by Liam Pennington (@doktorb)
Writing this column each year rustles my inner workings more than your average Su Doku and no mistake. This year more than most, actually, as I trawl through the YouTube offerings of a record eighty-three submitted titles, causing my usually tolerant brain for all things art-house to frazzle like an overworked sandwich toaster.
I considered ‘going big’ by picking a title such as Russia’s submission Leviathan, already well regarded as an unexpectedly critical-of-the-regime drama and one with a UK release earlier this year. I further considered ‘going local’ and picking Uzun Yol, the Turkic-language entry looking at honour killings. Unfortunately the available on-line trailers for this film are minimal (and without subtitles) so out the window went that.
It was therefore left for me to rely on good old fashioned gimmickry: from the largest ever field of submitted entries there are four first time nominating countries: Malta, Mauritania, Panama, and the disputed territory of Kosovo. What better theme than that to look at, I thought, before checking that available material was easily accessed on line, than this? Here goes then.
There’s certainly not many laughs in the trailer for Three Windows and a Hanging, (“Tri Dritare dhe një Varje“), the first Kosovan entry for the Academy Award’s foreign language trophy. Difficult to make, let alone watch, the director Isa Qosja tells Cineuropa that the owner of the house they rented during filming would regularly threaten to throw them out as the contents made them feel uncomfortable. The film tackles highly charged content of rape in a closed, predominately male, society. That Eastern Europe has a reputation for male-orientated politics is well known: in Kosovo, still raw from the NATO-led bombing of Serbia and unrest across the Balkans, this subject matter must touch many an exposed nerve. Three Windows and a Hanging examines how a close-knit community deals with the rape of a woman and the effects on her family in the immediate aftermath of the Kosova war in 1999, making a brave film somehow all the more daring.
Plucky little Malta offers Simshar, and I won’t lie about this, one trailer looks to me like a ragbag of independent movie cliché. However, on finding something a lot better I was impressed and intrigued by the film, and hope that the tiny island nation gets some much needed attention for an ambitious and clearly very personal work. As a member of the EU placed within easy boat-hopping distance of north and northeastern Africa, Malta is obliged to administer the many migrants crossing the Mediterranean en route to Italy or beyond. This film examines both the conflicting sides of Maltese life – islands attractive to tourists and migrants, locals and foreigners – and from what I have seen, manages to present a very intense but balanced narrative. I wonder if Malta is simply too undeveloped a nation, film industry wise, for the Academy to shortlist the movie for next year, but it does appear there’s much to be positive about for the future.
Shown at this year’s Cannes Festival and championed by Variety magazine as “rendered with clarity and deeper, richer tones”, Timbuktu is established as one of the strongest submissions this year. Director Abderrahmane Sissako talks about the need to focus on the Islamist threat to African nations (Timbuktu is based on a brief occupation of Malian towns) and has slammed as “hijackers” those who have twisted the Muslim belief for their own ends. This stunning and stark film is Mauritania’s first ever submission to the Academy Awards, and looks highly likely to become a must-see film for anybody interested in what is a highly important subject given the on-going/never-ending news from home and abroad concerning Islamic extremism.
This theme of ongoing tragedy and conflict is brought into focus through a different perspective by Panama’s first ever submission, the documentary Invasión. As seen by the trailer, Abner Benaim’s much acclaimed feature explores the controversial US-led invasion of Panama with no holds barred, and all the better for that. It’s taken a clutch of South American industry awards already and I can certainly see it being something of a 2014-version of Chile’s well regarded (and very important) No from last year.
If you remember anything about last year’s column (snark, I know, it’s not likely unless you’re James Diamond, formerly of this parish), you might recall the quite unbelievable entry from Thailand. Full of drugs, sex, border line blasphemy and more drugs, I knew the trailer had to be included just for a sense of completion. Much to my disappointment, Thailand has gone all mainstream and ordinary this year, with Teacher’s Diary (all together now, it’s called “คิดถึงวิทยา” in Thai) and it’s a rather humdrum rom-com with the trailer stuffed to the gills with saccharine-sweet cheeky antics. I can see why this sort of thing would get your attention but I’m a long-term single 35 year old whose heart is solid as a rock, so what do I know? For point of reference, this trailer is what Thailand submitted last year. I did warn you…
The 87th Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday 22nd February 2015. However, there’s still time for you to vote for your five favourite films of 2014 not in the English language in our very own Failed Critics Awards 2014. Voting closes 22nd December, 5pm.