2016 has been a strange year of film viewing for me (partly on account of getting married, which it turns out takes up a lot of time and energy.) I’m yet to watch a number of essentials (Toni Erdmann, PatersonSieranevada, I Am Not Your Negro, Elle), but I’ve also been plesantly suprised by films I might otherwise have missed. Here are the films that left an impression on me in this craziest of years.

1) ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, UK/FRANCE)

Of all the films I saw in 2016, none was more mesmerising than Andrew Dominik’s documentary following the recording process of Nick Cave’s excellent album Skeleton Tree. The film captures a terribly troubling time for the Cave family, following the loss of 15 year old Arthur Cave and this runs through the film making it feel like a painfully private affair. It is a testament to Dominik’s handling of the situation that the Cave family were willing to release the film and it is also the director’s best film next to sprawling epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

2) THE QUEEN OF KATWE (DIR. MIRA NAIR, USA)
Mira Nair’s The Queen of Katwe is a film that sneaks up on you with an emotional undercurrent that pays off extraordinary well by the final sequence. Telling the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Mira Nair casts newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the central role and surrounds her with established talent David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as numerous child actors. A potentially challenging production from Disney – shot on location with many non-actors – it succeeds thanks to the director’s talent for straddling different worlds of production. A big hearted film for all audiences.

3) INTO THE INFERNO (DIR. WERNER HERZOG, UK/GERMANY/CANADA)
Of the two documentaries released by Werner Herzog in 2016 (the other being internet doc Lo and Behold), Into The Inferno was the most cinematic and most truly Herzogian. In Inferno Herzog tackles volcanoes, not a new subject for him (see 1977’s La Soufrière), but here he expands the subject to explore North Korea, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Iceland. Along the way Herzog discovers some amazing civilisations and wonderfully eccentric characters, particularly the larger than life Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White. Herzog’s recent drone footage, as well as the archive of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft make for majestic, frightening scenes.

4) CHI-RAQ (DIR. SPIKE LEE, USA)
One hell of a Spike Lee joint! Chi-Raq is an adaptation co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek play in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting. While the film was criticised by some (including Samuel L. Jackson at the Dubai Film Festival) for not dealing with America’s gun violence in a direct fashion, it is none-the-less one that frequently represents Lee at the height of his polemical powers. Teyonah Parris is a forceful presence as Lysistrata and appearances from Sam Jackson & Wesley Snipes are welcome, alongside John Cusack as a fiery white pastor.

5) ALI, THE GOAT AND IBRAHIM (DIR. SHERIF EL BENDARY, EGYPT/FRANCE)
One of the most refreshing films I saw this year was this tragicomic feature debut from emerging Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary. Set in contemporary Egypt and telling the story of two friends with different afflictions (one loves a goat, the other hears excruciating noises), Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim takes us across Egypt to its major water bodies as the characters attempt to remedy their problems. What exactly the film says about life in contemporary Egypt is hard to define, but its mischievous absurdity is pitch perfect for this most unusual of years.

6) NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (DIR. TOM FORD, USA)
For those in doubt of Tom Ford’s credentials as a film director, Nocturnal Animals goes some way towards quelling those feelings. This is a meta thriller, which makes fantastic use of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon, to explore a failed relationship (the main thread) through a violent fictional narrative written by Adams’ character. I am rarely a fan of duel narratives such as these – as often the intended effect simply falls flat – but in this case Ford creates a compelling, disturbing tapestry which is thoroughly gripping and emotionally complete.

7) A UNITED KINGDOM (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, USA/UK/CZECH REPUBLIC)
Amma Asante’s follow up to 2013’s excellent Belle is a very moving rendering of the true story of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) – the first president of Botswana – and his English wife Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), as they struggled with family, apartheid and the British empire to assume power after Botswana’s independence. Although the supporting characters are more swiftly sketched in, the film finds power in two highly impressive, emotionally engaging central performances by Oyelowo and Pike. With carefully crafted period visuals – contrasting a moody noir-esque London with the sun-kissed plains of Botswana – the film is a pleasure to watch, making Asante’s next film Where Hands Touch highly anticipated viewing.

8) HIGH-RISE (DIR. BEN WHEATLEY,  UK/BELGIUM)
Ben Wheatley’s most ambitious film so far is one that – once again – harks back to the psychedelic British cinema of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, perhaps more overtly than any other he has made. Taking JG Ballard’s original text and adapting it into a relatively plotless, decadent extravaganza, Wheatley gives us a film of surreal delights in which Tom James Bond Hiddlestone glides through sequences that would look at home in the films of Russell and Fellini. Wheatley’s body of work is one that feels organic, developing, never perfect, but always alive; more please.

9) THE HATEFUL EIGHT (DIR. QUENTIN TARANTINO, USA)
A troubling film. When I emerged from watching The Hateful Eight at the start of 2016, I didn’t know what to think, but I certainly felt pretty dirty. A parlour game in which nefarious characters engage with one another in the most base of terms; the film is an old style exploitation flick and Sergio Corbucci would surely be proud. Each scene plays out at a snails pace, the drama brimming with racism and women hating. It is the most disturbing film of Tarantino’s career. Now at the end of 2016 – having witnessing the politics of the last 12 months – I think I understand The Hateful Eight a bit more and I still feel dirty.

10) ONLY MEN GO TO THE GRAVE (DIR. ABDULLA AL KAABI, UAE/IRAN)
An intriguing discovery from the 2016 Dubai Film Festival: Abdulla Al Kaabi’s arthouse melodrama Only Men Go To The Grave is a film that evokes the genre works of Almodovar, Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk (a big influence on the Emirati director.) Telling the story of a group of women, struggling to deal with an undisclosed secret of their late mother, Al Kaabi uses the film as a vehicle to deal with taboos present in his culture and unite unlikely artistic collaborators from Iran, Iraq & the UAE. The film’s constantly inventive shooting style and compelling acting signpost Al Kaabi as a talent to watch in 2017.

A ‘Pitch-Dark’ Diorama is an original and stylish new indie film from Bangalore based filmmaker Santosh MP, currently screening online for free (available as a full length torrent and a 5 part web series.) We spoke to Santosh about taking risks as an independent filmmaker and finding your audience through hybrid distribution methods. For more details about the film, to download as a feature, and for ways to support it, you can visit vespertilio.in

Synopsis: Indranil Deashi is scouring for the right twist to complete his slasher thriller, ‘Pitch-Dark’.  In a parallel universe, the fictional characters inside of ‘Pitch-Dark’ are, meanwhile, constantly hurtling through an exaggeratedly possessive director’s many mood swings and idiosyncrasies.  When Indranil has just about nailed a fitting conclusion, an unexpected visitor turns up. Personal demons catch up with Indranil, leaving him shattered.  And dead.  Rajiv Dey, writer of schlock thrillers, attempts to recapture his glory days by accepting to finish ‘Pitch-Dark’. He’s promoting the novel to a deceptively thorny critic.  A hard-boiled, lecherous detective encounters a protagonist from the novel.  Brutally slashed.  And the hunt for the perpetrator begins.

What inspired you to make the film and what fresh approach to genre did you want to bring to Indian audiences?

I didn’t consciously set about to take on a fresh approach to a genre. The film itself has two main genres, surreal thriller and drama, with slasher horror thrown in between.

The treatment happened organically. I’d a thought experiment as a feature idea and my influences just happened to be directors and writers who dealt with the ‘puzzle story’. As a result, I’d to learn the machinations and write accordingly. The genre isn’t very well known here but it was a risk I knew right at the outset. The only solution was to produce it independently to retain the creative freedom and continue to make the film challenging right till the final sound mix. I’d to live with the film for three years, so the emotional investment had to be worth it. My father invested a huge chunk of his retirement funds and generous amounts came in from close friends and relatives to make this film possible.

The ramification is that finding an audience becomes more difficult and I have to find innovative ways to take the film to its audience and continue to create more films. The best way to promote work is to make more work. I can’t help but remain optimistic about it.

What informed your choices in terms of shooting style and what format did you shoot on?

I started off as a storyboard artist for animated films and my initial influences were Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. So I’d a very hollywood coverage in mind when I set about writing the script.

But the cinematographer, Karthik Muthukumar, was hesitant to take that route because it has become standard practice. He wanted to try out long takes that went on for minutes together. He also didn’t want ‘Over the Shoulder’ shots. So we ditched that straight away.

I was lucky that my actors were from a theatre background and were no strangers to performing uninterrupted for a long time. Furthermore, I had 5 timelines in the film. So each timeline required a distinctive style. Thus, we made strict rules for each timeline.

Timeline 1: Static camera

Timeline 2: Static camera but each new shot will be a new camera setup and no angles will be repeated.

Timeline 3: A mix of static and handheld. Black and white film stock only.

Timeline 4: Handheld. Mid-shots.

Timeline 5: Handheld. Mostly close-ups dictated by staging. The longest shot in the film runs for around 5 minutes.

Because it was an independent production, we couldn’t afford sets or production designers. So the cinematographer also insisted on a 1.85:1 aspect ratio to not let the budget limitation show through.

The film was shot on Super 16. I was hell bent on shooting on film and found a valuable ally in Karthik. An independent film shot on celluloid with sync sound was going to be hard and needed tremendous discipline. Luckily, our crew rose to the occasion. The resultant visual quality was worth the effort.

How can the audience watch the film – could you tell me about the mini-series and full feature version. Are there any differences in the versions and what made you decide on this distribution strategy?

With 2 genres, 5 timelines, and 4 languages, I think it was natural that I’d to hunt for my audience. The only way I could do it is to make it accessible for everyone to watch it at their convenience. The film is available on Vimeo and Youtube as a mini- series, and the feature version as a BitTorrent bundle.

It was a personal observation that it is easier to commit to a shorter duration while streaming a film. While the film was originally made as a feature, I did end up having 20 odd minute chunks of it while sending it to the sound department. Purely out of personal interest, I ended each reel at a cliffhanger. It didn’t feel like a bad strategy to release it as a mini-series, especially in today’s binge watching environment. So I took it as a form of an experiment.

There is no difference between the mini-series and the feature version on BitTorrent but there might and probably will be a difference in the viewing experience. The latter will be relentless for 2 straight hours while the former will hope to tease the viewer into the next episode deftly and recalibrate storyline expectations.

The impact of the animated intro will be more pronounced, however, in the mini- series as it sets an ominous tone for each episode and the repetition becomes a character in itself.

This distribution strategy was devised to find my film an audience. Expecting a conventional theatrical release for a raw indie like this might have been unrealistic and it proved to be so. The only way out was self-distribution. The hitch is that the internet is such a huge place that small films are swamped to the point of being utterly insignificant.

Filmmaker Graham Jones’ Nuascannan movement inspired me tremendously to put the film out without any payment or time bound barriers and make it accessible to everyone. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues was a case study too. It is a huge risk but the only thing worse than a film to not make money is for a film to not be seen and not make money. I have an ongoing crowdfunding campaign for donations as well as a Paypal checkout on the site so that people can watch the film and if they enjoy it and would like to donate, they have a convenient method to do so.

Can you tell me about your next project?

I have a few projects lined up. I’d like to do a series of essays on the benefits of reading and the importance of bookstores. I’ve two feature ideas that have been outlined. The first one’s a thriller drama about the power play in an illicit relationship and the second is a semi autobiographical drama about high school boys on the lines of Mario Llosa Vargas’ “The Time of the Hero”. But the timeline for these films will depend on the donations that will come in for “A ‘Pitch-Dark’ Diorama”. I’m keeping my hopes up though.

It’s been 15 years since the cult classic Donnie Darko was first released and the world has witnessed some seismic events in between; a litany of wars and conflicts, the financial crash and, of course, the emergence of Kim Kardashian’s derriere. Director Richard Kelly has unleashed two sci fi oddities in that time, but it’s the tale of a troubled teen and a 6ft bunny rabbit that really captured the hearts and minds of a generation (including the editors of this website.) Reflections sat down with Kelly to learn about the new restoration, the perils of Hollywood and the lyricism of Tears for Fears…

What’s it been like revisiting the film after 15 years?

It’s been great. Arrow Films contacted me and they said they wanted to do a 4K restoration. That was music to my ears because the film has never been properly maintained. I was never happy with the transfer, the Blu-ray or any of it. It just never looked right. So they gave us this great resource to go back to the original negative and use all of today’s technology to present the film in a whole new way. It was a lot of work and I had a window of time available with Steven Poster (Donnie Darko’s DoP) to go and do it. It’s great.

When the film first came out it took a little while to take flight. Do you think it caught on in the zeitgeist?

I think it really caught on here (in the UK) for whatever reason. It caught on in the US but not as quickly. When it came over in 2002, I was blown away by the response. I was overwhelmed, it gave me a second wind, you know. I can’t say why it was here. I think maybe it might have something to do with the music being all UK based pop songs. It’s an American story, but it’s universal and it translates into many languages and crosses many cultures. There is something universal about being a teenager and confronting big metaphysical ideas.

You use a lot of musical scenes, was there a big inspiration behind that?

I love incorporating music into my films, and it’s always by design. It’s often planned ahead of time, written into the script, choreographed into the script. The lyrical moments for me are the most cinematic. I always want to protect the lyricism. It’s sometimes a challenge to do because, like that Tears for Fears sequence in the movie, that’s at least two minutes long and no one is speaking dialogue. There’s a lot of story, there’s a lot of narrative in that sequence and it’s completely essential to the film. But when you’re dealing with financiers and with the studio and people want the running time shorter, they’re looking at that and thinking it’s superfluous, self indulgent lyricism and I’m like, ‘That’s why I’m doing this!’ For the lyricism, right? It becomes a real fight to protect this stuff.

How did you know that sequence was particularly precious to you?

From the very beginning. It was written in the script that when they jump out of the bus and Jake’s feet hit the pavement that the piano note begins. I was like, I saw it. That was it. It had to be this way. Like in Southland Tales with Justin Timberlake lip synching to The Killers, and there are all these dancers and he’s got a Budweiser. That guy (Timberlake) saw it. Then you’ve got to convince the producers to let you take a day of filming, when you don’t have the rights to the song and the producers were like, “We don’t have the song, we don’t even know if we can get the song, the song might cost up to $200,000 and this is crazy”. You’ve got to pick your battles, and those are some that I picked.

In all of your films you really portray the dark side of humanity. What draws you to these kinds of films?

I think the first three films that I have made are obviously dealing with some big apocalyptic themes. Literally apocalyptic themes. There is definitely a disturbing confrontation with a lot of dark stuff. For these three films they almost seem like a part of a bigger story. All my films are connected in ways that people don’t completely realise yet. I think they are more compelling stories. I don’t want to only make films that are dark, so to speak. I would love to make films that are more optimistic, that have a happy ending. I am capable of doing that! (laughs). I don’t always plan on killing everyone or blowing up the world. I’m not looking to continue being ‘apocalypse boy’.

How do you feel about the theatrical cut at the moment. Is it important to you that everyone understood how the parallel universe plot worked?

I don’t favour one cut over the other. The Director’s Cut is much more novelistic, sprawling and it’s got a lot more science fiction logic to it. I think both cuts have their virtues and I’m not really satisfied with either of them completely but they are what they are. With this restoration I was really grateful that we were able to go in and make the image look better. There is a lot of people who have never seen this movie on the big screen. It’s a significant improvement.

Re-watching the film I was really intrigued by the Patrick Swayze character. In light of some of the recent high profile sex scandals I wondered if you had any thoughts about his role in the film?

At the time we were trying to satirise the self help (gurus). When we made the film in 2000 there was never really any big high profile sex scandal involving big celebrity or whatever. I think we were just thinking, ‘OK we’re going to deconstruct this self help guy who sort of shows up in the town and is sort of a snake oil salesman’. He’s clearly full of shit and we kind of thought, ‘what could be the worst possible secret or sinister back story for this character?’. OK, well if he’s a child pornographer, let’s go with that. Then it really became just a twist in the movie and he became one of the multiple villains.

In regards to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, what were you looking for in Donnie?

I think that you know that a film is connecting if you can’t imagine anyone else in the lead role. It had to be Jake. We both spent a lot of time with the script going through every scene and he would ask me to make adjustments to the dialogue. It was a really delicate, emotional balancing act trying to modulate Donnie’s arc. So yesterday Donnie yelled at his gym teacher, tomorrow he’s going to be burning down a house. We had to map out the timeline to figure out where he was emotionally on every day of shooting and where he would be in the calendar of 28 days. So it was a big undertaking. We had to be very meticulous with mapping it all out.

If you had control over the timeline of your film career would you have liked the success of Donnie Darko to have come a few films later?

Hindsight is always 20/20, you know? I think the order was what it was meant to be. It was not a success until it came to the UK. It was actually a disaster at Sundance, it was a flop in the US. So all the movies take time. You can’t really control the wind. A movie, when it gets released, the wind is either blowing at your front or it’s blowing at your back. You can’t control the wind. I just try to follow my instincts. On the next film we’ve been really careful to make sure all the elements are going to be in place. I hope the wind will be at our back.

Are you going to change to another genre in future?

Yeah. I’m working on a lot of new stuff and I’m going to be moving in a lot of new directions. I don’t ever just want to be repeating myself. I don’t ever want to get complacent or surrender to the marketplace or become cynical. I just want to keep moving forward and exploring new kinds of stories and new ideas. You’re going to see me move in a lot of new directions.

DONNIE DARKO 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from 17th December and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December. BFI Tickets are on sale now: http://bit.ly/2eww8r3

This December I attended the Dubai International Film Festival for the first time. Among the highlights of the festival (and there were many) was getting to meet the critics behind the excellent podcast Tea With Culture, Hind Mezaina (who also runs The Culturist) and Wael Hattar. I joined them to discuss day 4 of the festival, looking at vibrant Indian doc The Cinema Travellers, the cinema of the United Arab Emirates (with emphasis on the feature directors Ali F. Mostafa, Nujoom Alghanem and Abdulla Al Kaabi) and Al Kaabi’s intriguing Muhr Emirati award winning art house feature Only Men Go To The Grave.

More coverage coming soon from this great festival. I found it to be a slick, well organised affair, with lots of keen discussion & debate and a very eager filmgoing public. I particualrly enjoyed spending time with long-term festival goers (some of whom have returned each year since 2004) and meeting energised filmmakers having their world and regional premieres.

Highlights for me were Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim (Muhr Feature Award for Best Actor), Gaza Surf Club and Mawlana (The Preacher) – alongside those films mentioned above – while the chance to see Samuel L. Jackson discuss his career was something not worth missing.

The Dubai Internatonal Film Festival begins on the 7th of December, running through to the 14th. This year features a lineup of 155 films (features and shorts), and the programme includes a VR selection, beach screenings and an extensive Cinema of the World category hosting a wide range of international hits from the year’s festival circuit. There is much to be excited about this year, particularly the World Premieres featured in the Muhr Feature and Muhr Emirati categories, as well as intriguing titles having their regional premiers such as unique Afghan film Wolf & Sheep in Cinema of the World, urgent Iraqi drama Reseba (The Dark Wind) in Muhr Feature and intimate Syrian documentary The War Show in Arabian Nights. Read on for the films we’re most excited about.

Click the photos for trailers and clips:

ONLY MEN GO TO THE GRAVE (DIR. ABDULLA AL KAABI, UAE)
Muhr Emirati, World Premiere
Genre: Drama
After the Iraq-Iran war ended in 1988, a blind mother welcomes her estranged daughters to tell them a secret. Unfortunately, she accidentally dies while sharing it. During the funeral, the daughters try to deal with their mother’s sudden death and also work together to unveil her secret by looking for clues from visitors. Throughout the funeral, their own lives continue to unravel, giving room for buried family tensions to gradually surface, while struggling to deal with their own secrets and deep-rooted guilt. The daughters start to question everything about their mother’s life after a peculiar encounter…

MAWLANA / THE PREACHER (DIR. MAGDY AHMED ALI, EGYPT)
Muhr Feature, World Premire
Genre: Drama
Sheikh Hatem (Amr Saad) stands out in a society influenced by fundamentalist views. From leading the prayers at a government mosque to becoming a popular TV celebrity issuing fatwas that deviate from the traditional religious rhetoric, he has amassed millions of fans. His responses on TV reveal a witty and eloquent person against a backdrop of darkness, where power struggles rage. Hatem finds himself caught within a complex web of conflict – his personal life unravels and he tries to stay above the politics of institutions. When he is entangled in a delicate matter, he has to find a way to make a dent in the climate of hypocrisy and fear.

HONEY, RAIN & DUST (DIR. NUJOOM ALGHANEM, UAE)
Muhr Emirati, World Premiere
Genre: Documentary
Aisha, Fatima and Ghareeb are amongst the best known honey specialists in the northern parts of the UAE. Ghareeb is also considered a beekeeper because he established a sanctuary at the top of the mountains, where he can be in control of the surrounding environment and protect his honeybees. Fatima and Aisha prefer to roam the mountains freely to find the highest natural honey. Meanwhile, the bees are coping with climate change, survival challenges and the production of honey. Involuntarily, the bees have become integral to the lives of Aisha, Fatima and Ghareeb. But, for how long and to what extent can the bees keep providing?

WOLF & SHEEP (DIR. SHAHRBANOO SADAT, AFGHANISTAN)
Cinema of the World, Middle East Premiere
Genre: Drama
Writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s acclaimed film, which won a prize at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, shrewdly strikes a tonal balance between documentary and drama as it dwells on life in a small Afghan village, where little has changed over the years. Sadat’s camera and story focuses largely on the children of the village, weaving together a story that subtly tackles the importance of tradition and rituals in a community, where life is tough but also supportive, and where storytelling takes its place alongside life’s lessons. It may be simple in structure and tone, but its insight and sincerity shine through.

THE WORTHY (DIR. ALI F. MOSTAFA, UAE)
Muhr Emirati, MENA Premiere
Genre: Thriller
In a dystopian future, when the water supply has been poisoned, a group of unlikely survivors has taken refuge in an abandoned hangar. They struggle to stay alive and protect one of the last remaining sources of uncontaminated water. After a near-deadly altercation with bandits, who want to seize the water, two strangers appear to help fight off the bandits. The survivors’ leader agrees to host the strangers, as long as they conform to the camp’s rules. When one of the strangers betrays the group, the compound descends into madness, leaving only one question: who is worthy to live and to lead?

STILL BURNING (DIR. GEORGES HACHEM, LEBANON & UAE)
Muhr Feature, World Premiere
Genre: Drama
André, a Lebanese filmmaker, living and working in France unexpectedly meets Walid, a dear friend from his youth. During the Civil War, when they were in Beirut together, André and Walid were both driven by the same artistic vocation: cinema, and also by the same woman, Amira. Will their reunion – an all-nighter – revive repressed demons from their past?

76 MINUTES AND 15 SECONDS WITH ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (DIR. SEIFOLLAH SAMADIAN, IRAN)
Cinema of the World, MENA Premiere
Genre: Documentary
Photographer Seifollah Samadian (also a friend and collaborator of Abbas Kiarostami) put together this affectionate and insightful documentary after the death in Paris of the influential Iranian director and artist, utilising footage that takes in many phases of his busy artistic career. There are no interviews, which allows the footage to reflect Kiarostami’s own simplicity as a technical filmmaker and shows his sense of playfulness and embrace for the world around him, while the title reflects not only the running time but also that he died aged 76 and 15 days old.

ALI, THE GOAT, AND IBRAHIM (DIR. SHERIF EL BENDARY, EGYPT)
Muhr Feature, World Premiere
Genre: Drama
Ali falls in love with a goat, whom he names Nada. Ibrahim works at a recording studio and starts to hear voices that frighten him. Ali yields to his mother’s wish that he visit a healer, even though he doesn’t believe he is psychologically unstable. At the healer’s clinic, Ali meets Ibrahim. The healer diagnoses Ali and Ibrahim as “cursed” and prescribes a solution to break the spell; they must throw three “magic” stones in Egypt’s three water bodies. Ali, Ibrahim and Nada set off on an adventure that takes them to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Nile in this touching tale of friendship, reconciliation, self-discovery and self-acceptance.

WÙLU (DIR. DAOUDA COULIBALY, FRANCE & SENEGAL)
Cinema of the World, Middle East Premiere
Genre: Drama / Thriller
A slick West African crime drama that follows Ladji (the impressive Ibrahim Koma), an ambitious 20-year-old bus driver in Mali, struggling to make the money he needs to prevent his older sister (singer Inna Modja) from prostituting herself. He decides to switch careers and becomes a drug runner and impresses the operation’s boss (Olivier Rabourdin) with his ingenuity. The film marks the feature debut of French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly, who hits the right genre notes as Ladji’s life of crime heads into increasingly dark territory. The story is set alongside the run-up to the 2012 Mali Civil War, adding an extra intriguing political dimension.

THE WAR SHOW (DIR. OBAIDAH ZYTOON, ANDREAS DALSGAARD, SYRIA)
Arabian Nights, MENA Premiere
Genre: Documentary
In March 2011, radio host Obaidah Zytoon and her friends joined the street protests against the oppressive regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Knowing the Arab Spring would forever change their country, they began filming their lives and the events around them. However, as the regime’s violent response drove the country into a bloody civil war, their hopes for a better future are tested by violence, imprisonment and death. Obaidah leaves Damascus and journeys around the country. An intensely personal journey, THE WAR SHOW captures recent events in Syria through the intimate lens of a small group of friends.

RESEBA / THE DARK WIND (DIR. HUSSEIN HASSAN, IRAQ, GERMANY & QATAR)
Muhr Feature, MENA Premiere
Genre: Drama
Reko (33) and Pero (23) are a Yazidi couple preparing for their wedding, when ISIS fighters attack their village. Young Yazidi girls, including Pero, are sold as slaves and are tortured and raped. Reko, who escapes the attack as he was at work as a security guard at an American oil firm, is devastated by the attack. While searching for his family and Pero, he witnesses the tragic consequences of the attacks on the Yazidis. Eventually, he finds his family and Pero, who has been liberated and in a refugee camp. A sweeping narrative of love and courage against the backdrop of one of the most horrific war crimes of our time.

KHAREJ AL-ITAR AW THAWRA HATA EL NASSER / OFF FRAME AKA REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY (DIR. MOHANAD YAQUBI, FRANCE, PALESTINE, LEBANON & QATAR)
Muhr Feature, MENA Premiere
Genre: Documentary
OFF FRAME AKA REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY deals with the history and development of militant cinema in the Middle East. The film researches the motives and circumstances behind this genre and questions its dramatic end in 1982. In resurrecting a forgotten memory of struggle, OFF FRAME reanimates what is within the frame, but also weaves a critical reflection by looking for what is outside of it.

LAYLA M. (DIR. MIJKE DE JONG, NETHERLANDS, BELGIUM, GERMANY and JORDAN)
Arabian Nights, Middle East Premiere
Genre: Drama
Eighteen-year-old Layla, who was born and raised in Amsterdam, is smart, stubborn and of Moroccan origin. As she struggles with the increasing suspicion towards girls with headscarves and boys with beards, her faith intensifies. She joins a group of extremists who fight for their practice of Islam. She opts to marry a fellow extremist, Abdel, and together they travel and raise money for their causes. When they are involved in a shootout, they are forced to flee to the Middle East, where Layla encounters a world that initially nurtures her ideas, but finally confronts her with an impossible choice.

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (DIR. OTTO BELL, USA)
Cinema of the World, UAE Premiere
Genre: Documentary
A young Mongolian girl fights against tradition in this delightful and absorbing documentary (narrated by Daisy Ridley) that delves into the rarely filmed nomad Mongolian Kazakh community and in particular their tradition of building a working relationship with golden eagles. The elders insist it is a male domain (apparently ‘women get cold’), but 13-year-old Aisholpan is the daughter of an eagle hunter and is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps. The film makes the most of spectacular backdrops, as she trains her eagle, eventually entering the community’s annual Golden Eagle competition.

GAZA SURF CLUB (DIR. PHILIP GNADT, MICKEY YAMINE, GERMANY)
Arabian Nights, MENA Premiere
Genre: Documentary
Gaza – a strip of land with 1.7 million citizens – has 26 miles of coastline, with a harbour that no longer services ships. Wedged between Israel and Egypt and isolated from the rest of the world, very little enters Gaza and even less leaves it. Trapped in “the world’s largest open-air prison” and ruled by war, a new generation is drawn to the beaches. Sick of occupation and political gridlock, they find their own personal freedom in the waves of the Mediterranean – they are the surfers of Gaza.

In 2009 documentary filmmaker James Page travelled to North Korea on a tourist visa, carrying with him a set of different cameras. Fascinated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since a young age, James’ intention was not to come back with a story designed around a pre-conceived narrative, but to grasp the opportunity and connect with the real people he met. 7 years on James’ film, From North to South Korea, has its world premiere on Tuesday 18th October at the New Orleans Film Festival. We spoke to James to learn about his journey to North Korea and the one he has been on since, to finally release the film.

What is the most fascinating thing to you about North Korea?
For me, the most interesting thing about North Korea is the lack of information there is about the inner workings of the country and the lives of the people there.  Likewise the perceptions the outside world has because of this.

Could you tell me about the origins of the project?
From North to South Korea initially started as a desire to see the last country divided by the Cold War and see what 65+ years of division by politics looks like.  I visited both North and South Korea in 2009 armed with a polaroid camera, DV camera, Super 8 camera and a digital camera.  I thought that capturing a country unlike any other in different formats would be an interesting way to try to make some sort of sense of the things I would see and experience.  It was not until I came back from North Korea having made a friendship with my North Korean guides (Mr. Pak and Mr. Kim), and visited a South Korean friend (Geon-hee) that I realised I had formed friendships on both sides of the border and that despite both sets of people being Koreans, they had no realistic chance of meeting due to the division of their nation.  It was this realisation which made me pursue, what essentially was a personal study of a place, into a short documentary.

Why has it taken a number of years for you to be able to release the film?
2009 seems like such a long time ago to have shot a documentary which I am now releasing. Initially my biggest issue was moral and legal.  When I went to The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) I went under a tourist visa and not as a journalist.  When I came home I realised the content I had shot for my own use, told a story that I wanted to share with others, and as such anything I created and showed publicly would be considered a misuse of my tourist visa by the North Korean Government and Koryo Tours, the sanctioned tour company I utilised to visit the country. Violating a tourist visa in this way could result in both my guides loosing their jobs, the tour company having its license revoked, myself being barred from visiting North Korea again, and the potential of legal action.

Several TV and online documentaries about North Korea have chosen this route, believing that once they have their story they will have no need to go back to North Korea or worry about the people they came into contact with.  In order to make sure my guides would not be compromised by an unauthorised release of a film using ‘tourist footage’ I had to gain approval of the film by the North Korean government. If I could not get this authorisation, then I would not show the film.  Fortunately the owner of the tour company, Nick Bonner, has also produced 3 of the most respected, legally shot, documentaries about North Korea.  With his help and mentorship I was able to edit my original cut of the film in a way which maintained the same level of engagement with the  subject of North Korea, while using language that was non confrontational to the North Korean government.

After three years of various cuts, and a number of run arounds with Embassy Staff at the North Korean Embassy in London, I was finally given approval to show the film, and a confirmation that their would be no issues for my guides, the tour company, or any issues for me going back to North Korea in the future.  In that same time period I signed with a production company who was very eager to market the film, but once I finally got permission the documentary side of things had shifted, which then left my film stuck in a contract I could not leave for another year and a half.  Finally with my film free from government, moral and contractual issues, I was able to start post-production, which thanks to some amazing favours and talent, I was able to finally ‘finish’ in early 2016.  Its been a long journey and one I thought about leaving behind, but for better or for worse the situation on the Korean Peninsula has hardly changed, and the story I tell has stood the test of the past 7 years, due to the lack of change between the North and South.

What surprised you most about visiting North Korea?

It sounds very simple, but what surprised me most about North Korea was seeing people living their lives.  North Korea is probably one of the most politicised and dehumanised nations on earth, and the idea of what it must be like to live your day to day life there is on the bottom of many people’s question lists when trying to engage with the topic of North Korea.

What was the experience like from an emotional perspective? Was it moving, nerve wracking, surprising?
Initially visiting North Korea was intimidating.  Despite my attempts to study North Korea, its history, etc, it’s hard for all the terrifying things we hear about the country to not influence one’s experience.  Would people try to brainwash me?  Were there microphones in my hotel room? Would I be used as propaganda? These gut reactions quickly left, and I tried to engage with my guides as people and not as government minders.  However after leaving North Korea, visiting South Korea and seeing the border from both North and South and knowing people who I cared for on each side, the emotion that stays with me to this day is a great sadness for this division and the suffering this division has caused.

What did making this film teach you about your own experience, growing up in the USA & UK?
Having Grown up partially in the US you are taught at an early age that communism (or countries that call themselves communist) are the epitome of evil, before you have any idea of what communism or socialism are, so the idea of being in this ‘other’ place still carried a certain sense of unease despite however aware I thought I was about my own education. Trying to be aware of how my own unconscious prejudices influenced my experience of North Korea was a journey in itself.  Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is often labeled as a show capital, and indeed it is, but what nation’s capital is not a show capital?  We see North Korean’s as brainwashed into believing in a system and a certain way of life, but how have our own governments conditioned us to think and operate in a certain way?  Turning those statements about North Korea into questions about how our own countries operate and being aware of those same parallels in my life and our society was probably the biggest lesson I took in regards to my own upbringing in the UK and USA.

Is there anything that you would like the audience at the New Orleans Film Fest to take away from the film in particular?
I would like for people attending the New Orleans Film Festival to leave the film thinking about the people who live in North Korea and the division of Korea as a whole, the next time they see an article about the ongoing nuclear and human rights issues on the Korean Peninsula.

What kind of relationships did you develop around making the film? Who are you still in touch with?
The biggest relationships I have made from this film were my friendships with my North Korean guides Mr Kim and Mr Pak, and the continuing friendship with my South Korean friend Geon-hee. Keeping in contact with Mr. Kim, Mr. Pak and Geonhee has been two different experiences.  With Geonhee, despite that we now do not live in the same city, we keep in contact via the usual means of Facebook, Skype, whatsapp, etc.  We chat regularly, and its really an afterthought about our access to communicate with one another.  My communications with Mr. Kim and Mr. Pak couldn’t be more different.  The vast majority of North Koreans do not have any access to the world wide web, emails, or the ability to make calls or send letters to people outside of their borders.  I took the only avenue of communication with my guides that I was presented with; writing a letter to them, which was sent to the Korean tour company who would then review the letter and decide whether to pass it on to Mr. Kim and Mr. Pak.  Unfortunately I never got a response and have no idea if they received my letter or if they did try to respond.  One day I hope to go back and see them, show them the film, and see how they are.

What documentaries inspire you?
Nick Bonner’s film A State of Mind inspired me to make documentaries and try to approach subjects such as North Korea through people and not just politics.  More broadly such greats as Werner Herzog, Chris Marker, and Errol Morris are a constant source of inspiration.  Joshua Oppenheimer’s films have been a more recent inspiration as well.

What can you tell me about your upcoming filmmaking projects?
Currently I have a feature in development which is a sequel to my short.  From South To North Korea will attempt to make the impossible happen and allow for Geonhee to travel to North Korea legally and meet Mr Kim and Mr Pak.  The Film will examine the process of just how difficult it is for North and South Koreans to try to meet and the history and politics of why Koreans of both North and South have been kept from interacting with one another.

Turning the Holocaust into filmic material forces one to confront the never-ending debate about the responsibilities and limitations of cinema when it comes to depicting historical atrocities. In 1961 Jacques Rivette wrote a brutal review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, criticising the way the Italian director had shown the death of an inmate through a tracking shot which called attention to her dead hand. The review did not declare the Holocaust off-limits to artists, but warned against the danger of fetishizing a horror as unthinkable as the Shoah’s.

A few decades after Rivette’s review, Andrei Konchalovsky arrives at Venice’s 73rd International Film Festival to present Paradise, a moving portrait of the horrors of the Holocaust that is both visually stunning and yet does not aestheticize the Shoah.

Conceived in a way that mirrors a chamber play, Paradise concentrates on the way the Holocaust changes the lives of Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian aristocrat imprisoned for hiding Jewish kids in Nazi-occupied Paris, Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a French-Nazi collaborator who promises not to execute Olga in exchange for sexual favours, and Helmut (Christian Clauß), an SS officer and a former lover of Olga’s who tries to set her free from the concentration camp she is eventually sent to.

Konchalovsky does not depict the Holocaust using the crowded, large-scale violence scenes which had formed the repertoire of other works on the Shoah (arguably the most notable case being Schindler’s List) nor does he take the viewer straight into the lager’s hell the way László Nemes did with his magnificent and revolutionary Son of Saul. Yet he depicts the Shoah in a way that is no less unsettling and thought-provoking. He juxtaposes the idyllic paradises which the three characters long for with the horrors of the Holocaust, so that the full scale of the Shoah’s terror is not depicted through its explicit visual representation but through the way it gradually shatters the characters’ dreams.

Like Son of Saul, Paradise uses a 4:3 screen format, but unlike Nemes’s work, the camera stands still and does not follow the characters around the camp. Konchalovsky’s film opens, ends and is staggered with three monologues which the characters give sitting in front of the camera. It is a brilliant narrative device through which Olga, Helmut and Jules can speak of their lives before and after the war broke out and thus open up to the viewer, and it strengthens the empathy the audience feels for their stories.

Alexander Simonov’s mesmerising photography mimics the aesthetic of the black and white movies of the forties, and the attention to the geometry, symmetries and lights one perceives in each scene makes for some visually spectacular shots. Even so, Paradise never quite turns into a beautiful and yet somewhat cold painting, nor does Konchalovsky’s directing slips into the gratuitous fetishisation of the Shoah’s horror Rivette saw in Pontecorvo’s Kapò. Brilliantly photographed, written and directed, Paradise manages to depict the Holocaust in a way that both moves the audience and honours the victims of an unthinkable tragedy.

It is not everyday you watch a female-centric biopic which does not reduce its protagonist to a mere appendix of the man her fame is indissolubly bound with. Jackie, Chilean Pablo Larraín’s latest work, is one of such rare cases. It is a superb character study which does not just show Jacqueline Kennedy as John Fitzgerald’s wife, but a strong-willed woman who both loved her husband and struggled to come to terms with the pressures that being a Kennedy entailed. A beautifully written and directed tale that Natalie Portman’s superb performance as the late first lady turns into an outstanding piece of work – amongst the very best of those presented at Venice’s 2016 Film Festival.

Larraín employs several different narrative devices to reveal Jackie’s persona. We first meet Jackie shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death. She is furious at the way the press is handling the story and invites a journalist to her house to give her version of the facts. The interview is the first entry into Jackie’s world, and also a great vantage point to understand the conflict between her tormented private life and public figure. The journalist recalls an old White House TV tour Jackie starred in, and Larraín intelligently juxtaposes the smiley debutant-esque TV version of Jackie with the bitter one she shows to the journalist. But the interview must eventually be published, and Jackie can only reveal a small fraction of the traumas she has suffered. She does so with a priest, whose exchanges with the first lady are among the film’s most touching moments.

Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is a true gem. The film seamlessly shifts from Jackie’s heart-breaking memories to Bob Kennedy’s frustration with the way the Johnson administration will sideline the Kennedys, while the different entry points into Jackie’s life (the interview, the old TV show and the chats with the priest) help building a multifaceted and magnetic character.

Larraín staggers Jackie with old-looking footage that reconstructs the White House tour she gave as well as some original material from the early 1960s, mimicking a strategy he had already successfully adopted with his best foreign feature Oscar-nominee No (2012).

Yet Jackie is also a testament of Natalie Portman’s talent. Watching the real footage of the White House Tour the first lady gave in 1962, one realises how spot-on Portman’s accent, facial expressions and gestures are. Her moving performance adds strength and credibility to the drama, and the way she becomes Jackie leaves one speechless.

Jackie is not a hagiography of the woman who survived John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. It is much more than that. It is the vivid and poignant story of a lady whose entry into one of the world’s most powerful families was both a blessing and a curse. It is a tale so exquisitely written and directed that it will move many to tears. It is, above all, a memorable film.

Argentinian writer Daniel Mantovani has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is at the height of his career. He gets invited to countless of conferences and readings, hobnobs with ministers and ambassadors, and lives in a majestic Barcelona villa with a library the size one would expect to see in a Borges’s short story. But something is wrong. He has not been able to write for five years, and the Nobel Prize might have confirmed his greatest fear: turning into the sort of writer whose works coincide with the taste of the establishment he so deeply scorns. But what is it that a writer should try to achieve? What is his purpose, and what is it that moves him to write in the first place?

It is upon these questions that Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn build El Ciudadano Ilustre, a moving and thought-provoking tale of homecoming, art and belonging directed with a warm and smart touch that lingers long after the film’s ending credits.

It is, first and foremost, a brilliant character study. When the mayor of Salas, Mantovani’s Argentinian hometown, informs the Nobel laureate he intends to award him the medal for Distinguished Citizen, Mantovani returns to the tiny village he had fled thirty years before and embarks on a Wild Strawberries-like journey that will shatter his aloofness and makes him confront old memories and past loves.

Salas is a tiny rural village, most of whose inhabitants have never read any of Mantovani’s books and yet follow him around the village as if he were a rock star. The mayor himself insists that Mantovani is to be paraded around the city on top of a fire-brigade truck, standing next to the local teenage beauty queen, and the city council puts together a power-point presentation to hail the writer as the nation’s new hero. They are all wonderfully written and superbly funny moments, but they only stagger what remains, at its core, a deeply nostalgic tale.

There is a memorable scene in which Mantovani gives a quick interview for Salas’ local TV channel, and when asked what his job entails he claims a writer is someone who is not satisfied with the way the world is, and wants to add something to it. He, however, has never been able to write about anything other than Salas. Life in Europe did not provide him with the inspiration he was after, and all his tales have been set in the village he ran away from. In the end, the story of his comeback will turn into a novel itself. Duprat and Cohn skilfully structure El Ciudadano Ilustre into five chapters, so that the film looks like the book it ends up inspiring. But when a journalist presses him to reveal whether the book is based on true events, Mantovani bitterly replies asking whether the question matters at all. Does it make any difference whether what one writes is based on reality, or figments of one’s imagination?

All throughout his staying in Salas Mantovani’s fellow citizens ask him the same question, and pressure him to confirm the names of the places and people he got his inspiration from. He keeps reminding everyone that his work is pure fiction, but nobody wants to believe that. To the eyes of Salas’ inhabitants, Mantovani’s writing serves a specific function. If for the Nobel laureate writing adds something to a world that does not live up to one’s expectations, for his fellow citizens it is a way to grant immortality to Salas and its people.

This is what makes El Ciudadano Ilustre a truly remarkable work. Duprat and Cohn’s latest work debunks the act of writing by offering different and at times conflicting takes on its purpose. It is profound and intriguing, intellectually rich and yet written and directed in a way that seamlessly shifts from moments of surreal humour to heart-breaking scenes where Mantovani tries, and fails, to re-establish a degree of connection with the town he escaped. El Ciudadano Ilustre is one of this year’s Venice Film Festival greatest surprises – hopefully the jury will award the Argentinian duo the accolades they deserve.

There is a tendency to write off costume dramas as inherently self-referential films, hardly capable of conveying a message that would speak to today’s audiences as much as it would have in times closer to the events it portrays. This is not the case of Frantz, François Ozon’s moving post-WWI tale which the French director presented at the 73rd edition of Venice Film Festival, a film whose timely pacifist message resonates across time and space.

Set against the backdrop of the devastation the first World War left Europe in, it tells the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young German girl who lost her 23-year-old husband Frantz (Anton Von Lucke) on the French front and cannot let go of her past, at least until a supposed French friend of his, Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up and the encounter will change her life forever.

We do not know just how close Adrien and Frantz were, and there are moments in which their relationship feels as though it could have been more than a beautiful friendship, but Frantz is a film that is so beautifully written that truths and lies are always inextricably wrapped up, so that every supposition we make gets refuted only minutes afterwards.

Frantz is a humane and delicate tale, centred upon the conflict between the older and younger generations, where the struggle between fathers and sons that makes for some of the most poignant and moving scenes. There is a memorable moment in which Frantz’s old father initially refuses to help Adrien due the grief the French people caused to his family, and eventually asks him to carry back to France his late son’s violin, and another heart-breaking scene in which the old man confronts a group of German nationalists reminding everyone it was the older generation who sent the young to die, and now drinks to the death of their own children.

Ozon chooses to shoot post-WWI Europe in black and white, and it is only during Adrien’s flashbacks or the rare times he will be playing the violin for Frantz’s family that colours fill the screen and the film magically brightens up, as though forerunning the promise of a better future, which never truly shows up. For war destroys cities, corrupts souls and fuels hatred, and Ozon portrays the physical and spiritual devastation of WWI turning Europe into a colourless wasteland.

In a time when the integrity of the Europe we know is under the threat of constant crises, Frantz’s message is a timely reminder of war’s de-humanising character, and a brilliant testament of the ways in which costume dramas can say so much about our present as they do about the past they portray.

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