Leeds International Film Festival 27

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It’s that time of year again. I have enjoyed the glorious three weeks of the Leeds International Film Festival.

This year I’ve made a very solid effort to see a good selection of things. Below is my roundup of what I’ve seen.

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Wakola is an Argentinian film based on the activities of Josef Mengele after he fled Germany for Argentina. It takes place in the sixties when Mossad were also hunting for him, round about the time that they picked up Eichmann. Living under an assumed name, he becomes fixated on the growth, or lack of it, of a 12 year old girl, and ingratiates himself with the family in order to experiment on her with growth hormones. When he discovers that her pregnant mother is carrying twins, the experiment enters a new level.

I really enjoyed this one. I have a strong interest in twentieth century history anyway, but it was very tense and the outcome still managed to be a surprise. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a film about a German in Argentina in the sixties was likely to involve Nazism, so I was a little sceptical about how the film would retain any mystery, but there were a few twists alongside the dread of what was happening.

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The plot of The Retrieval, on paper, is very similar to Django Unchained. It concerns a black bounty hunter during the US Civil War. However, that is where the similarity ends. This bounty hunter is a 13 year old boy under the command of his uncle, who usually deals with finding runaway slaves. This time, though, the target is a free black man with a bounty on his head for murder. They tell him that his brother is dying in order to lure him down to the South, where the rest of the gang is waiting to slaughter him. However, the target is a kind and fearless man, and in the face of his uncle’s brutality the boy begins to warm to him, and wonder whether he is doing the right thing.

It was in many ways a quiet film. The war remained a backdrop in many ways, apart from one awful scene where the battlefield spills over into the camp they have made. Much of it took place in the deserted Texan winter, with just the three characters. It was very thought-provoking though, about survival in a harsh landscape. The civil war turned the American South upside down, particularly through the abolition of slavery, and while it is in no doubt that abolition was a good thing, it raises questions about the difficulty black people faced in making a life for themselves out of the rubble. A beautiful film.

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Painless was a puzzling film. This was a Spanish film that cut between modern day and the past (from 1931 through to the 1960s). It centred around a group of children that couldn’t feel pain, and were locked up to prevent them causing injury to themselves and others. As the asylum was first taken over by the communists, then by the fascists as a prison, gradually the story honed in upon one particular child, a special child, scarred psychologically by his ‘disease’ and his treatment whilst confined.

The modern day aspect was provided by a neuro-surgeon named David, whose search for his parents leads him to investigate what happened in the asylum. This, sadly was where the film fell down. I felt that David, and the film., made some unexplained leaps. For example, once he discovered that his mother had been in the prison – which appeared to have been used for normal prisoners as well as the mentally ill and these children – it made no sense for him to focus on the cell where the special child was held, or for him to be look into the events of war in such detail. It was interesting though, if a little gory!

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The festival also includes classic films, such as Jaws and The Exorcist. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen then and never on the big screen. Jaws benefited greatly from the cinema. It was far more frightening than I remembered. The Exorcist, however, was not.

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I remember watching The Exorcist two nights in a row about fifteen years ago. The first night I was terrified, the second night wasn’t. It is shocking, but not necessarily terrifying. That was how I felt again on the big screen. There are certain bits, such as a crucifix and the horrid back to front crab scuttle, and the special effects are great, especially considering how old the film is, but I wasn’t overwhelmed.

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I’m not at all impartial. Ghost Graduation was my favourite, by a mile. A Spanish comedy! It’s about a group of high school ghosts trapped in the school since 1986, and a teacher who can see dead people who has spent years believing himself to be crazy. When he realises he isn’t, and that the ghosts are stuck because of unfinished business, he resolves to help them pass high school.

Honestly, the only problem with this film was that it was in Spanish. Usually I love subtitling, but because I read so quickly I did spoil a few of the jokes for myself. However, this is a minor complaint, because I did laugh out loud, several times. Modesto, the main character, was charmingly unsure of himself and almost helpless in the face of both his useless psychotherapist and the headmistress of the school, who he is obviously in love with. Plus, there is little so amusing as the behaviour of five teenagers who believe they cannot be seen. I was sad that it finished, and I’ve recommended it as a gift for several people I know.

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This one was a trifle odd, I think it’s fair to say. It is a Brazilian animation set over 600 years, culminating in Rio 2096. The protagonist, originally, is a member of a tribe living in Brazil in the 1500’s. He is given eternal life, or at least something approximating to it, by a god because he has been chosen to fight against destructive forces. When he dies, he transforms into a bird, in which form he waits until he encounters a reincarnation of his eternal love. Together they fight against injustice at several points in history, culminating in an attack on a company that has privatised drinking water.

This wasn’t for the faint hearted. There were scenes of rape and torture, and the fact that they were animations did not make them any easier to stomach. It was very interesting to learn a bit more about the history of Brazil, as it’s not a topic I am familiar with. I think my main criticism would be that the film was a bit too brief. Each bit seemed to be a snapshot of the incarnation, a sketch, rather than anything too in depth. It had the feel of a myth or fable; there wasn’t a huge amount of character development, just the pushing onwards of a plot. It was enjoyable, but nothing I would rush to see again.

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The Forest, my final film, couldn’t have been more different. This one was all about the character development. It centred on a couple, Dora and Ramon. When communism starts to take hold in 1930’s Spain, Ramon (who is not very popular in the community), is branded a Fascist. Fascists are being slaughtered all over the country, so Ramon resolves to escape. Luckily, in the copse of trees in the middle of his land, there is a wormhole which appears twice a year. Where better to go? The downside is, of course, that Dora is left to fend for herself against the Communists, in particular one who has loved her for far too long.

There are two main strands to this film. The first is the relationship between Dora and Ramon. At the start he is incredibly domineering, and she is pretty much his servant. Gradually, as she is forced to be more independent she begins to value herself more. Meanwhile, Ramon’s experiences through the wormhole show him a different society and way of living, and he realises that perhaps being so abrasive and controlling is unnecessary. The couple we see after Ramon returns from the wormhole for the last time is a very different couple from the one at the start.

The second strand is the world beyond the wormhole. We never visit directly, but the fact that Ramon refers to his companions as Mr and Mrs Sea Bream tells us that it is a very different world. The scenes were Dora is faced with the food that Ramon has brought back for her are delightfully silly. At the time I wasn’t sure how I felt about them but on balance, they evened out what could have become a depressing film, what with the war and the deprivation.

All in all, it was a great selection this year. Can’t wait for LIFF28!

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