Five documentaries I enjoyed at MIFF2017 celebrated artists (in the broad sense of the word) and their work. As well there was a very innovative animation and three feature films, two that explored the lives of real artists and one that imagined the life of a budding actor.
One of my very favourite films of the festival was the wonderful Faces Places. This follows Agnes Varda, described in the programme as the grande dame of the French New Wave and JR who describes himself on Twitter as an Artist until I find a real job . Look him up on the web and you’ll find him described as a French photographer and artist whose identity is unconfirmed. Go to his website and you’ll find only his photographs. I’ve not seen any of Agnes’ films and I knew nothing about JR or his work. Together they’re wonderful. The animated title sequence at the start sets out exactly what we are to see: two artists travelling around France in a funny little van, which is in fact a photographic laboratory for producing gigantic photos, collaborating on what turn out to be very engaging local artistic and social occasions. They are a funny couple; he, 33 years old, tall and thin wearing black including a pork pie hat and sunglasses (which he refuses to remove); she, small and very old at 89 but sprightly with amazing dyed hair which makes it look as though she’s wearing a white beanie with an orange trim. They travel to different places and work out what they are going to photograph. Whilst JR manages the technical side, the selection of images and the fundamental purpose of the work lies mostly with Agnes. It’s great seeing how they work out what to do – watching the creative process in action. All of the images they create are very moving. JR does come up with one image and the decision about where to put it, all on his own – Agnes’ toes! Placed on railway freight carriages, it’s wonderful. Do see this film if you get the chance. Here is the trailer.
JR has been in the news lately with an amazing installation on the Mexico-US border that you can see here . Like all of the work in the film it’s about much more than the photographs. This is art used to bring people together. When JR dismantled the picture of the child he held a feast straddling the border, described here
Another great documentary about artists was Buena Vista Social Club: Adios. The characters here are familiar; we’ve all seen the earlier film by Wim Wenders that made this band famous and we’ve got the record! While still celebrating their belated recognition and success, this film was tinged with sadness as one by one we see them finally pass on. Although on the way each of these extraordinary musicians exhibit amazing vigour and resilience. They marvel at the changes in their fortunes relaying what they were doing before this band was put together. Most of them managed to maintain some connection to music, except Ibrahim Ferrer who had spent time being a shoe-shine boy. Overnight he was transformed onto being the lead singer in a world famous band. It’s him in this photo, dressed in a spotless, pressed shirt, that features on the album cover of their first CD. This was his second day at the studio, having turned up the day before in his shoe polish stained overalls! Amazing. It’s a great story, they are great musicians, great characters, but they’ve led very hard lives before their overnight success. But what an extraordinary journey they’ve been on since their discovery. We see them getting medals from Obama in the White House, receiving Emmys and lots of other awards, and performing at numerous concerts around the world. They muse on the unexpectedness of it all. And bemoan the fact that success came so late in their lives when they are all creaking with old age. Underneath all of the exuberant music, this was a very poignant film. Here is the trailer.
I also loved Where Your’e Meant To Be which was about another person I’d never heard of; This film Aidan Moffat formerly of Scottish indie rock band called Arab Strap. The film records him and a couple of other musicians on a tour of Scotland singing Aidan’s reworking of Scottish folk songs. His new, updated versions include lots of profanities and bawdiness, which as he rightly suggests, is a feature of lots of traditional Celtic ballads. He believes his new versions will attract new, younger Scots to the older traditional culture. The audience response at his concerts in Aberdeen and Glasgow, full of young rowdy concert goers, suggests he’s right. But he links up with a famous Scottish folk singer Sheila Stewart early in his preparation for the tour and she is scathing about his project, claiming it’s disrespectful to, and completely at odds with, the culture that she personifies. She reflects on her tough apprenticeship learning the meanings behind the words, and how to sing the songs correctly from her famous folk singing parents. Her view seems to prevail in the smaller places where Aidan sings his new versions. It’s striking that people in these tiny hamlets, all ages, all genders, know the songs so well. They happily sing along with the choruses but frown through the updated verses. This leads Aidan to interrogate his own ideas and objectives for his tour. He muses on what Sheila has said, conducting an argument with her in his head, reflected in the film’s accompanying voice over. It’s all surprisingly moving. There are some diversions along the way: a re-enactment of a famous battle, a debate about the Loch Ness monster, a poignant drinking and singing session with a recently widowed farmer. All against a backdrop of fantastic Scottish scenery and lots of whisky drinking. There is a very affecting denouement at the band’s final concert in Glasgow, attended by some of the folk we have met on the tour, when Sheila appears on stage to sing the beautiful, traditional The Parting Song. Tears all round. Here’s the trailer.
There were two other pretty straight forward documentaries. The Paris Opera was a fly on the wall look at the sorts of things that come up in the day to day running of a major opera company. I really liked young Russian baritone Micha Rimoshenko and there’s a lovely bit where he tells Bryn Terfel where he’s from. There’s lots of lovely music and interesting behind the scenes insights. There’s also some office politics, although without enough context to make us know what’s going on or care much. Lack of an over arching narrative contributes to a bitsy feel, but it was an easy and pleasant viewing. Here’s the trailer. Revolution of Sound. Tangerine Dream was about another band about which I knew nothing, but I enjoyed the film. This is due mostly to how interesting I found Edgar Froese, its charismatic founder. The film makers obviously had a lot of material to draw on; including footage of interviews with Edgar, interviews with people who were in the band, lots of home movies and footage of the band in concert. I even quite liked the music (though I suspect only in small doses). They did records but also music for movies and for video games. It’s a pretty traditional overview of the band’s development and history in chronological order. Here’s a video that gives you a feel for the movie, it’s the crowdfunding request and most of the people in it are in the movie. I couldn’t find a trailer.
I really, really loved the animation Loving Vincent. It’s made up of 62,000 original oil paintings, all in the manner of Van Gogh, which give it a really lovely feeling of immediacy with the artist. All vibrant colours in the present, with flash backs painted in black and white. It focusses on his last days in Auvers-sur-Oise and a suggestion that he did not commit suicide but was murdered. So, it’s a sort of detective story. We get to meet all the characters in the village who knew Van Gogh and to hear the different versions of what happened. The characters are all based on real people, the postman, the doctor, the doctor’s daughter, his housekeeper, the innkeeper’s daughter etc. Some of these people were painted by the artist, and you see these paintings during the final credits. The actors doing the voices were chosen on the basis of their physical similarity with the subjects of these paintings. Having thought there was not much more that could be said about Van Gogh or his life, I found it all very imaginatively done and quite moving. Here’s the trailer.
Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the artist Alberto Giavometti, in Final Portrait was very good, but I found the film too limited in scope to be very enjoyable. It focussed on a very brief period during which the artist was painting a portrait of an American author, James Lord who is played by the incredibly handsome Armie Hammer. I didn’t feel it told us very much about the artist, although in retrospect I see we got to see his domestic arrangements: long suffering wife, loyal brother; his philandering and obsession with his latest love; indifference to money, to his wife’s distress; strange social behaviour, same cafe, same food and drink. And an insight into his work habits, in particular a chronic inability to finish things. But we didn’t get any sense of what a great artist he was nor why his work was considered revolutionary. Also the colours were all very drab. So a missed opportunity I think. Here’s the trailer.
I liked the film Maudie very much. This is the real life story of one of Canada’s most inspiring folk artists. Her name was Maud Lewis and she suffered rheumatoid arthritis which made her family treat her as disabled. She takes refuge with a socially inhibited, barely literate and desperately poor fish pedlar first as his maid and then as his wife. Living in unbelievably austere and hostile circumstances – in Novia Scotia – she paints joyful, colourful pictures of flowers, birds, people. First on the cabin walls, then on post cards and finally on boards and masonite. She eventually became quite famous, but never left the humble two roomed home she made with her husband. Sally Hawkins plays Maudie beautifully. There is not a hint of sentimentality in the performance, or in the film. She’s great. As is Ethan Hawke as her husband. He is dour and bottled up but eventually thaws, a little, not too much as to be unbelievable. Its moving to see their relationship develop. The landscape is harsh but beautiful. This is a film with a strong emotional core, I strongly recommend it. You get to see the real Maud and her husband at the end of the film and stay until the very end of the credits and you will see the real pictures she painted. They are incredible; vibrant and full of life. Here’s the trailer.
Finally to That’s Not Me that I saw described in a tweet as the antidote to La La Land. And indeed it is. This is a wry, humorous look at what it means to want to be an actress and the inevitable disappointments that come your way. Especially when your identical twin sister lands a starring role in a television sitcom. Alice Foulcher plays Polly and this is her situation. She’s in Melbourne living in a share house with friends, working in a cinema, going to auditions, striving for her big break. And getting mistaken for her sister, on the street, in bars and, excruciatingly, in an audition. It’s all very well done. There’s a great scene where she meets up with her sister’s old boyfriend and decides to go along with the mistaken identity. Very funny. Mostly set in Melbourne there’s a brief, funny and very believable, sojourn to Hollywood. Apparently it was made on a shoe-string budget but this is not in evidence in the film itself. There are no pat solutions to Polly’s predicament. No grand reconciliations, no unrealistic happy ending. It’s a long slog trying to follow your entertainment industry dream. So this is no La La Land. Instead it’s good, solid, and fun entertainment. Throughly recommended. Here’s the trailer.