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Black Nights Film Festival – Young Tallinnts
The Gambler. A look at the turning point, By Elena Jasiūnaitė
"Growing up" under the wing of a soviet-ruled-and-censored film industry, where the one and only way to talk about social and political reality was to hide your thoughts under the thick veil of the Aesopian language, had its own consequences. For the last 20 years of Independence most Lithuanian films (both documentaries and features) are still trying to deal with bizzare characters (usually living on the margins of the society) and abstract dreamlike tales from the middle-of-nowhere. There is, nor was, a filmmaking "wave" or "school", and the country's very small film industry still is a little bit lost in itself.
Maybe because of that, Lithuanian cinema never learned how to "speak properly" — not to mention the never-ending problem concerning scripts, whose writing lessons had obviously been missed. Few film directors had tried to question historical, cultural changes and their consequences to society. Put in this perspective, The Gambler, a Lithuanian-Latvian coproduction with fresh insights on the post-Soviet transition is quite a pleasant exception, and, hopefully, a new beginning.
Following Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniušonis), a professional and bright paramedic, yet an insatiable gambler, the film tells a story of the so-called "turning point generation" — people, who during the time of the political transition from socialism to capitalism were in their twenties. On the verge of the new era they were left on they own and had to sort things out all by themselves. It took four years for the feature film debutants — director Ignas Jonynas and scriptwriter Kristupas Sabolius — to complete their script.
"With Kristupas we had had few basic rules: we both agreed, that we would write about current era, about this society and about this generation. We both belong to this concrete generation and we have certain feelings towards it that we would like to share" — Jonynas told me last year when I asked why and how they decided to create this film.
The Gambler starts with Vincentas sweeping through the corridor of the hospital. And here they are – the other paramedics who soon will become a part of new with their work related game, created by Vincentas. Enthusiastically accepted by those, who were eager for something new in their dull lives, the game of death spreads like a disease — hereby it slowly uncovers the roots of rotten society. There is corruption, apathy and cynicism. Other people's lives now are just numbers on the blackboard. Though there are no "good" or "bad" characters — with Dostoevskyan concern about the "damned" and without intentions to imply a moral, film director develops the question about human duality.
Vincentas has to choose between the game and the woman he loves — Ieva (Oona Mekas, the daughter of famous Lithuanian Avant-garde film director Jonas Mekas), he has to separate his rights from wrongs (and how should he, who lives in this society, know what is right for him?) and this is his own main moral concern.
The fairly aggressive film score by 'The Bus' accelerates the pulse, and combined with chosen seashore locations and precisely arranged mise-en-scenes in which monochromic blue and green colours dominate, gives additional weight to the film’s reality — it is dirty, cold, destructive and even frightening.
Dynamic cinematography by Latvian cinematographer Janis Eglitis captures the distorted reality as well as the crude nature of Vincentas. Although shot mostly in the manner of subjective camera, it does not get to the "core" of the main character — the camera follows Vincentas, is right in front of him, shows a close-up and suddenly steps back. It’s some kind of sub-game, that creates additional aura around the character. You can see how he feels and acts — he's angry, he's happy, he's lost — but even when you look straight into the unreadable face of Vincentas, you can guess, but you'll never understand what really crawls under it. And somehow this connects him with the whole generation – considering their attitude there are no straight answers, only guesses. (Elena Jasiūnaitė)
Potosí, the first feature film by director Alfredo Castruita, depicts the consequences of everyday violence in the Mexican society. In our interview Castruita talks about violence in media, his inspirations and his upcoming project.
Christian: How did the film come about?
Alfredo: I get inspired by real people. When I got the script, it was really interesting how close it was to reality. I was really excited when I read it, because it meant a challenge for me. It was a tough script, since there are three stories, which go back and forth. But for me as a Mexican, there was something that I wanted to release from me. This is my first film, but I was ready and comfortable to make this, because I worry about the topic. This movie is more like: Either you like it or you dislike it, there's nothing in between. I don't make movies to make everybody happy because that's impossible.
C: You shouldn't work at Pixar then.
A: Exactly. I'm not interested in making commercial movies. If I think about the money first, I stop doing art.
C: Your movie features three complex storylines. It reminded me a bit of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Was that movie an inspiration for you and which other directors inspired you?
A: I can say that the writer of Potosí was inspired by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the script for Three Burials. I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't see that movie. I get inspired by real people, I'm not that typical director who watches a lot of movies. For this movie, Luis Buñuel's The Young And The Damned (Los Olividados) and directors of neorealism inspired me.
C: What's the relationship between the violence you're showing and real life?
A: We start with three problematic things. We talk about domestic violence, about public lynching and about the collateral damage, which is caused by the drug cartels. We try to make a triangle to connect all three stories. Most of the things you saw in the movie happened in real life. The bus scene, in which a public bus gets in a shooting between the cartel and the police, actually happened to my writer. In one of my screenings I met the actual victim of this shootout, she started crying and hugged me. That was such an emotional moment for me. It's tough when you get really close to reality. Some people even say that my movie is kind of like a documentary.
C: In the Q&A session after the screening, you said that you don't want to change minds. Your last scene features an optimistic monologue about what needs to be done. How do these things fit together?
A: Everybody discussed this last scene on the set, because the dialogue is so obvious. Some actors told me that I should cut that scene, but I would not do it because it's beautifully written. It still is a controversial scene. Many people love it because it makes them think about hope and change. Others thought I should just left the story after the main part.
C: It's the difference between show and tell.
A: Exactly, it's a tough decision. And I thought about this scene too often. I don't make films to tell people what to do - I make films to tell stories. To inform the public is the job of newspapers and television. That's not the case in movies, because I express myself.
C: There's a montage sequence of dead bodies and the damage the cartel leaves. In Europe, we have a rough idea what's going on in Mexico, but we don't know what's really going on. Your film could be an opportunity for us to have a closer look at the problems in your country.
A: Yes, that montage shows our everyday life. Our media shows every gory detail. In my film I don't show how the cartel kills those people, because that's already shown on our TV news. That montage was a symbol for how we live our lives. I wanted to respect the dead and show the stories behind death. In Mexico, violence is everywhere. When I show this film to a Mexican audience, they are really tired about yet another violent Mexican film. But it's the reality and hopefully the times change.
C: You got a distributor in Mexico. Is it already released?
A: We signed with a distribution company in October, so it's going to be released in January or February 2014 in Mexico. I'm excited and feel a little pressure on me because I want to ask more of myself for the second one.
C: What's your next project about?
A: I'm working on a script about the Tarahumara people, a Native American tribe in the north of Mexico. I want to take stories to places which people don't know that exist. I found something interesting about those people and their culture. When they die, the others celebrate so that the deceased can leave peacefully. The Tarahumara believe that women have four souls and men three, so they have a party for each soul. I'm writing a story about death in their culture and I'm halfway finished. Hopefully, I can do this script next year with the same pace and tone as in Potosí. (Christian Alt interviewed Alfredo Castruita)
Being an outsider to Asian cinema in general and Chinese cinema in particular led me to think, movies from this part of the world would feature Kung-Fu or samurais and geishas. Debut director Vivian Qu intentionally counters those stereotypes by presenting a movie about modern China.
Trap Street (Shuiyin jie) doesn't have kung-fu, least of all samurais and geishas (who are part of the Japanese culture anyways), but instead deals with a worldwide phenomenon of the 21st century: surveillance. So what is Chinese about Trap Street?
We can feel that Vivian Qu is trying to tell us something about her home country, about video surveillance and the power of secret agencies but alas we cannot quite grasp what that something is. The story revolves around a young man called Qiuming who is doing a traineeship as a land surveyor. He meets a mysterious girl at an even more mysterious place — a so-called trap street that is not registered in any map. Caught by her charms he desperately tries to see her again, not knowing that this love will not only complicate his life but ultimately put it in danger.
A mystery arises if someone yearns for an impossible disclosure. Unfortunately Vivian Qu does not manage to inspire that kind of interest with her film. As a consequence, the mystery does not naturally feel like one, but rather seems pretentious and artificial. Qu raises so many questions with her story that she risks her audience giving up on finding the answers. Unfortunately this lack of interest in the disclosure is not compensated for by an intriguing cinematic style or storytelling that could catch and hold the viewers'attention instead.
It is a pity that Trap Street has such a hard time to inspire its audience, because it is not as pretentious as it seems.
Qu chooses to almost exclusively follow the main character. Where Qiuming goes, we follow. There is just one short sequence in which she breaks this pattern and leaves us with the female protagonist Guan Lifen. This crucial sequence marks a watershed in the movie. From this moment on nothing will be the same again. The tender love story turns into a crime yarn, the mystery into a thread.
Ironically it is the same surveillance devices that Qiuming deals with to secure an additional income that turn against himself. Trap Street is about being surveyed, through cameras in streets and public buildings and through the digital fingerprint that we leave every time we use our smart phone. We might think that we are in control, but just as Qiuming, we might end up realising that it is somebody else who actually controls us.
While a mysterious agency knows everything about Qiuming, neither he nor us can ever know anything about it. It is not even on a map. Having realised that, the construction of mystery suddenly makes sense. By withholding key information, Trap Street illustrates the imbalance of power that comes with surveillance. Qu doesn't have any comfort in store for us. The movie ends with a shot into a mirror. The reflected image of Qiuming is again a moment of surveillance.
Coming back to the question what makes Trap Street a Chinese movie, the key of course is the secret agency. After the screening at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival Qu explained that the idea for her movie arose for example from the blocking of certain internet websites by the Chinese government which served to control the population.
But no matter how clevely Qu plants this idea of control, through multiple references as the land survey, the mirror, the hidden cameras and so forth, she is failing to engage her audience to read this subtext. Without having her giving a Q&A after the movie, Trap Street will probably remain a mystery to most of its viewers. (Sophie Charlotte Rieger)
When Alise Gelze, who is one of the producers of Latvian film Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es tevi mīlu) presented it in Tallinn, she mentioned that it is on the Academy Award longlist as Latvian candidate for the Best Foreign Language feature. Even without these nominations this drama about the difficult relationship between a mother and her son, Mother, I Love You is the most successful Latvian film ever winning six prizes at various film festivals, including Berlin. The third feature film for Gelze she continues to be "very surprised" when the film wins prizes. After the Estonian premiere of the film she told us about the process of making the film, reactions on it and also about her rules of success.
One of the most impressive things about the film is the lead role taken by young actor Kristofers Konovalovs who plays 12-year-old Raimonds in the film. I asked Gelze about his casting.
"[It] was quite a long process. At first we selected one boy, but we could not start the production for another year and – by then - he had already grown up," she explains. "So we started searching again. Casting took place in many towns around Latvia, and the director noticed Kristofers in the small Latvian town of Cesis quite early on. But we were unsure if we would find anyone better so we continued and auditioned over 500 boys. But there was no one who could play this role better, than Kristofers."
Receiving its premiere in the Generation KPlus section — a strand dedicated to films for young people — at the Berlin Film Festival the film has struck a chord amongst young audiences and their reactions provoked surprise for Gelze.
"[During Berlin] one of the most unexpected questions was when one boy asked why the main character was lying to his mother. That boy just could not understand that it is possible to be afraid of your parents and to lie to them because of this fear."
At her screening in Tallinn Gelze was asked "Do they respect hitting children in Latvian society?" and "Do you really think that situation in Latvia nowadays is so horrible? Has she also been surprised by the reactions from the audiences outside of Berlin?
"I haven't really spoken to the audience in different countries …but I feel that it is almost the same everywhere. The story is very simple, there is nothing extraordinary which could make Mother, I Love You hard to understand," explains Gelze. "Of course, there are some national mentality issues like the questions from the audience at Black Nights."
Every producer has their own way of working. Does Gelze have any specific ways in how she approaches her work?
"I have one rule I adhere to. I need to believe in project to work with it," she says. "In the case of Mother, I Love You I believed in it from the very beginning when (director) Janis Nords told me only two sentences about his idea. With the director, I need to understand that we are speaking the same language. If I see that our visions about the major things like the quality of film and storytelling differ, if I see that a good film for me and a good film for the director are not the same things, I will not work with him. It is necessary to feel that the director knows what he is doing. Then I can completely trust his tastes, his choices of DOP, actors, music, editors, etcetera. It is an important decision for three years of my life, so I really have to be sure. The same is with my next project."
Gelze is on pre-production of her next film, Mellow Mug (Es esmu šeit), the story of a young brother and sister who hide their grandmother's death in order to avoid being sent to an orphanage.
"I knew that I wanted to produce it from the first moment. The decision was based on intuition (and it is always like this). It is quite a big risk for me, because the director (Renars Vimba) has never made full-length films before. Maybe it is going to be a disaster. But I really believe in this project, in this idea. I see a story that emotionally touches me, a topic that is important for me."
Gelze concludes: "The process is always difficult anyway - there are struggles, there are fights. Also with Janis Nords we had some conflicts. We went apart, and I was saying: ‘This is enough for me! I am done with this film!' Of course, we were reunited after, but this is an example to understand that film-making is a real relationship. You know, I always say, "Never again", but the time passes, and then people hear from me: "OK, let's do it again!"" (Alise Gelze, interviewed by Olga Konkova)
The Black Nights Film Festival in co-operation with Tallinn Music Week and Estonian Film Cluster last night took steps to promote young and talented Estonian musicians and help get their music into international films, with the second Estonian Film Music Showcase.
"Last year's pilot was a great success and it proved that there is a great interest towards Estonian composers, artists, their creation and the recording facilities," said Industry@Tallinn director Sten-Kristian Saluveer. He added that Asian producers take an interest the most. "Producing music for the first Estonian-Korean co-operation film has begun in Estonia. Asian producers are interested because the relation between the quality of music and price is good and it gives us an advantage in comparison with other European countries," said Saluveer. He hopes that thanks to the event and consistent producers, Estonian music will get the chance to make its way to international blockbusters.
Ten Estonian composers and songwriters had the chance to present their work at a pitching session to — amongst others — a Hollywood delegation from Los Angeles, including the producers of Drive and The Dark Knight.
Not only was the focus on music but also on the conditions of filming and recording in Estonia. Head of Estonian Film Cluster Martin Aadamsoo introduced filming facilities and Juko-Mart Kõlar, adviser on music in the ministry of culture, introduced potential orchestras and choirs and also recording facilities in Estonia.
British music supervisor and producer Graham Walker, known for Sleepy Hollow, and Grammy nominated music supervisor and consultant Chris Douridas, known from the Austin Powers Series, did a workshop on effective supervision, production and scoring strategies in the market of international film scoring, which was aimed at film and music producers, and composers.
After a hard day's work guests got to experience live music at Tallinn's Von Krahl theatre with music from young and talented Estonian contemporary artists including Candy Empire with Katja and Ervin, Kali Briis, vonKuusk and Sander Mölder. (Maarja Hindoalla)