Tuesday 13 August 2019

Film Review: Nic Nie Ginie (Nothing is Lost) (dir. Kalina Alabrudzińska, 2019)

It's only 5 years since Łódź Film School inaugurated the "Diploma Film," a final project for the year's contingent of graduating students. But in that short time the initiative has firmly established itself as an important and anticipated tradition for the School.

Last year, with Monument, Jagoda Szelc produced the best of the Diploma films yet: a hypnotic and unsettling mood piece that finally revealed its hand as a shrewd meta-reflection on the experience of studying at the school itself. The confidence of Szelc's vision was stunning and was probably made possible by the fact that she had already completed and released a first feature, the distinctive Tower. A Bright Day (2017). 

An assistant director on Tower was Kalina Alabrudzińska, who now steps into the director's chair herself with this year's Diploma film Nothing is Lost (Nic Nie Ginie). A much more accessible offering than Monument, Alabrudzińska's film, which she describes as "a sad comedy," doesn't attempt to replicate its predecessor's oddity or intensity, instead treating serious subject matter in a much lighter way. Screened at Koszalin's 38th Youth & Film festival, where it won the prize for Best Directing, the result is an attractive ensemble drama that will likely have far wider general audience appeal than Monument's trippier vision.

That said, Nothing is Lost actually starts out as "meta" as Monument ended up - with a cheeky reflection on "group therapy" scenes in cinema. Such a session is getting underway as the film commences, and finds the characters wondering: "Are we gonna sit in a circle like this? There are scenes like that in movies. Usually the most boring scenes..." This self-reflexive opening establishes the humourous tone of the film, which never becomes a mere mope-fest. Doubtless mindful to incorporate as many of the graduating actors as possible, Alabrudzińska uses the context of the therapy meetings to bring together a group of diverse characters - and then to branch out into snapshots of their lives and relationships outside the sessions.

As  the "lost" or searching protagonists start to open up and "find" something in the therapy, the set-up sometimes gives off Breakfast Club vibes. But, working from her own script, Alabrudzińska prevents the film from degenerating into a series of predictable emotional showdowns. Bonding scenes and so-called "breakthrough moments" tend to be underplayed, and not everything resolves in the way you anticipate (or at all). 

As such, the film avoids obviousness, allowing its characters to retain a bit of mystery. The storytelling is helped by the contribution of cinematographer Nils Croné, who gives the images a clear, warm, burnished look that's very inviting, and by the crisp editing of Piasek & Wójcik (following their work on Ewa Podgorska's brilliant Diagnosis), which moves us fluidly between the therapy sessions and the characters' individual lives.

Still, while the technical side is more than proficient, Nothing is Lost's main asset is its performers, and those who've been lucky enough to see these actors' often amazing stage work over the past year (in new extravaganzas like Fever, devised pieces such as Slippery Words, or contemporary classics like Angels in America) will be particularly delighted to find them taking to the camera with equal assurance.

Alabrudzińska's writing allows the actors to develop characters who are relatable but who go beyond conventional "types." Michał Surosz is lovely as a guy so dedicated to saving a particular endangered species of turtle that all his other relationships are neglected. Wiktoria Filus charms as a single mum trying out Tinder, and Jan Hrynkiewicz delivers delectably mean put-downs with aplomb as the group's most caustic participant. Zuzanna Puławska is funny and touching as a mother-dominated people-pleaser, and charismatic Piotr Pacek shines as an actor with interpersonal issues - so much so that he feels rejected by nature itself. (The film makes nature a motif, in fact: plants, trees and the aforementioned turtles all feature in the protogonists' attempts to connect.)

And in case it seems that the focus is entirely on personal concerns, Nothing is Lost doesn't shy away from the wider context of darker elements of contemporary Polish political reality, either. The most ambitious sequence here is a night-time nationalist gathering attended by Hrynkiewicz's character and featuring Elżbieta Zajko as a firebrand delivering hate speech, with Kamil Rodek and Mateusz Grodecki on hand as colleagues, the latter playing guitar and singing that "The day of mighty Poland is coming."

Some of the smaller roles need further development; one senses a few of the actors' eagerness to go further into the characters than their fleeting appearances allow. But Robert Ratuszny and Faustyna Kazimierska - memorably opening a beer bottle with her teeth! - maximise their brief screen time, while, in one of the best sequences, Karol Franek Nowiński flashes his great grin - surely one of the best smiles the Polish screen has seen - as a pharmacist who pleases Pacek's character by revealing himself to be a fan - before their exchange is given a great comic twist. And Ksenia Tchórzko gets a lovely appearance as a dog-sitting neighbour, when the film belatedly digresses to focus on the therapist, Remek (excellent Dobromir Dymecki), himself.

Such moments cut to the heart of the concern with human interaction which is the main preoccupation of Nothing is Lost. In the introduction to Powidoki / Afterimages, a poetic book of visual essays about Łódź Film School, (di)rector Mariusz Grzegorzek describes the School as "a special place" where "there flows a source of energy that connects people." In its wise and wry portrait of the challenges and possibilities of making contact, Alabrudzińska's likeable film taps into that source.

Nic Nie Ginie / Nothing is Lost  will screen in the Panorama section of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (16 - 21 September). 

NIC NIE GINIE /////// teaser ////// scenariusz i reżyseria Kalina Alabrudzińska from LODZ FILM SCHOOL on Vimeo.

Friday 9 August 2019

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival 2019 (Orange Tree)

The Mikvah Project (Photo: Robert Day)

This is the third year that the Orange Tree has run its Directors' Festival, which presents the work of graduates from St. Mary's University's MA Theatre Directing course over a week of performances. As Paul Miller has previously noted, "director training is part of the OT's DNA," and the initiative has its roots in the long-running Directors' Showcase seasons of Sam Walters' tenure, when the theatre's trainees staged such seldom-seen plays as Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, which featured future Hamlet Paapa Essiedu in a galvanising turn. 

This year, the four plays presented are, once again, all contemporary works, ones that, via a series of excellent designs by the enterprising team of Cory Shipp, Chris McDonnell (lighting) and Lex Kosanke (sound), transport the audience from the Portuguese capital to the mindscapes of a love-seeking man and woman, from mountain tops to a Mikvah bath. 

The latter is the location for Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project, which, with a surprising amount of humour, unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. Avi is a married thirtysomething trying for a child with his wife, while Eitan is an Arsenal-loving 17-year-old. As the men talk and bond, mutual attraction surfaces, which Eitan is keen to act on. 

As a portrait of gay desire struggling with culture, The Mikvah Project suggests a Jewish Brokeback Mountain or, more aptly, a companion to the excellent 2009 Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Shipp's set opens a pool in the OT floor which the actors slip into and out of. At such moments, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production creates a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging some broad comedy, especially in a manic and very funny Alicante-set interlude. Grace notes are found in the well-judged performances, with Dylan Mason capturing Eitan's ardency and Robert Neumark Jones touchingly conveying Avi's conflicts. 

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Photo: Robert Day) 

A more caustic take on modern relationships is offered in Declan Greene's Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, which presents a hook-up between a nurse and an IT worker - each with their own problems. (He's a miserably married porn addict, and she a debt-ridden shopaholic.) It's more "meet desperate" than "meet cute," and the fantastic opening scene captures the relentlessness and absurdity of needy online interactions with wince-inducing perceptiveness. 

The bluntness of the title carries over into much of the dialogue, which Cate Hamer and Matthew Douglas deliver with aplomb, getting a great rhythm going. Nothing revelatory is said about the way in which technology feeds on and frustrates the human need for intimacy. But, with crackling bursts of static and illumination, Gianluca Lello's sharp and intelligent production makes wonderfully dynamic a play which, like The Mikvah Project, tends to (over-)rely on to-audience narration rather than the creation of dramatic scenes. 

Pilgrims (Photo: Robert Day)

The other two plays in the festival are engaging three-handers. Elinor Cook's Pilgrims offers a feminist take on (male) wanderlust and folk song, with Nicholas Armfield and Luke MacGregor as two dedicated climbers and Adeyinka Akinrinade as the PhD student who, in conventional parlance, "comes between them." Armfield and MacGregor convey an affectionate, but also tense and competitive, bond and Akinrinade moves compellingly from sparkiness to disappointment as the girl who gives up her own dream for theirs. 

Mythological and archetypal resonances are incorporated with a slightly heavy hand, but Ellie Goodall's production is fluid and sensitive, negotiating temporal and location shifts with elegant economy (plus some lovely a capella folk singing by the cast), and giving the production a mystical undertone. Signposted from the outset, the outcome seems predictable, but the play twists in an unexpected direction in the subversive and exceptionally well-played final scene. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes (Photo: Robert Day)  

The most obviously dazzling and surprising of the four productions is Wiebke Green's take on Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. The premise of this play - the imaginative odyssey of a 9-year-old across Lisbon, accompanied by her teddy bear (named Judy Garland) - sounds like the height of preciousness. But, belying its overt playful qualities, Rodrigues' writing (presented here in a fine poetic/profane translation by Mark O'Thomas) turns out to have plenty of bite, and succeeds in confounding the viewer at every turn. "Judy Garland" (a hilarious, bear-suited Nathan Welsh), for one, has suicidal tendencies, a Ted-ish vocabulary and attitude to spare, while the play itself has decidedly complex things to say about loss and the relationship of language to experience. 

Green keeps the proceedings fleet, funny and physical throughout, with the great Gyuri Sarossy multi-tasking superbly as "The Man Who Is My Father" and all the other blokes encountered on the journey. (Including Chekhov!) But ultimately the evening belongs to Eve Ponsonby who gives a sublime and exhilarating performance as the smarty pants, dictionary-devouring heroine who has more to learn about life and language than she realises. A brilliant and barmy trip, Green's hugely enjoyable production makes the viewer wish for more Portuguese plays - and certainly more plays by Rodrigues - on the UK stage. 

The Directors' Festival runs until 11 August. Further information and booking details here

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.