Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

The Edinburgh International Film Festival was much shorter than usual this year – given last autumn we thought we had lost it along with the Edinburgh Filmhouse when the charity running both went into administration (see our report here) though, I was just grateful the world’s longest, continually running film festival was still going. We didn’t have the annual McLaren Animation Awards this year, but I was relieved to see that the EIFF programmers still made space for the animated short films, with a mix of familiar faces and new talent, with a dozen films, taking in a diverse array of subjects and styles, from hand-drawn to using found objects, stop-motion, even fragments of vinyl album sleeves to create their worlds.

I will hold my hand up here and admit my bias – as readers of our previous years of EIFF coverage will have gathered, the short animation strand is pretty much my favourite art of the film festival. In one screening it encapsulates – at least for me – what these festival should do: expose the viewer to a mixture of established and emerging talent, give them that important showcase, and take in a variety of styles and subjects. Isn’t that part of what we want at a film festival? That chance to explore works we might not otherwise see?

Jenny Jokela’s Sweet Like Lemons, a play on the old “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” phrase, used a colourful, hand-drawn style to explore issues of toxic relationships, and trying to extricate yourself from them. We see hands trying to write an email, constantly starting the message, then deleting it, starting again, and again, because she’s trying to find the determination to break free from a cycle of behaviour and find herself. The artwork veers from colourful and beautiful to the suddenly threatening, mirroring such controlling relationships, and felt very from the heart.

Sweet Like Lemons (2023) – Trailer from Jenny Jokela on Vimeo.

Some of the other works were also clearly drawing (sometimes literally) on personal experiences, using the animation medium to explore their own emotional history and experiences, articulate them, perhaps learn and grow beyond them, or at least have some closure and ownership over those issues, instead of letting those issues own them (not to mention sharing with others, some of whom may have experienced similar, and may gain recognition and strength from the sharing, never a bad thing).

On that score, I thought Holly Summerson’s Living With It, and The Perpetrators by Richard Squires both used animation as a way to explore their own lives and struggles. In Living With It, another traditionally, hand-drawn animated work, Summerson takes the reality TV show idea of the home makeover, except in her case her home and world are run down and in need of an uplift because she lives with a chronic illness, manifested as the character Bug. It’s a brief but emotionally effective glimpse into a life too many have to cope with.

Living With It – Trailer [CC] from Holly Summerson on Vimeo.

Perpetrators mixed live action footage with animation, exploring how it was to grow up as a gay man in the hostile environment of the 1980s. The framing device is using changing medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality (still on the books as a mental illness until just a few decades ago). The pain and shame of having to be hidden, not to be able to declare who you are to friends or even close family, is palpable, the institutional nature of the bigotry shameful to modern eyes (consider how similar tropes are deployed today in the debate around trans rights). But Squires also deploys a lot of humour here, using tropes from the much-loved Scooby Doo cartoons to inform his animation. I suspect that streak of humour was, for him, as for many of us, part of how he coped (what would we do without that sense of humour? How much darker would our lives be?).

Tanya J Scott’s The Wolf of Custer was a beautiful piece, exploring the power of folklore and myth, as a hunter, reminiscent of Quint in Jaws, listens to the people of a small town tell tales of a giant wolf that can devour entire bisons (the smoke and flame of a fire and the shadows in the room all morph into flowing, dream-like images of the magical wolf as they tell their tales). Arrogantly he declares where would we be if we believed such native folklore nonsense, and that he will set out to kill their wolf. As you may imagine, as his journey through the vast wilderness progresses, and he catches glimpses of the wolf, then images of it carved and painted into the rocks of the very land, he slowly comes to realise and respect why we have such creatures in our stories, why they are important to us.

Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan’s A Taste For Music dealt with living with a seriously ill loved one, in this case his father. It captures that frustration at seeing them being weakened and unable to do things they want, and is also quite honest about the anger and resentment that comes along with this as it grinds on (many of us will have been there, with the best will in the world there’s a moment where you just become so angry at the situation, the disease, even the person). Through it though is a shared love of music, drawing – quite literally here, the animator drew on record sleeves – on his father’s extensive vinyl collection as a way of connecting, something the illness could still allow him to do, while the use of record sleeves gives the visuals a distinctive flair.

A Taste For Music (Trailer) from Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan on Vimeo.

I was also delighted to see BAFTA-winning Ainslie Henderson return. I’ve seen Henderson several times at the McLaren Animation strand at the EIFF over the years – his film A Cat Named Dom won last year’s McLaren gong at the festival (see our report from the 2022 EIFF here on LFF), and am always looking forward to any new work. Shackle is a stop-motion piece (I love all animation, but have an especially soft spot for stop-motion work), with a couple of small woodland creatures, taking everyday forest objects such as apples and pine cones, then making art and music with them, while a more frightening version of these endearing creatures lurks in the dark version of the forest, looking on greedily and coveting what they have.

I don’t really have time to dive into every film screened during the Animated Shorts, but these are some of the ones that especially caught my eye. Again I am grateful the animators get a chance to show these in a cinema setting, with an audience, and talk about their works – we used to have the excellent Four Mations on Channel 4, and BBC2 used to do late night animation strands, years ago, something that seems to have vanished from media schedules these days, despite the phttps://www.liveforfilm.com/roliferation of more channels and the fact we’re still seeing new and established talents creating new, interesting works, but the main broadcasters seem to ignore them, which, I think, makes the film festivals all the more important as a chance to wave the flag for this time-consuming and inventive form of film-making.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Tokyo Pop

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Tokyo Pop,
Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui,
Starring Carrie Hamilton, Diamond Yukai (aka Yutaka Tadokoro), Hiroshi Kobayashi, Hiroshi Sugita, Satoshi Kanai, Rome Kanda

The Edinburgh film fest usually includes some retrospectives of older films, as well as showcasing new work, and even with the very slimmed down festival we’re having this August (after us almost losing the festival last autumn, as we covered, I’m just grateful we have it at all, frankly) there was still room for some older gems, including this 1980s piece, which somehow I had never come across before.

Tokyo Pop, created in 1988, was the first directing gig for Fran Rubel Kuzui, who I am sure many of you will know for her association with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Fran was at the festival, talking with the audience after the screening, explaining at one point how damned hard it was for a woman to become a Hollywood director back in the 80s, even on a small budget, Indy film (the gender ratio is still bad today, but back then, even worse).

It’s a deceptively simple story – an American woman, Wendy Reed (the late Carrie Hamilton) is fed up with being relegated to backing singer duties by useless rock and roll boyfriends in 80s New York. When a postcard from Japan arrives from her friend who is staying there, saying “wish you were here”, and adding that the Japanese youth love American rock culture, she decides to take her friend at her word and go there, with no plan, no skill in Japanese, not even a map of Tokyo, just a vague plan of becoming a music star there.

The cultural fish out of water scenario is compounded when she arrives to find her friend has already moved on and is now in Bangkok, leaving her trying desperately to find somewhere to stay and to get a job so she can get some money. Her “exotic” gaijin (foreigner) looks help her get a job in a hostess bar – it helps pay the bills, but it’s not exactly the rock and roll fame she was seeking. Meanwhile Hiro (actor and rock star Diamond Yukai) and his band is struggling to get noticed by the local big producer or land paying gigs.

Their first encounter with Wendy goes badly when Hiro’s less than expert grasp at English leads him to misunderstand the situation when she tells him she needs a hotel for the night, and he thinks she means one of the city’s many “love hotels”. Such comic misunderstandings are part and parcel of this kind of tale, and we all know that sooner or later they are going to become close, and that she will be the thing that makes their band stand out, especially in an 80s Japan that was always hungry for new fads.

 

In some ways Tokyo Pop is of its time – this was the 1980s, and this would fit nicely into an evening of 80s viewing with some John Hughes flicks, and of course the styles and music mark the era. And yet at the same time it feels very fresh – it’s that cultural misunderstanding Schick which is still funny (and goes both way, not just her ignorance of Japan, but the Japanese characters attempting Western rock without really understanding it). It’s a bit drama, it’s a bit romantic-comedy, it’s a bit musical, but mostly it is just a charming delight of a film, the two main leads radiating that youthful, naïve confidence, lighting the screen up with huge smiles and a tremendous sense of fun and pure charm. A total delight, now restored into 4k.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Fran Rubel Kuzui 03
(Co-writer and director Fran Rubel Kuzui talking to the Edinburgh film fest audience – pic from my Flickr)

Edinburgh Film Festival – Superposition

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Superposition
Directed by Karoline Lyngbye,
Starring Marie Bach Hansen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mihlo Olsen
(Danish language, with English subtitles)

Stine (Marie Bach Hansen), a frustrated writer, and her partner Teit (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a broadcaster and podcaster, have decided to quit the rat race of life in urban Copenhagen, and are moving with their young boy, Nemo (Mihlo Olsen), to try living for a year completely isolated in a designer cabin, near a lake in the Swedish forest, with Stine planning to use the peace and space to get back to her novel, while Teit is recording regular podcasts on their experiences, although since they are too remote for any web access, he has to put his shows on a USB drive then mail them to his radio station and the people bankrolling their lifestyle change. It will not surprise anyone to learn that their plans to not go quite as expected, and they start to learn more about one another than they anticipated – in a rather unusual way.

Right from the beginning there’s a lovely visual style to Superposition by cinematographer Sine Vadstrup Brooker, with a view of the calm lake waters, the line of the opposite shore bisecting the middle of the screen, the water reflecting the trees and the clouds above, but tilted ninety degrees to the side, slowly rotating back to the more normal viewpoint; a beautiful image, but also one that whispers of something not right, something being out of kilter, in this remote location.

At first they settle in quite happily, exploring the very cool, designer cabin and surrounding woods and lake, their wee boy and dog, Tarzan, happily running around while they settle in. As Tein sets up the microphones for his first recording, however, the cracks start to appear, as an at-first genial discussion between him and Stine about why they came here and what they hope to get out of it, produces answers Tein isn’t too happy with. Stine points out that they agreed to be honest in these recorded discussions, something he likes to pride himself on, but we can already see that actually he’s quite sensitive to honesty when it concerns him.

This is all handled in a nice, quiet, intimate manner between the two characters, no histrionics, no shouting. It’s also a nice bit of storytelling economy – we get the gist of their relationship and troubles (he had an affair, cheating on her, she resents giving up her plans to be the Great Young Novelist she was earmarked by the writing establishment to become in favour of raising a family) in one short scene, along with the obvious fact that both are also creatives and seem a bit competitive on that front as well as on their personal relationship. It’s deftly done, no flashbacks or long expositions, we get it all in this quiet, neat way, letting us into the characters and their lives.

So far you could be mistaken for thinking this is going to be one of those films where people with troubles escape into nature and find the struggle to live in it helps them put their personal problems in perspective, and overcome them. But this is more “glamping” than really back to nature, whatever the pair of them think (fancy cabin, electricity, computers, music, wine, hardly roughing it). And there is something else going on – they glimpse another family of three, on the far shore of the lake.

This surprises them as the location was sold as being totally remote, with no-one else near them. Stine in particular seems very put out by this (given the vast spaces around them, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her here, she seems more petulant than anything else). They try to avoid these others, which should be easy as they are away on the other side of the water, but of course, we know sooner or later something will bring them in contact with one another. And when they find these others are, well, them, they are understandably confused. Why are dopplegangers of them here in this remote forest? Where did they come from, what do they do?

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(Director Karoline Lyngbye, on the right, talking to the film festival audience, pic from my Flickr)

Although you can see little hints of the likes of Peele’s Us, this is a different beast, and uses this encounter to further explore the damaged relationships between the main couple in a rather novel way. Starting as a drama, Superposition mixes in elements of science fiction, thriller and horror into its DNA, and combines it with some lovely cinematography (riffing cleverly on reflections and duos), while scenes with the characters interacting with their duplicates are very well done (the director explained they had some of the visual effects team on hand during the actual filming to make sure it was done right, a laborious task involving multiple takes of scenes).

An intriguing, clever and beautifully shot piece of cinema from Denmark.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

The Filmhouse

Oh, where to start with this? Like many in the film world, especially in Edinburgh, I am still reeling from the shock of the sudden closing of the city’s wonderful Filmhouse cinema, home also to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, also shuttered. The evening before the news broke, I was booking a screening for the weekend. In fact, I am writing this piece at the time I should be sitting in screen one of the Filmhouse to watch a tribute to the late Jean-Luc Goddard, with a screening of A Bout de Souffle (Seberg in that fabulous pixie haircut, the irreplaceable Belmondo, sigh). And then I should come out of the theatre, a satisfied smile on my face, and head into the Filmhouse’s lovely cafe-bar for a post-film relax, drink, chat, food and just plain sit there and enjoy the atmosphere.

It’s not a newsflash to say cinemas have been struggling – we all know it, I’m sure most of us who read LFF are worried about it and trying our best to support our local cinemas, especially the independent and arthouse theatres like the Filmhouse. But the suddenness of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the charitable body that runs Filmhouse, declaring itself in administration has taken all of us by surprise. Only a few weeks ago I was busy filing reports from the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) right here on this site, waving the flag for interesting new films and new movie makers. I’ve been going to that festival for thirty years – this year the film festival, the oldest continually running film fest on our planet – celebrated its 75th birthday.

Filmhouse at night

Filmhouse 01

And now this.

Many in the arts are struggling right now – Covid, of course, put a huge torpedo beneath the waterline of many arts organisations and venues and creators on a global scale. The final weekend before that first Lockdown, I was going home from visiting a friend, knowing it may be my last chance for a while (we had no idea just how bloody long then). I passed the Filmhouse about 11 on a Saturday night. Cinemas, theatres and bars had already closed before the Lockdown. The street was deserted save for a couple waiting at a bus stop. City centre on a Saturday evening on a street with theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants, dead. It was a chilling omen.

Filmhouse Noir

As restrictions have eased, and cinemas returned, then had to close again, then re-open, and the struggle to get studios to get the big film content back out on schedules again so a reluctant, scared audience had more reason to go out to the cinemas again went on (thank you, Chris Nolan for sticking to your guns and supporting cinemas for your release of Tenet), we’ve seen audiences come back, but often not in the same numbers as pre-Covid. It’s a pattern I have seen repeated all over the arts, even here, in the arts festival capital of the world. The Fringe was busy this summer, but nowhere near old levels. It was wonderful to be back to a couple of weeks of film festival, but while I saw good audiences, few of the screenings were quite as busy as before. I’ve seen similar even at book events, from in-store, small scale events to the big Edinburgh International Book Festival (some big crowds for certain names, but again that feeling that the same numbers are not coming back).

Between this and the huge rise in the cost of living, with the worst of the energy price rises looming, it was too much for an organisation that had already suffered through two years of hell nobody anticipated. How many businesses and venues have had the same problems?

For me, personally though, this is a wretched blow. I first encountered the Filmhouse when I moved to Edinburgh as a student in the autumn of 1991. The generous student discounts helped me go see more films, and as film was a part of my college studies, I could bunk off classes to go to the cinema and pretend it was research (any excuse). The lovely cafe-bar has long been one of my Happy Places, one of those spots where I can go when I am having a rough time, and always feel better just being there, even if I’m not going into a film. And, of course, after making it a second home for three decades, it is packed with memories for me.

I met new friends there – the former Filmhouse education officer (outreach was always an important part of their community-minded remit), Shiona, who was a guest lecturer at my college, and who became a friend (taken far too soon from us, but I still feel her presence every time I am at the FH). I felt encouraged to try films I may not otherwise have seen, at least not on the big screen (where the experience is always different). From new European and world cinema that nobody else in town was showing, to classics , from Buster Keaton to a 70mm print of 2001. I went with friends to the film study courses during the winter night, a screening then a lecture, then, of course, a good discussion about it all in the FH bar afterwards. Again it often opened me up to film-makers I may otherwise never have encountered.

And then there’s the film festival, headquartered in the FH’s19th century building. The buzz in the FH cafe-bar at 1am, coming out of a late night festival screening was something else, often some of the film-makers would be hanging around happily chatting to people over a drink, nobody wanting to go home, all on a festival high. At a festival retrospective on the works of Powell and Pressburger, I took a dear friend to see A Matter of Life and Death, which she had never seen. Just before the film, the festival announcer produced a surprise: a very frail, elderly man walked slowly onto the stage; it was Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger’s now legendary cinematographer.

He told us of being given his break by them, of working on those movies – surely some of the most beautiful British films ever made – and I swear this very old man grew straighter and younger as he talked to us of those days of post-war British film-making. Remarkable experiences like that happened at the EIFF. Ray Harryhausen chatting to an audience, Dame Evelyn Glennie coming out after a documentary about her, to entertain the audience with a solo music performance using only a single snare drum, French actor Dominique Pinon in conversation, Karen Gillan using her post Doctor Who fame to help get her own Indy film made and then screened at the festival.

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

Kevin Smith at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

New talent like Gareth Edwards standing on stage with his actors at one in the morning after screening Monsters, long before Lucasfilms would tag him to direct Rogue One, young animators at the McClaren Animation strand, quite a few of whom would go on to BAFTA and Oscar glory later with the films they showed us and talked to us about afterwards. Sir Sean Connery, a long-time supporter of the festival, waving from the red carpet at the opening gala, at a venue that was just a few moments walk from the streets where he delivered milk as a boy, before global stardom (often wondered what went through his head when he was back in that old neighbourhood). Kevin Smith running well past his allotted speaking time after a late night screening, and nobody cared because we were all sitting there with Kevin Smith. One year I even got invited into the projection booth and met Sid and Kenneth, the venerable cine- projectors (FH being one of the few places still with trained projectionists and the ability to show actual celluloid); the magic lanterns behind the curtain.

Magic lantern 03

late night at the film festival

The people who worked at the Filmhouse and the Festival weren’t just working there -like many of us who work in arts-related fields, they were there for the love of it all. Most were well-educated and could find much better-paying jobs, but this was a special place, warm, welcoming, inclusive, and the shared love of the medium shone through it all. Being made redundant is hard enough, as I’m sad to say I know too well; the shock, the up-turning of your regular existence, the awful worries about loss of income and how you can afford to live, how hard it may be to get another job. And if it is somewhere like this, that is compounded by the sudden loss of your surrogate family, a place where you didn’t just work, you liked being there, you liked what you did, you cared about the medium, about the people , the audiences, who came to share in it. All suddenly taken from over a hundred staff, just like that.

I really don’t know what the answers are here – we’ve lost a number of arts venue in the last couple of hard years, and I think we all fear losing more. These places enrich our lives, our culture – Filmhouse and the EIFF have been a vital part of my city’s cultural life, their demise is noted on the global scale, with even Variety and Hollywood Reporter lamenting on the sudden closure. And how many other venues are wobbling right now, how many may be finished off by the surge in prices this coming winter? I wish I had a Great Idea to fix it all, but I don’t . All I can say is when you have places like the Filmhouse or events like the film festival, cherish them and support them as much as you can; just like supporting your local, Indy, neighbourhood shops, if we don’t, we lose them, like we lost the Filmhouse, and we have damned well lost enough these last couple of years.

There is a public outcry for something to be done to save both the Filmhouse and EIFF; I don’t know if they will be saved, or if they are, in what form. Fair to say the entire arts community here is still in shock at it all, and there’s no indication yet of what, if any, help may be available, we can only hope. Meantime an online petition has been started asking to save both the Filmhouse and the EIFF; fellow movie lovers sharing the link and signing it would be very much appreciated.

This article was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Saloum

EIFF 2022 – Saloum,
Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot,
Starring Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry

The programmer introducing Saloum to a late-night Edinburgh International Film Festival crowd was eager to share their enthusiasm for Saloum, describing it as part of a bold, new, confident strand of film-making coming out of Africa. Shot mostly in the French language, I felt this Senegalese movie lived up to its glowing introduction at the festival. We start off with what looks like a massacre in an African town, bodies everywhere, civilians and military alike, and three mysterious figures walking among the bodies – the Bangui Hyenas – leader Chaka (Yann Gael) , Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba). You’re given the strong impression the mayhem and body count has come from these three figures swaggering through the streets, and then we find out they are extracting an international drug smuggler to help him out of the country, for a sizeable amount of gold.

However not all is at is often seems in this very cool, slick, stylish African flick; first impressions are these are just three gunsels – cool perhaps, but criminals, thugs – happy to leave a line of bodies in their wake. Except as the film progresses we hear stories about the Hyenas, and despite the tough guy posturing, we start to learn of very different views of them, that they’ve interfered against despots, helped movements and other rather more heroic actions. It’s a good strategy as it means you can’t just peg the trio as one thing or another, good guy, bad guy, hero, villain, and it makes the mix far more interesting. It also establishes that they have a pretty formidable reputation that precedes them.

Their exit strategy with their drug lord is a light aircraft from a nearby airstrip, taking off as local reinforcements arrive too late to do much more than fire impotently in the air at the retreating plane, as our trio and their client relax. Except, of course, like any good plan or heist in a movie, something has to go wrong (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we?!) – in this case they realise they are losing fuel, and assume a stray bullet hit the tank. They can’t make their original destination, but Chaka, the brains of the operation, comes up with a back-up plan, to land in the Saloum area of Senegal. Having hidden the plane and the gold, they set off on foot for a small, isolated resort of sorts that Chaka claims to know, saying to leave all the talking to him, and explaining after a couple of days of playing visitor there, they will scrounge fuel and some sealant to fix the fuel tank, and off they go. The other two are curious as to how Chaka knows this area and people, but follow him.

At the resort things start well enough, greeted by the seemingly affable Omar (Bruno Henry) who runs it, and meeting the deaf and mute guest Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) – which leads to an increasingly hilarious sign-language conversation between Awa and Chaka at the camp’s dinner table, as the others all watch on bemused. But quite quickly they realise Awa knows just who they are and wants something from them – is she for them or against? And Chaka hints at past interactions with Omar years ago, but Omar doesn’t recognise him. When a local police captain arrives for dinner, the tension ratchets ever upwards – have they been rumbled, or is it pure coincidence? Adding into this, Minuit and Rafa are starting to question Chaka’s motives, as it starts to look like he has some long unfinished business in this strange region, and they begin to wonder if it was an accident that brought them here or a plan…

This burns along nicely, building character interactions, establishing the surroundings, slowly increasing the sense of tension building, along with the unmistakable feeling that something here just isn’t right. I don’t just mean with the are they here by accident or secret plan, or how does a police captain and a deaf woman happen to be there and know who they are at just the right time. No, there’s more, especially when we see interactions with the nearest village – the people, the place, the whole land here is wrong, something dark, something bad, something not human, perhaps even cursed…

Saloum gleefully throws all sorts of ingredients into the pot – we get action, the daring escape/heist gone wrong, the emergency plan that may be far more than it appears, characters who keep evolving throughout, seemingly and obviously one thing only for us to learn more further in that changes our perceptions of them, it throws in some very slick and stylish action that would be at home in a Tarantino joint or a Hong Kong action flick, with elements of the Spaghetti Western, revenge thriller and outright horror movie too. It’s as prepared to mix knowing humour as it is to take on dark subjects, like the colonial abuses of the past and the use of child soldiers in many civil conflicts. It sounds like it should be overcooked, but it isn’t, somehow all these elements, mixed in at just the right time as the film progresses, all work together, and the narrative even takes a couple of turns I didn’t expect. Cool, stylish, an ideal late night movie treat from Africa.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival 22 – Le Chêne (Heart of Oak)

EIFF 2022 – Le Chêne / Heart of Oak,
Directed by Laurent Charbonnier, Michel Seydoux

A huge hit in France (the programmer introducing it at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival told the audience it had sold over half a million tickets at the box office), Le Chêne – titled Heart of Oak for the English-language market – the film made its UK debut at the EIFF this week. And while it is a French film, worry not if you are no good with subtitled films, as this is a “silent” documentary – there is no narrator or dialogue or talking heads experts. Instead the cinematography and the soundscape carry us through the entire film, essentially a year in the life of a huge, two hundred year old oak tree, and all the myriad varieties of life it supports on it, in it, below it and around it, from insects and fungi and wood mice in the roots to birds and squirrels in the branches, deer and boar around it, through the four seasons.

We open with a beautiful aerial shot over a forest, slowly descending through the canopy into a small clearing around a vast, gnarled old oak (the descent is so slow and gentle it gave me the impression of coming down gently in a hot air balloon). It’s spring/summer and the foliage is in full greenery, the huge, thick branches of this old tree covered in leaves, and there’s that marvellous sound of the breeze moving through the branches and leaves (isn’t that just one of the nicest sounds in the world?).

As the camera moves circle the trees, top, bottom and in-between and around, the camera lingering over the fantastically gnarled, tough bark on this regal tree, and then as we get closer in we see the community of life it sustains. Tiny acorn weevils with their long proboscis giving them a distinctive look, a red squirrel darting around, seemingly defying gravity as it pauses on a vertical climb, face down, leaping and jinking, constantly on guard, looking around for opportunity and danger.

Tiny wood mice who have a colony in tunnels among the roots cautiously stick their heads out while a barn owl scans the area from a high branch, looking for just such an excursion, a mating pair of birds make their home in the oak’s branches, sharing them with the squirrel, the editing of the footage of each giving the distinct impression of an almost human neighbour feeling – not someone you know personally, but like someone whose face you recognise, know they live in your area, the sort you nod to at the bus stop or in the shop. The much larger animals of the forest such as the boars and deer forage around the trunk, the boars using its rough surface for a good scratch while they’re looking endlessly for food.

We move through each of the seasons, watching the animals fight for survival, a whole ecosphere based around this tree, from fungal connections in the earth among its deep roots to the tops of its branches; it is, essentially its own little world that we are visiting here. We see the excitement when the acorns start to drop, especially for the resident squirrel, leaping around to try and grab several then stash them – one it will bury and forget, and by the time the next spring rolls around we wee that acorn has started a small root system below the earth, and a tiny trunk – more like a small branch with a few leaves – above ground; the life cycle continuing.

We see the creature and the tree weather the worst of the winter, the preparation for spring, new births, screeching baby birds in a new nest demanding food, the acorn weevils, all died off at the end of the summer and autumn, have implanted embryos into some acorns, which finally wriggle out, burrowing into the ground below to mature into the next season’s group of insects. The whole natural cycle rolls past us in simply stunning footage – including some clever techniques to let us see below the ground, for instance into the mice nest – or to flip momentarily to give an animal’s perspective (as a hawk hunts one of our mating pair of birds from the tree we see the exhilarating rush of the chase from its point of view for a moment.

I think the only main issue I had with this was that the editors seem to have chosen to avoid showing much in the way of any creature being killed – we see a number of attacks and hunts from and on various creatures, but other than a kingfisher catching a small fish, none of the hunts we see are successful. While I know there’s a high failure rate for even the best predators in a hunt, after several of these on screen it felt more like this was a deliberate choice by the film-makers.

That’s a minor quibble though – in truth this is a film to cherish in our current world of endless worries and fears over environmental collapse, financial hardship, warfare. Here’s a reminder to take time out, listen to the sound of branches moving in the wind, remember that the whole natural world goes on regardless of how buried under stress and worry we are (Lockdown reminded me of that very much, walking in a deserted city and hearing the spring birds calling out so clearly with no traffic to drown them out, and it lifted my spirits). This is like taking a “forest bath”, a cleanser, a reminder of the sheer majesty of our natural world, the simple beauty of a tree, the entire network of life it sustains around and on it. It’s a movie to see on the big screen, and let the visual and sounds immerse you into this tribute to the majesty of our natural world.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Lola

EIFF 2022 – Lola,
Directed by Andrew Legge,
Starring Stefanie Martini, Emma Appleton, Rory Fleck Byrne, Aaron Monaghan

I had a good feeling when I first read about Andrew Legge’s debut feature in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival programme; when I get that buzz for a film or book I normally find my instincts were bang on, and I am glad to report that continues to be the case (thank you, intuition, you know what I will like!). Lola is the name of a special machine created and operated by two eccentric sisters, Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and Martha Hanbury (Stefanie Martini), a series of valves and tubes and wires that can tune into broadcasts from the future. The two have grown up isolated in a big, old country house in 1930s England, naming the machine after their late mother.

Once they confirm that the machine works by tuning into broadcasts in their near future and seeing if they then unfold as predicted, it starts off relatively light-hearted. The women use the machine to learn the winners in some upcoming horse races, making themselves a decent income to survive on, before going on to tune into a cultural smorgasbord of broadcasts from the future, especially music (Bowie, the Kinks and Dylan feature particularly). Thom is the more emotionally remote of the pair – she clearly adores her sister but has little time for anyone else, and if she has thought out some of the implications of her work, she isn’t sharing those concerns, nor does she plans to share the machine with the rest of the scientific world.

Martha, by comparison, is the more emotionally warm of the two, and also more tuned to the new cultural experiences Lola can bring to them, quickly falling in Love with the likes of Bowie being broadcast from the 1970s, or Dylan in the 60s, as well as relishing the idea of the huge societal and cultural changes these musical movements indicate, so very different from the buttoned-down British society of the 1930s and 40s. Thom is the technical, scientific genius, but Martha sees Lola more for the way it can show her a world beyond what she otherwise could experience, and Martini does a wonderful job of conveying her total delight at all of this.

However, as the Nazi menace grows and war arrives, they both start to wonder if they shouldn’t be using their remarkable invention to help. Thom still doesn’t want to share her creation with anyone else, but she’s not against some form of aid, so they create a covert way of broadcasting warnings, using a clever system to make it almost impossible for the authorities to track their signal. In this way they can listen into news from a day or two in advance, then warn people in a certain area to take cover because an air raid will happen that evening without any warning. This soon earns them the nickname of the “Angel of Portobello”, and while most cheer these anonymous saviours (a newsreel shows and ARP Warden outside a shattered home, explaining his home was clobbered by German bombers, but thanks to the warning, his family was safe in the shelter), of course the authorities are keen to track them down and find out how they gather this intelligence.

The film is presented as a sort-of mix of found footage and documentary; it begins with the discovery of a pile of old film cans in an abandoned country mansion, all dated from the 1940s. It is through these that we discover the story of Lola – the sisters were determined to document their creation and the discoveries they make with it, but the films also include period newsreels (many doctored quite cleverly to include the cast or relevant events – shade of Forrest Gump). As the authorities finally become involved, the desperate nature of the Second World War demands that Lola be used to help a Britain with its back against the wall, and while this is perfectly understandable, anyone who has read a lot of science fiction will, as I did, already have an inkling that there will be repercussions to all of this – any change to the here and now (or the tomorrow morning) will ripple out into the future, the same future the sisters have been listening to, but will it be for good or ill? You’ll have to see the film to find that out.

While not without its flaws – for instance faked newsreel footage of Lola and her use to fight the Nazis struck me as wrong, I’m sure in such a scenario it would have been as kept as tightly secret as the famous Bletchley Park), other historical what-if moments didn’t sit quite right with me (knowing a good bit of the period). But those are minor niggles and, to be fair, I can see why Legge chose to have them because they do work in the context of the narrative he is telling here. And besides, with any tale involving playing with time, arguments over those what-if moments and how they could have been or not is all a part of the fun, isn’t it? Fuel for a good post-movie chat in the pub afterwards.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 04
(some photos I took of director Legge with his two main actors, Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton, on stage at the Everyman cinema after their Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Lola. Snapped in dark auditorium from several rows back, so please excuse the low quality!)
Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 06

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 05

As we go on we find there is a very good reason for the amount of the found footage, not just there because of documenting the creation of Lola, which I won’t go into, but I liked the idea and how it fitted into explaining some of the film. The main actors and director talked to the late-night festival audience, and some of the footage was shot on period cameras – those wonderful old clockwork-powered movie cameras – often in the hands of the actors themselves, with the cast and director also often developing those films, using slightly odd processes to ensure they looked damaged and dated, like they would if left in old film cans in an abandoned home for decades, and this compliments Oona Menges’s cinematography. As these reels were essentially documentary, the actors explained Legge had to keep telling them to ignore their acting training and dial down their performances to something more real-life, more documentary than narrative, and they both do this very well (with Martini and Appleton carrying the bulk of the screen time).

It’s a clever piece of micro-film science fiction using concept over the need for huge effects, a small and intimate cast but a huge central idea, the kind that can have you debating points of it for ages after watching the film. In many ways it reminded me of another time-travel, micro-budget movie I also saw at the EIFF many years ago, Primer, and I think Lola can hold her head up next to Primer, and I hope will garner itself a similar reputation and following.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Animation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

My first day at the 2022 edition of the world’s longest continually running film festival (the EIFF now in its 75th year), and I started off with three screenings back to back, all in the animation strand. The first two showings were the two halves of the annual McLaren Animation Awards nominees (named in honour of acclaimed Scottish animation pioneer, Norman McLaren). We didn’t have them at the much-reduced EIFF last summer, so it was especially nice to see them return for the first time since 2019 in the Pre-Covid World. The McLarens are always one of my personal favourite segments of the EIFF – they showcase a pretty diverse array of (often very young) talent, tackling different subjects, using very different styles and animation techniques. I often see some of them crop up months later in shortlists for major awards like BAFTA or even our old chum, Oscar, so it’s a great showcase for talented animators, especially as many of the creators are present and can talk to the festival audiences about their work.

As with any collection of short pieces, there are always some that appeal to a viewer more than others, and I will hold up my hand right here and say that yes, of course that is very subjective and individual – another viewer might prefer a totally different set from each of the two McLaren sections. So with that caveat in mind, some of this year’s short animations that I particularly enjoyed! Emma Calder’s Beware of Trains was a compelling examination of anxiety and psychological breakdown, often through disturbed dream imagery, with elements of sexual and violent motifs, while an interesting technique which looked as if the eyes and surrounding area of skin from a real face were inserted onto the animated character’s face produced an unusual look, which I found simultaneously interesting but also somehow quite disturbing (which worked well for the subject matter).

Linda McCarthy’s Bob Bobbin and the Christmas Stocking was totally different, with a delightful set of stop-motion characters in a country house, including a masked butler and a posh cad forced to learn a lesson about Santa, with some lovely little characterisations throughout. Simon P Biggs brought us a beautifully done piece with CG animation, Burry Man, riffing on the eponymous old myth (still celebrated in some parts of the country – South Queensferry, just on the edge of Edinburgh, by the mighty Forth Bridge, celebrated the Burry Man event just the week or so before the festival). It was a beautiful interpretation of an old myth, and one scene in a secret lair with a scary figure seemed like a nod to Pan’s Labyrinth (also I hadn’t realised I’d seen his work before – he exhibited Steampunk short Widdershins a few years back, which won a BAFTA). Cat Bruce’s Dùsgadh also riffed on Scottish folklore, following a hunter who challenges a beast but is cursed at the moment of victory, with the art often done in a silhouette style, with overtones of Lotte Reiniger, quite beautifully done, moving work.

Alex Widdowson’s Drawing on Autism used interviews with an autistic man to explore how neurodiversity is represented, using several different techniques as the animator ponders if each approach is the right or wrong one, if they are doing right by their interview subject, while Andrew Kötting’s Disease and Disorderly also focuses on neurodiversity, with animators Glenn Whiting and Isabel Skinner working with him to bring his daughter, the neurodiverse artist Eden Kötting’s work to life, exploring her unique view of her life and world. It was refreshing to see this subject being spotlighted, and treated with obvious love and respect.

Drawing on Autism (trailer) from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

Mai Vu’s Spring Roll Dream looked at the push and pull of family and cultural ties, with a single mother of Vietnamese heritage creating a life for her and her son in America, contrasting with her elderly father who is trying to use elements like traditional cooking to bond with his grandson and remind him of his cultural heritage. Ryan Loughran’s Soul Office offered up many chuckles, with a man and woman from Northern Ireland ending up in the titular Soul Office after managing to get themselves killed during a botched ATM robbery, and they can’t move on to the next part of the afterlife until they deal with unfinished earthly business – which in their case is going back to complete the robbery, which devolves into almost Road Runner-esque levels of increasingly crazy fun.

Following the two McLaren screenings we had a feature film from two well-known animators who have shown their work at several previous McClarens, and indeed won the award (and BAFTAs and other gongs), Will Anderson and Ainsley Henderson, with A Cat Called Dom. An experimental sort-of documentary, following how Will reacts to the awful news that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer, and will require serious surgery and treatment. The film mixes family videos, live action footage and, naturally, animated sections, with the eponymous Dom being a cartoon cat on his laptop, who he shares conversations with.

The pair chatted with the festival audience afterwards, telling us how the film took years to come together as they tried various ways of approaching it, and of course the endless struggle to get backing and funding, that great bugbear of all film-makers everywhere. It’s an intriguing mixture of the very emotional (unsurprisingly, given the subject matter) and often self-deprecating humour, while also exploring just how the pair craft their film-work. BBC Scotland had a hand in helping get it made, so it seems that at some point in the future it should get a broadcast date.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Buddy Guy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival…

Buddy Guy: the Blues Chase the Blues Away
Directed by Devin Chanda, Matt Mitchener, Charles Todd

Chanda, Mitchener and Todd’s excellent documentary one arguably the greatest living Blues legend, George “Buddy” Guy, opens, appropriately enough with Buddy himself revisiting Lettsworth, Louisiana, where he was born way back in 1936. Like the great Johnny Cash, his parents were poor share-croppers, and he grew up picking cotton by hand, slowly being introduced to music as he grew up, through friends and relatives bringing over instruments to play at get-togethers, or when they finally got hold of a record player; he knew when he heard the music that he wanted to make his own, but of course he could have no idea that it would ever become a lifelong career, let alone one so long, successful and influential. As the now eighty-something Buddy looks back over those fields where he grew up, we’re taken back along his long journey.

Working whatever low-paying jobs he could get after leaving home for Baton Rouge, he continued to practise his guitar and soon was noticed, picking up some work with bands in the city, but eventually he moved to the Windy City, Chicago, in 1957, one of the great spiritual homes of Blues music. As Buddy tells it to the camera, back then the city was teeming with Blues bars, many of them free to enter – only drinks cover charge – making them accessible to pretty much anyone, an absolute feast of live music, right place, right time, and its here he came to the attention of Blues God Muddy Waters, as well as, eventually, the famous Chess Records label, although as he and others note, although Chess used him in recording sessions with others, they refused to record him doing his own now unique style.

As Buddy recalls with a laugh, most Blues players would play sitting down, but he stood up, moved about energetically, bent the guitar strings about as far as they can go without breaking to create interesting, new sounds, wasn’t afraid of some feedback, he could be a wild man with a guitar and a song when playing live. It’s not hard to be reminded of Jimi Hendrix in this regard. But Chess just didn’t get it, and while Buddy stuck to his work ethic of plugging in and playing pretty much every night, outside of a small circle he wasn’t getting the wider attention because they wouldn’t record him playing in that live style.

As the turbulent 60s rolled on and then the 70s, his influence was still getting out there to a select few though – among them new talent from across the Pond, in Britain, people like Mike Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and more, and these increasingly famous musicians were very open about their Blues influences and how it fed into their rock’n’roll style, and about musicians like Buddy, or Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, paying their respects to the people who inspired and influenced them. And of course they mentioned them when they came to perform in the US, incredulous that so many into music didn’t know of these creators right on their own doorstep, and naturally this got a lot of youngsters thinking, who are these guys Clapton and Richards are talking about and how do I hear their music?

That theme of inspiration and legacy is key to much of this documentary – just as these now global stars like the Stones paid tribute to Buddy (there are some wonderful scenes of them jamming in his club in the early 70s, and Buddy and Guy playing around each other on stage decades later, the looks of pure joy on their faces is a delight, it’s not rock stars, it’s just mates making music together), Buddy takes great care to pay very sincere respect to his inspirations, and the pleasure on his face even now in his 80s as he talks about meeting John Lee Hooker – whose music he used to practise to as a youngster – just shows unvarnished joy. That legacy is also paid forward, not just backwards, with new, young musicians who have grown up and carrying on the Blues tradition, in their own styles but all influenced by Buddy’s playing, and he is clearly delighted – the legacy he inherited from the players before him, all now gone, is passed on, even when he’s no longer here the Blues will live on.

The film is beautifully crafted – the directors talked after the film (via Zoom, in-person appearances and travel not very easy at this year’s festival, as you can imagine) about how they had to rethink some of the filming because after the planning stage, Covid hit, and everything had to change from their original idea of following Buddy on tour (until Covid, despite his age, Buddy still did around 130 gigs a year around the world). They talked about being able to get hold of people like Clapton and Santanna to talk about Buddy’s influence on their playing when they started out, about the struggle to find archive footage and photographs. Later stuff is a little easier, with recordings, photos, even footage, but early images, well, nobody had a camera documenting their life as rural share-croppers in the 30s, so they turned to a painter they’d seen in a leaflet Buddy himself had in his house, Earl Klatzel, who had covered that period, and his imagery fitted in perfectly to their Covid-revamped filming plan.

This is a wonderful documentary, going through the good times and the rough, but mostly it is joyful, celebrating the work of a musical legend, and the enormous influence his work has had on so many other performers. Even if you’re not a Blues fan, there’s a big chance some of your favourite musicians have been inspired by Buddy’s work, he’s a musician’s musician. And if you are a Blues fan, then this is Blues heaven for you, an amazing life story and a banquet of fantastic music. This is the sort of music documentary that makes you want to go home and spin some of your favourite vinyl for hours. And the film circles around nicely, back to that opening of Buddy as he is now, back looking at the fields where he grew up in the 30s, but he’s here not just for nostalgia, or for the documentary, but because they are naming the nearby road after him, complete with historical plaque, giving him his dues as a local lad done good.

And that title: well, that’s Buddy. As he explains in the film, you can’t just sing the Blues, you have to have lived the life and have it inside your soul; you have to have the Blues, not just play it. Funny thing is, he comments with a big grin, is that when you’re playing it, the Blues go away and you feel better: the Blues chase the Blues away…

This review was originally penned for Live For Films