[EDITORS NOTE: This is part one of two features that indieWIRE is publishing about the 2007 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema program.]
When you think of “Sundance buzz,” it usually involves American films. Movies ranging from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Hard Candy” make headlines during the late weeks of January as distributors shell out large amounts of cash and prepare big release plans in the hopes that the Sundance name will do something for their film’s street cred. Very rarely do you hear about the World Cinema competitions that comprise over a third of the festival’s features. Generally, this is because they tend to be much weaker, featuring everything from the empty, tonal pieces (Burkina Faso‘s “Buried Dreams” and Russia’s “The Island“) to the blatantly misogynistic character studies (Brazil’s “Drained“). So, while reporters, buyers and festival goers clamor over big budget indies like George Ratliff‘s brilliant narrative, “Joshua,” I’m sifting through the international selections to find the diamonds in the rough, few and far between. And it is the films with the most emotional honesty that prove to be the strongest.
By far the best international feature I’ve seen here is Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth‘s “Khadak.” This Belgian/German narrative tells of a young man and his family forced to evacuate their home in Mongolia’s frozen steppes when the animals that they depend on for survival fall victim to a plague sweeping the land. “Khadak”‘s beautiful widescreen cinematography and series of powerful single-shot scenes display the emotional turmoil of its main characters as they are forced to work in a mine and adjust to development. Slowly and hauntingly, “Khadak” portrays modernization and its tension with the traditional values of a nation’s people. In the end, the film boasts a dreamlike thirty minutes that are so on point and effective they make you wish Lynch had taken a few tips from Brosens and Woodworth when constructing the second half of “Inland Empire.”
The film also exhibits one of this year’s overall trends in that it is one of five narratives made by documentary directors. The other two which I have screened so far, Jeffery Blitz‘s “Rocket Science” and the aforementioned “Joshua,” along with “Khadak” have all been exemplary transitions from documentary to narrative, and despite the shift in genre all maintain characteristics of the directors’ previous work.
Two flawed but innovative thrillers, Gela Babluani‘s follow-up to Sundance 2006 film “13 Tzameti,” “The Legacy,” and Jorge Hernandez Aldana‘s “The Night Buffalo,” prove to be some of the most interesting in the international dramatic competition. Following a group of French hipsters, “The Legacy” takes us a on a journey through the Georgian countryside as our protagonists follow an old man and his grandson to a remote location where they will perform a unique ritual. As the plot begins to shift, so does the humor, to a kind of chilling irony as what seemed to be a joke turns all too real. Utilizing the same structure as “Tzameti,” Babluani’s addition of humor adds a new level to the whole affair, which throws you for quite the emotional loop.
“The Night Buffalo,” which opened to mixed audience and critical responses, tells of a 22-year-old schizophrenic, Gregorio, who commits suicide after discovering that his girlfriend Tania is cheating on his with his best friend Manuel. Gregorio leaves behind a devious plot to drive Manuel and Tania into insanity. “Night Buffalo,” for its faults – most of which have to do with some ludicrous plot points – does manage to keep an eerie atmosphere with its skin-crawling music and jolting cinematography. In an interesting twist on what is otherwise a haphazard thriller, the film eventually works itself out to be a rather clever metaphor for Tania and Manuels’ relationship, using external forces, including Gregorio, as a kind of symbol for the emotional barriers that keep them from communicating their true feelings to each other.
The documentary side featured nothing truly outstanding, but did have a few good entries, especially features from the UK. Innovative director Julien Temple, explores the legacy of The Clash front man in “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.” When Temple first displayed his talent for drawing connections between pop archival footage and his film subjects in the Sex Pistols documentary “The Filth and the Fury,” we were all awed. Now, six years later, it feels like old hat and even the pure musical power seems to run thin the longer the film goes on.
Easily one of the most talked about documentaries – and the first to be sold for American distribution – is David Sington‘s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which chronicles the work of the Apollo Space program. Interviews with former astronauts are mixed with archival footage to create an accurate portrayal of the all-American triumph watched around the globe. The film is overly nostalgic, dripping with sentimentality from every pore, and putting the old TV footage to triumphant music seems like a forced miscalculation. Perhaps the documentary could have benefited from reenactment, shooting widescreen shuttle launches that conjure up the cinematic power of Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001.” The abrupt shifts to the 4:3 ratio undermine the emotional effect of the interviews and we are suddenly reminded that we are watching a piece of history, as opposed to experiencing it. The talking heads, however, particularly Buzz Aldrin‘s, do contain a kind of honesty that makes it hard not to get wrapped up in the amazement of what man is capable of.
The two international documentaries that stand out are the North American premieres of Nejib Belkadhi‘s “VHS – Kahloucha” and Pernille Rose Gronkjaer‘s “The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun.” Both character studies in their own right, these pieces show an incredible love, respect and admiration for their subjects that is undeniably powerful. “VHS – Kahloucha” follows a Tunisian film crew that defines the slogan “Ten dollars and a dream.” It’s hard not feel inspired as renegade filmmaker Moncef Kahloucha and his crew churn out b-genre pictures with youthful ferocity. Kahloucha is so dedicated to his own filmmaking that he’ll go to any lengths to capture a scene; the section where he cuts his own arm to create blood effects is unforgettable. And when he steals smiles while his camera isn’t looking, you can’t help but share in his joy of bringing the power of cinema to his people.
“The Monastery,” the winner of European doc showcase IDFA, portrays a very different, but equally moving emotional template. Inspiring hope, humor and sadness in a single breath, “Monastery” sees Mr. Vig, an 82-year-old virgin, fulfill his dream of turning his Danish countryside castle into a monastery with the help of an officious nun, Sister Ambrosija. The interplay between Vig and Ambrosija is worth the price of admission alone, but Gronkjaer’s documentary, much like its titular characters, contains a kind of inner beauty that slowly reveals itself throughout the eighty-four minute running time. The film displays extremely careful construction that sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
I hope that something in the latter half of the week shakes me to the core like these two films.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Michael Lerman is a freelance writer and programmer for the Woodstock Film Festival and Philadelphia Film Festival.
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