For the 46th time, this October, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival offered the crème de la crème of world cinema to New York audiences. It was a real treat and a great preview of the upcoming slated art-house films.
Reality meets Fiction seemed to be the subtitle for a large number of this year’s festival’s films. The selected works were either based on true events, portraits of real people, or conceived and filmed with the goal to be as authentic as possible. Many of them resonated long after their onscreen conclusions.
Following are some highlights that fit the above category:
The opening film and this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner was THE CLASS by French filmmaker Laurent Cantet. Based on François Bégaudeau’s non-fiction book of the same title, the film follows François, a high school teacher, over the course of one school year as he teaches a highly diverse class of Parisian inner city adolescents..
For one year, together with teacher turned book author Bégaudeau, filmmaker Cantet conducted workshops with Parisian high school students to work on the story. During the 2007 summer vacation Canet shot the entire film primarily in one classroom. Working with first time actors, developing the story through many workshops, and shooting mainly with a handheld camera, the film has a documentary feel which contributes to its freshness and authenticity.
Another filmmaker who regularly collaborates with his actors to develop the characters and story of his films is British filmmaker Mike Leigh. His latest feature HAPPY GO LUCKY received the SILVER BEAR at this year’s Berlinale for its leading actress Sally Hawkins’s performance. In a long and very generous q&a; session after the screening, Leigh explained how he works and how he approached HAPPY GO LUCKY. Rather than knowing that he wanted to make a film about a specific subject matter like adoption in SECRETS AND LIES or abortion in VERA DRAKE, Leigh started HAPPY GO LUCKY with nothing more than the notion of wanting to make a film about a positive character –an optimist who believes all people are fundamentally good. Together with actress Sally Hawkins, the two worked 6 months on developing, researching and rehearsing to create Sally’s character Poppy and her world. As the two continued working together, more characters were added and slowly the story emerged.
Even though the film started off with only an idea of a character, after an intense development process, every scene in the film was set, rehearsed and polished before it was filmed. The result is a charming portrait of a disarming young woman that seems to be taken directly from real life. Not many filmmakers collaborate that closely with their actors – and one can only imagine how gratifying this process is – to invent, shape, and breath life into a character that one has created.
HAPPY GO LUCKY will be released October 10, by Miramax. Click here for a link to the trailer
Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, for which he received the GOLDEN LION in Venice earlier this summer, features another rough-edged character from real life. Randy (THE RAM) Robinson played by Mickey Rourke is a veteran wrestler trying to patch up his private life while hanging on to his fading career. Mickey Rourke is perfectly cast in this tragedy that demands space and time to be fully understood.. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are equally convincing as Randy’s girlfriend and daughter, respectively.
As Aronofsky revealed in a conversation with festival selection committee chairman Richard Peña, only one financier was willing to back the film; no one else wanted to take the risk on a film starring Mickey Rourke. Aronofsky further explained that even though Rourke does not like to rehearse, the two spend around 3 months re-working the dialog to fit the character. In addition Rourke spend another 2 months training and learning about wrestling. Although trained as a boxer, Rourke explained during the press conference that the two sports can not be compared to each other. Boxing is about hiding your moves and knocking out your opponent as quickly as possible, whereas wrestling is about showing your moves and cooperating with your partner in the ring.
To create as much reality as possible, Aronofsky filmed on location and used the wrestling community as extras and consultants as much as possible. The sensitive camerawork of DP Marsye Alberti, with numerous documentary films to her credit, also added to the film’s realistic feel.
THE WRESTLER will be released on December 19 by Fox Searchlight. To watch a clip of THE WRESTLER click here.
Moving on from true-to-life-characters to real ones-Steven Soderbergh presented his epic 4 hour film CHE – which also premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Soderbergh’s CHE picks up where Walter Salles left Che Guevara in MOTERCYCLE DIARIES. The first part of CHE focuses on the Cuban Revolution – and shows Che’s transformation from medic to military revolutionary. Benicio del Toro delivers an impressive performance as Che Guevara who despite the incredible violence of the war, always remains a humanitarian. The second part of the film portraits Che’s deadly attempt to stage a revolution in Bolivia.
Shot on the brand new RED camera, Soderbergh uses specific colors to distinguish between the different locations and times. In the first film, a black and white documentary style is used for scenes depicting Che’s visits to New York, and the UN, as a TV interview. Green is the dominant color for scenes in the Cuban jungle during the revolution. Hues of greens are used again for the Bolivian jungle, which change to warm earthy tones once Che and his group enter Bolivian villages and towns.
Soderbergh and his team researched Che’s life and world for years and worked closely with some of the men who fought next to him. Keeping the entire film in Spanish also adds realism.
CHE will be released in January 2009 by IFC, and as Soderbergh explained during the press conference, in larger cities, one cinema will show the full 4 -hour festival version for one week on one screen.
Another portrait film is Steve McQueen’s Cannes CAMERA D’OR winner HUNGER – a haunting and disturbing film about IRA member Bobby Sands who perished in 1982 after being on hunger strike for 66 days. McQueen is an award winning, British visual artist with a several video works under his belt. Like Julian Schnabel, McQueen has successfully transitioned into the film world – combining his strong visual images with a narrative vein. As uncompromising as his main character Bobby Sands (played by a devastating Michael Fassbender), McQueen tells the dark and difficult story of a man with a deadly commitment to his cause.
HUNGER will be released by IFC. To watch the HUNGER trailer click here.
Also based on a true story is Clint Eastwood’s Cannes entry CHANGELING starring Angelina Jolie. In 1928 Christine Collins’ (Angelina Jolie) 9 year old son Walter disappears in LA. A few months later he is found and returned to her by the LA police – however, Christine knows that this boy is not her son. With the help of activist and preacher Reverent Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), the two pressure the LA police to continue searching for her son. Apart from portraying a strong female character, the film also explores Walter’s disappearance and chronicles the story of a pedophile mass murderer. Elements of a socio-political drama as well as a horror-crime-thriller all come together in Eastwood’s compassionate work.
Though the concept of the film is not new , its message has contemporary relevance, pointing out how easily authorities bend their own rules to cover up shortcomings and mistakes.
CHANGELING will be released on October 31 by UNIVERSAL. To watch the CHANELING trailer please click here.
Starting with his own experience and transforming this to a universal message, Ari Folman’s animated documentary WALTZ WITH BASHIR revisits deeply buried war memories. In the opening scene, one of Ari’s friends recalls a recurring nightmare in which he is being chased by a pack of wolves. When Ari hears about this nightmare, he realizes that he cannot remember anything from the Lebanonese war – and so he set out on a journey to recover his memory.. While visiting friends and associates who served with him during the first Lebanonese war, Ari slowly starts to remember his experiences. The film reminds us of the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder and how it continues to affect people long after the war is over.
Right from the start Folman knew that this film had to be animated so that he could seamlessly weave reality, dreams and fantasies together. It took him 5 years to complete WALTZ WITH BASHIR. As Folman shared with the audience after the screening, he did not want to make a film that focused on the politics that lead to the first Lebanonese war. He simply wanted to make an anti-war film – a film that states how useless and destructive war is. As Folman noted, even though he has worked on this film for 5 years, the process is never over. Many people approach him after they have watched the film to talk about their memories of the war – memories they often have never shared with anyone.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR will be released on December 26 by SONY PICTURES CLASSICS. Here is a link to the WALTZ WITH BASHIR trailer.
Instead of focusing on how the individual deals with the effects of war between nations, GOMORRAH gruesomely depicts the daily life of war within a closed society. This year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, GOMORRAH, Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s feature film is based on and inspired by Roberto Saviano’s book of the same title. After observing and living close to the Camorra for a number of years, Saviano wrote down his accounts and published them world-wide. The book’s success came with a price, Saviano now needs constant police protection.
In GOMORRAH, Garrone tells five individual stories about different characters struggling to find their place within the Camorra- one of the most violent and affluent Italian clans with world-wide connections in all areas of business, whether drugs, fashion or waste removal.
Garrone’s characters span every generation and socio-economic class that are the fabric of the Camorra – each one fighting for survival within this tightly knit hierarchy. There is nothing redeeming or beautiful in the film. I recall only one tender moment when one of the characters, Pasquale, a tailor, touches the fabric of a dress he designed. At the end of this devastatingly bleak and brutal work, it is a relief to see that two characters actually manage to escape the vicious circle of violence.
GOMORRAH will be released next January by IFC. Watch the Gomorrah trailer.
Thanks to distributors like IFC, Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax, Universal and Fox Searchlight all of the above films will have a theatrical release. So watch out for themat a theater near you. And let’s see how many of them will be nominated during the upcoming awards season.