New Horizons Film Festival, taking place every July-August in the beautiful city of Wrocław, Poland (home to the oldest restaurant in the world, legend has it), is the perfect example of what I would call a boutique film festival catering for a discerning audience. Unlike most film festivals, that are usually spread out all over a city, almost all the Nowe Horyzonty film screenings take place in one venue, making it possible to maximise on your viewing time, a precious asset for a film journalist.
The programme is diverse and bold, as far away from conventional cinema as possible, with a penchant for personal, provocative films from all over the world, experimental and hybrid works, films made by artists from other artistic disciplines, forgotten and underrated works, yet atypical and searching for something fresh and innovative.
If you’re lucky to be invited, the festival will put you up in a nice hotel (I stayed at the delightfully minimalist Puro Hotel last year) and invite you to all kinds of exclusive film gatherings & art/music events every evening. Last year I had the chance to meet some new independent filmmakers whose films were making a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, such as People That Are Not Me, a personal film about millennials struggling with love and relationships, from Hadas Ben Aroya, a young female filmmaker I would describe as an Israeli Lena Dunham, as well as catch up with filmmakers I’d already met and interviewed before, Florian Habicht being one of them (read my previous interview with Florian here).
His latest film, Spookers, a documentary about New Zealand’s only haunted attraction theme park, is as spooky as it sounds. Set in a former psychiatric hospital, the film is a multi-faceted portrait of the fascinating people who work there. The film also touches on mental illness and includes a fascinating, in-depth interview with one of the former patients who was hospitalised there for years suffering with schizophrenia.
Below is my interview with Florian Habicht from Nowe Horyzonty 2017.
Spookers Park in New Zealand is known as one of the biggest scare parks in the world. What drew you to this place?
I was actually asked by Mad Men production company if I wanted to make a film about this place. I knew about it but I was too scared, horror is not my thing. It’s been going for 10 years, it’s open on Friday and Saturday nights, half an hour South of Auckland. It’s the only scare park in the world where the scarers are allowed to touch you.
This time I had a feeling I should go and check it out. When I got there all the performers were putting on their make-up and masks and prosthetics and…what I got was a lot of joy and excitement.
Did you get to know them before starting shooting?
Yes, on camera, I spontaneously gravitated towards certain people and they ended up being the main characters in the film. That was quite strange, out of 200 people who work there, the people I went to at the beginning, or came to me, ended up being the main characters.
200 people work there but not on the same night?
No, it’s 60 on a night.
And you focus on 10 main characters in the film. Talk a little bit about them.
I think they are a very special group of people because they are very brave, very young, honest, which makes great artists. They are ready to share very personal things.
And they are all actors, right?
Yes, they are all actors but they haven’t been trained. They auditioned to work at Spookers and then they learnt the job by scaring people. Then they taught each other…
Some of the people in the film refer to themselves as freaks. They are very unusual characters, it’s probably what drew you to make this film.
They are unusual characters, like you and me.
And everyone else!
Who fascinated you the most?
The first who fascinated me was David, who is Zombina. When I saw Zombie Bride in the dark, we met in the dark in an alley way, I thought it was so amazing. Then I got to know him and he’s the most soft and beautiful person…He only dresses up as a female character at Spookers. The character is totally his creation, the clothes, the make-up. He’s such an amazing performer.
The dance you captured in the film is astonishing…
Yes, they had techno music for Halloween once at Spookers and he was dancing like that.
Most of them have deep issues that resonated with the film…and they opened up on camera. Did that surprise you?
Yes it did. Almost everyone has an interesting issue and then the masks, a bit like myself with my video camera, I saw a similarity there. It’s something that lets you be more free, more who you really are.
You found a former psychiatric patient, Debra, who was hospitalised there for 18 years. Tell me her story…
She’s remarkable. For me, she experienced the horror of life but also the magic of life, all in one body and soul. Right now she’s teaching mental health at an university. She lectures there and she’s also helping people who hear voices. She heard voices when she was young and was diagnosed with schizophrenia later on. Her doctors told her patients that their visits upset her and they stopped visiting. But she was not upset by that, she was upset for being there. Now they changed the whole system in the way they deal with mental health patients, now it’s community care. There are still psychiatric hospitals but it’s not for long term, only for short-term.
Debra was adopted twice. Her first adopted parents gave her back and then she was adopted again. You need so much love as a child, and being adopted is hard enough for adopted people, imagine being adopted twice!
In your interview with her, she came across as someone so vibrant and optimistic, she totally blew me away.
Me too. And she only got out because the place closed. She only got well afterwards. The electric shock therapy didn’t help her at all, it was the community that helped her recover.
Half of the people there are Māori and islanders. As a New Zealander, I love Māori, they are amazing on camera, very natural. Most of them don’t have much money. In New Zealand, there’s a problem with poverty. I live in a city and where I live it’s money, money, money, it makes me depressed. It used to be the colourful, artistic, cool part of town and now it’s the trendy, money people. And most of the people in the film have so little money. The park makes money but the actors work only twice a week there. But the background where they come from.
What I found interesting is that this place is a family business.
Yes, the idea was to have a maize, then they asked the local bank manager if it was OK to dress up and scare people with a chainsaw! And there was this guy, a friend, the mayor of the city and his wife Beth, who had the brains. And when that bank manager was chasing people with a chainsaw, the people just loved it, they went crazy for it. And it was supposed to be just one show. Then they realised they can make a business out of it. So they got other friends involved, to dress up, put on masks.
So that was the pilot…which became a series…
Exactly. That’s when they relocated to Auckland and they were looking for a building.
Was it a coincidence that they chose this former psychiatric hospital as their location?
They say it was, yes.
Is it true the place is haunted?
Yes, everyone who works there experiences supernatural things. For me, I could feel the energy was very heavy, different rooms felt different, vibrations or whatever you call it. But other people hear things, see things…There were a lot of intense things that weren’t allowed in the film.
But you didn’t capture any ghosts on camera?
Ghosts or no ghosts, there’s a very dark side to this documentary.
Yes, and come to think of this, New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Every day, one and a half people kill themselves. And the government cut funding to mental health. There was a line you ring if you’re feeling depressed and the government took the money from them, they needed to give more money to the rich! We have a very right-wing government that is very money-focused.
I thought Scandinavia had the highest suicide rates…
Actually there’s a Scandinavian country where men live very long and it’s because every night before they go to bed they meet each other and they compliment each other: You’re so wonderful, I love your jacket…And those men live 10 years longer. That would make a good subject for a future documentary!
Oh, the highly coveted cutie…
I’d like to start by making clear that, after the initial bafflement at the Berlinale Awards Ceremony last Saturday passed, I’m actually very glad this year’s Golden Bear went to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.
However, this has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the strong public reaction it stirred, especially in its home country, Romania.
There is a huge misunderstanding around this film, which could explain why the press generally disliked it and why many high-profile critics wrote extremely bad reviews about it.
Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is not really cinema, it’s an art installation, in an unfortunate case where the programmers mistook the medium/format for the final product.
And if you judge an art installation by cinematic criteria, of course it falls short. First, it comes across as highly pretentious and cerebral.
One of the first things I found striking about the film (apart from its insidious visual style that draws so much attention to itself), is the fact that, although the “characters” speak incessantly about their emotions in a tentative exploration of human intimacy, no emotion is actually being transmitted to the viewer.
And for very good reasons: cinema normally uses a dramatic framework to explore human feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make characters just talk about them.
Well, this is experimental cinema, one might argue. But according to the filmmaker, it’s not. Adina Pintilie strongly rejects this label. And who are we to contradict her, who else knows better what she made than the filmmaker herself?
Another line of reasoning could be that this is a highly conceptual, hybrid construction, more of a documentary mixing reality and fiction, with some of the people you see on the screen playing themselves and talking about their real emotions directly to each other or to the camera. But if it’s real, why does it sound so contrived? Being real and sounding real are two very different things. Good cinema makes believe, in other words, it makes things that are not real, sound and appear real. This film does the opposite – a total paradox. And this is through no fault of the actors and all those participating in it. If you read the transcript of the film, it would probably sound very intelligent. I for one blame it on the film’s style.
Another of my contentions has to do with the unnecessary adornment of the film with all sorts of film gimmicks that give the impression of something very sophisticated (think Godard in Le Mépris) but in reality don’t serve any clear purpose: such as placing a camera in the frame, to kind of highlight the filmmaker’s intrusion into the artwork. Through this device, the filmmaker is addressing Laura: “You’re probably wondering why I’m in your bedroom”…). But the use of this technique here is ill-inspired, it only distracts and puzzles the viewer or makes him/her ask unnecessary questions (such as one blurted out loud at the press screening: “Yeah, why are you in her bedroom?”).
On the subject of questions being raised by the film, another issue is that the film verbally asks them: “How do they f*cking manage?” (Meaning: how do people manage with their conflictual emotional baggage?). This is, we were informed at the press conference, the core question the film intends to raise. Again, good cinema doesn’t need to verbalise these questions, the viewer is supposed to ask those questions himself/herself. Or are we patronisingly being told what we should ask, think or feel here? When you see a film about the Holocaust, whether documentary, fiction or hybrid, no one is musing on screen: “Oh dear, how do these people actually manage?!”
On the plus side, I’d like to argue that, as paradoxical as it might sound, Touch Me Not is good art. Why? Because of the huge reaction it stirred in the filmmaker’s own country, following news of its being awarded the Golden Bear. Some TV personalities had very heated words to say about the film, while apparently even the Coalition for the Protection of Family is getting mobilised against it! Scary stuff.
But the film is being attacked in Romania for the wrong reasons. To quote a TV personality who posted on his social media: “A woman trying to cure her frigidity by watching a guy masturbate in front of her. That’s the film. I know, it’s me who doesn’t get wanking as art. All Golden Bears leave cinemas empty, they are cheap films with whores and swearings sold to stupid people as art. Berlinale can take its Golden Bear and shove it up its @ss…”. And on and on, he’s not the only one.
While there is no substance to this statement, while I completely disagree that all Golden Bears are bad films (one only needs to think of, more recently, Fuocoammare or the surreal Of Body and Soul), this kind of reaction points to a debate to be had about what the Golden Bear films should and shouldn’t be, what types of characters should populate them ( i.e. on the virginal side, rather than “whorey” side). How can you even begin to explain to a guy like this the depth of fascination that characters of prostitutes always held over the cinematic imagination?
But leaving all arguments aside, aesthetic or otherwise, good art should stir sh*t up. What is its purpose, otherwise, if not to stir things up and make the invisible (thoughts, feelings, ideas, mentality) visible?
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is cinematic perfection, but so what? If no one reacts to it, if it leaves people pleased but ready to move on, possibly energised but quasi-indifferent…Isle of Dogs is great cinema but does it function as art, in this sense? And for that alone, for the strong emotional reaction the film triggered, Adina Pintilie’s film/art installation deserved the Golden Bear.
Regarding the film’s reception in Romania where it hasn’t even opened yet, the pertinent question to ask is: what, really, is the public’s problem with this film? It’s not that it contains sex scenes or nudity, we all know that sex sells.
My conclusion is that Touch Me Not was indeed misunderstood. But I seriously doubt that the reason critics disliked it has anything to do with the subject matter, with them being made uncomfortable by what they see on the screen (as the filmmaker herself hinted at) or with them being conservative or prude (some journalist’s misguided assumption).
It’s simply to do with the fact that their expectations haven’t been met: this film is an art installation masquerading as cinema, it belongs in a different kind of art space, a gallery or maybe a museum. And I’m pretty sure the art world will appreciate it.
One of the first questions a seasoned tech person would ask another tech person is: what problem is your technology solving?
At Startupbootcamp Digital Health Berlin, most of the startups in their autumn batch are tackling serious problems in healthcare with innovative technologies.
The event kicked off however with the introduction of a new fascinating technology that doesn’t really solve a burning problem but was no less stunning for it: A LASER HARP CONCERT!
And I’m very glad they could because the entire audience was totally enraptured by it. The concert ended with a tribute to David Bowie and Depeche Mode who played at the Meistersaal, the venue that hosted us, in the 1980s. Check it out here.
The rest of the event continued on the same high note. Here’s a quick lowdown of my top 5 favourite pitches from SBC Berlin 2017:
BIOLUMO: A Polish biotech startup that is solving a most urgent problem in healthcare today, that of antibiotic resistance. Biolumo is building a fast point-of-care diagnostic machine for GPS to help them select proper antibiotics. And to really drive home how innovative their technology is: the traditional device used to solve this problem until now, the Antibiogram, takes at least 2 days to deliver results. CEO: Olga Grudniak
BIOTX.AI is highly sophisticated machine learning used in biomedical drug development. It works by identifying significant patterns in biomedical datasets. The cofounder who presented on stage, Dr. Joern Klinger, mentioned that they came up with a very precise algorithm for predicting Alzheimer’s disease that is more accurate than ApoE4 gene. So watch this space!
|AISENS is developing smart sensors that allow rehabilitation from physical injuries everywhere with real time feedback. Their devices assess the accuracy of body movements and detect patients who don’t exercise properly, allowing them to improve.|
|HEDIA is a personalised and intelligent diabetes app that helps people with diabetes to live a more normal life. By combining seamless data collection from external sources, big-data modeling, and AI, Hedia provides personal insulin recommendation to the diabetic and hence help attain results on the A1c level.|
TORAFUGU Tech is a health-tech business focusing on analytics for health and life insurers to increase product personalisation and improve the health and well-being of their members.
And if I could just squeeze another one in, it would be…
CardioCube is developing an innovative strategy of merging Electronic Hospital Record with continuous patient’s home medical data. It integrates Amazon Alexa for home medical data acquisition and cloud-based deep-learning/artificial intelligence algorithms to reduce unplanned hospital readmissions for cardiovascular patients.
I don’t know about you but I’m definitely looking forward!
Why? Because the director is a risk-taker who never disappoints. The film was also described as “a comedy wrapped around a tragedy” and I’m in deep admiration of anyone who can pull that off.
Why? Because his films can stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system like nothing else (in cinema today). If looking for something intelligent as well as light-hearted, look no further.
Why? Curious if he changed his mind about something he mentioned in a 2012 Guardian interview:
“For mankind, I can’t see any way out,” he says in his deadly monotone, “except terrorism. We kill the 1%.” Which 1%? “The only way for mankind to get out of this misery is to kill the 1% who own everything. The 1% who have put us in the position where humanity has no value. The rich. And the politicians who are the puppies of the rich.” (very radical but I’m also thinking: you can’t get more Vitamin D deficient!)
Why? Because his latest film was the most intense drama I saw in ages. It also won the Golden Bear in 2013 so let’s see how this one compares.
Why? Do I really need another reason besides the very intriguing cast?
1 Fluidø – Germany
By Shu Lea Cheang
Set in Berlin and described as a “para-pornographic work of underground science fiction”, this is the first feature film immersion by Taiwanese-American artist Shu Lea Cheang.
2 Kaygı (Inflame) – Turkey
By Ceylan Özgün Özçelik
The story of the incremental roll-out of wide-spread censorship of the press in Turkey and its effect on the work of a young female journalist.
3 The Misandrists – Germany
By Bruce LaBruce
The favourite filmmaker of the punk/underground art crowd whose 1994 film Super 8½ was a kind of “fuck you” valentine to the world” continues to question authority and the dominant ideology in this feminist fairy tale.
4 Fra balkongen (From the Balcony) – Norway
By Ole Giaever
After his success with Out of Nature, the Norwegian filmmaker returns with a thematic film essay in which the protagonist observes the world from his own balcony. A film of inaction, or rather, mental action?
5 Discreet – USA
By Travis Mathews
A man approaching middle age gets caught up in the darker depths of his past.
Also: Berlin Syndrome, by Australian director Cate Shortland. This film, alongside Fluidø and The Misandrists, pays tribute to the vision of Berlin as a place of happiness and promise which is drawing increasingly large numbers of young cosmopolitans to it.
1 Golden Exits by Alex Ross Perry, USA
“This movie was made for the sense of trying something new with a bunch of people I like working with,” says the filmmaker in this Indiewire interview. What better reason to make a film anyway? With Emily Browning , Adam Horovitz, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Golden Exits tells the story of a young Australian woman who comes to New York for a few months and unwittingly throws the lives of two couples into disarray.
2 Casa Roshell by Chilean director Camila José Donoso
A portrait of a most unusual institution in the Mexican capital, a place where men learn to be women during the day, before the parties get going at night. Blurring boundaries between gay, straight and bi, male and female, past and present, reality and fiction.
3 Casting, by Nicolas Wackerbarth
A film dedicated to the process of filmmaking: director Vera is unwilling to compromise when it comes to finding the right lead actress for a Fassbinder remake for television.
4 Menashe, by Joshua Z Weinstein (feature debut)
Set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the film sees the titular Menashe fighting to keep custody of his son following the death of his wife. Yet the Hasidic community demands he lead a more ordered life and find a new spouse, neither of which come easy to this kind, but awkward loner.
5 Adiós entusiasmo (So Long Enthusiasm), by Vladimir Durán (debut feature)
Ten-year-old Axel lives with his mother and three sisters in a flat in Buenos Aires. They’d be a perfectly normal family if only the mother weren’t imprisoned in one of the rooms.
Maren ADE (Germany) TONI ERDMANN. Pedro ALMODÓVAR (Spain) JULIETA. Andrea ARNOLD (United-Kingdom) AMERICAN HONEY. Olivier ASSAYAS (France) PERSONAL SHOPPER. Jean-Pierre DARDENNE, Luc DARDENNE (Belgium) LA FILLE INCONNUE. Xavier DOLAN (Canada) JUSTE LA FIN DU MONDE (IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD). Bruno DUMONT (France) MA LOUTE (SLACK BAY). Nicole GARCIA (France) MAL DE PIERRES. Alain GUIRAUDIE (France) RESTER VERTICAL. Jim JARMUSCH (USA) PATERSON. Kleber FILHO MENDONÇA (Brazil) AQUARIUS. Ken LOACH (United-Kingdom) I, DANIEL BLAKE. Brillante MENDOZA (Philippines) MA’ ROSA. Cristian MUNGIU (Romania) BACALAUREAT. Jeff NICHOLS (USA) LOVING. PARK Chan-Wook (South Korea) AGASSI (THE HANDMAIDEN). Sean PENN (USA) THE LAST FACE. Cristi PUIU (Romania) SIERANEVADA. Paul VERHOEVEN (Netherlands) ELLE. Nicolas WINDING REFN (Denmark) THE NEON DEMON
My planned Cannes 2016 coverage so far (work in progress) includes:
-an interview with Jim JARMUSCH for Dazed & Confused. The “enfant terrible”, or better said, “vraiment indépendent” of American independent cinema participates with 2 films, Paterson, in the Official Competition and Gimme Danger in the Midnight section;
-a full report on the state of VR technology, immersive storytelling and the latest VR projects to be presented in Cannes – for Dazed & Confused
-several festival dispatches for VICE Romania with my favourite films at Cannes 2016
Bon festival à tous!
If the attributes cold, callous and conceited might not conjure up the image of the most watchable of film heroes, Tom Sturridge’s nameless character in video artist Omer Fast’s feature debut Remainder might strike some as a slight surprise.
Adapted from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel of the same title, Remainder is an intriguing drama of identity and memory with enough thriller elements to keep you wanting to watch more even when the events portrayed become part of a seemingly never-ending repetitive loop. Reminiscent in its basic premise of Nolan’s Memento, and in its reality-fantasy blurring strategy of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, the film follows a 30-something London professional who receives an exorbitant amount of money in compensation after becoming the victim of an arcane accident that leaves him emotionally shattered and mentally tabula rasa.
With £10 million in the bank and a completely clear conscience as a result of his traumatic memory loss, what does our hero set out to do? Book a flight to an exotic island and live a life of utter indulgence in a state of blissful oblivion, the kind of oblivion that alcohol, sex and drugs, our culture’s panacea, will never be able to induce? No, what kind of film would that be? Instead, in philosophically appropriate fashion, our hero responds to a most powerful inner urge that compels him to find out who he is, an action echoing the ancient adage nosce the ipsum that posits the source of all happiness as lying, irrevocably, in self-knowledge. Using his new wealth and one feeble, fragmentary memory he still detains, that of a small boy at the top of the stairs in an old house reaching out his hand to an old lady on the floor below, the hero goes about his trauma in the most extravagant fashion: he acquires an entire block of apartments and populates it with actors, cats and other such props in order to physically restage the scene again and again and hopefully trigger a more substantial memory that will “cure” his identity loss.
But as every cinema-literate person knows, it’s not about what a character does, but what his actions mean. And the character’s actions in Remainder can mean a lot of things, the film being conceptually very rich. Conceptual without being dry though: the film tackles trauma, mediation, repetition, re-enactment, the unreal nature of reality, even issues of gentrification, with much humour and irony. Visually, it is a real feast: the director’s artful sense of framing, ironic mise-en-scène and the ephemeral beauty of the shallow focus alluding to a character who completely fails to see the bigger picture, make for a very polished, very accomplished first feature.
Remainder is playing today, March 22nd, at New Directors New Films in New York.