Round-up of the 13th !F International Independent Film Festival

Accompanied by related music events, Q&A sessions, and workshops across the city, the 13th !F International Independent Film Festival ran 13 – 23 February in Istanbul this year. Under the !F2 initiative, its offering of independent films and diverse documentaries were simultaneously shown in an array of domestic and overseas locations, including as far afield as Ramallah, Palestine and Yerevan, Armenia. The festival has a socially-engaged agenda, curating its offering under thematic sections that evolve to reflect each year’s leading global issues. From big award-contenders in the Galas section, to small-budget Queer documentary in the Rainbow section, the options were wide, the tone conversational, and the content complex. Here are our top 5 picks:

1. Kelly Reichardt, Night Moves (2013)
Acclaimed director Reichardt’s fifth feature film Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard is a tense, suspenseful and nuanced story of three environmental activists from different backgrounds who execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam then go their separate ways. Stylistically, the minimal dialogue and understated performances we know Reichardt favours from her past work like the Wendy and Lucy (2008) contributes vastly to a film that is, foremost, a visual delight.

The luscious natural landscape of mountainous Oregon is allowed to unfold in meditatively gradual yet narratively taut scenes as we follow the trio, who are trying to get to grips with some of the unexpected ethical and personal repercussions of their act of violence. With subtlety and precision, Reichardt poses many volatile questions with regards to radical activism, the legitimacy of violence, and the material and moral consequences of the vast power imbalances of the 21st century; Night Moves unsettles and intrigues in equal measure by refraining from answering, while allowing no room for disengagement.

2. Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises (2013)
The leading figure behind Japanese Studio Ghibli’s three decades worth of imaginative and award-winning animation work, director and illustrator Miyazaki announced at this year’s Venice Film Festival that The Wind Rises would be his last film. His final offering before handing the wheel to his son and animator-director Goro Miyazaki interweaves dream and reality, nostalgia and historical events in the typical style of his past work.

Following Jiro Hirokoshi, a character loosely based on the chief engineer of many Japanese fighter plane designs of World War II, from the idealistic boy to the gifted and pacifist man, it treats humanity’s relationship with nature and technology in the benign and philosophical perspective that often reoccurs in Miyazaki’s work. Monet-esque visuals and a classical soundtrack poeticise the story, but its background exploration of Japanese modernity, the urban/rural divide, and industrial/agricultural progress suggests throughout that human innovation is never an evil, but its destructive potential must remain in balance.

3. Clio Barnard, The Selfish Giant (2013)
One of the most understandably powerful films on offer was British director Clio Barnard’s contemporary tale of desperation, friendship and survival in a poverty-stricken, industrial neighbourhood outside Bradford. Rooted in a British social realist tradition of the likes of Ken Loach, the film shows how harsh circumstances lead to harsh human dynamics, yet suggests there are gradations to innocence that manifest themselves in unexpected ways. High-strung, fierce Arbor and quietly compassionate Swifty are our 13-year-old protagonists: school outcasts from troubled families who bond in a dynamic of unspoken loyalty that mirrors Of Mice and Men‘s George and Lennie.

Scavenging for the exploitative scrap dealer Kitten, they are first excited by, then slowly wary of, the peripheral, selfish economy they are playing into. Ultimately, the tragic climax facilitates some minor redemption, but it exacts a high price. Both unprofessional actors, young Conner Chapman and Thomas Swifty’s naturalistic performances are captivatingly raw, while the bleak aesthetic fuses post-industrial, tired materialism with a decaying, yet still potent, organic landscape to striking effect. Barnard is certainly one of the few female British directors working with this kind of subject matter to keep watching out for.

4. Wong Kar-Wai, The Grandmaster (2013)
Acclaimed Hong Kong-born director Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is a eulogy to the disappearing art and philosophy of Kung Fu, yet it is shot with a sensuality and aestheticism more common to a nuanced, meditative arthouse film. Transnational Asian cinema’s familiar faces Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang star in this story of loss, vengeance and acceptance that was based on the life of real Kung Fu master Ip Man. Spanning the 1930s-50s, it foregrounds a tumultuous period in Chinese history with the disputed legacy of the famed founder of one particular school of Kung Fu. However, the chaste love story between Zhang’s ice queen character Gong Er and Leung’s wise Ip Man ultimately pales in comparison to the film’s formal weight and sensorial achievement.

The Grandmaster carries sure traces of Wong’s lush and meditative style from past films like Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000), but this time his approach has a newfound confidence and scale. Precise and sinuous focus pulling, panning and angling make for a truly cinematic eye that amplifies every scene until all elements become almost acutely significant, while an inner rhythm is generated by music, editing, and dialogue. A studied use of light and shade accompanies each shot with equal care, be it a rain-drenched Kung-Fu street fight or the billowing smoke of a cigarette. A worthwhile watch that surprises with its blend of action genre and arthouse form, Wong laments a code of honour no longer applicable to the demands of a technologised, individualistic modernity.

5. Gustav Deutsch, Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013)
Austrian director Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley, an independent documentary on the American artist Edward Hopper’s paintings, is an intriguing study in colour and space. Hopper and his biography does not feature in the film at all: rather, we follow New Yorker Shirley, a woman who becomes an amalgamation of the female figures in Hopper’s work. Recreating many of Hopper’s artworks in what is essentially a series of filmic painting, we follow Shirley’s life and hear her inner thoughts.

Narratively steady and detached, it stays true to much of the framework of analysis Hopper’s paintings have been subject to: American mid-20th century apathy and isolation is reflected in the way great historical events occur, but we only know they do through mediums that transmit ‘reality’ to the inside: radios, windows, and doors. Liberal-minded Shirley commends Luther King’s speech, frets for her theatre friends during the height of McCarthyism, and is shocked by Agent Orange: none of which we see, and none of which she expresses out loud. Shirley is both an exercise in trying to make Hopper’s paintings speak, and a rejection of cinematic language in favour of a ‘back-to-the-basics’ approach where colour, light and composition become the cornerstones of seeing, and all form is dictated by spatial orientation. Attempting an act of pure painting with the tools of cinema, Deutsch offers a novel approach to artists’ documentaries.

Note: Due to riot police intervention with water cannon during an anti-censorship protest near the film theatre entrance on Saturday 22 February, our correspondent was unable to watch and include a review of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) within this article.

Sarah Jilani

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1. Clio Barnard, The Selfish Giant (2013).