The tiny Kino Otok - Isola Cinema Festival makes a very convincing argument for less is more. The festival is held over just five days in the small Slovenian seaside town of Izola, and the combination of two main screening venues (one in the picturesque surroundings of the 15th-century Manzioli Square), short distances, intimate outdoor parties, and a compact program allows the films to breathe and be discussed in a way hardly possible at its more voluminous European counterparts. Yet despite its modest scale, the program is effortlessly wide-ranging, picking up on and linking together many of the gems tucked away in the sidebars of other, more unwieldy festivals and happily adding film classics, individual tributes, and striking shorts to the mix, often selected by the festival’s broad network of friends. While this admirable breadth can lead to the odd moment of bewilderment (such as in the case of the generic British music-industry satire Svengali or the overblown Indian drama The Voiding Soul), there can be no doubt that the underlying idea is a worthy one: embracing and presenting cinema in all its many manifestations.
It’s altogether fitting then that Gabe Klinger’s documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater screened here, whose own finest achievement is to effectively collapse the distinction between “experimental” cinema and its narrative counterpart. A largely familiar blend of unconventionally rendered talking heads and film excerpts, the film has these two titans of American cinema interview one another on their path to filmmaking, working methods, and how each sees the work of the other. The parallels Klinger finds between this pair of singular, ostensibly disparate figures are at once organic, unexpected, and retrospectively obvious, with the ensuring discussions on time, duration, and celluloid versus digital also neatly serving to confer a sense of wider relevance. Even if some of the Linklater film montages verge on YouTube fan videos, there’s no denying the considerable skill involved in capturing such a natural-seeming conversation and then having its cadences dictate its structure.
Lois Patiño has clearly seen a fair bit of Benning in his time, even if his ravishing documentary Costa da Morte does away with the durational severity of much of Benning’s recent work. Presented as part of a special focus on contemporary Galician cinema, the film explores the treacherous titular stretch of Galicia’s coastline in an almost unbroken sequence of stunning static wide shots, taking in misty forests, swirling seas, or waves pounding rocks. The people Patiño artfully places within these sweeping vistas are necessarily dwarfed by their sheer scale, with each image simultaneously documenting how the people of the area relate to their surroundings and making man’s eternal difficulty in gaining a foothold in nature all too palpable. But if this tension between the specific and the universal makes the film sound overly academic, it’s anything but. Quite apart from the sheer visual joy generated by Patiño’s images, his injections of gentle humour in the voiceover anecdotes and lithe shifts in focus give the film a sense of forward motion and flow that thankfully never lets up.
While also nominally documenting another of Galicia’s regions, Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro’s Arraianos is far harder to pin down. Flitting between local people performing an existentialist play in the woods, joyous group singsongs, quotidian tasks, and shots of nature that crackle with an elemental charge, the film functions variously as a rural documentary, an austere performance piece, and a dream-like apocalyptic lament, its refusal to settle down into an easily digestible rhythm adding to its beguiling nature. The camerawork does a lot of the heavy lifting here, with the images of ripples spreading across water, a landscape being engulfed by fire and the slime still encasing the legs of a newborn calf all of a strange, unnerving beauty. It’s only toward the end of the film, as one of the old women is seen sitting at a sewing machine in a modern house, that you realise just how far out of space and time it’s transported you.
After seeing a film such as Arraianos navigate its way so deftly through the border region between documentary and fiction, it’s somewhat sobering to be reminded of what happens when such journeys are calibrated less precisely. Alberto Fasulo’s Italian feature TIR at least gets the balance right in its first half hour, a documentary-aping, almost plotless observation of everyday life in a Croatian truck driver’s cab as he and his co-worker transport fruit across Europe. Adeptly evoking the world outside via phone calls with relatives and suppliers, shots of the passing scenery and various navigational gadgets, the film is strongest when it focuses on the easy rapport between the two lead actors and leaves the wider context largely unspoken. Sadly, though, as soon as the pair is parted, a calculatedly innocuous radio report about workers’ rights ushers in a veritable downpour of narrative contrivances, as the protagonist argues with his wife over his job, stumbles across a strike about the use of foreign workers, and is forced to take over his co-worker’s shift after the latter throws in the towel. While it feels churlish to criticize such a topical, heartfelt endeavour, it’s also hard not to groan at a film whose final message is underlined by its protagonist literally shovelling shit.
Fernando Eimbcke’s third feature, Club Sándwich, suffers from precisely the opposite problem, its tidy plotting and polite sense of restraint only confirming that the Mexican auteur is too unwilling to get his hands dirty to be of genuine interest. Taking place almost entirely within the sweaty confines of a resort hotel in the off-season, the film is unsubtly subtle in establishing the sexual undercurrents between a chubby pubescent boy and his feisty, attractive mother, who are conveniently the hotel’s only guests. Yet just as all the meaningful rubbing in of sun cream, slyly ambiguous remarks, and claustrophobic framings are threatening to lead somewhere intriguing, a teenage girl is dropped in to prevent things from getting too transgressive. It’s harmless, overly familiar cringe comedy from there on out, as the mother repeatedly embarrasses herself and the teens are frustrated again and again in their attempts at mutual masturbation. As each of his running gags peters out into tidy resolution and the tired old tropes of the coming-of-age story rear their head, the overriding impression is that a bit of shit-shovelling might do Eimbcke the world of good.
The Kino Otok - Isola Cinema Festival ran from June 4—8.