Credit: 4 Proof Film
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Locarno Film Festival 2023— Dispatch 1: Do Not Expect Too Much… , The Human Surge 3, Family Portrait

August 11, 2023

Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World

To the uninitiated, written descriptions of Radu Jude’s cinema might give the wrong impression of his films as dizzyingly dialectical exercises requiring a complete working knowledge of the last century of Romanian politics, 20th-century philosophers and artists, and, perhaps, a good deal of patience. While it’s true that Jude’s films are dense with information, obsessed with the impact of shoddy historical memory on the present, and sometimes use a collage of images pulled from different sources in place of conventional narrative, they are also fun, filled with filthy humor, and, at their discursive best, invigorating. And though familiarity with Jude’s cultural and historical touchstones would be a bonus, the films contextualize and extrapolate the referenced ideas enough to be accessible to anyone with an interest. As the lead character in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” puts it, “We have no right to be subtle.”

That his last feature, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is his most popular film — at least going by Letterboxd, where it sports 20,000 more viewers than his next most popular title — has more to do with its upfront concern with sex, a boon to both perceived approachability and distribution prospects, than its Berlinale prize. This new film, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, is not lucky enough to boast such exciting subject matter, but it is the better film and more approachable still, given that it doesn’t give a third of its runtime over to a video essay covering seemingly… everything.

The film stars Ilinca Manolache as Angela, a production assistant (and Uber driver!) currently working on a corporate video about workplace safety. She is constantly at work, for upwards of 16 hours a day, struggling to stay awake as she drives around the city, primarily to conduct interviews in service of an obviously unethical goal: getting injured workers to admit on camera that their injury was their own fault, shifting blame from negligent employers to their overworked employees. She stops, often, to record Instagram reels in character as an Andrew Tate parody, complete with a ridiculous facial filter, providing extreme caricature through absolutely filthy, hilarious monologues — it’s doubtful the subtitles of any other film this year will reference “sluts” quite this much. These breaks from the mundanity of her day job are necessary for both her sanity and the film’s rhythms, punctuating possible lulls with bursts of vulgarity. Other entertaining diversions include a funny cameo by Uwe Boll playing himself and the appearance of Angela’s foreign boss, a marketing executive and the great-great-granddaughter of Goethe played by Nina Hoss, first as a disembodied head on a Zoom call and then as a passenger in Angela’s car. They each represented foreign productions and, more broadly, continuing and damaging, at least in Hoss’ case, foreign exploitation in Romania, one of the characteristically many things on Jude’s mind.

Intercut with Angela’s day is footage of the 1981 Romanian film Angela Moves On, another movie about a woman, this time a taxi driver, at work. The interplay between Jude’s new film and this old one is the movie’s main imagistic conceit, as Jude uses an existing film to not only supplement his constructed narrative, but to interact with it in surprising ways. In its simplest form, this textual conversation might mirror the misogyny faced by both Angelas or play out a similar scenario twice, like another driver blaring their horn because Anglea is driving too slowly.  However, Jude does not simply present passages from Angela, but routinely changes them, slowing down the footage and zooming in to highlight background details. Oddly for a filmmaker so often dedicated to saying what he means, it’s not always clear what each instance of this technique is meant to highlight, though some shots, like one of a bread line, are much more obvious. But what is clear among the many glaring faces of passersby frozen in close-up is Jude’s larger project to uncover the documentary elements of this fiction film — all films document something of the reality in which they are filmed — to blur the lines and collapse the barriers between image forms.

In its last half-hour, the concerns of Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World coalesce and make themselves perfectly clear in a long, single take, the production staging their interview. As Jude uses a fiction film to clarify and complement reality, the producers of the video distort reality, going to increasingly absurd lengths to make their subject say exactly what they want to his own detriment. With a crewmember talking about the Lumiere brothers offscreen and Angela recording one of her parody videos in the background, Jude builds toward a thesis on the construction of images — films, filtered Instagram videos, laughably unreal Zoom backgrounds — as distortions of reality that dictate life in the 21st century. The apocalypse referred to by the title is one in which these manipulations of reality have become endemic to that same reality, arguably having more to do with modern life than actually living it. Angela’s reality is black and white, but the fictions of Angela Moves On, these Instagram videos, and the final interview are all presented in color. Image-makers have created a world that is in effect post-truth, continually benefiting those in positions of power who manufacture these images. This applies to old media forms like cinema as much as it does the new; for as many references to films are contained within this and other Jude works, his oeuvre is much too skeptical of the whole program to be labeled cinephilic. We are still mired in the labor concerns of the last century, as power changes hands and the ideologies of society’s loudest shift, workers are still suffocated by long hours, exploited by their employers, and now subject to the indignities of the gig economy. Expect too much from the end of the world and you’ll be sorely disappointed. CHRIS MELLO

Credit: Locarno Film Festival/Eduardo Williams

The Human Surge 3

Though comfortably placed in the more adventurous screening programs at film festivals, Eduardo Williams’ work has also managed to stand proudly independent of the dominant trends in arthouse film culture. These films are ethnographic studies without being rigorously academic, slow without making “slowness” a core part of the work, and mostly joyous studies of people at the global margins. In this writer’s experience, Williams’ shorts have always stood out compared to his peers, prompting a small, cult-like festival-going contingent who eagerly anticipated the director’s first feature, The Human Surge in 2016. His previous Could See a Puma (2011) and I Forgot! (2014) seemed like formal experiments that, while stunning, could not sustain a feature-length runtime, but The Human Surge cleverly composited several Williams projects into a poetic meditation on how we connect to one another on a global stage. Cheap 16mm vignettes of young men walking, talking, or sex-camming suddenly gave way to sequences in ant hills and tablet factories, until the film ends in a pristine digital image; it was shot all over the world in at least three different formats with no narrative, but, despite its ambitious scope, it miraculously never comes across as pompous. Williams had practically invented the arthouse hangout film; how could he follow it up?

Well, he didn’t. There is no sequel to The Human Surge, but here’s The Human Surge 3, admittedly a very funny title and a clever way to temper expectations about what the film will be. Like the first, this film also takes place across the globe (officially listed: Argentina, Portugal, Netherlands, Taiwan, Brazil, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Peru) with a focus on humid villages and rural landscapes. Conversations among the characters form more of a textural fabric to village life rather than any kind of narrative, and many times the camera even wanders away from everyone in favor of a new group or a serene shot of water. But, that’s not to say that the people here are unimportant or not worth listening to — even when the film is focused on a river or a landscape, faint conversations may reveal that there have been people just offscreen the entire time, likely enamored into a comfortable silence by the same selection of nature that caused the camera to stand still. Then, there is the camera itself, the always-roaming protagonist of Williams’ film that follows its own points of interest rather than methodically framing and centering other subjects. It’s akin to watching those videos of Go-Pros strapped to outdoor cats as they roam parts of the neighborhood inaccessible to humans, but one can detect a personality behind the camera movements as it sometimes overstays its welcome and sometimes leaves when bored.

Though, this is no spycam venture, nor is it merely observational drama. Location scouting is obviously Williams’ strong suit, as a small, surreal village with colorful spherical houses (one fashioned to look like fruit) forms the background of the opening walk, only to end on a character’s inexplicable collapse. There’s a packed dance party scene that takes place in a river where cheap stage lights illuminate the wet, indistinguishable bodies into abstract, morphing color sequences against the camera’s digital grain. And even during scenes that feel naturalistic, almost like a Courbet painting, digital interference or sudden digital tracking — in one instance suddenly zooming in and following the erratic movement of a bird — interrupt the moment before the camera gets up and continues on its walk. If one is lulled into thinking this may just be a collection of cute slice-of-life moments, there will always be a strange image waiting to jolt them awake. And while most of the film appears to adopt a human-like POV, shot at eye-level with a wide-angle lens, the final sequence — shot with a 360-degree VR camera where forward and backward are transposed as left-to-right on our 2D screens — opts for images and spaces we can only dream.

Williams’ first Surge hinted at themes of connection through the Internet, canals, roads, and other long rhizomes we’ve invented to patch us together, no matter how remote we may live. While 3 still plays with walks and meet-ups, there’s something more mysterious at work here, as none of the sequences relate to each other in any literal sense. But, Williams is comfortable with that degree of mystery. He, like Georges Méliès, delivers a magic show. ZACH LEWIS

Family Portrait

Lucy Kerr’s feature debut Family Portrait begins in media res, at the titular scene. There’s chaos, but initially the chaos is only visual. The soundtrack is barely audible, the lowest ends of the frequency spectrum rustle. Members of a large family orbit each other, a blur of faces introduced simultaneously in a wide shot. If your attention is immediately drawn to anyone, it’s likely to be Deragh Campbell, most familiar to viewers from her work in Anne at 13,000 Ft. or her collaborations with Sofia Bohdanowicz. The first recognizable noises come into focus — the rustling of grass, an irregular patter of footsteps. If Campbell’s appearance hasn’t yet pulled one’s focus, her character will soon begin to, dragging people to the right, determining the direction of the scene and the camera. One woman holds a child, another a large box, and all players scatter about. Voices enter the soundscape as concerned whispers turn to shouts, but recognizable words remain elusive. Tensions mount, at one moment perhaps a pose is reached, people continue to drift, and then Kerr cuts.

The rest of the film builds back up to this sequence. Campbell leads its ensemble as Katy, whose boyfriend Olek has agreed to take the picture for her mother’s totemic annual Christmas card. If the temporality isn’t immediately obvious when the two awaken in bed, it becomes so as the taking of the photograph drives most of their action throughout the film. Such a circuitous structure seems unnatural for a film primarily based in building tension, but Kerr easily pulls it off, mining said tension from an array of veins. It’s not an issue that the answer to when, whether, and how the photograph will be pulled off is already resolved in the film’s first sequence — at least to an extent; it’s hard to catch many details in the chaos, especially before becoming comfortable with the cast — because the film explores the familial tensions underlying any acute group stressor. Some are preexisting; Katy may not function quite as a traditional black sheep, as it’s not clear if there’s any material rift between her and her family, but behavioral cues from Campbell and the actors playing her sisters bely some essential difference in their beings, one which impedes Katy from helping her partner complete his reluctant task, but also seems to block deep relation. It’s a sharp use of Campbell’s quasi-star persona, which is inherently at odds with the traditional Texas family.

The other tension introduced into the film at the news of a young relative’s death is the spectre of Covid. The name of the disease is never explicitly referenced as the film seems to be set before anyone would have been likely to know it, and though the details clearly recall the confusion of early Covid deaths, the film uses its particular moment’s vagueness to take a more universal look at the familial anxiety foregrounded by a global pandemic. Though the forthcoming physical separation, which will mirror the emotional one witnessed between Katy and her sisters, hangs over the film, there’s a more insidious threat: Katy’s father immediately becomes obsessed with the idea her cousin “got something worse from the hospital,” which killed her. Without invoking unpalatable arguments about masking or vaccination, Kerr illustrates the concern that a family member’s politics or beliefs will result not only in the loss of life, but in a loss to one’s memory of them, their image in one’s mind becoming inextricable from their unwillingness to participate in the prevention of their own death. 

Despite her cannier approach, Kerr is unlikely to attract anyone put off by the very idea of a Covid movie. Though familiar tropes are avoided, and the insight offered may be a bit deeper and more nuanced than that of the many blunter films viewers have been inundated with over the past few years, Family Portrait is fundamentally still a look back at a traumatic time from which our present is not yet fully removed. But the approach does facilitate a broader survey of familial concerns, its probing likely to remain relevant even as Covid further recedes from public consciousness. Not only does the light touch allow the look at disease to feel extensible, it prevents the film, which through its mostly leisurely pacing replicates both the expansiveness of a familial gathering and its underlying tension, from being reduced to or overwhelmed by any single concern. JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER

Credit: Locarno Film Festival/Sylvain George

Obscure Night — Goodbye Here, Anywhere

French documentarian and academic Sylvain George has been making a particular kind of film for nearly twenty years, carving out a specific cinematic niche. In interviews, George describes his work as focused on spaces of migration and immigration, particularly those buffer zones between societies where illegal immigration offers the chance for a better life. In Obscure Night — Goodbye here, anywhere, George films a group of street kids in Melilla, a Spanish enclave which exists adjacent to Morocco, just over the Mediterranean. It’s a port city, surrounded by fortified walls and barbed wire, and constantly patrolled by Spain’s Civil Guard police force. Just last month, the Moroccan government acknowledged at least 23 deaths in one single day, while human rights groups contend that nearly 100 border-crossers are still unaccounted for.

Goodbye here, anywhere is just over three hours long, shot in crisp digital black-and-white and alternating, for the most part, between two types of footage. George embedded himself with a small group of homeless immigrants barely scratching out a living each day in Melilla. We gradually learn some of their names — Hicham, Amine, Medhi, Hassan — but crucially, we come to know them by their outfits. One kid wears a hoodie with the Minions on it. Another has a sweatshirt with the word “WHITE” emblazoned across it. Before long, it dawns on the viewer that the only clothes these kids own are the ones on their back. They hang out, try to find food, get high, and generally exhibit laddish behavior, threatening to fuck each other’s mothers or giving each other jovial beatdowns.

Most of the other material in George’s film is shot from above, at a distance, as other young people attempt to scale walls, swim their way onto ships, dart across parking lots, etc., in an effort to make it out of Morocco and into Melilla. George is careful to keep his footage general and underlit; no one in these sections could be reasonably identified for legal purposes. But what he achieves is a kind of aerial schematic of the process of illegal immigration and border patrol, the never-ending cat-and-mouse between mere children and the gendarmes charged with keeping them out.

George has also stated that his aims are aesthetic as well as political, seeing the two aspects as mutually informative. Goodbye here, anywhere displays the sea, the cliffs, and the architecture around Melilla with a classical sense of balance and composition, and it’s clear that the film wants us to consider the contrast between beauty and danger, natural grandeur and human precarity. At times, this seems like a distraction, especially since there are concrete facts about the situation in Melilla that the director declines to provide. One would probably need to see another of George’s films, especially Obscure Night — Wild Leaves (which directly precedes Goodbye here, anywhere), to have a clearer sense of his project and its ethical dimension. Having said that, Goodbye here, anywhere’s take on experimental documentary is at times unclear. We are situated at the heart of the European immigration crisis, but after three hours, we don’t really understand its inner workings much better than we did at the start. MICHAEL SICINSKI

Falling Stars

Writing about Larry Fessenden’s new film Blackout, recently screened as part of the Fantasia Film Festival, we commented on its “shaggy structure” and noted that the “hand-made, rough-around-the-edges qualities are surely features, not bugs.” Much the same could be said of Gabriel Bienczycki and Richard Karpala’s debut feature-length film, Falling Stars. An obvious low-budget labor of love — the duo are credited as co-directors and producers, with Karpala also serving as writer and editor while Bienczycki acts as cinematographer — Falling Stars conjures an intoxicating atmosphere of creeping dread even as its screenplay leaves something to be desired. The film’s most intriguing concept is imagining a world where witches are real, even commonplace — the movie begins with a brief prologue as newscasters report on the upcoming annual “harvest” as if it’s an approaching storm system, while local DJ Barry (J. Aaron Boykin) takes calls from people sharing stories of their various encounters with these supernatural beings. In this scenario, witches live in the sky, coming down to Earth only to snatch up humans for food. The witches are referred to as “falling stars,” and are visualized as specks of light flitting through the air (they are so fast, we are told, that no one ever actually sees them). 

The exposition is a bit ungainly, but we are then quickly introduced to a group of men hanging out around a campfire and knocking back beers. Eldest brother Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) and best friend Rob (Greg Poppa) want to go see the body of a dead witch. Rob swears that he shot one out of the sky, and since none of them have ever seen a witch up close, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. They have to convince Mike’s younger brothers Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech) to make the drive with them; Adam in particular is hesitant, fearful of getting too close to such a creature. But the men make the journey and do indeed see the gnarled, desiccated remains of a witch. Mike explains some ground rules to his brothers; you can’t look at it for more than a few minutes, lest an overpowering urge to remain with the witch takes over. You can’t take pictures of it, remove any parts or relics from it, and you can’t desecrate the body. Of course, Adam almost immediately spills some beer on the body, instantly unleashing a curse. Rob is grabbed, and when the brothers go to give Rob’s wife the bad news, they discover that she too has disappeared, leaving their infant alone. The remainder of the film follows the brothers as they struggle to care for Rob’s now orphaned daughter while figuring out how to lift the curse. Their first stop is to visit their mother, Danni (Diane Worman), an off-putting woman who nonetheless seems happy to take care of the child. It’s a long sequence that also allows Worman to deliver an odd monologue about a past encounter with a witch, ending with an ominous warning to her sons: burn the witch’s body or the curse will take their entire family. This is followed by a curious pivot where we return to the DJ as he debates whether or not to take a call from a despondent Mike, who is unsure if he should really do what his mother is demanding.

Shot on location in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Falling Stars has a rambling, amiable charm to it, as if the wide-open spaces and barren vistas of the desert have seeped into the narrative itself. The film isn’t particularly successful as drama; the actors aren’t very believable as a close-knit family, much of the world-building is inelegant — in a world where everyone knows that witches are real, why wouldn’t adults already know the rules about encountering one? — and the last act inside the radio station dissipates much of the accumulated dread. Still, the filmmakers possess a distinct sensibility of sorts, and that goes a long way. It’s also an often visually beautiful movie; Bienczycki is an extremely talented cinematographer, utilizing drone takes to survey the vast landscape and long, winding roads, and filming nighttime scenes only via single light sources, like a flashlight or a car’s headlamps. Interiors are rendered with that specific kind of soft, hazy texture that digital does so well, creating a strong dichotomy between safe, cozy indoor spaces and the dark chiaroscuro of the outside world and its various dangers. The final product is ultimately all a bit clunky, but there’s a charming handmade quality to the proceedings that helps to smooth over some of the regrettable bumps. These filmmakers are clearly talented, and this uneven debut outing shouldn’t discourage viewers from keeping an eye out for whatever they get up to next.  DANIEL GORMAN