First published on Little White Lies for Raindance Film Festival 2010 //
The 18th Raindance Film Festival launched last Wednesday with an impressive opening night screening of Jackboots on Whitehall but closed out this year with an affecting feature from Iraq. Already an award winner on the festival circuit, Son of Babylon is an ode to the disappeared of Iraq; a film about a Kurdish boy and his grandmother travelling across the country – in post-Saddam 2003 – in search of the boy’s missing father, conscripted then missing since the first Gulf War. Already chosen as Iraq’s official entry for the 2011 Academy Awards, it also won Best International Feature at this year’s Raindance.
Son of Babylon is tense and disturbing throughout, depicting the unending sorrow of the Iraqi people – innocent and not-so innocent – under Saddam and UN sanctions. And now under American occupation (though it particularly focuses on Saddam) as the pair go from searching prisons to mass grave after mass grave, finding only dying embers of hope in the dusted ruins and amongst the skulls.
Mohamed Al Daradji, making his latest feature since 2005′s Ahlaam, opens the film with a sharp tongue, setting the scene for a film opposed to both forms of oppression, characterised by a truck driver who, after much financial and verbal persuasion gives the two a ride to Baghdad. He demonstrates his dual hatred both for Saddam and for the occupation saying: “Saddam was a bastard and the Americans are pigs.” There is even a line that he later delivers echoing the words of Denis Halliday, former UN senior official, upon his resignation, that ‘the UN treats its dogs better than Iraqis’, based on the fact that during the Oil-for-Food program in the 1990s, Iraqis received humanitarian rations to the value of under half of what the UN spent feeding dogs on Iraq de-mining operations.
But this scene is merely a nod to his debut, as the focus of his first film stands aside for the new perspective, the new problem. This means the Americans are next to invisible, stationed at checkpoints and only appearing a handful of times. They are guns and flashlights in the darkness rather than a visible occupying force. But this is not a film about American war crimes, which Al-Daradji dealt with in Ahlaam. It is about the trauma of a people constantly at the mercy of malevolent forces, whether from within or outside. With the terrifying discoveries of new mass graves every day, Son of Babylon focuses on this unending suffering, the torment of guilt and the hope of redemption in men like Musa, a friendly stranger on a bus who it turns out was once conscripted forcefully into the army himself, made to slaughter Kurdish women and children in Northern Iraq.
Yet somehow there are even moments of gentle humour, handled with a lightness of touch which shows Al-Daradji to be a natural in handling the anguish of his destroyed but resilient home country. The mischievous boy Ahmed, superbly played by youngster Yassir Talib, is the embodiment of hope for the next generation moving on from the terror and suffering his grandmother has seen. And the film itself is part of a campaign raising awareness of the Iraqis gone missing over the last 40 years, summarised in a few lines of facts when the credits roll which, due to its focusing on crimes committed by Saddam, may spell out bigger things for Al-Daradji and Son of Babylon when it comes to the Academy Awards.
Another film up for Best International Feature this year is also certainly worthy of recognition and, for an opening hook, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s new absurdist comedy-mystery Symbol couldn’t do much better. A man wakes up to find himself in his yellow pajamas lying in an empty room of four white walls, no windows or doors, but only a distant shining light beaming down from above. He eventually notices a strange knob belonging to an angel, poking at him from one of the walls. Intriguing to say the least.
Symbol is divided into three parts, the first being ‘The Education’, fitting in with the unnamed man’s infantile bowl of a haircut and his childish exaggeration of expression. But the film opens with a parallel plot, meaning the narrative disorientation doesn’t stop there. First we’re introduced to a rambunctious cigarette-lipped nun belting down a dirt road somewhere in Mexico, to pick up then drop off her lucha libre wrestler of a brother down town for a tag-team main event.
It’s all a slow build-up to one of the best visual punch-lines ever conceived; the two storylines tagging each other in (and often frustratingly so) until it all comes to a head in the third act. The narrative ambles slowly at first and progresses as more angel parts poke out from the walls and, when pressed on, eject seemingly random objects from invisible hatches; sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are not. By this time Matsumoto’s success in getting the audience to analyse everything, every object and every possible meaning, has already kicked in, making the whole affair a worthwhile mental exercise on many different levels from the outset.
The comedy, often slapstick and sometimes juvenile, is delivered with confidence throughout. Jokes often wear thin, dragged out to the point of seat-squirming tedium, and it’s sometimes the comic style that blights the message, the film often walking the thin line between being a profound mystery or an annoying fart-joke film. It will at disparate times possibly remind you of Oldboy, Cube then all the way to Nacho Libre or even South Park. But this may be Matsumoto’s trick. That at the end, despite what seemed childish humour at the time, your understanding becomes illuminated by new information in such a way that you’re forced to look back and wonder about all of its significance, if it all held some meaning or if it was indeed random.
This may even be his point: that art, or even existence, is made up only of plain symbols that can only be interpreted by the viewer, that there is no inherent meaning in the work, just what the audience puts on it themselves. Perhaps it is the old adage that it is the film itself that is the symbol, and what we make of it the true interpretation.
It’s more apparent though that the tale of the man in the room is where we can find the film’s real intention. The trapped man (played by Matsumoto himself) is a metaphor for existence; he fills it for amusement, because he can, and when he grows tired of the useless objects, he leaves them in the corner until the room eventually fills up. Only after a while does his contentedness subside, forcing him to act and try to escape his soft prison to eventually overcome the room of meaningless objects that is life, and ultimately to overcome his old self. But for a film like Symbol, in which even its very name suggests the broadness of its interpretation, it’s important not to give too much detail away about the actual plot or its conclusion, for the film is intended to be a puzzle in itself. There are clues on the way, however, but how significant each of the symbols turns out to be is certainly debatable. And though by the end, there is a little of the ‘YouTube’ video about it, Symbol succeeds in posing questions and fleshing out ideas without ever trying too hard to point the viewer in any particular direction.
ROBERT MITCHUM EST MORT (ROBERT MITCHUM IS DEAD)
A nominee for Best Debut Feature at this year’s festival is a film that won’t, or at least shouldn’t, be winning any awards from the esteemed jury this time around (a jury which includes Julian Barratt, Mark Herbert, Lemmy and Charles Saatchi) is one that seemed to have such promise on paper, and even when you try to explain its premise it seems to have something, which makes it all the more puzzling when it comes to sitting there and watching the actual film, which is an unfunny and limp first feature from Olivier Babinet and Fred Kihn. It boasts a glossy sheen owing to the masterful cinematography from Timo Salminen (a long-time collaborator with Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki) who has a beautiful sense of lighting for all the right shots. It even has some solid performances, particularly from deluded agent/manager Arsène, brought to life by veteran French actor Olivier Gourmet. Aside from visually, however, Robert Mitchum is Dead fails in pretty much every other way.
Franky (a bored looking Pablo Nicomedes) is a struggling actor in every sense, he feels as if he is fading away into nothingness and on top of that he can’t even act. He is managed by Arsène, a gun-toting kleptomaniac who will seemingly do anything to get his only client a gig, even holding up a film-school class to make them shoot a scene for embarrassed Franky. Then they hear about a film festival at the Arctic Circle in Norway, where their idol filmmaker will be showing his face. They make their way (in a stolen car) through Europe, followed by a mysterious stranger, to make their fortune.
But tired gags and superficial profundity, tacked on pieces of amateur metaphysics and try-hard one liners, make this into a forced road-trip adventure which almost always misses with its twee sense of humour, insistence on trying to set up ‘quirky’ situations (you can imagine this was the word on Babinet and Kihn’s lips when they came up with the plot) and pretentious attempts at producing some sort of existentialist array of outsiders and forgotten souls. One can only think they got extremely lucky landing Salminen for this.