Review: A mix of interesting movies from the European film festival in Abuja
by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
The 6th European Film Festival held recently in Abuja. As in previous editions, films from several European countries were screened over two weeks, and at no cost to the public.
Appropriately, the selections cover a wide range of genres. Below are brief reviews of the films shown during the festival.
Day 1- Ireland
The festival opened with the hilarious The Guard, the only film presented by The Republic of Ireland. The film opens with a murdered discovered by a local police officer, Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson); a sullen, grumpy man embodying some of the common vices associated with the Irish— he drinks and uses hookers. Investigation on the murders leads to the uncovering of an international drug trade, thus involving the FBI which sends a black officer (Don Cheadle) to cover the case. The pair has to navigate their differences, and Boyle’s constant nuisance, to work together. The Guard becomes the Gaelic Rush Hour, less a thriller than an enjoyable comedy of race and temperament relations.
Day 2- Austria
Mount St Elias is a documentary with 3 ski mountaineers attempting to ski the world’s longest (near-) vertical line covered in snow: the summit of the titular mountain to the beaches of Alaska. The 3 men are supporting characters to the mountain which is a formidable protagonist. The men’s initial attempts fall through, but like in most tributes to the human capacity for adventure and resilience— “this isn’t Hollywood, you can’t just quit” says a skier— they overcome eventually. For a Nigerian audience, it is not too arduous to watch, as the cinematography as well as the wonderment— what drives these madmen?— is sufficient incentive to follow the documentary to its conclusion.
Day 2- Denmark
In In A Better World, a boy, Christian, helps a classmate, Elias, take revenge on a bully. Meanwhile across the seas, Elias’ dad working as a doctor in a refugee camp in Africa learns of a warlord called Big Man who mutilates women. Returning home to his troubled marriage and bullied son, he is assaulted by a bellicose parent on a playground with both boys watching. His refusal to respond and the boys’ refusal to accept this non-response as response, leads the kids to pressure the doctor and when he is assaulted again— he insists that retaliation and counter retaliation only produces war— Christian urges Elias to take part in violence that consumes both families and across the seas, culminates in a confrontation with Big Man. With great script and muted cinematography, Susanne Bier’s moral drama is a reminder that we, mankind, do not live in a better world.
Day 3- Greece
Greece showed two films at the festival, the first, Cool, announces its singular merit in the title: it features good looking, cool young people— young men and women with as much cool as daddy issues. It shows different lives over a day and with films of this nature ties it all together too neatly. Wending through rash plotlines, it manages to use up all of its goodwill a long way before the big Freudian, if patricidal, payoff.
Day 4- France
Philippe a rich paraplegic employs Driss, a Senegalese immigrant as caretaker in The Intouchables leading to comedy with a lot of heart. The laughs here are not just from the difference in class and race, but from the physical space around these characters: while Driss runs, laughs in paroxysms, and dances; Philippe (played remarkably by Francosie Cluzet) is stationary for the duration of the film having to convey emotions via feats of facial contortions. There are no exploration of the immigrant question here, only glee, romance and a happy ending that sees Driss stroll under the Paris sun.
Day 4- Germany
Head On, from Germany, gives the festival a glimpse of violence, grit and sex. Cahit Unel, Turkish born German is blackmailed into marriage by Sibel, a suicidal woman. Unexpectedly, he falls for her but she refuses to sleep with him; when he kills a man for questioning his manhood, he is sent to prison. Years later, he comes out seeking redemption and his wife, Sibel, whose life has careered dangerously and has moved to the capital of the country of their birth, Istanbul. It is a good film to compare to last year’s French offering, Andalucia. Broken into sections by a folk band singing on the banks of a river in Turkey, it presents a powerful drama, searing and sincere in its exploration of the definition of home in 21st century Europe.
Day 5- Finland
The animation Little Brother, Big Trouble: A Christmas Adventure is family entertainment especially for kids. It is the story of a young reindeer, Niko, disappointed when his mother explains she has met a reindeer whom she wants to move in. There is a conceit here, or perhaps some condescension— if all of the characters were human, this would easily be a heart-warming family drama. It handles its material maturely, succeeding in portraying the reality of single parenthood with its complications. In keeping with its form, the story is sprinkled generously with humour— some jokes too intricate, like in Shrek, are obviously intended for adults in the audience.
Day 5- Italy
It Can Be Done recreates 1980’s Italy where the government has just passed the Basaglia Law resulting in a closure of psychiatric hospitals. Nello, a former unionist is put in charge of a cooperative for patients. Unhappy with the paradigm, he decides to change the workings of the system. Based on true events, it is an inversion of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with McMurphy as an administrator. Its combination of comedy, drama and politics works well.
Day 6- The Netherlands
The Netherlands’ Bon Voyage concerns a family’s way of dealing with imminent death. When a family aborts a vacation plan upon news Bob, the maternal grandfather is stricken with cancer, they deal with it in different ways: the elder daughter ignores the news and struggles eagerly to lose her virginity; the only son grapples with losing a friendship; while the youngest daughter adopts a literal, and perhaps matured, approach in dealing with grief, insisting on knowing what becomes of her grandfather’s body after internment, and soul after death. Hitting all the right notes, it stays away from sentimentality.
Day 6- Poland
An estranged grandfather, son and grandson embark on a journey to look for and reclaim their matriarch who has run off at age 75 to be with another man in My Father’s Bike— her son, perplexed and frustrated, says, “At 75, you don’t go looking for love, you look for a place in the cemetery”. The journey brings all of their grouses to the fore: the son, a concert pianist, cannot forgive his father’s negligence; the grandson resents his father for maltreating his mother. Like Holland’s Bon Voyage, it is ideal family entertainment.
Day 7- Turkey
The newest entrant to the EU, and this festival, presents Love Likes Coincidences, a film announcing its main plot device in its title. A generic story of boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-part, years later, boy-meets-girl again, is made-up, through several gimmicky flashbacks, to be a complex story. It doesn’t succeed, filmed as it is with coincidences. It dissolves into bathos and predictability and submerges in the tears it desperately elicits.
Day 7- Serbia
In Serbia’s How I Was Stolen by the Germans a reclusive writer pines for a different world— a world in the past, and perhaps, literally coloured by nostalgia. His hermetic existence is altered when a former lover’s child is deposited at his doorsteps after her death; as he drives her to an orphanage, he tells the half listening, half sleeping child about growing up in Yugoslavia during the Second World War.
His present is captured in gray tones while his childhood is portrayed in colour, a visual cue. He becomes narrator and commentator over the flashback scenes— speaking of his conception, he says of his mother, “Physically she might have been the seductress, but in all other ways, she was the one seduced.” The irony, central to the story, is he sees a German officer, occupying his mother’s flat as a hero: the man cared for him while his family was preoccupied with adult problems and communist meetings. After the war, it would appear he was vindicated as people were dragged from homes and executed on the streets, under posters of a deadpan Stalin.
His mother, a blond willowy beauty (played by Jelena Djokic who recalls the winsomeness of Hollywood’s Amy Adams) falls into bed with the German officer in an excellently captured love scene distilling the beauty of the film’s cinematography. But she persists in her meetings, undermining him; so that, by the time the Allied forces subdue German troops, his ruin is already in sight. The soldier’s fate mars the boy forever.
Years later— loss, evident in his speech— he says to the drowsy girl: “You can’t have love and freedom, but you don’t need both.” At that moment, he may be speaking for himself and his country.
The audience may disregard the statement, but it would be impossible to ignore this film about a man in search of his country’s soul as he looks at the past. At this time in Nigeria’s history, this film should resonate with its citizenry: it is cinema; but it is also a warning.
Day 8- Spain
In Flowers from another Country, a busload of women arrive a depopulated village, Guadalajara, seeking stability, security, and where possible, love. The men want companionship, help and, naturally, sex. This difference in expectation means there is no chance for romance, but everyone here plays the fool: the adventurous young woman in love with clubs and dancing gets an old man who needs her in the farm and in bed; the lady in love with big city Bilbao falls for the man whose roots are firmly in the village; the lady desirous of normal, noisy sex with her husband has to share a home with her disapproving mother-in-law. Although, funny in parts and with script as colourful as a Junot Diaz work, it is a cynical examination of romance across countries.
Day 8- France
In Not Here to be Loved, the second feature from France, Jean Claude, a lonely bailiff, with an uneasy relationship with his father, falls for Francoise, a young woman he meets at a dance class; only she is attending the dance class in preparation for her wedding. Jean Claude’s anger is aroused when he finds out, but surely, as is the case in romance films, love would find a way; thus there is reconciliation. But the wedding looms. This charming, but slight film ends inconclusively with no one quite sure what becomes of the unusual couple leaving the audience to decide.
Day 9- Switzerland
In Sternenberg, Franz Engi returns to the village of his childhood to learn the village school is to close because of a lack of enrolment, and the schoolteacher, Eva, is the product of an affair he had in his youth. He enrols as a student while looking for an opportunity to tell of his misdeed. On her own, Eva is in a troubled relationship with a married man— “they never had a clever hand with men in that family.” Like Flowers from another Country it brings up love across borders: Eva falls for an Asian immigrant, but it glosses over the niggling issues. The film, like the Swiss village, is not ambitious and it is unsurprising when Eva packs her bags and travels with her lover into the sunset.
Day 9- Turkey
In My Father and My Son, Sadik returns to an indignant father having defied the older man by becoming a journalist rather than agriculturist. He returns from prison following a coup, determined to give his own son a home; but the grandfather, still bitter, rejects the boy. The most touching family drama at the festival, it is has adeptly cut sentimental scenes. When Sadik says, “Homeland, Home- I have been reviewing the meaning.” He could be speaking for anyone living in this shrinking world.
Day 10- Spain
Cousinhood is a comedy following three young men, one of whom has been stood up on his wedding day; his cousins comfort him as they stumble drunkenly into their childhood home where an ex-girlfriend now lives with her son. It is filled with uproarious scenes, and several great Hollywood pictures are referenced in the script. But it is more reminiscent of a recent Hollywood picture, The Hangover, with its portrayal of young men behaving badly in the shadow of a wedding.
Day 11- Sweden
Balls shows the different perceptions of masculinity through the relationship three mechanics have with women and particularly the complexities of this difference from generation to generation. Aziz is a prototype of old world masculinity; his son looks effete and may have a fertility problem— urging his wife to tie a baby bump; and Jorgen, his boss, thinks himself a weakling. It is a very funny film firmly on the side of present day perceptions of manhood which lies, mainly, in being oneself and, perhaps, standing up to age-old beliefs of manhood.
Day 11- Germany
The second German film at the festival, Sun Alley, is a coming to age story of teenagers living on the east side of the eponymous alley, which is a stretch of road between West and East Germany in the 1970’s. Micha and friends spend their leisure listening to banned music— “they like to ban things,” Micha says— and fantasising about girls. It chronicles the turbulence of teenagers at the time. Hollywood terms, with its use of rock music, Sun Alley is a cross between Almost Famous and High Fidelity.
Day 12- Greece
In Man at Sea, Alex, a captain, harbouring guilt from his son’s death, comes to pieces when he rescues a group of teenage immigrants who have fled their homelands after a breakout of violence. Plans to deliver them safely to various shores, including Lagos, fail repeatedly. The kids stay aboard and become a pestilence. It is a disturbing film with claustrophobic cinematography; it is a deep, dark exploration of guilt that comes off as a teenage Lord of the Flies with elements of Treasure Island.
Day 12- Netherlands
In the first few minutes of the perplexing parable that is Valhalla Rising, there is graphic violence: a skull is smashed, a man is beheaded, and another disembowelled. Its high powered cinematography and the silent, physically riveting performance of Mads Mikkelsen are the only reasons to stay with this slow, repetitive and quasi-plotless film. Viewers who saw Ryan Gosling in Drive would readily recognise the cinematic style of director Nicolas Winding Refn— a style refined in the Hollywood picture. Here, Refn’s film is little more than rapturous cinematography bookended by excessive blood and gore.
Day 13- Italy
A retired teacher is saddled with a teenager when his mother embarks on a journey in Scialla. In a brief, unbelievable scene, she informs him the boy is his, forcing him to give up his freedom as he looks after the boy. It is an incredulous revelation; one the film redeems with a funny script and some heartening drama. The boy steals from a drug dealer leading to a denouement that makes a case for teachers— somewhere in that classroom is a future drug dealer who might be inclined to excuse your son’s excesses over a memory of a Primo Levi (or Chinua Achebe) quote taught him.
Day 13- Denmark
Based on real events, Gang of Oss is the story of the rise and fall of a powerful mob in pre-war Oss, Holland told by Johanna the tramp, a young woman caught in the carnage of her surroundings. The violence is predicated on the political difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Often violent, Gang of Oss is a gritty ragtag The Godfather, lacking the sophistication of Coppola’s film but intense in spite of, or perhaps, because of, it.
Day 14- Romania
The Rest is Silence presents a semi fictional account of the making of a cinematic adaptation of the Independence War fought in the country. It follows a young man’s attempts to film a close to life version of that war. Often very funny, it raises questions about cinema as an art form. Not quite as experimental and intimate as that other European incursion into the making of a film, Fellini’s 8½, it is considerably more entertaining and less self-absorbed.
Day 14- Belgium
Belgium’s The Boat Race is a melancholy drama about Alex, a teenager enduring abuse at the hands (or appropriately, fists) of his father. He has a dream to win the Belgian Rowing Championship and spends time practising under his coach, defying his father, and alienating his teammates. On the eve of the Championship an episode happens which changes his life. The Boat Race is a heartbreaking drama of domestic abuse with a clear moral, allowing no compromise and no happy endings.
There might be only escape and no redemption; still, The Boat Race is compelling and so is the European Film Festival, which now moves to a few other cities: Kaduna, Jos, Port Harcourt and Lagos.