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Entries in International Cinema (8)

Saturday
Feb032018

THE WIDOWED WITCH TAKES TIGER TROPHY AT IFFR 2018

The 2018 Hivos Tiger trophy for Best Film at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has been awarded to Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch. In a statement issued by the official Jury, Chengjie’s remarkably assured debut feature, “is a film of epic dimensions with a narrative that is greater than one person or moment. Its bold vision, created by a lyrical layering of cinematographic elements, makes [the] film stand out.”

Also singled out from the eight films in contention for the Tiger honour was Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem. Screenwriter Rami Alayan earned a Special Jury Award for the personal and politically charged drama, the Jury declaring, “The screenplay intertwines the personal and the political and it manages to balance a complex plot with convincing characters.” An international co-production between Palestine, The Netherlands, Germany and Mexico, the film also won the coveted Hubert Bals Fund Audience Award, a €10,000 cash prize named after the late festival founder. (Pictured, below: IFFR 2018 winners include, from clockwise, The Widowed Witch, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, Nina, Azougue Nazaré)

The Bright Future Award, a €10,000 endowment to a first time feature director, went to Tiago Melo’s mystical Brazilian drama Azougue Nazare, a work that employed a non-pro cast from the film's remote location. Malene Choi Jensen’s The Return was also singled out by the Jury for Special Mention for its depiction of, “a personal quest [that] gradually transforms into a reflection on loneliness, belonging, and existential homecoming.”

The most popular film of IFFR 2018 was Gustav Möller’s The Guilty (pictured, right), which took out two honours – the highly-prized Audience Award and the Youth Jury Award. The tense police procedural subverted plot and genre conventions to deliver a thriller which delivered, in the words of the Youth Jury members, “a master class in suspense.” From a program of 20 short films from 18 countries, Oscar Hudson’s Joy in People took out Voices Short Audience Award.

The other audience honour is the VPRO Big Screen Award, chosen by a jury of five audience members that ensures the winning film plays in Dutch theatres and is broadcast on national television. In 2018, that film was Nina, from Polish filmmaker Olga Chajdas.

The local filmmaker chosen by the Circle of Dutch Film Journalists as the festival’s Best Dutch, or Dutch co-produced work was Lucrecia Martel’s Zama. The body of international critics deciding upon this year’s Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI) honour chose Ere Gowda’s charming Kanarees language Balekempa. 

 

The NETPAC Award for Best Asian film having its World Premiere at IFFR 2018 was Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation. The NETPAC Jury stated, “its singularly original representation of childhood beautifully captures a unique view full of contradictory interactions, introspection, social and political dissonance, and disquietude. With this film, the director has succeeded in creating an unforgettable cinematic universe.”

The Found Footage Award, an inaugural category introduced to honour those filmmakers employing archive or recycled footage to create fresh narratives, was awarded Slovenian Nika Autor’s mid-length feature, Newsreel 63: The Train of Shadows. 

Festival director Bero Beyer (pictured, right) thanked, “The crazy, daring, outspoken and warm people” of both IFFR and Rotterdam for ensuring the event reached new heights. Several aspects of past festivals were reworked and relaunched in 2018, most notably the Cinemart professional marketplace. The festival has one full day of screenings left before Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin closes out the 2018 program.

Friday
Feb022018

INSECTS: THE JAN ŠVANKMAJER INTERVIEW

Terry Gilliam says the surrealistic masterpieces of Jan Švankmajer are, “magical, because they make reality mysterious.” One of the most unique visual artists that world cinema has ever known, the Czech visionary defied the strict regime of his homeland with a wave of subversive short films throughout 60s and 70s. When censorship eased in the mid-80s, Švankmajer directed such unclassifiable, often nightmarish features as the Lewis Carroll reinterpretation, Alice (1988); an unforgettable vision of the classic tale, Faust (1994); perhaps his masterwork, Conspirators of Pleasure (1996); and, his family drama Little Otik (2000), in which a husband and wife raise a tree root as their own.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) welcomed the 83 year-old master for the World Premiere of his first feature in eight years, Insects (Hmyz). Based upon the 1922 play by brothers Karel and Josef Capek, Švankmajer focuses on the group of amateur theatre players trying to resurrect the text, yet find theimselves being torn asunder by jealousy, greed, ego…and bugs. The director broke away from a Czech Film Industry function to sit with SCREEN-SPACE and discuss (via translator) his latest mesmerizing film…

SCREEN-SPACE: You are returning to material that you first explored back in 1970. What makes it relevant and still creatively satisfying to you in 2018?

ŠVANKMAJER: This was one of many, many ideas and subjects that I wasn’t allowed shoot back in the 1970s because of the regime and the strict censorship. The 1970s was a very fruitful, very creative time for me. Ideas were just flowing from me, so many interesting stories that I admit I took for granted back then. So I just put those interesting stories into my drawer, a very big drawer, and now, or more accurately from about the 90s onwards, I have been revisiting them one by one and shooting the movies. Of course, certain details have changed from what I envisioned back in the 70s, but the themes and characters are still very relevant to me. I’m not interested in fleeting themes, but material that is deeper and constant in all our lives. It was just my good luck that I stashed them in these drawers around my home, so that I could eventually open those drawers and use the ideas of a younger man to tell stories as an older one. (Pictured, above; a scene from Insects)

SCREEN-SPACE: I find those comments interesting because I found this is to be one of your most buoyant, even playful films, as if you are enjoying the storytelling process with renewed vigour.

ŠVANKMAJER: It is certainly true that I did enjoy the process and that the material inspired new creativity in me, which is perhaps what you have sensed when watching the film. But I don’t think ‘playful’ is the right word. Thematically, the film is actually one of the darkest I have ever made. There is humour, but to observe it more closely it casts a very dark perspective, seeks out the very darkest edges of our persona. I don’t want anyone going into this film thinking they will find the light humour you may find in an American film (laughs). (Pictured, above; Svankmajer, left, directing actor Jirí Lábus in Insects)

SCREEN-SPACE: Your decision to top-and-tail the film with your own direct-to-camera thoughts, as you say in the film like a foreword from a book’s author, is an inspired device. Was that always in the script or did it become apparent that the film needed context as the final edit drew near?

ŠVANKMAJER: Neither, frankly. Not back in the 70s nor recently when I was rewriting the original story to accommodate some new scenarios. Those moments in the film that adopt a documentary aesthetic or the scenes when the actors are relating their dreams are not passages you can conjure in script form. Those are moments that arise during the creative process on-set

SCREEN-SPACE: You draw from the Capek Brothers play, of course, and Kafka’s Metamorphoses. But I also noted Fellini-esque flourishes. What other filmmakers, artists, authors still inspire your work?

ŠVANKMAJER: I love Fellini! I still often think about his work, I have to admit. La Strada is wonderful, although Armacord is closest to my heart. But Fellini can be for me, and certainly for this project, too ornamental, too busy. Do you understand? I think the strongest influence on Insect was Bunuel. He is very close to my heart. 

SCREEN-SPACE: The online diary that wrote while in production gives fascinating insight into your directing methodology. I read with interest the passage, “I direct them as if they were puppets in an animated film…”

ŠVANKMAJER: (Laughs) I’m making imaginative films, works that draw upon specific imagery not always of this world. These are not ‘actor’ films; the story, and so much more, that is important to the film I want to make is not necessarily the responsibility of the cast. Each aspect of the production is equally crucial to what I want to make as any other aspect. Costumes, sound, editing – all those things have to combine for my films to work. My actors always take some time to get used my sets, because the way I make my films is something different. I play with them to get the effect, the end result that I need. I am their puppet master.

    

Wednesday
Sep062017

WINDOW HORSES: THE ANN MARIE FLEMING INTERVIEW

Canadian multi-media artist Ann Marie Fleming has been on a three-decade journey with her creation, the indefatigable Stickgirl. The latest incarnation of the character is Rosie Ming, a mixed-race 20-something poetess who faces a new life experience when her fledgling work gains her entry into a poetry competition in Shiraz, Iran. Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming is Fleming’s debut feature, a beautifully humanistic journey of discovery bought to life by vibrant animation styles and the voices of Ellen Page, Shohreh Aghdashloo and, as Rosie, Sandra Oh, who calls the film, “Pro-girl, pro-tolerance, pro-diversity and pro-art.”

The softly-spoken Fleming (pictured, above) chatted to SCREEN-SPACE about poetry, Persia and the little stick girl that allows her a booming, creative voice…

SCREEN-SPACE: Where is your relationship at with Stickgirl? After decades together, how would you describe the life you and your creation share?

FLEMING: She’s very much who she has always been. She’s my avatar, sort of a braver, more together version of myself. She is somebody who is able to step into situations and not judge them. Having worked with her for thirty years, this is the first time she has this must exposure and the first time she has had someone els’e voice. A lot of people now associate her with Sandra’s voice, and not my own. So this is a time where she needs to go on a walkabout, reassess who she is, re-evaluate her goals.

SCREEN-SPACE: What does a ‘stick figure’ design allow you to explore about Rosie Ming?

FLEMING: Because she is just a stick character, you can put anything on her, allowing her to develop into anything you want her to be or that she wants to be. She’s an actor in this film; she’s not really Persian, her mother didn’t really die. Yet her experiences are more alive to so many people because so many people can understand and wonder about her. She is such an excellent way to enter different worlds.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was it easy to see this film to fruition? Was a humanistic portrait of Iran and its people as tough a sell as it sounds in today’s climate?

FLEMING: Many years ago, I did get development money for the film, working with my artistic collaborator Kevin Langdale, who did a great deal of the design for the film. Then, in 2009, the Iranian election happened and there was all that violence, leading to Canada cutting off ties with Iran. Suddenly, financiers and sales people were saying, “Wow, great project, but could you make it in China?” (laughs) But it was important to me to have Iran as the setting for her story, not just for political reasons but because this is a film about poetry. It is about being connected over millennia and about how deep and relevant this poetic tradition is. There aren’t too many countries where poetry is such a part of everyday life. (Pictured, above; Fleming, far-right, with voice actors Shohreh Aghdashloo and Sandra Oh).

SCREEN-SPACE: What are the benefits of animation as a platform for your narrative and the film’s message?

FLEMING: Animation is perfect for showing the imagination. So much a part of what this film is the representation of so many different points of view. Having so many different artists do the different poetry sections, coming with there own backgrounds, from different cultures, with their own skill sets, was so important. And setting the film in Iran was only possible through animation.

SCREEN-SPACE: In a world so divided by nationalism, and an administration in The White House setting such a divisive tone, are international audiences likely to be open to Rosie’s journey?

FLEMING: This story started 20 years ago, and has survived through many administrations (laughs). That’s part of the story, evolving through change. I don’t dwell on it too much in the film, but if you look at the lives of each of the poets, they each survived many different regimes or leaders or conflicts. That seems to be the story of so many artists; you are in or you are out, depending on what you say and who is willing to hear it. There have been so many wars and strifes yet through it all, poetry shows us we are still the same people, still looking at the same moon, still caring about the same things. Different software, same hardware, right?

SCREEN-SPACE: Window Horses is ultimately a film that transcends its setting, that goes beyond the borders of Iran…

FLEMING: For at least the last thirty years, most of what we hear in western society about Iranian culture is not positive. This is not a political film, but I did want to convey that point in every society where we come together as people. The poetry festival in the film is really just my experience at film festivals, where you get to listen to what artists from all over the world have to say, which is crucial if you want to converse with them. It is an environment where you can have respectful discussion, actually talk about ideas and be open to them. It is pretty special.

Wednesday
Jun072017

POP AYE: THE KIRSTEN TAN INTERVIEW

2017 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The melancholy and deeply affecting tale of a middle-aged Thai man, an elephant and a pilgrimage to reconnect with childhood memories, Pop Aye has been the darling of the 2017 festival circuit. After a long gestation period in the script lab environment, the debut film from Singapore auteur Kirsten Tan has both wowed critics (earning the World Cinema Screenwriting Jury Prize at Sundance) and been adored by patrons (scoring the Big Screen audience-voted trophy at Rotterdam). “The notion of time passing, wherever you may go, is pretty universal,” says Tan, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from her New York home ahead of her film’s screenings at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival…

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the project’s passage through the ‘Festival Lab’ process – the Berlinale Talents initiative, the Torino Film Lab, Cannes Atelier, then Sundance – influence and impact the story you wanted to tell?

 TAN: The script changed a lot from the very first draft. The entire process took about two and a half years, during which we lost several characters. With the help of all these mentors and the ‘lab process’, the themes emerged. It was slow, chipping-away to clarify what I really wanted to say. And just before Torino, I went to Thailand for about three weeks, just to live with and research elephants, to study their movements and personalities so that I could write an elephant character with authenticity. I needed the elephant character to be as real as my human ones.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was the script locked down by the time you arrived in Thailand?

TAN: Once we got to Thailand for the shoot, it took about four months of preparation. I kept adjusting the script to make aspects more real; certain songs that I wanted, for example, were taken out because I learned that they were not appropriate. So many aspects of the script changed right up until we started filming, and then it evolved further as actors began improvising, which I wanted to incorporate as much as I could. (Pictured, right; Thaneth Warakulnukroh and 'Bong', in Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: Your cast of characters present such a rich cross-section of humankind…

TAN: I tried to paint a realistic story, which for me is one filled with pathos and humour, with beauty and brutality. I didn’t want to present a one-sided story, but rather one that offers a full spectrum of life experience.

SCREEN-SPACE: The casting of Thaneth Warakulnukroh in the leading role ensures a warm empathy is at the heart of your story. His performance is a subtle, sweet everyman figure…

TAN: In his younger days, he was this really edgy Thai rock star. It was insane; in his old photos, he literally looks like Mick Jagger (laughs). At the height of his fame, he just quit the music scene and disappeared. All these years later, I’m searching for a lead actor and my friend recommends him to me. Now he looks so gentle, so reserved. That juxtaposition of who he was and who he is intrigued me. I could see he was someone who had experienced the extreme highs and extreme lows of life. When I got him to audition before the camera, he proved a natural. Then he put on 10 kilos for the part, he was that committed. (Pictured, above; Thaneth Warakulnukroh and 'Bong', in Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: Does a location shoot in a place like Thailand influence the creative process?

TAN: We shot in what would become the hottest Thailand weather in four decades. Now, I don’t know if you’ve been to Thailand, but it’s already pretty hot (laughs). But that heat added something to the journey; if you see Thaneth in pain or discomfort, he’s probably not acting. The climate pushed us all to extremes, which must have influenced what we created. We actually charted his path from Bangkok to Loei, to study the kind of landscape and terrain he would pass. Then we shot around Loei, matching locations with what we had seen on our own journey. Most of the shoot took place only an hour or two away from the city centre.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the film’s greatest assets is its refusal to anthropomorphise the elephant, to play for any kind of cuteness in it’s portrayal…

TAN: In their presence, you can’t not respect these animals. I just tried to bring some truthfulness to the depiction of Pop Aye. I didn’t want to milk the cuteness or the exotic aspects; I didn’t want to mould them into what I, or an audience, might want them to be. I just wanted to show him as he really is, because that is what is most beautiful about him. (Pictured, right; Tan, centre, with crew on location during the filming of Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: As Pop Aye, your elephant Bong pulls off one of the most evocative close-ups in recent memory…

TAN: We shot that using a crane, to give us the slightest elevation, and there was some slight movement on his part that captures such emotion. Actually, just out of frame, we were filling his mouth with bananas just to keep his head still (laughs). We were finally able to cut the sequence so that, yes, it is imbued with a great deal of meaning.

SCREEN-SPACE: Why is this little Thai film playing so well internationally? What about it is so appealing to audiences from Rotterdam to Sundance to Sydney?

TAN: It was important that the film spoke to a larger humanity. To me, the film is about time and its inevitable passing. This notion of inevitability, of the passage of time, is really universal. As is the bleak humour in one’s existence, which I tried to capture. I was born in Asia but have spent most of adult life in America, in New York, and I do see people on both continents employ humour to cope with life’s tragedies.

POP AYE screens June 16, 17 and 18 at the Sydney Film Festival. Full session and ticket information can be found at the event’s official website.

Thursday
May252017

WOLF AND SHEEP: THE SHAHRBANOO SADAT INTERVIEW

2017 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Shahrbanoo Sadat was 20 years old when her story treatment for Wolf and Sheep earned her a prestigious Cinéfondation residency at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. She was the youngest recipient of the honour in the festival’s history. The film, a slice-of-life drama about the villagers living in the mountains of Afghanistan that combines stark realism with local mythology, is told through the experiences of Sediqa, a determined young woman living an outsider’s life in a tight communal structure. It is Sadat’s recollection of a period from her childhood, so vividly realised and emotionally resonant, it earned her the 2016 Festival de Cannes C.I.C.A.E. Award for cinematic artistry. Ahead of the Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition screening of Wolf and Sheep, Shahrbanoo Sadat spoke with SCREEN-SPACE from her home in the Afghanistan capital, Kabul…

SCREEN-SPACE: Describe your vision for the character of Sediqa and how the casting of the wonderful Sediqa Rasuli helped realise and develop the character.

SADAT: I was an outsider as a child, living in rural central Afghanistan in an isolated village between the mountains. I grew up with an observational point of view, as I couldn’t make any friends. I still keep this observational outlook, allowing me to better study the Afghan community. Wolf and Sheep is a film about a community and I needed a character like Sediqa, an outsider, to take us up to the mountains and into the village. She is just a part of that community, not carrying any specific story or judging those around her, but she helps the viewer understand the place, atmosphere and village life. Unlike her role, our actress Sediqa was a very social girl, becoming friends with almost everyone. When I met her at her school, I asked her to take off her scarf, something that every other girl had refused to do. But she didn’t refuse. She smiled, and took off her scarf for me. (Pictured, below; Sediqa Rusili as Sediqa in Wolf and Sheep)

SCREEN-SPACE: As the title suggests, there is a great deal of conflict central to your narrative - male vs female; young vs old; interpersonal conflict amongst the boys and girls - all set in a land rife with conflict. How would you describe the role that conflict has upon your narrative?

SADAT: I’m impressed by the power of nature on human beings. Afghanistan is a mountainous, rural country; a dry and tough environment (that) influences the nature of the people, who live in the valleys between mountains. This creates distance between people, many of whom come from various ethnicities. They mostly don’t like each other, instead believing they are different and better than others. But if you study their every day lives, you will see all have the same life, suffer from the same pain and have the same kind of problems. But they don’t see that as the wider picture. For me, such conflict is simply organic to the story; there was not a specific thought behind it. When I am talking about the everyday life of these people, it was just normal to put it in. 

SCREEN-SPACE: The film is a celebration of the art of storytelling, with characters both old and young conveying imaginative, thoughtful stories. What importance does 'the storyteller' have in Afghani culture and how does that tradition manifest in your directing?

SADAT: Afghans are very good storytellers. We like talking and we talk so much. We drink a lot of tea, because it gives us the opportunity to sit together and talk about almost everything. Sometimes when I listen to people I don’t understand if they are talking about reality. Their stories are a mixture of fantasy, wishes, lies, fiction and everyday life. I like this mixture. In a society where people are not allowed to dream, it’s so powerful to be able to express yourself through the stories. In the rural villages, I was very impressed when I saw almost every man talking about fairy tales, I connect this wish and desire for telling and listening to fairy tales to the love for women. It is a love that the society doesn’t really allow to grow. The community places limitations, tells us what our life should look like. We follow this thinking like a flock of sheep, because we are scared of being alone. We are told that if you choose your own way, there is the danger of  ‘the wolf,’ which scares us even though none of us have seen the real wolf. Oral stories are the best material to learn about communities, especially the rural parts where stories and tales have such power in the life of people. People come to believe stories that have been made up. Our history has been influenced by stories that mix reality and the fantasy; the border between the two is so pale. (Pictured, above; Sediqa, right, with co-star Qodratollah Qadiri)

SCREEN-SPACE: The fantasy imagery in Wolf and Sheep - particularly, the night visitations of the Bull and Fairy into the village - is beautiful. Are you a student of fantasy cinema or is that imagery an integral part of your upbringing and culture?

SADAT: I am so much in love with cinema verite, with the relationship between film and reality. Those scenes are the most ‘documentary’ part of the film, as they relate what the people in that community believe exists, even if it is a supernatural being. Many people have had that experience, of seeing the fairy or the wolf at night or early morning. For many audiences, those sequences convey magic realism, (but) for Afghans they are pure realism. My stories convey what those people believe to be true. They are more than stories. They are the mysteries of their lives. (Pictured, above; Patricia Alexandra Aparicio Dias as The Green Fairy in Wolf and Sheep)

SCREEN-SPACE: How are young filmmakers progressing in the current social climate of Afghanistan? Does an industry exist that allows them to explore and grow their talents?

SADAT: Our cinema industry is so poor. We have almost zero annual production of feature films. The cinema community is corrupted and the space for filmmakers like me, with no connection inside Afghanistan, is so small and narrow. There is no funding system, no co-productions with other countries, no producers. No one takes cinema seriously, as there is no money in it and no effort to make money with it. Stories are too shallow and reflect nothing about Afghanistan. Films about Afghanistan made by international filmmakers take the western touristic point of view, which has influenced local filmmakers, which bothers me a lot. Afghanistan is such a rich country in terms of story and we do need storytellers who can share these stories with the world.

WOLF AND SHEEP will screen June 11 and 12 at the 64th Sydney Film Festival. For ticket and session information visit the event's website.

READ our Sydney Film Festival Preview here.