Family Film (2015)

A family is torn apart, a dog fends for itself, and the director proves his filmmaking chops with an unexpectedly affecting work of dramatic fiction.

family-filmCzech Republic/Slovenia
4*

Director:
Olmo Omerzu 

Screenwriters:
Olmo Omerzu

Nebojša Pop-Tasić
Director of Photography:
Lukáš Milota

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Rodinný film

Following up on his widely hailed début, A Night Too Young (Příliš mladá noc), Slovenian-born FAMU graduate Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature – shot once again in his second language – is yet further proof of the young director’s (he turned 30 during production) talent for storytelling: He manages to tackle a theme as serious as the crumbling family unit with a mixture of short, powerful revelations in a snow-swept Prague and lyrical, wordless snippets on a tropical island in the eastern Indian Ocean.

In a deceptively simple but well-chosen opening scene, which takes place inside the family sedan of Igor Kubín, his son and daughter are watching a nature documentary on the television embedded on the back of his headrest. Igor’s wife, Irena, asks him whether he took their sheepdog, a Border Collie named Otto, to get vaccinated. Igor sheepishly admits he forgot. In the meantime on the documentary, a frog unceremoniously meets its end.

Igor and Irena leave for a yachting expedition around Christmas Island and expect everything back home to go well as they will keep in touch with their teenage son, Erik, and his elder sister, Anna, via Skype. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and they do so no sooner than on the way back from dropping their parents off at the airport, when they pick up Anna’s friend Kristýna.

Omerzu is cautious to show too much too quickly, and he uses small but striking hints that things are headed south, for example by ending many a scene on a slightly awkward facial expression that firmly indicates the situations are not as innocent as they seem at first. The day after his parents leave, Erik arrives back home to find the doors to the building’s elevator closing shut, and we briefly spot Kristýna, stark-naked, inside.

She later explains to him that she plays this game because she is bored, and before long she turns her sights and her wiles on the naïve Erik, whom his father had playfully advised to enjoy himself in moderation. The calculating Kristýna moves in with Anna and Erik, and even when the children’s uncle Martin eventually turns up, she stays put, sometimes snuggling up next to Erik in bed, at other times stroking his hand or licking his ear.

All the while, there are glimpses of sun-kissed beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters half a world away, where Igor and Irena are blissfully ignoring any possibility their children would get into trouble. It is only when Anna receives an unexpected phone call about her brother’s fortnight-long absence from school that she is compelled to convene a Skype intervention between her, her parents and a teacher from school. Irena wants to go home at once, but Igor insists there is nothing they can do but bide their time.

At first, it is challenging to understand what Omerzu is getting at, or why he wants to tell us this story. But everything changes in the final third, which in formal terms is also by far his most ambitious act, as all the pieces suddenly come together in a stunning contrast of wrenching heartache and serene tranquillity, as revelations about the family structure in Prague play off against scenes of perseverance in a tropical wilderness, with Otto stranded on a deserted island.

Although there is little development in his character, the story of Otto the dog unexpectedly turns out to be one of the most impressive additions to the screenplay. His arrival on the island is a gorgeous example of Omerzu’s talents, as the camera follows the dog slowly swimming ashore, time and time again briefly disappearing from view behind the crest of the wave before re-emerging, snout in the air. The scene will be sure to leave many a viewer breathless, thanks to the visual dynamics we are made witness to.

Other scenes with or around Otto are equally mesmerising, from a palm tree hit by lightning to crabs scurrying surreptitiously behind the dog while it takes shelter from the rain. The film’s final scene is another astonishing triumph, and Omerzu’s decision to let it play out with barely a word of dialogue demonstrates his eye for cinematic intensity.

Family Film is a rich, satisfying experience of a minimalist story line that includes a handful of unforeseen developments, all presented with a firm hand and no desire to shock. The director is in complete control of his material, and while a few characters lack depth or motivation, the last act of the film is a wonderful display of a range of feelings, from passive aggression to love and forgiveness.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival

Class Enemy (2013)

class enemySlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriters:
Nejc Gazvoda

Rok Biček
Janez Lapajne
Director of Photography:
Fabio Stoll

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Razredni sovražnik

Although inviting comparisons with the French The Class (Entre les murs) because of filmmaker Rok Biček’s decision to shoot the entire film inside a single school building (the camera never even ventures outside, not even onto the playground), the Slovenian Class Enemy, which uses first-time actors for the student roles, is a more stylised representation of the tension created by a teacher whose straight talk is the spark that ignites an outwardly calm but already combustible situation.

The film is based on real events the director himself was witness to during his first year of high school, although he significantly altered the focus by having a single teacher (instead of what was historically a larger group of individuals) bear the brunt of the students’ attacks. The character is called Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor), a cold and distant educator who has only one desire: To see the children make something of themselves and achieve their best by doing their best, which he judges not to be the case at all when he replaces their beloved German teacher, Nuša (Maša Derganc), who is also the class teacher.

But the very first scene, which is set before Zupan’s arrival, should make it clear to those paying attention that all is not well. A dreadful silence hangs in the air, and we soon learn that one of the boys, Luka (Voranc Boh), has lost his mother. This being a high school, with dozens of children who are all very different, many things are said that can have an impact on others, and one ill-conceived comment by another boy in class, Tadej (Jan Zupančič), about how unnatural it is for someone to grow up with two fathers (because he says a child cannot grow up well if it doesn’t have both a mother and a father), seems entirely inappropriate in light of Luka’s recent loss.

Throughout the first act, an introverted girl named Sabina (Daša Cupevski) seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the only thing holding her back from the precipice is her ability to play one of Chopin’s piano preludes. Zupan seems impressed and is even mesmerised by her performance, but before long he has a direct talk with her about her plans for the future, and when these appear to be nonexistent, he tells her she may become just another “loser”, and perhaps her parents are to blame.

She flees the class room in tears and literally into the white light outside that floods the screen, before we learn she has committed suicide. The students soon revolt against what they deem to be oppression, or even totalitarian rule by their German teacher the “Nazi”, and the consequences are grave.

Biček’s director of photography, Fabio Stoll, bathes the entire film, with the exception of a final scene that takes place outside, in a cold blue hue, and costume designer Bistra Borak also clothed most of the actors with navy blue material or jean jackets. The effect on the audience, remarkably, is not alienation but a thorough immersion in the frigidity these characters all have to deal with, because they all deal equally awkwardly with the life-changing event of a student’s suicide, for which there is no definite reason.

The director is no stranger to the depiction of existential anguish, as his student short Duck Hunting presented the case of two young men who take revenge on their father for an act he committed that is clear but never shown. Biček is a formidable director, completely in control of his subject, and his script, tightly focused on the mass heart ache and the easy transition to a mob mentality, has a palpable feeling of mystery and sadness at its core.

There is never a dull moment, and the shift in our understanding of the teacher’s motivations, from fear to potential empathy, is handled adroitly by the director, who also edited the film along with co-screenwriter Lapajne. This may be one of the best feature films débuts in a very long time. Despite the limitations the director imposed on himself, which prevent us from seeing these people interact outside the confines of the school, their bubble of existence inside the building does provide us with a sense of cohesion — a bubble of existence that is self-sufficient and whose energy can exert great force on those it comes into contact with. The events hurtle towards a well-conceived conclusion that makes a great deal of sense and provides us with an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying.

Duck Hunting (2009)

Lov na raceSlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriter:
Rok Biček

Director of Photography:
Simon Tanšek

Running time: 23 minutes

Original title: Lov na race

One shot early in Rok Biček’s 23-minute Duck Hunting puts our mind at ease even while we feel the narrative tension building. It is a shot around the dinner table, and we have already been introduced to the three main characters in the present. In this particular scene, the story has skipped backwards into the past. The father is seated on our left and one of his sons, Matej, is on the right. Right in front of us, with his back turned towards the camera, is the younger brother, Robi, who is barely moving. For the first few moments of the scene, we see only these three, before the mother’s head suddenly appears from directly behind, or in front of, Robi.

All the while, there is a faint whistling sound, which had already started in the previous scene, many hours earlier out in the woods where the father took his sons duck hunting, and this sound disappears the moment Robi leaves the table halfway through the meal. At that point, about one-third into the film, we still have no idea what is going on, but when the director drops a hint a few minutes later, our mind goes back to this scene of the three men and the almost invisible mother.

Biček, who at the time of production was attending the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, includes very little dialogue in this short film and instead opts for long takes, whose apparent stasis is subverted because they were recorded on a handheld camera.

There is another scene at the dinner table, right at the end of the film, that is even more crushing, as the characters arrive at a kind of catharsis that is far from tidy but fits perfectly with the volatile twists and turns of the taciturn characters.

What makes Duck Hunting such a praiseworthy film (Biček’s second fiction short) is his consistency of form and his skill in straddling the line between giving and withholding information, which results in a work whose meaning we can deduce but which is nonetheless never transparent. “Why did you do it?” Robi screams at his father in the present. Unlike the main character in Biček’s stunning 2013 début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), the father here does not have a chance or is not eloquent enough to defend his actions, but for a long time we don’t even know what those actions are, and we never know with certainty.

Sliding effortlessly between past and present, the film further underscores the connection between the two by repeating one or two scenes in the same spaces in different time periods.

Another bold move was the decision to have no music in the film, which emphasises the silences. Along with the very grainy texture of the images obtained with a 16mm camera, this film’s audiovisuals splendidly complement and reflect the brutality of (what we gather is) the central situation. Although the opening scene drags on a little too long, and the acting in that scene is not particularly great, the rest of the film keeps us absolutely spellbound as it moves between times and from subtle gesture to sudden violence, and it is to Biček’s credit that his 23 minutes contain more ambiguity than most films and fewer words than most scenes.