Half Moon (Niwemang, Bahman Ghobadi, Iran/Iraq/Austria/France, 2006)
Half Moon is a road movie with a difference. An elderly man Moma (portrayed with great range and nuance by Ismail Ghaffari), a celebrity singer in his native Iraqi Kurdistan, sets out by bus from Iran with an entourage of his musician sons to his homeland to perform in a large public concert. With seven months of rehearsals, official permits and visas carefully arranged, nothing could go wrong, right? Well, this is border country between bitter enemies Iran, Iraq and the highly marginalised Kurds who are basically a dispossessed people without a country and held in contempt by both countries as well as Turkey. This film illustrates what can go wrong.
While beautifully filmed in some beautifully stark landscapes, the real richness of Half Moon - like most Iranian films screened here - is in the simplicity of the story and the attention to detail to the struggles of seemingly mundane activities. The cultural aspects are especially fascinating. The authority of Moma as the family patriarch is evident; his middle aged sons all hold him in high esteem and cower before him. Not unexpectedly, as Iran does not allow women to sing in public, there are specific issues with involving a woman in such a cultural endeavour.
The family and social dynamics depicted breathe life into this little gem of a film. Music is a universal language that binds people, so when contempt is shown by the Iranian border guards, it has a powerful effect on the audience. My in-laws are similarly musicians of a dispossessed people (Pontians, Greek orthodox who once lived in Turkey), so I could relate well to the scenario in the film. The subtle politics in the film relate to the current state in the region, and it's regrettable that the film has been banned in Iran (the government considers it pro-separatist).
It was interesting to see the advancement of technologies such as cell phones and wireless internet laptops creeping into these otherwise isolated communities. The film is full of beautifully understated performances and naturalistic humour and drama. I highly recommend it and, like most Iranian films I have seen, is something I would take my six year old son to see (were it to get a theatrical release).
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, USA/Canada, 2006)
With the exception of a few brief seemingly random shots, Brand Upon the Brain! is shot (or made to appear in post-production to be shot) in grainy black and white. The look is reminiscent of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a classic that may have been an influence, though the style is quite different. Maddin's film uses much more frenetic editing techniques, particularly frequent cutting to create an abrasive subliminal effect from which the title appears to be derived.
I use the term 'abrasive' and for some people that might be a negative, but I found it effective. The film uses captions and along with a neo-silent-era visual design, it has the effect of a coherent experimental film with a bizarre horror narrative. A man, Guy, returns to the island orphanage of his parents after a thirty year absence, on the request of his dying mother. It turns out the parents were subjecting the orphans to some peculiar activities from which Guy escaped.
I found the design, high-contrast lighting and editing techniques effective in conveying a bizarre nightmare-type of story, a horror film that is not entirely original in narrative nor design, yet original in its presentation. I liked the voice-over narration by Isabelle Rosellini. There are some very attractive characterisations and depictions of inoffensive perversity. It's not an earth-shattering highlight of MIFF, but is a good film to enhance the diversity of screenings in a festival context. Definitely worth a look.
Fay Grim (
Fay Grim is the continuation of a story begun ten years earlier with Hartley's Henry Fool. I haven't seen the earlier film, and I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I can only regard the current film on its own merits.
For most people, Hal Hartley's style of film-making is something that you either like or you don't. His combination of action, drama, absurdity and dry, ironic humour really resonates with me, and Fay Grim is no exception. It has an air of sharply-written intelligent parody that had myself and many in the audience laughing out loud. For the first half of the film it was relentless and delivered with deadpan straightness. It's a style of humour sadly lacking in cinemas and a welcome relief to the mindless teen comedies that Hollywood pumps out like pancakes.
During the second half of the film, the humour starts to thin as the film morphs into an international espionage/conspiracy thriller. Whether this was Hartley's intention or whether he ran out of ideas is not clear, but I think a bit of editing or re-writing to cut fifteen minutes off the film would have maintained the film's original momentum.
The performances were generally good, particularly Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum, who had the most screen time. Saffron Burrows, James Urbaniak, Carl Montgomery and Elina Löwensohn all played good support roles. The film's visuals were nice (set in New York, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul) and the music (also by Hartley) was good without being intrusive. The camera angles are mostly off-kilter and point up at the characters - a device that seems designed to accentuate the absurdity of the plot. It initially distracted me as I tried to follow which way the camera was skewed, but then when I just went with the flow it was fine. The film is well-written and I enjoyed this it immensely. If you like Hartley's earlier work, you'll probably like this.
Fay Grim screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Saturday 11 August at 9.40pm at the Regent Theatre. It also has some kind of future local release, though it's unclear whether it will be theatrical or DVD, or when. Official website.
Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website