(for Robert Schuman)
Satin ribbons, velvet cushions, plastic roses, hand-painted landscapes, fresh stuffed sausage, knotholes, grapefruit, pimples, hair, slugs and fat dogs is what it's made of. —Jack Earl
Eilif Bremer Landsend is from Tromsø, up above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway, the town which is home to the world's most northerly film-festival worthy of the name—TIFF (Tromsø International Film Festival.) His second short, Streetlight (2003) was named best in its section at TIFF in 2004, and since then he's made five more—most of them playing at international festivals—picking up further prizes along the way. His latest, entitled Last Stop (2008), was one of the better shorts I saw at Crossing Europe (the continent-focussed film-festival of Linz, Austria) three weeks ago. Eilif Bremer Landsend, I should point out, is 19 years old.
His prodigious output has been completed under the auspices of the Tvibit youth project, where his precocity has long been recognised as something decidedly unusual. Last Stop is, according to Tvibit organiser Hermann Greuel—who presented a showcase of its latest material in Linz—Bremer Landsend's "biggest project so far, with a big budget, shooting on 16mm and working with professional actors."
Running a shade under eight minutes, it stars veteran Norwegian actress Henny Moan (recently seen in Bent Hamer's feature O'Horten) as septuagenarian Rachel, a terminal patient who absconds from her hospital-ward for one last adventure in the great outdoors. Economic, wry and ultimately quite touching, Last Stop works squarely within the established grammar of the narrative short-film—build-up then "twist" payoff—but does so with a confidence and skill that one doesn't often find from shorts-makers twice Bremer Landsend's age.
Where does he go from here? Apparently he's currently working on his 2009 short, Kiki, and says that he is inspired "by the big mountains in Tromsø and by the big waves in Lofoten, Norway. After high school, which I am finished with this summer, I will work with film-projects and to make some money. Then the plan is to go on a backpacking trip to South America to get some new experiences and to get some inspiration. Then the plan is to apply for the Norwegian film school or film schools abroad, or to stay in Tromsø and study or work with films."
I'm not sure how much conventional film-schools—in Norway, Britain or further afield—can really teach someone like Eilif Bremer Landsend. I've been on several short-film juries in recent years, and he's already got a greater grasp of the basics than the majority of adult filmmakers who work in that particular form. My instinct would be to forbid him from even touching a camera for, say, five years. Backpack to South America, by all means. But don't take a camera—certainly not able to record moving images. If only somebody would give Werner Herzog the money to set up the "ideal film school" he talks about to interviewer Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog:
"There are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and to drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them."
In the absence of Herzog's Utopisch Filmakademie, Bremer Landsend could do much worse than consider—a couple of years down the line—the course currently being operated under eminent German documentarian Professor Thomas Heise at Karlsruhe's Staatlichen Hochschule für Gestaltung ("art school," kind of.) Heise's own output has always been edgy, confrontational—from Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film ("Why make a film about such people?") which he made at the HFF Potsdam in 1979-80 when he was 24, to Material, which premiered at the last Berlinale Forum—and if the selection of shorts shown in Linz (the same afternoon as the Norwegian showcase, as it happened) are anything to go by he's clearly fostering similar approaches from his students.
The centrepiece of the programme was Zweite Beobachtung : Mensch in Karlsruhe ("Second Observation: People in Karlsruhe")—three 16mm silent shorts of roughly five minutes apiece, accompanied by a classical trio, and made under unusual, demanding conditions. According to Heise's colleague Marcel Neudeck, the films were "shot on ORWO black & white reversible film-stock and developed manually in buckets—the scratches and partly faulty second-exposure were part of this technique. After developing the film it had to be dried on a clothesline, then each student edited his material on a Steenbeck."
Proving the old dictum about art thriving under limitations, each of the three resulting features was of interest—but the pick of the bunch was the short informally known as Baustelle ("building-site") by Iuri Maia Jost, showing various angles on a building under construction, in which the "degraded" nature of the film-stock proved particularly well suited to the gritty, hazardous world of work depicted. Jost's film was notable also for the way it developed various documentary visual ideas through the course of a short "narrative" space, including a witty finale in which a massive concrete slab is slowly lowered into place. Jost is 24, born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1985 and living in Germany since 1991. He's already done some of the globetrotting to which Eilif Bremer Landsend aspires, having journeyed to India, Brazil and Spain during 2005-7—he enrolled at Karlsruhe in October of 2007 and expresses an interest in "experimenting with documentary film. I'm planning some projects about a hippie-community and about factory workers."
In terms of "experimenting with documentary film," I strongly suggest that Iuri—and everyone else—tries to check out Duncan Campbell's Bernadette, which I saw at the IndieLisboa film festival in Lisbon, the week after Linz. At 36, Campbell is nobody's idea of a "kid", but nevertheless falls within the scope of this article as he's a "young" film-maker whose profile looks a very safe bet to rise significantly within a very short space of time (ditto Hungary's Gyula Nemes, b.1974, whose Lost World niftily shoehorns a decade of "progress" and its impact on a sleepy Budapest backwater into a brisk 20 minutes.)
Born in Dublin and resident in Glasgow, Campbell is described in the IndieLisboa catalogue as a "video artist... His films often employ archival footage and reflect on dense historical narrative." Bernadette is a thrillingly unorthodox portrait of the Northern Irish politician Bernadette Devlin, a discombobulating triptych whose relatively conventional middle-section (archive news-footage of Devlin's political heyday) is sandwiched between challengingly avant-garde material which seems only very tangentially connected with the subject at hand.
Having found the Linz shorts programmes rewarding—especially the selection of new works by the veteran, tirelessly productive local artist Dietmar Brehm (seek out Ozean and Verdrehten Augen VideoVersion 2 if you get the chance)—I was more receptive than usual to similar fare lurking in the Lisbon schedules. Roughly the same age as Iuri Maia Jost, another "kid" worth noting is Gabriel Abrantes, who collaborated with America's Benjamin Crotty on the 17-minute Visionary Iraq: the pair were responsible for direction, script and art-direction, and took all of the acting roles in this teasingly camp, ostentatiously controversial, beguilingly artificial take on contemporary geopolitics as dramatised through the lives of a single, not-so-ordinary family.
Currently working on his debut feature Big Hug, Abrantes—who was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1984—is a Portuguese-American, living and working in Lisbon across a range of disciplines (where he's regarded as a Breath of Fresh Air in the local film scene) and was the producer, sound-man and editor on Visionary Iraq, a world-premiere for IndieLisboa. Another was the feature-length documentary Birth of a City by João Rosas—born in Lisbon in 1981, who has studied in his home-town, in Bologna and in London. Birth of a City is his graduation film from the London Film School, and alternates between drab city vistas—mostly shop-fronts in Hackney —and footage of a young French painter working on her latest imaginary cityscape. A kind of Hackney mon amour slowly takes shape, a bit like Alexis Dos Santos's Unmade Beds crossed with the quizzical investigations of Patrick Keiller.
While it's easy to be cynical about the countless number of young people emerging from film-schools, art-schools and universities all set to become film-makers—all over the world, but especially here in Europe—my experiences in Linz and Lisbon were, on balance, heartening. There is considerable talent out there, and festivals like these two are crucial in sorting wheat from chaff and giving the wheat a decent, curated showcase (not that chaff isn't without a charm of its own.)
And there seems to be something about Europe in particular that encourages optimism about the future of film and film-culture. It would be possible to spend most—maybe all—of the year doing what I did in April, and going from festival to festival. From Sunderland to Linz to Lisbon and back to Sunderland I covered about 3,500 miles. Thanks to the existence of the Schengen area—within which there are no border checks—it's now possible for Eilif Bremer Landsend, should he choose (and providing he's passed his test) to drive the 2,500 miles from Tromsø to Gibraltar.
Or maybe the 1,000 miles from Brest in Brittany to Brest in Belarus—the latter not technically part of Schengen, but visible from the Polish city of Terespol, which most emphatically is, since Schengen (which includes 1.7m square miles and 400 million people) enlarged eastwards in 2007. The expansion of the frontier reminds me of Kerouac and company, setting out from the cities of the Eastern seaboard with the whole of a vast and enticing nation spread out ahead of them, a network of open roads. There's a new European generation—the generation of Bremer Landsend, Jost, Abrantes and Rosas (and, at a pinch, Campbell)—with English as a lingua franca and Stansted and Schiphol as their transit-points, with access to cinema's past riches via DVD and downloads (and even, if they're lucky, cinemas showing 35mm prints—like Lisbon's Cinemateca Portugesa.) And there's money, too—no shortage of funding bodies, from the local to the national to the continent-wide—for European projects and, via institutions like Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Funds, for those from much further afield (not that getting such money is any kind of walk in the park.)
The idea and reality of Europe isn't to all tastes, and this enormously bureaucratic trans-national behemoth certainly isn't a panacea for all the world's ills. But today is May the 9th, Europe Day, commemorating Robert Schuman's announcement in 1950 of the European Coal and Steel Community—forerunner of the EEC, EC and EU. On continental Europe, the day is marked with parades, picnics, concerts, and so on. Not so much in the UK, of course—indeed, if you spent all day on the streets of my town, Sunderland, it's long odds against you'd find a single person who even heard of Europe Day. Never mind. Today, of all days, it's surely possible to be just a little bitpositive: positive about Europe in general and about Europe's cinema culture in particular—past, present, future.
pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.