The Gang that Can't Shoot Straight

By Brian Robinson and Lucinda Henderson

afghan-star-havana-marking.jpgAfghan Star, 2009

This year’s Sundance Film Festival, the 25th, opened in the midst of economic gloom and only days before the Presidential inauguration, but Robert Redford remained defiantly upbeat, insisting that “art will always find a way”, and that Sundance had never been about the bottom line anyway. He could barely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect of saying farewell to “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight” and welcoming a new administration into the White House. In spite of financial restraints he expressed his optimism for the future of independent film and stressed themes for the Festival, amongst others, of change and diversity.

Of around 120 feature-length films shown at Sundance, British film was well represented, but exceeded all expectations when the awards were handed out, winning 8 of the 13 World Cinema prizes. Particularly successful in the World Documentary category was the joint Afghanistan/UK production, Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking. It tells how, after 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan. Millions are watching and voting for their favourite singer. Marking's film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing.

In the Loop is a highly successful metamorphosis of Armando Iannucci’s television series, The Thick of It. The big screen version adds an international dimension with pro and anti war factions, in both the US and British governments, bumbling through a landscape of outrageously acidic political self interest. The plot is as labyrinthine as an opera, but the dialogue machine guns importunate characters with comedic ruthlessness. The political high-minded tone of the West Wing is totally absent. Whilst some of the subject matter superficially suggests Yes Minister, the pace has gone from Royal Mail to email. In the Loop is more like The Office on steroids.

Tom Hollander takes on a central role as Simon Foster, the UK’s super featherweight Minister for International Development. He still has aspirations to do good in politics, but his inability to craft his public utterances to the No 10 line incurs repeated inter-departmental ballistic missiles from Malcolm Tucker, continuing in his role as the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications. In Washington both pro and anti war cliques try to take advantage of Simon Foster’s ill judged quotes. But the consistent theme is that this political world consists of an amalgam of personal decisions with every action calibrated against how it might generate career advancement or damage the individual.

in-the-loop-armando-iannucci.jpgIn the Loop, 2009

Much has been made of relevance of the theme to the blundering into the Iraq war. The hand held camerawork enhances a documentary feel; however, the film carefully skirts any overt references to real events. In doing so, it creates a more powerful focus on the manic motivations of individual characters. The surreal discontinuity of challenges faced by politicians is encapsulated by Simon Foster trying to set a course to resist a headlong rush to international war, whilst being pestered about the collapsing wall of his constituency office which threatens to annihilate the greenhouse of an elderly neighbour.

The translation from small to big screen involved a new character for Chris Addison as Toby, Simon Foster’s new assistant, who finds that scoring away does not make for an easy life back on home turf. The US story angle also necessitated bringing in a strong American cast, members including James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy and Anna Clumsky (all anti war) together with David Rasche as the chief hawk. Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm Tucker, is a direct transfer from The Thick of It. This foul-mouthed linguistic fascist castrates any Minister who dares to stray from the agreed ‘line’. In Washington he is outmanoeuvred and one of the funniest scenes is when he finds himself lured into a White House meeting which turns out to be with a twenty three year old spin-meister tasked with keeping Tucker from a more important meeting about the War.

The strength of the dialogue seems to emerge from Iannucci’s own contributions to the script, co-ordinating the efforts of a writing team with whom he has worked previously: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, and “swearing consultant”, Ian Martin. This is melded with opportunities for the actors to improvise. Iannucci stands astride these two galloping horses of a tight script and spontaneity with consummate skill.

British audiences should have a chance to see In the Loop later this year and the success of The Thick of It should ensure a deserved good reception. Despite IFC’s early investment at Sundance, Screen Daily predicts a less successful reception in the land where new is king. The inauguration of President Obama, just as In the Loop was launched, means that US political agendas will move on. What will not change is the ambition of politicians.

maid-sebastian-silva.jpgThe Maid, 2009

The Maid (La Nana) is a small scale masterpiece in Spanish by Chilean, Sebastian Silva, based upon his family’s experience of a long time servant who allowed the position to devour her life. The film took the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) whilst Catalina Saavedra, as Raquel, the maid, was awarded a special jury prize for her performance. This is clearly an affluent upper middle class family in a large Chilean house. Yet by setting almost all the action in one home, and partly by use of hand-held camerawork, Silva skilfully captures the claustrophobic atmosphere where family members and their maid are constantly grinding against one another.

The Maid starts in a deserted kitchen, with dialogue filtering from another room. Raquel appears with a plate of food and begins eating alone. Then Pilar, the mistress of the house, rings a handbell to summon her servant to receive a birthday cake and presents. This immediately establishes the dichotomy between Raquel’s perception of her position as almost a family member, whilst she responds, albeit reluctantly, to being treated as a servant.

In the first ten minutes, further family members show by their actions how they feel about Raquel. Son, Lucas (Agustin Silva) is despatched to bring Raquel into the birthday celebrations, after she refuses to leave the kitchen, as he is her favourite. Father of the household, Mundo Valdes (Alejandro Goic) leaves the birthday celebrations promptly to work on a model boat he has been painstakingly building for a year. Relationships with servants are incidental to his world.

It is also clear that there are dysfunctional behaviours between Raquel and different family members which have developed over a number of years and which are now seen as unchangeable. Raquel is the main source of this, with routines which are dedicated but obsessive. Raquel’s mother telephones on her birthday, but the maid rapidly truncates this call disowning her actual family in favour of the one she believes she is now part of. But Raquel is now 41, suffering headaches from the long hours, refusing to change routines and relying increasingly upon self medication to keep going. Pilar is determined to seek additional help. The maid sees this as an ultimate threat. Much of the rest of the film focuses upon her efforts to oust these interlopers who invade her territory. Young, inexperienced, Peruvian, Mercedes is soon seen off by Raquel’s intolerable behaviour. She is replaced by an old battleaxe, Sonia, recommended by Pilar’s mother. Sonia and Raquel have bruising verbal and physical exchanges, culminating in an incident where Pilar is forced to choose between them. By this time, Raquel’s behaviour is becoming distinctly anti-social, locking herself away and turning up her television to drown out attempts to communicate with her. The third intruder, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) takes a different tack and slowly begins to steer Raquel towards a less imprisoned view of life. Lucy plainly has ambitions and interests beyond service and demonstrates that by her choices when off duty. Eventually Raquel is persuaded to join Lucy’s family for Christmas, which expands her experience of domestic relationships into new dimensions.

big-river-man-john-maringouin.jpgBig River Man, 2009 

There are some delicious cameos, notably by the Pilar’s mother (Delfina Guzman), who brings the older, more dogmatic attitudes of Latin American families to their servants, and by Lucy’s Uncle Eric. In reality, the maid in Silva’s household was transformed by the making of the film. She quit her job, and now has a boyfriend, a car and has dyed her hair. There are many parts of the world where women are in unregulated servitude. The Maid skilfully explores the harshness of such lives, exposing the ways in which households come to exploit such staff and why some maids may come to rely on their job to create their identity. The attention to detail throughout, exposes wellsprings of human nature which gives The Maid a power to transcend South American audiences.

Big River Man is a feature by John Maringouin which gained the World Cinema Cinematography Award for a documentary. It takes up the story of an extraordinary endurance swimmer, Martin Strel, who had already swum the length of the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze before attempting to swim the Amazon from Atalaya in Peru to the Atlantic Ocean, some 3,274 miles away, in 2007.

Strel is an overweight Slovenian, then 52 years old, who drinks two bottles of wine a day, and speaks little English. His son Borut, manages the expeditions and all of the publicity. The challenge entailed facing crocodiles, anacondas, piranhas, and the tiny parasitic candiru fish which is attracted by the scent of urine and swims up to penis to lay barbed spines. The Amazon has whirlpools which can drag down a boat, let alone a swimmer. Matthew Moltke, a kayaker, who had worked with Martin on earlier marathon expeditions to find good currents, was entrusted with the role of navigator, despite being on a steep learning curve on how to use GPS.

Maringouin, who cut his teeth documenting extreme people in Running Stumbled, slices through the Barnum and Bailey veneer to reveal some of the motivations of this bizarre team. Strel was badly beaten by his drunken father, supposedly giving him a higher pain threshold. His first river experience, was to escape a beating by jumping in and swimming until his ranting father gave up chasing him along the bank. The film skilfully juxtaposes the public man, a Slovenian celebrity who appears in commercials, judges beauty pageants, promotes American food chains and speaks at conventions, with the individual who wakes up screaming every night before the Amazon swim convinced the world is waiting for him to die. Sensitive camera work catches the pools of uncertainty in Strel’s eyes even when this showman’s smile is at its widest. At times he cannot cope with the public attention. Once the swim is underway, and he reaches Brazil, crowds at major settlements grow ever larger. Twice he leaves the festivities and swims off into the darkness of the River without his support team, only to be found hours later. On the second of these occasions the film crew catches up with him on a sandbar, naked and confused, spread-eagled against driftwood.

big-river-man-john-maringouin-2.jpgBig River Man, 2009 

Skilful editing moves us from the pseudo-comic trivia during the preparation phase, with Strel stealing bread rolls from a US Embassy reception and regularly driving whilst drunk, into the dark, life threatening phase of the swim. The cinematography award is well earned for the raging muddy-brown floodwaters which Strel first enters at Atalaya, under skies heavier than over-ripe grapes. The awe, fear and incredulity with which Strel is received by native tribes in the upper Amazon are captured as the hideous “fish man” emerges each night with a hat and white mask, a Heath-Robinson attempt to protect Strel’s head from sunburn.

The threats to Strel’s health as the swim progresses are a metaphor for threats to the Amazon basin. But in some respects, despite the exceptional cinematography of the rainforest and River, our concern for the individual overwhelms the bigger environmental messages of rainforest degradation which Strel’s team claims is the purpose of the swim. Martin’s mental preparation included spending long hours in the Postojna Caves instilling a belief that if he thinks like an animal, he will not be eaten or attacked in the River. But the psychological pressures he endures as the journey progresses, take Strel’s mind to places beyond previous expeditions. This affects other members of the team, especially navigator Moltke, who spent three days awake scribbling manic poems about Jesus, when the swim is more than 40 days in the river wilderness.

Big River Man has been compared to Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but in many respects the expedition is closer to John Wesley Powell’s trip to explore the Colorado River and Grand Canyon in 1869, a lust for adventure, with thinly disguised scientific purpose. The world needs larger than life characters who attempt absurd feats with very uncertain outcomes.

Lucinda Henderson and Brian Robinson are leisure consultants with a special interest in film.