Flying under the radar at New Zealand International Film Festival, Guy Maddin’s exhilarating The Forbidden Room, plus The Tribe and Ever the Land.
Guy Maddin has already carved a unique place in contemporary cinema. But while each film he’s made to date has been enormously pleasurable, The Forbidden Room is something else entirely. Maddin’s stylised silent era/early sound approach has always had a delirious effect, but this latest film, with its free-associative dream-like vignettes, had much more of a physical effect on me. What had the potential to be exhausting was truly exhilarating.
While it’s pointless to try to break down the logic of The Forbidden Room, fundamentally it’s a film based on Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson’s research into lost films by great filmmakers (such as Naruse, Murnau, Ozu) or obscure genre films from the period (such as exploitation films, Islamic women films). Maddin and Johnson have attempted to remake what is known of the original films—the films may no longer physically exist, but their spirit remains somewhere in the ether for them to channel. It is framed by a ’70s porn-era narrator describing to viewers how to have a bath. From there, the narrative digresses in all sorts of ways, with the various lost films jostling together. The end result is something truly alive created from something assumed to be dead.
The images have a decaying quality to them: they flicker and appear to deteriorate in front of our eyes, colour as the ‘stock’ changes, or have little logic in relation to previous cuts. Maddin and Johnson adopt numerous silent film techniques belonging to the French impressionist cinema of the 1920s: playing with texture through superimpositions, sudden camera movement, and image disintegration. French avant-garde cinema of that era was particularly interested in seeing if film could embody dream states, and similarly, also did so through ‘ordinary’ people’s lives. There are clear links to the likes of Abel Gance and Germaine Dulac. (Gance has been a touchstone for Maddin throughout his career.)
Another touchstone is the great French writer Raymond Roussel. In Locus Solus, the dead are revived as actors; in Impressions of Africa, stories are contained within stories within stories (and so on). Roussel looked at the way the unconscious can be deployed to construct a narrative, employed double-backs, digressions (or parentheses), and repetitions. The Forbidden Room itself is a Mobius-strip of a film with everything doubling back. A key concern for both Roussel and this film is that the act of storytelling and performance fights against disintegration and death.
If this all sounds potentially tedious or po-faced, The Forbidden Room is also absolutely hilarious. The film is pleasurably diverse: Maddin incorporates mythical Filipino vampires (aswangs!), zombie moustaches, skeletons who forcibly seek insurance clients, and squid thefts, often told with brilliantly earnest intertitles. It’s not an excuse in nostalgia, either; the film incorporates iffy gender, class, and racial politics (adopting the tropes of the films of the era). Big names seem to have some fun in there too including Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, and Mathieu Amalric.
Maddin has frequently alternated between sound film and silent film throughout his career. The Forbidden Room incorporates both approaches, but he also perfectly adopts the sound qualities of early sound cinema, in which actors had to stand near to strategically placed microphones to be picked up—the result, a stilted effect on the actors’ performance and an artificial-sounding soundtrack. The editing, too, is nothing short of remarkable. As good as Maddin’s oeuvre has been up until this point, rarely has he sustained such a relentless energy as he has done here. There is so much to enjoy in The Forbidden Room that it is easily one of the most pleasurable dreams of the festival this year.
Less deserving of praise is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s unpleasant The Tribe. As a film spoken entirely in sign language (without subtitles) and with the potential for some Eastern European social commentary, it appeared promising. And formally, the film is impressive: its dream-like extended tracking shots bring to mind the balletic approach of Miklós Jancsó; the sound design, necessary for a film with no specific voice, imbues bangs, thuds, and steps with an electric charge. The long takes are also beautifully composed, the greyness of the Ukrainian city-scape with its long forbidding passages (both inside and outside) particularly haunting.
The Tribe centres on Serhiy (Grygoriy Fesenko), who arrives at an inner-city boarding school for the deaf. He soon finds that the school is run by a ruthless group of Mafioso-like gangs (in fact, every single kid appears rotten and unashamedly violent). He falls in with one powerful group, and in love with one of the students Anya (Yana Novikova). The adults are non-existent, and the kids, simply out for themselves.
But in what is a classic case of form over content, The Tribe indulges in clichéd shock tactics to make a rather simplistic point. If you want to see a Ukrainian film really nail a similar kind of social commentary, then Kira Muratova’s Melody for a Street Organ does this with considerably more force. Anyone familiar with some of the more ‘shocking’ films of the last decade or so (those by Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, Bruno Dumont, or the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) will see the same narrative tropes employed. Unnecessary sexual violence? Check. Graphic sex? Check. Lengthy visceral abortion scene? Check. Awkward moral tone on female sexual behaviour? Check. No doubt Slaboshpytskiy’s approach is to subvert the cuddly idea of ‘disabled’ kids struggling in the world by presenting them as feral as the world around them. This can only go so far, though, when there’s little sense of audience implication or ‘countermelody’ to the brutality on display. It’s almost as if the take-home message is the world is shit. Yeah, but so? It’s social realism without any sense of the social or the real.
Sarah Grohnert’s beautifully observed documentary Ever the Land looks at the fabulous Te Wharehou o Tuhoe, built in Taneatua in 2014 in part to create a “marker” for the future. The building emphasised the local and the sustainable, and was one of renowned architect Ivan Mercep’s last projects. Centred on the construction of the building and its assertion of Tuhoe identity, Grohnert feeds into the narrative the Crown’s then negotiations for a deed of settlement to acknowledge the atrocities it committed against Tuhoe. The settlement was revolutionary (in terms of Western notions of property law) with its acknowledgement of Te Uruwera national park as an identity and legal person in its own right. The Crown’s acknowledgement of this and past wrongs form a potent backdrop to the documentary’s depiction of Tuhoe identity in effect rising from the ashes.
Ever the Land was filmed over a period of two years. Grohnert’s style is unobtrusive and restrained, and her cinéma-vérité approach provides enough space for a leisurely and telling narrative to develop. Te Uruwera has formed an important part of New Zealand cinematic history (Utu, In Spring One Plants Alone, for example), in which the landscape’s natural beauty in turn formed a key part of the storytelling, but Grohnert focuses less on the environment and more on the people. That said, the focus isn’t necessarily on characters and individuals: there is a particularly subtle but well-observed shot involving Tame Iti. Grohnert instead captures a community coming to understand the effect of the building. She also captures the diversity of Tuhoe, and only through this does the people’s relationship to the land and the environment emerge.
Such an approach adds to the significance of the building itself. Grohnert doesn’t seek to explain the purpose of the building through talking heads or architectural discussion; through a quiet narrative of people living, she powerfully converys just how much a living entity the finished building is.