by Ge Allan
Raindance Film Festival has returned to London for its 27th year for another round of indie features and shorts showcasing new and emerging cinematic talent. In our second week round-up for the best releases from the festival, Ge Allan reviews three of this year's award winners.
'The Waiter' (2018) - dir. Steve Krikris
Winner of Best Director was Steve Krikris of the much-anticipated The Waiter. Incredibly, the film is based on an event experienced in New York by Krikris, whose neighbour was found cut into pieces. This dark tale tells of Renos, a lonely waiter seemingly content in his repetitive life of smoothing his immaculate hair and buttoning starched white shirts. However, Renos soon discovers his neighbour Merlin’s tattooed hand in the trash disposal of his apartment block. With the arrivals of a slimy, suited man claiming to be feeding Merlin’s cat, as well as his intriguing partner Tzina, Renos gets drawn into a dangerous web of murder and deceit.
The story is simple yet well executed, largely thanks to Krikris’ flair and cinematographer Giorgos Karvelas, as well as the impressive lead, Aris Servetalis. His presentation of a character so solemn and unresponsive, yet capable of portraying such a range of barely-perceptible emotions from his turned down mouth and blank expression, is wonderful. His droll blankness as he reels scientific knowledge of how much weight is needed to sink a body is darkly comic and hugely endearing.
It’s also an endlessly stylish piece. Everything in the production design is chosen with precision, from the green walls covered in delicate plant studies in Renos’ apartment, to the marble and gold trim classical dining room where he works. Shot in an unrecognisable Athens, we could be in 1980s Soviet Europe with a design so clear and devoid of modern technology. The haze of the cinematography is hugely reminiscent of Tomas Alfredson and much of the film's tension comes from the same mystery and ominous threat inflected in the stillness of characters in their surroundings.
While the film seems to lose some of its gas towards the end, it is a very accomplished mystery and remains hugely watchable. Renos is so frustratingly inactive at points, but frighteningly reactive at others, which is what makes for such tension. A compelling watch, with dark comedic hints of Krikris’s contemporary Yorgos Lanthimos, yet not quite as weird and wonderful, Krikris’ style feels like it is waiting to be viewed by more people.
'Oray' (2019) - dir. Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
A similarly anticipated film which unfortunately left without awards was Oray, a slice of modern German social realism drama, with hints of the Dardenne brothers except with less punch.
The titular lead, Oray, has spent time in prison but is now a reformed, (relatively) devout young Muslim. He lives with his wife Burcu but a playful fight escalates to Oray shouting ‘talaq’ three times to her over the phone. Doing so in certain Muslim sects means instant divorce, something which you cannot take back and means your wife is now haram - forbidden.
Oray panics, seeking guidance from a local imam who says he must separate from his wife for three months, so he ups and leaves to Cologne. Burcu is furious. "Ignore God!" she screams at him as he leaves and creates a new temporary life.
Much of the film then follows Oray and his new found community at a Cologne mosque with other young Turkish Muslims. But his conscience weighs heavy upon him. He knows he truly said talaq three times but lies and says it was only once, a less severe sentence but one he must still commit to. As Burcu returns to his life and realises his grave mistake, he slowly falls apart.
The film raises many interesting points; a seemingly benign moment of anger turns into a life-altering dealbreaker for Oray. It becomes so huge that he betrays himself and others. His faith is so dear that he is willing to lose everything. What is great about the film is the care it gives its characters.
Although we may not understand why this word is so important, we’re not dismissive of Oray’s plight. We are instead presented with human for whom faith is a part of their being but isn’t their whole. Community, and the ability Oray has to gather like-minded people wherever he goes, is an important theme to the film - even when religion is perhaps the only glue holding them together.
The cinematography is tight, always close on characters backs and faces which lends to these questions of personal faith. Something hugely commendable in the film is a rare view of men caring for each other, and specifically young Muslim men. These are men that Europe beyond the lines of the film screen judge so much - too religious, not religious enough, insular or not adaptable to the wider community. This is hinted at via Oray’s local leader Bilal, who asks during one of Oray’s many mistakes: "what will the media think?".
While its slowness is something many may have to get used to when watching these type of meditative social dramas, it should be congratulated for its sensitive portrayal of young Muslim men.
'Whores On Film' 2019 - dir. Juliana Piccillo
The last non-fiction to be seen at the festival was the wonderful - and timely - documentary Whores on Film. A recount of how sex workers have been portrayed on screen, think A Celluloid Closet but for those who have bared the brunt of the most violence - and dismissive representation - throughout cinematic history.
Directed by Juliana Piccillo, who herself appears as a talking head, the film shows elegantly how sex workers as portrayed in film and, similarly, society. We see the awful way sex workers are horrifically and repeatedly beaten in films but also how they are continually stereotyped as ‘punchlines, cautionary tales or fantasy figures’. From the beginning of silent cinema, sex workers are usually young girls needing saving or femme fatales stealing a man’s money. Still the centuries old stereotypes remain on screen.
Remember that Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman was apparently needing to be taught how to be a respectable woman and taken off the street by Richard Gere. He could only fall for her once he saw her out of her ‘hooker’ attire, and of course she only did it for the money, not because she enjoyed it. Also don’t forget the awards and commendments actors get for playing sex workers. As one of Juliana’s recent instagram of J.Lo practicing her stripper routine for Hustler says, ‘Don’t play us. Pay us.’
The execution of the film shows how our cinematic language has misrepresented those portrayed. The editing of the the eye-opening clips of cinema from across the board - including Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Pretty Baby, Memoirs of a Geisha - highlights how lacking we are in understanding sex work. Much as Jimmy Stewart tells Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven ‘if you don’t like it you’re not bad’, which still remains a pervasive idea of sex workers..
What is wonderful is seeing the contributors recount their favourite representation of sex workers in film, and the diversity of people speaking; male sex workers, porn stars, dominatrix and academics. Each shows how film reflects and perpetuates our own prejudices about sex workers. Thankfully, there are positive representations, such as those seen recently in Tangerine but these are rare and not mainstream cinema. Until our laws change surrounding sex workers rights, the complexity of sex workers lives won't be understood through the lens of cinema. Sex work is work, and this film covers a lot of ground is discussing this while illustrating our societal ignorance of sex workers' rights.
Ge Allan is the Film Editor of The Radical Art Review