Breaking the Spell: Reykjavík International Film Festival 2018
For its 2018 edition, the Reykjavík International Film Festival presented almost 100 feature films, nearly as many shorts, and enough extra-cinematic activities to make one feel guilty for not spending more time in the dark of the theater. Now in its fifteenth year, RIFF continues a tradition of spotlighting young filmmakers while paying tribute to past and present masters. Honorees this past year included Lithuanian iconoclast Jonas Mekas, subject of both a solo gallery exhibition and a generous retrospective of his groundbreaking diary films; Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, on hand to present a selection of his recent narrative features, including his latest, Donbass (2018); Latvian documentarian Laila Pakalnina, showcasing a number of her pleasingly esoteric shorts; and Hollywood actors Mads Mikkelsen and Shailene Woodley, each in person to discuss their work in film and television, with the latter doing double duty on the New Visions jury, whose top prize, the Golden Puffin, is awarded annually to the best first or second feature in competition. This year’s winner: Knife + Heart, from French filmmaker Yann Gonzalez.
In many ways a victory for a film like Knife + Heart only reinforces the significance of a festival like RIFF. When Gonzalez’s film, a stylized thriller set in the world of late-70s gay porn, premiered at Cannes, it was met with largely negative reviews. (Screen’s annual Jury Grid contributors ranked it the second worst film in competition.) I enjoyed the movie, but its reception no doubt hindered its trajectory. A prize from RIFF, then, should ensure a few more festival berths, where it’ll have additional opportunities to find a receptive audience. I experienced something similar as part of the International and Icelandic Short Film jury. Curated by Ana Catalá from a number of the year’s preceding festivals, the International Shorts selection, in particular, proved rich, surprising, and rewarding, with many of the films finding new life within three thoughtfully assembled programs. While major festivals boast premieres and receive a lion’s share of the acknowledgment when showcasing less commercial cinema, it’s regional events such as RIFF that help sustain the visibility of short and medium-length work. Case in point: Black Line, by Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi, a ten-minute ethnographic documentary that played numerous festivals following its premiere almost one year prior to RIFF but that, for our jury, was the discovery of the program.
Comprised largely of one extended tracking shot, Black Line (winner of a Special Mention), documents a crucial moment in contemporary environmental geopolitics. Shot in the Sundarban forests of southern Bangladesh, the film patiently follows an anonymous fisherwoman as she pulls a large net down the Shela River, where in 2014 a tanker truck spilled over 90,000 gallons of oil. With little government aid, local laborers have been enlisted to sift through the contaminated water themselves in order to make a living. From a respectful remove, the Swiss-born Olexa and the Italian Scalisi track the woman as sirens and loudspeaker warnings blare in the distance and groups of men comment indiscriminately from the shore. Only in its closing stretch does the film change perspective, opening into a short montage of fishermen trawling the river by hand. It risks breaking the spell, but ultimately brings the situation’s wider implications into focus, presenting an empathetic look at a blighted community without betraying the film’s sociopolitical undercurrent.
Gulyabani, by Turkey’s Gürcan Keltek, was the unanimous choice for the section’s top prize. Following up his hypnotic first feature Meteors (2017), Keltek has crafted a dark and dazzling 35-minute journey into Turkey’s post-Republic political landscape. Framed around the words of Fethiye Sessiz, an Izmer native and noted clairvoyant, and interpolations of texts by W.G. Sebald and Terry Eagleton, the film presents Sessiz’s memories of abuse and indignity (much of it taken from her diaries) as a spoken correspondence with her estranged son. In voiceover, Sessiz—labeled a gulyabani, or ghoul, by her family and community—recounts early visions and traumatic episodes from her youth (molestation; forced hair-cutting) in troubling detail. Meanwhile, on screen, ominous images of trees and water (resembling nothing less than Tarkovsky’s Stalker  in their stark, desaturated beauty) give way to fleeting reenactments of Sessiz’s memories, phosphorescent landscape imagery, and found Super-8 footage of the Anatolian desert and ancient religious sites. While the provenance of any given image is difficult to trace, there’s a palpable undertow of history and violence in every frame.
Keltek has an equally strong feel for music and its ability to infect and transform an image. His predilection for moody post-rock and skyscraping drone music continues here with the combined use of the Besnard Lakes’s 2010 track “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent Part I & II” and a score by electro-acoustic ensemble Oscillatorial Binnage, which swells and recedes through much of the film’s second half, as Sessiz’s words grow sparser and the imagery becomes increasingly opaque. With little on which to gain a foothold, the feedback and sonic fury act as transfixing counterpoint to the flickering, monochromatic imagery of the film’s closing passage. Shifting deftly from personal-poetic rumination to allegorical horror to out-and-out abstraction, Gulyabani stages a bracing historical intervention through an inspired combination of aesthetic elements and narrative devices.
A portrait of a different kind, Like a Flower in a Field, the 94 year-old Mekas’s first solo exhibition in Iceland, featured a vibrant mix of components that together offered an intimate view of the artist. At one end of Reykjavík’s Ásmundarsalur gallery, a trio of curved windows featuring 45 transparencies of still images of flowers taken from Mekas’ films were displayed in a cascade of light and color; on the surrounding walls, the artist’s ever-excitable words, sourced from a variety of poems and texts (“With every new buzz of our cameras, our hearts jump forward, my friends!”), were enlarged and printed alongside a series of hand-painted floral vignettes. Meanwhile, three freestanding television monitors playing loops from Mekas’s online video diaries, which he’s been recording and uploading to his website for well over a decade, presented a precious glimpse into his later years away from the spotlight. Between the variety of words and images, a vision of a life emerged: cats, friends, flowers, lovers, and cinema—a seemingly quaint catalogue of passions that, in the context of today’s world, feels more like an ideal.