There’s a brief shot in Andrew Cividino’s short film Sleeping Giant that’s very similar to one in The Dirties, the self-aware comedy by Cividino’s fellow Canadian Matt Johnson, which debuted at Locarno Film Festival last year. Premiering in the Pardi di domani competition at this year’s edition, Sleeping Giant also shares with the other film themes of bullying and peer pressure. In the shot in question, two young boys fire flares into the air, and then at each other—and that it primes such a comparison reveals one coincidental link between last year’s and this year’s edition of the festival. Certainly, continuity is paramount at Locarno Film Festival, whose host town has a population of less than 16,000—small enough to feel like an intensely surreal bubble of stability, while the festival itself is paradoxically colossal, making for an atmosphere all its own.
One consequence of size is unpredictability. With only so many hours in a day, prioritization of one’s time is key, but sometimes not even all the best planning can prevent one from catching a bona fide dud. Just about the only positive thing there is to say about Sjoerd Oostrik’s Kookaburra Love is that it’s only 19 minutes long. Recounting the peaks and troughs of a relationship through instant messaging exchanges, narrated-over scenes that range from the cringe-worthy (women serenading men with acoustic love songs) to the stomach-turningly distressing (a real horse getting shot in the head), Oostrik’s film is as persistently irksome as the ubiquitous WhatsApp notifications that pervade its soundtrack. What’s worse, it’s one of those “personal” works of which one critic’s wholesale dismissal could be interpreted as a positive. In the world of shorts, is there such a thing as bad publicity?
Kookaburra Love played in the same program as Sleeping Giant that culminated with Single Stream, a short account of the internal rhythms, textures, and timbres of a waste-disposal facility. Toby Lee, Paweł Wojtasik, and Ernst Karel’s directorial effort is absorbing in its access-all-areas documentation of a place not ordinarily depicted on camera. There’s something intangibly menacing about a camera proceeding along the corridors created by stacks of squashed cans, and something balletic in the slightly slowed-down images of everyday refuse, both man- and machine-handled: tugged, pushed, sifted through, hoisted, blasted, thrown, dumped. Karel is, of course, the pioneering sound designer of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), and the film is as much about a garbage facility’s sonic landscape as it is about its visual character.
The SEL was also represented this year by the in-competition world-premiere of The Iron Ministry, which continues J.P. Sniadecki’s fascination with and ethnographic survey of contemporary urban China—following the likes of Demolition (2008), Yellow Bank (2010), and People’s Park (2012). This time, the focus is upon the claustrophobic clutter of China’s economy-class train carriages that rattle along one of the largest rail networks in the world. Filming between 2011 and 2013, Sniadecki perhaps had too much material for his own good, and the process of trimming it all into a cohesive whole has resulted in something at once suitably chaotic and frustratingly unwieldy—but it’s sometimes a marvelous and frequently alarming snapshot of the country’s militantly upheld class divide.
Two other documentaries, both in the Panorama Suisse section, foreground place in different ways. Style Wars 2, the first feature-length work by Slovenian duo Veli Silver and Amos Angeles, is named after a piece of subway graffiti that showed up on YouTube a few years back, which was itself inspired by Style Wars, Tony Silver’s groundbreaking 1983 doc on New York City’s then-burgeoning graffiti scene. There’s scarcely a vandalized subway car to be found in NYC today though: Traveling there, the filmmakers encounter a strange image of decency, with graffiti having been absorbed into a respectful art scene limited to gallery spaces and invitation-only exhibition shows. To find characters and rivalries to match those first unveiled in the original film, the Slovenians have to travel as far afield as Israel, where they meet “happy hippy Jews” and “Walid the Beast,” who respectively treat graffiti as a matter of spreading the lord’s word and amusingly infantile demarcations of territory.
The most charismatic personality to emerge in Style Wars 2 might be that of “Mr. White,” who trollishly paints over everyone’s colorful creations with white paint. His pure white vertical canvases find their horizontal match in the icy plains seen in Thule Tuvalu, Matthias von Gunten’s documentary about how global warming is having a material impact on populations in places as far apart as Greenland and the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps wary of overreaching with a film about something apparently out of his and his subjects’ hands, von Gunten keeps things profitably simple, accumulating a portrait—often amusing, always ominous—of people whose collective fate looks increasingly unpromising.
Not enough is being done, needless to say, to counter rising temperatures and sea levels: Thule’s winters are consequently changing so dramatically that its people are having to brave anxious tides of insecurity from one season to the next, while Tuvalu is in danger, in the coming years, of disappearing into the sea altogether. While stopping the rot of this trend is a fight to take place out of the darkened theatres of a film festival, Thule Tuvalu is at least a moving record of culture and nature in inextricably tragic tandem.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 6—16.
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