Wednesday, September 26th. marks the 19th anniversary of the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF), and as always we are excited to dive into the extensive program of more than 150 films for a whole week.
The festival kicks off with the Norwegian theatrical premiere of the Cannes favorite Woman at War on Wednesday before the doors open fully on Thursday with dozens of films screenings every day for a full week. As per usual the festival has a great focus on documentaries, feature films, shorts, and a small but exciting VR-program. This year the festival has (inevitably?) put a spotlight on Russia and Donald Trump in their documentary selection, with films such as Putin’s Witnesses and Our New President from Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer). With Half the Picture director Amy Adrion tackles the subject of gender balance in Hollywood, a direct result of the MeToo movement. Faith, Hope, Love comes to us from Katja Fedulova as she returns to her home country of Russia to meet with the women who, in their own ways, are fighting for a better future for their country. Mark Cousins is back with an intimate and personal look at Orson Welles in The Eyes of Orson Welles. The collection of The Ancient Woods, Cielo, In Praise of Nothing and The Most Unknown seem to form a philosophical, quiet and meditative exploration of our planet in widely different ways. In the Documentaire Extraordinaire program, you can see award-winning titles such as Touch Me Not and Samouni Road.
This year’s feature film selections include a large number of Norwegian theatrical premieres for some of the most talked about festival releases of the year. Straight from the Cannes Film Festival is Burning, Chang Dong-lee’s first film in eight years that seem to have put him on the map. The latest films from directors such as Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War), Jafar Panahi (3 Faces), David Robert Mitchell (Under the Silver Lake) and Lars von Trier (The House That Jack Built) are all there. From the 75th Venice Festival comes László Nemes’ Sunset, as well as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite, which has the honor of closing the festival as The Killing of a Sacred Deer did last year.
There is also a focus on the relationship between film and music, with a selection of special screenings featuring live musical accompaniment. 1997 Forever has taken 20 years to complete, and the final result is a snowboard film-essay with music specifically written for the production. Garden II spawned in a different way as K. A. Knutsen (Syntax TerrOrkester) composed a piece of music. Four different directors were given a visual rendition of a sound file, a title, and a limitation on the film length. None of the directors have heard the sounds. Finally is mulm which is a collaborative effort between director Tommy Næss and the post-rock band Línt. The film asks the question: who are you when nobody is looking? The film is a 30-minute audiovisual odyssey from outer space to the deep seas and it attempts to create a complete symbiosis between mediums of film and sound. mulm will be projected as a backdrop on a live performance by Línt on Friday, September 28th. (Look for an interview with director Tommy Næss this week).
There is, as you can see, a lot to look forward to and a lot to watch. Below is a selection of ten films we recommend, and while there are countless more to keep an eye on (Burning!) we wanted to keep it as “short” as possible. The ten recommendations below are films we think deserve your attention for different reasons, whether it is a special director’s sophomore effort, an exciting new voice that deserves our attention, or a film that presents and deals with topics and ideas that are important to engage with.
CRYSTAL SWAN (KHRUSTAL)
Crystal Swan is the Belarusian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Acadamy Awards. Written by Helga Landauer and directed by Darya Shuk, this is their first venture into feature film. Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival earlier this year and which saw Shuk nominated for best director, albeit it was Radu Jude (Aferim!) who won for I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (which is also screening at BIFF).
The film follows Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young Belarusian DJ whose plan to travel to the U.S. and make it big is put on hold indefinitely when her visa application falls through. Forced into the backwaters of a Belarusian village, she is determined to make her aspirations a reality. Crystal Swan is set in the 1990s, but the tensions and ideas it engages with are still as relevant today as it was then — maybe more so. The fact that Shuk, Landauer and lead actress Nasibullina are all relatively fresh voices that made a mark at Karlovy (and won the Grand Prix at the Odessa International Film Festival) makes it all more impressive, and it’s one that will certainly be talked about in the months to come.
Agnieszka Smoczynska is back! The Polish writer/director made a splash with her directorial debut The Lure back in 2015, as it delivered on what nobody had known to ask for; a killer-mermaid musical.
Based on reactions from the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Fugue is a markedly shift in director for Smoczynska. “Less kooky,” says Guy Lodge at Variety; “Disappointingly normal,” says David Ehrlich at IndieWire. I’m not all that worried, rather the opposite. When a director gets as much buzz as Smoczynska did for The Lure, it is very easy to fall into a rhythm and repeat your recipe for success, without much innovation. I think it’s very exciting that she dares to go in the opposite direction, with a drama on memory loss (a plot point as old as time), and I cannot wait to see what she manages to do with it.
In Los Silencios writer and director, Beatriz Seigner explores the refugee crisis through age-old cultural traditions and mysticism. The film follows a family who’ve fled the civil war in Colombia and taken refuge in La Isla de la Fantasia; a small island right on the border between Colombia, Brazil and Peru. This island sees a medley of cultural traditions and ancestries come together to form a special world, and Seigner’s film looks absolutely beautiful. It is a concept that can be aestheticised in very unique and remarkable ways, and from early reactions, this is exactly what the film does.
As Seigner’s sophomore feature, Los Silencios is a new approach to the refugee film, which has already seen quite a few different treatments in the medium (last year’s Jupiter’s Moon come to mind). It is a film that takes aim at very important societal concerns through the lens of spiritualism and mysticism, and it does so through a perspective we are sadly robbed of too often.
MINDING THE GAP
Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) has made huge ripples in 2018 with her feature film debut, Skate Kitchen. It has been a festival favorite, especially in North-America, and it doesn’t seem to slow down. Coincidentally, the same can be said for Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap.
Liu’s documentary is a deeply personal and intimate portrait of his friends, and while Liu started out as a skateboard photographer, this documentary dives into very difficult and sensitive topics. As Liu goes behind closed doors with his friends and family, he aims to start a conversation about domestic abuse. Rockford, Illinois — in which these young men live — has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the United States, and this becomes painfully evident throughout Minding the Gap.
With this documentary, Liu proves to be a genuinely empathetic and observant filmmaker. He engages in conversations that are tough and painful, but there is an affection present in these relationships that are stronger than most, and the end result is a film that is beautiful, tragic, funny and decidedly important.
Evangelica Kranioti’s Obscuro Barroco is described as “a poetic docu-fiction about gender and metamorphosis, and a vibrant homage to the city of Rio de Janeiro.” The film follows in the path of Luana Muniz, a transgender icon in Brazil who passed away in 2017. Director Kranioti narrates the film with a monologue based on Clarice Lispector’s book Água Viva, as she guides us through a seemingly endless night in Rio. From the legendary carnivals that conquer the streets to euphoric night-time parties and celebrations in the queer subcultures, as well as political protests.
Brazil as a country has a very complex relationship with its queer community, and it’s a topic that has been explored a lot lately, but Kranioti’s approach seems to be wholly unique. Just in the film’s title there is an understanding and compassion that is admirable and Obscuro Barroco will surely shape the conversations to come.
OUR TIME (NUESTRO TIEMPO)
Carlos Reygadas is back with his first feature film since Post Tenebras Lux in 2012. The Mexican director has always managed to create tensions at festivals, and Our Time is no different. The film currently sits with a 44% score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is Reygadas’ lowest score yet — albeit Post Tenebras Lux sits with a 57% and Battle in Heaven with a 47% score. Luckily, the low aggregate score doesn’t mean people don’t love Our Time. We’ll see where we land on it.
In Our Time Reygadas seems to be more introspective than ever before, as he goes in front of the camera for the first time in his own production*. Here he plays Juan (Luis, from Japon?), a rancher who has an open relationship with his wife, Esther (who, of course, is played by Reygadas’ real-life partner and trusted editor, Natalia Lopéz). When Esther falls for another man, however, Juan struggles to cope. This three-hour epic is ripe for self-indulgence and self-congratulatory messiness, but there is also room for a self-reflective and self-explorative drama that can be just as brilliant as what has come before.
*Fun fact: Reygadas did play alongside Denis Lavant in the 2013 film En ningún lugar, Don Luis Buñ, and before that in none other than Amat Escalante’s debut feature Sangre, as “Man hugging woman.”
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
Desiree Akhavan is an Iranian-American filmmaker who made her debut with the wonderful 2014-gem, Appropriate Behavior. A deeply personal and honest film, in which Akhavan wrote, directed and played the lead role. It was a debut that started conversations about the importance of intersectionality, a topic Akhavan has been very vocal about in interviews as well.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post seems to be a continuation of all that Akhavan has been outspoken about for years now. Set in 1993, the film is centered around a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is forced into a gay conversion therapy center by her conservative parents. While there she forms a close bond with two other residents of the center, played respectively by American Honey‘s Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck (who impressed heavily in The Revenant).
Akhavan is clearly a very conscious and intelligent director who has been actively opening and engaging with important dialogues in Hollywood the last few years. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is no different, and while it’s maybe the most pre-hyped film on this list, it is difficult to be hyperbolic about how much Akhavan’s voice is one that needs to be heard, especially today.
THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD (LA NUIT A DÉVORÉ LE MONDE)
A French post-apocalyptic zombie-film starring Anders Danielsen Lie, Denis Lavant, and Golshifteh Farahani; what’s not to like?
The Night Eats the World is a film that is harder to place within a genre than one might expect. It challenges the traditional zombie flick with a slow and introspective approach to the terrors of a post-apocalyptic world, as it is much more concerned with the inner turmoil than any exterior one. As Sam (Danielsen Lie) wakes to find himself (seemingly) the last man alive in Paris (if not the world) it isn’t the flesh-eating Parisians that cause him the most grievance, but rather the silence that accompanies them.
This is first and foremost a tour de force from Anders Danielsen Lie. Lavant and Farahani appear in smaller roles — both as wonderful as ever — but it is Danielsen Lie who has to carry this film on his shoulders from beginning to end. Don’t expect a traditional zombie film here, but don’t expect New French Extremity either, even if its title and promo material may suggest otherwise. You can expect a brilliant lead performance and a fresh take on a genre that has long been in need of a resurrection.
Presented earlier this year on MUBI as part of their Special Discovery program, Wild Relatives is a documentary that at times is reminiscent of Liang Zhao’s Behemoth and at times reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami. It is, however, completely original, and it tells a story that is beautiful, strange and educational.
You may think that a documentary about the “hierarchies and relationships involved in a transaction of seeds between the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, an island in the Arctic Ocean, and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon” is not made for you, but it is. Director Jumana Manna opens the film with this line: “This is the main story, but to tell it I need to tell other smaller stories.” Manna takes the industry of seed-transaction to meet and witness people that are otherwise forgotten. She allows them a stage, not necessarily to speak or confess, but to exist and be. Manna’s sensibilities as a director are much akin to John Berger’s as a writer, in their deeply humane approach to telling a story. As Bergers said, “If I’m a storyteller, it is because I listen”. Wild Relatives is a profoundly sympathetic documentary that opens up a window you may never have thought to look through, and it sticks with you for a long time.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front is a democratic socialist political party in Nicaragua, which goes all the way back to the 1930s — when Nicaragua was under U.S. occupation. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Sandinistas became a global symbol for revolution.
In Jenny Murray’s documentary, we are introduced to the women who fought and stood with the Sandinistas both on the battlefield and off. When revolutionaries toppled the authoritarian Somoza regime in the 70s, the party reverted back to its patriarchal roots. This effectively meant that the women who contributed to the movement were written out of the party’s history, and intended to be forgotten. This story is still fading away with the passage of time, but with ¡Las Sandinistas! Murray allows it to be told.