By Callum Baker and Georgina Hurdsfield
Manchester International Film Festivalreturns for yet another year is the best in independent cinema. Here are our top picks from the full weekend:
The weekend’s proceedings kicked off with the help of a little star power with a Q&A held by ever-illustrious collaborators Luke Turner, Nastja Sade Ronkko and Shia Labeouf, who were to be screening their expository documentary/social experiment/art piece #TakeMeAnywhere later on in the day.
#TakeMeAnywhere was a project inspired by an encounter involving Nastja Sade Ronkko being blindfolded on a horse, unaware of where it would take her – admittedly a somewhat profound catalyst for any idea! This snowballed into the conception of the idea for the trio to broadcast their location on Twitter and have random strangers pick them up and take them to whatever destination they saw fit. With the undeniable status of the collaborators, namely Shia Laboeuf, this would often follow extensive negotiations with the often hundreds of volunteers that would appear at the publicised coordinates. The result was a performative art piece that saw Shia and co hitchhike across America for 30 days.
Throughout the session, the filmmakers talked extensively with the audience about the inspiration, production and their own experiences and personal growth over the course of undertaking the project. One consistent concern amongst the audience was the question of the participant’s safety when partaking in the project, with reference to that of both the filmmakers and their hosts. “I’m a fucking maniac on paper” Shia would respond, acknowledging the potential risk their chaperones were theoretically taking by letting strangers into their cars, homes and communities. “I’m a neurotic, I always think I’m about to die” he answered when asked if he considered his own safety when embarking on this ambitious escapade. His collaborator, Luke had less of a nonchalant take on this. He would recall encounters whereby they would get into cars with gun-bearing strangers, which he described as “disconcerting” along with the “alien” politics of many of their traveling companions, in contrast to that of he and Nastja’s exposure to more moderate political ethos’ in their respective European homes. This was further exemplified by the fact that the project was filmed immediately before the onset of the Trump presidency, obviously a time of extreme divisiveness in the USA.
Bernard and Huey
The first narrative feature of the day was Bernard and Huey, directed by Dan Mirvish. An undeniably stylish ‘buddy movie’ that explores the relationship between two of the most reprehensible narcissists one could imagine, along with the trials and tribulations that would accompany such a toxic melting pot of friendship.
Bernard, portrayed by Jim Rash who is instantly recognisable as Dean Craig Pelton of NBC’s hit comedy, Community. He is joined by co-star David Koechner as Huey who once again excels as a foul-mouthed chauvinist, in line with his mainstream roles such as Todd Packer from The Office (US) and Champ Kind in the Anchorman series.
The film follows the story of long-estranged college pals being reunited at a point in each of their respective lives where it would be deemed more appropriate in the eyes of today’s society for them to have closed the door on sexual escapades, figurative dick-swinging matches and loosen their grips on the final, deteriorating remnants of their youth. Whilst it is tough to vouch for either character, audiences may cast an empathatic eye on the fact these being two men are clearly struggling to come to terms with their mortality.
Every performance in Bernard and Huey is compelling and well delivered, to the point where it often feels like a warzone of actors battling to steal the show. This extends not only to the central characters but to also Mae Whitmen as Zelda, Nancy Travis as Mona and a surprise appearance from Richard Kind, to name but a few.
Bernard and Huey is also not without eye candy for buffs of the visual arts, a welcome addition at MANIFF. Even with its limited budget, the film is full of interesting and unique cinematographic motifs that become increasingly prominent every time they are exhibited.
It appears that Mirvish is somewhat reliant on the fact that this unique story has been resurrected from a long lost screenplay by Jules Feiffer, which in itself was an adaptation from a comic strip that ran through Playboy magazine in the late 50s. The result of this is a feeling of a lack of exposition in regards to the relationship between the two characters in the opening act, which is redeemed to a point with the sporadic deployment of flashback cutaways throughout the film.
Irrespective of this, the film quickly finds it’s feet with a well-crafted story that Mirvish expertly brings to life from the time-honored source material. It is left largely up to the audience to decipher whether some of the archaic values of the central characters are to be looked upon sympathetically or whether the film is operating as a looking glass into a world wherein the attitudes of men in the 50s are ill-fittingly transposed into a modern setting.
Next up was a screening of documentary shorts, comprised of the aforementioned #TakeMeAnywhere project, along with A Land, My Riders My Writers and Ode to the Great Migration.
There was a lot of anticipation surrounding #TakeMeAnywhere, being one of the more high profile projects screened across the weekend, and with this may have come a disproportionately high level of expectation. This expectation was easily met and then proceeded to be exceeded tenfold. The documentary proved to be an uncompromisingly authentic illustration and unsanitised representation of human nature, community and friendship. Despite there being an inescapable DIY feel to the project, it was still undeniably stylistically produced and edited, even without a team of dedicated editors on hand during the film’s post-production. Although there was an elephant in the room with regards to a question of the feasibility of a project such as #TakeMeAnywhere without the attachment of a figure of status such as Shia, there was a clear effort made by all parties involved to not make the film itself a showcase of personality but rather an unadulterated look at the virtues of real people in North America, irrespective of background, conviction or ideals. Despite the apparent authenticity of the performance piece however, the collaborators asserted that at points there was a level of ‘deep frustration’ that came with remaining in such close quarters with the same people for such an extensive period of time, and this was something that seldom made the edit, understandably as it would have likely compromised the vision for the film.
This was followed by the hugely illuminating documentary short, A Land, which focused on and explored the otherwise largely unearthed relationship between German Mennonites in Paraguay and the country’s natives. Developed by Giuseppe Oliverio, Federico Telerman and Nicolas Uboldi, the film stylistically examines the implications of Germany’s occupation of Paraguayan land since the 1950s, predominantly in rural regions of the country. There is a particularly straight delivery to the film, which is complemented by the faded colour pallet, complimenting the unbiased narration. At times it is a surreal watch, with unreserved realism partnered with a dreamlike visual display.
Exodus – Ode to the Great Migration
Certainly the most performative of the shorts, also featuring the shortest runtime. Director Lonnie Edwards delivers a trans-historical showcase of the enrichening of performance arts since ‘The Great Migration’ and how African American culture has made its mark on society. The film was both stylish and informative while delivering this information solely via visuals. A more restrained use of light leak after-effects would have perhaps made Exodus less of an assault on the senses but this hardly impeded it in quality or watchability.
My Riders, My Writers
Although this documentary was only 5 minutes long, it managed to beautifully tell a story of human connection and the creativity of one Uber driver in America. Collecting stories, quotes and drawings from passengers in a journal that cab driver Bob keeps. Once passengers get in his taxi and they’ve exchanged greetings, he would then ask them to write something in his journal. However, out of all the Documentary Shorts 1, this short felt the least DIY and most commercialised which took away from the telling of Bob’s wholesome idea and story.
The first narrative feature of Saturday, Hippopotamus was the brainchild of young director Edward Palmer, starring Ingvilid Delia and Tom Lincoln.
Hippopotamus is an ever subversive mystery thriller with a well-crafted story that seldom ceased to keep the audience on its toes. It followed the struggle of Ruby (Ingvilid Delia) and the unrelenting psychological torment she was subjected to by her captor, Tom, who tells her she will remain a prisoner until she falls in love with him.
Right from the off, the film establishes itself as a visually ambitious feature with the opening reel featuring a mesmerising and technically impressive underwater sequence. When considering the incredibly limited budget Edward Palmer had to work with in order to produce the film, this is one of the many feats achieved both visually and narratively within the feature that are worthy of commendation.
With this said, the performances were, at times, tough to swallow, though this was largely accredited to a production error which rendered the audio corrupt, therefore requiring the cast to re-do all of the dialogue in post-production. It is important to note that this is a pitfall that is, in many ways, unique to low budget, independent features, and one would do well to cast a sympathetic eye on the production team. In the Q&A that followed, Palmer spoke candidly when discussing what he would do differently with the film if he and the crew had a more generous budget to work with, namely “everything”. This offered an insight into the challenges faced by and limitations placed upon independent filmmakers, allowing attendees of the screening to gain an appreciation for the noteworthy accomplishment one would have made by delivering a film such as Hippopotamus.
Both directed by and starring the talent of Catherine Eaton and the screenwriting prowess of Brian Delaney, is a film that instantly asserts itself as a vivid and rewarding Easter egg hunt particularly for scholars of the humanities. Riddled with tactfully placed motifs and references to a plethora of philosophers, cultural critics and authors, Eaton and Delaney demonstrate their ability to craft something both emotionally charged and thoughtful in equal measure.
The Sounding follows the story of selective-mute Olivia (Eaton) who, in the wake of her grandfathers timely passing, opts to communicate via excerpts and passages taken from the works of Shakespeare. Making such a statement in a monotonous society such as today’s is surely grounds for one being institutionalised, and this is sadly what happens. What follows is something of a sickness melodrama, though rather than exploring the sickness of the individual, it seeks to question whether the true sickness lies in humanity. One distinct scene depicting a group of doctors and neuroscientists scrabbling for a diagnosis for Olivia following her committal to the psychiatric ward suggesting eccentricity and artistry are so often misconstrued as insanity.
The notion of ‘otherness’ is often explored, though it is rarely done on the same kind of profound and tasteful level as The Sounding. There is an incredibly effective deployment of various themes throughout the film that serve to illustrate some of the points Eaton and Delaney may be trying to make, depending on how they’re read. This includes the sterile minimalism of the psychiatric ward – indicating the monochromatic condition of postmodern society. This is juxtaposed with the violent sea and rocks which are often alluded to in the coastal setting of which the film is set. Is this a nod to a Jungian analysis of order and chaos? Or to exemplify the ever Shakespearian pathetic fallacy combining with the recurring nods to King Lear and The Tempest? Or simply to represent the repression of freedom of thought and expression, something Olivia is subjected to throughout her arc. Whichever way one chooses to interpret this masterfully crafted drama, its resonance is transcendent should you transpose anyone or anything else into the shoes of Olivia.
A heart-warming, inspiring and truthful documentary about two brothers, redemption and most importantly, music. Martin Shore documented the Hannan brothers reuniting musically and personally after ten long years. With the brothers coming back together to create a new album, this opportunity was going to be used to create a 12-minute short film. However, with the untimely decline of Sean Hannan as he was diagnosed with cancer, the short film transformed into a beautiful feature documentary that shows life’s pleasures, challenges, devastating losses and unbreakable brotherhood. The documentary was well received, winning the award of Best Documentary Feature at the festival and anyone who went to view it was lucky enough to be treated with a very special performance by Jerry Hannan himself.
Sunday involved viewing a lot of short films highlighting different topics, but the most common topic of the shorts this year was interestingly age-related illnesses.
Shorts Session 6 – Black Eyed Susan
Denise Welch’s 15 minute short is a deeply personal and dramatic, portrayal of her battle with mental illness. This short tells the story of a woman who seems to be having a constant battle with a boy who is always dressed in black and is intent on making her life miserable. It shows how someone experiencing mental illness may feel and reminds the audience on how they can recover. As mental illness is not explicitly mentioned in the film, if you didn’t know of Denise’s struggles in real life this short would also double up as a psychological thriller that tells a story of torment.
Come Out Of The Woods
Come Out of the Woods tells the story of three brothers struggling for permanence and survival whilst living in rural Scotland. This short confidently tackles all kinds of topics such as disability, corrupt police, blackmail, drugs and much more within its gripping 32-minute slot. Come Out of the Woods could have been a great feature film, however, as a short, it kept a steady pace and left the audience hooked and wanting to know more.
Shorts Session 7 – Perfect Roast Potatoes
A bittersweet dark comedy that has you reminiscing your own crazy family Christmas dinners, however, perhaps without dining with the corpse of a dead relative. Perfect Roast Potatoes tells the story of peculiar Tamara and her tense sibling who is coerced into going ahead with Christmas as planned, although with the corpse of their late mother laying metres away from the family dining table. This short offers a humorous insight into being at peace with one’s imperfections and an amusing outlook on Christmas.
A moving story of an elderly man whom is tired of saying goodbye and attending too many funerals of his friends. Instead of returning home from a memorial service, Jim finds himself watching a local football game at a park, this quickly becomes an obsession for Jim as he starts to attend every game and begins rooting for his local team, especially one particular player. Sunday Worship offers the magic of every award-winning short film, with few verbal exchanges between characters, we are still kept well-informed. There is no surprise it was chosen for Best UK Short.
In Your Face
In Your Face documented the photography career of Neil Zlozower, a legendary music photographer, famous for his iconic photographs of Van Halen, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses and The Rolling Stones. Aspiring music photographers would likely enter the documentary wanting to be inspired and in awe of Zlozower for his timeless photographs of some of the worlds biggest rock bands. However, you’ll find yourself disappointed when you view this honest telling of Zlozower’s “unique” communication skills and attitudes. Nevertheless, Maynes can be praised for his behind the scenes look into Zlozower’s private life and the impressive documentation of what some of the biggest artists in rock history thought about working with “Zloz” on, and off tour.