Thursday, 1 August 2019

Shooting the Moon: on the 9th Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź, 12-19 July 2019

Ja Teraz Kłamię 

"I wish you all a strange trip," said director Paweł Borowski as he introduced his new film Ja Teraz Kłamię (I'm Lying Now) to a packed house at the 9th Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź. "Strange trips" were not in short supply at this year's edition of Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's "glocal" 7 day film and music event, which, following last year's independence-themed programme, this time took as its topic "The Moon Landing and Other Interrupted Dreams" - as a way of celebrating not only the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission but also the transportive, dream-inspiring potential of the cinematic and musical arts.

Ja Teraz Kłamię

Borowski's wish was realised: Ja Teraz Kłamię, the director's first feature since his acclaimed debut Zero ten years ago, is a dazzlingly designed Rubik's cube of a movie that, in its idiosyncratic way and with a Rashomon-esque narrative structure, addresses our "post-truth" culture via the interwoven experiences of three protagonists who participate in a "reality" TV show. A pleasingly convoluted plot (which only conks out a bit at the very end) and some breathtaking visuals - don't be surprised to hear yourself exclaim "Wow!" on several occasions - are complemented by the efforts of a fabulous (and fabulously costumed) cast, with talented young Łódź theatre heroine Paulina Walendziak more than holding her own against such luminaries as an intense Maja Ostaszewska and the otherworldly Agata Buzek, garbed in black as the show's enigmatic host. A unique offering in contemporary Polish cinema, Borowski's film seems destined for major cult status.

Arturo Ripstein 

Elsewhere, the Festival's wide-ranging programme encompassed philosophical debates and such unique events as the Instant Composition Contest and the always-popular Cinema in Bed screenings, in which great recent films including Tully, Fugue, Happy as Lazzaro, The Heiresses and Summer 1993 - a highlight of Transatlantyk 2017 - were presented. The Culinary Cinema section found four new foodie documentaries and Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's evergreen Big Night (1996) inspiring delicious dinners and stimulating conversations at EC1, where Jull Dziamski, the artist responsible for this year's Festival poster, also exhibited a selection of his exciting work.

A rare retrospective of the films of Aleksei German was greatly appreciated, and, as usual, attendees also had the opportunity to engage with filmmakers in person thanks to post-screening Q&As and the series of special Master classes, which this year featured Mexican maestro Arturo Ripstein (recipient of this year's FIPRESCI Platinum Award 94), Wojciech Marczewski (whose Star on the Łódź Walk of Fame was unveiled during the Festival), and Martha Coolidge, whose new film I'll Find You received its Polish premiere at the Opening Gala. A soapy, well-meaning and determinedly old-fashioned WWII love story that's somewhat reminiscent of Amma Asante's recent Where Hands Touch (2018), I'll Find You was few people's idea of a galvanising festival opener but justified its inclusion due to its Łódź setting and Kaczmarek's status as the film's composer.


The New Cinema section, however, offered more innovative visions. The exciting new Israeli cinema was well represented by Nadav Lapid's Golden Bear-awarded Synonyms, a ludic, cerebral and sharp-edged investigation into issues of nationhood, language and identity that features charismatic Tom Mercier (variously naked or sporting a highly covetable mustard-coloured coat) as Yoav, a twentysomething who, having completed his military service, rejects his homeland for France but finds assimilation into the City of Light a more problematic prospect than might be imagined. 

God of the Piano

Meanwhile, the influence of Lapid's wonderful The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) could be felt in Itay Tal's confident debut film God of the Piano, a brisk but haunting drama that grips like a thriller as it focuses on a complicated heroine (great Naama Preis) striving to make her son a piano prodigy. Lean and stylish, God of the Piano is notable for its intelligent perspective on the place of talent in family dynamics, and, following the success of Sara Colangelo's superb US take on The Kindergarten Teacher (2018), it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine an American remake of Tal's film in the future, too.

Several other memorable dramas also placed complex female protagonists at their centre. Teona Strugar Mitevska's God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya focuses on the patriarchal ruckus that results when the title character (Zorica Nusheva) intrudes on male territory by being the one to pull a cross out of a river during a religious ceremony in a Macedonian village. Marie Kreutzer's The Ground Beneath My Feet plays out as a sincere, emotionally insightful counter to Maren Ade's ghastly Toni Erdmann (2016) as it critiques corporate culture through a focus on an ambitious business consultant (Valerie Pachner) grappling with her carefully compartmentalised professional and personal commitments.

Nina Wu

Premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, Midi Z's #MeToo-influenced Nina Wu oscillates compellingly between social realism and hallucinatory Lynchian weirdness in its exploration of the exploitation of an actress (the director's usual collaborator Wu Ke-xi) in the Taiwanese film industry. As in The Ground Beneath my Feet the (lesbian) sexuality of the protagonist is presented with refreshing matter-of-factness - though a lurid, overly explicit final flashback sequence unfortunately leaves the film itself open to the charge of exploitation. 


Fresh from Cannes' Main Competition, Justine Triet's campier, all-over-the-shop Sybil features the elegant Virginie Efira as the title character, a psychiatrist cannibalising the life of a patient (Adele Exarchopoulos, perpetually tear-stained) for a novel. With Erdmann's Sandra Hüller rehashing her frazzled schtick as an under-pressure filmmaker and Niels Schneider steamily reuniting with Efira after last year's An Impossible Love, the film takes off in all manner of directions and never quite comes together, but offers a memorably off-kilter ride, held together by Efira's game, quicksilver turn. With female protagonists and performances such as these standing out throughout the festival, it was also notable that the audience-voted Distribution Award went to a female-directed film for the third year in a row: this time, the winner was Nora Fingscheidt's System Crasher, a distinctively kinetic take on the in-care experiences of a "problem" child.


American cinema didn't have anything of substance to offer, though Nicolas Pesce's Piercing, screened in Cinema by Night, which features the appealing duo of Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska in a highly stylised torture porn power game curio adapted from Ryū Murukami's  novel, is the quintessence of a guilty pleasure. International filmmakers, in contrast, were to be found grappling with intersections of personal and political histories in interesting ways. Flavia Castro's Unremember tracks a family's return from exile in France to their homeland of Brazil where teenager Joana (Jeanne Boudier), initially resistant to the move, finds herself drawn into new pleasures and memories of the past, the latter related to the fate of her father. Castro's film isn't particularly satisfying dramatically but its brooding, moody texture keeps the viewer close to the emotional experience of its young heroine.


A belated (and cheekily titled) follow-up to his immaculately chilling debut Michael (2011) Markus Schleinzer's Angelo follows an African slave boy's progress through the 18th century Austrian court where he starts out as the favourite of a countess (Alba Rohrwacher) and ends up...well, that would be telling. With unstressed anachronistic touches piercing the period ambience, and the director's super-subtlety subverting some traditional tropes, the opening scenes promise much but the film falters due to an unsatisfying, decades-leaping structure and its frustrating failure to make its protagonist more than a cipher.

I Was Here

A welcome contrast to the celeb-struck tendencies of Asif Kapadia - whose shallow "trilogy" of Senna (2010), Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019), as "tabloid" as the culture they ostensibly critique, screened as part of a retrospective - two fantastic new documentaries focusing on "ordinary" people were revelations for the festival audience. In I Was Here, directors Nathalie Biancheri and Ola Jankowska interview a range of people from around the UK about their lives, posing the question of why they would make a compelling documentary subject.

The question leads to some fascinating accounts of illness, creativity, work, and adoption. An elderly woman sings, dances and does the splits - and then shares a perceptive account of her previous life as a carer. A confident, beefy guy weeps as he recalls his separation from his sister as a child. Brief moments of re-enactment - from sleeping positions to a doctor's examination - make mimed daily activities  a strange ballet, but what captivates here are not the meta aspects so much as the articulated memories hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies of the protagonists, their faces lovingly attended to in Biancheri's and Jankowska's unflinching but tender frame.

Diagnosis poster

A unique city symphony, both intimate and monumental, in which the metropolis and human psyche become indivisible, Ewa Podgórska's Diagnosis takes a more overtly stylised approach to the documentary form, with a haunting sound design, slow zooms and some stunning overhead shots creating a hypnotic, multifaceted portrait of Łódź that might be described as an investigation into the city's subconscious. As the title indicates, Diagnosis combines elements of psychoanalysis with urban studies, as questions such as "If the city had parents, what would they be like?" and "If the city was a colour what would it be?" yield answers at once poetic and direct from the interviewees, generating insights that create a deeper, more impressionistic vision of the city than that made possible by a focus on demonstrable facts. 

Like I Was Here, Diagnosis unfolds stories of caring and compromise, loss, disappointment and resilience, and it was especially powerful to screen the film in the city that is its subject, with some of the protagonists present for Q&A discussions. By turns moving, funny and surprising, both of these empathetic documentaries deserve to be widely seen. Affirming a common humanity, they also prompt a subversive reassessment of what constitutes "ordinary" experience. In a year in which the festival celebrated the special achievement of the moon-landing, it was essential to have these films to remind us, so insightfully and intensely, of the pains, joys and complexities of our earthbound lives.

A full list of festival winners is available here.

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