Patrick Gamble

Filmfest Hamburg celebrates 25 years


We were invited to attend Filmfest Hamburg’s bicentennial as guest of the “Come To Hamburg” initiative; a project set up to highlight the city’s hidden treasures through the writing of culture and travel bloggers from around the world.

Normally, festivals are exclusive events, organised to create pre-release buzz or to market films lacking distribution deals. Meanwhile, the public are either barred entry or excluded thanks to prohibitively priced tickets. But Filmfest Hamburg isn’t interested in pandering to the industry, and its slogan “Cinema for everyone” is reflected in its reasonable pricing and public-orientated programming. To discover a festival that is audience-friendly, rather than industry-focused is a rarity, but Filmfest Hamburg is just that; offering an eclectic, curated programme of films from around the globe.

With multiple venues spread across the city, the festival allows audiences the opportunity to explore Hamburg’s unique topography. Travelling from the Spiecherstadt warehouse district, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, up through St Pauli and the City’s infamous Reaperbahn (nicknamed “the most sinful mile”) you’ll reach the festival’s hub, the gorgeous Abaton Kino. From here, you’re only a stones throw away from trendy Sternschanze, home of the Rote Flora, a theatre that’s been squatted since 1989 and which represents the ongoing efforts of local activist who continue to counter current trends of regeneration in the neighbourhood by reclaiming public spaces. Indeed, Hamburg has been the German centre for the anti-fascist, ‘autonomous left’ since the eighties, and left-wing politics has become part of the city’s self image, something reflected in the festival’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung award, where films dealing with political subjects and social or environmental issues compete for a generous 5,000 euro prize; with screenings often proceeded with a lively debate between the filmmakers and local academics.

This year’s festival hosted the usual smattering of high profile premieres, from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an 1980s style revenge thriller served ice cold on a bed of Greek mythology and the director’s distinct brand of weirdness, to Martin McDonagh’s triumphant return to form, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There was also a screening of Sean Baker’s achingly funny, yet bitterly sad The Florida Project, a film which once again reaffirms Baker as a tenderly ironic chronicler of the American Dream. However, it was the smaller, more formally experimental films at this year’s festival which grabbed our attention. Here’s a run down are our highlight’s from the programme.

Cocote (dir. Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias)
One man’s crisis of faith becomes the jumping off point for an expressionist study into the legacy of colonialism in the Dominican Republic. Cocote follows Alberto (Vicente Santos), an Evangelical Christian working as a gardener in an upper class house in Santo Domingo. He’s forced to return home after his father is killed by a police officer, only to find his way of grieving is unwelcome amongst the death rituals of his West African family. A formally inventive expression of a tortured soul, torn between the moral teachings of his colonial oppressors and his African identity, Arias commendably refuses to adhere to the voyeuristic gaze of similar studies of remote communities. Instead, he has created a highly textured film that feels more like an art installation than an anthropological excursion. Exploring Alberto’s inner turmoil by combining different film stocks and manipulating sound so the background appears in constant communication with the foreground, the young Dominican director has crafted an immersive portrait of the how this tiny Caribbean community has been dictated throughout history by European colonialism and U.S Foreign policy.

Directions (dir. Stephan Komandarev)
A taxi to the dark side of Bulgarian society, Directions observes a series of cab journeys across a long, cold night in Sofia. The film opens with a murder; when a struggling small business owner – turned taxi driver – shoots a banker in broad daylight. This moment of violence is the stimuli for a criss-crossing narrative that jumps from taxi to taxi, with drivers, passengers, and guests on a local talk-radio show each expressing their own theories behind the motivation of the murderer. The result is a symphonic impression of a divided society, an increasingly interconnected series of soap operas broadcasting everyday Bulgarian reality. An uncomfortable journey into the difficult truths surrounding Bulgaria’s economic hardship, the lacerating political commentary of this rigidly constructed, fly-on-the-dashboard drama hits with the impact of a brick through a windshield.

Mrs Fang (dir. Wang Bing)
Best-known for his 551 minute portrait of China’s once state-owned industrial landscape, West of the Tracks, Wang Bing has become renowned for creating timeless zones within his documentaries, a kind of detached immersion in which life emerges organically. Therefore Mrs Fang, a 86 minute film charting the final days of an elderly Chinese woman feels like the antithesis of his earlier work – yet it’s probably his most humane film to date. A work of excruciating anticipation, and of final acceptance, the film chronicles the slow death of Fang Xiu Ying, a 67 years old grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s said that when you die, it’s your sense of hearing that’s last to go, so with that in mind, it’s unsurprising sound plays such a major role here, with the pitilessness and ruthlessness of Wang’s gaze coercing the viewer to take stock of the human activity surrounding Mrs Fang’s death bed. As we’re forced to observe her vacuous, near-lifeless face, the screen becomes surrounded by unidentifiable human voices, with their fears, desires and personalities never fully coming into focus. Looking becomes a kind of waiting, a suspension of the world that allows the imperceptible rhythms of life to rise to the surface, creating a diorama of life in rural China and the Confucius values that are slowly vanishing from modern Chinese society.

Men Don’t Cry (dir. Alen Drljević)
In Alen Drljević’s Men Don’t Cry, a vacant Serbian hotel becomes the venue for a group therapy session for veterans of the Yugoslav Wars. A vaccine against vague and incoherent war films that enjoy nothing more than reducing the complexities of conflict to a simple dichotomy, here the participants come from all sides of the conflict, and it doesn’t take long until the session becomes its own battleground. They participate in role play exercises and find themselves forced with answering difficult questions such as; “Should all war crime be condemned?” and is it okay to say “I’d give my life for my country?” At first it seems like the grievances and hatreds of the region are implacable, with the sessions often erupting in a verbal free-for-all of ethnic slurs and the threat of violence. There’s a glimmer of hope when, a night of drinking homemade spirits leads to a sense of camaraderie developing between the men. However, the following day a devastating revelation ignites the film into an explosive study of toxic masculinity and the complex social and psychological problems often born out conflict. A powerful film about the value of forgiveness, Men Don’t Cry lacks any form of catharsis, instead showing how impossible it is to untangle personal trauma from the enduring legacy of wars born out of romantic notions of patriotism.

Song of Granite (dir. Pat Collins)
In 2012, Pat Collins received critical acclaim for Silence, his cinematic ode to the soundscapes of the Irish countryside. An aural conversation between Connemara’s past and its present, the film followed the footprints of the landscape’s many myths and memories. Those same themes and ideas chime throughout his follow-up, Song of Granite, an unconventional biopic about the life of Sean Nós singer Joe Heaney. Using his highly ornamented style of traditional Irish singing to question whether identity is set in stone, or if its altered by changes to our environment, Collins’ latest speaks eloquently about the erosion of Gaelic culture. Although the film begins like a straightforward biopic it soon evaporates into something far more lyrical and enchanting. By reconstructing Heaney’s youth in County Galway, Collins doesn’t seek to to prove a point, but to force the audience to live the past, exposing them to those same experiences and ways of living that retains the very essence of Irish life. A haunting lament to cultural erasure, Song of Granite is an achingly beautiful paean to the ability of songs to move us, and to bring us back home.

Taste of Cement (dir. Ziad Kalthoum)
Kalthoum’s unshakeable documentary takes Marx’s theory of alienation and revises for a group of Syrian refugees working in Beirut. They’re helping to rebuilding the city after the Lebanese civil war, and Kalthoum weaves together remarkable shots of this building site with raw footage obtained from within rebel-controlled Syria. The result is a devastating film of contrasts; with images of construction juxtaposed with the shelling and demolition happening in the worker’s homeland. Eventually these images, which vibrate with the same corrosive, pent-up energy, become impossible to separate, with the cacophony of the building site echoing the sound of the war in Syria. Although Taste of Cement can be positioned alongside other recent films about the Syrian civil war, the plight of these men isn’t unique to this one conflict, and their experiences mirror those of various other displaced communities in the Middle East. Indeed, the bitter after taste of Kalthoum’s film isn’t the chalky taste of cement, but the reality that war has become a business model; with migrant workers moving from one war torn nation to the next, rebuilding homes as their own are being destroyed.

For more info on the Come to Hamburg project go to cometohamburg.com.

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