Perhaps it’s only sheer coincidence that the films I screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival all seemed to use the notion of cinematic storytelling itself as a foundation for their respective plots. In Kern, we see filmmakers struggling in vain to make a film about another filmmaker; in The World is Funny, the story contains characters who are writing stories themselves; and in Yuma, other films are blatantly appropriated into its plotline at every turn.
Kern, a film submitted to the documentary category by Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the renowned and aging actor and filmmaker, Peter Kern. Notoriously passionate, furious and difficult as a filmmaker, he also proves to be such as a subject as well. The film opens with Kern criticising Franz and Fiala: “This is a film without a concept” –a show of contempt for the young directors’ mission that remains constant throughout.
Franz and Fiala’s straightforward documentary approach is quickly foiled by Kern’s ego, as he asserts his own aesthetic will onto the film. On occasion, Kern points out that he’s been insincere in scenes, declaring that he was “playing characters” –that “you’ll never see the real me.” He’s clearly disruptive, but as often as he derails the film, he also injects it with the artistry and vision of a masterful filmmaker. Part way through the film, Kern beckons the camera operator to offer his hand forward into the shot where Kern proceeds to caress and kiss and pontificate on this simple moment he dubs “The Hand of the Cameraman While Filming,” a poignant visual indicative of the film as one that embodies truth, fabrication, filmmaking and the joyous outcome of an unsuspecting vision that has gone completely off the rails.
“The world is funny…so we laugh…” the opening text explains in this film by Israeli director Shemi Zarhin, though the laugh-out-loud moments happen substantially less often than the heartwrenching instances of tragic irony. The bulk of the film is inhabited by three estranged siblings (Meron, Golan and Yardena), whose troubled familial past has taken a direct toll on their adult lives, though at the core of the plot, the story depends on Zafi, a trouble-less teen who cleans their houses in order to source conflicts to incorporate into her developing novel.
The tragedy is encompassing; One of Meron’s sons has just awoken from a nine-year coma, while Golan’s finance battles cancer and Yardena (who’s lost a daughter already) separates from her husband and promptly finds herself pregnant. Amongst the separate and eventually reunited stories of the siblings mills the subplots, most notably the cutaways of Zafi’s writing workshop’s story ideas, and the multifarious presence of the legacy of the real-life Israeli comedy trio: the Gashash. Though through to the end, the story of the siblings takes precedent, these subplots and cutaways quietly reinforce the ways in which entertainment and storytelling have a direct effect on culture, individuals, and even the way in which this film is made.
Watch the trailer here.
This film from Poland and the Czech Republic by Piotr Mularuk is shot in Polish and German, though the American film inspirations are glaring, no matter which language you speak. Rumor has it, the filmmaker indeed set out unabashedly to create his own Goodfellas-type gangster flick, set on the border of Poland and East Germany in 1987, a time and place rife with parallels to the contexts of these iconic films. The young protagonist, Ziggy, gets involved in what’s referred to as “juma”: stealing justified through a disaffected socialist ideology. Ziggy spreads the wealth of clandestine Levi’s, Adidas, Old Spice and other department store merchandise, an attention to costume and branding that saturates the film as much as it defines the characters’ lives.
Want even more American film references? We go from “juma” to its near-homophone “Yuma” with Ziggy’s constant referencing of the 1957 western, 3:10 to Yuma. Though the film has its share of plot problems (including a rather weak love triangle, and the character of the German kid that Ziggy and company helped smuggle across the border who disappears and reappears without much purpose), it’s visually stunning and a ton of fun.