Glasgow Film Festival 2015: Cinema City and the World

Blake Backlash tries to convey why he is so excited about this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, which begins this very night.

GFF 2015
The Regal on Sauchiehall Street (later the ABC). Cinema City in its heyday.

Because of the Glasgow Film Festival, a woman and a man are talking about going to the pictures. I am eavesdropping on their conversation. We’re at an exhibition in the Mitchell Library called ‘Jeely Jars and Seeing Stars: Glasgow’s Love Affair With the Movies’. This woman and man are remembering some of the more eccentric owners of the cinemas they used to go to when they were children, and the nephew of one of these who still ‘stoats aboot Govan’.  The place is crammed with Glaswegian cinema memories, some of these are part of the exhibit, and you can listen to those that have been recorded for Glasgow’s Cinema City Project. But the people visiting have brought their own memories, moving round this room full of people, you hear most of them reminiscing about Glasgow and the cinema.

I stop and look at a photograph of a huge queue of children waiting to get into the Shettleston Odeon in 1955. I check to see what’s showing but the only film title displayed on the marquee is The End of the Affair. I’m sure the kids were actually going to see something else but I can’t help trying to imagine what all these Shettleston toddlers made of Edward Dmytryk’s version of Graham Greene’s novel about a doomed love affair. Well, at least it features an explosion. But the photo makes me nostalgic too, for a Glasgow I never knew. So many of the memories gathered here are from a time when cinema felt part of what Glasgow was as a community, when it was woven into the heart of what people did with each other and talked about. In 1939 Glasgow had more cinemas per head of population than London. More than New York and LA. More than any other city in the world. And there is no Shettleston Odeon now, of course. And when was the last time I saw a queue like that Shettleston one outside a cinema in Glasgow?

Then I remember – the answer to that question is easy – it was during last year’s Glasgow Film Festival. So enough of my nostalgia: if there’s a lament to be written, let’s do it another day. Because maybe Cinema City never went away, at least as far as the people of Glasgow are concerned, and if it’s hard to see it, sometimes, these days –  well, it flourishes during the Film Festival.

This year’s Opening Gala is Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young and the Closing Gala Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. Now, I could be wrong about this but I reckon that for the Opening and Closing Galas in a Festival to create some spark, you want the Opening Gala to be a film nearly everyone will like and the Closing Gala to be a film nearly everyone will like to talk about. The cast and premise of While We’re Young are very appealing and, who knows, perhaps some cross generational friendships like those depicted in the film will be forged at the Festival. The first night excitement does seem to help people bond. Last year I sat down to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel next to the most Wes Andersonish young-man I have ever seen. He had an amazing tweed suit, a Zissou knitted cap and, unless my memory has embellished, a pocket handkerchief too. He turned to me, smiled and, noticing that we both sported similar facial hair said  ‘Ah, we can be moustache brothers!’. I wonder if I will see my moustache brother again this year.

The party after last year’s Closing Gala was crackling with conversations and arguments about Under the Skin. Force Majeure, which I don’t want to be too specific about, seems to be about exploring how a moment of disaster can tear through the life of family and turn the cracks in relationships into chasms. That said, I am sure that if there is any lively discussion in the party after the film, any Glaswegian friendships and marriages will remain intact, even when people are at opposing sides of the debate. Part of the reason the debate is so lively is because of how focused on audiences the Festival is: in Glasgow, if you buy a ticket for the film, you get a ticket to the party afterwards as well.

Force
Force Majeure (not the party in the afterwards).

That last day at Festival is going to be a full-on one for me because before Force Majeure I’m seeing From What is Before, Lav Diaz’s five-and-a-half hour film about the Philippines and the rise of Ferdinand Marcos. I know that a five-and-half hour Filipino film (in black and white!) sounds like some stand-up comedian’s jokey short-hand for arty cinema. But there’s a kind of irresistible camaraderie that gets a hold of an audience when they sit down to watch a really long film in the dark together – and I’m sure we’ll feel it that day at the Glasgow Film Theatre.  From What is Before is showing as part of the Festival’s Cinemasters strand, films from established directors who might be making their best work. I reckon you could not go far wrong if you saw Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria; Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain; or Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Also playing in the Cinemasters strand is the restored version of Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman – we’ll be reviewing that on MostlyFilm when it gets released across the country – but it’ll be a thrill to see it first at the Festival.

There are some other cracking older films playing. There’s an Ingrid Bergman strand that includes Gaslight, Notorious and Spellbound (all of which are great films) as well as two landmark masterpieces that couldn’t be more different – Casablanca and Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. God, what a career she had, all that and Rossellini too – so I’m also looking forward to checking out an exhibition of photographs from Bergman’s astounding career, showing at the Royal Concert Hall.

Mardan_Still
Mardan

Part of the fun of the festival is getting to be one of the first people to see the films that everyone is going to be excited about in the year to come. You may already have been jolted by some of the buzz surrounding Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire-Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Desiree Akhavan‘s Brooklynite break-up comedy Appropriate Behaviour; or Daniel Wolfe’s debut feature, the striking and unsettling looking Catch Me Daddy. And that’s me just picking three (sort-of) at random. I could have listed five times that number. In fact there’s so many films that a person can feel overwhelmed. So here’s my tip, if you can only see a few films in the Festival, look for those that are nominated for the Audience Award (they’ve got a gold star beside them in the programme). Not only will you see a film the festival organisers think is likely to connect with audiences, you’ll also get a chance to vote for your favourite, so it’s another way to really be part of the Festival. The winner is announced at the Closing Gala. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Appropriate Behaviour are both nominated. The nominee I’m most keen to see though is Mardan, the Iraqi candidate for best-foreign language film at the Oscars. It’s about a policeman investigating the disappearance of a construction worker and finding the case draws him into his own past, and the past of Iraq itself.

After all, a film festival should also be a chance to think about the world you are part of. When you see that many stories, from that many places, you can’t help but remember how vast and varied the world is and how shaped by conflicts, economics and politics people’s lives can be. Two films that I want to see to broaden my horizons: The Cut, Faith Akin’s ambitious attempt to explore the legacy of the Armenian genocide; and the documentary Queens of Syria about a group of refugee women performing their own version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women.

Both those films are about the way conflict displaces people, and Glasgow is a city that has become home for many asylum seekers and refugees in the last twenty years. So there’s something poignant about the way the Festival brings such stories to Glasgow. I can’t help but love the way those films play alongside films that tell stories about Glasgow today, like Wasted Time David Hayman’s look at life inside and outside Barlinnie prison.  Or films about Glasgow’s past: there’s a chance to see Small Faces, with the film’s cast and crew reunited for a 20th anniversary screening. I would call Small Faces a classic, if not for the fact that realising that film was made twenty years is already starting to make me feel old.

That’s a film that quietly captures how beautiful Glasgow can be. Which is another thing that’s special about the Festival. You get to see films at the GFT, an art-deco building that’s a real part of Glasgow’s film-going past. But if you’re not there, you’ll be on the top floor of Glasgow’s Cineworld, the tallest cinema in Europe. Look out across at the city after a film, especially at dusk and you realise you are in the only multiplex in the world that can leave you feeling inspired.

So yeah. Get stuck in. If you see me, say hello. Like the bio at the bottom of the page suggests, if you see someone with a moustache, that’ll be me. Or it’ll be my moustache brother from last year.

You can check out the programme and buy Glasgow Film Festival tickets here.

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