Fading light on film festival


As this year’s festival draws to a close with accolades, awards and surprise screenings, DONALD CLARKEreflects on a fortnight of film – characterised by increased visibility for women film-makers

THE PHRASE “thank God that’s over” is not one you often use as a compliment, but Ivan Kavanagh, young director of the extraordinary new Irish film The Fading Light, which received its world premiere at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on Thursday, could, quite reasonably, have taken the relief on his audience’s faces as a strong vote of confidence.

Kavanagh’s most recent feature, the domestic drama Our Wonderful Home, brimmed with potential, but was somewhat let down by a taste for chewy melodrama. The new film is something else altogether. Inclining towards bleaker Ingmar Bergman tragedies such as Cries and Whispers, The Fading Lightconcerns the death of a mother from a harrowing disease. Two daughters prowl the house remembering childhood traumas while their brother, who suffers from severe learning difficulties, keens mournfully in the corridor. A nurse talks the sick woman through various unappealing palliative measures. The film is jaw-droppingly brave in its refusal to admit any sentimental platitudes and in its determination to look suffering sternly in the face. You are left drained by the experience — is there, maybe, one too many catastrophes? — but eager to see where this gifted film-maker will go from here.

The Fading Lightwas deserved winner of the best Irish film at the second Dublin Film Critics Circle (DFCC) Awards on Saturday. The evening also saw the presentation of the first Michael Dwyer Discovery Award. The commendation, presented by Brian Jennings, partner of the festival’s late founder, went to cinematographer Kate McCullough for her work on Ken Wardrop’s highly praised documentary His & Hers. That film also picked up the best documentary award. Best international film was awarded to Warwick Thornton’s troubling Australian drama Samson & Delilah.

The DFCC, whose current president is Tara Brady from Hot Pressmagazine, was moved to hand out an improvised special jury prize to Werner Herzog’s agreeably deranged, oddly hilarious Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. When news leaked that the great German director, renowned for his eccentric habits and perilous shoots, was to direct a variation — it’s not really a remake and it’s not quite a sequel — on a famously depraved picture by Abel Ferrara, cinema watchers held their breath, awaiting something supremely peculiar. We got what we’d hoped for.

Nic Cage chews beautiful shapes out of the scenery as he essays a drug-addicted cop coping with back pain in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Nobody else could have made this stunning film. (Mind you, maybe nobody else would want to.)

You don’t get much more masculine than a hard-boiled cop thriller directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicolas Cage. The 2010 festival was, however, characterised by increased visibility for women film-makers. Taking place the week before Kathryn Bigelow is expected to become the first female winner of the best director Oscar, JDIFF hosted a record number of screenings by female film-makers, many of them in prime slots. Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson in a near-Eastern Brief Encounter, and Catherine Corsini’s Partir, featuring festival guest Kristin Scott Thomas, both received gala screenings.

“In terms of the slots, the films stand on their own merits,” Gráinne Humphreys, festival director, said. “In previous years, it did seem like we didn’t have as many female directors — or actresses — coming to the festival as we would have liked. There was a plan, but it’s not something we want to make a huge argument about.” Among the new films by women was Mira Fornay’s gruelling Foxes. Fornay, a film graduate from the Slovak Republic, brings an original — the film is too grim to use words like “fresh” — eye to Dublin’s greyer corners with her amalgamation of various interlocking stories involving recent immigrants. The young director already shoots like a veteran realist, but the film is, perhaps, a little too unfocussed to wholly satisfy.

Another outsider’s eye belonging to a woman director was cast on Ireland in Urszula Antoniak’s original and defiantly odd Nothing Personal.The film follows an immigrant as she wanders through Connemara and encounters a hermit played by a perfectly cast Stephen Rea. Ms Antoniak, of Polish descent, but based in the Netherlands, discovers one or two fresh angles from which to photograph that celebrated landscape.

It was also a strong year for domestic documentaries. Jimmy Murakami, the veteran Japanese-American animator, much of whose work was done in Ireland, turned up for the premiere of Sé Merry Doyle’s very touching Jimmy Murakami: Non Alien. During the second World War, the subject was transported to a relocation camp for hostile aliens deep in the Californian desert and, in recent years, has addressed the subject in a series of delightfully naïve paintings. The film deals touchingly with his long-delayed return to the site of the camp. Made under the Arts Council’s Reel Art Initiative, Non Alienproved to be a fitting tribute to a stalwart of his industry.

Proof that documentaries can be as beautiful as dramas came with Carter Gunn’s and Ross McDonnell’s strange, compelling Colony. This is not the only recent documentary dealing with the mysterious phenomenon of vanishing bees — so-called Colony Collapse Disorder — but, boiling down hundreds of hours of footage into a neat 87 minutes, the Irish directors have created a surprisingly gripping tale. One stunning sequence, which could appear in a digital version of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, finds the camera lurking over a mother’s shoulder while her son, a struggling honey producer, fails to press home his demands to a customer. Ultimately the film becomes more of a personal drama than a scientific study, but it does offer some potential explanations for the phenomenon. Occam’s razor being what it is, the most plausible turns out to be the least fussy.

IF YOU CRAVED SOMETHING a little less sedate than the elegant Colony, then you could have done worse than get yourself to the unambiguously named Valhalla Rising. The Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made a noise at last year’s festival with his searing, profane noisy Bronson. The new film stars Mads Mikkelsen as a savage, unspeaking Viking named (for obvious reasons) One-Eye, who accompanies a group of Scottish crusaders on their mission to — they hope — the Holy Land. Unhappily for all, the ship drifts westwards and takes its crew to a hitherto undiscovered country. The slow-moving, seductively morose picture is closer to Aguirre, Wrath of Godby our old friend Werner Herzog than it is to sword-and-slaying thrillers such as The Vikings. But, with its throbbing score and cobalt cinematography, it has the makings of a cult waiting to happen.

Come to think of it, such a cult has already built itself around Yorgos Lanthimos’s unsettling Greek drama Dogtooth. Winner of Un Certain Regard at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the picture concerns a disturbed family that — inspired by the patriarch’s paranoia — have cut themselves off totally from the outside world. Cats are seen as fearsome dangers. The family has its own comic vocabulary. Among the film’s many virtues is its uncanny capacity to switch tone in an instant. For much of its duration the picture seems like a wry comedy. Then, with an outbreak of violence, we are reminded that the family’s situation is a profoundly sinister one. You can find slivers of Luis Buñuel or David Lynch floating about the Dogtoothuniverse, but this film remains very much its own beast.

Another undoubted highlight of the second week of the festival came with an outing for Samuel Maoz’s already highly garlanded Lebanon. The picture, winner of the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, represents the experiences of an Israeli tank crew during their country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The director, himself a combatant in that war, movingly described how he saw the film as a way of addressing his “responsibilities” during the conflict. Inevitably, given the thorniness of the topic, there were some hard questions from the audience. Maoz, a robust sort of character, remained calm under fire.

The festival ended last night with (as ever) the furiously debated surprise film and a gala screening featuring classy stars. As regards the latter, the towering Tilda Swinton was on hand to introduce her new flick I am Love.Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film is a sweeping family saga set among the Milanese elite. Swinton is imperious as a Russian émigré whose rash actions threaten her husband’s mighty economic dynasty. Featuring luscious shots of lavish cuisine and endless passes through graceful corridors, the picture could only ever have emerged from Italy. Everything about it radiates class.

And the surprise? . . .

Well, it was a surprise. Noah Baumbach’s loose-limbed, angst-comedy Greenbergrecently received raves following its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, but in the annual JDIFF guessing game, not a single punter anticipated that it would turn up in the mystery slot. Starring Ben Stiller as a troubled man adrift in a (what’s new?) numb Los Angeles, this acerbic film definitely marks a return to form for Baumbach after the disappointingly pompous Margot at the Wedding. I didn’t thank God when it was over.

Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards

Best FilmSamson and Delilah

Best Irish FilmThe Fading Light

Best Male Performance– Patrick O’Donnell ( The Fading Light)

Best Female Performance– Tilda Swinton ( I Am Love)

Best Director– Giorgos Lanthimos ( Dogtooth)

Best DocumentaryHis & Hers

Special Jury PrizeBad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Michael Dwyer Discovery Award– Cinematogropher Kate McCullough for her work on His & Hers