Dark Times and Silver Linings
Submissions by first-time directors are becoming increasingly serious in tone and in their choice of subject matter. That at least is the assessment of Dr Michael Koetz, long-time director of the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, after he and his team had scouted through more than 1000 submissions in order to select 13 films by first-time directors for the festival’s International Competition section – a section which the organizers like to keep deliberately small. The festival, which took place from November 6th to 16th 2014, also featured another 11 newcomer films in its International Discoveries section, which are not eligible for any of the awards with the exception of the Audience Award, for which they can compete alongside the International Competition films.
A further 15 films in the Special Screenings section, such as previews of German or international independent films, as well as a small number of children’s films completed the festival’s schedule.
After many changes during its 63 year history, Germany’s second oldest film festival has settled comfortably in the niche it has carved out for itself between the bigger festivals in Berlin, Cannes, or Venice. Measures to ensure the festival stays unique and relevant include the fact that only first-time directors are allowed to submit films for the Competition Section at Mannheim-Heidelberg, as well as the festival’s “exclusion list” which bans those films from the competition that have already been shown at any other German film festival, or have been in the competition sections at Cannes, Venice or Locarno. Hence, Mannheim-Heidelberg likes to refer to itself as the only newcomer-festival in Europe.
Looking through the two newcomer sections this year, it would be difficult to contradict Dr Koetz’s assertion about the new seriousness in these debut films. Mental or physical disabilities, degenerative disease, economic ruin, post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of loved ones, legal and illegal migration – a list of grave and difficult topics is easily compiled. But it is not all doom and gloom. Some of the stories told offer glimpses of hope, and there are also those films which are genuine fairy tales for our age.
What almost all the films I had the privilege to see at the festival had in common were questions concerning the characters’ place in the world. Most of the protagonists were either trying to make sense of who they are or what their purpose in life might be. This is independent of the characters’ age – and it seems not even death can prevent crises of identity.
A Long Story (Jorien van Nes, 2013) is a road movie of sorts, dealing with topics including loss, death, grieving, inter-European migration, and the separation of families caused by the need to find work abroad.
A middle-aged Dutchman, still grieving for his former partner, finds himself saddled with looking after a 10-year-old Romanian boy whose father has disappeared. They set out on a car journey to Romania to find the boy’s mother who is trying to find work at a Black Sea resort.
While not offering something entirely new, this Romanian-Dutch film is well-crafted and well-paced, with great performances by its bi-national cast, especially the male lead Raymond Thiry, who manages to fill the screen with a great natural presence even in scenes in which his character is neither saying nor doing anything. Director Jorien van Nes has talked about the challenges that working on set with a 10-year-old boy (Victor Copariu) presented, but judging from the end result, she mastered those challenges very well.
An important yet disturbing film, Patrick’s Day (Terry McMahon, 2014) tells the story of a young Irishman who lives in a small mental asylum due to problems arising from his schizophrenia. His over-protective mother tries to keep his life calm and his environment well-ordered, but when Patrick – by accident – experiences love and sexual intimacy for the first time, a struggle ensues between the two as well as other parties involved.
Hearing writer/director Terry McMahon talk about his film and about the state of his country, one may be forgiven to describe him as an angry young man. He can barely conceal his frustration and anger about the socio-political situation in Ireland today, for which his film, he says, could be seen as some sort of parable. That said, however, he stresses that his main topic is the way in which mentally ill people are treated today, including questions about the renaissance of electroshocks (ECT) and about the level of sexual autonomy that society is ready to allow or deny those that it defines as not normal.
A good script and good editing are contributing as much to this admirable film as the invariably great performances by its cast, which includes veteran actors Kerry Fox and Philip Jackson, as well as Moe Dunford in the title role.
At the end of the festival, Patrick’s Day was awarded an official recommendation by the Jury of Cinema Owners, as a moving and engaging film which should receive a wider cinema release.
Uruguayan drama 23 Segundos (Dimitry Rudakov, 2014) shares a number of topics with Patrick’s Day, but it has a more optimistic feel to it. Even as it features scenes more dramatic than its Irish counterpart, it manages to stay less bitter in tone, and at times resembles – at least in part – a fairy tale.
The hero of the story, 33-year-old Emiliano, has limited mental faculties. His medical condition is intentionally never mentioned or defined in the film, but broadly falls within the range of what used to be called “mental retardation”. He lives with his mother and spends his days cleaning windshields at an unfrequented intersection, which is his sole source of income. His spare time is divided between caring for his toy car collection and watching the mechanics at the local garage at work. A quiet, uneventful life, until a botched robbery at his intersection spurs him into action, performing several acts of heroism. All of these acts make perfect sense to him, but not to anyone else, and so he receives little understanding and even less gratitude for what he has done. Since he also possesses unfulfilled desires for intimacy, 23 Segundos raises the same question as Patrick’s Day: does society accept the sexuality of those it has defined as mentally sub-normal, and how does it react to their desires?
While there are scenes in which Emiliano, like Patrick, rages against the status quo, his persistence, or obstinacy, seems more stoic in nature, at times verging towards the quixotic. In the end, however, it is not his persistence but that of someone else which will leave the audience with a definite sense of optimism at the end of the film.
The acting is overall very good, especially by the actresses in the three most important supporting roles. Most important for the success of the film, however, is the actor in the leading role, Hugo Piccinini, who does an outstanding job in portraying Emiliano, including a number of detailed physical idiosyncrasies. It certainly shows that writer/director Dimitry Rudakov developed the character as well as the story specifically for Piccinini, with whom he collaborated and consulted throughout that process.
When 23 Segundos was awarded the festival’s main award, Newcomer of the Year, for being “a simple story of human dignity”, the International Jury also made special mention of Piccinini’s performance.
Like Rudakov’s film, Belgian drama Tous les chats sont gris (Savina Dellicour, 2014) proved to be both entertaining and uplifting.
Paul, a middle aged private investigator is “spying” on his illegitimate teenage daughter Dorothy from afar to learn more about her, since her mother has always prevented any contact between the two. Meanwhile the already chilly and estranged relationship between mother and daughter is becoming more strained when the girl tries to find out more about her biological father. The slightly complicated plot of Tous les chats sont gris verges towards the tragicomic when Dorothy runs into Paul and decides to employ his services as an investigator in order to find her biological father.
An important film about growing up, about coming to terms with the past, and about the significance or insignificance of DNA. Writer/director Savina Dellicour manages to keep this drama light in tone, without employing obvious comic relief.
Dellicour made this film with an enthusiastic yet severely underpaid crew, as she could initially only secure about a quarter of the money one would ordinarily need for this kind of project. It was only when veteran actor Bouli Lanners joined the project for the role of Paul, that some (though not much) additional money came in.
Lanners’s warm presence is also essential for creating the peculiar atmosphere of this drama and the special relationship between Dorothy and Paul.
All the actors are great, but particular mention should go to Manon Capelle (Dorothy), an amateur picked especially for this role by Dellicour following a rigorous casting process involving long talks with dozens of teenagers – a process Dellicour credits with helping her putting the final touches to the teenage characters in the script.
The road movie Nightfall in India (Chema Rodríguez, 2014) combines a number of topics, possibly too many for its own good. The leading male character is an aged Spanish hippie, wheel-chair bound and suffering from a degenerative disease. His situation has made him embittered and frustrated, and he is dreaming of the past when he was driving round India in a van ferrying other hippies around. Soon his illness will finally imprison him in his body, so he would rather die trying to drive a van to India for one last time, like he did so many decades ago.
His female counterpart is his Romanian carer, who is opposed to his plan but who eventually becomes an essential part in it. This female lead character is at least as complex as that of the male lead, as she is running away from her past, her guilt, and her responsibilities.
While this is no doubt an interesting film with interesting characters, it suffers from the fact that all those characters, especially the two leads, are so unlikeable that it is difficult to care for them or for their relationship. And, coming after a final act that seemingly drags on forever, the ending of this film – artistically clad as it may be – seems more lazy than artful.
Danish drama The Sunfish (Søren Balle, 2014) takes place in the world of the Danish fishing industry, highlighting the problems European fisherman face, caught between economics, dwindling fish stocks, and environmental policies.
The main character Kesse is a divorced middle-aged fisherman who is very much set in his ways. A proud and upright man, he will not illegally catch more fish than the quota imposed upon him allows, and despite massive economic difficulties he refuses to sack his sole employee, for whom he feels responsible.
A fledgling romance that develops between Kesse and Gerd, a marine biologist involved in the research behind the setting of the quotas, brings a touch of Romeo and Juliet to the Danish coast, as their two worlds do not easily mix. The drama reaches its climax as the increasing pressure from his bank forces Kesse to sacrifice at least one of his principles – either sack his employee, or deal in the black market.
Writer/director Søren Balle assembled a perfect cast for his film, led by veteran actors Henrik Birch (Kesse) and Susanne Storm (Gerd). What strikes me most about this film is its perfect realism. The fishermen’s struggle for economic survival is displayed correctly and realistically, without artificial over-dramatisation that social dramas of this kind are often burdened with in the mistaken believe that this will heighten their impact.
Likewise, the developing romance between middle-aged Kesse and Gerd (herself on the best way into middle age) is displayed realistically as the relationship between two mature adults, not sugar-coated or complicated like Hollywood dramas or RomComs might do.
This perfect realism and natural drama is laced with minor traces of Scandinavian humour. A very strong and well-rounded film
Lebanese film Ghadi (Amin Dora, 2013) is highly enjoyable – possibly the most enjoyable film of the whole festival. This film had been submitted by Lebanon for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2015 Oscars®, and it is easy to see why: it is a film where basically everything seems to have gone right: writing, directing, camera, acting, editing. It would be difficult to find a flaw in this film, apart from an introductory passage that seems significantly longer than necessary.
Ghadi is a modern fairy tale, telling the story of a father who goes to great lengths in order to protect his noisy, mentally disabled son from their grumpy neighbours by convincing them he has special powers.
It is a tale of love, and also a story about tolerance and acceptance, things which the director Amin Dora stresses a country as divided as Lebanon needs more of.
Apart from the excellent script, one has to stress the high quality of the film’s all-Lebanese cast. From the eccentric and grumpy neighbours to the little girls playing Ghadi’s sisters, the whole cast fill out their roles perfectly. Special mention must go to the Georges Khabbaz, who plays the leading role of Ghadi’s father. Not only does he seem to be an exceptionally talented actor, he is also the writer of this extraordinary film. And of course Emmanuel Khairallah must be commended, a young boy who suffers from Down Syndrome just like the titular hero he portrays.
Writer Georges Khabbaz and director Amin Dora have created a beautiful and well-rounded tale which deserves every bit of the praise which has been heaped upon it all around. It comes as no surprise that at the last day of the festival Ghadi was awarded the Audience Award for the most popular film of the festival.
New Master of Cinema: Geoffrey Enthoven
The New Master of Cinema Award had only been established at Mannheim-Heidelberg in 2013. Its purpose is to honour film-makers who are still young and in a way newcomers, yet who have persistently over a number of years and a number of projects (at least five feature films) proven that they are able to continue to deliver films at a high level of quality. I think one can see this award as a supplementation which is meant to ensure that the festival, whose main awards are all focused on first-time directors, does not overlook the importance of perseverance and of sustained success.
In 2014, the New Master of Cinema Award was awarded to Belgian director Geoffrey Enthoven. In honour of this awarding, the festival screened two of Enthoven’s films, including his latest, Halfweg (2014). Like many of Enthoven’s other films, Halfweg teaches us that it is never too late for change in your life.
Billed as a comedy drama, this modern fairytale is decidedly more comedy than drama. Halfweg is a highly entertaining film, very funny and at times moving.
The film follows a few days in the life of Stef, a self-assured and arrogant architect/designer with little regard for other people’s needs or feelings. His life seems to be falling apart: his wife divorces him over an affair, his boss (who is also his father-in-law) kicks him out, and his assistant/affair turns out to have her own agenda. But, while things are not going smoothly, he has at least his newly bought rural mansion in which he plans not only to live but also to establish his own office. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t for Theo, a stranger only dressed in shorts and a towel, who refuses to leave the house. A series of surreal turns and supernatural occurrences, as well as the encounter with the vulnerable Julie, will leave Stef not really better off than before, but a reformed and more content man nonetheless.
As an audience, we should consider ourselves lucky that this film exists, as it only came about as a means to fill some time when another project stalled. So this was a small production in every sense. From the moment producer Mariano Vanhoof and director Geoffrey Enthoven pitched Vanhoof’s idea to writer Pierre De Clercq till the moment the filming was done, it took only nine months, and only a budget of 1.2 million Euros. The fact that the team had the necessary experience to shoot little more than what was needed for the final cut, and the fact that the film takes place entirely in one location, contributed to the efficiency in time and budget.
Although I believe I managed to see a fair selection of some of the most important and most interesting films of the festival, here is a brief list of award-winning films I did not see:
Like Patrick’s Day, Estonian historical drama In the Crosswinds (Martti Helde, 2014), dealing with Stalin’s mass deportations, was awarded an official recommendation by the Jury of Cinema Owners.
Apart from 23 Segundos and Ghadi (see above) the big winner of the festival is Nabat (Elchin Musaoglu, 2014):
Azerbaijan’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2015 Oscars® received the Mannheim-Heidelberg Award by the International Jury, which unlike the Newcomer Award (“best fiction feature film”) is awarded to the “best unconventionally narrated feature film”.
Apart from this big award, Nabat, a highly poetical story about an old woman who is the sole remaining inhabitant of a mountain village in this war-torn region, also received the FIPRESCI Award by the Jury of the International Federation of Film Critics, and the Ecumenical Film Prize, awarded by the Ecumenical Jury.
The International Jury, which is in charge of the main awards, gave the Special Award of the Jury to 73-year-old Nelson Xavier for his acting performance in Marcelo Galvao’s drama Farewell (2014).
A Strong Festival
The 63rd International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg can justly be called a success. Roughly 60.000 visits to the festival’s screenings means an attendance at or above the level of previous record years. More importantly, the films for the two newcomer sections seemed to be overall very well chosen. The festival featured a wide variety of international films from almost all corners of the earth, films that all found their very own particular tone for telling their respective stories. Despite the seemingly overall darker mood among young film-makers and despite the festival’s apparent favour for serious films and heavy subjects, there were also films with a more optimistic outlook, not to mention those fairy tale films that dare to dream, and it seems noteworthy that both the “Audience Award” and the festival’s main award (“Newcomer of the Year”) went to such fairy tale films.