I was halfway through my sixth terrible feature in a row when it dawned on me that I was once again in Edinburgh. The 2013 edition of the Scottish capital’s annual film festival had retroactively shifted shape in the year since I attended—from a flabby, sprawling slog through interchangeable pap to the event at which I first discovered Jean Grémillon and to which I caught a six a.m. ninety-minute train journey to watch Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, which I had previously only seen as an online screener.
Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) has the history, prestige and evident budget to program enough great works each year to lure in skeptics like me. But the interchangeable pap remains. Two all-out duds from last year’s edition—Stephen Brown’s The Sea and Justin Edgar’s We Are the Freaks—somehow scored UK theatrical releases earlier this year. Though both releases were admittedly low-key, on each occasion I felt a little more despondent about the odious state of affairs that UK film funding, distribution and exhibition find themselves in.
Indeed, how is it that such numbingly lazy artistry can be rewarded with distribution deals and more while, say, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs is still seemingly without a UK distributor? I say seemingly because late last year it was rumored that an unnamed distributor had picked up the film, and that a UK release would follow soon after its then-unannounced UK premiere at EIFF. Months later: zilch.
I’ve written enough elsewhere about Stray Dogs. I refer to it only because it was one of those aforementioned great works at this year’s EIFF—the festival’s 68th edition. (In fact there were also two other, shorter Tsai works in the line-up: Journey to the West and ‘Walking on Water,’ his contribution to the portmanteau project Letters from the South.) To cut to the chase, though, my lament is that for every Stray Dogs—for every film, that is, which fulfills the more “adventurous” criteria of festival programming with such confident muscularity—there is a deep swamp of wannabes and hangers-on.
What’s new? Nothing much. But bulk brings obvious drawbacks when it comes to festival programming, and the most apparent of these is the sheer number of mediocre-to-dreadful films one has to wade through in order to get to the good stuff. Accentuate the positive, they say. Okay: great and wholly welcome retrospectives this year were dedicated to Dominik Graf, to Iranian Cinema between 1962 and 1978 and to Scottish playwright and filmmaker John McGrath. There are great films at EIFF every year, then—but how many of these are part of retrospectives? Prestige is one thing, but must its cost always be quality?
Other questions persist. Why do many (if not all) of the UK productions receiving world-premieres at EIFF 2014 fit so easily and even willingly into that massive, stillborn camp of politically lethargic filmmaking? Why are so few (if any) engaging with the world as an active thing of consequence? The reasons are no doubt complex. As a starting point, let’s posit that the alarming dearth of genuinely exciting filmmakers in the UK today is conditioned somehow by the same system by which the country’s distribution system is all kinds of wrong: conservative, evasive, limp—not willing to do the hard work, in a word.
Take Greyhawk, Guy Pitt’s first feature. This London-shot, anywhere-set drama aspires be to a snapshot of contemporary Britain: bruised, battered, boozy, sparsely populated and full of humorless misery. When blind ex-soldier Mal (Alec Newman) has his guide dog stolen by a gang of listless youths, he embarks upon a dangerous but fearless mission onto a distinctly ugly, visibly impoverished working-class housing estate. Navigating his way around the several tower blocks to ask local residents there for any clues as to his canine’s whereabouts, Mal has front doors slammed on him mid-sentence, and endures rude remarks and general ignorance. In the end, he must rely on his individual persistence to retrieve the dog—a quest that concludes with a showdown atop a high-rise inhabited by aimless, hedonistic teens who swear a lot. Young people today!
That’s a sentiment shared by writer-director Gabe Turner’s The Guvnors, in which a young band of thugs terrorize their local neighborhood with violence and intimidation in an endless search for purpose. As the film has it, things weren’t always so grim: back in the ‘nineties, real men channeled their rage into soccer hooliganism, retaining a brutish sense of honor while keeping their cathartic, arbitrarily territorial violence far from home. If hooliganism was a spontaneous response to deindustrialization under Thatcher, though, the next generation has no interest in kidding itself into a meaningful pastime, has no interest in a superficially dignified investment in weekly fisticuffs, has no interest in an activity centered around a sport that has in the last three decades been corporatized and legitimated into a rich man’s game.
Needless to say, the two generations clash: it’s the principles of the old guard against the unpredictable chaos of the unemployed new. A plot twist forces the wider allegory into a ludicrous literalism that doesn’t quite work because of weak acting and bad writing. Unpleasant to watch, The Guvnors is a troublesome work caught somewhere between romanticizing the violence of the past while holding it accountable for how fearsome today’s fatherless, workless, nihilist youths have become. And after all its slow-motion punch-ups, it doesn’t have the guts to play out the fuller implications of its drama, settling instead for overwrought symbolism and a cagey cut-to-black.
We Are Monster—co-produced by Noel Clarke, whose latest and largely inept directorial effort The Anomaly also premiered at EIFF—is an ostensibly commendable work that seeks to dramatize the real-life murder of Zahid Mubarek, a British Asian teenager who was killed in 2000 by his racist cellmate, Robert Stewart, at a young offenders institution in London. Stewart is played with intermittent promise by Leeshon Alexander, who also wrote the script—which consists for long passages of an internal conversation between the highly paranoid Stewart and his inner, white supremacist demon. As closing on-screen text affirms, We Are Monster’s intention is to frame one hate crime through the institutional racism that conditions and enables it.
The trouble is that the film feels too much like a readymade argument rather than a work of actual drama. Played by Aymen Hamdouchi, Mubarek is an eternally pleasant cipher whose frequent calls home consist of telling dad he’s sorry and that he can’t wait to keep his head down and stay out of trouble upon release. Aided by a wall-to-wall musical score, Mubarek’s victimhood is as a result counterintuitively emotionalized. The film lacks fizz. Indeed, while bigotry of any kind ought to be enough to stir anyone into action, the worst thing that can be said of We Are Monster is that it’s a film about something as tragic as a racist murder that somehow also manages to be interminably dull.
Other problems hound Joanna Coates’s Hide and Seek, in which four middle-class young adults retreat to a country home to live a life of absolute freedom—embracing a hermetically sealed world free of labeled food and social responsibility while reveling in no-strings sexual promiscuity. Regarding the latter aspect in particular, a less generous viewer might accuse the filmmakers of legitimizing a kind of Southern England porn chic by packaging it as an appealingly whimsical, anything-goes drama—whereas I wanted more of the sex (please, I’m British) and less of the pretentious wrapping. Like its irritating, wealthy foursome, the film retreats from real life—and so not only does its experimentation amount to the grand sum of nothing, its very concept is inconsequential.
Let it be said that there’s nothing radical about a move away from the burning issues of everyday life. I’m not talking here about a naturalist aesthetic or somehow non-allegorical cinema (if such a thing can exist). I’m talking about a cinema that confronts the world rather than looking for ways around it. It’s almost too easy to shoot a film now. The democratization of technology so happily welcomed by one and all is one thing, but when such a process coincides with an actively depoliticized working- and middle-class, what’s the point?
The point is political. While exceptions exist, too few filmmakers of my country and/or generation seem interested in changing the world. Such a claim will always meet weak objections and idiotic dismissals, but I see no reason why this apparently democratic art-form shouldn’t be more aggressive in its questioning. As it is, when films such as those mentioned here are included in the same line-up as a program dedicated to a writer and filmmaker as genuinely and excitingly radical as John McGrath (and there were several more examples too negligible even to criticize), there’s no denying the palpable decline in the revolutionary consciousness of British Cinema. In truth, our problem isn’t that filmmakers today are playing catch-up with the likes of McGrath, it’s that they seemingly don’t want to.