Walking around Edinburgh today it almost felt like there was a Film Festival taking place – an improvement over last year, when even the city’s residents seemed oblivious to the whole thing. Between films today I spotted a group of journalists snapping Festival patrons Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins (whose film What Is This Film Called Love? I am seeing tomorrow). Elliott Gould could be seen hanging around the Cineworld in Fountainbridge. I was genuinely moved to look up from the DVDs in the Filmhouse foyer today and find that the sweet little lady smiling back at me was Thelma Schoonmaker, long-time collaborator of Martin Scorsese, widow of British film legend Michael Powell, and one of the finest editors in cinema history.
I kicked off today with a documentary about which I knew zip: One Mile Away. It explores gang culture in Birmingham, and the long-standing feud between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew. As a woman interviewed in the documentary puts it, their affinity to a gang is not dictated by belief but by postcode; a duel carriageway marks the line between the two gangs’ turfs. Older interviewees recall the fighting against the National Front in the ’80s and shake their heads at the increasing trend of black-on-black violence amongst Birmingham’s youth.
The director, Penny Woolcock, made a film in 2009 called “One Day” starring young gang member Dylan Duffus. The following year a member of a rival gang, Shabba, got in touch with her about arranging a meeting between the two with the view of promoting a future truce. Removed from gang politics, they seem to get on pretty well; Dylan is fuelled by anger towards racism and a desire to see people on both sides working together, while Shabba seems utterly exhausted with the fighting and needless deaths.
Woolcock follows the pair over the course of a year as they struggle against hostility towards both them and their project; at one point Woolcock despairs at the fact everyone they try to film tells them to turn the cameras off. The film is structured around headline news stories like the deaths of Charlene Ellis and Leticia Shakespeare in 2005 and last year’s riots, but what makes it interesting is the way it shows you the violence and tension that continue when the gangs aren’t making the front pages. It doesn’t romanticise the struggle of Dylan and Shabba, and there is the worrying sense at times that the very making of the documentary may have dangerous repercussions. While I didn’t think it was perfect – the filmmaker, though her story is connected, is a bit of a distraction when onscreen as the subjects are so interesting her presence doesn’t feel necessary – I found it illuminating and at times powerful, which is exactly what I expect from a good documentary.
I barely had time for a trip to the toilet before the next film, Flying Blind. It stars Helen McCrory, a wonderful actress, as an aerospace engineer who occasionally gives lectures at a local university; it’s there that she meets an attractive young Armenian man called Kahil (Najib Oudghiri) and the two fall quickly in lust. However she becomes increasingly suspicious of Kahil, particularly when shady authority figures start warning her that they are investigating him and, given her profession, she may wish to stay away; one even suggests she should be suspicious that a young guy like that would be interested in her, an absurd statement given that McCrory is beautiful and only in her early 40s, anyway.
What follows is a bit like Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” but with the question ‘Is he a murderer?’ replaced with ‘Is he a terrorist?’ This is also the point that I started to lose patience with the movie. Some audience members sniggered at the early sex scenes, but I personally would have much preferred an erotic film about these two characters without the obvious politics thrown in. The movie suggests that we all make assumptions about people, but it loads the dice somewhat; yes, the audience makes assumptions about Kahil, but that is less to do with race than with the way the narrative is manipulated.
As with Lovely Molly, I keep forgetting what Flying Blind’s title is, probably because it isn’t particularly memorable. This is not a problem I’m having with the third film I saw today, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, which both lives up to its exploitation title while actually being, you know, about something. That something is, rather surprisingly, the elusiveness of artistic inspiration. It’s not a scary film – it’s not really trying to be – but of the films I saw today it was certainly the most entertaining. My full review is available here.
There aren’t as many films from veteran directors at this year’s fest as usual, and there is an unusually high number of first-time filmmakers; both “Flying Blind” and “Eddie” are the first features of their directors (Katarzyna Klimkiewicz and Boris Rodriguez, respectively). That’s as it probably ought to be at the Festival, although it does mean having to keep your ears open to know where the buzz is. Among the Festival’s strands this year are selections of Philippine and Danish films (although it’s not part of the Danish strand, “Eddie” is a Canadian-Danish coproduction), and retrospectives of Japanese filmmaker Shinji Somai and American master Gregory La Cava. Looking over La Cava’s films (his most famous is My Man Godfrey) I see a list of actors the likes of which we shall not see again: William Powell, Walter Huston, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Joel McRea, Melvyn Douglas and Irene Dunn. Now that is a list, and a reminder that Film Festivals have a responsibility to remember the past as well as look to the future.