Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004

by Mag. Irmgard Stefani-Spiegel

I’ve made my way back to the 58th EIFF, the world’s longest continuously running film festival. It was great to be back even though it seemed to be more difficult this year to find the ‘really good’ films. The city was again bustling with thousands of tourists, comedians, singers, dancers and filmmakers. At this year’s film course organised by Edinburgh University, apart from many other interesting aspects of film, we finally got to discuss one of Austria’s best-known directors, Michael Haneke.

Here are my comments about the films that I saw in Edinburgh:



The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motocicleta)

Argentina, Chile, Peru, USA, 2004

Directed by Walter Salles


Back when ‘Che’ Guevara was still Ernesto - an asthmatic medical student, not a revolutionary - he set off , in January 1952, with his best friend Alberto Granado on an ancient Norton 500 motorcycle. They wanted to explore a little of their homeland, planning to ride across Argentina and into Chile, across the Andes, and enter the Peruvian Amazon, where they would complete their trip at a leper colony; it would end in Venezuela on Alberto’s 30th birthday.

What the film tries to show is Ernesto’s transformation from the son of a privileged Argentinean family into a fighter for social justice. But what the two friends see during their trip is a postcard-like image of the beautiful South-American landscape, not really a country shaken by social injustice. The scenes depicting the hardship of people’s lives at the time are weakened because they are separated, even though some of them are quite strong in themselves, e.g. when they sit around the fire with the couple trying to find work in a mine. Salles creates a sentimental and romanticised image of the world surrounding his ‘hero’ and feels it necessary to explain in a typical Hollywood-like way almost every detail of character development throughout the film. There might also be a problem with choosing a very well-known South-American actor for a part of Guevara’s life in which he is not yet the famous revolutionary we all know.



Control (Kontroll)

Hungary, 2003

Directed by Nimród Antal


Nimród Antal’s debut feature is entirely set underground - within the busy metropolitan network of Budapest. The main character is part of a group of ticket inspectors who, on top of their daily duties involving endless discussions with passengers and sometimes violent rivalry with another team of inspectors, must track down the anonymous killer. This hooded figure pushes unwary commuters onto the tracks. The plot leaves room for viewers’ own interpretations: Does the hooded figure represent the dark side of the main character? Is the underground a representation of real life or life after death or even ‘hell’ where people are condemned to live and work till the end of time? The film is sometimes reminiscent of Luc Besson’s classic Subway but thanks to its distinct style, fast pace, visual symmetry, beautiful pictures and great soundtrack, it managed to become the most successful Hungarian film last year.




UK & France, 2004

Directed by C S Leigh


In the first scene, a stage actress loses her ability to speak in the middle of a performance. In the next scene, she is seen in a hotel room having sex with two men. The sex is very violent and humiliating for her. The film then starts to tell her story in a flashback structure. She has lost her child in a car accident and has gone through the tortures of breast cancer. She splits up with her husband and finally commits suicide. The whole story is told in 29 single takes, almost entirely without dialogue. Most of the scenes are extremely staged and constructed. The lack of dialogue sometimes seems just a little too unnatural. Due to sequence shots, the director in some scenes creates a spaceship-like atmosphere. The fragmentation of the narrative structure with intertitles is not very effective since there are no clues whatsoever as to their motivation. One of the best moments of the film is when a song entitled That’s Entertainment over the closing credits provides some self-reflexive aspect to the film: The director seems to be suggesting that the film does not take itself too seriously.




USA & Germany, 2004

Directed by Jem Cohen


Jem Cohen has shot this film over six years, in 11 American states and six other countries. He always had his camera with him when he was travelling in recent years. In Chain he has put together this mosaic of shots to form one consistent view of today’s world: Shopping malls look the same all over the world, they provide an absolutely neutral background to people’s individual destinies. He shows these individual lives with his two female protagonists. On the one hand, there is well paid Japanese salarywoman Tamiko, who tries to find American business interests - theme parks, shopping malls - for her corporation to acquire. On the other, there is Amanda, a runaway struggling to find a minimum wage job and spending her days in shopping malls. Neither ever becomes aware of the other’s existence. There is no social interaction at all of the main characters. Whereas Amanda has two jobs in the end, Tamiko seems to have lost hers and is shown lonely in a hotel room, reduced to everyday activities such as heating water while waiting for a call from her company. The fast editing underlines Cohen’s refined visual style and leaves no room for any kind of atmosphere to develop. But for Cohen, the coldness and similarity of shopping malls around the world is a very important aspect of globalisation which we have to deal with.




Australia, 2004

Directed by Cate Shortland


15-year-old Heidi runs away from home after having been caught kissing her mother’s boyfriend. She embarks on a journey that leads her into a reality that marks her entry into the adult world. Heidi is a girl who finds it hard to communicate with other people, so she often focuses on the small details of life. And that’s what the camera tries to capture, looking at things through her eyes and thus creating beautiful images, e.g. when Heidi is watching leaves blown towards her by the wind. These moments of beautiful visual style collide with other scenes such as the bright, sterile service station she works at, both depicting strong emotions. At the end of the film, with Heidi’s tearful confession to her landlord and going back to her home, you feel as if you spent a very important time of Heidi’s life with her. Superb performances by the two young leads Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington.



Demi-Tarif (1/2 Price)

France, 2004

Directed by Isild Le Besco


This portrait of three children trying to look after themselves on the streets of Paris is a stunning debut from Isild Le Besco, a 21-year-old actress. Shot on digital video, Le Besco with her handheld camera creates situations where the viewer gets very close to the three kids, even though being an observer rather than a member of their group. The film’s shot in Paris but Paris is by no means used as a symbol, it could be any other big city. Even though the slow pace of the film gives viewers time to develop their own thoughts and interpretations in long shots and numerous close-ups, it seems rather staged in some aspects. The voice-over, probably spoken by one of the girls at a later stage, seems quite artificial, as does the complete absence of the mother. What actually succeeds in creating a very intimate relationship between the viewer and the children is the fact that most of the film is shot with the camera at the children’s eye level. The film was acclaimed as a breakthrough in French cinema but maybe we should take into account that French New Wave director Chris Marker is Isild Le Besco’s step-father.



My Summer of Love

UK, 2004

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski


Two girls meet during their summer holidays. Lisa, a common Yorkshire girl who lives with her brother after their parents died years ago, and Tamsin, a posh girl living in a villa up on the hill, experience first love. Yes … this plot might seem well-known to most of us. It’s a nice and easy film to watch, with beautiful pictures but a rather weak plot: Rich girl only uses poor girl for her own amusement, poor girl walks away from her in the end, strengthened by her experience. The acting of one of the two lead actresses as Tamsin, bursting into tears several times, only serves to underline the film’s flatness.

Nevertheless, Pawlikowski won The Micheal Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film 2004 after winning the award with his feature Last Resort in 2000.





House of the Tiger King

Sweden & UK, 2004

Directed by David Flamholc


Director David Flamholc sets off in search of lost city Paititi with explorer Tahir Shah, or rather accompanies the explorer to document his journey into the Peruvian jungle, determined to find Paititi, also called the House of the Tiger King. After having got into trouble because of their first guide, Vietnam vet Richard Fowler, all they are left with are local Indians, one of whom is said to actually have seen parts of Paititi. The high waters of a river force them to return to Europe where they prepare their second attempt to find the lost city and come back to Peru after six months. What follows is a trip with real danger, with their lives truly at risk, where they start to hate each other. Tahir starts to hate David because he sees the film crew as the main obstacle to his discovery of Paititi, and David hates Tahir for not providing a proper ending to his documentary. The conflict eventually leads to their parting and Tahir saying “You’re just making a film, I’m looking for a lost city”. Tahir Shah’s increasing obsession with finding Paititi raises questions as to motivation and financing of such a project but it actually captures what documentaries should be all about: reality and real emotions. Ultimately, Flamholc’s film is part document, part invention. When the director and explorer showed up after the screening for a Q&A and started quarrelling about the same issues again, you could tell that there is still some controversy between them as to their trip in search of Paititi.



Incident at Loch Ness

USA, 2003

Directed by Zak Penn


Have you heard about Werner Herzog’s latest project called Enigma of Loch Ness? Well, then go and see this film because this is the result of it! Zak Penn has somehow managed to convince the great Werner Herzog to make a film about the Loch Ness monster with him. If you expected this to be a serious documentary on the creature(s) living in the deep waters of Loch Ness, you’ll be surprised to find out that it’s a hilariously funny mockumentary about a documentary (which actually never existed) that takes the mix of fact and fiction to its extremes. Structured as a film within a film within a film, it is only by a few elements that you can tell there is something wrong from the start (as Herzog states himself after the first day of shooting), be it the attitude of producer/director Zak Penn or the film team with the video camera making a documentary about Werner Herzog’s life and work at the same time. I won’t tell any more than this: It’s great fun!



Super Size Me

USA, 2003

Directed by Morgan Spurlock


Morgan Spurlock’s documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the award for Best Director. Morgan Spurlock, an average 33-year old guy from West Virginia, now living in New York City, decided to start a unique experiment: He ate only items taken from McDonalds’ menus for thirty days. After an initial thorough medical check by three doctors which proved that he was perfectly healthy, not only his general well-being deteriorated considerably but also his blood and liver values. After three weeks all three doctors told him to stop his experiment because his health was at serious risk. But he went on until the 30th day. He intended to show that eating too much fast food can actually constitute a serious threat to people’s health. Of course there is nothing reasonable or balanced about such a diet and Spurlock at one point in the film admits that his experiment “may have been a little extreme”. So it might not be taken too seriously by his opponents. Maybe that’s the reason why he widens his focus to an inquiry into the eating habits of middle America and the consequences of eating too many Super Size options.

Even though McDonald’s never responded to any of Spurlock’s inquiries after the end of his experiment, they removed Super Size options from their menus six weeks after the film premiered.

2004 Winner of The Guardian New Director's Award.



Blue Collar White Christmas

Denmark, 2004

Directed by Max Kestner


The Viking lifeboat factory in a small town in Denmark employs numerous local people und logically plays an essential role in their lives. Just before Christmas 2001, the management announce that they have acquired a new factory in Bangkok and will soon outsource much of their labour. A considerable part of the current staff will lose their jobs. Max Kestner has picked a group of people to depict what they are going through until they are finally told who will have to leave. The documentary seems far too constructed to represent the gloomy situation. You cannot feel the growing tension within the group, only when the female team discover that none of them will be sacked, their relief seems to be real. The music contributes to the feel of a constructed film that actually resembles a fiction film. When asked in the Q&A after the film, Max Kestner and his wife, the scriptwriter, answered that they had scripted the whole documentary and asked the local people to act out the scenes in a certain way. The fiction-film style Kestner uses dilutes the content to some extent, even though the slow pace resulting from long shots creates an atmosphere of thoughtfulness.




Denmark, 2004

Directed by Kassandra Wellendorf


No dialogue, just a poetic and sensual narrative. With her short documentary, Kassandra Wellendorf actually wanted to explore how people act to avoid being accidentally touched by others while waiting for a bus or a train. She found out that people in Copenhagen are very calm and disciplined so that “trying to avoid being touched” isn’t an issue. Instead, she concentrated on depicting the people’s isolation, creating visually striking sequences. The effective use of movement is very successful in depicting the different paces of a city. Remarkable!

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