Unlike many of its similarly scaled brethren, the Sarajevo Film Festival is very much at one with its host city: equal parts up-and-coming and garrulous, and the product of oft-divergent influences. Founded as a humble cultural initiative toward the end of the four-year siege of the city in the ’90s, it has over the last 20 years swelled into a redoubtable behemoth, a happy sprawl of different sections, countless industry events, regional talent promotion, and local cinephilia that often stretches long into the night. The region that forms the main focus of the festival’s endeavours has expanded in equal kind, now a conspicuously heterogeneous swathe of southeastern “Europe” linking Austria and Azerbaijan. Trying to navigate your way through the swirling mass of sidebars, meetings, and parties can feel futile; it’s fortunate that going with the flow offers a most enjoyable ride.
A similarly relaxed approach is also required for negotiating the festival’s competitive sections. With so many features, documentaries, and shorts on offer, testing the festival’s hypothesis that filmmaking commonalities do indeed exist between Vienna and Baku is an impossible task, with dipping in and out being the only sensible option here too. A look at the feature competition program might suggest that all these myriad places are united by the social issues they are burdened with, whether homosexual rights in Hungary (Land of Storms), Kurdish discrimination in Turkey (Song of My Mother), or the effects of the economic crisis in Greece (A Blast). While there’s no denying cinema’s potential for bringing about social change, placing the message front and center, as was often the case here, can often alienate rather than persuade. On paper at least, Sudabeh Mortezai’s fiction debut, Macondo, awakens similar fears, the worthier-than-thou story of an 11-year-old Chechen boy forced to take responsibility for his younger sister and traumatised mother as they await the results of their asylum application in Vienna. Happily, however, the wall-to-wall gray, institutional discrimination and ill-treatment, and consequent frayed tempers conjured up by this scenario are nowhere to be found here, with Mortezai’s keenest achievement being how she addresses the trauma of dislocation by subsuming it into something else.
Mortezai’s handheld camera follows her young protagonist through the environs of a home for asylum-seekers so sun-kissed and brightly coloured you’re constantly waiting for bad things to happen. Nothing so black and white ever actually occurs though, with the meetings with the authorities, the unclear fate of the boy’s father, the suspicious arrival of one of his friends, and the boy’s attempts to rebel all being presented with a pleasing lack of clear emphasis that nips each potential cliché in the bud. If anything, the film cleaves closer to the coming-of-age template, showing how this little boy, impressively played by Ramasan Minkailov, has internalised the specific scars of his biography while expressing them in much the same way as any other kid on the cusp of adulthood. The result is a far subtler plea for understanding than to be found elsewhere in the program. Macondo is a modest film and perhaps a bit too willing to remain in the shadows of the significantly more urgent work of the Dardenne brothers, whose take on social realism has become oddly influential of late. Yet compared with, say, Celine Schiamma’s more ambitious yet ultimately less successful Girlhood, Mortezai does at least make a virtue out of modesty.
In the documentary competition, Iva Radivojević’s intriguing essay film Evaporating Borders also becomes less interesting the more directly it addresses its own thorny social issue: immigration in Cyprus. Herself an immigrant to the island from her native Yugoslavia, the director’s own story is just one of the many threads in her complex, associative exploration of the still-divided country, the others including asylum-seekers from the Middle East, sex workers from Eastern Europe, cleaning ladies from the Philippines, and the huge number of flamingos that migrate to the island. Although Radivojević is largely willing to stick to the standard essay-film mode of carefully edited images set to a voiceover, her handsome compositions, confident editing rhythm, and unobtrusively lyrical words make such a winning combination that it’s somewhat disappointing when the more bog-standard talking heads and visual documenting come to the fore in the film’s second half. The epilogue does at least go some considerable way to righting the ship, throwing in some truly outstanding images and returning to a more obtuse, poetic register which lingers more uneasily in the memory precisely because it allows greater room for interpretation. On this evidence, Radivojević already has all the aesthetic tools she’ll ever need at her disposal; let’s hope that next time she’s willing to truly run with them.
After such a surfeit of social issues, it was refreshing to leave the rigors of regional competition behind and grapple with a film with other things on its mind, even if those things end up being too much for it to handle. The concept at the heart of David Robert Mitchell’s ambitious horror flick It Follows is fiendishly simple: a supernatural curse of sorts which involves someone or something following you relentlessly until either it catches up with you and kills you or you pass it on to someone else by sleeping with them. With the concept alone already evoking AIDS anxiety, Mitchell’s primary concern here would appear to be throwing even more references at the wall to see how many of them stick. The choice of a female protagonist thus gleefully inverts the final-girl paradigm and the Detroit setting adds a spurious layer of real-world relevance, while the John Carpenter-channelling synth score and not-quite-’90s-aping setting provide the necessary genre-spinning yuks.
The fact that these diverse preoccupations don’t properly gel is no great surprise; what’s surprising is how appealingly, entertainingly messy the final result is. A lot of this appeal comes from the sheer spatial simplicity of the central concept (one person trudging toward another at the same unwavering velocity allows little room for visual confusion), with Mitchell’s ability to pull off set piece after set piece with lengthy pans, clever framings, and “it’s behind you” scares papering over the tonal inconsistencies again and again. Neither pure enough as genre exercise, nor radical enough to pass as revisionism, the film can best be grasped as a multiple photocopy of The Faculty distorted by each new copying procedure, the resultant streaks and smudges paradoxically adding greater depth to the image.
Streaks and smudges are nowhere to be found in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, whose bracingly artificial Alpine setting makes wood, stone, and snow all look equally wiped clean. There’s something almost science fiction-like about this antiseptic mountain resort, a brave new world of machines for controlling nature where three dimensions often feel more like two. Having seemingly stepped straight off the page of a slightly higher-class IKEA catalogue, the Swedish nuclear family holidaying there are thus in perfect harmony with their setting. Yet their aggressive, attractive blandness has left them entirely unprepared for the controlled, yet uncontrollable, avalanche that leads the father to abandon his wife and children at the drop of a hat.
While the aftermath of this act of moral cowardice could form the basis of countless chilly Scandinavian dramas, Force Majeure has something more ambitious in mind, pitching the avalanche’s ongoing reverberations as equal parts tragedy and hilarity. Unable to communicate with one another, the couple only seem able to air their primly dirty laundry in public, triggering a series of social get-togethers that expertly oscillate between laugh-out-loud awkwardness and disturbing, tightly clenched emotion in a way that feels entirely fresh. Yet having established such mastery of tone, the film seems oddly disinterested in maintaining it, taking an awkward right turn into much broader humor which comes across like peppering a perfectly modulated text with unnecessary exclamation marks. Although some welcome islands of discomfort still remain among all the predictable “masculinity in crisis” beats, it’s hard to escape the feeling that playing to the gallery is being prized over more piercing exploration.
The Sarajevo Film Festival ran from August 14—22.
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