As one of the four jury members, I attended screenings for the nine films in competition and a few extras I thought I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, such as Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922), which was introduced by Dr. Andrew Utterson with live accompaniment by the band Transit.
Competition categories included: Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and a Jury Special Mention. The official awards can be found at the IIFFF website, but I thought it was worth saying a few words about some of my personal picks here. Like other competitions I’ve judged, the official awards were a process of negotiation between the four jury members. Everyone had their favorites, and there was little unanimity, indicating the richness of the films at the festival. The films mentioned below aren’t discussed in any particular order, but official winners can be found at http://ithacafilmfestival.com/
The Five (Yeon-sik Jun):
The Five is a South Korean revenge film starring the popular actress Kim Sun-a as a woman who loses her family to a serial killer. While this premise deviates little from the genre, the killer cripples Sun-a in the beginning of the film and she must take her revenge wheelchair-bound. To do so, she sets up a ‘chain-reaction’ using a set of individuals as her proxies, prefigured in the beginning of the film when she carefully constructs an elaborate pattern of falling dominoes for a film set.
While the revenge film often focuses on the interiority of its suffering protagonist, after her transformation Sun-a gives a stony performance that expresses her solipsistic vengeance in a manner leaving the viewer looking elsewhere for an emotional connection. It is through the individuals she surrounds herself with that we see transformation in character motives and narrative progression. The finale of the film seems like a small point in comparison to the dynamic relationship gradually built between ‘The Five.’ Fans of the genre are sure to enjoy the film, but the interaction between the different personalities of The Five warranted a ‘Best Film’ argument from me and will broaden the appeal beyond the revenge film genre for most viewers.
Der Samourai (Till Kleinert):
Der Samourai was by far the strangest film in competition, and as a lover of strange films it certainly struck a chord with me. It was also the most divisive in the jury deliberations. The film is set in a small, German town surrounded by forests. While appeasing a prowling wolf that has taken up residence in the nearby forest, a local deputy somehow summons a nightdress-wearing, katana-wielding, German samurai that proceeds to wreak havoc in the town. The film follows these exploits while suggesting some sort of metaphysical connection between deputy and samurai. Without giving too much away, this relationship does not fall into any typical pitfalls regarding pseudo-Freudian connections to some subconscious impulse. What results is excess: a Freudian reading would be too contained, too manageable, whereas Der Samourai relishes in pure desire (whatever that means).
I argued Best Director for Der Samourai due to the film’s experimental nature and what felt like more of a director’s ‘unique vision’ than a tightly crafted narrative. This is a film that will likely leave many viewers thinking, “What just happened?” If you don’t mind a more affective and aesthetic experience as opposed to a narrative experience, however, you will likely find something enticing about this film.
Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead):
Spring follows a young man’s trip to a village in Italy after the death of his parents. On a trip to ‘find himself,’ which starts off feeling like a gap-year travel film with beautiful digital cinematography of idyllic foreign locations, he encounters a local woman and a loose relationship ensues. The woman turns out not to be who she appears in line with the ‘fantastic’ part of the film festival. I voted Best Screenplay for this film, and this was a complicated vote for this film, because the screenplay runs in two directions, one less impressive than the other.
The overall narrative arc of this film ends up being fairly conservative with a predictable ending. What I liked about the screenplay is that the story of the young woman is compelling and fresh in its pseudo-scientific register, and that is situated well within the bounds of the ‘travel film,’ including its beautiful digital cinematography. Even as I saw the film descend towards the predictable ending, the dialogue and details of the woman’s story were enough to keep me interested until the end. While the jury members all agreed that this was a script that needed to be tightened in certain respects (and this could be done through another round of editing), the story synergizes with the cinematic experience well.
Midnight Swim (Sarah A. Smith):
Midnight Swim was not my pick for Best Film, but I am thrilled that it ended up taking the award through jury deliberations. I doubt the director would be happy with this assessment, since no director seems to like this label, but the film feels like Mumblecore in the way it dwells upon relationships through dialogue and the close, sometimes awkward, study of communication. I mean this designation in the best possible way though, because the film distills these elements of the style and shifts them to the relationship between a set of sisters after their mother passes away (rather than the white, heterosexual couplings of 20-somethings).
There is a ‘fantastic’ side to this narrative as well, but like most of the films I enjoyed at the IIFFF, the fantastic wasn’t the main focus of the film. When this side of the narrative finally is revealed, it feels like less of an ‘aha’ and more of a capstone to the relationship between the sisters. The dialogue and minute expressions detailed carefully by the cinematography develop each sister fully so that the larger relationship between them is complex and compelling. As a lover of horror and science fiction, the fantastic is icing on the cake of what are already excellent films.