A Caucasus Kaleidoscope: GAIFF Critics Workshop

English Daily #3
Hi Nini,

As I approach the fifth day of the festival and lack of sleep fully hits, I’m becoming more and more grateful for experiences like Lois Patiño’s Samsara, which I watched last night and has been a clear festival standout. Like Apichatpong Weersakethul, Patiño not only accepts the somnambulistic experience of movie-watching, but embraces it; even going so far as to ask the audience to close their eyes during the film’s stand-out middle section. A trip through the Bardo, the Buddhist state between death and rebirth, Patiño depicts this experience through stroboscopic color effects and a series of tones, bells, and nature sounds that left me in a state of hypnagogic subconscious reverie. The visions I had with my eyes closed were mine alone, yet they felt fully part of the film, and the way Patiño embraces the unique individual, yet still collective, experience of cinema felt astoundingly fresh.

Another film that actively tried to find its own unique form and rhythms, Aleksey Fedorchenko’s Big Snakes of Ulli-Kale, was another festival standout, even if it wasn’t a clear favorite. A kaleidoscopic portrait of Russian-Caucasian relationships told in nine chapters using a variety of different cinematic styles, each with their own wickedly cute sense of humor, Big Snakes’ greatest asset is its ambition and go-for-broke-ness. Fedorchenko’s Guy Maddin-esque uses of hand-tinted silent cinema aesthetics to explain old Georgian folk customs was charming – how can learning that tearing off someone’s beard nets you a 50-ruble fee not induce a chuckle? – but it overall felt too whimsical, too cute, and too all over the place for the various anecdotes to really land.

More successful however were the tensions the film drew between the past and present. Fedorchenko often appears on-screen, holding an iPhone up to his interviewees’ faces or operating a drone; the fact that we don’t necessarily see the footage he’s recording, but instead only see that he is recording, kept me fascinated with trying to figure out these dialectical tensions, even if I never reached any conclusion.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a film that managed to both bore and irritate me with its simultaneous lack of ingenuity and penchant for trying to constantly show off its own (nonexistent) cleverness, was Dutch director Zara Dwinger’s Kiddo. A completely by the numbers road movie involving an emotionally unstable woman and her eleven-year-old daughter whom she “kidnaps” from an orphanage, the film reminded me of everything infuriating with today’s cookie-cutter Sundance-esque indie aesthetic. Everything from a simple smile to a game of cops and robbers is accentuated with kitschy sound effects and visual graphics. By the end I was gagging from all the overly-saccharine quirkiness.

Suffice to say the Ararat 5 cognac which I tried for the first time after the movie, another Yerevan highlight, was only too welcome.