Notes from FNC 2014 #2: Harsh Realities and Musical Passions

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For the second time this year, my festival coverage is interrupted by an uncomfortable abscess on my tail-bone. It is not a particularly serious condition but it is very painful, in particular when I sit down. The only position that is remotely comfortable is lying on my stomach, which is not very conducive to the festival experience. I was speaking with my friend about it, and they told me “when the body is sick, sometimes it’s trying to communicate something to you”. I guess that means my body would rather I be the subject of a David Cronenberg body horror than watch one. Luckily people have been helpful and supportive and I still have access to a number of films, I’m just a little more sluggish than normal. Instead of fitting in my writing between screenings and after late nights of partying, I’m writing between doctor’s visits and periods of recovery. It’s not that different really…

My Saturday began with an interview with Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, best known for his cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). Also known for films like Bullet Ballet (1998) and Tokyo Fist (1995), Tsukamoto has long been considered one of the most important Japanese underground genre filmmakers. His films are low budget genre-masterpieces, often exploring the fickle relationship of the human body with its surroundings. In many ways, his newest film, Fires on a Plain feels like a departure from his previous efforts. Set during the latter part of World War II, a Japanese soldier suffering from tuberculosis must find access to medical care and survive. Tsukamoto expressed that he had wanted to make this film for over twenty years, but has never had enough money to fulfill his vision. He did not secure the money he wanted this time either, but he felt that Japan was readying towards war and he needed to express his opposition to it.

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Tsukamoto was a pleasure to talk to, and the full interview will be available to read on Sound on Sight soon (I have to translate it from French, so be patient). I was struck by his introspection and passion, and his desire to share with the world his vision of how cruel war is. He had no desire to make a propaganda film, but lamented that more often than not, war puts people in the situation of killing someone they don’t know and don’t even hate. Stylistically and even thematically, there are clear ties to his previous efforts. In particular, Tsukamoto was eager to bring up comparisons to Tetsuo. He was so gracious and thoughtful, it was one of the most rewarding interviews I’ve ever conducted.

One of my favourite things about festivals is the ability to work and learn from incredible people. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by incredibly talented writers and filmmakers, who only richen my experiences. Festivals don’t have to be an isolated experience and I’d usually rather skip a film or two in favor of great conversation. In this particular case, I had a really incredible talk about Pedro Costa’s Horse Money with my friend and colleague Hugo Alves.

As Hugo actually lived and grew up in Portugal near Lisbon, he had some incredible insights into the detailing of Costa’s work. He was preparing an interview with Costa the next day and was looking for some direction in questioning. It was already clear that he would ask Costa about the state of the Portuguese film industry, but where to start with Horse Money? Through our discussion I learned about the film’s use of music and the importance of traditional song to the Cape Verdians in particular. Music is literally the bridge between the Cape Verdian immigrants and the Portuguese people. The film features some music from the Morna style, which was made especially famous by singer Cesária Évora. The music becomes a more powerful tool of communication between worlds than traditional language, however it has not always been such an easy relationship. For the Cape Verdians, music has always been closely tied to dance and the Portuguese catholic authorities immediately objected to what they perceived as overtly sexual movements. They banned the dances, and as a result the music was divorced from the body.

This only added more resonance to the sequence in Pedro Costa’s film, where he creates a montage of various Cape Verdians living in the hand-made Fontainhas. Structured around a powerful Morna song, the scene features numerous ‘tableaux vivants’ of Cape Verdians immobile within their decrepit environment. The scene is loaded with sadness and oppression, the people feel like outcasts – incomplete. It is an incredible moment that we come to understand the Ventura is not just one man, but a part of a larger group, and a specific generation of immigrants left at the wayside by the revolution. We understand the significance of dates, names and papers… they become proof these people existed. This only makes the struggles of receiving a visa all the more tragic, it is far more than their passage into the country but an embodiment of their existence.

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These ideas tie powerfully with the next documentary I saw, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Directed by John Pirozzi, the film examines the electric musical scene of Cambodia in the 50s, 60s and 70s and its tragic fall in face of genocide and war. Beginning in the latter part of the 1950s, the music scene came alive in the newly independent nation that sought to inspire and serve its unique artistic culture. The music industry thrived, and inspired itself from traditional musical traditions but also from records they would receive from all around the world.

One of the early heroes of the musical scene, was the flexible Sinn Sisamouth, who seamlessly bounced from one style to the next. He was the first big star of the new brand of Cambodian music, and would be endlessly influential over the next twenty years. Not only would be produce incredibly popular music, but with equal measure he fostered emerging talents as well. The film quite deftly portrays the changing nature of Cambodian society along with the evolution of the musical society — no small feat, as it was thought that much of the music and any footage was lost forever. The film bounces with a strong editing style that mirrors the musicality of its subject. The breaks to explain historical context, in particular the encroaching Vietnam conflict as it leads to the tragic genocide that would befall the country are explored with the same depth and passion as any of the musical research.

The film stands on a very strong subject matter, and the music is central to the whole experience. The filmmakers live up to the promise of showing how integral music is to Cambodian culture, and why the flippant understanding of “pop music” undermines the incredible artistry and influence that artists have. This is integral as the film enters the Khmer Rouge era for the country. The radical Khmer Rouge instigated a mass genocide in the country, with most of the victims being the artists, intellectuals and city dwellers. The few musicians that were able to survive did so by denying totally their life, their identity, their music… in a film that relies so heavily on “talking heads” it becomes so abruptly clear why so many of those who were present during those eras are absent. While the film can hardly mirror the void felt by the people of Cambodian over lost family members, friends and colleagues there is nonetheless a tangible loss hanging over much of the film.

Finally, for this second round-up of festival notes, I saw the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. islandMoreau. Directed by David Gregory, the film examines the troubled production of the 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Spanning years before the production, much of the film focuses on the pre-production of Richard Stanley – the film’s director, who was fired after just four days of shooting. While Stanley was already established as a key cult filmmaker with movies like Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992) under his belt, this would be his first and last Hollywood production. Cinema is a rare art-form that’s failures lend themselves so carefully to Shakespearean dramas. This one, akin to Macbeth, seems to tease at betrayal, military coups and even witchcraft.

While obviously apparent that Richard Stanley is an eccentric, the story as told by executives does not quite come together. The supposed lack of leadership, introversion and flightiness are not reflected in the testimonies by the majority of the featured extras, supporting actors and crew. This only becomes more apparent as soon as Stanley is replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer, who maintains no more control over the production than Stanley did. It is only because of Frankenheimer’s gruff military persona that he appeared to maintain more control but he equally failed to reel in combating egos in order to create a coherent film.

Lost Soul tells a fascinating story, rife with wondrous contradictions and mysteries. It is lucky filmmakers were able to rely so heavily on the fantastic concept art created by Graham Humphreys, which promised an incredible phantasmagoric vision of the H.G. Wells novel. It seems very unlikely that even if all the right stars were to have lined up for Stanley that his films would remotely attain the richness of the illustrations, in particular taking into account the limited possibilities offered by visual effects in the mid-1990s. Only an astronomical financial miracle could have brought the film anywhere close to those drawings. So in some ways, we are left with a false promise of an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau that could never be more than anything else. The documentary is richly compelling and above all else is a caustic portrait of the twists and turns of the studio system: This is not a world for artists, but a private club of egos, suits and financiers. While the documentary is sympathetic to Richard Stanley, it is abundantly clear that he was never going to thrive in Hollywood and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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