“Israfil” directed by Ida Panahandeh (Iran, 2017)

Esrafil poster
IMG_3585
REVIEW by Cynthia Webb, 19th May 2018
“Israfil “ (2017, Iran) directed by Ida Panahandeh (pictured above)
Review by Cynthia Webb
While in Iran recently, I watched this very moving second feature film of the young female director, Ida Panahandeh. Her first film was entitled, “Nahid”, and also concerned the often difficult lives of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Nahid” won a prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival.
Ida has studied film making in Tehran, and also in Berlin’s “Talent Campus” in 2009, after being recognised as having great potential. This film, “Israfil” showed very mature film-making and is quite a remarkable achievement for a second feature film. I will be watching the future work of this gifted young film director, very closely.

This new film, “Israfil” is like a master-class in classical film-making. Her DOP, Morteza Gheidi, deserves special mention, because the colour design of the film is very subdued, and each frame is carefully thought out to the artistic conventions of composition. The cinematography is always calm and unobtrusive, to complement the behavior of Mahi, and the resigned nature of her attitude to life. The Editor, Hayedeh Safiyari, has supported the quiet tone of the film’s story, by cutting in a measured manner, and although I imagine every woman in the audience was feeling the sadness, perhaps the males were unable to grasp its full message.
The setting is in North Eastern Iran, a small town, where a female teacher, Mahi Ebrahimi (a role written for and played by Hediyah Tehrani, who won Best Actress Award at the Fajr International Film Festival for this performance) is mourning her teenage son Babak, recently killed in a car accident. Her ex boyfriend Behrouz, (Peyman Bazeghi) from almost 20 years ago, has returned from Canada, to sell some family land, and turns up at the funeral. The relatives of Mahi are furious, and there’s an angry uproar in the kitchen of her family home, while her Uncle Abbas says he wants to kill the interloper, with shouts such as “How dare he come back here?” The others manage to calm him down, but he’s a man who will not ever change his mind and forgive.
Then begins the ‘back-story’ and secrets are very quietly revealed. This man, Behrouz, has been the Mahi’s lover in their youth, and in such a subtle way, we learn of his true connection to her and the boy. He and our heroine, walk together and talk and remember past times when they were young, innocent, happy and in love. But it’s all impossible now. He has a new girlfriend.
As the film is divided into three sections, we next meet Sara, (Hoda Zeindabedin) who is Behrouz’s much younger girlfriend, whom he met online, and she has a story of her own, concerning her mother and her brother, which we explore and come to understand why she wishes to go with Behrooz to Canada. Her story too, reveals family problems and responsibilities that can also cause great difficulties to the younger generation.
Finally the third section brings us back to the protagonist, Mahi’s current day problems, which are caused by several things. She’s in grief for the loss of her son, she has committed indiscretions in her youth, which haunt her to this very day, and now she’s alone, with no husband (they split up) and no son either. At her teaching job, there is also trouble.
Life for a woman in modern-day Iran, is filled with pitfalls, and in a small town, it’s even more difficult, as no-one forgets anything, and everyone gossips.
The director has kept control of every tiny detail of this film, and it is loaded with empathy for the difficult lives of women, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Two or three times I found my eyes filling with tears. It was powerful empathy for the brave women of this world who have a more difficult life situation than me.
Always, the quiet and deliberate pace is sustained, to communicate to us the kind of life that one would live in such a small and distant town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s like walking on egg-shells.
The story ends with little hope for the proud and brave Mahi.
Ida Panahandeh, the director explained that she had a lot of trouble getting the screenplay past the Islamic Republic of Iran’s censors, to get permission to make the film. There was one element that may have been the cause, but wasn’t because it was transmitted in such a subtle manner, that perhaps they didn’t notice it. The problem they cited, was that the young woman Sara, states that she wanted to leave Iran, to be able to study art and have more opportunity, by going to Canada with Behrooz.
The title, “Israfil” is the name of one of four angels in the Iranian Islamic tradition, who has a trumpet. In Western world, he is the equivalent of Raphael. There is a line in the script that tells us that our protagonist’s grandmother had some plates with a painted image of Israfil on them. She and Behrooz find one in an antique shop while browsing and talking.
The fact that Mahi is socializing with Beyrouz again, albeit in public places only, scandalizes the town, because everyone knows that they were once in love, and that she attempted suicide when he fled from the town, in fear of her angry uncle. So to mention a “spoiler” which is kept so VERY subtle in the film, Behrooz is the father of her dead son, and she has been hurriedly married off to someone else to avoid scandal. This “ruined her life”, she says, and she has divorced from the husband, who has since died.
The film tells us that these strict religious and social traditions have been cruel to the young people in love, and that both their lives were ruined, but it tells us this almost wordlessly. The spirit of the dead child seems to be one of the main characters in this film, although he’s never seen, except in a picture. He is the link between Behrouz and Mahi, and he is the beginning of their sadness and is hovering over it now. The words that come to mind to describe the feeling of this lovely film, are poignant, dignified, and even tragic. It has so much humanity.
The film was recently shown to considerable acclaim at the BFI’s London Film Festival, 2017.
Copyright 19 May 2018, Cynthia Webb
Poster courtesy of the Producers and IMDb
Photo of the director by Cynthia Webb, copyright, 19 May 2018

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Press Conference with Oliver Stone, Tehran, Iran. At the Fajr International Film Festival, 19-27 April, 2018

Press Conference 25th April 2018 at the Fajr International Film Festival, (FIFF),Tehran, Iran.
(Festival Director, respected Iranian film maker Reza Mirkarimi.)
Report by Cynthia Webb (Tehran, Iran)

Media from Iran, from nearby countries, and even from Agence France Presse,and even Hollywood, attended this very interesting Press Conference, with a man who is certainly not a typical American film-maker, however he is a very famous one. His films have won several Oscars, and he has always had an interest in “the other side of the story” which is demonstrated by his documentaries as well as the feature films. His documentaries include interviews with Arafat,Castro, Chavez, Netanyahu, and Putin, and the ten episode series: The Untold History of the United States of America, made with a prominent American historian, which is riveting viewing.
Mr Stone came to Iran a few days early, and visited, Kashan and Esfahan before coming to the FIFF for workshops with Iranian film students and the press conference. Apparently he is the first big name American film-maker to ever attend this festival. As for the Fajr International Film Festival, he mentioned that it was a great opportunity for inter-dialogue between film-makers and other people.

He said it is his first time to come to Iran, and that he has met the warmest of hosts, and smiles. He added that movies speak any language.
Mr Stone explained that he had seen between 12-24 Iranian films, amongst thousands from many other countries. At this Film Festival he has watched about ten films, and was particularly impressed by those from Central Asia, Russia and even Germany too. He said it was a more relaxed festival for him, because he was not presenting a film of his own.

When asked why he accepted the invitation to come to Iran, Oliver Stone replied ,“ The history and culture. Persia has been on the map for two and a half thousand years. I was always interested in Iran but I have been very busy. However, this Festival is at the right time for me, and my son and my South Korean wife have urged me to come here. I am having a wonderful time.”

As for Iranian films, Mr Stone said that when he was on the Jury of a Film Festival in Bhutan, he saw many interesting Asian films, and “Blockage” from Iran was one of the co-winners . He commented that it was a very honest film, about corruption, even in everyday problems. He said, “The main character was a policeman, and there seemed to be no shame about the corruption. The film was absorbing to watch and the Jury all loved that film. It happens everywhere to some extent.”

In recent years, Mr Stone has made a lot of documentaries: “The Untold History of the USA”, The Putin Interviews, and also films about Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu. He said he has been finding it refreshing to get back to reality, and talk to real leaders. When asked if he had any plan to make a film about an Iranian leader, he answered that he did not.
Another question came about if he had considered making a film about the activities of ISIS, which are seriously affecting some countries in the region. He said “That’s a very good idea! Write a treatment and we’ll pitch it!” He was smiling, and then added that actually the world is very political, including the world of cinema and thatthere’d be little chance of him getting the money for such a project.
“You can do it honestly, here in Iran,” he added.

Deborah Young from “The Hollywood Report” asked his opinion of the situation regarding famous Iranian director, Jafar Panahi. Mr Panahi has a film in the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, (“3 Faces”) as does another Iranian, Asghar Farhadi. Mr Panahi cannot attend, as his passport is still revoked by the Iranian government.
Mr Stone did not know the full details and said that if Mr Panahi had made quite a few films, then that is an achievement in itself, and that he is personally against all ‘detention’.

(Note from the writer:) Mr Panahi was arrested, forbidden from making films for 25 years, passport revoked, and he was under house arrest for a long time. This was because of his outspoken comments in the street demonstrations after an election in Iran, in 2009. He also had a history of making films critical of the Iranian regime, particularly with regard to women’s rights, and even his newest film “3 Face” has that same theme. It later won a shared Best Screenplay prize at Cannes Film Festival, 2018.)

Asked what he thought of Iranian films, Mr Stone said that a few were very good, and continued, ,“I often wonder how can some films are so monotonous and don’t have enough tension. He made this comment in general , about films from many lands that he sees in Festivals across the world. He then advised – “Make your film exciting.” He mentioned that the issue of pace is subjective, according to your cultural background and told an anecdote about the legendary Billy Wilder (Hollywood director) who said “Make your point and get off. Cut the film in three weeks and have a preview.”

The subject of international prejudice against Iran was raised, when another reporter mentioned that lately a lot of films had made Iranians the villains. (e.g. Hollywood’s “ARGO”).

Then Mr Stone brought up his film “Alexander” 2004, (Iskandar) which was discussed in some journals as “anti-Iranian”. He clearly had a lot of historical knowledge about Alexander The Great’s exploits in Iran, and the historical battles with the army of Emperor Darius. He told the audience that there have been several versions of this film released on DVD, and that he had a lot of trouble with Warner Bros Studio’s very strong management. He said they had wanted a lot of things censored, such as sex between males, and the violence cut down. “It was very limiting” said Mr Stone. “The only version to watch, the one that I supervised and love is available widely around the world, entitled “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut” which came out in 2014 as a fourth version.. It runs for 3 hours 26 minutes.” This DVD has sold over a million copies and came out ten years after the original studio version.

The next matter raised, was that the Israeli press had published negative stories about Mr Stone coming to Iran and had printed some incorrect facts in the past, saying he had requested to interview Amedinejad. He assured the audience that the latter was totally false information. Israeli press also criticized him for visiting Iran for the Film Festival, criticism that he just ignored.
Someone asked which world crisis he felt would be interesting to make into a film.
“That’s a giant subject,” he answered. Then continued to say that it would be better to work on the subject of ISIS’ effect on the Middle East countries in documentary form, rather than feature film.

On making political films he mentioned that his film “W” ended in 2004 when President George W Bush ( the subject of “W”) invaded Iraq, and therefore the movie suffered at the box office. Stone said that he loved the film for its satire. He explained a particular scene, showing President Bush and Dick Cheney, studying a map of the region. The Cheney dialog – “Our goal”, (pointing to the oil rich Middle East nations and Iran). “The prize is oil money. We’re going to Baghdad!”
When the President asks, what is our exit strategy? Mr Cheney replies, “There IS NO exit!”

Mr Stone admitted that it hurt him when the American Press criticized and slammed the film, but he acknowledged that it was predictable, as American soldiers were at war with Iraq at the time.
“My timing sucked!” said the director.

He went on to say that ever since then (2004) the USA policy was Regime Change. It has been a pattern since 2001 – 2018 for the Neo-Cons, a policy that works for them. He said, “It is referred to as “creative destruction”. It’s a disgusting policy, ruining millions of lives, and continual tragedy is unfolding. It has been the same under both Presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump. America will break any treaty. We are continuing to do this. The USA tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. For us, treaties are breakable! We lay waste to a region and we call it “peace””.
Stone is openly appalled at the foreign policy of his own country. (note from writer: only a few weeks after this Press Conference, President Trump tore up his agreement with the Iranian Government about their nuclear power stations, so after that the Iranian parliament followed suit, tearing it up too, now that it was one-sided. It was a huge media story in Iran, and greeted with much dismay.)

Speaking about his impression of Iranians, Mr Stone praised the ‘charm, warmth and softness’ of Iranians he has met. He then added that one Iranian man told him – “We can be hard when we want to!”

A reporter from France asked about censorship in Iran, and requested comments, to which Mr Stone said that censorship restricts artistic freedom.’ Then he expanded by saying that there was almost no interest in his film “W” or “Snowden” in the USA, and that this too was a sort of censorship. However in France and Germany where 60% of people approved of what the real Edward Snowden had done (he was a whistleblower about USA government activities in spying on citizens) it did well.
“In some countries censorship can sometimes be excessive, to protect national security. For film-makers dealing with a subject that is about such matters, film-makers must be very subtle – it’s the only way to get around the problem. In the USA when I cannot get the money to make a politically controversial film, they call it “Economic Constraints”, but actually it’s a kind of censorship working in advance. No studios wanted to go near “Snowden”. “They just don’t give you the damn money!” Mr Stone exclaimed.

There was some plain speaking from Oliver Stone. He made a special point of again addressing specifically, the representative from the Agence France, to say that he had been very depressed by seeing on TV the previous evening, the young French President Macron, in cahoots with Trump on certain issues, and thought that it represented a return to the thinking of the French colonial era Imperialist attitudes. He said that Macron didn’t seem to have much sense of history. Mr Stone noted that his own mother was French. It was clear that Mr Stone definitely wanted his comments known in France, by taking this action.

Another questioner enquired as to whether Oliver Stone thought that was any chance of Iranian films penetrating the USA, and being widely seen there.
He answered, “No, because no other international cinemas have managed to do it yet either,” and mentioned China, and France as examples. He went on to say,
“Americans won’t watch sub-titles, and most of them do not travel abroad. However things are changing, through television where we have Netflix. Sometimes some hit TV series and films from France and England have been re-made in the USA”
Note from writer: Examples are “House of Cards” (based on a former, British version of the series, which was even more edgy). Also several French comedies by Francis Weber have been treated to the American re-make treatment in the past. The Swedish film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was re-made with American setting, by David Fincher. This is about the limit of such international film-sharing. So, it is not very promising for Iranian films to hope to get wide viewing in the USA.

There was then a question on whether Mr Stone would like to make a film about the situation in Syria, and he said that he would never be able to get the funding for such a project, as an American. He also mentioned that he “looked to Saudi Arabia as the major destructor in the region.”
Someone said that he had once made statement that George W Bush was like John Wayne. Therefore, who would he compare Donald Trump to?
His answer coming quickly, was one word, “Beelzebub”. There was a bit of explanation for some who didn’t know that this name Beelzebub is associated with the Canaanite God Bal, and was later associated with the Devil.

As is by now very clear, the political nature of Oliver Stone’s previous work and political interests, plus the situation in this region of the world, and the strained relations between the USA and Iran, led to the majority of the questions at this press conference being political ones.

Next, an Iranian journalist wanted to know if he knew about the eight year Iran/Iraq war, and if he’d like to make a film about it. He said, “no, not much at all, but that it was an interesting subject for an Iranian film.” He added, “You have to remember I am limited, and it is not possible at my age, and that it would be impossible to get the money for such a project because the USA was supporting Iraq at that time, when Iraq attacked Iran. (although not necessarily for the actual attack). He said that if there were chemical weapons in Iraq, they got them from the USA. “The USA fights proxy wars” he said, looking very depressed and angry about this fact. As for his future work, he said he’d return to subjects in the USA.

The final question was about whether Oliver Stone thought that at rare times in the West, when Iranian films won prizes, ‘was it a political choice’, rather than based on the merit of the film. (Two Iranian films are in competition at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, from Asghar Farhadi, a 2 time Oscar winner in Best Foreign Language Film category), and Jafar Panahi, a political activist who has been punished by the Iranian regime with strong restrictions on his life and professional activities.
Mr Stone answered, “Probably”.

As the press conference, which had been very long, wrapped up, I looked at my list of questions, and regretted that I had not known about the list to put my name on, to ask a question, and also, perhaps I wasn’t important to be on that list anyway, as I am not from any major newspaper or news service.
……………………………………………………………………………
My final note: For the record, I’d have liked to ask about the fascinating moment during his Putin Interviews, when he enthusiastically showed Mr Putin footage from the Stanley Kubrick film, “Dr Strangelove – or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb!” I had watched Mr Putin’s face carefully, and he did NOT seem to think this image of the end of the world by nuclear war theme was any kind of laughing matter. Perhaps this extremely black satire/comedy just didn’t “travel” or perhaps he needed to watch the entire film or perhaps he did. It wasn’t clear but a scene out of context is certainly not really fair if that’s what happened.
Also, I wondered what Oliver Stone thought about the standard of the films emerging from Hollywood in recent years, where I see a depressing fall in the intelligence and quality. There are very few quality films, or good dramas on serious subjects emerging from the Studios anymore. Another of my questions, he had commented on during the conference, which was about whether he was intending to return to making feature films. He had already said that he would. If he does so, then it will be a big relief to see some good work about serious subjects again, in my humble opinion.

Copyright, Cynthia Webb, Tehran, Iran
Photos by Cynthia Webb
Film Poster: Courtesy of the Producers, via IMDb
26 April, 2018

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“The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) Directed by Clint Eastwood. (review by Cynthia Webb)

POSTER 15 17 To Paris
“The 15/17 to PARIS” (2018) Directed by Clint Eastwood
By Cynthia Webb
Perhaps Clint Eastwood’s days as a great director are over, going by his latest offering. Or perhaps this screenplay just didn’t have enough interest in it to sustain a feature film, albeit a comparatively short one, at 92 minutes.
“ The 15:17 to Paris”. This film is interesting for the fact that it tells the story of an event in August 2015, and the 3 young male stars are the actual young men who participated in dramatic events on the Thalys fast train between Amsterdam and Paris. At Gare du Midi, a Brussels train station, a 25 year old Moroccan man boarded the train. He went into the toilet and was noticed to have been a long time and a couple of men were waiting outside the door. When he opened the door, he was shirtless, but heavily armed and dangerous. One man instinctively tackled him, there was a scuffle, a shot was fired, and one passenger was shot and was on the floor losing a lot of blood. In the carriage, were 3 young men, Americans, life-long friends, two of them with training in the armed forces. They showed the benefit of their training, and did not hesitate to charge at the assailant. With help from a couple more male passengers, (French and British) they took his gun and knocked out the Moroccan, trussed up with ties and whatever else was to hand.. One of the Americans spent 20 minutes with 2 fingers jammed inside the bullet hole in the neck of his fellow passenger, pressing on the artery and thus saved his life. The train was diverted to a station about 20 minutes away and the police, and medical help boarded , removed the injured, the would-be shooter, and it was all over.
This is all public knowledge, and I’m sure most people remember that it was widely reported around the world.
However, I am sad to say that this is really the only interesting part of the film, when it begins to feel like a Hollywood Studio film directed by a legend, rather than home-movies.
For two-thirds of this one and a half hour movie, we are watching the standard growing up of 3 ‘All-American boys’, nice boys, good people with caring families. The opening scenes are truly awful, because they show two of the mothers getting repeatedly called to the office of the Principal of their Christian private school. However the film does not show their sons as even slightly deserving of being in trouble, OR having Attention Deficit Disorder, as one teacher informs the flabbergasted mothers. She thinks they should be on medication, but we the audience have seen nothing unusual.
This film could have been considerably improved and more interesting, if there had been an attempt to balance their All-American stories, with the story of the young Moroccan man…. Who was he, why was he on the train with all these guns. What was he thinking? What led him to this? He later claimed in court that he wanted to rob people, not kill, but he had enough firepower to kill most of the passengers. However, he appeared to be very inept with weapons, and fortunately for almost everyone, the AKM assault rifle jammed. He seemed to be a lone amateur and a bit of a bungler too. I might point out that there is a large community of Moroccans who live in Belgium, most of them good law abiding people. Way back in 1964 the Belgians invited them to come to live there and work in their coal mines, also steel and auto industry – work that Belgians weren’t keen to do themselves.

As for the young American heroes, following the childhood scenes, there’s a stretch of watching their grown up years, finding careers for themselves, and till close friends, keeping in touch via Skype.

When they plan a backpacking tour together in Western Europe, there’s more footage reminiscent of any American tourists’ amateur video recording – yes, far better quality than that would be, I admit, however the content is unremarkable… Eastwood seems to want us to only see the glories of Europe as a backdrop to the young heroes. The friends take a lot of Selfies, see a few of the compulsory “tourist attractions” in Italy, Germany and then go off to Amsterdam, after meeting an elderly musician in a bar, who tells them how great it is there. As they “do” Rome, Venice, Berlin, they seem to hardly bother to look at the history all around them. Like so many tourists I’ve seen in Europe myself, they are more interested in taking Selfies.

This first 45 minutes of backstory, is occasionally punctuated with some brief ‘flash-forwards’, with which Eastwood has attempted create a link to a moment happening in their youth. .. or maybe try to tell us everything was leading to this event on the train. One of the young men is still a dedicated Christian, and so there is, at least twice, a bit of unconvincing dialog, about being drawn to something powerful in his destiny. If those things were really said, and felt, the film has failed to show it as anything more than random chance.

In Amsterdam they are even considering not bothering to go to Paris. Are they in their right minds? Some of the dialog is rather lame on this subject too, where they say that various people they’ve talked to say it’s not worth bothering to go there. Are average Americans really this culturally blind and insensitive or is it just the folly of youth, or dare I say it, growing up in one of world’s most insular nations?

At least I enjoyed a small moment when they were on a bicycle tour of Berlin. The tour guide told them they’d stopped on the location of Hitler’s suicide, at the end of the war. One of the Americans, argues and says he thought Hitler died at his Alpine retreat in the South. The German says that Hitler was right here and it was the Russians that took Berlin, and caused Hitler and Eva Braun to commit suicide, in their underground bunker. He said, “You American’s cannot take credit for everything, in the war.” It is indeed a fact that it was really the Russians who won the war, and they lost eighty men for every one G.I. who died in World War Two. They had been fighting the Germans in the East for four years, when the Americans finally entered the war in only the final year.

The action scenes of the drama in the train are quite a relief after the tedium of the long lead up. It probably would have been better to just make a documentary about the event for television.

Clint Eastwood has made quite a few films recently about Americans at war, going right back to Flags of our Fathers. It was generous of him to put in the above-mentioned scene in Berlin with that dialog, in a small attempt to counteract how he has glorified the USA at war. Of course the individual young men and women, their courage, their sacrifices, should be appreciated and forever remembered. But it would be far better if the USA didn’t go to so many wars these days.

However I hasten to say the world was grateful when they finally appeared in the European theatre of war, in 1944, but much earlier in the Pacific, (because they themselves had been attacked at Pearl Harbour.)

The final scenes of the film are the actual media footage of the young men and another of the passengers, being presented with France’s Legion De Honneur medal, by President Hollande, and then a sort of victory parade when they came home to their hometown Sacramento, California.

I went along, I suppose only because I have lived about 4 months in Antwerp, Belgium since 2013, and will be back there for another couple of months very soon. I often use this train line, boarding at Antwerp Station. The spectacular architecture of Antwerp Station‘s building would have been impressive. This very busy station has a “layer cake” of four levels of lines and platforms, one on top of the other, because it is such a busy point on Europe’s rail transport network.

However, back to the film, my advice is “Don’t bother” to go to it. It’s not as interesting as Paris!

Comments by Cynthia Webb
Copyright Feb 2018
Photo: Courtesy of the Producers

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“Ellipsis” (2018) Directed by David Wenham (Australia)


“ELLIPSIS” directed by David Wenham. (Australia)
Cynthia Webb, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia
Australian actor David Wenham has been on many a film set starring in some of this country’s finest films, – also television. He began to ponder the matter of how film-making could be minimalized. now that this time of digital film-making is with us to stay with equipment becoming better every year, it was time to give it a try. I was fortunate to see it on 8th February at a screening at HOTA, ( Home of the Arts, the new name for The Gold Coast Arts Centre) presented by APSA ( Asia Pacific Screen Awards) and Gold Coast Film Festival. (The GC Film Festival is coming up in April, and I hope will screen this film again.)

The result is “Ellipsis”, which was conceived, work-shopped and shot (in 18 different locations around Sydney) in only ten days. AND, there was no screenplay for the two protagonists, known as Viv and Jasper, played by Emily Barclay and Benedict Samuel. Only four crew were involved, the DOP, Simon Morris, and a second cameraman, a sound-man, David’s assistant, and himself.
David Wenham said, “It was a film that I didn’t plan to make. I was well into making another film with this couple of actors, when it fell over, because of a funding issue. It was very disappointing because a lot of work had already gone into it. So, as I’d always wanted to make an experimental film, the actors and I decided to give it a try.”
David talked to them briefly about who their characters were, and took them out to lunch, “in character”. The shared luncheon was filmed, and was a success, with very natural performances from the actors.

So the experimental film commenced shooting, on a very simple premise.
Two attractive young people collide on a busy central city pedestrian crossing in Sydney. It was Jasper’s fault because he was looking at his cellphone instead of watching where he was going. Viv, who was also carrying her phone dropped it and smashed the screen. He reverses direction with her, to the side of the street, apologises most profusely and offers to take her to a phone repair shop nearby, run by a quiet and kind Chinese gentleman. Jasper wants to pay for the repairs. At first the repairman says it’s a serious job and will take a while, but when Viv pleads with him, because she’s leaving for London the next morning, he takes it home to work on it overnight.

Hence begins a day and a night of Jasper and Viv, filling in time together, wandering around Sydney, talking, getting to know one another, laughing a lot, obviously becoming more and more in tune with one-another. The only problem is, she is engaged, back in London life. They go by bus out to Bondi, they meet a dog that is out alone but has a phone number on its collar, and call the owner. They take the dog to the owner by taxi, receive complimentary eats and drinks in this grateful man’s café, then go back out onto the streets of King’s Cross, as darkness falls. There they meet various local characters, (these are all real local people) and have further adventures. All of this was as much a surprise to the actors on location, as it was to us, the audience! The young couple are becoming ever easier in one another’s company, getting somewhat tipsy and laughing more and more. The audience is beginning to wish for some sort of ‘happy ending’.
The delight of their night together is that they are living in the moment, free of any other responsibilities, obligations, and seemingly have ‘all the time in the world’ – OR at least until 8.00a.m. next morning when they will collect the repaired phone.

While all this is going on, we have the contrasting images coming from the Chinese phone repairman’s home, where he DOES have obligations, – an annoyed wife, a mother whom he has promised that he’ll assist her with something, plus the tricky job of getting that phone operational again, without the necessary spare part in his possession. Ingenuity is required, and the ending of the film reveals the ingenious way he did it in a quiet way, to the great delight of the audience with whom I saw the film, and linking the opening and closing shot of the film.

This film was delightful, with the charming protagonists, the natural performances, and the wonderful characters of King’s Cross who participated. Spontaneity is the key word, when I think of this lovely experiment in film-making.
David Wenham explained later, that he in fact lives close to King’s Cross and knows the area and all the eccentrics of the area very well. He had made certain arrangements with the ones who appeared, however, it was all a surprise to the young actors. Eighteen locations were visited, in one day and the longest time spent in any one location was two hours. The nightclub scene was where they stayed the longest, – 20 minutes!

One would think that a film like this, leaving so much to chance and the spontaneity of the actors, could end up being a bit of a mess! However, in this case. The cinematography is extremely good, and the editing has brought it all together seamlessly . The fact that Simon Morris (DOP) has experience in documentary filming as well as narrative features was a big advantage. No artificial lights were used – there was no time or money, for that.
Following two days of ‘work-shopping’ the film, they took to the streets, and all the shots in the film were captured in one take only, with no rehearsals
When asked about the stress levels , during the shooting process, David Wenham answered, “It was the least stress I have ever experienced on any film set. We were all feeling liberated, instead of having to always follow detailed instructions.”

Well known and respected film director, Robert Connolly, (“Balibo”) was Executive Producer on this project, and he said he’d be very happy to collaborate any time on another film with David Wenham. He enjoyed it because of the freedom from the normal list of ‘barriers’ that are involved with a normal type of film shoot, that involves a lot of people and equipment. Permissions are required for so many things. Rules apply in many places, such as not being able to shoot at Bondi, or on trains, he explained. When asked about the budget for this cinematic-experiment, Robert Connolly laughed and said, “Put it this way – I’ve made short films that had a bigger budget than this one. We call it a micro-budget. It’s the extreme end of experimentation.
Immediately after the shooting was complete, David had obligations to be in the USA for a role, so editing didn’t commence until about seven months later. This turned out to be a big advantage. He found he had a useful distance from the footage, and could make decisions easily. He was not so attached to the material.

David explained more about the pleasure of this way of filming. “I loved doing it and it exercised more creative muscles than being an actor. It’s the little moments of human connection, that count. Get rid of those devices (cellphones) and you have the opportunity to really connect. “
When asked what he wanted the audience to take away from seeing “Ellipsis” he said.
“I don’t want to be prescriptive. They can take away whatever they want.”
For this writer personally, I realized afterwards, that almost the only time I find I can live in that un-tethered, free and unobligated way, following the flow of events and going with it, is when travelling, (preferably overseas.) One’s normal life isn’t pulling on one in the new place, and there’s no particular routine to keep to. If something happens, you can just enjoy it, participate, follow its lead.
It also points out in a subtle way, how much we are missing by being preoccupied with ‘devices’ as David said, and missing certain experience which present themselves, hurrying on by, following an often self-imposed routine. For a day and a night, Jasper and Viv just set themselves free.

If you have an opportunity to see this film, please go along – you’ll enjoy it, and also it’s very good to support this experiment in film-making that turned out so well. You will then resolve to be ever watchful for these fleeting moments when life offers you an opportunity to connect with a stranger, and to be careful never to let them pass you by.

Cynthia Webb
Copyright, February, 2018
Photos of Mr David Wenham: Cynthia Webb
Images from the film, courtesy of the Producers

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‘DARKEST HOUR”, Directed by Joe Wright (UK, 2018)

Darkest Hour poster
“Darkest Hour” – by Joe Wright (UK, 2018) comments by Cynthia Webb

Pretty soon, this film will be collecting major awards on both sides of the Atlantic! “Darkest Hour” is the best film of a recent burst of Winston Churchill stories. He is a towering figure in the history of the 20th Century. Early on, he got the blame for the Allies’ ignominious failure at Gallipoli in the First World War. At the age of 65, he was made Prime Minister of Britain ( 1940) when Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign, he made up for it. That early failure haunted him apparently, and so it must have been weighing on him so much when in May 1940, the British Isles were under serious threat, Europe was already Hitler’s and Britain was hopelessly ill-prepared for the war they had to begin to fight immediately. No help was forthcoming from the USA, who declared themselves “neutral” at the time. Between the 26th May and 4th of June the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, using mostly civilian pleasure craft, and fishing boats – a citizen navy. This was Churchill’s only possible way to get 300,000 British soldiers back home from now surrendered, and occupied France. I hope everyone has seen “DUNKIRK” last year, so I don’t need to elaborate about that.
The film, “Darkest Hour” is directed by Joe Wright, who has touched on the Dunkirk evacuation before, in his film “Atonement”. This for me is his best film yet though. The performance of Gary Oldman is stunning, and he’s in every scene – commanding the screen, as well as the nation. He has already won the Golden Globe Best Actor Award.
His secretary is played very competently by Lily James. Kristen Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s beloved wife Clemmie, who was his own tower of strength. All versions of the Churchill story, have implied that the nation owes a lot to Clemmie, the smart and brave woman in the background, (confirming the famous cliche).
The screenplay by Anthon McCarten is full of wry humour, brilliant dialogue, and consists of quite a lot of quotes from actual speeches by Churchill. Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn is superb as King George, with only a slight hint of the previously filmed “stutter problem” he had… (“The King’s Speech”), the man who was not meant to be king, but had to take on the role when his brother abdicated. He ended up doing his duty for his country with great courage and dignity, and was the father of our Queen Elizabeth II. Ben Mendelsohn even looks quite similar to the King, and his body-language is just right too. The film shows that he visited Churchill in his messy art studio, unannounced…. and told him he supported him. This moment was a turning point in this film anyway, for Churchill. I’m not sure if it actually happened. Nor do I know if the very moving scene where he rides the Underground to Westminster really happened, but it is a brainwave on the part of the screen-writer anyway. This is an important and powerful film, with all performances striking the right note, and the sentimental moments, not ending up being too mushy and weakening the enormous strength of this film.
It reminds us yet again, of the immense courage and strength of Britain in those darkest hours… when things looked so very bleak and hopeless, the leaders and the ordinary people found their pride, quiet dignity, and humility and gathered in their sense of humour too, and they withstood five more years of war. This included the Blitz, (nightly bombing of London) as the war this time, was air-borne, as well as on the ground. They were able to do it because their Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was able to communicate the sheer force of his will and courage into the nation, and without the aid of television!
I must admit, that this film roused my pride in my British heritage… On both sides of my family, going back many, many generations, all my forebears were mostly English and one-quarter Irish.
For those interested in history and politics, this film is a MUST see experience.
For those who appreciate superb film-making, this film is a MUST see too.
For young people who know next to nothing about those times, this film should also be compulsory viewing. It is necessary to know what your grandparents went through, and to therefore remind today’s generation of young people that vigilance is always necessary in Democracy, and that we need strong, intelligent, courageous leaders, whose first duty is to their country. Watch how you vote! What would happen if today’s leaders were suddenly catapulted into the sort of situation in which Churchill suddenly himself as the new Prime Minister. How many of them could match his leadership and instinct for the task in hand? These are the times when decency, breeding, education, courage and guts are what is called for.
Go and see this remarkable film.

Text copyright January 2018
Photo – courtesy of the Producers

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‘Sekala, Niskala” (The Seen and Unseen) directed by Kamila Andini, 2017, Indonesia Review by Cynthia Webb

Dini with her award at APSA 2017

The island of Bali in Indonesia has become a tourist magnet of powerful attraction, but probably the majority of tourists just enjoy their holiday, and don’t know very much at all about the unique culture and religious lives of the Balinese people.

The Javanese film maker, Kamila Andini comes from a mainly Muslim culture in Java, however she has been raised by a father who is also a film director, and one who appreciates and makes films about all of the varied ethnic groups on the many islands of this archipelago that the Dutch called ‘the emerald necklace’, when they were the colonial power there.

So Dini, as she is known to her family and friends, (aged only 31, and who is now a young mother of two daughters) has a rich inner life and wide understanding of her country. She has now won two major awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the first Indonesian to do so. In 2012, her film about the Bajo people, or “Sea Gypsies” of the Wakatobi region of South Suluwesi won the Best Youth Feature Film Award. Now she has done it again, by winning the same award category, with her film about Balinese twins, entitled “Sekala, Niskala”. “The Seen and Unseen”, is the best English translation, referring to the hidden ‘world’ the tourists don’t know about, that the Balinese also live in. For the Balinese, the Unseen is just as real and relevant as is the material world. (For those who would like to know more about it, refer to the book “Bali – Sekala and Niskala” by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr which was first published in 1990, by Periplus.)

At Tokyo Filmex, two days after the APSA Award was announced, the Jury couldn’t choose between Kamila’s film and the film of Mouly Sourya, ( also from Indonesia), entitled “Marlina the Murder, in Four Acts”, so they awarded both films the Jury Grand Prize. “Sekala, Niskala” has been screened in the Platform section, of the Toronto Film Festival, and at Busan too, and received a lot of comment and good reviews.

Rare films from Indonesia showing the richness of the culture, and the variations from island to island, are often totally fresh and new to the eyes of Westerners. “Marlina” is shot in the remote island culture of Sumba and is quite unique. “Sekala, Niskala” is shot in Bali, (a vastly different culture from Sumba’s). Mysticism and spiritual power that runs strong beneath the visible world of Bali. It comes from a mixture of Hindu/Buddhism and Mysticism. Seen through the eyes of the young, who are still pure and undamaged by the tourism aspect of life in Bali and the realities of adulthood, that world is revealed to us in Kamila’s delicate film.

We meet village-dwelling twins, a boy, Putra and a girl, Putri, aged about 10. The names are the male and female version of the same name. Their village is in close proximity to the holy mountain, Gunung Agung, which is often seen in the background of night-shots, and is thought of as “the navel of the world” by the Balinese. Babies and young children in Bali are seen as still connected to the Niskala, the unseen world, and these two are no exception. They run freely in the rice paddies, and play imaginative games, and can read each other’s heart and soul.

But, catastrophe strikes. The boy becomes ill with a brain tumour and must go to hospital. His sister is quite terrified at this turn of events, and is afraid to even enter the strange white and sterile room, where he has been settled on a high bed and attached to a drip. They have been so at home in Nature, and now have to go to the city and are now in an unfamiliar world.
Putri finds a way of coping by removing herself into the world of Niskala, where she puts on costumes and dances with him, she plays games with him and is often accompanied on her night time walks by the ghost-children. Her dreams of happier times together when he was well, wake her. The ghost children are also surrounding Putra in this strange between-worlds place, the hospital. He is in the slow process of leaving the real world, he is not yet in the Unseen world, but he has access, through his sister’s imagination, love and connection to it.

The passing of the months is communicated to us via the phases of the moon in the night sky.

There is very little dialogue between them, and we do not miss it, we do not need it, and neither do they. The film is all about feeling and visions of mystic life that the sad little sister enters, and allows us to experience with her. She does everything she can to hold him to her, as he is her other half. She tells him, after one of their duo dances, in wonderful bird costumes that she has created from grass and paint, that she would trade places with him, if she could. She collapses to the floor, and he collapses to the bed – it has been his final effort in this life. He soon descends into a coma.

Balinese spiritual life is linked to the Saka Luna calendar that came to Bali from Java, with the migration to the island of Hindu people from Java’s Majapahit culture, in the fourteenth century. The calendar is organized around the moon’s cycles, still also observed in Javanese culture. The new moon is the beginning of a new cycle.

Duality (represented by the male and female twins) is potent in Balinese culture. Balinese religious activities, offerings, ceremonies are directed at attempting to keep the balance of good and evil. Their traditional black and white checked “poleng” cloth represents the two opposites.
The eggs, that appear several times, during the film, tell us that these two are really ‘one’– an egg that divided in the womb. How will Putri carry on in the Sekala world, without her brother? Putri will only eat the white of the egg, and Putra eats the yolk. In the opening scene, as the boy is being wheeled into the hospital room, she symbolically crushes the last ‘whole’ egg in her trembling hand. Later she is eating lunch with her mother. In her hard-boiled egg, there is no yolk.

A lot of “Sekala, Niskala” is filmed at night by Anggi Frisca, who captures the shadows against a sky often lit up by a full moon, and the silhouettes of mysterious children in the long grass. Night magic is abroad on the island some know as the Island of the Gods. The sounds of nature are also evocative in experiencing this unique film. The scene of Putri dancing for the moon silhouetted against the night sky, and in full Balinese traditional dance costume is particularly beautiful.

Kamila Andini’s primary achievement is in the concept, and it’s in her realization that words are not necessary, and that this sad story can be fully told visually. Only the scenes with the adults have dialogue… her mother talks to her a reassuringly, and she witnesses one scene where the village men discuss the crucial to life matters of planting the rice paddies, and sharing the water. We also see Putri make an offering at a simple rice-field shrine to Dewi Sri, the Rice Goddess. On Dewi Sri, and on water, all of Balinese life depends.

In a film about a death, these scenes about life, are also about the ‘duality’ and give meaning and balance, so important to the Balinese ways.

Kamila does everything to keep the subtlety, the delicacy and the sweetness, and she succeeds. There is no story, except that a fateful time is passing quietly in the timeless pace of Balinese life, so closely linked to the sacred world and to nature. We are privileged to be watching through the eyes of the brave little Putri.

Kamila has a quite miraculous ability to see and share with her audience, the innocence and beauty of childhood, in both of her APSA Award winning films. Her gift to Western audiences is to show us how to see and feel beyond the material world.
Copyright, Cynthia Webb – November 2017

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Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 2017 by Cynthia Webb

APSA entered its second decade this year, with a line-up of breathtaking films in the nominations for the awards presented on 23rd November 2017. Even before the awards night and after watching quite a large number of the nominated films I was thinking that this year the standard is the highest ‘across the board’. In previous years there has been a bit more of a variation between the winners and some of the others. But this time, all of the nominees are of a close to similar standard. I was glad I wasn’t part of the Jury, although I did choose correctly in some categories, such as Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography.

Having not seen Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country” (Australia) which was the winner of Best Feature Film, I didn’t try to guess that category. I had already noted its excellent reviews from overseas. Warwick Thornton has won this award once before at APSA for his “Samson and Delilah”, and he made a powerful acceptance speech, talking to the other nominees and everyone in the room, telling us that we all have stories within us, and we don’t really need the cameras, we can share them in the old ways too. As an indigenous Australian (the world’s most ancient surviving culture) he knows that the spoken word can echo down through millenniums.

The Jury had so many superb films and actors to choose from, that they awarded:
Jury Grand Prize to Alexander Yatsenko, (Russia) for his work as an actor in “Arrythmia”. This is one of the most wonderful acting performances I’ve seen in a very long time and is one of the films that left me ‘gasping’.
Best Actor Award, went to Rajkummar Rao (India) for “Newton”.
A Special Mention in Best Actor category, for Navid Mohammedzadeh (Iran) for “No date, no signature”.
A Second Jury Grand Prize, to Ana Urushadze (Georgia). Ana directed the stunning film, “Scary Mother” Mentioned above.
In Best Cinematography, I was happy to be correct in giving my personal award to Pyotr Dukhovskoy and Timofey Lobov for “The Bottomless Bag”. This was a most unusual film, in sublime black and white, telling old tales from the Russian culture… and in which the whites were radiating light. It reminded me sometimes of “Rashomon” – just the look of it, or other even earlier black and white films from Russia. It was full of exquisite images.

Structured like the Hollywood Academy, the nominees and winners become life-long members of the APSA Academy, and APSA’s Academy now has a membership of over 1015 of the greatest film makers of its region. The APSA Awards are chosen each year, first by a preliminary process of finding the best of the films, which is done by an international group forming the Nominations Council. There were 42 nominations. The winners of the various awards are announced at the Ceremony in Brisbane each year.

This year around 300 films from 47 countries were submitted from the vast region.

In 2015 and 2016 there was also a film festival running simultaneously with the APSA lead up period and the public were able to see the nominated films. Q & A sessions could be held as the directors were often already in Brisbane. This seemed like an excellent idea, as each year from commencement of APSA in 2007 people would ask, “But how can we see the films?” However the two year experiment has been abandoned in favour of going back to the previous Brisbane International Film Festival, now a separate event again. Perhaps the film-fare of APSA nominations was just too esoteric for the general audience, who like to be seeing something a bit more familiar, work by directors whose names they know, such as famous Europeans.

APSA certainly takes the film-lover out into the new territories of world film-making, and believe me it is a thrilling journey. This year the nominated APSA films enabled us to experience the lives and cultures of Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Ukraine, Bhutan, Iran, Israel, India, China, Japan, The Philippines, Indonesia, Turkey, Syria, Russia, Korea, Australia, New Zealand. Many of the films left me gasping at their power, their originality, their depth of exploration of the human experience. These films have such courage and they show great confidence in their audience, that they will offer their open heart and mind to go on these journeys that can sometimes be challenging. One such film, was “Loveless”, from Russia, directed by Andrey Zvayagintsev, who won Best Director for this master-work of heartbreaking bleakness. Another one, “Scary Mother” contained great maturity of emotional content, and was directed by the surprisingly young Ana Urushadze. The remarkable actress, Nata Murvanidze in “Scary Mother” won the Best Actress Award, and rightfully so. She was breathtaking.
If Nata’s performance hadn’t been there, another wonderful young Turkish woman, would have won I think, Ecem Uzun, for her heart-rending performance in “Clair-Obscure”. Young Ecem Uzun was in another of the nominated films too, “A Big Big World” (Koca Dunya).

This was in Best Youth Feature Film, which are not films for young audiences, but films seen through the eyes of young people, or about young people.
In that category which always contains wonderful films, the winner was the exquisite “Sekala Niskala” (The Seen and the Unseen) by Indonesia’s Kamila Andini. This was Kamila’s second time to win the award in this hotly contested category. Back in 2012 her film, “The Mirror Never Lies” was the winner. No other Indonesian has ever won a second award at APSA. So far. Her film’s title refers to the cultural/religious tradition of Bali, where the two worlds, seen and unseen, are as real as each other for the people. So when the closeness of twin children is being torn apart by the fatal illness of the little boy, his sister is devastated, and finds her courage to interact with him through the unseen world, because reality has become too terrible for her. The film takes us into her world of Niskala ( unseen) and lets us have a usually forbidden glimpse of that secret place, through her eyes. Those scenes are truly moving and unforgettable. Ghost children wait for him, as the sad-sister dances under Balinese culture’s all-important full moon, under which many the temples ceremonies take place in that culture. The Balinese calendar and life, is linked to the moon, via an ancient calendar from India, via Java. The film has very little dialogue, and it is not needed and not missed, because this film is a spiritual experience. Kamila told me five years ago, about this film being in her mind. Since then she has married, had two daughters, and made a film about an hour in length, “Following Diana”. Now she has worked with her Producer /Director husband, Ifa Isfansyah, on “The Seen and the Unseen”, which has also had very good reviews internationally after being shown in the PLATFORM segment of the Toronto Film Festival a couple of months ago.

This year APSA had a heartening number of films about women, and directed by women. That’s why, as mentioned above, the Best Actress Award was so very strong this year. Indonesia’s Cut Mini was also nominated in “Athirah” (Mother) in which she gave a very different style of performance than the two previously mentioned women. This role expressed the quiet, dignified and internalized way in which the protagonist, Athirah, was coping with her life. A Muslim woman is suffering the agony of trying to accept her fate when her husband leaves his family to go and live with a second and younger wife. This film, directed by Riri Riza, is based on the life story of the mother of Indonesia’s Vice-President, Yusuf Kalla, who is in his early teens in the film, observing his brave mother’s journey.

Another leading role for a woman was in “Marlina, the Murderer, in Four Acts” directed by a woman, Mouly Sourya of Indonesia. This is a most unusual film to come out of Indonesia, a kind of ‘Western’ in form but set in the very rural, dry and spacious island of Sumba, (it is situated four islands to the East of Bali) where there is a very different culture, and where they have a death ritual called Paraing Marapu, and where the deceased is wrapped in a traditional textile and sits in the house with the family for a long time before burial. In this film, one can observe this, but it is not explained. However, murder of the title, is caused by a local custom which seems to allow the local men to feel free to do what they will with the widow Marlina (played by Marsha Timothy). However, Marlina is not a woman to be trifled with. The film has the feeling of a spaghetti western, from the sixties, and there is more than a pinch of black comedy mixed into the dinner that she prepares for her male visitors, and for us the audience.

2017 has been the best year yet for Indonesia at APSA, with three nominations . It is a country still developing its Post-Reformasi ( post 1998) film industry, with no assistance so far from the government or any other organization. Indonesia’s government have yet to understand the immense benefits that a strong film industry can bring to a nation, respect in international eyes, and in tourism, by promoting awareness of the cultural richness, of which Indonesia is particularly endowed.

The Cultural Diversity Award (UNESCO) went to “Dede” (Mother) from Georgia, directed by another young woman, Mariam Khatchvani. She was so surprised and thrilled to win, that she was unable to speak for quite a length of time, when she went to the microphone to accept her award. The story is shot in the highest village in all of Europe, during winter, when deep, deep snow is on the ground. The young protagonist’s destiny is to be unlucky in love, and lose her beloved husband. This puts her into conflict with the remote location’s old traditions, which mean that her child must now go to live with his family, the grandfather and others. Also it means that her husband’s brother will now marry her. He happens to love her too, but she doesn’t love him and refuses. Like any mother, she only wants to be with her little son.

Also in this Category – (the UNESCO Award for Cultural Diversity), a Special Mention went to “Lady of the Lake” (India).

For “Die Beautiful” directed by Jun Robles Lana, from the Philippines, there was no award, but it deserves a mention as a film of heart and love, about a different kind of women. It was about three transvestites and the little girl one of them has adopted – battling their brave way through life. The performance of Paulo Ballesteros was nominated in Best Performance by an Actor, and was full of courage and strength of character.

Before you go to http://www.asiapacificscreenawards.com to read the full results list, I will list the titles of some of my other special favorites not yet mentioned in my article above:
“A Man of Integrity” (Iran) director, Mohammad Rasoulof. His passport has been confiscated by the Iranian Islamic regime, for making yet another film that clearly criticises the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Wajib” by Palestinian Anne Marie Jacir (this film was developed with a grant from APSA Academy-MPPA Film Fund)
“Foxtrot” (Israel) Samuel Moaz
“Centaur” (Kyrgyzstan) directed by Aktan Arym Kubat
“Your Name” (Japan) Amimation Category, by Makoto Shinkai, for the gorgeous hand-drawn animation that he is famous for.
“Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web” by Annie Goldson, A documentary film from New Zealand, telling a most complex and interesting topical story, that’s not quite over yet.

copyright Cynthia Webb November 2017

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Second nomination in APSA, for Kamila Andini of Indonesia

CCE10132017 Kamila Andini gains a nomination at Asia Pacific Screen Awards
Cynthia Webb, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

It has been five years since an Indonesian film has made it through the process of elimination, to be nominated for an APSA. Kamila Andini’s film “Sekala, Niskala” has at last ‘broken the drought’ and gained a nomination at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in the category of Best Youth Feature Film. Her previous success at APSA was in 2012, when her lovely film, “Laut Bercermin”/”The Mirror Never Lies” won that same category.
Talking to her over lunch in Jakarta back in early 2012 Dini told me about her idea for a film set in Bali, and now we have it – “Sekala, Niskala” – (“The Seen and the Unseen”).
It has been shown in a side-bar section of the Toronto Film Festival called Platform, in September 2017 (one of the world’s most respected film festivals). This section is in its third year, designed to catch the gems that were noticed to be slipping through without getting the attention they deserved. “Sekala, Niskala” has received quite a lot of glowing reviews, written by critics who have been bewitched by its portrayal of the little known, and mysterious world of Balinese culture as shown through the story of twin siblings, a boy and a girl. One writer called it “a small revelation, poignant and hallucinatory”… a sign that it is very, very interesting. Some critics have compared it to the work of Thailand’s internationally successful Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, with “Uncle Boonme, Who Can Recall his Past Lives”.
Kamila Andini’s (she’s known as Dini) father, Garin Nugroho, and her film-maker husband, Ifa Isfansyah are the producers of her latest film, and a grant came from APSA to help develop and make it. APSA has a fund from which $US25,000 is given each year to two projects that are still in development stage. The Motion Picture Association of America contributes to this fund too.
Since Dini won the APSA for “The Mirror Never Lies” in 2012 , she had been married, (the following year) and now has two little daughters. She has also made forty minute film “Following Diana” which was screened in film festivals and received good reviews. The subject was about a Muslim Javanese wife, whose husband wanted her to agree to him taking a second wife. Diana already had a child, but was not willing to agree and embarked on life as a single mother, and also on life as a woman who charts her own course.
This year the eleventh APSA Ceremony will be on 23rd November, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
During the last five years, at least 5 or 6 Indonesian films have been submitted each year, but none made it through the elimination process of viewing by the Nominations Council. Usually, around 350 films come from all over the Asia Pacific, and must be reduced to about 40 nominations. The competition is fierce, as some of the great names of Asian cinema submit their films. The Nominations Council, and later the Jury for APSA always consists of international film people of the highest calibre from the nations of the Asia Pacific. A nomination at APSA is already a major recognition, and a win, opens doors which may lead to bigger things on a world-wide stage. So, congratulations to Kamila Andini for this achievement.
Previous Indonesian films that have been nominated since APSA began in 2007 are:
2007: “Opera Jawa” by Garin Nugroho. This is the only nomination so far in Best Feature Film category for Indonesia, and “Denias, Singing on a Cloud” directed by Ari Sihasale, (winner of Best Youth Feature Film)
2008: “Kantata Takwa” by Gotot Prakosa (In Best Documentary category)
2009: “3 Doa, 3 Cinta” by Nurman Hakim
,2012 “Laut Bercermin”/”The Mirror Never Lies” by Kamila Andini ( winner of Best Youth Feature Film) and 2012: “Negeri di Bawah Kabut”/(“The Land Beneath the Fog”) directed by Shalahuddin Siregar, again in the Best Documentary category.
Kamila Andini studied sociology and media arts at Deakin University in Melbourne. During our conversation two years ago, she talked about how difficult it was then (and probably still is), for young and serious film-makers to find funding. She described how most producers want to make crowd-pleaser type films that will pack in the young audiences in the megaplex cinemas in Malls. She wanted to make quality cinema that has worth, but not yet a very big potential audience in Indonesia. She has seen her own father succeed in doing just that, so she knows it’s possible. Although digital cinema has made this easier, it still requires talented film-makers who have good ideas, vision, and tenacity.
Dini’s tenacity is demonstrated by these words from that time:
‘I’ve been in the film industry since I was in high-school, doing workshops and making short films. I am one of the youngest Indonesians to make a feature film. It was not easy. I am lucky and also a bit crazy, trying to do this in a country which has a “film climate” like Indonesia. Usually a film-maker starts doing the clapper board job and works their way up. Many young people my age are still in the learning process. I have my father’s name behind me, so I had the chance to make this film early and I want to make more films to prove myself as a director,’ said Dini. ‘Every country in Asia has its problems for film-makers. We have to find a way.’ Here Dini was referring to her film, “The Mirror Never Lies”.

Dini is only thirty-one now and is credited as Writer/Director for all of her films. She has a bright future ahead of her, so be proud of her, Indonesia.

copyright – Cynthia Webb – October 2017
Photo Cynthia Webb

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“Loving Vincent” (Poland/UK) 2017)

“LOVING VINCENT” (2017) Co-Production, Poland/UK
directed by Dorota kobiela and Hugh Welchman
review and comments by Cynthia Webb, Gold Coast, Australia
loving-vincent-poster-v2(1)This beautiful work has made history in the field of Animation cinema. For people with a particular interest in the tragic tale and work of Vincent Van Gogh, for art-lovers in general, for cinephiles it is a precious gift from devoted film-makers who have worked for seven years on this project.
Vincent painted the portrait of Joseph Roulin, Postmaster of Arles. The film tells us the story of Vincent’s life and last months before his death on 29 July, 1890 (aged 37)from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound, via the device of the postmaster’s son being sent on a mission to deliver a letter from Vincent to his brother,that has been returned.
Vincent and his brother Theo were very close, (two men, one heart, the film tells us) and Theo supported Vincent with regular gifts of money, and painting canvas and tubes of paint. The postmaster Roulin knew and loved Vincent, because these two loving brothers kept up a very frequent correspondence. These letters have been published elsewhere and make very moving reading indeed as well as being enlightening as to Vincent’s artistic thoughts.
Armand, the son of Roulin goes to Paris, and to Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent had been in care after he had an emotional breakdown, and talks to people who knew Vincent. He is like a detective, trying to get to the truth of what really happened. He is at first unwilling, but becomes interested, then passionate to find out the truth of the man Vincent, whom he is now starting to fully appreciate.Armand Roulin Armand Roulin’s portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The wonderful aspect of this film is that the entire story, 95 minutes of it, is told in hand-painted oil paintings, done in the style of Vincent’s own work. Scenes begin with an image that Vincent himself painted and if viewers are familiar with all his works, they will recognize the people and the places. But now they are moving, they are speaking, they are telling their stories, and their impressions of Vincent, the man. Some were fond of him, some ridiculed him. There are various points of view.
Technically the film “Loving Vincent” is a wonder of animation. One hundred artists in two countries, (Poland and Greece) working in Vincent’s own style contributed full colour paintings for “the present” and black and white paintings for “the past” as the story is being told by the people who knew Vincent.
The film is made up of 853 ‘shots’, and each one began with a first frame of a full painting on canvas board. As the animation photography was done in 12 frames per second, the first painting, would then be photographed, then painted over, with each gradual change to certain details or all of it, until the last frame of the shot. (This is in place of the use of animation cels, which could not be applied in this style of work.) At the end of the ‘shot’ the film-makers were left with an oil-painting on canvas board, of the last frame. So at the end of filming 853 paintings remained, and 200 are being auctioned off, and many have already sold, (as can be seen from the films own website) although at the time of writing the film has not yet premiered in the USA. The size of the works was usually 67cm by 49cm.
Bear in mind that for one hour of film, 43,200 paintings were required, and you will begin to see the extraordinary ambition of this project. Additionally 90 design paintings were created in the planning stages during the year before shooting started. The purpose of these was to define the style in which the artists would all re-create Vincent’s style of painting and make it move, live and breathe. 65,000 painted frames in oils were made for the whole film.

The story moves along briskly and is full of wonderful characters (the people in Vincent’s life). The artworks are breathtaking and for an artist it will most interesting to observe the ways the film’s artists made a train move and a horse-drawn carriage seem to be speeding across the frames, through their changes in art techniques to suggest the speed.

The dialogue of the characters is very interesting, full of expression, as are the faces, and the characters have been created to really “live” for us. This was done by casting well known and excellent actors in the main roles, and filming them in live-action, then using those ‘normal’ cinematic images for a basis of the paintings for each ‘shot’. As the film went along, I recognized (from other films) certain of the painted faces of the real actors, who are also giving voice to the painted characters in the final work.

This type of animation has never been done before, and as it took seven years, it might never be done again either. The thinking out of how to actually do it is brilliant and has been a great success.
So in this remarkable way the previously award winning co-producers have given us an unforgettable cinematic experience. BreakThru Films (Poland) previously won an Oscar in 2008 for their “Peter and the Wolf”, and “Trademark Films (UK) also won Oscars in 1998 for “Shakespeare in Love”.

It is a rare and precious work of cinema animation, and a poignant and beautiful story. Vincent, who suffered, from what we now call bi-polar disease, was an intelligent, deeply sensitive man, who had a sad childhood in a strict bourgeouis family, and was something of a misfit. His first attempt at supporting himself was his job he took as a Protestant evangelist, in the Brabant – trying to imitate his father. This was not a success. In that poor area of hard-working and poverty stricken people he used his spare time for drawing.
He had some art lessons at Antwerp Academy and in Paris at Cormon’s Atelier for 3 months. He showed immense natural talent. This can be seen clearly and unmistakably by looking at his early drawings. When he was oil painting, after going to Paris and meeting up with some of the Impressionists in the Paris cafes, he used brush techniques that imitated the ‘signature’ in his pen and ink works.
He left Paris and went to warm and colourful Provence, and lived in his famous Yellow House in Arles. He begged his friend Gaugin to come and join him, and eventually Gaugin arrived. Vincent was over-joyed but after a few months, things went wrong between them, and Vincent seemed to become very distressed. When Gaugin departed, he was inconsolable. After the famous incident of cutting of his own ear in his distress, he went into care of Dr Gachet in Auver, where he found a kindred spirit in Gachet (Gachet loved art) and recovered. There he did quite a few more wonderful drawings and paintings. In the film the people of Auvers are mainly the ones telling us of Vincent’s final days.

Vincent saw the world in a kind of almost violent motion and almost all of his works, drawings and paintings show this. It’s as if the wind was visible to him in the air itself, not only in the resulting movements of trees, and fields of grain, or the moving sea. He never sold a painting in his own lifetime, and yet now his works hold the record as being the most expensive ever sold – which happened in modern times. He gave away some works, but sent most to his brother Theo who attempted to sell them in his Paris Art Gallery.

Please do NOT miss a chance to see this amazing film “Loving Vincent”. (The title comes from the way he signed his letters to Theo – ‘your loving Vincent’.)

A final note: The film’s flagship “Loving Vincent” Exhibition will open in Noordbrabants Museum, on 13th October. It will showcase 119 oil paintings from the film, just 10% of the paintings remaining after the filming process. The exhibition will also show how the film-makers re-imagined the paintings of Vincent himself, into the medium of film, using the very same tools (brush and canvas) that Vincent used.

copyright Cynthia Webb (September 2017)
Poster image courtesy of the film producers

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“24 Frames” (2017) by Abbas Kiarostami


“24 FRAMES” by Abbas Kiarostami (2017) Comments by Cynthia Webb
Screening in Brisbane International Film Festival, QLD, Australia,29th August, 6.00pm at Palace Barracks Cinema, and finally, on 3rd September, 12.30pm at Palace Barracks Cinema
Cinephiles have long loved and respected the late Iranian director, Kiarostami, for his beautiful works. They include “The Wind Will Carry Us”, “Taste of Cherry”, “Ten”, “Close-up”, “Certified Copy”, “Shirin” and now we say goodbye to him with “24 Frames”.
24 frames per second, we know as the speed that celluloid raced through the camera and projector in the “film” era, and still does. However, we almost always see our films via a digital technology, not a projector. So much has changed so quickly.
But Kiarostami’s poetic and artistic vision never changed, and this film condenses down to a series of 24 experiences of four minutes, that we are blessed to see through his eyes. He took the ideas mostly from his own collection of still photographs. He thought about the many times when his attentive eye has been caught by and photographed an interesting moment in nature, or a perfect composition. He began this project with the idea of animating famous paintings, and this is what Frame 1 is – a look at a famous Belgian painting ( a Breugel, I think) that we all know if we’ve studied art history, coming alive.
He has used blue screen and some other modern techniques to recreate his photos and make them move. He was fascinated with the idea of showing us the moments before and after he took his original photo, to make those ‘stills’ live again for us all, for just four minutes each.
I must admit some of them seemed to feel longer, and some felt shorter, depending on their content.

For people with artistic training, you will notice important aspects of art theory, the rule of thirds, the always beautiful tonality through from white to black, and one “Frame” gives us complementary colors. From a discussion after the screening last night, Iranians present told us about some cultural metaphors they had seen. My instinct is that the frequent images of birds soaring in the sky symbolise freedom (in all cultures), and freedom is a matter of great importance to Iranians at present.Most of them long for more freedom in their everyday lives. There were several references to life and death, and there was finally in Frame 24 a very moving and romantic farewell, from which it is tempting to wonder if the director had a premonition of his death, not far away.
Or did he just want to end on a beautiful and sweet note, to tell us this is how life is. Everything in life and every moment contains beauty, or sweetness, or meaning, or power. He is telling us, open your eyes and look around you. Go more slowly, take the time to stop and notice everything. We are part of the patterns of life, and we forget that fact. We are so busy in these times that we hardly ever stop to notice things anymore.
In his film “Shirin” Kiarostami focused his tender camera on the minute facial expressions of several women, watching a theatrical performance of a 12th Century Persian poem. Here he hinted at his deep interest in the depth of detail in the world around him, in nature and in humanity. All his films reveal above all, his humanity. “Shirin” and “24 Frames” are a pair of films that come from the same place in his experimental inspiration.

A place that I personally have had a lot of delight noticing things, (and drawing them) is looking closely at the detail of very small things, as did American painter,Georgia O’Keefe. Kiarostami’s film “24 Frames” contains images of bigger things, life moving on and through our ever faster and busier world. Nature herself, never stops, but we should. We should sit down and slow our breathing, and surrender to this film – the last gift from Abbas Kiarostami. Thank you to a beloved Maestro. We will never forget you.

Copyright 24th August 2017
Poster and photo of Abbas Kiarostami courtesy of the Producers of “24 Frames”.

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