Scotland in San Servolo was represented by Jen Skinner from Screen Argyll and myself, as representative of Edinburgh based film collective CinemaAttic.
Screen Argyll was one of the most interesting cases taking part in the executive training programme and we analysed Jen's pioneering initiative in the West of Scotland, bringing cinema to one of the most remote areas in Europe.
I was also one of the speakers taking part on this week-long training programme. I was given the chance to deliver a talk on models of short film distribution and exhibition and how rarely they find space, even in Arthouse cinemas beyond festivals. From Festival selections to special themed curated short film programmes, I offered an overview of the work that we are trying to do at Cinemaattic, promoting short film as an original art form.
SHORT FILMS IN VENICE
Out of all of the world's film festivals, only Berlinale stands out as a festival that takes its short-film selection seriously. Venice, as part of the Orizzonti Section, includes a short-film competition that normally includes between 10 to 12 shorts from around the world.
The Best Short Film Award went (well-deserved) to Indonesian film Kado (A Gift) by Aditya Ahmad. The 15-minute film tells the story of Isfi, who is trying to celebrate Nita's birthday. However, to prepare a special gift in Nita's room, she has to wear a long skirt and a hijab. Elegant filmmaking and an honest and human approach to a coming of age story.
Short film is the perfect means to experiment, and sometimes less is more. Chinese director Yang Zhengfan gave us one of the most interesting proposals of the festival with Na Li (Down There). A simple, great idea about the normalisation of violence. Fixed camera, one shot. We see the views from a high rise in China facing the nine windows of the fellow neighbours, some smoke, some watch the TV, life goes on. Normality gets interrupted by the screams of a woman in the street, but Zhengfan don’t move the camera and we only hear a conversation between a couple. We don’t see them, we only see the different reactions of the neighbours. Curiosity and metacinema play in this short film that makes us all sick voyeurs in our everyday lives.
Special mention goes to the Serbian short-film Strano Telo (Foreign Body) that features a one take sex scene where the boundaries between domination, fetish and consent put the spectator to the limit. Young men in macho Sarajevo city try to find their own sexuality in a “boys will be boys” society. Willing to prove his manhood to his handsome friends, Marko tries to find a girl. In an encounter with a victim of a past sexual trauma, he discovers an aggressive part of himself.
It is hard to make good comedy these days and we may have discovered a brutal talent with Filipino-American director Andrew Stephen Lee. Manila is full of men named Boy is the story of an LA-based Filipino expat who wants to impress his father for his birthday, renting a fake son to pretend to be an ideal father. A sad, underlying story of loneliness and solitude remains almost unseen among the Kaurismaki-like characters and witty comedic scenes on Manila streets.
Equally hilarious was the kitsch Swiss short film “All Inclusive”, by Croina Schwingruber; David Foster Wallace meets Dead Slow Ahead. The monstrous architecture of a cruise ship and the ridiculous reality of what happens inside: a workout on the sun deck, a conga line in the dining hall, a photo shoot with the captain, or a beauty contest for all ages, fun around-the-clock is guaranteed on a cruise...
THIS IS AMERICA: A SUPERCHARGED AMERICAN PRESENCE
This year's Golden Lion went to Alfonso Cuaron and his controversial, personal Netflix backed film Roma. Beyond the whole distribution row, this was the best film I saw at the festival. Yorgos Lanthimos and Jacques Audiard shared the other main awards, with a special mention to the only woman in competition Jennifer Kent and her brilliant film The Nightingale. For all those programmers and cinephiles around the world talking about the female gaze, this film is made for you. A young Irish woman chases a British officer through the Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. An epic film that reminds us the crimes committed against Tasmanian aboriginal people.
There was an excess of American films in this year’s edition and most of them offered a thorough analysis of different layers of US society. A stimulating programme from Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and her team, offering what I call a perfect square of the American psyche through 4 main titles:
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? by Roberto Minervini
Monrovia, Indiana by Frederick Wiseman
America Dharma by Erol Morris
The Mountain by Rick Alverson
Bigmouth America, or how power is exercised: Rick Alverson, Erol Morris and Wiseman offer clues as to how the relationships of power and the role of key voices within American communities articulate the governance of the United States. The role of religious preachers and community leaders and their importance shaping values and opinions in small town America.
The death of White American middle class: The ending of Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana shows two consecutive funeral ceremonies: one is artificially well organised, with long sermons and machines that move the coffin into the resting space, the other is a simpler one; hands, shovel and earthy soil in the old fashioned way. The American director has traditionally remained neutral, sitting in the fence and letting you make your own choice. In this case there is nothing unintentional about the way Wiseman ends his film. There is a general message of decadence and disconnection with the land we live in (and how to use the resources in it).
The film starts with seeds being planted, vivid green fields and the rich colourful landscape of Monrovia which will deteriorate progressively as the film advances, ending with a contrast between the two funerals.
Although Wiseman maintains his traditional analysis of The Institution, in this case the Monrovia community - conversations in a bar, veterinary surgeries, meatpacking processes in the supermarket and council meetings - a new Wiseman adds a message with intentional edited sequences that herald the end of an era.
This works particularly well in contrast with Roberto Minervini’s film What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? which follows socially oppressed black communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. Lyrically shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black and white; a political film that has as some of its subjects actual political activists (the New Black Panthers), but in itself isn’t activist, but rather humanist. This is a portrait of a community ready to start the fire.
The subtle elegant funeral of Monrovia, Indiana contrasts with bigmouth firestarter Steve Bannon predicting a revolution in Errol Morris's America Dharma.
Bannon is a character that compares himself with Henry V or Liberty Valance, and after watching American Dharma one feels frustrated as Bannon escapes alive out of a one-to-one with Morris. But this one of Morris's virtues as a filmmaker: let the character speak; even as Bannon depicts himself as a creator of one-liners and headlines without any depth or analysis of his own discourse. Bannon may seem obviously dangerous to us white middle class cinephiles after watching this film, but his speech is working among masses and need to be confronted, rather than promoted.
All of these films and others like Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux worked really well as part of the same programme, drawing comparisons and offering differing points of view, to examine what is happening at the heart of the world’s most powerful country.
SCOTTISH FILM IN VENICE
Aquarela , from celebrated Russian auteur Victor Kossakovsky, was a celebration of High-Definition imagery. A challenging immersive experiential film with obvious environmental messages. He films water in all its shapes and forms across the globe in this ambitious Creative Scotland-backed production. As we left Sala Volpi after the first screening of the documentary, one of Venice's famous late August thunderstorms shook the Lagoon, with heavy apocalyptic rain. Water everywhere, in all forms, just as in Kossakovsky's film.
Parts I and II of Mark Cousins’ “Women Make Film. A new road movie though cinema”, the new project of the Edinburgh based filmmaker, is a much needed exercise to reclaim masters of filmmaking that often were neglected because of their gender. Cousins was present, alongside John Archer from Hopscotch Films and he gave a great presentation reminding the audience that the cinema is an anarchic space that shouldn't belong to men. I hope the projects is shown in schools when finished to show how pluralistic filmmaking is regardless of gender or nationality.
THE FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE
The oldest film festival in the world takes place in a tiny square and you can access everything within a 5 minute walk, which is quite handy. All of the beautiful people stay in the famous Excelsior Hotel during the festival. The access to the hotel is open, and it would be normal to bump into Guillermo del Toro in the bar or Spike Lee in the toilet.
My funniest encounter of this year’s festival happened in the Excelsior hotel. After watching Luca Guadaguino’s adaptation of Suspiria, a cinematic experience that requires some time to digest, I walked with some colleagues to the hotel, all still a bit shocked by the originality and bloodiness of the film. While waiting for the elevator, one of the hotel workers kindly invited to use the stairs. We were incredibly insulted, but took the stairs. On the first floor the elevator opened and Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and the rest of the cast of Suspiria came out, gala-dressed and in a tiny square. We (shocked) and them (confused) spent thirty seconds looking at each other like martians encountering humans for the first time.
Venice can be quirky and strange, but I can’t wait to get back again for next year’s edition. Maybe that's what I like about it.
As the vaporetto sails away, we returned to Scotland full of new ideas to apply to our cinemas, lots of films that we want to show to Scottish audiences and new friends from all over the world.
Alberto Valverde is Programme Coordinator at Cinemaattic, an organisation part of Film Hub Scotland specialised in pop up film screenings, distinctive underground events and retrospectives on Spanish & Latin American cinema.
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