BIFF and Two Independent Films

BIFF, or Bergen International Film Festival, is well under way, and seems to continue being surprisingly popular, judging by some of the lines forming at certain key times. One of the things I like about the festival is that they have a film quiz in the evenings that give ample opportunity for receiving free tickets en masse. Also, if one at the final day of the quiz has the highest score, one wins a free pass for next year’s festival. Needless to say, we won again this year.

I also like that many of the films are not subtitled, so the audience has to actually listen, and maybe take a pause in their incessant devouring of sweets from crinkly plastic bags. Even uncomfortable Rumanian films about illegal abortions or quiet independent films about suicide are, for some, opportunities for succulent saccharine feasts. I will never understand this need to stuff things into one’s mouth while out among people in places that are not restaurants, and the apparent blind – or deaf – belief that one’s chewing is inaudible to the person sitting twenty centimetres away. While I describe the custom here in a spirit of seemingly prandial jocundity, let me spare no adjective in describing it as positively opprobrious. (For every episode I watch of Jeeves and Wooster, my English vocabulary seems to be stretching towards lexical heavens heretofore unsuspected).

Never having to pay for one’s passes presents opportunities to watch films one would normally be hesitant to risk, especially if – like me – one has a certain Scottish disposition when it comes to spending money. (And I am, after all, quite poor, at least in the pecuniary sense). So this explains why I patronize my share of smaller films, but what is one to make of the fact that even very “difficult” (to euphemize) films play for an almost packed theatre during the festival, while if, say, an Armenian/Azerbaijan co-production were to receive a regular theatre run, not more than five people would see it during the five or six days it played? I suspect it must be the fabled festival spirit…

Of course, one of the risks of going without reservations to so many films that will never receive a general run, but at best limited or festival runs, is that sometimes there is a reason why these films would never see the light of day in a cinema, let alone in even the smallest multiplex, if it hadn’t been for festivals needing to fill their programme. Still, one would assume that there has been some kind of quality control at work before inviting the film to attend the festivals. This control must have been sleeping or absent in the case of the English film Helen.

I have during my 35 years on this once green planet seen some 4000-5000 films, which is almost the equivalent to one year of watching films 24 hours a day, and Helen is perhaps the most inept film I’ve ever seen. The acting makes Plan 9 From Outer Space seem like a master class in method acting, the script is full of clichés and attempts at insights that would be unsurprising for any 9 year old. For a while I thought that the only redeeming quality of the film was the photography, music and editing. That was before I realized that the cameraman only had two tricks up his tattered sleeve. One time the protagonist was filmed from above her as she walked slowly past. This was one of the first scenes of the film and I still had some hope. The rest of the camera moves were a slow, slow sideways panning of the camera, always in the same tempo, never with any intent other than finding a way not to keep the camera completely still. Sometimes this pan would evolve into a semicircle, but without giving any information or artistic effect that a medium range shot would not have given us in a second. At times I thought about the less adventurous daytime soaps.

I guess I wouldn’t have deemed this laziness in thinking up camera angles inexcusable if there had actually been anything worthwhile to film. No such luck, not by a long shot (pun intended). I felt sorry for the amateur actors, who couldn’t even act amateurishly and much less naturally, as amateurs we have seen from USA or France are frequently able to. The girl playing the eponymous protagonist was clearly the most talented of the cast, but while able to keep her face in the frame for endless interior soliloquies that the – judging by this film – talentless scriptwriter had put in her mouth, she was equally helpless in any situation that required interaction with her fellow amateurs.

The story itself was not much of a story and was constructed around a procedural part of the police work that I felt was stretching credibility: That the police required a girl that looked like a murdered girl in order to recreate her movements. Our protagonist was thus taken out of class for weeks so she could dress up in the dead girl’s clothes and move around the area that the dead girl had last been seen, so the police could get a sense of … of what? As soon as the plain protagonist dresses in the yellow (!) leather jacket of the dead girl, she begins to identify with the dead girl and to wish she could live her life. She eats dinner with the aggrieved parents and sees the boyfriend of the dead girl. She loses her identity because she hasn’t any identity to begin with, the film tells us, because she is an orphan. Yes, quite. And all this told through the most horribly clichéd and stilted language possible, not one word, not a single thought coming out of the character’s personalities, only from the writer’s misguided pen and then put into the character’s mouths. Even an actor would have struggled with this material.

I actually became physically sick by the utter ineptness of this film. Every word spoken hammered into my nervous system as if it was a badly cooked piece of dog’s ass in India. I really have never realized that pure badness can be so physically felt. The only reason I stayed to watch the film through was that I knew that it didn’t last more than 76 minutes and I wanted to see how one ends a film as bad as this. The answer is: One doesn’t. I want to stop now, is the last sentence spoken in the film. Yes, please, please, do stop.

On a brighter note, I saw Ballast yesterday, an American independent film that, while no masterpiece, is more than solid and manages to do more with its first thirty seconds than Helen would have been able to had it lasted three hours (god forbid!). It is interesting to have seen these two films in a row, because they have pretty much the same financial resources and both feature an amateur cast with little to none acting experience. The most palpable difference is perhaps that here the amateurs can actually act, or if not, the script is written in such a way that they can play characters closer to their real personas.

This can’t be the entire explanation, though. While Helen knew that it wanted to tell a story of a girl that is apprehending another – or any – identity and went about it by a script that spelled it out for us, Ballast leaves much more room for the viewer to inhabit the tale as well. While in Helen the girl actually has to say “I wish I could be you”, in Ballast one only gradually learns the most basic connections between the characters and they don’t say a single word too much. Helen is like something written by a twelve year old trying to impress his or her teacher by artificial and imposed connections that are obvious for any adult, while Ballast always takes care to stay true to the characters even when they do or say things that hinder the viewer’s understanding of their immediate motives.

One of the obvious symbolic tools filmmakers often utilize in order to show the character’s function in the drama they are trying to communicate to us is the clothes – and the colour of the clothes – of the key players. In Helen it is the yellow leather jacket that we have learnt is the essence of the dead girl by a scene in which the mother takes a good minute to smell the jacket. (This is actually the only remotely passable scene in the film). In Ballast it is the young boy who starts out in a heavy parkas with a hood that covers his face and how – as his situation improves – he reveals more of himself by dressing in lighter clothes. This is not genius, but as one has to be more or less attentive to catch it (meaning it is not spelled out in capital letters), it adds a layer to the tale the filmmaker wants to tell without rendering the story meaningless if one overlooks it.

Another symbolic tool the two films have in common is the representation of the seasons. They both start out as autumnal films. Ballast is seemingly always between sleets of snow and frozen land, and wet and rotten fields, as if warmth and compassion is of another region entire. The handheld camera lets us feel participant in the frost and the gradual thaw with an immediacy that Helen lacks. Helen is, as its camera, always static, always in autumn, and there is nothing but posing qualities to the landscape, as if it is just a pretty picture to put the protagonist into; faux-sad and empty of any meaning fit for grown ups or passably bright children.

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