Monday, April 21, 2008

Rebellious Teens: Persepolis and XXY

Still from PersepolisPersepolis dir Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud
XXY dir Lucia Puenzo

Two films about rebellious teens who know their own minds, much to the dismay of society and consternation of their families.

Marjane Satrapi's comic volumes of her life growing up in Iran and eventual exile to France have been brilliantly translated to animated film, voiced by an array of French stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, in Persepolis.

The tone is mostly comic, as the lively, opinionated Satrapi finds her independent spirit smothered by the increasingly restrictive regime in her homeland. The pop culture references are a hoot--the scene with black marketeers on the street offering Iron Maiden and "Jichael Mackson" cassettes is especially funny. It isn't easy worshipping Bruce Lee and pursuing one's aims as a prophet while war rages and the country moves from dictatorship to religious state.

Satrapi is sufficiently outspoken as a teenager that her sympathetically portrayed parents send her to a lycée in Vienna for her own safety. The sequence in which she loses her way and falls into a depression is unexpectedly grave and moving. Her acid-tongued grandmother acts as a moral compass, demanding young Marjane stay true to her Iranian identity while wittily disparaging those who fall short of her expectations.

The film offers a potted history of Iran in the 20th century, with descriptions of torture and disastrous foreign policy interventions sitting side-by-side with disastrous love affairs and frightening encounters with religious extremists. Finding herself an outsider at home and abroad, Satrapi must decide where her future lies, eventually opting for France, where she lives to this day.

XXY is a whole different exploration of otherness, set on an island in Uruguay where an Argentine family has gone to escape "idiots" only to find themselves besieged by a whole new set of same. This unwelcome attention is directed at their offspring, 15-year-old Alex, intersexed and disenchanted with taking medication to remain acceptably feminine.

Alex is the only one who talks sense in this ponderously paced drama, declaring,"I am both", when questioned about her (everyone refers to Alex as "she" and Alex never specifies) gender. The adults stand around, engaging in metaphorical handwringing and wondering what to do about this "problem" while Alex gets on with life, reading up on female domination and acting out sexually with a young visitor to the island, Alvaro, whose surgeon father hopes to "correct" Alex's condition.

The scene in which Alex jumps (and humps) Alvaro is certainly an eye-opener and the consequences prove to be revelatory for both of them. By the end of the film I was more concerned with how poor Alvaro would deal with his burgeoning sexuality -- beaten down as he was by a boorish father and a distant mother -- than with Alex's dilemma. Her parents, by contrast, were portrayed as affectionate, protective and well-intentioned, if ineffectual.

The film suffers from slow pacing and some clumsy symbolism--there is much cutting and chopping of flesh--and characters make bald statements that defy subtlety. "It's silly, isn't it? Worrying about what people think" is one comment that hangs in the air. It is also puzzling when a female friend of Alex's appears in a sleepover scene and then disappears without being named. Surely, in an 86-minute film, more time could have been given to this character, a peer who appears comfortable with Alex's identity.

After much ado about nothing, Alex asks: "What if there is no decision to be made?" Indeed.

Persepolis opens on 25 April.
XXY opens on 9 May.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Britspotting preview

Berlin 10 - 16 April
Cologne 24 - 27 April
Stuttgart 1 - 7 May

Now in its ninth year, the Britspotting festival aims to take the best in British and Irish film to Germany. Launching the programme with a tea party-themed event at the Berlinale in February, the Britspotting team welcomed a throng of filmmakers, programmers and a good number of freeloaders to Homebase in Berlin.

Amid the noshing of scones and clinking of china, new festival director Alex Thiele explained the need to make a splash in culture-savvy Berlin. "We need to increase our audience figures, mainly. Berlin has a festival every week and you're competing with so much stuff here," she said.

With such a plethora of British and Irish film around, programmer Selina Robertson, who used to work at London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, discussed her selection criteria: "quite populist mainstream cinema and first-time features of young filmmakers and then artists' film and video work."

So, this year features work by veteran Stephen Frears, as well as first-time director Joanna Hogg. The Fiennes family is well represented, with director Martha's film Chromophobia showing, while brothers Ralph and Joseph appear in In Bruges and The Escapist, respectively. Shane Meadows' explosive This Is England and Asif Kapadia's Far North are also showing.

Artist/filmmaker Isaac Julien gets a retrospective, as well as a showing of his documentary on mentor Derek Jarman, Derek. Other docs include Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, directed by Kim Longinotto, and The English Surgeon, directed by Geoffrey Smith.

Robertson explained that she must decide whether a film will travel well. "In terms of comedy, British comedy travels quite well; people are quite used to seeing sort of subtle humour, black comedy... One of the things we have to be careful about is that we don't have a budget to subtitle films so we have to be quite careful about the dialogue... This year I am trying to be quite clear about [whether a] film [is] easy to understand."

Among the short film programmes is Was She There, curated by Club Des Femmes, in which Robertson is involved. "We're going to curate a programme in Berlin comprising artists and filmmakers living in Berlin and London and it's going to be themed around feminist performance practices; it's a whole range of things: pop videos, filmmakers reconstructing things in their lives, feminist re-enactments of situations."

Among the shorts showing is Jules Nurrish's Bend It, inspired by British artists Gilbert and George. Speaking at the tea party, Nurrish explained: "It's kind of based on a performance they did based around the whole idea of living sculptures but I used these two androgynous women who are doing the same kind of dance that Gilbert and George did. It's just kind of screwing around with that kind of idea."

Asked how she feels being exported as British culture to Germany, Nurrish chuckled. "I'm just up for anything. I'm just excited that foreign festivals want to show my film. I love Berlin.... it'll be good to see what the reaction is here."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

LLGFF: Female Sexuality

The Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixWater Lilies (dir Celine Sciamma)
La Lupe: Queen of Latin Soul (dir Ela Troyano)
Don't Go (dir Amber Sharp)

Personal charisma and female sexuality are common features of these three films, disparate as they are on the surface. French drama Water Lilies takes on the contentious issue of adolescent female sexuality as shy teenager Marie pines for older sexy synchronised swimmer Floriane. As Marie's best friend, Anne, pursues Floriane's boyfriend, Francois, Marie becomes Floriane's confidante. The growing pains of girls are well handled by writer-director Celine Sciamma, who creates a dreamy environment for what is, essentially, a pot-boiler.

Cuban singer La Lupe was a real-life drama queen, living la vida loca from Cuba to New York to Puerto Rico, before dying in poverty as her star faded. Part Eartha Kitt, part Edith Piaf, she was a mesmerising presence on-stage, bewitching her audiences with her exuberant gestures, as well as a string of lovers with her uninhibited style. Ela Troyano's doc La Lupe: Queen of Latin Soul includes clips from several US TV appearances, including an extraordinary one with Dick Cavett, who described her as having a "pleasant menacing quality". Other interviews with those who knew her in Cuba and throughout her career describe her as appealing to hippies, existentialists and gay people, as she embodied masculine and feminine qualities. An extraordinary woman.

Writer-director Amber Sharp's TV pilot Don't Go features a polysexual assembly of characters in an LA apartment building, echoing Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City but with more grit and less charm. Guinevere Turner is an intersexual character who impregnates her girlfriend while Skyler Cooper is a butch seeking to reconnect with her sister. Plenty of dyke drama marred by amateurish performances but still intriguing.

Monday, April 07, 2008

LLGFF: New Queer Underground

The Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixAs funding opportunities dry up in the UK for new filmmakers, the internet beckons. A panel convened by Billy Wiz chewed over the possibilities and challenges offered by new media while an audience packed with filmmakers debated the pros and cons.

Who wasn't there also proved illuminating; in response to an audience comment on the male domination of the panel, Wiz revealed that an invited female guest who developed the BBC i-player was asked by the corporation not to attend, while the UK Film Council claimed not to have anyone qualified to participate. Questions might well be asked as to why those organisations chose not to participate in such a forum.

The panel took its name from Wiz's new site, New Queer Underground , a "front-end aggregator of new queer work" or, in less jargony language, one which shows work taken from other sites. Clips appearing on the site were shown, as were those from other sites of interest to the panellists.

Simon McCallum of the BFI Mediatheque discussed his organisation's budding online presence and the limitations of uploading copyrighted work. Currently, Mediatheque has some 70 clips up on You Tube but can't put the bulk of its archive online as it doesn't own the rights. In future, it may have more limits as the mooted Kangaroo Project of TV broadcasters may tighten restrictions.

Dr Chris Pullen of Bournemouth Uni, who is doing research on bullying at schools, chose a clip showing an activist discussing the murder of a gay schoolboy in USA who urged viewers to press for more media coverage of the incident. For Pullen it illustrates "news stories and intimacies", i.e., members of the public expressing themselves through You Tube and other sites on issues they find personally important and thus telling their own stories.

Ben Cohen, technology correspondent for Channel 4 News, discussed technological advances that may help filmmakers: increased bandwidth and peer-to-peer services. He mentioned changes being made to the BBC i-player. No doubt we could have learned more about this, had the missing panellist turned up. Cohen suggested that as TV and net converge, You Tube will work with TIVO to allow clips to be downloaded to TV, making for more competition for audiences.

Mark Harriott, of A2Z Films, had some insights into possibilities for filmmakers selling their work online. Currently, porn seems to be the most saleable but he said that Eurocream, which streams porn, is looking for other types of film to distribute and is offering makers a cut of revenue. He also noted that YouTube is paying some filmmakers who have had over a million hits.

Revenue proved a contentious issue with some in the audience keen to know more on how to make money from their work while others considered any mention of money to be polluting the artistic environment. Wiz made clear that NQU is peer-curated and open source and generates no revenue. Cohen added that YouTube is starting to attach ads to clips, which could change the message intended by filmmakers.

Another issue raised was that of access, the digital divide between those who have access to shooting, editing and uploading tools and those who don't. While it was pointed out that teenagers are shooting on their mobiles, that ITV News and Sky regularly use clips shot by viewers, and that digital technology is far cheaper than film, this was still a concern to some and led to an interesting debate on egalitarianism and the web. Does more hits equal greater quality? And what does this mean for interesting, edgy, marginal work of the kind that may well be produced by sexual minorities?

Meanwhile, the studios are moving to get in on the action. Much as record companies have woken up to the possibilities and threats of the net as a rival and are cherry-picking it looking for new artists, all the big Hollywood studios and talent agencies have committed digital content departments scouring the net looking for new filmmaking talent.

Christopher, a US film producer in the audience, told me that he is working with a director he found online who uses the net to workshop material and fine-tune it in response to viewers' comments. Meanwhile, US cable companies such as Logo and here! have funded web serials in the hopes that these might make the jump to terrestrial TV. For these companies the web has replaced the traditional development stage of filmmaking. Instead of paying money to develop scripts, companies fund filmmakers to quickly and cheaply shoot bits of them and put them online to gauge audience reaction before continuing the process.

Christopher was enthusiastic about this practice while others worried this might water down the work produced. Filmmaker Campbell Blackman questioned the notion of the "wisdom of crowds" while another audience member decried the net's reliance on hits to measure success: "Does that push us toward a culture of junk?"

Another question raised was what the rise of the net meant for film festivals. In a virtual world, will they become redundant? McCallum asked, "As it becomes more ephemeral, do we lose our screen heritage?" Wiz thought the curatorial aspect was what differentiated the net from festivals, while Harriott felt the opportunity to meet was a draw for festivals, although he acknowledged that many net companies are now pushing the front ends of sites as communities.

With so many issues about, conclusions were hard to find. Wiz commented: "Porn and academia have a 20-year headstart on filmmakers using the internet." Surely, technology makes strange, ahem, bedfellows...

Thursday, April 03, 2008

LLGFF: Attack of the Gay Zombies

The Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixIf there are any trends to be found at this year's festivals, gay zombies would be one. Apparently, the current crisis in masculinity extends to zombies -- they have feelings, too. No lesbian zombies, though. Perhaps next year.

Bruce La Bruce's latest epic Otto; Or Up With Dead People [sic] cleverly combines a zombie horror flick with social criticism of capitalism, consumerism, environmental crisis and anti-gay discrimination.

As Otto, the gay zombie with an identity crisis, is let loose on swinging Berlin, havoc ensues. LaBruce makes clever use of the location, with Otto stumbling through trendy Kreuzberg and other recognisable neighbourhoods. Surely, if there is anywhere a gay zombie would feel at home it's Kreuzberg, but not Otto, who is resigned to a life of undeadness, save for the odd flash of memory: happy days with a boyfriend, a butcher chopping flesh. What does it all mean?

La Bruce leaves it unclear as to whether Otto really is a zombie or rather a young man suffering from some trauma and/or mental illness, but uses the trope of hilariously pretentious Kunstfilm director Medea Yarn (another recognisable Berliner type) as a narrative device. Seeking to exploit Otto's confusion, she casts him in her latest silent opus, Up With Dead People, seeing him as a metaphor for the modern age. Taking him to a rubbish dump, she delivers a ranting monologue on the immortality of non-biodegradable waste,and concludes: "Some day all of this will be yours."

Also showing in the festival is Michael Simon's comic short Gay Zombie, a more heavy-handed critique, this time of gay male body fascism, as a neurotic gay zombie tries to come out in West Hollywood, prompting the natives to give him a makeover. Will he find true love or will he eat his new friends?

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

LLGFF: The Chinese Botanist's Daughter

dir Dai Sijie

I don't usually cry at the cinema but the last five minutes of this lush drama had me blubbing. Based on a true story, this beautifully shot and acted tale of two young women falling in love and being thwarted by familial and societal pressures was banned from the director's home country of China because of its subject matter. Tibet is not the only forbidden topic there.

With production moved to Vietnam, the film makes use of the country's abundant greenery and water for its botanical garden setting. Sometime during the Cultual Revolution, a young woman, Li Ming, arrives on an island to take up an internship with the imperious Professor Chen. Striking up a friendship with his daughter An, Li Ming finds herself falling in love.

Wandering the valleys in search of plants, the two dream of a life together, But can they leave the garden? A marriage between Li Ming and An's soldier brother Tan seems to offer a solution but fate intervenes and the barbarism of ignorance is their undoing. A very powerful piece of work.