Tofifest: The end of endlessness

About Roy Andersson

Roy Andersson has only completed six feature films. The first one came in 1970 and was an immediate success. Influenced by directors such as Milos Forman and Jan Nemec, A Swedish love story (En Kärlekshistoria) seemed to charm everyone with “the youngest love couple in the world” as the ads said. At the same time, it was an incisive look at the parent generation at the time. If that one was a hit, his second film Giliap (1975) certainly was not. A troubled production went way over budget, and when it was finally released it was butchered by the critics, with the exception of some in France and Denmark. With a perpetually slow-moving camera, this is still my favourite of Andersson’s films.

Time for commercials

After the debacle of Giliap, Andersson started focusing on making commercials. Many of them were quite famous at the time in Sweden.

In his early commercials, Andersson frequently used camera movements for a final reveal as in this one.

Eventually, the director would develop the style for which he is known today. In his commercials certainly but also in shorts of a different kind. One of his most prominent is the 1991 short World of glory (Härlig är jorden) At the outset it was part of a project initiated by the Gothenburg film festival called “90 minutes of the 90s”. Ten directors were supposed to make a nine-minute film each year of the decade, which was supposed to end up as a 90-minute film. The budget was limited. Roy Andersson was the first director and his project rapidly exceeded both the length and the budget. It ended up as a 15-minute film. Here we can find most of the components that would shape his future films: the non-moving camera, the drab colours and the pale faces of the characters. In many ways, World of glory can be seen as his purest film in that style.

World of glory.

The return to feature films

The year 2000 marked the comeback for Andersson as a director of features. 25 years after Giliap, Songs from the second floor (Sånger från andra våningen 2000) made its first appearance in the competition in Cannes, helped by the fact that Philip Bober was one of the co-producers. Apart from some quite negative reviews in France (Cahiers du cinéma simply called it “very overrated”), the work was generally greeted with praise. It also walked away with the Jury Prize (shared with Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (Takhté siah 2000) The title of the film is quite beautiful in Swedish, partly because of the use of the word “våning” In Swedish it doesn’t only mean “floor” but could also be used as a slightly old-fashioned word for apartment. That is the way it’s utilized in World of glory, beginning at 05.09. ending with “Har man inga pengar så blir det ingen våning” ( If you don’t have the money you won’t get the apartment.) The director actually said that the title was one of the first things that came to him during the gestation of the film.

Seven years later, You, the living (Du levande 2007) was released. It premiered in Cannes in the Un certain regard section. Focusing more on comedy than its predecessor, it became quite popular. In my mind, both films are really strong during their respective first halves but then deteriorates in quality. In Songs from the second floor, the shift comes with the scene that has the only camera movement, about halfway through the film. In You, the living, the moment is more difficult to pinpoint, but after a while, the film feels repetitive. I’ve always had the nagging feeling that even though Andersson meticulously plans each shot, he doesn’t seem to do the same with the film as a whole. This would be even more evident in the 2014 Golden Lion winner, A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence. (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron). His first venture into digital filmmaking was little more than a rehash of old ideas, even though some of the set pieces benefitted from the use of digital tools.

About Endlessness

These films were dubbed a trilogy by the director. During the press conference in Venice, Andersson joked about planning the fourth part of the trilogy. Whatever came out of that it is not difficult to see traces of the earlier films in About endlessness (Om det oändliga 2019) This was my final film at Tofifest. The director claims to have caught the inspiration from One thousand and one nights. Like the way Scheherazade told stories so the king couldn’t stop wishing for more, the film would have the effect that the spectator would wish for the film to continue endlessly. At 78 minutes, the film is the director’s shortest to date. I can’t say that my expectations were high. Unfortunately, my doubts were confirmed.

Roy Andersson About endlessness
From About Endlessness (Om det oändliga)

The film plays like a collection of the earlier films. Already during the title sequence, he reuses Benny Andersson’s (from ABBA) music from Songs from the second floor. The narration that’s supposed to captivate the audience, is reduced to clickbait-sized captions that are hardly necessary. ” I saw a young man who hadn’t met love yet” and “I saw a man who had lost his way” If I wanted to be mean I would say that the last quote is applicable to the filmmaker as well, but that’s not how I want to end the Tofifest reports. I’d rather go out with another citation from the film. A man in a bar suddenly says “Isn’t it fantastic” When asked what he refers to the answer is “Everything! Everything is fantastic!” It is also one of the most beautiful scenes in the film.

So that was the end of this year’s Tofifest for me. My first but certainly not my last. My final quote will come from the man on the poster. “I’ll be back!”

Tofifest Day 4

19-year-old Nathan Ambrosiono is yet another director whose first film is presented at Tofifest. Paper flags (Les drapaux de papier 2018). After 12 years behind bars, Bruno is released. With no prospects in sight, he decides to pay a surprise visit to his six years younger sister Charlie. After the initial shock, she actually decides to help him as much as she can. However, he sometimes has difficulties controlling his temperament. There is also a father in the background who doesn’t want to have anything to do with Bruno.

Paper flags Les drapaux de papier
Noémie Merlant and Guiiaume Gouix in Les drapaux de papier.

There are plenty of beautiful images in the film and Guillaume Gouix and Noémie Merlant both turn in fine performances. The main problem with the film is the aforementioned outbursts from Bruno that seems to appear every time the script calls for it, rather than organically. There are interesting themes not only about freedom but also about adolescence since Bruno is basically living like a teenager at the age of 30. Still, the scenario is not strong or subtle enough to explore the themes properly. Critics have been quite favourable to the film but this was the first film of the Tofifest that I didn’t like.

It wouldn’t take long for the second, unfortunately. Oleg (2019) by Latvian director, Juris Kursietis was another film that I found utterly pointless. It revolves around a Latvian butcher who goes to Brussels to find a better life for himself. Instead, he ends up being exploited by the people he meets, notably by Polish hothead Andrzej. This is basically a Dardenne brothers film with some weird attempts at poetry, sloppily thrown in. As Andrzej, Golden angel laureate, Dawid Ogrodnik is irritatingly one-note in the aggressive way that he controls Oleg. The less said about the film, the better. The image below says more about the film than about Oleg’s predicament.

Oleg

So it was a Day 4 bad films. Still, only one out of four which is not that bad.

Tofifest Day 3

My third day started with yet another first feature-length film. My thoughts are silent (2019) by Antonio Lukich. Vadim is 25 years old and more than two meters tall. He records sounds for a living which he sells to different companies. He gets a generous offer that will allow him to move to Canada and work there. To achieve this he must first record animal sounds in Western Ukraine. If Vadim manages to record the elusive Rakhiv mallard he will get a big bonus. When he arrives in his former hometown Uzhgorod he is picked up by a taxi driver who speaks to Vadim in a strange way. After a while, we understand that it’s actually his mother, and she will be his companion during the trip.

The journey will be filled with weird conversations between mother and son, filled with deadpan humour reminiscent of early Kaurismäki. (Andriy Lidagovskiy in the lead role even has a Matti Pellonpää thing going) with hilarious situations that nobody seems to react upon. The comic timing between Vadim and his mother (Irma Vitovska-Vantsa) is impeccable. The director never aims for cheap effects but keeps a steady rhythm of laconic observations. The film is constantly visually inventive. That goes for the aural aspects as well, not surprisingly, considering the subject. The film also boasts a nostalgic synth-based score. Another more recent comparison might be Gábor Reisz. even though Lukich never strives for the effects that his Hungarian counterpart achieves in his second film Bad poems. (rossz versek 2018) The film actually begins in Hungarian with a prologue set in medieval times. So once more I saw another film that I really liked and I started to wonder if there were any films during this festival that I wouldn’t like.

My thoughts are silent
Andriy Lidagovskiy in My thoughts are silent

Well, one can always cheat and rewatch a film I didn’t like at all the first time. Portrait of a lady on fire (Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu 2019) was really under fire the first time I saw it. What struck me the most when I saw it for the second time is that there are some really good scenes during the first 20 minutes, all of them indoors. One scene wouldn’t have been out of place in a Manoel de Oliveira film, and that’s one of the biggest compliments that I can give. The rest, however, felt exactly the same and the disappointment was heightened by the promise of those early scenes. That might have been why my negative reaction was so strong the first time around.

The Dardenne brothers haven’t managed to impress me for quite some time now. The last film I really appreciated by them was The child (Un fils 2005) Their latest film is Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed 2019) The titular character is a 13-year-old boy who is being radicalized by an Iman. He sets out to kill one of his teachers, partly because she is dating a jew. After the failed attack, Ahmed ends up in an institution where people are trying to decide what would be best for him. One of his duties is to work on a farm where the farmer’s daughter Louise seems to take a shine to him. Some critics have labelled the film dangerous but to me, it rather feels naive. Then there are of course the ubiquitous complaints that the film shouldn’t have been directed by white men. Someone went so far as to say that “it wasn’t their story to tell”. Even if one ignores those critics it must be said that the brother’s style hasn’t changed much through the years and The Dardennes feels like one of the all-too-many usual suspects who have an open ticket to the Cannes competition. I rarely take festival awards too seriously but giving the film the prize for best direction is downright ludicrous. It would not be a hard task to pick a handful of films from the competition that would have been better suited for that award.

Le jeune Ahmed Young Ahmed Dardenne
Idiir Ben Addi and Victoria Bluck in Le jeune Ahmed.

Tofifest Day 2

Tofiifest

The second day of the festival began with a film set in Syria. The day I lost my shadow (Yom adaatou zouli 2018) by Soudade Kaadan. The director is Syrian but was born in France. The story is set in Syria in 2012 and centers around Sana who lives alone with her son since her husband is abroad. She is trying to provide a life as normal as possible for herself and her son. When the electricity runs out in the middle of a washing cycle, Sana needs gas to be able to cook a meal. She joins siblings Jalal and Reem in an attempt to find a supplier of gas. Through different circumstances, they have to get out of the city and end up in the countryside where different forces operate. They end up in several hazardous situations. One interesting aspect of the film is that it is not always clear which side the people they encounter are on but in any case, the peril of the events is all too obvious. In that regard, the film is akin to the abstractions of Jancsó.

The day I lost my shadow
Sawsan Arsheed as Sana in The day I lost my shadow.

Sana soon notices that Jalal casts no shadow. A phenomenon explained as happening to people who have seen too many atrocities during the war. Thus the film blends a realistic approach, especially during the affectionate scenes between Sana and her son, magical realism as well as the aforementioned “Jancsóesque” distancing form. Close-ups who are used in the beginning to get close to the characters later works as a means to disorient the spectator who never gets a clear picture of where each scene takes place exactly. If this sounds like a recipe for frustration it didn’t work that way for me. I was constantly intrigued. I wouldn’t claim that Kadaan performs an exquisite juggling act with her different approaches, but the outcome is never less than effective. The director, who here commits her feature film debut, explains that the concept was inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima where the only thing that remained of the victims was their shadows. This is also referred to in the film. Thus on the second day of Tofifest, there was yet another first film that managed to win me over.

As this wasn’t enough, the day continued with another first feature. Carnaval (2019) by Alexandre Lavigne. A year ago Julie’s parents died in a car crash. Now we follow her a year later in her everyday life. Nothing in particular happens. She meets new people, bickers, plays football and other things. The whole thing takes place in the summer of 1996 and the conceit of the film is that it looks like it was shot with a VHS-camera. The film was an ultralow-budget affair and it’s done mostly with master shots. The shooting lasted eight days and many scenes only had one take, including a long scene where Julie and her friends struggle to get over a fence. To achieve the look of a film it was first shot with a modern camera, then played on a TV from which the director photographed with a vintage camera. The result works surprisingly well and the 74 minutes flew by for me. It doesn’t feel like an average “independent” film but rather very refreshing and naturalistic. I hope it will be shown at many festivals.

So two days of Tofifest and I haven’t disapproved of anything I’ve seen so far.

Tofifest Day 1

Tofifest

My first day at Tofifest started with a first film: Instinct (2019) by Halina Reijn. She is an experienced actress in the theatre as well as in cinema and has worked with directors such as Paul Verhoeven, Alex van Warmerdam and Peter Greenaway. It is the first film co-produced by Man up. The company Reijn formed together with Carice van Houten. The latter also plays the lead Nicoline who is a psychologist who works in the prison system dealing with sexually aggressive men. In her current job, she is confronted with Idris (Marwan Kenzari) who is a rapist and one of the worst patients at the institution. Initially, she is highly sceptical of him and is the only one in the group that challenges the idea of granting probation. Well aware of the horrendous crimes Idris committed, she gradually becomes attracted to him and a kind of power play will ensue. Nicoline is a restless person. She changes workplaces frequently, and in an early scene, we see her refusing an offer of indefinite duration, opting instead for a temporary position. Her apartment is so impersonal, I actually mistook it for a hotel room the first time it was shown. It seems that she has been waiting for something to shake up her existence.

The film is written by Reijn together with Esther Gerritsen. The purpose of the Man Up production company is “to create films and television drama with high current value and relevance told from a female perspective. To explore darker, edgy stories that, through shame or fear, often remain untold. Quality, artistic integrity and openness to their audiences define the productions” It’s a bold statement and, in my mind, a very welcome one. The story reaches really dark corners and is not afraid to be complex, without overt explanations. Those looking for a third act that wraps things up neatly will be disappointed. If you, on the other hand, are open to a film that probes the psyche in a way that few other films do, this might be the thing. The acting is uniformly excellent. It’s hard to see that the film would work as well as it does with anyone else than Carice van Houten. Throwing terms like vulnerable and confident around would only scratch the surface of what Reijn and van Houten achieve here. During the opening of The Netherlands Film Festival, the director cheekily said that she paid van Houten in kind. They are, of course, immensely aided by the cinematography by Jasper Wolf, who also lensed Monos this year. The score by Ella van der Woude also deserves mentioning.

The first scene shows Nicoline taking part in an exercise playing a violent inmate who is supposed to be handled by some policemen. The scene doesn’t merely work as a presage of the role-playing between her and Idris but it ends in an interesting way. The policemen didn’t frisk Nicoline thoroughly enough and she shows them the cigarette lighter that they failed to find on her person. Whether it means they were just lazy or it is men being afraid of going too far is an open question. In any case, the film is eminently rewarding for anyone who is game.

Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe (2019) was a disappointment to me the first time around. The namesake flower didn’t bring me that much happiness. Now I went for a second inhalation to see if the scent of Little Joe would feel different. In some ways it did. There is still some stilted dialogue, notably by two characters, and I’m still not sure how profound the probing of the concepts actually is, but as a piece of cinema, I appreciated it more this time. The cinematography and the score seemed less discordant, or maybe I was just in a better mood. I still hope that Hausner will return to make films in German.

True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.

The River (Ozen 2018) by Emir Baigazin was the first film I saw by the director. It’s a film about a Kazakh family with five sons who live on a farm in a remote village. We follow their everyday life working on the farm, where the oldest brother Aslan carry out the orders of the father who is away for most of the time. Everything is planned and quite hierarchic. Suddenly an unknown cousin, Kanat appears unexpectedly. He arrives equipped with a tablet and other modern gadgets and the brothers are introduced to a new world. Obviously the newcomer brings temptations that threaten to ruin the family structure as it was. Then Kanat disappears during a visit to the titular river. Are any of the brothers responsible?

The river by Emir Baigazin.

The film that came to my mind was Arturo Ripstein’s The castle of purity (El castillo de la pureza 1973) A film that I suspect has influenced another director that is not my Favourite, but that I guess that some people might refer to when talking about this film even though we don’t see any lobster in the river. The film looks quite different to Ripstein’s. There is an austere rigour to the splendid images that sometimes verges on arthouse clichés, but are just on the right side of becoming stilted. There is not so much concentration on narrative, but the musical approach to rhythm is perfect. The headline shouldn’t be read as a position taken by the director, but rather a feeling I had while watching. The film itself is far less assertive. It makes me want to seek out Baigazin’s previous two films.

My impressions of the festival after the first day was quite positive. The films were well chosen and the atmosphere at the festival was relaxed. More reports will follow.

Tofifest 2019

Toruń is a city of 200 000 inhabitants and is probably mainly famous for being the birth town of Nicolaus Copernicus. Since 2003 it is also the home of a film festival called Tofifest. The idea behind it is their rebellious nature, according to festival director Kafka Jaworska. They label themselves a “handmade” festival without red carpets and other superfluous things. As expected, the festival has numerous sections. Firstly an international competition named On air. It houses first and second films from several directors. Among the films selected this year, one can find Beanpole by Kantemir Balagov that was one of the big hits of this year’s Cannes festival. Other films in this section include Good posture by Dolly Wells, Instinct by Halina Rejn and Retrospekt by Esther Rots.

There is also a short film competition called Shortcut. The third and final competition section is comprised of Polish films. Cinema from Quebec is the subject of this year’s Focus. The Masters segment is dedicated to Franco Zeffirelli. In the Must be, Must see unit one can find numerous hits from the big festivals this year. Notably the first Polish screening of Roy Andersson’s About endlessness, which grabbed the best director award at the Venice film festival. Other films include Oliver Laxe’s marvellous Fire will come, Deerskin by Quentin Dupieux and the Berlin Golden Bear laureate Synonyms by Nadav Lapid. A fairly new addition to the program is the Rebels section that will focus on female heroes from all over the world.

If that wasn’t enough there is a section of Baltic silent films as well, with classics such as The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström, The passion of Joan of arc by Carl Th Dreyer and Häxan by Benjamin Christensen. Other events worth mentioning is a screening of the restored version of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó and a screening, and discussion of Céline Sciamma’s smash hit, Portrait of a woman on fire.

Apart from the competition awards, there is also a prize being bestowed on people who have demonstrated “Artistic insolence” of one kind or another. It’s called The Golden Angel and this year the laureates are Agnieszka Holland, Pawel Pawlikowski, Maja Ostaszewska and Dawid Ogrodnik.

This is just scratching the surface of the riches Tofifest has to offer. There are many reasons to visit the picturesque town of Toruń to experience this handmade festival. I, myself can’t wait to go there.

https://www.tofifest.pl/en/