Sep 25, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Documentaries

A Skin So Soft
Dir: Denis Côté
Denis Côté’s bodybuilding documentary has much more in common with Fred Wiseman’s reflective Boxing Gym than it does with the bravado and myth-making of Pumping Iron. Côté follows five French-Canadian bodybuilders, at various stages of their lives and their sport, as they go about their daily lives, training as well as doing other more mundane things.

Near wordless, the film instead finds insight into its subjects purely through observing them, fitting in a sport that is, whatever the route to get there, entirely about physicality. This can be mesmerising. The first twenty minutes of the film introduce the characters in almost total silence, following their morning routines. The youngest of the men trains, his Mother visible through the basement window, gardening above him as his weights clip their frame as he lifts. Another man eats breakfast while watching youtube. I couldn’t tell what he was watching, but from time to time he seems to choke back tears. These and other moments - Max, the wrestler, insisting to his wife that he’s “fine” despite the fact he’s hardly spoken to her in two days, for instance - linger in the memory for the amount of intrigue and insight they pack into images that we have to take purely on their own.

There are a few dialogues; the terse conversation I mentioned between Max and his wife stands out, as does the young bodybuilder telling his girlfriend he can’t be both her boyfriend and her trainer, especially if she’s not going to apply herself fully. Almost every other word spoken though is about training in some way, whether it’s the magnificently bearded Alex telling his masseur “I hate you” or the chatter between the guys when they all go for a weekend away.
Côté’s near total reliance on pure physicality does, however, have its downsides. Sometimes it feels as though he’s cutting around conversation. In the closing scenes on their weekend away, the bodybuilders are clearly friends, and talking amongst themselves. It would be good to see, and hear, more of that, to get more of an insight into the dynamic between them, and where the line lies between competition and friendship.

A Skin So Soft sometimes gets beneath the tough surfaces of the men it profiles, but it also often feels like it could go deeper. It’s an interesting film in its quietness but, for me, also sometimes limited by it.

Dir: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp
I have often talked about the fact that I approach film initially from the perspective of someone being told a story. From the earliest time I can remember, I was always told stories - some were read to me, others made up for me. As I got older, film became how I was told stories, and that’s still the way I look at them first.

Liyana is a story about storytelling, but it’s about a lot more than that too. The film follows a group of children in an orphanage in Sawziland who are asked in a workshop to collaborate, with children’s author Gcina Mhlophe and with each other, to create a character and a story. Their character is Liyana; a strong girl about their age, born into a family in which a drunk and abusive father contracts HIV and passes it to his wife, orphaning Liyana and her young twin brothers. One night, thieves come to Liyana’s home and kidnap her brothers so Liyana, taking one of the bulls the family keeps along with her, must set out to find them.

The story the children invent is interesting and entertaining in its own right. They set the odds against Liyana, but they give her plenty of agency, they make her brave and resilient and they create a narrative full of perilous set pieces for her to triumph over, with the help of the bull. We see the story unfold in beautiful animation by Shofela Coker, which makes Liyana unusually cinematic for a documentary.

What’s really compelling about Liyana though, and makes it remarkable, is watching the children create this story and understanding why they are writing it as they are. It is often said to young writers that to begin with you should write what you know. Tragic as it is, that is what these children are doing. It cannot be lost on us that a huge percentage of these children have been through much of what they put Liyana through. When deciding on the overall narrative there is discussion about what sets Liyana on her quest and it is clear that the idea of the thieves resonates, at least partly, through experience. This is even more true of the fact that Liyana finds herself orphaned by AIDS. A full 25% of Swaziland’s adult population has HIV or AIDS, and it is almost certain that many of the orphaned children writing Liyana’s story were orphaned for that reason.

The film industry and fan communities have recently been having a lot of conversations about representation. Liyana is the perfect example of why those conversations are important. These children don’t often get the chance to have their stories told cinematically, and when they are it is often through the filter of an industry that is almost entirely white at the top. Here they are able to control their own narrative. They seems to grab that power with both hands, giving it to Liyana and thus back to themselves. It becomes clear in interviews late in the film just what this ability to represent themselves means to these children. “When Liyana’s story keep going, mine will keep going” says one. That’s what’s important here, these children are empowered by storytelling, allowed to write a happy ending for Liyana and thus for themselves. I hope they all get the ending they write.

Liyana is a great example of why the Family strand of the London Film Festival should be covered more, it’s just the kind of film we should be encouraging children to see (I’d suggest it for ages 10 and up, thanks to a few tough themes). Hopefully it will encourage them to tell their own stories, now and in the future.

Sep 24, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Tiger Girl

Dir: Jakob Lass
Maggy (Maria Dragus) has recently failed her exam to join the Police but, while she’s waiting to take it again in six months, she’s enrolled on a course to become a security guard. On the first day of her course, Maggy goes out in the evening and is harassed at a subway station on the way home. Tiger (Ella Rumpf) comes to Maggy’s rescue, beating up her attackers. This begins a fast friendship, which begins to lead Maggy down a path of increasing rebelliousness and violence until Tiger is concerned that she’s created a monster.

The brochure blurb on Tiger Girl makes a big play of Tiger as an anti-capitalist and the film as political. I went into it expecting the film to dig into these ideas, into the conflict between political violence and simple lashing out - a sort of Edukators with fight scenes. Unfortunately these themes are more present in the LFF booklet than they are in the film itself.

Tiger does occasionally mention that she only attacks people with power, only steals from the rich, but this reads like self-justification for her mugging people or lashing out violently. That would be interesting if the film gave any indication of making her confront this hypocrisy, but it fails to engage with this even as Maggy becomes ever more randomly violent, to Tiger’s disapproval.

In Raw, Ella Rumpf showed that she has an interesting, edgy, presence about her. Sadly, Tiger Girl doesn’t demand much of her aside from that. The writing is ultimately shallow and we never learn much about Tiger. Rumpf can still hold the camera with a look, and dominates scenes even when outnumbered, useful in a third act scene when she goes to pay off a big time dealer her friends have fallen in with. 

If Rumpf convinces at least with her presence, the same can’t really be said of Maria Dragus, who was so good in Graduation. Dragus always seems like she’s acting, both in the early scenes as she excels in her security course and increasingly so as she drifts ever further into criminality. This is appropriate enough as Tiger goads Maggy into her first acts of rebellion (renaming her ‘Vanilla’), but the sense of both Dragus and Maggy playing a part doesn’t go away. If this is supposed to suggest that Maggy is looking for a sense of belonging and, not finding it, trying to play the role, that’s another theme the screenplay never makes convincing.

The screenplay drags out its various strands in thoroughly expected ways, trying to play off the irony of Maggy’s infatuation with Tiger’s way of life set against her initial ambition to be a cop. It’s entirely obvious where this is going to end up, just as it is obvious how Tiger and Maggy’s friendship will fracture.

Jakob Lass directs competently, if not particularly interestingly. There are a handful of striking images here (the jewelled masks in the still above, for instance) but while the violence is reasonably well shot it seldom has much charge to it. Had the film given more emphasis to the politics we’re apparently supposed to take from it then the violence might have had an interesting moral ambiguity about it, but without that dimension it just becomes a deadening series of confrontations.

On the whole, this is a disappointing film. It wastes two actors with obvious raw talent and a screenplay that has some ideas, but neglects to explore them in any way that would either inform the characters or prove thought provoking for viewers.

Sep 21, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Princess Cyd

Dir: Stephen Cone
Princess Cyd is writer/director Stephen Cone's eighth feature in as many years, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing that, because the two of his films that have come out in the UK have had only low key streaming releases, Black Box through Amazon and Henry Gamble's Birthday Party through Netflix. Earlier this year I was shown Henry Gamble's Birthday Party and instantly marked Cone as a director to watch for his witty dialogue, ability as an actor's director and knack for creating believable characters and relationships. If there's any justice, Princess Cyd will serve as Cone's breakout moment.

The minimal story finds 16 year old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) going to stay in Chicago for a couple of weeks with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a well known writer. While she's there, Cyd meets Katie (Malic White) and begins a casual relationship. From an initially wary start, we see Cyd and Miranda's relationship grow and both of them grow a bit through it.

Much of Princess Cyd unfolds through conversation. This is perhaps Cone's greatest strength as a writer; the character's voices are distinct as are the ways that each character relates to all the others and it's the differences in these relationships and therefore in the flow of conversation that makes it so engaging. We see this best in the evolution of how Cyd and Miranda talk. Initially Cyd is a bit reticent saying, almost as the first thing she tells her author aunt, that she doesn't read. This gives way to lighter moments as they begin to relate more, and later to a tense and frank conversation after a get together at Miranda's house, when Cyd suggests that if her Aunt had sex rather than cake she might be happier. This scene is some of Cone's best writing of the whole film, with an angry Miranda visibly trying to get her point across without saying something she might regret, but which is clearly what she'd like to say if Cyd were a few years older. This is also the moment when Rebecca Spence's performance is at its best. There has been a sense throughout of her feeling out how to relate to her niece and, alongside the other notes in this scene, she gives Miranda a barely disguised sense of disappointment that perhaps she hasn't yet worked it out as well or as completely as she thought.

The evolution of Cyd and Miranda's relationship and the ways they rub off on each other is one of the film's strongest threads. Through Miranda (and perhaps through wanting to impress Katie, who does read), Cyd finds a greater connection to her aunt's work, while Miranda is somewhat lightened by Cyd, doing things she hasn't done and thinking about things she hasn't considered for some time. This is woven through the relationship between Miranda and Anthony, Cyd sees an energy between them and encourages it to both of them, but Cone smartly refuses to make it that simple or to put a bow on it by the end of the film. It's an intelligently written thread that emphasises the differences in how people think and their priorities at 16 and at 40.
The film is set in the summer, and this comes through in the visuals, which show a suburban Chicago far from the crime ridden image we're often given of it in the news. This is probably to do with the circles Cyd finds herself in, but it also suggests that sense of her enjoying a new place and, in Katie, new people. Scenes of Cyd lying out in Miranda's garden to sunbathe or the time she spends with Katie have that feel of the long days of summer that seem to stretch out in front of us in our school holidays. This is very much the feel of the scenes leading up to and at Miranda's party. Cyd borrows an outfit – a tuxedo – from Katie to attend, and you get the sense of her finding a new comfort in her skin and with her aunt and her friends. One very nice moment has Cyd asking a lesbian couple about the fact that they both used to be married to men, and ends up in her saying to them “I like... everything”, something you get the sense she's vocalising, perhaps even to herself, for the first time in that moment.

There are, amongst the sweet moments of coming of age, moments of darkness; that tense moment with Miranda, a call from Katie in a moment of crisis and the always present undertone of the family tragedy that Cyd survived when she was six, accentuated by the fact that she's staying in her late mother's old bedroom. Jessie Pinnick is outstanding throughout as Cyd, there's little sense that she's acting, except perhaps early in the party scene, before she settles in with the new people around her. The chemistry between Pinnick and Malic White as Katie also feels entirely unforced, we buy them as fast friends and the evolution of their relationship. There is a sense, as Cyd's stay is just two weeks, of the whole film as a series of stolen moments, that's never more true than in her relationship with Katie, particularly an early scene when a film crew mistakes Katie for a boy and asks her and Cyd to slow dance in the background of their shot. 

Like many of the best coming of age films, Princess Cyd is ultimately an ellpsis. We don't know where Cyd and Katie will end up, if Cyd will go back to Chicago for college or, beyond a closer relationship with her aunt, the lasting impact of these two weeks. Growing up is a process, and Princess Cyd is about a brief moment in it, one it captures beautifully.