I have chosen to narrow this reflective journal down to two subjects; the masterclass given by Marc Isaacs as well as the class participation in the European University Film Award. In reflecting on the course, I found myself regularly returning to both of these subjects as I felt they answered and invited numerous interesting questions respectively. However, that is not to say that I found the other aspects of the course in anyway dull or uninspiring. Studying the history of film festivals as well as exploring the vital role they play in transnational cinema allowed me to appreciate an aspect of the film industry that I had previously overlooked. In addition to this, the focus on Web documentaries and innovative marketing techniques introduced me to a new genre in which I could work as well as the skills to promote it. Overall, I will look back on semester one of FX2017 as being one of the most educational and expansive modules I have been a part of.
I found the masterclasses involved in FX2017 to be extremely enlightening with regards to the more nuts and bolts, formalist aspects of the craft as well as the underlying artistic intentions of the filmmakers. For the purpose of this piece, I am choosing to focus on the masterclass given by Marc Isaacs as I believe it to be a standout in this series of uniquely informative talks.
The masterclass began with a screening of Marc’s outstanding 2012 documentary, “The Road: A Story of Life and Death”. The film follows a handful of immigrants as they attempt to settle down along one of the oldest Roman roads in London. The fact that some of Marc’s subjects are well into their old age demonstrates just how hard it can be to learn to live in a foreign land without friends or family.
I found the film to be startlingly effective, even harrowing at times as we become witness to some of the crippling loneliness that has overcome the immigrants onscreen. As the film began, I was intermittently taking down notes for later use in both the Q and A and this particular assignment. However, as it progressed, I had to stop and put away the pen when it became clear just how much of your attention these people and their often, achingly sad lives demanded. Marc’s camera puts the viewer firmly in the room with the subject and it would be doing them and the film a disservice to look away.
The Q and A began immediately after the screening which I found to be a bit sudden. I feel like the audience could have done with a thirty minute break to collect their thoughts, especially with a film so topical in this time of Brexit, Trump and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. The Q and A, while not delving too deep into these societal talking points, was nonetheless educational and invaluable as Marc afforded us an honest insight into his filmmaking process.
One of the initial, eye-opening reveals was that the opening of the documentary, which showed a young woman emigrating from Ireland, was completely fake. What followed was a thought-provoking discussion about what constitutes reality and fiction in a documentary setting. Isaacs proposed that he was attempting to portray a universal truth and even though the scene in question was set up, it accurately got across to the audience what it would truly be like to set off on that journey. This part of the discussion was especially interesting to me as I am in the process of outlining an idea for my thesis film that may also attempt to blur the lines between fact and fiction in order to get across a more a realistic, yet thematically relevant truth. Some more subjects which Marc touched upon that stood out as helpful to me were funding, editing, direction, research and casting. In his review of the film for The Guardian, Mike McCahill stated that, “almost every subject might have merited their own film.” (McCahill, Guardian) Marc elaborated on this subject by informing the audience just how many subjects he followed and lives he documented that did not make it into the final edit. It was an illuminating admission that put into perspective just how much work, both practical and intellectual, was required from a professional filmmaker.
Another exciting aspect of the course for me was the class participation in the inaugural European University Film Award (EUFA). The aim of the award is to, “involve a younger audience, to spread the European idea, and to transport the spirit of European cinema to an audience of university students”, as well as supporting, “film dissemination, film education and the culture of debating.” (EuropeanFilmAcademy) I believe the award does all these things and more and found it to be one of the main topics of conversation among students on the course. The prospect of spreading the “European idea” was an intriguing one as, being European, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking all other European cultures must be similar to our own. Awards like this, that force us to broaden our horizons and widen our understanding, actively confront the complacency that can come with being a part of such a massive, eclectic union. I found that the films on the course opened my eyes to new European cultures and ideas while also exploring the stereotypes and generalisations that sometimes set in when we look across borders. In a time of increasing isolationist politics as well as fearmongering with regards to the question of immigration, I found it reassuring to be involved in an award like this that brought people and ideas together in a creative way.
One of the films that I responded to the most was, “The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki”, (Kuosmanen, 2016). The film, just like its titular character, is an underdog trying as hard as it can to prove its worth, while also maintaining its unique, core sensibilities in an effort to not become diluted down for the international market. It is a fine line to walk, but I believe the film does it brilliantly. By taking a well-known genre in the “boxing film”, Kuosmanen is able to constantly subvert the tropes that we have become used to in favour of a more realistic approach.
The film is based on real events and the acting and aesthetic all come together to form a piece that could conceivably be seen as actual documentary footage from 1962. There’s a verisimilitude at play that helps connect the film with audiences both in and outside of Finland. Despite all the aspects that could be seen as distancing for foreign audiences (the language, period, aesthetic, etc.) the film’s devotion to the truth of Olli’s character allows us to look past things such as nationality and empathise with him on a more human level. By finding truth in the local aspects of their story, the filmmakers also find truth in the universal and I believe this is one of the main things I’ve learned from taking part in the European University Film Award. Issues like immigration, unemployment and mental health can sometimes be difficult to comprehend, but seeing these topics played out in films like those nominated for the EUFA can ultimately act as a bridge in bringing people together in understanding.