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Venice Film Festival 2014: Simon's blog (part 2)

Posted Thursday 4 September 2014 by Simon Ward in Festival Reports

So, 31 films in and the latter half of the Venice Film Festival is proving more meaty with some very interesting titles from around the planet. Here are a few of my highlights.

Shinya Tsukamoto's Japanese war film, Nobi (Fires on the Plain), which he is at pains to say is not a remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 classic, but instead a return to the novel source material, is a powerful, rage-filled beast - in which Tsukamoto himself stars as an inexperienced private fighting in the living hell of the Pacific at the tail end of WWII. 

Nobi (Fires on the Plain)
Shinya Tsukamoto's Nobi (Fires on the Plain)

It’s a phantasmagoric grotesquery, with a tone hovering in a liminal space between life and death. As the starving and lost private tries to make it across the jungle to his forces’ evacuation point, he must avoid the victorious American marines and local militia. Along the way he attempts to hold on to what is left of his humanity while cannibalism and savagery threaten to psychologically overwhelm him. It’s a potent, extremely bloody, completely immersive experience which gives new meaning to the worn adage ‘war is hell’. One for the strongest stomachs which has a slim, but possible, chance at a UK theatrical release thanks to Tsukamoto’s status as director of the Tetsuo films.

In quiet counter-point to Tuskamoto’s film, but one suspects made with equal passion, comes Roy Andersson’s (Songs from the Second Floor, You, The Living) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. A series of the director’s trademark laconic, tender and wry tableaux, this does pretty much what the title suggests (minus the pigeon). A pair of down-at-heel travelling salesmen, peddling tired novelty jokes, search, Godot-like, for a shop called Party which appears to have vanished. Along the way they experience all manner of capitalist and consumer heartache. Yet the film never becomes a simplistic polemic and is more interested in the absurdity of big business and the everyman’s place within the system. It’s a truly unique vision which won’t expand his audience, but will greatly please friendly critics and fans alike.

Hill of Freedom
The latest from Hong Sangsoo, Hill of Freedom

Hong Sangsoo’s (Ha Ha Ha, Our Sunhi) latest, Hill of Freedom, sees us in familiarly wry territory from the South Korean auteur. His sixteenth film follows a young Japanese man’s search in Korea for a woman he had hoped to marry several years earlier. She has been away and just received a series of letters he sent to her when they drop to the floor, mixing up the order of the letters as she reads them. So Hong plays with the time structure of the film, a preoccupation from a number of his earlier films, examining how time organises our perception of events and of people in mysterious ways. It will no doubt struggle to find distribution but for fans of Hong’s work (like me!) it is something to seek out.

Michael Almereyda’s (Nadja) Cymbeline follows his previous contemporising of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with similar results. It boasts a starry(ish) cast including Ethan Hawke (ubiquitous at the Venice festival with several films to promote), Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich and John Leguizamo, and pitches a biker gang (the Britons) against the police force (the Romans), in a manner that owes something of a debt to both Kenneth Anger and Baz Lurhmann. Purists hated this take on Shakespeare but it you can go with it, it has a certain low-rent cheesy cult charm. I suspect given the cast it’ll find its way to UK cinemas where it will need a fair wind and kind critics to make its mark.

Red Amnesia
Wang Xiaoshuai's Red Amnesia

Chinese auteur Wang Xiaoshuai’s (The Days, Beijing Bicycle) latest, Red Amnesia, is one of the strongest films at Venice this year. It owes a good deal to Haneke’s Hidden but is equally its own creation. An elderly grandmother finds herself harassed by a mystery phone caller, which may be the result of one of her yuppie son’s construction deals going wrong. Yet she thinks it may have something to do with her denouncing a neighbour to the communist party many years earlier. As the harassment steps up, and we are in real fear of violence, the films exposes the New China's capitalism and its cost to the older generations, as family values disintegrate in a gold rush. Yet it’s never quite so simple, and the film also captures a complex emotional register between dream and reality, not to mention subtly engaging with queer politics and cultural guilt. It was a riveting two hours which I really hope wins something and gets picked up for UK distribution where it ranks alongside the work of Jia Zhangke in its multi-layered portrait of contemporary Chinese life.

Seeing Abel Ferrara’s (Driller Killer, Welcome to New York) Pasolini here in Venice was a treat. Perhaps Ferrara’s most accomplished work since King of New York, this controlled (which can’t always be said of Ferrara!) take on the last 24 hours in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life is riveting cinema. Willem Dafoe is terrific at capturing the intellectual, political and psycho-sexual complexities of one of the greatest Italian artists of the 20th century. The films mixes Pasolini’s work as a filmmaker and literary intellectual with his queer sexuality and political transgression (which most people believe is why he died) and posits that Pasolini’s murder was a direct result of his gay cruising.

Willem Dafoe in Abel Ferrara's Pasolini

Into this heady mix Ferrara powerfully weaves his own rendition of Pasolini’s last unfinished film project, about two men on a sexual odyssey into a queer utopia, in an imagined Italy, which goes beyond this world and into limbo in the next. While Ferrara and Pasolini are both perhaps acquired tastes for mainstream audiences, this film magnificently manages to please both fanbases in a relatively accessible manner which is no mean feat. It’s hard to imagine this film won’t be wending its way to UK cinemas early next year.

Venice Film Festival 2014: Simon's blog (part 1)

Posted Monday 1 September 2014 by Simon Ward in Festival Reports

It’s just closing in on the half-way point here at the Venice Film Festival and the sunshine has been replaced by torrential rain, thunder and lightening. My feet are wet and many of the films are too.

I’ll skip talking about the actual films I am seeing as a juror for the Europa Cinemas Label Venice Days Award as we won’t be deciding who wins until Friday night. But, outside of this, highlights so far include:

99 Homes from director Ramin Bahrani (who made Chop Shop and one of my favourite shorts of all time, Plastic Bag, which you can watch for free online) is a pleasingly angry indictment of the still reverberating sub-prime mortgage disaster, which precipitated the Western economic meltdown and destroyed many ordinary peoples' lives around the world. Construction worker Nash (a terrific, career best-to-date performance from Andrew Garfield) loses his home to real estate shark Carver (Michael Shannon), only to end up shamefully taking a job with Carver and evicting other hard working neighbours just like himself.

99 Homes
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes

In the process he makes a lot of money, but loses his son and mother's (played by Laura Dern) affections. It's an outraged moral tale, watching as Nash compromises his own integrity to save his family and pays a terrible price. If at times the film threatens to slip into schematic predictability, Bahrin ultimately pulls the whole thing off with aplomb and delivers an engrossing, emotionally complex take on the underside of the American dream. In another time he'd (no doubt proudly) be sitting on the McCarthy blacklist for this terrifically controlled call to arms.

Much talked about has been Peter Bogdanovich’s (The Last Picture Show) return, after a hiatus of 13 years, to fiction feature making with She’s Funny That Way. While it failed to please most critics, it seemed to get the audience on side with its blend of Woody Allen-esque whimsy and schtick.

She's Funny That Way
Imogen Poots and Owen Wilson in She’s Funny That Way

A starry cast including Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Aniston peppered with cameos from the likes of Michael Shannon, Quentin Tarantino and Dianne Wiest guarantees it UK distribution (I would think). Wilson plays a married theatre director who habitually beds a series of women using an identical patter each time. Gifting each of the women he sleeps with life-changing amounts of money, things quickly get out of hand when his latest conquest, a young prostitute, turns up coincidentally to audition for his latest play, which also happens to star his wife. As his personal life spirals out of control, his new leading lady recounts her rise to fame as a result of the play. Jennifer Aniston is the surprise here with her crass, almost sociopathic therapist mixed up in the lives of virtually all the characters and chewing them and the scenery up as she goes. It's not exactly a subtle performance but it doesn’t aim to be.

Also much anticipated was Ulrich Seidl’s (Import/Export, Paradise trilogy) In the Basement. Seidl returns to his documentary roots here, with a typically provocative exploration of a cross-section of dysfunctional Austrians who use their basements for a range of socially taboo activities. A band of elderly Nazis drink amid banned Third Reich paraphernalia; a gun-obsessed survivalist creates a shooting range for him and his rightwing friends while privately singing opera; a dominatrix tortures her slave, and so on. The title inevitably brings to mind the Fritzl case, and this hangs over the film as Seidl asks what is it about Austria that can produce such a man. However, it does feel a little like this great Austrian filmmaker is marking time with a film which fails to surprise anyone familiar with his body of work, and the likelihood of it receiving a UK theatrical release is slim at best.

The Humbling
Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino in The Humbling

The Humbling, Barry Levinson's latest has a by turns self-indulgent and funny Al Pacino as a famous actor facing a mental breakdown and a resulting creative block towards the end of his illustrious career. When he strikes up an unlikely relationship with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of some old friends, his life is thrown into turmoil but simultaneously rejuvenated. If you can get past all the self-reflexivity of actors playing actors and wringing their hands about the travails of the creative process, there are some very amusing moments here. The often sparkling repartee between Pacino and Gerwig is a treat, and depending on how kind critics are this has the potential to become a minor hit.

And staying with Pacino, David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express) continues his return to his roots (following his recent, acclaimed Joeafter his studio knockabout diversions and delivers a compelling character study of an isolated locksmith, the titular Manglehorn.

Estranged from his son, fixated on a long-lost love and embittered by his own dysfunctional inertia and rage, a budding romance with a bank teller (played with real charm by Holly Hunter) slowly teaches hermit Manglehorn how to embrace the world once again. It's a slight and overly familiar story, but is brought to life by Gordon Green's surehanded and resolutely unsentimental directing and ably supported by his regular DP Tim Orr. It won't set the world in fire but it proves very effective and well handled.

Right then, back out into the rain for some more films…

10 questions for... an ICO intern!

Posted Friday 15 August 2014 by Sarah Rutterford in Cinema Careers

Aga Baranowska
Aga Baranowska, our most recent intern hard at work!

At the ICO we offer internships in the office during busy times, and this year we took on Aga Baranowska (@BaranowskaAga) who impressively combined ICO office duties two days a week with studying for her MA at Birkbeck. We always endeavour to make our interns' experience as varied and enriching as we possibly can and below, Aga answers our questions about the experience... no pressure, Aga!

Why did you apply to be an intern at the ICO – what did you hope to learn?

As soon as I saw the posting on the website, I was really excited about the internship opportunity! I had been following the ICO for some time, and wanted to learn more about them. I was new to the UK, so I wanted to gain valuable work experience here and learn specifically about the British film industry, and I also hoped I would learn about different areas of the industry thanks to the ICO’s activities being so varied. The posting was for an Events & Admin internship, helping with ICO training courses and Screening Days, so I knew I would be able to use my events management skills.

After I sent in my application, I was invited for an interview. Hurray! My interview was with Becky Clarke and Sarah Bourne. We talked about the ICO, the role, my experience and my expectations for the internship. The interview felt natural, and Becky and Sarah were friendly and passionate about their work, which perfectly describes the atmosphere in the office as I discovered after I started the internship.

What studies were you doing alongside the internship? Has the internship had any impact on your academic work (other than taking time away from it!)?

I’m doing an MA in Film, Television and Screen Media at Birkbeck, University of London. One of the reasons I chose this programme was because it combines academic work with practical opportunities. As I want to work in the film industry, gaining work experience alongside completing the MA programme was very important to me.

Even though the internship at the ICO was not part of my programme, the experience has added to the knowledge I’ve gained in my studies. Earlier this year, I took a Film Festivals module, and as part of the course I attended the Berlin International Film Festival. Talking to the ICO programming team about their experiences at Cannes and helping with the ICO’s Develop Your Film Festival course shed new light on the topics I studied in this module.

What key films and/or cinematic experiences informed your love of cinema?

There have been many films and experiences over the years that have shaped my love of cinema. When I took the Intro to Film course in my first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, I was amazed by the films we saw each week: we started with Citizen Kane, and continued with The Piano, Raise the Red Lantern and I am Cuba. Combined with my first exposure to film history and theory, it was a hugely impactful experience which convinced me that film was not only my passion but also the career I wanted to pursue.

Then I saw a retrospective of South Korean cinema at the New Horizons Film Festival in Poland. The films I saw, Old Boy, Peppermint Candy and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, had a profound impact on me. As a result, I changed my university programme, added East Asian Studies as one of my majors, started learning Korean and eventually lived in South Korea for a summer. I still have a soft spot for Korean and East Asian films.  

A couple of years ago, I started reading more about women’s cinema and feminist approaches to film studies, and I have become so interested that I’m planning to focus on this area in my dissertation. It is impossible to list only a couple of films here, but since moving to London I have been enjoying Chantal Akerman’s retrospective organised by A Nos Amours, events put together by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image as well the ICO’s Jemma Desai through her initiative I Am Dora, and Selina Robertson through her film club, Club des Femmes.

Please describe a typical day for you at the ICO...

My day would depend on what was happening at the ICO. A week or two prior to a training course or Screening Days, I dedicated my time to these events. I helped with updating and printing hand-outs and packs, as well as preparing name badges and other on-site material.

On other days, I assisted with events that were scheduled for later dates by updating the ICO website, preparing e-mail blasts and promoting the events. I also worked on a number of other projects, for example, researching and compiling a list of arts venues, theatres, community halls and village halls in Wales to promote the Neighbourhood Cinema event.

Please can you give an overview of your experiences?

I started my internship at the end of March and was originally meant to finish in June. However, I enjoyed it so much that I extended my time and stayed until the beginning of August. I mainly helped with Screenings Days and training courses, but I also conducted research for ICO releases, collected and entered film data for programming activities, and updated the database used by everyone in the office.

Over the course of my internship, I had the opportunity to attend two Screenings Days events, one in London and the other in Cardiff. It was a great chance to see first-hand the important role the ICO plays in the film community. Making a contribution to the work the ICO is doing was definitely the most rewarding aspect of the internship. Throughout my time, I always felt that I was working on meaningful tasks and projects, and I truly felt part of the team.

What have you learnt from the experience? What do you think you’ve gained?

I have learned a lot! As I had hoped, I learned about various areas of the UK's film industry. That was crucial for me: being relatively new to the UK but hoping to work here I knew I had a lot to learn, and the internship has helped me in this regard. I have also gained a better understanding of the various roles within the industry, and the difficulties that each sector faces.

The ICO staff are knowledgeable, experienced and always eager to share. I have had a number of talks about the industry with Simon Ward and Becky Clarke, which were incredibly informative and inspiring. They also shared tips about working in film which I know will help me succeed in the industry.

What aspects of working here have you enjoyed the most – and the least?!

I enjoyed the projects I was working on, and the one compiling the list of venues that would be interested in starting a film programme in Wales is definitely at the top. Not only did I get to know Wales and its communities a little bit more, but it also felt rewarding when people were interested in the event that I was contacting them about.

However, I would have to say that the most enjoyable aspect of this internship was working with the welcoming, open and friendly ICO team. Everyone is passionate about film and I loved being part of this environment, talking about films and directors on a regular basis throughout the day. I appreciated listening to various opinions and sharing my thoughts, and I have a long list of wonderful films mentioned in the office that I will be catching up on.

Has the internship helped you gain entry into the industry, and do you think it has improved your job prospects?

Yes and yes! The internship has without a doubt opened up new opportunities for me. The experience allowed me to enhance my CV, gain valuable career advice and meet people from different areas of the industry. What I found particularly unique about my experience at the ICO is that everyone in the office was eager to share career advice and supported me in my search to secure a position following the internship.

Have your overall career ambitions changed since doing the internship?

I have realised how important it is to gain diverse experience in various sectors of the film industry to be able to fully understand it. I think this is reflected in the diverse activities of the ICO, and the career paths of many of the staff members. My overall career ambition has definitely been influenced by this experience, but more importantly it showed me generally that there are many different paths that can lead you to achieve your career goals.

Finally: if you were giving advice to future ICO interns or interns within the film sector generally, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or offer suggestions. I think it shows that you are interested in the organisation and the wider industry, and are engaged in your work.

Take even the smallest tasks seriously and be committed to the project you are working on. Some projects might not be glamorous, but it is still important to get them done as well as you can.

Be passionate about cinema and dedicated to working in the industry. You must be both committed and organised to be able to devote your time and attention to the internship while possibly working part-time, studying, or sometimes doing both at the same time.

Thank you ICO for an amazing internship experience!

Thank you, Aga!

News round-up... 6/8/2014

Posted Wednesday 6 August 2014 by Sarah Rutterford in News Round-up

The trailer for At Berkeley: our superb new documentary by Fred Wiseman


  • We've still got spaces left on our new training programme REACH: Strategic Audience Development for Independent Exhibitors. Bursaries (via Creative Skillset and the BFI Film Audience Network) are still available towards course places and delegates will get a free - yes, FREE - pass to Cambridge Film Festival. Don't miss out!
  • We've also opened applications on Get It Seen, a course giving emerging film producers the inside track on the UK distribution and exhibition sectors. Find out more.
  • Screening Days is growing with the addition of new Hub-based events - in addition to our two ICO National Screening Days - dated for the coming year. This represents a fantastic opportunity to catch all the key upcoming releases! See all upcoming dates.
  • We were excited to see so many key documentary filmmakers highlight Frederick Wiseman - director of our upcoming release At Berkeley - as their favourite documentarian in Sight & Sound's 100 Best Documentaries Poll, which listed Titicut Follies (1967; no. 27 in the main poll, no. 6 in directors' favourites) and Welfare (1975; no. 47 in the main poll) as his best works.
  • We've also been adding to our project, Fred Wiseman: Reality and Film, collating documentarian's responses to their favourite Wiseman films - Joshua Oppenheimer chose Titicut Follies and Eric Steel, Domestic ViolenceRead more.
  • Studio Ghibli fans everywhere were aghast this week when a decision to halt production was announced, but now it seems the closure may only be temporary - what's really going on? The Independent takes a closer look.
  • The European Film Academy has launched a fund to support jailed Ukranian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
  • There will be an ICO contingent at Venice Film Festival in a few weeks' time - check out the line-up, which includes the world premiere of Inarritu’s Birdman, Fatih Akin's The Cut, David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, Michael Almereyda's modern-day Cymbeline and Roy Andersson's snappily titled A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting the Nature of Existence. Exciting!

Calls for submissions & other opportunities

Essential reading...

  • What's it like to attend a film festival in a country at war? Read this brilliant report from Odessa International Film Festival which has gone ahead despite the conflict in Ukraine.
  • A great post on The F Word by one of our programmers, Selina, on the films in the BFI's Teenage Kicks season this summer.
  • An excellent aide-memoire for anyone planning an artists' film screening from
  • Which cinema is set in a converted 14th century barn and first screened films to local troops during WWII? August's Cinema of the Month!
  • Two equally inspiring pieces - the first on Spectacle, an entirely volunteer-run cinema in Brooklyn: "Seven days a week the volunteer-made, volunteer-run, 30-seat screening space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hustles out a menagerie of films — rare, radical, forgotten, misbegotten, offbeat, and controversial — which they charge $5 to see"...
  • And the second on Budapest Film Zrt, Hungary's largest art house cinema network, with assistant programmer Orsi Farkas talking about how and what they programme, their audience development work, and their fight for funding.
  • And finally, something completely essential: Moomin rules for a happy life.
  • Moomin


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