This year Glasgow Film Festival was ten years old. We asked five writers to tell you about a film they saw during the Festival that matters.
These Birds Walk – Blake Backlash
Glasgow Film Festival keeps moving. It opened this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which comes at you like a champagne cork and features Wes Anderson’s first chase sequence. Sauchiehall Street unspools past you as you run between cinemas, from one film to the next. Sometimes there’s free booze, it feels sophisticated, grown-up and happening.
Then you see something that makes everything stop. These Birds Walk is about children who have run-away from home in Karachi and the work of the Edhi Foundation that tries to house them. Many of the reviews have focussed on how the film looks, and it does seem to capture the way light moves over buildings in Karachi, so that you can almost feel it on your skin. But for the most part the directors, Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, just observe interactions between the boys (they are all boys) and the work of Assad, who volunteers for the project, driving an ambulance, picking up boys from the police and sometimes returning them to their parents.
It doesn’t take long before you are reminded of what deep sadness does to the faces and voices of children. The way it makes them seem older and more knowing but no less vulnerable. If that sounds sentimental, then blame me, not the film-makers. They show us real people, who have been hurt and damaged. There’s a scene when Omar, the nine-year-old boy we spend most time with, is playfighting with other boys. It turns to real fighting and Omar can neither win nor give-up. As he is being punched by a bigger kid, Omar defiantly informs him that he is going to fuck the big kid’s mother and his sister. But eventually he has to hold back the tears that spring up when you are nine and lose a fight. So, noticing that one of his sandals is missing, he slaps a younger, smaller boy, threatening him and asking him where the sandal is. This prompts other boys to defend the weaker kid and Omar gets humiliated again. The scene ends with him using the string and handle from his kite to fish for his sandal, which has been thrown to the other side of a locked gate.
The way pain flows from one boy to another, the way Omar feels he needs to show he can hurt someone after he’s been hurt, feels horribly familiar. But the film also makes clear that the work of the Edhi Foundation takes place in particular place, with particular cultural, political and economic contexts. At one point Assad asks the man who founded the project what he should do when he has to use his ambulance to transport a dead-body to the mortuary at the same time he has to pick up a runaway boy. He’s told he has to do both.
Some things seem universal, some seem particular. Sometimes the universal is the particular. For a couple of weeks in February, the Film Festival takes over the top floor of the Cineworld in the middle of Glasgow. It’s supposed to be the world’s tallest cinema and when you come out of a film, you’re about 200 feet up. I came out of These Birds Walk and looked at the city – you can see all the way to the hills at the edge of it – and thought about Glasgow, the life it has to it and the problems it faces, and about how films can make a foreign city seem knowable, or the place you live in seem strange.
The House of Him – Caitlin Watson
Despite abandoning our own house for the best part of a week and living on sandwiches to get to events straight after work, I still only managed to see a woefully small proportion of what was on. An improvement from last year; but then that’s what I love about GFF – the ability to dip in and out of what’s out there. With so many different strands, you can easily broaden your horizons…or stick to what you love best.
Complementary seminars and quizzes help the whole thing to feel like an unpretentious, enthusiastic celebration of all genres of film. As such, the choice is HUGE, so deciding what to go and see can be somewhat overwhelming… we used the effective technique: what are our pals going to/putting on?
And so to Him. I must confess that knowing the people involved, we contributed a tiny element to this film; we made a prop for it. But this is very much in the spirit of the film, shot over Christmas for £900 – a collaborative piece pulled together by mates who were keen to make a Good Thing.
Going to see a friend’s film is a strange experience – I had full faith that it was going to be good (confirmed by the trailer), though at the same time no idea what to expect – except, perhaps, to be slightly distracted whilst trying to catch a glimpse of the hammer we made.
I was not disappointed; the hammer looks amazing.
In all seriousness, I really enjoyed the film. Set in a serial killer’s home, we share the night with his latest intended victims. The horror stems from just how bad people can be, but is also infused with the supernatural. With effective jolts along the way, a few judicial changes of pace leave you wondering where it’s going next, mimicking the heroine’s experience. Dark, claustrophobic, intense; but also shot through with elements of the bizarre which, while juxtaposed with the situation, still sat well with the unsettling environment of His Home.
None of this would have worked as well if not for the cast, who were just great: genuine menace from the baddie, with believable terror, bravery, resignation and helplessness from the heroine. Excellent turns from the supporting cast rounded the whole thing out, helped by imaginative visuals and a cracking score.
The soundtrack is incredible – I’ve heard it described as Carpenter-esque, but I can’t lay claim to having picked up on that – the quieter bits struck me as having a muted Exorcist-type vibe, complementing the stuck-in-a-bad-dream atmosphere well.
I do hope this film manages to get another showing/fuller release so more people can get to see it – it feels truly born of Glasgow, and features a satisfyingly convincing prosthetic tool.
Visitors – Danni Glover
What is a visitor? Godfrey Reggio’s first film since the Qatsi trilogy, Visitors, presented as part of the Festival’s Stranger than Fiction strand, has some confrontational ideas. Quite who the film is confronting is unclear. It opens with an unidentified planetscape and a prolonged shot of the face of a gorilla – we learn from the credits, named Triska – and it’s easy to see this as an atheistic challenge to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. A sequence which features disembodied hands miming the routine and ritual of technological engagement confronts both the tendency of our once craft-oriented species to become immersed in our technological distractions, and the limitations of the opinion that we are better off without it. Indeed, the evocation of Triska would suggest a preoccupation with the primate’s mix of aggression and raw curiosity towards the unknown.
Philip Glass’ score – he has worked with Reggio in the past – at turns recalls a comforting sense of a familiar past, assaults the listener in angry bursts, or falls silent, leaving her to confront her own thoughts. Then there are the long, wordless shots which pan across the faces of a string of actors, locked in an unflinching eye contact with the camera, with each other, with the viewer, in a way which is reminiscent of (especially the short films of) Steve McQueen.
This is a film which engages in artistic and social dialogue while also challenging the personal. We are all the visitors. As a species we are merely dropping by on a planet which will turn without us. As an audience we are invited to visit Reggio’s visionary commentary, but we’re not sure how comfortable we are in the venue. The actors invite themselves to gawp at our observational visitation (a scene in which the actors are arranged as in a cinema, sharing snacks, whispers, and the half-embrace of an early date, I realised that we were through the screen and being started at ourselves; just then they burst into rapturous laughter at my expression of astonishment.) With a filming style which is conscious of the uses and limitations of realism, Reggio is aware that he himself is a visitor – the kind who expects to be thanked for coming.
I found the most striking sequence in this highly visual film to be the landscaping of a landfill, of a disused (perhaps misused?) warehouse. Visitors, we are reminded, leave scars and souvenirs behind when they go. I reveled in the squalor of these shots, which had something of a less narratively focused Michael Haneke, or a more philosophical John Waters. The trouble with the marathoning of four films a day while mainlining caffeine at a film festival is that one film will tend to bleed into the rest, a kind of messy scrapbook of visits to the cinema, but Visitors is a more perfectly contained film than many of the documentaries it was arranged alongside, because it reminded the viewer that a visit is not a singular act and that re-visitation, review, and recollection are a part of the process of any artistic experience. Reggio is not in the least bit interested in telling me about himself as so many documentarians are. He is interested in us telling each other about ourselves.
What, then, is a visitor? Good question. Come over and we’ll talk about it sometime.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – Donna Swabey
Until about 5 years ago, I thought that giallo was simply the word for yellow in Italian. Then I saw Amer (Cattet and Forzani), at FrightFest and realised that a certain type of Italian violent, erotic, horror mystery was classed as giallo (from the yellow covers of the pulp fiction that spawned it). And I was already a fan of Argento and Fulci as the main exponents of the genre. On spotting the follow up, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears in the Glasgow Film Festival programme, there was no way I was missing it.
A businessman returns home from a trip to Frankfurt to find that his wife has disappeared, and is drawn into a nightmarish, hallucinatory world within the beautiful art deco apartment block they share with some mysterious neighbours. He realises that all the messages he has left on the answering machine have not been picked up. And so the nightmare begins. Amer was a decadent piece, displaying Freudian subtexts and three distinct story elements, but I’m not so sure about The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Beyond the initial setup, everything about the narrative is cyclical, repetitive and uncertain, with often garish, psychedelic visuals, and ear splitting sound design. Bursting with fetishistic imagery (a knife on skin, black leather gloves, blood, viscera, blood), it’s certainly a feast for the eyes, but a bewildering one. After about half an hour, it became clear that any pretence of plot was secondary to style. Surrendering to the sensory experience seemed to be the best way to endure the torture.
And torture it was, at times. Kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric colour, sound that sets your teeth on edge, and actually had me putting my fingers in my ears on more than one occasion, it’s nightmare material. If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, that often terrifying hallucinatory state between wakefulness and sleeping, this is the cinematic equivalent. Resist the urge to leave the cinema when the sound becomes too much and you too will have a visceral reaction to this film.
My first impression on leaving the cinema was GIALLO GIALLO GIALLO, and I’m sticking to that, forget the story, and stick with the style.
Metalhead – Matthew Turner
I saw 31 films at the Glasgow Festival this year and the film that is likely to stay with me the longest is Metalhead, an Icelandic coming-of-age drama by writer-director Ragnar Bragason.
The story is very simple: in the opening scene, Hera, a 12 year old girl witnesses the tragic death of her Heavy Metal-loving older brother in a horrific tractor accident. Shortly afterwards, she burns all her clothes, takes his leather jacket, his stash of Heavy Metal t-shirts and his guitar and heads off to the bus stop to leave their tiny town behind and live in the big city. However, when the bus comes and leaves without her, Bragason cuts to an older actress (Thora Bjorg Helga, the film’s star) sitting in exactly the same position on the bench, now aged 18 or so. That one cut is devastating, saying everything about how she has failed to move on in the last five or so years.
The writing on the film is exceptional – it’s easy to see how this story could have unfolded in very conventional fashion, but Bragason continually defies your expectations, maintaining a strong sense of tension every time the plot deviates from where you think it’s going. There may well be a tortured analogy with the festival itself here, in that, this year in particular, it was the smallest films that left the biggest impressions and held the most surprises (geek comedy drama Zero Charisma and Indian romance The Lunchbox both made my Glasgow Top Five).
A number of things struck me about Metalhead. It is a sharply observed study of grief, noting that everyone grieves in different ways and at different speeds; one of the key plot elements is that Hera’s loving parents are unable to see how fucked up she is because they have not yet dealt with their own grief. And Bragason really understands his music choices – the discussion Hera has with the local priest (who unexpectedly turns out to be a fellow Metalhead, in one of the film’s best scenes) is brilliantly written and almost (almost) made me want to listen to some Heavy Metal music. And finally, in perhaps the film’s most powerfully moving but also most under-stated moment, it carries a profoundly touching note of forgiveness, in that Hera does something horrifying within her community and yet they come together and forgive her.
Metalhead does not, as far as I know, currently have a UK distributor but it really deserves one. Release this film please, someone.
Hey these Glaswegian cats seem cool, huh? If you want to know them better then you should know that Blake Backlash is on Twitter, Caitlin Watson is on Twitter and has a blog, Donna Swabey has a blog, Danni Glover is on Twitter and has a blog. Matthew Turner is a freelance film-reviewer, based in London and he’s on Twitter too.