Alice Winocour and the power of film festivals

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Film “festivals” are so often missing that largely indefinable, ethereal quality that sets them apart from bog-standard back-to-back film programming and makes them into spatially and temporally grounded experiences. Too often the watching of the actual film has its importance quelled by the glossy storm of PR practices and VIP passes; roped off catered areas designed for the public to be able to peek into; star appearances at premieres and addresses that say nothing worthy of any attention except ‘thank you for your money, sponsor’; micro-managed cattle herding of audiences into impersonal screening rooms; impossible access for the public because all the seats are reserved for distributors who are asleep throughout the movie.

But the Glasgow Film Festival this year – thank god – was nothing like that. It managed to superimpose its community-driven ethos onto each and every event that was scheduled throughout the festival, be it a free 9am screening of the Fred ‘n’ Ginger classic SWINGTIME, a talk on the process of casting led by the underrated acting gem that is Gary Lewis, or a grandiose presentation complete with flanking gladiators of HAIL, CAESAR! It was obvious not just from everyone saying it over and over again, but by its actions, that GFF really does believe that the personal is political.

It is understandable, perhaps, that in the magnifying process that takes place at film festivals – whereby hundreds of artefacts of film need to be translated into singular seamless experiences for thousands of people buying tickets – that “personal” feeling gets lost. However GFF took pains to ram our individual involvement as audience members firmly down our throats inbetween mouthfuls of the complimentary popcorn. At nearly every filmic introduction (given largely by festival directors Allison Gardner and Allan Hunter), the audience award was mentioned, which emphatically reminded us that the power of outcome was partially in our hands via a slip of paper and ten options to choose from. There was no herding to speak of; volunteers (of all ages) were clued up and friendly, on hand by the dozen and evidently all lovers of film. If I had a pound for every time someone quoted the festival slogan at me, ‘People Make Us’, my nightly haggis and chips would have paid for itself.

Sublimely, in blatant contrast to other awards bodies such as, say, the Oscars, the award voted for by the people went to the film solely made for the people, and therefore most deserved: Deniz Gamze Ergüven-directed MUSTANG. It was one of two films screened at GFF16 with direct involvement from filmmaker Alice Winocour, who co-wrote MUSTANG and directed psychological thriller DISORDER (also high-profile at the festival). She was the only filmmaker to be featured twice with debuting films, and there was no other singular artist’s voice as prevalent as hers, not just for the volume of times we heard it but for the harmony of her message in relation to the festival’s.

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In an already carefully self-and-space-conscious program, DISORDER and MUSTANG stood out as beacons of individuality. They gave off so strongly the sense of immediate human response (organic, honest, clumsy, sometimes dangerous, and always beautiful), which in turn created an air of self reflection and relevance in an auditorium full of people who had collectively had their breath taken away. No other two films epitomised the idea that festivals should be celebrations for everyone so succinctly.

As a director and writer, Winocour is flying the flag for honest, brazen female storytelling that’s breaking through the heteronormative armour of the mainstream. As we know, the OscarsSoWhite, apart from being so white, were not so female-focused when it came to the actually dishing out of the awards. MUSTANG’s nomination for best foreign film at the Oscars (it lost to A WAR) filled a gaping hole that no one seemed to even be mentioning – namely, the sensitive treatment of the ingrained misogyny women face growing up. But Winocour has always manifested an intact vision on the subject. Her debut feature came in 2012 in the form of AUGUSTINE – the story of a love affair between a neurologist and his patient sent in 1885 – where she coined her style that draws from both documentary and high drama. Here we first see the glimmers of a certain subtlety of nuanced, personal storytelling that have blossomed in the last year.

DISORDER, the story of an ex-army man suffering from PTSD and working as a bodyguard, directly addresses modern collective anxiety via “the personal is political” ethos. The flush of information characteristic of modern reality that attacks and ignites and inflames the senses circles and stings Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) like a swarm of bees. It is a constant battle to make sense of it all. The disorder of DISORDER is not just post traumatic stress but, via Vincent’s personal issue, a wider political evocation of the chaotic nature of our current way of life in general, fragmented and twisted until the only tangible way to make sense of it is to reduce it into one negative word, which Winocour pointedly frames the film with: Disorder. Disorder.

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Similarly, MUSTANG is physically and emotionally oppressive in an almost painful way to behold, but the harassment of our heroines is tempered with unrelenting wit, unrelenting sisterly love, and unrelenting devotion to portray the yearning of human life to seek out and bathe in the beauty all around it, no matter how ugly things seem to get. It is a story about the growing pains of five orphaned sisters living under the totalitarian rule of their uncle and various aunties in their rural Turkish home. We begin with an emotional goodbye: the youngest Lale (Güneş Şensoy, and a revelation) hugs her school teacher farewell, as she is leaving for Istanbul. It’s an initiating symbolic moment that sets the standard for freedom in her and our mind – she dreams of leaving to go to Istanbul, too, where her educated teacher has gone on to do better things. Her extreme spirit is seen as a threat by the elder generation of her family and the conservative village en masse. Where there is comedy in the contention, there is also harrowing pain.

Winocour is fearless in her dedication to putting her fears on screen in order to make the threat feel as authentic as possible. Part of the attack on Vincent in DISORDER comes in the form of thunder and lightning (which Winocour has a phobia of), rattling at the windows as if trying to distract him from his duty. The fear of our own incapabilities, namely to make rational judgements, is something we can all relate to. The yearning for freedom of expression, as in MUSTANG, is universal, too. What these stories reminded the audience members of, in the context of being at a film festival, was that by sharing in collective experiences that make us feel deeply, our worlds become a little bit less lonely.

DISORDER has had its modest wide release at cinemas, but the big event next month will be the release of MUSTANG in cinemas. The screening to catch will be the Bechdel Test Fest-hosted one at Curzon cinema on the 5th May, which will be followed by a panel discussion hosted by Birds Eye View festival director Mia Bay. We suspect there will be much discussion on the harmony of this style of filmmaking that Winocour champions with the heart of film festivals, and the encouraged togetherness this harmony brings.
http://www.curzoncinemas.com/qas/mustangbev

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