“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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“Graduation” (“Bacalaureat”) by Cristian Mungiu (Romania) 2016

GRADUATION (or “Bacalaureat”) Cristian Mungiu (Romania, 2017)
comments by Cynthia Webb
(Screening at Brisbane International Film Festival,(BIFF) QLD, Australia,
27th August, 8.00pm Palace Barracks Cinema)

Another fine work by this leading Romanian director, who won Best Director Award at Cannes Film Festival in 2016 for this film “Graduation”.

We are bathed in melancholy, as all of the characters seem to be struggling to find inner comfort and contentment in this nation which is still trying to recover from the tragic era of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime, which ended in 1989. The hated Ceausescu and his wife were shot by a peoples’ firing squad immediately upon the fall of his regime, without trial. The effects reverberate down the generations in spite of the adults who experienced it, trying to do their best and live good lives. However, the way things function in bureaucracy still reveals the old ways just under the surface. This is a common problem in countries that have lived a long time in an authoritarian regime. The regime is gone but the echoes are still heard. It is so very difficult to shake it off, and eventually the well meaning and previously proudly honest Doctor Romeo Aldea gets sucked into the murky under-currents. He so badly wants to assist his scholastically gifted and much beloved daughter to a good future, that he is tempted to compromise his formerly excellent reputation as someone who cannot be bought, bribed or corrupted in any way. Her conditional scholarship to a British University is the matter that causes a crisis.
The daughter wouldn’t even need any assistance from her father, if she hadn’t been sexually assaulted outside her school at the beginning of the film. The following day, after having her sprained wrist put in plaster, and a distressing questioning session at the police station, she must sit final examinations, on which the scholarship depends. She is still shaky and cannot write so quickly with the arm in plaster. For a moment it looks as if the examiners won’t even let her into the examination room, because previously a student has cheated by having notes and answers concealed within a fake cast. The doctor’s good reputation and polite ways assist him here and elsewhere too, but his life begins to spiral into confusion and fear as he can feel the dark forces pulling him under. Only his love and hopes for his daughter are stronger than his previous commitment to being an honest and high principled man always.
I don’t want to write any more about the plot of the film, but just want to mention that it is extremely good cinema, and it is here to show us that we are all walking a fine line at all times. Not only people in countries that suffer from the after effects of dictatorship. For those people, the dangers are clear and well known. But everyone everywhere, must be on the lookout always for compromises, for self-deception, for just a hint of self-justification….some of the signs that can show you that you or someone else has crossed the line, even if just a little. Actually with this particular “line” there is no “little or a lot”, it is a matter of principle always, which side are you on? There are no grey areas or neutral zones.

Copyright – 24 August 2016 Cynthia Webb
Poster: Courtesy of the Producers of “Graduation” (“Bacalaureat”)

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“The Square” directed by Ruben Ostlund (Sweden)
(Winner of the Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2017)
Review by Cynthia Webb

“The Square” was the opening night film for the newly revived Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF).
It’s an utterly contemporary experience – directed by the man who brought us “Force Majeure” (2014.
Both films are scrutinizing the minute details and more obvious trends of human behavior in these trying times we live in.
Everything is so complicated in this politically correct world (at least in wealthy Western countries).
Many different issues that are part of the minefield people must negotiate these days are packed into this 142 minute film experience, which will sometimes have you squirming in your seat.
It brought to mind, “Toni Erdmann” (Germany), which was a big success in 2016. That film also brought up the subject of contemporary life and its traps. In “The Square” there was even a visual reference to “Toni Erdmann” himself – it’s the fictitious name that the heroine’s father gave himself. He also dressed up in an animal suit for several scenes in that film, to aid his quest to wake his corporate executive daughter out of her trance.

In “The Square” the chimpanzee living in Elizabeth Moss’s apartment will mystify many people in the audience, as it did the hero Christian, who has a one-night stand that is almost more than he can handle. Christian is played by Claes Bang.
There is no point attempting to explain the plot, which doesn’t really have much momentum. The film is more a series of incidents that demonstrate just how labyrinthine life can get, in work, in private life, in public places, even with relationships to children. We were often confronted with the issue of the societal and financial gap between the privileged class and the poor. Also the world-wide experience of migrant people among us was to the fore-front. Another scene filled the screen with full plastic garbage bags, and reminded us about that massive problem facing the world.

“The Square” itself was a space in the cobbled courtyard in front of the gallery, which was marked out in an obvious way, and had a sign to the effect that within that square was a place of equality and trust available to all. It was a new “installation” to introduce an up-coming exhibition.
Yes, it seems that the film is saying that in today’s world equality and trust have shrunk and this ‘square’ is the symbol. The message of the film is put into the mouth of a sports coach, as he speaks to his team of teen girls after a demonstration of their athletic skills. He tells one girl, “It’s no use wasting your energy feeling sorry for yourself. Give your energy to the team.”
So in this world, we should stop being so selfish, afraid and worried about offending someone or standing out from the crowd – we should reach out and work together. YES, yes, yes. The message is good, even if the film is laboring the point somewhat, and also for a bit too long.

There are many shots with strange camera angles, and a lot of action is taking place, off screen, while the camera is on the face of someone we know. These tactics to put us off-balance certainly worked, and there was a dizzying shot on a square shaped staircase, that Hitchcock would have been proud of. In our seats, many of the audience probably had motion sickness.

Christian, the main protagonist, is the well-meaning and respected head Curator of a major Stockholm Contemporary Art Museum, so this gives an opportunity for some delicious stabs at the more ridiculous aspects of some contemporary artworks. And just how far can art-speak go into meaningless garble made up of long words, trying to explain some depth into something that doesn’t have any? I’m sure we’ve all seen this sort of thing and wondered when someone was going to speak out. A few years ago, it happened when a leading British Art Critic wrote a piece scorning the gullible curators who indulge certain artists, who had become trendy and were laughing all the way to the bank. Damien Hirst was mentioned, and following that article’s publication his prices dropped substantially. As the film tells us, this world of contemporary art is about investing money and collecting, not always about love of the art.

It seems to me that the reason the film won the Golden Palme would be to do with its tackling of the sometimes very difficult matters of political correctness, and the new and unusual challenges that life has nowadays, as different cultures and religions mix and mingle more and more. In the 21st Century everyone experiences a certain amount of stress as things are changing ever faster. I think that Ruben Ostlund feels that it needs to be discussed before we go right off the rails. Is there too much ‘walking on egg shells’ with no-one brave enough to bring things into the light and say a few politically incorrect things for a change?

The film also deserved recognition for the most unusual cinematic techniques used throughout to put us on edge, into embarrassment, and mild stress. The scene illustrated in the poster for the film, where a group of people just like us the audience, are tried beyond the limits of some is a case in point.
It will not be a film for everyone however it has many merits and if you are an adventurous film-goer go and see this clever film.
(Copyright, CYNTHIA WEBB, 18 August 2017)

(Photos courtesy of the film producers)

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