The Conformist (Ita/Fra/W.Ger) (wiki)
My first retrospective film of the festival is an ambitious portrayal of the Italian Fascist movement from 1970. Set in 1920's Paris, Marcello is a torn man, trying to appear desperately normal, to hide his ambitons to stop just grumbling about the decadence around him and join the Fascists proper. Joining the movement requires a test of loyalty - and the target chosen is his old university professor, a noted anti-fascist.
Bringing along his childishly simple fiance Gulia (chosen for her pedestrian qualities) he reconnects with the life of the professor, letting his other half befriend the professors' bored wife Anna for a convenient way in. But in doing so, Marcello finds himself questioning the motives of the movement and his abilities to actually do the job.
This digital remastering looked pretty clean and the film stands up pretty well given it's 40+ year dotage. Some pretty impressive camera work is unexpected for a film of it's time, but it's the execution of the story that feels a little old and the flashback dynamic used is often confusing (the wiki definitely helps fill in some blanks). The main plot has some frayed edges, a consequence of the directors style, but it is a sign of an old-fashioned approach to filming that may put some off. However it was pretty enjoyable, and it's one of those films that would probably benefit from a second viewing to tease out some of the details. Watch out for a cameo by Pierre Climénti (who had a retrospective at Bradford this year) midway through as well. 6.5/10
The King of Pigs (S.Kor) (wiki)
The trial of your schooldays will define a large part of you, perhaps a permanent one. We can all appreciate how that works but different people have very different times during this period, as the pecking order is established and you get what the class you fall into is due, by the rules of the playground.
Huang knows this all too well. He's now a successful CEO of a large company but as a kid, he was timid and scrawny, and that carved out for him his path through into adulthood. Bullied and kicked around he made few friends beyond Jung, a similarly classed kid in his year, often the target of the 'pigs', a cocky group of stronger, heavier kids whose sole purpose was to suck up then happiness from the room.
Meeting up for the first time since leaving school, the two friends look back with some relief at their old lives, and that of Chul, the mysterious loner child who came to their aid, seemingly delighting in using the excuse to punch the daylights out of someone. Alone without a father and a barely interested mother, Chul broods on the injustice in the world, and bringing Huang and Jung into his world, seeks to find any end to the pigs above that will not let up.
The King of Pigs is going to hit nerves with people. The feeling of anger and hate towards a bully in the dead of night, wanting for all the world that the pillow was their face will come flooding back to those on the wrong end of the pecking order. This, the film manages well, overcoming it's annoyances of some frugal and wooden animation, and some of the worst translated subtitles I have seen in some time. Even so, The King of Pigs gets it's point through; that the bullies will forever exist, and adulthood is the place to let go. 7/10
War Witch (Can) (wiki)
This film was running at Cambridge, and the trailer below sold me on it. Fortunately though I missed it there, it was also running at Leeds. 12-year old Komona is brutally kidnapped from her village by rebels for the 'Great Tiger' - the boss of a local group of mercenaries. To ensure a clean break, she has to shoot her mother and father point blank, or they will do it the long way round with some blunt machetes. This is her new life now, and her gun is her mother and father.
In a group pulled together through violence, fuelled with infighting and superstition, Komona survives by her ability to 'see' ghosts in the forests, who alert her to where the enemy hides - a useful tool that grants her the valuable status of witch, ensuring her safety as one of the Tiger's favourites. Fighting alongside her is an albino boy, brought in from a previous kidnapping who has similarly used supersititon as a protective divice - Magician gives charms and trinkets to those who want protection. In the midst of the insanity, they manage to find a bond of sorts outside that imposed on them through brutality and fear.
When an attack from an enemy leaves them the only survivors of their scout unit, they take their chances and escape, fleeing to a village and trying to be normal again, but the scars are deep, and the Great Tiger wants no deserters.
I've overused the term 'Powerful', especially with reference to films addressing the horrors of war, but this is another one that fits the description. It's continually tense and horrific, and doesn't use the 'ghosts' aspect to descend into fantasy. Young actress Rachel Mwanza is rightfully praised for her stunning performance as Komona and the film shines with humanity as much as it reeks of human suffering. 8/10
1/2 Revolution (Egy/Den) (site)
Our recent trip to Egypt made this documentary a must for me. Though I had a general sense of the events of the Egyptian Revolution that went on nearly 2 years ago and is still bubbling now, it was through muddled news images and confused reporting that lurched back and forth between the people and the army being variously pro and anti-Mubarak as the weeks went on.
This film was made by the people on the front line in Cairo; the epicentre of the revolution. A group of friends, some Egyptian, some not were caught up in the revolution, and since they had the tools, decided from an early point to document as much as they could. From an apartment block they began to see the demonstrations, which every day grew larger. The police beat them down, then appeared to side with the people, and then the army came,
One thing the film captures really well is the confusion reigning within the city. The demonstrations began as wholly anti-Mubarak but as things progress, and the government reacts with carefully worded statements and the efforts of the secret police, the one message is divided and fragmented, the people begin to argue and factions form. This is all seen through camera footage taken both from their safe(ish) vantage point, and down on the streets, as first water cannons and tear gas is used, and then later live ammo. The footage is raw and often not very comfortable to see. As the fighting escalates and the streets become lawless, as the food becomes scarce and looting becomes commonplace, and as civilisation breaks down with distrust of neighbours, the group has to make some important decisions.
Part personal story, part war document, 1/2 Revolution takes us through those remote events from the very front line, showing both the bravery and the brutality of the populace and what happens as a society is smashed to create anew, which will hopefully happen soon. 8/10
Beauty is Embarrassing (US) (site)
Documentaries come thick and fast these days and fall into two main strands - injustice and biography. 1/2 Revolution was a good example of the former, and this is of the latter. Wayne White is not someone I had heard of, and I suspect not so many people especially outside of the US had either. But you may well have seen his works.
His most visible influence on American television was as one of the set and character designers for Pee Wee's Playhouse, an utterly madcap childrens show from the 80's that went down just as well with parents reliving their last drugs trip as it did with the intended hyperactive childrens audience. White's enthusiasm and drive to continually create got him noticed, and after several Emmys and other awards for his five years on set, he would go on to use his talents in painting, illustration, puppetry, animation and more to infiltrate the American cultural pop art scene of the time. Some in fact see him as the origin of modern pop art.
Footage of Whites' recent tour, where he recounts his life and work in front of an appreciative audience.is used as the glue to hold the film together. He tells us in his own words, with some help from his wife Mimi and his parents, as well as some famous admirers and collaborators, about his time growing up as an unconventional artist in the deep south. One main stream of White's output divides opinion - thrift store landscape scenes onto which he paints bold letters spelling out (often sweary) phrases. Some criticise the laziness of painting letters over other people's art, but personally I'd love his 'Cheap Bastard' landscape above my fireplace any day.
Depending on your tolerance for f-words, fans of what we saw of the experimental MTV output will get the most from this film, though Whites' happy go lucky attitude and his enthusiasm for his ceaseless creation of the new and random will be difficult not to like. Beauty is Embarrassing is yet another revealing light on an otherwise unknown contributor to the life around us. 7.5/10