While many films this year captured cultural and political unrest in the States and in Europe, the festival also included topical, political maelstroms in the East. In the Philippines, Aswang covers the war on drugs enacted by President Rodrigo Duterte. The Aswang are shapeshifting monsters that prey on innocent people, a direct corollary to vigilante and paramilitary groups that assassinate suspected addicts indiscriminately, many of whom have done no wrong. These metaphors may not be totally necessary or structurally integral (I would have liked to see a more experimental, dramatized treatment of this element), but they do provide a mysticism that successfully illustrates the spiritual and emotional havoc being wrought. No moment in this film better illustrates the escalation to fascism than when a speaker at an anti-Duterte rally claims that Trump’ visit with Duterte worsened his administration’s aggression. Perhaps the most unsettling parallels between their situation and ours come in the moments when the poor and working class are shown to be much higher targets than the rich and corrupt, revealing the war on drugs to be a veneer for class warfare and systemic oppression, just as ours has been.
Elsewhere in Asia, director Yashaswini Raghunandan focuses more on local customs and the reincarnation of art with That Cloud Never Left, a semi-experimental examination of a small village near Calcutta called Daspara. Here, the villagers’ main exports are toys crafted from local resources and recycled 35mm film negatives. The saying that goes “every film is a documentary of its own making” has a strong if not unorthodox application, here. Outside of running footage of these painted and altered Bollywood film strips, Raghunandan refrains from editorializing, letting themes of the cyclical nature of creation and culture play out through observational footage. The cloud in the title refers to a viewing of an upcoming lunar eclipse which the citizens of Daspara will cease their work to witness, and yet ultimately will be hidden behind the grey clouds in the night sky. Something about this astrological phenomenon— its relation to light and viewing—coincides with the concepts Raghunandan circulates throughout her film, but the connective tissue isn’t there. For all its interesting concepts, That Cloud Never Left lacks cohesion, and utilizes a glacial pace not quite suited to its intimate examination of art, rebirth, and identity.
The Metamorphosis of Birds concerns different subject matter, but also suffers from a miscalculated pace. Director Catarina Vasconcelos’ shares the letters of her grandparents, Henrique and Beatriz, when the former worked as a sailor and the latter raised their six children at home in Portugal. To her credit, Vasconcelos knew to prop up such a personal, epistolary narrative with appealing visuals, opting for a 4:3 aspect ratio and a tendency towards well-composed shots to evoke the feeling of watching still lives, a visually decadent and thematically fitting choice. However, due to her intimacy with the characters or perhaps just from being on a hard-to-reach wavelength, Vasconcelos doesn’t quite achieve the lyrical highs or lows needed to draw us into the story. While containing some striking and hard to forget visuals— a woman placing a fossilized seahorse over her ear like a cuff, a mother and her children standing in a garden and dressed in sheets like ghosts— the film comes across as a formal and intellectual exercise more than emotional one.
Two of the lengthier films focused more on the present than anything else, eschewing direct involvement of the director for a closer adherence to the subjects. Faith, shot in stark black and white, depicts the lives of the Warriors of Light, a cult based in rural Italy. The Warriors live in a featureless compound and their days consist of Catholic prayer, intense physical training that combines martial arts and boxing, and a sprinkling of the esoteric. Valentina Pedicini directs the film with quiet and non-judgemental intimacy, having gained the trust of the followers and their master, who uses psychological warfare and tarot-based prophecies to guide the arcs of a chosen few. One scene shows a high-achieving pupil of his training with a punching bag and not being allowed to stop, to the point of torture. The Warriors, with their highly regimented lives and grueling physical demands, show the kind of unwavering commitment to their mysterious cause that makes cults the object of endless fascination. However, Faith is not easy to watch, the sheer pain and distress positively bleeding from all scenes based on what Pedicini chooses to film and how she films it. I walked out of the theater thinking that if I were to commit a crime, and a judge were to sentence me to live with the Warriors of Light, I would request the death penalty.
The second of the two lengthy, observational films, Lovemobil, lessens the strain on the viewer’s mind while increasing strain on the heart. Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss follows two sex workers and their madam who run a business on the side of a German highway, working inside trailers. Rita struggles with the rent and dehumanizing aspect of the job while Milena lives in fear of being murdered by violent customers. Capitalism and sexual objectification constitute the thematic space of the film while allowing Milena, Rita, and their employer, Uschi, a vessel through which they can appeal to the audience on an emotional level. There’s no ultimate escape route from the misogyny inherent in a world that demands this market, but the film can be seen as a solution in and of itself, as the harm of sexualization and objectification could not be made more clear, nor the need for a change expressed more urgently. | Nic Champion