9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
If there is one type of film that is harder to successfully pull off than the portmanteau film - a collection of thematically linked short films by different directors - it’s got to be a portmanteau film that comes with the intent to make a political, social and environmental statement. 8, as the title might suggest, coming as it does with 8 filmmakers making 8 statements to the G8 leaders about the promises they have made under a series of Millennium Development Goals to assist underdeveloped nations to eradicate poverty and disease, is kind of the cinematic equivalent of Live 8, but without Bob Geldof and Bono standing on a stage and shouting at you. Oh, hold on, we get that as well...
The purpose of 8 then is to address the agreement of 191 governments to halve world poverty by 2015. These are defined under the following Millennium Development Goals: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger; Achieve Universal Primary Education; Promote Gender Equality; Reduce Child Mortality; Improve Maternal Health; Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases; Ensure Environmental Sustainability; Global Partnership for Development. At the halfway point towards meeting those goals, the problem doesn’t appear to have drastically altered, and the eight filmmakers of international renown have been gathered to examine just how serious the position is.
As far as overcoming the traditional problems of the portmanteau film however, 8 is no more or less successful than most films of its kind. Some directors succeed in adapting their own personal vision and style towards the shorter format, in retaining their own individual character while finding an original, personal way of meeting the objectives of the film’s theme. Others seem to be constrained by the topic and end up taking the brief much too literally, while others just seem to miss the point altogether. The best films in 8 then tend to be those that get the point across through simple human stories rather than by adhering too closely to the rather dry themes and statistics.
Such is how Gael García Bernal deals with the subject from the surprising location of Iceland in “The Letter”, capturing with simplicity and beautiful cinematography a discussion between a father and his young son, who is working on a school project about the Nepal region, about the impact of the failure of a nation to achieve basic Primary Education. Jane Campion also rises to the challenge in “The Water Diary” in relation to Environmental Sustainability, showing the tough decisions that have to be made in a small outback community waiting desperately for the rains, building their hopes, fears, disappointments and indeed tears into a fantastical dream. Jan Kounen also finds a mythical aspect to the human condition in his Peruvian Amazon story (one of many similar stories showcased in Amnesty International’s short documentary ‘Poverty of Justice’ which accompanies the film) of the difficulties and dangers of mortality facing women giving birth in remote regions. The mix of documentary reconstruction and traditional storytelling through native song and dance in “The Story of Panshin Beka” is given additional force through some striking black-and-white cinematography.
Tipping the balance either one way or the other towards a higher average of good sections over bad is Abderrahmane Sissako’s opening piece. Sissako’s brilliance in the area of inventive politically-charged filmmaking is not in doubt after his last feature Bamako, and “Tiya’s Dream” is beautifully filmed, showing the situation facing real people in African nations, but he makes his point rather too calculatedly and deliberately referential through a school lesson on... the 8 targets of the Millennium Development Goals. Borderline also is Gaspar Noé’s “SIDA”, which at least has the benefit of the director’s customary power and directness, relating of the case of a man dying from AIDS in his own words with only edgy, colour-saturated portraiture cinematography and a pounding heartbeat, and making it still rather intense.
Those missing the mark completely for me are Mira Nair’s segment “How Can It Be?” and Gus Van Sant’s “Mansion On The Hill”, Nair taking on Gender Equality towards freedom of expression of a Muslim woman wanting a divorce from her husband to go and marry another man. Even if it means she may be making a wrong decision towards her blameless husband and son, she deserves the choice to make her own mistakes. Gus Van Sant, for his part, simply seems to have missed the brief entirely and just given the producers some left-over footage of teenage skateboarders for them to put TV advertisement boldface facts, figures and slogans on the topic of Child Mortality.
Wim Wenders unsurprisingly ends up being the most problematic, the director’s filmmaking talent still obvious, but increasingly buried in heavy-handed messages. “Person to Person” is likewise admirable in its intent, but fails in its execution. His newsroom drama attempts to offer a corrective to the traditionally dry, preachy editorialising of news reports and documentaries on the subject of the Third World by showing that direct action between the people in these countries can have an impact without the need for government intervention. It’s a sharply filmed and edited piece and admirable also for its concision in explaining just how this can be achieved, but it doesn’t manage to avoid sounding preachy and didactic itself.
While there is certainly then some minor brilliance evident throughout individual segments of 8 and some strong points made on the grave consequences for the world should there be a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the Wenders segment, ending as it does with footage of Bono chanting from the stage, does give the impression of the whole exercise being one of well-meaning good intentions, but one that by its very nature will inevitably end up preaching only to the converted who are willing to pay to go and see it, but which is no more likely to spur those with the power to effect change to honour those commitments they have made. No harm in trying though.