Review: Manchester Film Festival ’16

-jio7OiIManchester Film Festival was a fantastic event, one I’d love to see more of to show there are alternatives to the onslaught of superheroes and sequels that are infantilizing cinema and to boost the cultural activity in lesser-represented cities. The festival spanned from the 3rd to the 6th March and featured a range of narrative, documentary and short films; the last two days with a thematic focus on Sports and Women. AMC offered a range of ticket deals but with Odeon screening the majority of narratives and documentaries, I went for their ‘4 for £20’ offer which – at less than double the cost of Batman vs Superman, popcorn and two hours you’ll never, ever get back – I thought was a pretty sweet deal. Obviously this can’t hope to be a comprehensive run-down of all the festival had to offer, but my aim is to give a spoiler-free spotlight to some interesting films to consider watching when they gain wide release or surface on some questionable corner of the internet. Along with the four films I chose, this post contains a fifth that was already available online – Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang – with a premise so peculiar that I couldn’t help but watch. More on that later…

Made in Taiwan

Hushed away from the electric jungle of Taipei, expat film director Jack (Alexander Jeremy) and girlfriend/muse/partner in crime Amy-Lin (Esther Yang) head into their darkroom to develop the next reel. They talk about how the people they are – and what they might like in each other – changes with whether they speak English or Mandarin. They sigh about the strain of everyday social pleasantries, and wistfully hope their films can provide an escape. Most of Made in Taiwan’s first half follows this pattern of woozy, intimate conversations secluded from the noise outside. But there’s a storm coming; Jack’s films are psychoactive, and his growing ambition kickstarts a new kind of epidemic across the continent.

To get the obvious out of the way: the films being an allegory for drug use is so self-evident that the film thankfully wastes no time in labouring the point or playing like an extended Talk To Frank advert. Instead, Made in Taiwan is interested in the idea that there is a threshold between escapism and psychological ruin that is as dangerous as it is crossable, be it through obsession with a craft or just staring at a screen and getting really fucking high. Amy-Lin, who brokers the screenings, notes their spread across Taiwan’s underground film peep shows – even spawning copycats in Hong Kong – and all Jack can do is shut himself away from the world in increasingly furious attempts to top himself.

Solid acting, vivid cinematography and a distorted industrial score help to punctuate Made in Taiwan as a whiplash of sci-fi, horror and romance where idealism descends into madness.

Recommended if you like: The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Blade Runner for their sinister use of technology. Birdman, with its unhealthy dedication to art and dissociative second half, also comes to mind.

Martin Sheen Presents ‘The World is My Country’

You probably noticed that is not a picture of Martin Sheen. The actor’s inclusion in the title is a little disingenuous; partially because I’m a bit sour from scouring the Odeon hallways hoping for a chance meeting with Sheen (who sadly wasn’t present for a Q&A), but mainly because he appears solely to introduce the real star, Garry Davis – a former Broadway actor who renounced his American citizenship to declare himself a “citizen of the world” in Paris, 1948, following his tenure in the U.S. Air Force.

The documentary benefits from the simplicity of Davis talking to a small audience, interspersed with pictures and film clips, because it gives the post-WW2 context and its inalienable politics enough room to breathe. Disillusioned after the war and remorseful towards his own efforts as a bomber pilot, Davis believed nationhood to be innately linked with conflict and campaigned for a ‘world law’ as a solution to war. His activism culminated in the formation of the World Service Authority in 1954, which still issues World Passports as statements of the right to absolute freedom of movement.

It’s difficult to divorce any comment on such an ideologically charged documentary from the political stance itself, so to avoid any unconscious bias seeping through: I think Davis’ vision of a one-government world with transparent borders is a beautiful ideal that is sadly 100% unattainable in our current landscape of fevered immigration tensions and dwindling resources, doomed to fade further with increased population density. But if I’m told anything by a nationless Garry Davis camping out on a small patch declared ‘international territory’ outside the French United Nations base amidst police and media scrutiny, and again on the Strasbourg border after getting bounced between France and Germany, it’s that it takes serious balls to live wholly for your ideals.

The World is My Country’s most captivating anecdote plays out like The Hangover by way of a political science wet dream, as Garry Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus crash the UN General Assembly in November 1948 and demand “one government for one world”, earning them a night in prison. Eleanor Roosevelt, a major player behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, publicly backed Davis and it’s fascinating to see how this call against nationhood gained real momentum in a post-war world scrambling for order.

Considering the amount of 21st century activism that consists of people searching for an Outrage of the Week to share between stale ‘When you…’ memes and cats dancing to Drake (all is forgiven, Kony 2012), it’s admirable to see Garry Davis both hope for a better world and truly throw himself into changing it. The World is My Country deserves a watch for its respectable leading man and rich historical context.

Recommended if you like: Themes of nationhood and borders, mid-20th century history.


Put reality behind a camera and it’s no longer real. It’s a truism most commonly levelled at reality TV (and yet Kris Jenner’s empire of conceit stands strong), but mockumentaries use cameras more like magnifying glasses, where every delusion or insecurity is too exposed, too real. Psychoanalysis is a dark example of this as we follow Australia’s “leading” suicide prevention expert Paul (Benedict Wall) and his camera crew to investigate the suicide of five clients in one week; who Paul believes to have been murdered by a rival psych looking to climb the professional ladder.

Did I mention this is a comedy? As you may have guessed, the humour is jet-black throughout; one of the more morbidly hilarious sequences follows the investigation to the house of a grieving mother who is “delighted to meet another sceptic” towards the suicides. Turns out the scope of her scepticism falls firmly in the ‘Queen Elizabeth is an intergalactic space lizard’ bracket; “Well, they’re all in on it. Bankers, politicians… led by the antichrist, Barack Hussein Obama”, she calmly reasons over a cup of tea by the obligatory wall-of-crazy, as Paul and co make no qualms about running away.

Psychoanalysis won the festival’s award for Best Screenplay and it’s easy to see why. The script builds Paul into a complex character and creates some creeping doubt around the suicides without ever spoon-feeding the answers to either. Accusations that Paul had ill-fated romantic relationships with several clients – leading to their suicide – are balanced by the addition of ex-client Ryan (Andrew Fendell) to the investigation team; the caring and professional but weirdly co-dependent nature of their relationship not wholly being a point for or against the psychiatrist facing professional and personal collapse.

Thanks to subtle characterisation, scathing humour and some surprising turns along the way, Psychoanalysis manages to be more thoughtful, funny and bleak in 80mins than some films manage in double the length.

Recommended if you like: The Office; it bites harder than the US version and is less cringe-based than the UK one. Summer Heights High and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback are even more similar.

A Beautiful Now

Can you remember the first time you realised that your birthday is just another day? Childhood birthdays often felt like earth-shattering day-passes to royalty where you emerge from the other side a little bit taller, wiser, and better. Growth in adulthood can’t be pinned down as neatly, and so that once special day is less significant than the year before or after. A particularly distressing take on that turn inwards opens A Beautiful Now, as dancer Romy (Abigail Spencer, on great form after Mad Men and Burning Love) locks herself in the bathroom to reflect on years gone by not with cake and balloons but a bottle of champagne and a gun.

From there, we flip between each side of the bathroom door, as Romy’s fractured group of friends try to coax her out by appealing to the good old days. Except, the ‘good old days’ were never really good. The film makes clever use of flashbacks to present nostalgia as a poisoned chalice that obstructs helpful self-analysis; “Remember that day at the beach?” one character chirps. Cut to said day at the beach, and all Romy and her actually have to share are frosty glances.

My use of ‘one character’ there is telling, because most of the supporting bench don’t register as much more than garden variety L.A. narcissists. Romy, however, is complex, and the script never offers an easy way to rationalise her unhappiness as with a typical tortured origin story. In fact, the flashbacks suggest that the girl crying in the bathroom with a gun to her head is the architect of all the toxic relationships on the other side of the door. As a dancer, Romy’s internal monologue is coloured with kinetic routines that give the film a dream-like quality; the most surreal scene sees Romy dance in an abandoned theatre for a director who acts as a telephone operator to purgatory, teasing just what might be going on with her.

Backed by a strong lead performance and creative use of flashbacks and dancing, A Beautiful Now is a good case of style itself being substance.

Recommended if you like: Themes of how memory frames our outlook on our lives and relationships like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. The basic premise is very similar to Black Swan but the comparison ends there.

Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang (Credits)

Sport has been used as a diplomatic bridge – and as a weapon – throughout history, from persistent sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa to mutual Olympics boycotts between the U.S. and Russia in the 1980s and Richard Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy with China a decade earlier. U.S-North Korean sparring has instead taken the form of hacking and nuclear threats; so where does sport factor into all this? Enter former NBA player Dennis Rodman, who tries to initiate “hoops diplomacy” with a basketball game between the two states. Rodman’s voyage is spurred by his bizarre bromance with the world-renowned cheese connoisseur, classical pianist and master tactician Kim Jong-Un, who previously won seven Nobel Prizes and a Grammy for ending body-shaming through famine.

I previously praised Garry Davis for making an active attempt to change the world, and it would be unfair not to recognise the same good intentions in Rodman. The difference is that Dennis Rodman is a mess. Wildly unstable from what could be arrogance, mental illness, the purple maws of codeine or a potent cocktail of all the above, Rodman repeatedly tanks the trip to the detriment of the players whose careers and reputations are in jeopardy over the controversial visit. He explodes and slurs in equal measure at the CNN anchor interviewing the team, is recurrently too drunk to practise for the game and pleads absolute ignorance to North Korea’s human rights violations. The more the documentary sours, the more it enables this behaviour; the narrator notes that Rodman is a recovering alcoholic before, in sub-Buzzfeed fashion, giving a crass ‘What will happen next?’ wink when Rodman starts drinking on the plane.

Those looking for insight into the elusive country might go disappointed, but it makes sense that our glimpse into Pyongyang is sternly on rails with the guided tour received by the troupe of former Harlem Globetrotters over for the game. However, what we do see – barren stretches of road winding around mountains and monuments, huge stadiums completely deserted and luxury resorts amidst a starving population – is the most interesting thing on show. Sadly, there is no offer as to what makes the Supreme Leader tick, or what grounds his unlikely friendship with Rodman. His Majesty only appears briefly but it does give us the twisted trainwreck of a steaming Dennis Rodman serenading Kim-Jong Un on his birthday with “Happy Birthday Mr Marshall”; a dystopian take on JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang ends with the narrator’s speculation as to whether the game will prove constructive to North Korean-American relations. Hindsight might be on my side, but to even pose that question after showing 90 minutes of utter chaos leads me to think this is exploitative. Overall, a drunkenly incoherent conversation about diplomacy with less value as an informative documentary than as a horrifying black comedy.

Recommended if you like: The relationship between sports and politics (Bobby Fischer vs The World is much better in this regard), North Korea intrigue.
Thank you to all responsible for organising the event and to everyone who submitted their work, and I hope anyone reading has found something to enjoy.

Filed under: Film, TV & Tech