Chicago International Film Festival: Part III, by Aaron Pinkston
Despite the Gods, dir. Penny Vozniak, Australia
In 1993, Jennifer Chambers Lynch directed and released her first feature film, Boxing Helena. Despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film went on to become a great critical failure, currently with only a 19% Rotten Tomatoes score and bad enough to win the Golden Raspberry for worst director of the year. I haven’t seen Boxing Helena, but I can’t help to think that part of this hate comes from Lynch’s background — as the daughter of film grandmaster David Lynch, there must have been extra attention put on her work and when the output wasn’t to a certain level, it was condemned. The film’s reputation wasn’t helped by a public legal battle with A-list stars Madonna and Kim Basinger when both actresses backed out of the lead role. After what must have been a traumatic experience, Lynch wouldn’t direct another film for 15 years. This context pushes right into Penny Vozniak’s documentary Despite the Gods, which chronicles Lynch’s experience making her third film, a Bollywood horror-comedy-musical which Lynch describes as a movie about “a snake that turns into a woman who turns into a snake.”
Vozniak may have gone into this project wholly as an artist profile of Jennifer Lynch, whose career in Hollywood has been an incredible story, but she happened to stumble into a film production also worthy of documenting. All of the ingredients were there to make a disaster: an eccentric filmmaker, a foreign location, the unique Bollywood industry, and a very demanding producer. Quickly, seemingly before production actually even begins, the film’s production schedule falls behind and never can fully recover.
Despite the Gods is edited in a rather scattershot method, jumping from day to day with only brief moments organizing the narrative. This keeps the film moving along quickly, but doesn’t fully build a proper context for the film’s many production problems. It is easy to understand that there are problems happening, but it isn’t easy to specifically pinpoint what they are — every problem, minor or major, are never fully explored. On the positive side, though, this presentation matches the crazy production of Hisss.
Overall, the film’s style feels more like a video diary than a behind-the-scenes documentary, especially with the snippets we get with Lynch outside of work. Lynch certainly had a difficult shoot, but she may have been more affected through this process by her personal demons. She talks to the camera throughout the film, complaining about her lack of love and stability, always with a self-mocking tone. Though most of her conversation comes from this place, every once in a while she offers more interesting insight into her work and life. At one point she remembers her father’s struggles with (coincidentally) his third film, Dune, which she notes almost ruined his career and his personal life. Already under a lot of pressure with a disastrous shoot unfolding, the honest looks we get inside the head of Lynch are where Despite the Gods sees its best moments.
The most sustained conflict during the production comes between Lynch and her producer, Govind Menon, who is perhaps the film’s only other figure strong enough to stand with Lynch’s bombastic personality. He is undoubtedly passionate about his work, but he is much more realistic that his director, which leads to a number of interesting arguments. Menon directly cites Lynch’s ambition as a major factor why the film is having such trouble being made, and as each day goes by he tries to take more and more control. I think most film lovers would tend to side with the director in this scenario, but neither party comes out unscathed here. The many arguments the two have over the work being done are compelling and the relationship between director and producer gives the film’s best insight into how films typically are made.
Ultimately, as we learn, Menon seized full control over the final edit of Hisss and Lynch has tried to distance herself from the resulting film. The final moments of Despite the Gods, shot four years after the making of Hisss, offer Lynch’s full perspective on her work with the film. It is an honest look at a filmmaker coming to terms with a failure.
Despite the trainwreck nature of the film’s production, Despite the Gods can’t fully capitalize on the comedic possibilities. It is respectable that Vozniak chose to give reverence to the film that was being made, which (in case you missed it) is a Bollywood horror-comedy-musical about a woman who turns into a snake. Call me crazy, but there is some comic potential there — I’m not asking for the film to openly make fun of the film being made, but it seems to want to ignore the natural humor. Bollywood films don’t usually take themselves too seriously, so I wish Despite the Gods didn’t either.
Remaining show times: Friday October 18 at 5:45 pm
I Will Be Murdered, dir. Justin Webster, Spain
I Will Be Murdered sounds like a potentially glib title, but the film certainly is not. Chronicling the 2009 murder of politically outspoken Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, the film is part investigation doc, part profile. What sets this film apart from the hundreds of crime investigation documentaries are the stunning circumstance around the murder. After his death a video surfaced, made by Rosenberg, foretelling his murder and naming the responsibility party, Alvaro Colom, the president of Guatemala. Justin Webster’s film dives into the personal and political circumstances leading up to the murder and the investigation that took place afterwards.
The film starts with an emotional appeal, presenting Rosenberg as a loving father and hard working lawyer, saving the political and legal implications for later. This is important in the film’s success because outside of the stirring video accusing the president of murder, there is very little evidence to suggest his guilt. In many countries this video may not be enough to be taken seriously, but Guatemala is shown to be in complete turmoil at the time, under constant threat of a political coup. In the years before Rosenberg’s death there had been many politically-driven killings, kidnappings and other crimes, some of which involved clients of Rosenberg. As one talking head mentions, being a hitman was one of the most prosperous businesses at the time.
I Will Be Murdered is given incredible access to evidence, including crime scene photos and recorded footage used in the investigation, and features interviews with family members of Rosenberg and top investigators involved in the case. This footage is blended seamlessly with reenactments. The presentation of evidence isn’t always smooth (we get a lot of shots of people watching video on their laptops), but it is very easy to get wrapped up in the intrigue of the case. The film builds through the investigation and gives a good representation of how the case was constructed, step by step. Some of the aspects of the investigation feel a bit rambly, though the whole view of the case remains fascinating enough to keep one invested during the slow buildup.
The most important piece of evidence the film uses, though, is the incredible video shot by Rosenberg just prior to his death. The video is broken up to basically narrate the film’s structure. The footage isn’t shown in its entirety, but it can be found on youtube and is certainly worth a view. It is very eerie at many points, Rosenberg talking as if from the grave, referring specifically to the murder that he foretold. As a lasting theme, he pleads for the public to stand up to the criminals and oppressors in office, hoping that his murder be the final act necessary to fix the system.
Webster constructs the film well, emphasizing the complicated nature of these events while presenting an adequate amount of historical background to fully understand everything involved. It holds back from a bigger political message, mostly sticking to the important facts in the case. If you have any interest in seeing I Will Be Murdered, I suggest you stay away from the details of the case (including the very extensive Wikipedia article), because there are an incredible amount of twists and turns throughout the investigation and the outcomes are pretty unreal. The film often shows its obviously low budget, but this is the type of story that absolutely needs to be told.
The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier), dir. János Szász, Austria/France/Germany/Hungary
On the surface, The Notebook is a pretty typical coming of age tale involving twin brothers living in Hungary savaged during World War II. When their father leaves to join the war, their mother takes the brothers to stay with their grandmother in the presumably safer countryside. They must stick together, deal with loss and war, become tough in this environment. The Notebook, though, takes these tropes of the coming of age wartime drama to clinical and twisted lengths, becoming something strikingly different for the genre.
Throughout the film, voice-over narration serves as a guide to the twins becoming not adults, but hardened shells, capable of surviving in this extreme world. Having experienced abandonment by their parents, however appropriate, and now living with a beyond-cruel woman they had never met before, the film’s unnamed twins (credited as “One” and “The Other”) literally train their minds and bodies for the worst. We see them escape pain by ritualistically harming themselves and each other, refuse food to become immune to hunger, hurl insults at each other to harden their emotions, even adapt themselves to survive without eyesight or hearing. At one point they remark that they are “training the soul,” but it seems more like they are depleting it to face a world without one. In a much different genre this is a super villain origin story — not that it turns out much differently by film’s end.
When the boys are alone, at least initially, they are still very much children. Even as they begin sheltering their emotions from their traumatic experiences, we see often see them playing, even making a friend with a neighborhood girl. But in the presence of adults, they transform into this other self. Because all of the adults in their lives are so very cruel and not trustworthy, they quickly realize that they can really only count on each other. It seems very much like a terrible world, though one not incredibly stretched by how “normal” kids who are shunned would view their elders.
The woman the twins are taken to, the grandmother they didn’t know existed, is a fascinating character. She is familiar enough as a stubborn old woman that her atrocities come off as even more evil. She is not only uncaring, but downright cruel, beating the twins daily and withholding food until they have worked enough to earn it. This isn’t a story about learning work ethic, though, as her intentions seem more controlling. She is the ultimate impetus for the twins to begin their regimen, and when they find themselves mentally and physically strong enough to stand up, it doesn’t have the triumphant feel one would expect. Because of the lengths they have gone through, it quickly becomes quite scary — though a viewer would certainly wish vile things to happen to the grandmother because of the things she has done, the focus quickly changes and lines of morality are blurred. Strangely, the way the boys’ relationship with their grandmother changes is equally fascinating. As they themselves become crueler, their bond seems to grow stronger. She ultimately becomes a strange sort of mentor to the twins and you can see a mutually-protective connection, though really not one of love.
The twins have a collective personality, but the film doesn’t completely take away their individuality. Though they are identical twins, if you watch them closely, you can see the subtle differences in their individual personalities that provides a very interesting extra context — one becomes clearly, though not explicitly, the leader of the two. The voice-over that works through the film is told by the boys, but it isn’t tipped to know which boy it comes from or if it only comes from explicitly one boy. Like their character, it is a shared existence.
With this story taking place during the height of World War II and the spread of the Nazi party through Europe, we have a metaphorical story of how this type of evil can arise. That isn’t to say that the twins literally become potential Nazi party members, as they don’t exist in any sort of political field, but there are ingredient parallels to them both. Their disillusionment with society plus their extreme motivation is a combination that makes them susceptible to hate. This is an odd way to tell this story, but the results are tense and thrilling. The Notebook is one of the highlights to this year’s festival.
Remaining show times: Friday October 18 at 5:45 pm, Saturday October 19 at 6:15 pm
The Priest’s Children, dir. Vinko Bresan, Croatia and Serbia
Father Fabijan is a priest with his back against the wall. His congregation much prefers the less strict, more hip Father Jakov. Worse yet, his small island community is slowly dwindling in size — it’s been thirty years since there were more births in a year than deaths. This is partly due to the fact that all the men seem to be using condoms, which is already a no-no in the eyes of the Church. When local newsstand owner and the community’s condom merchant, Petar, confesses his doubt of whether his trade is a sin, Fabijan is struck with an idea. He may be able to absolve Petar of his sin, solve the community’s population problem and keep childbirth in the decision of God, as is preferred. Yes, Father Fabijan decides to poke holes in all of the condoms.
It would be difficult to come up with a darker plot, but the film doesn’t ever really take its comedic elements too seriously. At times it is on the verge of being too much of a live-action cartoon. What is surprising, though, is how seriously it turns to take the situation. With its one sentence plot description and the first act’s setup, I was expecting something very different than what The Priest’s Children turns out to be. In whole, what could be an aggravatingly silly comedy has a pretty well-rounded view on sex, family and faith. And with the tuning of the film’s tone, the comedic moments become less grating overall, finally finding a decent balance by the end.
Father Fabijan’s plan starts off well enough, seeing a quick increase in population and a few impromptu weddings, which I imagine generates a bit more money for the church. Tourism even increases as the island gets a reputation of being literally fertile ground, attracting young lovers seeking children from around the world. Still, the film never shies away from the serious problems that would naturally arise and presents them honestly. The film deals with issues of child abandonment, abortion, kidnapping, and suicide, never playing these hot-button topics as a source of humor. The film also stays away from being a morose, oppressive experience, exploring all consequences of Father Fabijan’s questionable actions. The balance is right.
Played by Kresimir Mikic, Father Fabijan’s best quality is his stern, angular face, which works for both comedic moments and the seriously bewildered reactions to events spiralling out of control. He’s mostly a blank slate, rarely showing emotion on his face. His performance uses this feature to its highest effect, giving a memorable look to a character who is simply a reactor without many other definable characteristics. He is paired by well-meaning but bumbling Petar who gives a more classic comedic performance.
As a pure comedy, the film isn’t much, only taking its incredibly dark plot so far. Thankfully the film only needs to go so far as it delivers a more thoughtful film than one would expect.
Wolfskinder (Wolfschildren), dir. Rick Ostermann, Germany
In the immediate years following World War II, as a consequence of the deaths of millions of men and women through the war and the Holocaust, there arose an incredible phenomenon called “Wolfskinder.” Thousands of newly orphaned children banded together to survive in the European countryside, looking for food and shelter, without the aid of adults. With so many World War II films hitting the same themes and dramatic situations, this is good new cinematic ground. In Wolfskinder (Wolfschildren), young brothers Hans and Fritz are left to fend for themselves after their mother dies of starvation. Her last request is that they travel to Lithuania where friends can take care of them. It is a long and dangerous road, however, where these young children must survive hunger, treacherous winter conditions, and occupied soldiers who are rounding up and killing the “wolf children.” The film nimbly taps into this historical context without feeling like a historical or political film, but a highly personal one.
Early in their journey, Hans and Fritz come across two young girls trying to escape such soldiers. In the excitement of gunfire, Hans and Fritz become separated while crossing a river — younger Fritz cannot swim and gets swept away in the current. The younger of the two girls is subsequently shot by the soldiers while floating away with Fritz. At this point, the film shifts to follow Hans and his new companion, Christel, and two other young children they meet along the way. Our four protagonists become a strange makeshift family, surviving together and communicating mostly without words.
With this depressing narrative set-up, Wolfskinder remains surprisingly unsentimental. The film understands the difficult struggle of these particular children without needlessly wallowing in it — sure, we actively see their struggle through their dirty faces and ragged clothes, but the film’s tone shoots for realism above melodrama. Along the journey, horrific decisions are made by our characters, especially the group’s makeshift father, with these choices being made even more horrific by the characters’ lack of emotion. Though these four are in this situation together, we are constantly reminded that they are in this for survival and the children can be quite cruel if it means getting food or shelter for themselves. On the other hand, the film appropriately appreciates what little simple pleasures these characters find, like playing in the rain or swimming in a lake. Despite their struggles and their newly hardened nature, we still get glimpses that these are still children.
Wolfskinder is very well shot and composed — everything from the costumes and makeup to the natural settings are incredibly striking. It’s a period film, but the period details are kept fairly simple as a majority of the film is spent in forests secluded from modern establishments. In this way, the film is able to avoid being too reverent of this time period or falling into a too precious tone. Filmmaker Rick Ostermann picked a difficult subject to use for his feature length debut, but he fully understands the context without letting this context override the film.
The true-life Wolfskinder is without question a fertile ground for cinematic stories, and this film is the second this year to depict its events. On the surface, Wolfskinder is very similar in narrative to Lore, a film that has found a great deal of critical success, potentially showing up on top-10 lists by year’s end. There are enough differences in the characters’ individual plights that make both of these films worth viewing — as I mentioned before, Wolfskinder takes on this historical context but remains a very personal struggle. Wolfskinder doesn’t quite have a performance at its center that can match Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, but if Lore worked for you, I imagine Wolfskinder will, too.
Remaining show times: Friday October 18 at 2:15 pm