The 35th Cambridge Film Festival: The Visit

cambridge film festival logoThe Cambridge Film Festival, the UK’s third longest-running film festival returns 3rd – 13th September 2015 for its 35th edition, at the Arts Picturehouse, the Light Cinema and other venues across Cambridge. One of the UK’s most prestigious and well-respected film festivals, 2015 also celebrates Festival Director Tony Jones’s 30th anniversary with the festival, which has been shaped by Tony’s passion and exceptional knowledge of cinema.

This year’s festival features specially selected screenings for everyone, from parents with babies to retirees, the programme offers a diverse mix of films of short and feature length spanning different genres including 7 World Premieres, 55 UK Premieres, with films from more than 30 countries, plus special guests and complementary events and workshops, all scheduled at convenient times and locations. The Cambridge Film Festival is operated by the charitable Cambridge Film Trust and funded by BFI Film Forever. You can find out more about the festival at their website:  http://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/

Next in our series of reviews from this year’s event, Tony Black takes a look at Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary, The Visit.


by Tony Black (@BlackHoleOnline)

A legend appears at the outset of The Visit: An Alien Encounter which informs us everyone who takes part in this ‘simulation’ are real professionals, scientists and thinkers. The word simulation marks Michael Madsen’s (not that one) piece out as slightly to the left of the documentary, despite being filmed as such. Rather, it’s a thought piece, a consideration, a classic ‘what if?’ presented not as fiction but almost-fact. What if, in this case, we were visited by an extra-terrestrial life form? Fiction has of course covered this ground in cinematic terms a wealth of times, perhaps most memorably in 50’s B-movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, but Madsen’s spin on the idea presents the film less as entertainment, more a conversation we happen to be part of, or a series of conversations. Our POV is that of the unseen, unheard alien being who the aforementioned real life professionals respond to, explaining the procedures immediately following the aliens’ arrival and later delving into the philosophical, practical and psychological repercussions of his arrival. We are welcomed to planet Earth. We become the very thing we are questioning.

This does serve, at points, as if these world famous (in their field) people are communicating into a void, almost talking back to themselves, which is a consequence of the approach and in real terms a budgetary consideration from Madsen; this is stripped down Scandinavian conceptual filmmaking, without the license to show visual effects of aliens, the inside of spacecrafts or too many cosmic landscapes. It’s also definitely a creative choice on his part; he seeks in part to evoke the almost religious wonder of the unknown we witnessed in Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (though using the Blue Danube Waltz is perhaps a little on the nose), as scientist Chris Welch explores the spacecraft interior and finds unusual landscapes. Madsen is also, certainly, playing with our perception of reality – not just considering what lies within the craft, but scenes involving one contributor see him deliberately trick the frame, inducing parallels while flipping props to enable a sense of disorientation; indeed the scientists themselves posit the philosophical idea that if the alien leaves without sharing any information or shining a light on its own existence, was its presence theoretical? Madsen explores all of these concepts within the thin running time, though frankly he has the breathing room.

Even at just shy of eighty minutes, The Visit doesn’t necessarily feel longer but Madsen struggles at points to fill out the narrative he does present. A documentary could call upon facts and research, but a fascinating look at the makings of the Voyager space probe aside, his picture is solidly in the realms of the conceptual. It may dress itself up as a simulation but in many respects it is a drama, a play of sorts only featuring naturalistic performances functioning as reactive conversation between people well respected in their field. Madsen at times can’t quite balance whether he wants to explore an element of narrative or rest on the mere pondering of the ‘big questions’ – why are we here? What is a human being? Almost all of the big theological & philosophical ideas are in play here, as are the practicalities. This too is where Madsen over eggs the pudding. He’s a slave to the slow motion tracking shot – at first it evokes a slightly otherworldly mood, a cold and calculated exploration of the unnatural, but it quickly becomes a crutch he relies on to deploy his imagery of unusual constructions, people going about their day to day, and the mobilising balance of a military deployed as a reaction to the alien’s visit. He seems afraid to let his camera breathe as naturally as the scientists on screen, ironically enough serving to further detach himself from the documentarian approach he primarily wants to ape. It’s a shame because his imagery, intersected with the static interactions with the people on screen, is often interesting.

If nothing that will revolutionise either the science fiction or documentary genres The Visit dips a toe in either way, Michael Madsen’s film is an intriguing look with an intriguing hook at a concept which has fascinated writers and filmmakers for the last half century – what would happen if aliens visited us? It’s quite rare to find a film which doesn’t approach the subject matter in bombastic or fantastic terms, moreover one that uses real life thinkers & scientists to consider the extreme possibilities & consequences that we’re not alone in the universe; amusingly at one point two of those on screen describe ‘fiction’, and report that more often than not such attempts to portray first contact end without a happy conclusion. If you’re looking for a film with such conclusions at all, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a flawed but fascinating, rational and illuminating exploration of the idea, this may be worth exploring yourself.

The Visit will be screened as a part of the festival on Monday 7th September at 18:45 at The Light, and Thursday 10th at 15:30 in the Arts Picturehouse. To find out more information and to book your tickets, visit the Cambridge Film Festival website.

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