Black Movie 2013 Wrap: Sex, Death And Nuclear Disaster

Brian Clark, European Editor
These are the three subjects I thought about most during the Black Movie festival, which finished last weekend in Geneva. True, many think about sex and death pretty often without provocation, but the films of the festival made me continually re-examine each subject, and almost always from a different angle. As for nuclear disaster -- well, I'll get to that at the end.

I'm not sure why almost every film I happened to see and love at the festival fell into one of these categories. With an eclectic program of around sixty films from literally all over the world -- from South Korea to Russia to Africa to Europe to Mexico -- I am positive that there were many films to see which didn't deal so directly with these subjects. And based on the hospitable staff, enthusiastic crowds and energetic all night parties, you'd never guess that anyone had spent the last four hours contemplating their own mortality (thinking about sex? maybe.).

For mental health reasons, I don't believe in omens, especially not ones that involve death (again; sex? maybe.), so let's chalk the thematic parallelism up to coincidence and get onto the films themselves!

Sex
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Young and Wild (Joven y Alocoda) -- This steamy, often very funny Chilean sex comedy apparently played at Sundance last year, but for whatever reason, this was the first I had heard about it. It's a film based on the real blog of a promiscuous 15-year old girl, struggling with a strict, evangelical upbringing.

Yes, the "based-on-a-blog" aspect made me nervous too, especially since the blog in question was written by a fifteen-year-old. But it turns out that this particular teen blogger is actually pretty witty, and the director, Marialy Rivas, knows how to keep the movie fast-paced, fresh, funny and moving when it needs to be.

And of course, there's the sex. The film never quite shows penetration, but many scenes come pretty close. At the same time, while you see far more nudity and realistic intercourse here than in the average movie, it never seems to call attention to itself or dare the audience to flinch, and as a result, it meshes perfectly with the film's brisk, poppy mood.

Some people who think that any filmic portrayal of adolescent sexuality is exploitative may be put off, and a few of the repeated narrative techniques (particularly the dramatization of her blog comments) become a bit grating, but overall Young and Wild is a supremely enjoyable testament to the angst, confusion and romance of adolescence.

Civil War (Guerra Civil) -- Another film about the endless days of youth, only this one follows a shy, Joy Division-obsessed teen in the 80's through the end of one fateful summer. While it's not as overtly about bedroom play, the sunny Portuguese locals and interactions between the characters ooze with sexual tension.

As a whole, the film didn't really work for me -- mostly because I am tired of the cinematic fantasy where the insanely beautiful girl will not stop pursuing the shy, inhibited boy; even when he really displays no sign of interest, charm or awareness in response to her come-ons.

However, I still enjoyed the film. It is one of those slow, beautifully photographed beach movies that makes you actually feel like you're on vacation. The beaches look great, the people look great and the soundtrack (wall to wall 80's punk and new wave) is killer. So in terms of content, the film didn't do much for me, but during these grey winter days, the laid-back pace and bright photography really hit the spot. If nothing else, I'm planning a trip to Portugal now.

Stateless Things -- Our own Christopher Bourne has already written an extremely intelligent review of Kim Kyung-Mook's enigmatic, deeply felt exploration of sexuality and immigration in modern Korea. And so I'll quote him.

This is a penetrating, provocative look at the marginalized and disenfranchised of Seoul, focusing in particular on two sets of groups outside the mainstream of society: illegal immigrants (especially North Korean refugees) and gays. Kim posits the idea that both these groups suffer equally as "stateless things," restless, homeless souls treated by others with power over them as objects and playthings, rather than human beings deserving of dignity.

Seconded. At only 27, it's exciting to imagine what Kyung-Mook might be capable of in the near future if this is any indication. While I found a few scenes in the film a bit unnecessary, especially a beautifully acted but narratively redundant sex scene at the end of the second section of the film, Kyung Mook displays artistic vision and ambition that many directors twice his age are still searching for.

Death
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Today (Aujourd'hui) -- From my full review:

From Ikiru to The Bucket List, there are already a number of movies made about people who find out they have a short time to live. However, I can safely say that none of them are quite like Today (Aujourd'hui). Set in Senegal, director Alain Gomis' meditation on the inevitability of death glides between surrealism, music, tragedy and documentary-like realism, resulting in a unique, touching and surprisingly laid-back film. Though the disparate ingredients occasionally clash and confuse the tone, Today never quite loses footing thanks to the powerful, subdued presence of the very talented slam poet/music artist (and now actor), Saul Williams.

Sofia's Last Ambulance -- Here is a film about an ambulance team who is forced to confront death many times every day. During the first scene in which they rescue a young man who's had a completely unexpected brain hemorrhage, I gritted my teeth and prepped myself to also face inevitability of death over and over again for 70 minutes. But ultimately, Sofia's Last Ambulance is disturbing not because of the dying people we encounter, but because of the work-conditions of the living.

The ambulance crew in the film is one of just 13, serving a city of two million people. As I said in my full review:

It's shot mostly fly-on-the-wall style, or in this case, camera-on-the-dashboard. Rather than following the ambulance drivers around constantly with a handheld-camera crew (though there is some of that), director Ilian Metev develops the characters and much of the narrative via footage from small cameras mounted at the front of the ambulance which are focused on the team's faces. The camera almost never shifts down to show us the patients they deal with, but the reactions of the ambulance team tell us all we need to know.

What emerges is both a humanistic portrait of underpaid, overworked people trying to make a difference within a broken system and a riveting, occasionally blackly comic chronicle of just how broken that system is.


I didn't catch Heart's Boomerang, a Russian film about a man who discovers he may drop dead at any moment, or Japan's Tragedy, about a man dying of cancer who boards himself up in his apartment after his wife dies, but I heard excellent things about both of them, and next time I start to think maybe I'm invincible again, I'll probably turn to these two. 

Nuclear Disaster
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Innocent Saturday - I only actually saw one film on nuclear disaster, but since this Russian import was easily my favorite film of the festival, I'm giving it its own entry.

The action unfolds in 1986, in a small town right next to Chernobyl. Thanks to some well-timed eavesdropping on his superiors, Valerij discovers that the reactor has blown and that the entire town is in mortal danger. He finds this out about 48 hours before the Russian government finally decided to tell people.

Naturally, he runs back to town at break-neck pace, bursts into the dorm where his crush/lover (we're never sure which) lives and tells her they have to flee. She gathers her stuff and they run to the train station and then... they don't leave.

The specific reason they don't leave at this moment isn't important. What is important is that despite all of his best efforts, Valerij just can't seem to get out of town. He's not stuck in a wacky After Hours type way, but rather a much more interesting, and perhaps absurd psychological way that raises a fascinating question. That is, if you have secret news that nobody wants to believe, how can you make them believe it? And further, how long before their stubborn denial rubs off on you?

What ensues is a hilarious, perplexing day in a town which is quickly filling up with harmful radiation. After Valerij and his girl miss the train, they end up at a wedding party where Valerij's old band is playing. He tries to warn them too, and while they never argue with him, they make jokes about it and get drunk instead of trying to leave. Then Valerji gets drunk too, and suddenly we're in an intimate, Russian version of John Cassavetes' Husbands, another film which shows that people don't always react to grief and fear in the ways that we expect.  

The acting, and I know I'm going out on a limb here, is every bit as good as that of Cassavetes' masterpiece. Though, I guess since its in Russian maybe that's a bold statement. Still, the film has a frantic, improvised feel that greatly adds to the feeling of chaos and despair that sets in as the day turns to night. The music is also buoyed by some insanely catchy Russian pop/rock, and if there were a soundtrack, I'd probably be listening to it right now.

So yes, Innocent Saturday is a surprisingly funny and absurd take on the Chernobyl, one which never sacrifices the inherent tragedy of the situation, but rather uses it as an ominous background to examine friendship, love, denial and escapism.

That about wraps up the highlights, but I'd like to give one last special shout out to Post Tenebras Lux, my other favorite film of the festival, and one which defies any categorization. From my review:

At times it's exhilarating, at other times it felt like trying to put together a puzzle that not only has pieces missing, but also has some pieces from other puzzles mixed in. But enough overwrought description - my point is that Post Tenebras Lux is not at all conducive to the type of review which simply explains to people whether or not they should see a movie and why. I have no idea whether or not you should see Post Tenebras Lux. You might hate it, like many critics at Cannes allegedly did. 

But love or hate it, it's certainly is not a chore to watch. In fact, for the most part, I was consistently immersed and stimulated by Reygadas' dark, bizarre, time-jumping fable. I won't claim to have fully understood the film, but I certainly reacted to it.

Around the Internet:
  • mightyjoeyoung

    "Young and Wild (Joven y Alocoda) -- This steamy, often very funny Chilean sex comedy apparently played at Sundance last year, but for whatever reason, this was the first I had heard about it. "

    Sounds like girl version of Y tu mamá también/And Your Mother Too (2001), that film contained a lot of graphic nudity and realistic intercourse scenes....but you seemed to like it Mr Clark.(the film I mean)

    "Today (Aujourd'hui)"
    "subdued presence of the very talented slam poet/music artist (and now actor), Saul Williams."

    He was pretty good in Slam (1998) even though the film was uneven, "Today (Aujourd'hui)" sounds interesting.

    "Innocent Saturday - I only actually saw one film on nuclear disaster, but since this Russian import was easily my favorite film of the festival, I'm giving it its own entry."
    An absurd, funny, look at the chernobyl disaster...?
    Sounds interesting enough....thanks for the list Mr Clark.

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