A Visual Feast at the European Film Festival

"It means something for cinema, the issues these films’ advocate and Ethiopia as a whole, that such high-profile individuals find it significant enough to attend. Ethiopians have become much more movie savvy than I thought. And I could just imagine how much more informed they will be after this festival, especially about the current trends of film making, and the prevalent themes of contemporary movies"

The only thing better than having to watch a movie is being able to watch two, one after another, without much rest in between. This is the real reason film festivals exist – they provide a stage for intense moments of film assimilation. I sometimes hold a movie marathon of my own, on some weekends, pop one movie after another until my eyes start to get blurry (it would be worth it if I lose my eyesight). Of course, it all depends on the quality of the movies, otherwise, it’s all for nothing.

The European Film Festival ran here in Addis Ababa for a stretch that lasted two weeks, which was just too short for any film buff. Screenings were held at various cultural institutes and each film was an entry by different EU member states. Although there wasn’t a lot of advertising for the event, theatre halls were filled to the brim, by expats as well as Ethiopians. And rightly so: it was a wonderful occasion to acquaint oneself with the continent that produced Wadja, Miloš Forman, Bergman, The Archers, French New Wave, Dogme 95, German Expressionism and Neorealism.

The festival opened with the deeply poignant Slovakian documentary Nicki’s Family. A film about a humble Brit who rescues 669 children from Nazi concentration camps, it was surprisingly touching. I had never heard of it, and was amused to find that it had staying power. As a documentary, it isn’t a technical achievement, like, say, The Fog of War, and the period reconstructions are below par. Its effectiveness lies in its accuracy in driving home the humane deeds of its protagonist. It is a very confrontational movie in that it asks us what we have done for mankind. Nicki’s Family set the bar fairly high for the rest of the movies to come.

Subsequent days of screening were a lot less enticing though. Films like Suns Street Boys and the Portuguese, Os Gatos Não Têm Vertigens, were complete shams. There were indeed others that had ambition, especially the Estonian Living Images, which utilises a brave technical style of framing each segment within the visual aesthetics that was popular in a given scene’s setting. But the film had a lousy plot – it was all style and no substance.

There were some memorable movies, not because they were especially cinematic but for the reverence that was given to their subject matter by the embassies that submitted them. Citizen Havel was a documentary about the three-term Czech president Václav Havel. It was introduced at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise by the president’s younger brother, Ivan. Some days later, the United Kingdom’s entry into the festival, Suffragette, was shown with the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (the leader of the suffragette movement) in participation. It means something for cinema, the issues these films’ advocate and Ethiopia as a whole, that such high-profile individuals find it significant enough to attend.

Either by design or just pure coincidence the films stowed away for the second week of the event where the crème de la crème. La Famille Bélier is a feel-good French movie about a teen, with a great operatic voice, whose entire family happens to be deaf-mute. The movie has a lot of uncomfortable jokes about deafness and sex, so it is not recommended for those prudish. For all else, this is a very entertaining movie that especially pays off in the end.

I expected nothing less from the French; they are fantastic filmmakers. They understand what story is and love their characters dearly. La Famille Bélier is a peculiar film with great acting and memorable jokes. More than that, the story is a laudable metaphor about the disconnect that could happen between parents and children.

Unlike the French – and although the birth place of Buñuel and the gentle Pedro Almodóvar – the Spanish aren’t known for their great movies. So imagine my surprise when watching La Isla Mínima, a shockingly awesome police procedural movie set in the 1980’s. It paints a grotesque image of Spain faced with the immediate after effects of the Franco era.

The plot is built up remorselessly, without really caring if we are following the story or not. The ending is anything but an ending, it closes on a very ambiguous note that teases the audiences on whether or not justice was served, or if it ever can be. Truly, one of the century’s most interesting detective movies and an obvious influence on the TV show True Detective.

So, whatever came after the Spanish movie was going to be a letdown, especially if the subsequent movie was not going to put in the effort. The Storm, made by the Dutch, tells the story of a mother looking for her child amidst the backdrop of a great natural disaster. For a country not known for such expensive movies, the scope of the film is impressive. But every time a film like this is made, what suffers most is the story. Add to this some really bad acting, and we have the festival’s worst entry.

But if The Storm let audiences down, A War, the Danish drama, was just around the corner to mend confidences. It isn’t necessarily a war movie like Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker – it is a morality tale, much like children’s fairy stories, but far more realistic. It is concerned more with what happens after war, than during, and sees its protagonist accused of a war crime he may have committed. For lack of a better comparison, I should say it is a lot like Woody Allen’s tragicomic Crimes and Misdemeanors – not subject to public scrutiny and with all our secrets intact, all of us are heroes.

Since I had to turn in this article to my editors by Saturday morning, I have to leave out the last four movies screened at the festival, and conclude with the superb German movie Labyrinth of Lies. A film that deals with denial, it is the most visually intelligent entry. Both the editing and cinematography are excellent and there is no use of shaky cameras or cinéma vérité style filmmaking, which has now become a cliché.

And although the superfluous love story in the middle of the movie does smack too much of Hollywood, Labyrinth of Lies is a very significant film that shows how maturely current Germans have come to terms with what happened in concentration camps. I deeply admire and respect the embassy in submitting this particular movie, which concedes that not only did Nazism flourish in Germany, but Germans once tried to pretend the Holocaust didn’t occur.

I hate to see the festival end, and return to multiplex movies. It was somewhat of a learning experience, especially about audiences. Ethiopians have become much more movie savvy than I thought. I once overheard two teens discussing the visual aesthetics of a Wes Anderson movie. And I could just imagine how much more informed they will be after this festival, especially about the current trends of filmmaking, and the prevalent themes of contemporary movies.

By Christian Tesfaye
special to Fortune

Published on Nov 08,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 862]



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