Home arrow Films arrow London Film Festival 2014 Pt 2:In the Basement; Waiting for August; Catch Me Daddy; Jamie Marks
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London Film Festival 2014 Pt 2:In the Basement; Waiting for August; Catch Me Daddy; Jamie Marks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
06 11 2014

ImageThis year I saw only two documentaries - from totally different ends of the spectrum. In The Basement is self-consciously artistic, meticulously framed, sometimes bleakly funny, mostly grim. It's what I'd expected from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, whose chilling, pessimistic feature films I've enjoyed - if that's the word. But here, showing real people, I felt an increasing unease, at an unpleasant whiff of condescension not to mention voyeurism towards his subject material. It was Freud in Vienna who first identified and gave a name to the subconscious, and the premise of this look at what lies beneath these comfortable bourgeois dwellings is a quite simplistic metaphor for the nation's, or maybe humanity's psyche, where the basements, apparently, shelter the most weird and off-kilter set of folk you could not wish to meet (though on the street above you'd not give them a second look).

Sex rears its more alternative head, as one expects from Seidl, with a very unexceptional middle aged woman who keeps a stout porcine bloke as a sex slave, subjecting him to all manner of wincingly gruesome physical and psychological degradation, while another, black leather-clad, younger woman endures the masochistic pleasures she pays for. Meanwhile a jolly group of brass bandsmen enjoy a lads' night of drinking surrounded by Nazi memorabilia. A couple sit remembering their dead son in a room furnished in kitsch bourgeois taste listening to dull music. A man, filmed in a way to make him appear grotesque, plays with his extensive model railway. Another has set up a shooting school. A woman picks out a cardboard box from the many piled up in her underground storeroom and takes out one of those highly realistic baby dolls, which she talks to, kisses and caresses, then puts back ‘to bed'. All are filmed in an austere, highly stylised, symmetrical way, without sympathy (nothing so bourgeois!), or judgement. Its images are visually striking, it's fascinating and repellent to watch, but in the end its subjects are at best raw material for an artwork, clearly posed and carefully placed by the director, at worst objects of pity, dislike, or salacious voyeurism.

ImageOn the contrary Waiting for August (Teodora Ana Mihai) is an apparently artless fly on the wall, highly sympathetic, account of the life of 15 year-old Georgiana, left behind in Romania while her mother works in Italy, to look after her 6 siblings, from slightly older brother to pre-school livewire. They are piled into a cramped flat where there's hardly room to sit down to eat together, and they sleep in bunks and 3 or four to a double bed. Yet it exudes homeliness, and decent meals are put on the table. A highlight is a Skype chat with their mother, and the arrival of gift parcels of clothes and toys. Uncomplaining, only occasionally losing her rag, Georgiana cooks, cleans, and turns them out looking smart for school, while herself preparing for exams which will determine her future, with hardly time to fit in the usual teenage preoccupations. The fear of failing her exams is nothing to that of the authorities splitting the family up if they find out about the absent mother - a possibility the mother herself, a not entirely sympathetic figure, pooh-poohs from a distance. We form our own opinions, the camera never tells us what to think or shows off with artistic shots. The much-desired return of the mother in the summer is low-key, and in no time she's making calls to fix next year's employment. The absentee parent is becoming almost a genre in itself in Romanian documentary, an aspect of migrant work never much considered in the rhetoric of the Right over here, and something close to the director's heart, as she herself was left behind as a child when her academic parents fled Ceauscescu's Romania for political asylum.

ImageOf the two English language films I saw here this year, Catch Me Daddy, was an honourable near miss, erring, really, through trying too hard. A debut feature from brothers Daniel and Matthew Wolfe, it deals with the tricky subject of honour killings in the Asian communities of northern England, heavy on atmosphere but with an exposition at times as opaque as the visibility on those menacing Pennine moors. It's not that easy to lock in to the situation, where Laila, from a strict Asian family, has run away to live with Aaron in a bleak caravan park on the edge of the moors. Not just one but two groups of nasties are on her trail, instigated by Laila's father and accompanied by her brother. A confusing beginning has too much in the way of mood - including an over-romantic sequence where the two walk through swirling mists, and later they dance in the caravan to Patti Smith's ‘Horses' for far too long. Following a rather contrived death, there follows a sequence of pursuit through scruffy late-night urban streets then to pitch-black moorland, at first effective and terrifying, but the emotional intensity and excessive violence become too protracted - it's exhausting - and ends in a long, almost unbearable (not in a good way) final scene. Several people left the cinema. Comparison with Shane Meadows' masterly control of melodrama in Dead Man's Shoes show how far these film makers have to go in reining in their full blown ardour to show the worst, but it's good to see ardour about an important issue these days, and their next film will be worth a look.

ImageSadly Jamie Marks is Dead (Carter Smith) offers little hope for future projects. Perched in the CULT section of the festival, what I hoped might be an interesting American indie take on teenage angst turned out to be a long plod through the lumpy tapioca of highschool horror tropes as Harry Potter look-alike Jamie comes back from the dead to bore his never-quite-friends to death too. Don't open that wardrobe door - you KNOW he'll be in there. Again. Cliché piles on cliché with the mad parent-slaying girl ghost in the cabin in the woods, the soft-lit sex initiation, the unloving trailer-trash mother, (who for some reason totally unnecessary to the plot is rendered wheelchair-bound in first 15 minutes), the mysterious black tunnel from which no traveller returns, and hyper-cool Ellen Page style rock-collecting girl providing love interest. During which poor Jamie mopes around like a wet weekend in his underpants. The only time I had a glimmer of fellow feeling with vacillating hero Adam, with whom Jamie wants to be chums, was when he irascibly barked at Jamie to get some clothes on. What poor old Judy Greer and Liv Tyler are doing with bit parts in this mishmash is beyond me. As is its presence here at the festival.

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