Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
The Iron Ministry
Dir. J.P. Sniadecki
The gentle, distant sounds of a train engine play over blackness for the opening minute or two of The Iron Ministry, the new documentary from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab that produced critically acclaimed documentaries Leviathan and Manakamana. This film follows suit with those, being a very detached and slow moving look at its subject, which in this case is China’s railways. Unlike Manakamana, there’s generally traditional camera movement in The Iron Ministry as it follows different passengers around these trains.
Sniadecki watches Chinese citizens of varied ages and from all walks of life as they ride these trains, attempting to document China’s broader culture. He’s showing social classes and showcasing viewpoints of what is or isn’t wrong with modern China. Generally the film doesn’t feel as authentic or fascinating as Manakamana. There are some moments of intrigue, like watching a wrinkled and soot-covered elderly man carve a vegetable or fruit of some kind with his knife, but mostly The Iron Ministry feels like a bland movement from “type” to “type.”
Sniadecki’s approach to never incorporate narration or explanation is typical of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and, unlike for Manakamana, made the viewing experience challenging. Not being familiar with visual identifiers of China’s different “groupings” of people, it is hard to comprehend the significance of each person’s presence on the train. For this method of filmmaking to work, each rider’s importance to the story has to be less indecipherable. Perhaps The Iron Ministry carries a beautiful metaphor or exploration of modern China, but if the viewer doesn’t have an acute awareness of modern Chinese culture, they’ll be left on the outside of this experience.
Come to My Voice
Dir. Huseyin Karabey
The mountainous landscapes of Turkey are as devastatingly beautiful in Huseyin Karabey’s new film Come to My Voice as they were in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Come to My Voice opens with an extended shot of a Turkish mountaintop surrounded by clouds. Almost immediately after, Karabey evokes the film’s gloomy disposition as he shows decaying buildings in an old mountain town. Human suffering is fully on display in this film and unfortunately it’s timeless.
Karabey gives a voice to the Kurds of Turkey, as this tale originates with the brutal mistreatment of a Kurdish family by the Turkish government. A child’s young life is interrupted by a violent police invasion of her home and accusations of terrorism towards her father who is then arrested. As a result of the arrest, this little girl named Jiyan and her grandmother Berfe go on a quest to find a gun that they can trade with the police for the release of Jiyan’s father. The resulting events follow elements of classic dramatic structure and storytelling that stretch back to Shakespeare. This filmmaking approach makes Come to My Voice feel like an ancient, timeless tale. Thematically this manifests as an assertion that this specific suffering and the ensuing compassion as timeless.
The way that Karabey tells the story was noticeably evocative of where other films went wrong at VIFF this year. Like Charlie’s Country, the film contains moments of characters stating the themes and takeaways, however in Come to My Voice, it feels more appropriate when they come. Like Blind Massage, the film has voice-over philosophizing, but in Come to My Voice it feels more appropriate given the richly poetic visual texture of the Turkish backdrop and a more classically dramatic story.
Despite these successes, the film’s themes aren’t engrossing because the exploration of the issue relies too much on traditional narrative. In fairness, it doesn’t feel like a hodge-podge, however it also doesn’t feel like a unique perspective. This issue ultimately holds back Come to My Voice, however its visual prowess makes Karabey a director worth watching.
Dir. Alonso Ruíz Palacios
Alonso Ruíz Palacios’s debut film Güeros takes place during the exciting 1999 student demonstrations in Mexico City. Surprisingly, Palacios follows indifferent students determined to stay home and hangout instead of protesting or studying. The characters are strikingly human, especially older brother Fede (Tenoch Huerta) who suffers from anxiety issues. The film has trademark characters of Mexican cinema, like revolutionary protesters and violent gang leaders, but it tells the story of a more typical Mexican citizen while acknowledging the reality of those subcultures. Palacios’s vision is notably distinctive, allowing the viewer to interpret defined moments based on their interaction with the characters.
At the beginning of Güeros, Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) misbehaves and his mother decides to send him to Mexico City to live with his older brother Fede. The two brothers and Fede’s roommate are forced to leave the apartment and embark on a journey to find a famous folk-singer named Epigmenio Cruz who supposedly once made Bob Dylan cry. The journey takes them through parts of Mexico City where they meet different characters from Mexico City’s social classes. The film feels purposefully and effectively meandering, with the logic guiding their choices being this supposed hunt for Cruz. While necessary to the plot, the Cruz pursuit is far less interesting than the interpersonal relationships of these characters, Fede’s mental illness, and a romantic subplot with a female revolutionary leader of the student protests.
Pivotal moments in the film are refreshingly filled with ambiguity, as neither the questions nor answers as to why this film exists are apparent. Having striking images, emotional moments, and a unique perspective make this film one of the more exciting small films on the current festival circuit.