Saturday, March 11, 2017

LuxFilmFest Review: Machines

Sometimes a camera catches sight of a stunning beauty where you don’t expect to find any. Rahul Jain’s debut feature Machines, a profound portrayal of a textile factory in the Indian state of Gujarat, offers one of the most cinematic and immersive documentaries in recent memory. At 75 minutes, it never overstays its welcome and it deserves to be seen on the big screen.

The conditions are extreme and harsh, which the labourers candidly reveal to the camera. Some of them travel thousands of miles for the opportunity to work punishing 12-hour shifts for a starvation wage amounting to the equivalent of three dollars. Workers’ rights and unions don’t exist, as the leaders of new movements have a mysterious habit of dying in accidents. There is however condescension from the filmmakers and no self-pity in their narratives, faithful to first line spoken in the film: “God gave us hands, so we have to work.”

Words fade into the background of Machines, which is first and foremost a film of images and sounds. The Mexican cinematographer, who has experience as a factory worker, captures the mechanical nature of the production line in lengthy sequences of surprising beauty. Somewhere between Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s haunting portrait of the industrial fishing industry Leviathan (2012) and the pensiveness in the recent work of the great Malaysian filmmaker Ming-liang Tsai, Rahul Jain zooms in on the giant printing/drying appliances, the barrels of freshly mixed dye and big piles of packaged cloth. Everything is in motion and everything makes a noise. The camera rarely escapes the dimly lit interiors of the production floor.

Unlike to the colourful cloth that runs through the machines, the factory looks threadbare and derelict, yet hauntingly beautiful. The same can be said of the workers faces and bodies. Many of them are very young, but the film identifies something fascinating in their features. In one sequence, Jain shows a number of workers, unable to afford accommodation, sleeping on stockpiles or working surfaces. Motionless, they have become one with the lifeless factory.

These moments make the film visually beautiful, but the aesthetics are always political. The allure of the cinematic visuals stands in direct contrast to the human reality, creating a thought-provoking friction. Towards the end, there is an intriguing confrontation when a crowd of workers corner the filmmaker (or the cameraman, we don’t know) and question his motives. “Why have you come? Are you just going to take a look at our problems and leave? Are you going to do something about it?” The response is not in the film, as if it is saying to the audience that they too must consider these questions. There is no immediate or correct answer, but they are interesting to ponder on the way home.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

LuxFilmFest review: Forever Pure

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” – Bill Shankly

These famous words, never intended to be taken literally, highlight the amazing power of a sport that captivates the entire world. In Maya Zinshtein’s documentary Forever Pure, we can observe the nightmarish downsides to this immense potential. With amazing access to every side, Zinshtein turns her camera to the escalating events at Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s most popular teams, during the 2012/13 season. The beautiful game itself however is pushed into the background by far bigger issues.

Everything is going great on and off the pitch, until the club’s Russian-billionaire owner decides to reinforce the squad with two Muslim players from Chechnya. What follows is a depressing cautionary tale about what happens, if hatred is ignored and allowed to grow. Beitar’s fanatical supporters, aptly named “La Familia,” are infamous for their controversial politics and pride themselves on being the only team to never field an Arab player (you can imagine how far to the right of the political spectrum they are, when even Benjamin Netanyahu has to distance himself).

Their reaction to the Chechen signings is toxic. Racist chants and vile abuse replace the celebrations and songs echoing from the stands of their home ground Teddy Stadium. Even within their own ranks, heroes turn into villains overnight – the fans turn on their goalkeeper and team captain for publicly backing the Muslim players. The manager and the chairman suffer the same fate, while the sour atmosphere begins to affect the results on the pitch.

The documentary does really well to cover these developments from several angles. First of all, we get the perspective from inside the dressing room. The two Chechens, mere kids at 19 and 23 respectively, away from home for the first time, look like frightened deer in the headlights. Their teamamtes, many of them locals caught between the fronts, are notable for their silence.

This legitimising silence by moderates and liberals has allowed hate to take root and grow exponentially, a problem that affects the Israeli society as a whole. Maya Zinshtein tracks the history Beitar, once a political symbol for second-class citizens, which has become a propaganda tool for populist politicians. Afraid to lose votes or support, no one condemns racism and the ideas of a loud minority are allowed to spread to a silent majority. The most chilling moment in the film comes when La Familia calls for the boycott of a home game and only a few hundred tickets are sold – a frightening display of fan power. The organisation’s influence is far greater than expected and has widened beyond the ultras with the hateful chants and “forever pure” banners.

The final piece in the puzzle is the most curious one: the club management and specifically the owner. Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian billionaire suspected of arms dealing and other shady activities, is like a caricature of a Bond villain. Following a failed bid to become mayor of Jerusalem in 2008, Gaydamak lost in interest in Beitar and now delights in revealing his business dealings with the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov as well as his Machiavellian plot to expose the real face of Israeli bigotry. It is easy to imagine him smirking to himself, white cat in his lap, while the chaos unfolds below. He has since given up ownership of the club.

Forever Pure, conventional in form and style, is a depressing warning that radicalism must not be ignored and that initiatives such as the UK's Kick It Out campaign are essential. The film holds up a mirror to a divided, destructive Israel with no solution in sight. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Luxembourg City Film Festival - Five to Watch

Cine Jambalaya is back, and so is the Luxembourg Film Festival. Over next 10+ days I will be covering the small country’s largest celebration of all things cinema with as many articles and reviews I can manage. The 7th edition, which kicks off on March 10th with Mick Jackson’s Denial, marks another step forward for the growing festival. A record number of 59 films will screen during the festivities in the various sections and a high calibre of guest will attend: Ray Liotta is scheduled to hold a masterclass and the novelist Douglas Kennedy is going to introduce a special screening of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1994).

The selection meanwhile quite a bit to offer. The fiction and documentary competitions look strong, while the local film industry is presenting a more interesting than usual crop of productions and co-productions, including Laura Schroeder’s Barrage starring Isabelle Huppert. Established names in the art-cinema world such as Terrence Malick, James Gray, Aki Kaurismäki, Ben Wheatley or Kim Jee-Woon mix with interesting new and old names. The only slight disappointment (other than the unfortunate poster featuring and old man in a bathrobe flashing nature) is the lack of cultural and geographic diversity. The programme doesn’t include a single movie from Africa or South America, with a large majority coming from Western Europe and North America. Maybe quality films from those regions were not available for selection, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to create a truly global festival.

Let’s focus on the pictures which are present though and there is a lot to discover. Singling out only five of my most anticipated films wasn’t an easy task, which speaks volumes for the quality of the selection. I try to present titles across the different sections that should cover a broad range of cinematic tastes.

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, Official Competition)

Any new film by the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is cause for excitement. The Other Side of Hope arrives after a six-year hiatus and on the back of winning the Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin. The filmmaker brings his unique sense of humour and melancholic retro style to a wryly sentimental tale about a Syrian refugee who arrives in Helsinki.

Raw/Grave (Julia Ducournau, Official Competition)

I always look for the genre films in competition and this one looks tasty. Nothing for people with a weak stomach (or vegetarians), this is a coming-of-age story set in a veterinarian college featuring gore, flesh and cannibalism in abundance. Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, praised for its unflinching confidence, was rewarded with the FIPRESCI-Prize at the Cannes Critics’ Week.

Forever Pure (Maya Zinshtein, Documentary Competition)

When the Israeli football team Beitar Jerusalem completes a transfer for two Chechen Muslims, chaos ensues. Notorious for their right-wing and extreme nationalist politics, the fan base immediately brands the new signings as traitors and bombards them with boos and racist chants. The Russian billionaire who owns the club and signed the players is targeted with similar abuse. This ugly story about racism and mob rule is documented with amazing access to all the involved parties.

Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Out of Competition)

The absence of the titular humans is the theme of this experimental documentary without dialogue. The Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter reflects upon what happens after we leave by touring a series of deserted locations such as Fukushima or abandoned malls and railway stations. The succession of images gives us a haunting taste of a post-apocalyptic world. The quiet film works best on the big screen where distractions are minimal.

Song to Song (Terrence Malick, Closing Film)

The international premiere of the latest Malick, mere days after the world premiere at SXSW, is probably the biggest coup by the programming team. Song to Song, set in Austin’s buzzing music scene, features all the actors (Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer) and most musicians (Iggy Pop, Flea, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes). Malick’s work is at best a metaphysical experience of cinematic consciousness, at worst a visual feast of beauty and thought-provoking ideas. Sections of the audience may have struggled with the (apparent) lack of structure and narrative in his recent films To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and to a lesser extent The Tree of Life, but the disciples of this cinematic eagerly await his latest output.

Head to the festival's website for the full programme and schedule.