24 Frames per second, or 5 films in 24 hours

As briefly mentioned yesterday, I spent the weekend (well, Friday night and all day Saturday to be precise) at a film festival. My very first film festival in fact. L’Abri is a retreat centre that holds a special place in the hearts of several of my friends and their annual film festival provided an ideal opportunity for a group of us to experience its wonder. A weekend of good friends and good films – what’s not to like?

I did wonder if I’d take well to the format of watching a film and discussing it immediately afterwards. It usually takes me a while to process things I’ve watched – often I’ll sit in a post-film discussion (as in over drinks, not a formally facilitated one) quietly pondering and only coming up with my own arguments 24 hours later. Highly frustrating. However, the first two discussions were led by someone who understood the ways of the introverts (I suspect because he himself is a performing I) and encouraged discussion in pairs or quiet thought before the floor was opened to general debate.

Watching a film with a large group of people who are thinking carefully about they’re watching was something of a novelty too – there was no need for Wittertainment’s Code of Conduct in Greatham Village Hall (although I did take my boots off at one point…) – people didn’t talk and generally sat enraptured by the screen. [Except for the dear old lady sat in front of me during the first film who exclaimed “For goodness sake!” at some violence done to the hero – I liked her tone and her engrossed-ness.]

Anyway, it would be pointless to talk about the festival without making some comment on the films themselves. Writing about them on the train yesterday proved that it was difficult to be succinct, but I’m going to try. The bottom line is that I think all of them are worth watching if you haven’t seen them already…

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
A prison film starring Paul Newman, highlighting the life of the roadside chain-gang and the misery of a life behind bars. One the first things several people asked me when I mentioned that I was going to a film festival at a Christian retreat centre was how they managed to find enough Christian films to show. Because of course, we all know that Christians only watch Christian films and there can’t possibly be any point in discussing any other kind of film… Though I might jest about resurrection theology in Harry Potter, I’m actually not a fan of the trying hard to find Christian imagery school of theological film watching; thus, I got a little wary when, part way through the first film of the festival, a clear nod to the crucifixion appeared.

The discussion revolved around whether Luke was a Messainic figure – certainly there were lots of Biblical references and faith in God was a key component of the plot, but suggesting Luke was Jesus would be pushing it. Ultimately, there was no redemption through Luke – although his story is propagated as one of hope to a new generation of prisoners at the end of the film, he doesn’t actually achieve what they’re claiming he has. How can this be similar to a belief in a resurrected Christ? [Although, as my deeply cynical friend pointed out on the drive back to the Eco Barn, I believe a story that is seen as being just as untenable to many people.]

The film’s currently a West End play and I’m not sure how well it translates to the stage, so watch the original if you can. (By the way, turns out that Paul Newman in 1967 = hot. Who knew?!)

Of Gods and Men (2010)
Easily the film which clinched my attendance at the festival – the opportunity to have an extended discussion of it was something not to be missed. I’d wanted to see it for ages, but as is usually the case with foreign language films, a bigger screen and a large audience was going to help my motivation. I’d heard nothing but praise for it and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a beautifully moving film telling the real-life story of a monastery in Algeria threatened by Islamic terrorists in the mid-1990s, shot with a speed that seemed to reflect the steady pattern of the monastic lifestyle, and illustrated the stark contrast between beauty of the location and the ugliness of the violence taking place within it.

The main theme of the film is the relationship between the monks and the Islamic community they lived within. It is clear that they had a huge respect for the religion and it’s this understanding and sensitivity that helped save them from death in their first encounter with the terrorists on Christmas Eve. The tension and fear builds and builds as the monks debated whether to stay or go – I couldn’t help but reflect that at a time when the Catholic church and those living in a monastic tradition are judged with much suspicion by society, the film really captures the sense of sacrifice and vocation that the monks believed themselves to have and their passion for the people they were called to live alongside.

The discussion was perhaps a little too facilitated and I took exception to our facilitator’s opinion of the Last Supper scene (he hated it; I adored it) – never have I been so moved by Swan Lake (though it did bring back some unfortunate Black Swan memories). But it did lead me to wondering whether it’s right to try and read so much into films based on true events? Why should we analyse the playing of Tchaikovsky if we know that that’s what the monks chose to play? It’s fact…

Restrepo (2010)
I would never have paid to see this film and I don’t think would even have considered watching it had it not been part of the festival, but on one level I’m kind of glad I did. This is a documentary filmed over a US army’s 15 month deployment to the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan – one of the conflict’s most dangerous areas. I’m a pacifist and I’m not convinced at the validity of the conflict, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s happening and that it’s good to understand as much as we can about it.

Ultimately, this film shows just what a chaotic and pointless war it is. Soon after the film was made, the troops were withdrawn from the region – so all the ‘progress’ made during it was essentially wasted. The style of filming, with handheld and helmet cameras, lends the film a disorientating and upsetting visual – but reflects well what the soldiers were experiencing. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film had the troops been British, not American. I wonder if the British troops approach their dealings with the local population in a different way? (Would they give out Capri Suns to local elders during their weekly, utterly spurious, meetings?)

War films are a major genre and I’m not averse to them – Band of Brothers and Jarhead rank highly in excellent films depicting real events in which the acting is very moving. However, this was real and the emotions you see are being experienced by real people. In a scene where soldiers discover their sergeant’s been killed, you see the overwhelming grief that encompasses one soldier in particular – there is howling and screaming and it’s painful to watch. I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch an acted war film in quite the same way again.

The Social Network (2010)
I confess, I drank port instead of watching this on Saturday night – but in my defence I had already seen it twice. There’s not much more that needs to be said about the Facebook film, but what intrigued me was the revelation during the discussion that the film’s impact upon the viewer’s opinion of Mark Zuckerberg was divided. When I first watched it, I was surprised at the level of sympathy I felt for Facebook’s co-founder – and I knew that several friends had felt the same way. However, when asked, it turned out that although half the l’Abri audience felt the same as me; the other half felt less enamoured towards Zuckerberg.

Catfish (2010)
If ever you find yourself at the l’Abri festival, make sure you watch at least one of the late night films. Shown at the Manor House and accompanied by hot chocolate and popcorn, the smell as you enter the kitchen is practically orgasmic – in fact I’m seeking to recreate the sweet chocolate and salty popcorn ambience in the flat very soon. Yes, it takes dedication to watch a film that begins at 11pm having spent the previous 24 hours watching films, but it’s worth it…

Undoubtedly, this was the film I enjoyed the most – Of Gods and Men was beautiful and moving, but this was light-hearted (albeit dealing with a truly bizarre and rather weird subject). Although billed as a documentary, there is controversy over whether it really is. My extensive online research has drawn no final conclusions, but I don’t think it really matters.

If you’ve ever wondered if online communication could ever be genuine, this film will give you plenty of ammunition. The subject develops a relationship with someone he thinks is a 19 year old girl, but discovers a whole web of lies and deceptions that he’s unwittingly been drawn into. Honestly, I sat open mouthed as the fiction was uncovered, it was massively weird and hugely concerning. I don’t want to spoil it, so won’t say much more, but seriously – be careful what you get hooked into online!

*******

Apologies, this is very, very long (but it was either this or a week of posts in which I’d have rambled unnecessarily about each of the films in turn). Ultimately, not only was it a good weekend, but it’s inspired the possibility of a regular London gathering in which we can continue the discipline of watching and discussing, which can only be a good thing (especially as I’ve now worked out how to process films in a speedier fashion).

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