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.

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(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!)
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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

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Goodbye Don Glees

EIFF2022 – Goodbye Don Glees,
Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka,
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with especial importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

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(Director and writer Atsuko Ishizuka talking to the audience after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of her Goodbye Don Glees – taken from several rows back in a dark cinema, so please excuse the quality!)

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

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