17th Leeds International Film Festival

2-12 October 2003

The whisky-imbibing baddies are about to get away when handsome Lemonade Joe, calmly seated behind a barrel, aims his gun vaguely over his shoulder and fires. As the evil ones tumble from their horses, Joe continues to calmly sip on his beloved Koca-Lola lemonade, chat up a pretty blonde and pet his horse, who’s head is rested lovingly in Joe’s lap. The American way of life is safe again… were it not for the hilarious satire of Oldrich Lipsky’s Czechoslovakian Western, one of a dozen communist takes on the genre to be shown at Leeds this year under the "Red Westerns" banner. Of course, by the end Joe and his sworn enemies have discovered each other’s mutual qualities and conglomerated in order to mass-market a new line: Koca-Lola Whisky & Lemonade.

Yum yum. For a local film audience starved of variety, fed mainly on only the most polished, ideologically mainstream English language films, the Leeds Film Festival is a more than welcome sight. It may not have the glamour of the upcoming London festival or the flocks of international tourists that find themselves cinema bound whilst summering in Edinburgh, but what Leeds represents is a chance to see the unseeable: the foreign films that don’t get imported, the British films that don’t get released, and all those one-off celebrations of cinema.

Sophiiiie! (2002) is as fiery a baptism into the festival as you could hope for. Michel Hoffman’s perfectly titled study of 20 year old Sophie’s overnight odyssey across a German city, drunk on the twin evils of life and, well, alcohol. Kicking off by stealing her loser-poet boyfriend’s bike and joyriding eyes-closed at top speed, she still manages to get herself into increasingly dangerous situations. The film stock’s colour has been drained, as has the colour of Sophie’s life: an unplanned pregnancy, the result of a rape that may or may not have taken place, which has initiated a change of outlook for Sophie, and all she has found is ennui. Her greatest fear, sexual violence, is now the fact by which she defines herself, and as she looks for meaning and purpose she becomes embroiled in a series of shocking, twist-turning and utterly involving scenes.

Controversial pregnancies become something of a festival theme as a woman driven to childlike insanity in Kim Ki-Duk’s The Coast Guard (2002) takes to sleeping with a chain of soldiers from the local military base, under the delusion that they are her dead boyfriend. She hasn’t been the same since he was shot making love to her on a beach, by a zealous soldier who mistook him for a spy. The soldier is losing it too, and begins to wage a one-man war on his former base in this thrilling, funny if inconsistent South Korean offering.

Then in Hideyuki Hirayama’s A Laughing Frog (2002), a rather too gentle family drama/romantic comedy, a young woman ends up using her femininity as a political tool when she agrees to hide her escapee ex-husband, who soon falls back in love with her and takes a distaste to her new beau. And in Aro Tolbukhin (Isaac-Pierre Racine, Agustin Villaronga, 2002), a delve into the title character’s history in order to try to explain why he burned several hospital patients to death reveals a somewhat tangled family history. The film is a made up of faux-documentary interviews, made-up newsreels and dramatised events, which we’re assured by the festival gumph adds "impact and immediacy". However, the mockumentary idea doesn’t work, as by drawing attention to the question of authenticity, it shows its own cracks: the dramatised sections are ‘doubly’ untrue and so don’t pack an emotional punch, and the second-hand telling of the tale through interviews and footage keeps the story at a distance. Ultimately, it is uninvolving, and doesn’t even have the redeeming feature of having much to say about documentary as a genre. As such, you wonder why the filmmakers chose to make it this way. The same might be said of another mockumentary shown at Leeds this year.

Brian Flemming’s Nothing So Strange (2002) opens with Microsoft moneybags Bill Gates taking to the stage to present a cheque to a good cause. A shot rings out and he falls to his knees: a second, and he topples backwards, dead, and in an undignified pose to boot. This was premise enough to draw me in, and no doubt much of the rest of the audience came in to see Bill Gates and the American media alike torn apart in a Brass Eye style spoof. There was something of an anti-corporate, anti-establishment feel about the festival – Sexed-Up, Lies and Videotape was a day of free programming including a philosophical look at the throwing of pies in the name of politics and a live performance by comedian-turned-crusading novelist Rob Newman. All very Michael Mooreish.

But in fact, Nothing So Strange is a story about a group of conspiracy theorists – or, rather, conspiracy prospectors – who claim not that they know the truth behind the assassination but merely that the truth has not been told. Bill Gates’ only relevance to the story is as a figure who, for the filmmakers, represents the withholding of information due to Microsoft’s notoriously selfish programming policies – as an individual, he’s pretty much left alone. The documentary, as well, can only reveal what’s on the surface, and it is the conspiracy group’s hidden lives that come round to bite them on the bum and reveal the twist at the end. As such, once more, the audience is kept at arm’s length and although the climax is genuinely absorbing, the majority of the film is just toothless documentary posturing, lacking the speculation or insight the premise suggests.

Respite for the disappointed documentary fan came from an unlikely source: the Third Reich. For ’twas they who commissioned Willy Zielke’s Das Stahltier (1935), a celebration of 100 years of German railroads, even if they didn’t get what they expected. Zielke’s documentary is the reverse of those above, as he created a fictional railway worker to relate the history of the railroad, via a series of dramatised, semi-comical flashbacks, and some innovative, stunning camerawork and editing. It was meant to be propaganda, but was quickly banned for making train travel look scary.

I began to despair at the state of British film when a programme of shorts proved only that the DV revolution has, as forecast, resulted in an avalanche of crap (it may be a great learning tool, and have ‘democratised’ short filmmaking to a certain extent, but many of these belonged at best on Takeover TV). Then Richard Jobson’s highly-touted feature 16 Years of Alcohol (2002) proved that, of course, its possible to do a lot of damage with a film camera too. The over-sentimentality and cod-philosophy made me cringe to the point of nearly walking out. The lead character, played by serial frowner Kevin McKidd, was unconvincing and inconsistent, and the story never gelled. But it looks nice and does all the things we expect British films to do, so I’m sure it’ll go far.

I fear the same can’t be said for Four Eyes, one of the festival’s gems. Like 16 Years, it hails from Scotland and concerns the downward spiral of a fin-de-siècle manchild. But there the comparisons end, as Four Eyes is a hilarious, warm and poignant digital feature, ugly to look at but instantly embraceable. Duncan Finnigan is a natural storyteller and a charismatic performer, grinning throughout (the smile is a difficult thing to judge in cinema) as life-changing disasters alternate with the tiniest of moral victories. Finnigan knows that the impact of his character won’t be harmed by the revelation that men are just big boys. I only hope its digital aesthetic (it’s no Festen to look at) and its stark ending don’t prevent Four Eyes getting good distribution.

It is also worth seeking out Ashvin Kumar’s 50 minute road movie, Road To Ladakh (2003), an almost meditative take on the romance-on-the-run genre. Beautifully shot on location in the Indian Himalayas, you’d never believe the trouble that actually went on behind the scenes – natural disasters, missing money, injured cast and damaged equipment. The tense tale of a lone female journalist travelling through the wilderness is engagingly acted and thoughtfully shot.

With Japanese silent classic A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ippei, 1936) getting the live musical accompaniment treatment at the Hyde Park Picture House (ahead of its own silent film festival), GW Pabst’s masterly Pandora’s Box (1929) being shown with organ accompaniment at the Holy Trinity church (sore bums all round), and a brace of purely instrumental film music performances, there was plenty of live action to up the stakes.

And I can’t sign off from my tour of duty without mentioning Tamala 2010 (Trees of Life, 2002), a Japanese animé about a cutesy-wutesy, 1950s-style, chain-smoking, chain-swearing cat who’s out to find out the meaning of life on CatEarth. Perverse, surreal, with fantastic attention to detail, you’re soon completely drawn into the feline galaxy.

What the Leeds International Film Festival may lack in atmosphere and status, it more than makes up for in the variety and obscurity of its programming. For us locals, it’s a blessing, and I’d recommend any cinéaste or cultural malcontent from further afield to make the trip in years to come, and widen their horizons.