No/Gloss Film Festival 2014 Review
Always nice to wake up to the news that the festival you’re about to attend has totally sold out. This turned out to be the first of many good omens for No/Gloss Film Festival this year. Dressed for the sunshine but not for the wind, we made our way there along the canal for another weekend of idiosyncratic original filmic pleasure.
Before we get to the films, though, something’s gotta be said about the venue. Temple Works, what an inspired choice it turned out to be. Its capabilities as a venue for such events as this were really highlighted and the organisers really made use of its rundown beautiful charm and aesthetic.
Their deployment felt even more like an outlier of Rebel filmmakers had set up base camp in a bid to hide from the rigid boring authority of the cinematic Empire. The whole set-up looked like it could up and vanish overnight, a few forgotten programmes and chairs that didn’t quite fit in the escape van all that remain.
Brew Dog had the prime spot as far as I’m concerned. With fresh, awesome grafitti from Neil Ennui on the left and rather incredibly original artwork by Jamie Reid, one of punk’s codifying artists and the genius behind the Sex Pistols’ album art, literally plastered to the wall on the right, Punk IPA seemed to be in its spiritual home. And damn tasty it was too that first warm Saturday morning. Starting the day off with a chat about great beer with their lovely staff was the perfect start to sitting on my arse all day watching movies. As was the pizza from the friendly welcoming folks at Streatza Pizza. The note scribbled by my companion in my notebook, “The food was the tits,” confirms this.
The films! What about the films? you cry, impatiently. Short answer: what an incredible selection. Long answer: see below.
Coming in just in time to catch Birds Fly South (UK), part of what more insensitive minds could dub the Mental Illness Trilogy of UK films at No/Gloss this year when taken with the sadly missed Revisited and Circa, things were off to a beautifully put together emotive start. Told with a wonderful lack of exposition and a great display of Show Don’t Tell, we see a day in the life of two brothers, one a never-made-it musician and the other a paranoid schizophrenic, and how their two realities, real and fantasy, collide. With fantastic acting and clever manipulation of colour and sound to capture the more unfortunate brother’s mental episodes, this felt like a snippet or a snapshot of a larger work, like there was so much life before and after the cameras stopped rolling. Based on the director’s own experiences with his brother, you can appreciate how he captured it so poignantly. Self Offense (USA) dealt with similarly heavy subject matter, four women united by a shared self-defense class and the physical and mental abuse that brought them there, be it lover on lover, mother on daughter, local thugs on former trophy wife or the darkest, rapist stalker on victim. They each relive their harrowing moment then overcome it via the catharsis of defeating their trainer. Alternately harrowing and moving, you really felt for these poor women. The denouement was very flat compared to all that came before it, lacking any real catharsis and somewhat undercutting the power of the self defense classes. Still, overall it was a well put together reflection on physical and mental abuse and how best to deal with it.
After a brief break, we had the wonderful, quirky and genuinely funny Pictures Of Superheroes (USA), our first feature length viewing of the festival. After losing her job as a supposed maid when it turns out she was meant to be a door-to-door fetishist whore, our heroine stumbles into the lives of two housemates, one of whom is so wrapped up in his mysterious business and two piece suits he has lost the ability to even see or acknowledge the existence of the other, a comic book collector and would-be artist if his abilities were a little better than that of a seven year old. What unfolds is hard to describe, but its a journey with its own unique sense of narrative rhythm with a conclusion that leaves half the cast regressing and the other advancing but with no idea what they’re doing or why. Pretty good metaphor for life, that. In the mumblecore tradition with a heavy dose of Miranda July’s own deadpan whimsy, this was one of our films of the festival, a great little indieflick that is both strangely heartwarming and refreshingly lacking in any kind of deep meaningful message. All we have are characters too involved in their own lives and fantasies to even realise what’s going on around them. This being its UK debut was quite the coup for No/Gloss.
Told in retrospect by the now-adult daughter, Electric Indigo (Belgium) tells the story of a unique childhood full of the wonderful and the traumatic. Two heterosexual males platonically in love with one another decide to get married and raise a child, sleeping with the same woman to be the mother and then raising her together. Sadness and melancholy ensue in a lifestyle experiment turned sour, mainly by this year’s recurring theme of mental illness when the mother’s episodes and jealousies become too much and they banish her from the coop. Her return years later brings with it only violence in her bid to see her daughter again. Beautifully shot and with some truly shocking moments and narrative turns, an interesting drama well worth discovering, both for its unique story and its great execution.
The family unit was the focus of the next flick, the spirit of David Lynch very much among us for El Espejo Humano (Spain), the chilling claustrophobic tale of a daughter driven to paranoia, hallucination and ultimately violence by the constant barrage of horror stories delivered by the TV news channel. A noir nightmare shot in stunning monochrome, the amazing use of light and shadow leaves the image in stark black and white, the former predominating as the TV rapidly monotones a catalogue of misery, an atrocity exhibition driving the young girl to murder. All the TV reports are real, and occurred within the same week of each other, bringing an even realer sense of the horror of it all when she justifies her actions, quietly saying, “This is normal. It happens every day.” Haunting. As was the short but effective Complicit (Ireland), with its depiction of a man mid-psychoanalysis repeating over and over, “I thought the next person would deal with it,” as a flow of images of human suffering passes across the screen, scenes that were all avoidable had good men not stood idly by. A potent message delivered simply. I feel it’s worth noting here, though some of you may disagree that two films at one festival make a representative sample for scientific analysis, that I’m comfortable saying with absolute certainty that 100% of Irish films were animated this year, Complicit being the first well-CGIed example. Could be significant. Could mean nothing.
Now this we were looking forward to a lot. Simple Being (USA) is a novel combination of both real life experiment, documentary and drama, blending them all together for the most part masterfully. The lead actor and the character he plays undertake the Simple Being experiment, the going without of first your hearing, then your speech then your sight for a week each, in a bid to see what is most important in your life and better understand and value human interactions. It’s a brilliant concept beautifully presented with nice interstitial text and imagery. It captures the frustration of being senseless and speechless very effectively, I finding myself feeling increasingly deaf as proceedings went on. At times it drags a bit unnecessarily, focusing on some scenes and predicaments more than was necessary. Likewise his roommate is unnecessarily dickish and unhelpful throughout the film, simply a foil, a bit of antagonism, an asshole ill-defined outside of his assholishness. That aside, the film leaves a lasting impression and left me genuinely curious about the experiment and what I could go without in my day to day life. Not much, probably.
Dressed a bit more appropriately for Sunday, we returned even more excited than yesterday morn after the stellar efforts of yore. Sunday found us confined exclusively to Screen One, not through laziness but through one amazing-sounding film after another being screened there. Apologies Screen Two people. After yesterday’s darker start, Strong Coffee With Vodka (Germany) got us off with a lighter comedic opening and a situation anyone who’s ever worked in the service industry in a cafe can relate to. The fussy customer wants soya milk, along with various other specifics for their coffee, your boss couldn’t care less since, “We don’t do soya. It says so in the menu,” and to top it all off you’re an idiot. The misunderstandings and idiocies build up and up nicely, with a few real hearty laughs in there. The sarcastic self-centred boss steals the show, defensively claiming he is obviously French while speaking snippets of Spanish throughout. One for the baristas here.
Sunday’s first full-length, Sprouting Orchids (USA), was an intriguing wonderful mess of a film and a monument to where ambition and budget come apart. Two people seemingly brought together by chance fall in love only to discover they have both a tragic past and more pressingly a destiny in common as they race to find out who the mysterious man hounding their every step is and what his designs on mankind are. Sci-fi elements are slowly introduced, but the air of mystery that was being cultivated at the beginning is sadly dropped in favour of a “Why/What/Where did that come from?” sudden shift in narrative pace and action at the midway point that signals the exact moment the film becomes messy, confusing and at times confused. Its story ideas are excellent, and there are some brilliant shots and moments peppered throughout, but a few issues sadly spoil it, not least the strange sound issue where half the dialogue is heralded by a crackling background buzz, artifacts of improper mixing, and a villain with all the threat and appearance of a middle management accountant doing his best Agent Smith impression. Its overambition outstretches its budget, but for all that Sprouting Orchids is an enjoyable sci-fi-inflected then -dominated drama with a director with great promise.
MAtHIEU’s (France) titular hero, a man who feels compelled to make everyone around him happy and always say yes to what they want, one day finds it all becoms too much and accidentally discovers being a jerk can get him what he wants for a change. At least to begin. Brilliantly delivered and whimsical while having a strangely firm foot in reality in the way only the French can pull off, MAtHIEU is utterly charming and left us all with a smile on our faces. As did the very London Ackee & Saltfish (UK), two friends’ hunt for the titular Caribbean cuisine. Their rambling improvised conversations were laugh out loud funny, the two lead actresses clearly the best of friends as they banter back and forth about everything from boys’ names to cafes to whether it is acceptable to eat West Indian food cooked by white people. The at first underlying message about the perils of gentrification and its homogenizing of London boroughs becomes more overt as they come to discuss it aloud, with a lot of very valid points made without any sense of being forced or hitting you over the head with a huge hammer labelled, “The Message Of This Story.” Very satisfying little short.
The dark, Kafkaesque tones of Reception (Denmark) left the audience on the edge of their seats, but not in the traditional thriller sense. This instead comes from its creeping dread and existential horror-inducing wide shots of empty corridors and lobbies, a fantastic use of negative unoccupied space in its framing of the story of one poor unfortunate receptionist and his juggling of dealing with his friend’s split with her boyfriend, his love for her and a rude, overly-aggressive customer who doesn’t seem entirely innocent in his motives. It really gets under the skin in subtle, hard to pin ways and you genuinely feel for the hero’s increasingly over-full plate of problems. The Fincher-like colour palette and slick, smooth, steady filming style all build the mood up expertly.
Hideaway (UK) used a similarly muted colour range, but this time all washed out to a warm amber glow. The tale of two girls, one the kidnapper and one the supposed but oddly genial victim, it becomes increasingly obvious they have accidentally run away together from their problems. The two lead actresses carry the film entirely on their shoulders, with two very real, very believable performances. Their relationship is already familiar by the film’s start, with all the usual overfocus on the initial bonding in such stories having occurred smartly off screen. Another strong case of Show Don’t Tell, with much left unsaid and underexplained to the film’s ultimate benefit. Making beautiful use of the surrounding countryside in their hideaway home and with a real sparseness to proceeding, this is minimal, stripped back film-making that still manages to look fantastic. The ambiguous ending leaves you with a real concern for the characters’ plight and hopeful resolutions.
This break in films was filled with a very entertaining talk from “social media hellraiser” Jon Morter, who has made it his noble personal mission to call companies out on their social media bullshit. If you post something painfully dull, insensitive or just plain fucking stupid to advertise your products, expect him to find it, repost and embarrass the crap out of you. A great public speaker and with a lot of sound advice amidst the mockery, if you get a chance catch him in future.
Then straight back to the films with documentary short Kein Porno (Switzerland). What started out as director Jela Hasler’s attempt to document a pornstar-cum-director and the pitfalls of the industry, a last minute drop out and her family’s beleaguered interesting responses to her proposed subject matter left her with an ultimately more interesting topic – the taboo around open interest in the pornographic. One particularly haunting moment comes when her mother says that perhaps it is her daughter’s attempt to be different and stand out that inspired her documentary, something she claims to desire herself. The prolonged, dialogue-free shot of her and her plain, everyday surroundings coupled with this statement gave real poignancy to the scene.
After the brief chuckleworthy absurdity of Griechenland (Greece), with report-style footage of the political troubles of Greece swiftly giving way to someone violently shitting into a toilet, Howl (UK) got all serious on us again. We were very intrigued with this offering from the minimal nothing-given-away promotional imagery, and that withholding carries into the film, with the exception of the maybe too overt ending, but it ultimately left me very satisfied and truly creeped out. I don’t want to spoil the carefully concealed reveals, so I’ll just stick to this. Like all good horror, it deals with a real life fear through the fantastical, this time dealing with the imaginary things we as children are scared of (fairy tale monsters) and the sadly very real things we should be scared of (paedophilia). Both are (mostly) subtly implied in genuinely creepy ways, with all the nastiness happening just round the corner or off-screen. Clever use of shadow and expressionistic camera angles pulls it all off with aplomb, the actors all doing a great job in piling up the ambiguities.
The second film and confirmation of my All-Irish-Films-Are-Animated-Now hypothesis, The Missing Scarf (Ireland) is one squirrel’s hunt for the titular clothing and the animals he asks for aid. This one had the audience in stitches, its characters’ ever escalating problems becoming more and more overblown, existential and absurd in the Camus-ean sense as it went on. George Takei’s narrative voice is absolutely brilliant, and its ending’s utter bleakness hilarious. The smooth, simple, cutesy animation plays wonderfully off the increasingly nihilistic subject matter perfectly. If you can find it to watch, do. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, here it is, in its entirety. Because we can.
The clever programming this year, with shifts in tone as and when so films compliment and contrast with each other was best illustrated by the real gravitas and haunting beauty of Volti (Italy) being highlighted and increased by its following this whimsical madness. A local theatre and the characters that surround are the subject of this moving tale, one local boy’s innocent undemanding love of the theatre a sweet counterpoint to the overly serious angry theatre director’s unnecessary dissatisfaction with his lead dancer’s dress rehearsals. The production is lush and stunning, a timelessness oozing from every frame. The actor playing the dancer is magnetic when on screen, there is something so elemental and strong in his bearing and how he carries himself. A simple tale, it washes over you and draws you in, breathtaking in its execution.
The day was finished off with the daft, dumb, short but sweet Pøser (Germany) whose brief levity left everyone with a smile on their face, the imagery of some daft Berliner dancing in the reflection of an unknowingly occupied van’s window coming off surprisingly humourous coupled with the occupants over the top hateful commentary. And that was that.
Numb of arse and thrilled of mindset, we left the festival. The quality last year was good but at times erratic, the fledgling and overambitious often very distinguishable from the veteran or auteur. This year, no such distinction could be made. The bar has really been raised, with every film being on a par with the one before and after it in production value and overall calibre of filmmaking. The final year student film sat head held high next to the latest from the greatest. No/Gloss has really upped their game, and I’m looking ever more forward to another installment next year. You’ll hear it from us here first, folks.