Saw some great stuff at the Festival today.
"The Friend" (Switzerland) is a real find, and one of my favorites of the festival so far. The immediately captivating music of Swiss artist Sophie Hunger (whose most recent album I just now downloaded--wow) is the backdrop, as it is attributed to a sad character named Larissa (played by Hunger). An awkward college student named Emil hears her perform her haunting acoustic music and is taken with her. He doesn't get anywhere in his attempts to connect, until one day she surprises him by asking him to pretend to be her boyfriend, for her parents' sake. Soon after that, she dies unexpectedly, and Emil finds himself being swept into easy acceptance by her parents and sister, as they plan the funeral and grieve her passing. It's pretty similar to the plot of "While You Were Sleeping," a Hollywood mess from a few years' back starring Sandra Bullock--but this film succeeds where that film (and most Hollywood films) fail. The story actually feels authentic; the characters are believably attractive but not too attractive; and the emotional pay-offs are appropriately modest. I highly recommend this one, and will be keeping an eye out for the excellent soundtrack. Hopefully it will get a U.S. release. (9)
I also loved "As Simple As That" (Iran), a very realistic and, I am told, rare depiction of a middle-class Iranian woman. It turns out that housewives in Iran are neglected and underappreciated in much the same way as they are in the U.S.--lovely Tanerah lives her life centered on a husband who won't take her calls while he is at work (though her two children easily get through) and doesn't bother to tell her he's changed the number of their joint bank account, and her self-centered children treat her like the hired help, ignore her attempts to direct and coach them, and talk to her as though she is an embarrassment. All of them fail utterly to see her quiet desperation. I found this portrait riveting from a feminist perspective, both for its familiarity and also for its close-in view of Iranian culture. (8)
Finally, German filmmaker Ben Kempas has made an illuminating documentary on the environmental battles centered on the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, "Upstream Battle" (Germany). The cultures of the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes center around salmon fishing in the river--yet the dams have devastated the fish population. The impending extinction of the fish is an obvious parallel with the decline of the tribes--and kudos to Kempas for telling of their fight while also humanizing those who represent corporate interests. (7)