought were innocent actions or questions. Sooner or later she's going to give up on the idea, and its up to Roger to get his head in order.
As a final film of the festival, Greenberg was alright. (The final film was originally going to be Whip It, but when Greenberg ran late because of that damn Sickness film having an argument with the cinema's DVD player, I decided a quick Chinese and then home would go down a lot better.) It moved quietly along its little road, only sticking in a couple of places, and if you can get over Roger's repeated foot in mouth annoyances, it's not the worst film you could see. 6.5/10
And that's it for my first Bradford festival. There was more on offer than I originally expected, and there were some cracking films, but there was also a lot of tat, something I hope the other festivals don't pick up as well. (I've got my fingers crossed it was budgetary problems, rather than a general lack of good films out there.)
Next stop, Edinburgh in June.