By Rebecca Naughten
Following a successful 1st edition in 2014, Convergencias (Convergences) – a section consisting of films proposed by critics – returned for the 53rd Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijón, this time expanding its call for proposals to encompass critics from across Europe (which is how I came to take part). Programmed by the association Convergencias de la Crítica Cinematográfica and coordinated by Martín Cuesta (Cinema Ad Hoc / V.O.S.) and Víctor Paz (A Cuarta Parede), Convergencias looks for ‘hidden gem’ films – fresh cinematic voices making inventive use of film language – essentially those titles that might not find an audience without critical support (not least because they are films that are unlikely to be exhibited in Spain on the commercial circuit). In keeping with their desire to avoid the homogenous in terms of the chosen films, Martín and Víctor were also looking to bring together a group of disparate critical voices of different ages (the youngest of us was only 16) and professional backgrounds (print, online and academia), and to that end the films / critics of Convergencias 2015 consisted of: Al Tarik / The Road by Rana Salem, 2015, (proposed by Eduardo Guillot), Ispytanie / Test by Alexander Kott, 2014, (Pablo González-Taboada), Krisha by Trey Edward Shults, 2015, (Carlota Moseguí), Os Olhos de André / André’s Eyes by Antonio Borges Correia, 2015, (Jesús Choya), Risttuules / In the Crosswind by Martti Helde, 2014, (David Tejero), and Transatlantique by Félix Dufour-Laperrière, 2014, (my selection).
The filmmakers likewise came from different backgrounds – the films are respectively from Lebanon, Russia, the United States, Portugal, Estonia and Canada, four of the six are directorial debuts, and a range of genres and cinematic styles are represented – but certain commonalities or preoccupations are evident across the group. The most obvious of these shared characteristics is an innovative and unusual use of sound (or the skilful use of its absence).
In the case of Krisha this centres on amplified sound effects as part of the film’s positioning of the viewer inside the protagonist’s experience; as events move beyond her control and her mental state begins to unravel, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) experiences the aural environment of the family home in a warped and discombobulating fashion (certain sounds randomly get louder and others are indiscernible amongst the overwhelming general cacophony). In contrast, the other films emphasise the absence of sound. The naturalistic and quasi-documentary family drama André’s Eyes is an admirably stripped back production, free of artifice or affectation, and this is reflected in how it solely uses diegetic sound to centre the viewer within the characters’ experiences in a markedly different way to Krisha (although both are recreations of traumatic family experiences originally lived by the actual cast). While The Road utilises silence – in conjunction with a fractured narrative structure and frequent cuts to black that unsettle the rhythm of the film – to generate an uneasy tension between the couple undergoing a road trip, the remaining three films deploy the absence of dialogue in distinct (and distinctive) manifestations and with differing intent.
In the Crosswind features no spoken dialogue onscreen – the film employs a series of tableaux vivants to tell the story of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic states from the early 1940s onwards – but narrative details are conveyed via a series of letters read in voiceover by the protagonist, Erna Tamm (Laura Petersen). Meanwhile in Transatlantique – an essay film that mixes documentary elements with a dream-like poeticism on a cargo ship undergoing a transatlantic crossing – we hear prayers and conversations between crew members but the film is unsubtitled, so speech becomes one element more in what is almost a symphony (the film has a densely layered soundscape) made up of the sounds and noises of the boat. Test in turn takes this one step further by having no spoken words at all; the sound of the wind and the absence of human chatter emphasise the isolation of those living on the parched plain in some far-flung corner of the USSR in the late 1940s. Without verbal interaction, the film relies on facial expressions and gesture (an element it shares with André’s Eyes where the unarticulated anger and frustration of the teenage lead is conveyed through body language and facial close-ups) to involve the audience in the story, but it also uses the textures (e.g. sheep’s wool, plants and fabrics) of the protagonist’s (Elena An) world to render a tactile vision of the past.
Visually idiosyncratic style was another thread running through the Convergencias films. Krisha‘s sensorial experience extends from the sound into the camera movement through which the director depicts his lead’s shaky emotional equilibrium in such a way (including altering the aspect ratio) as to put the viewer in the eye of the familial storm. In comparison, Transatlantique‘s fixed camera positions and elegant black and white cinematography – registering the inkiest of blacks and a blinding whiteness in the Atlantic seascapes and architectural spaces of the ship – seem sedately dream-like, with the rolling movement of the ship on the waves lulling us along on the journey. The elegance of black and white was also seen in In the Crosswind but to notably different effect. If Trey Edward Shults created scenes of emotional devastation through manic movement, Martti Helde does so with his characters frozen in those moments when their lives are irrevocably ruptured, the camera slowly moving through the scene while the sound continues as if everything were in motion. The tableaux are ingeniously staged so that the blocking of the camera movement, in parallel with the mise-en-scène, allows the story to move on (or time to pass) without obvious cuts. It is genuinely unlike anything I have seen before and the film was my overall favourite of the festival.
Convergencias was the only section of the festival’s programme that I managed to watch in its entirety, so it is difficult to make a fair comparison with the other strands, but for me it was the strongest section in terms of the quality and originality of the works. After programming a similar critical encounter at Play-Doc earlier this year, Martín and Víctor are also hoping to take Convergencias as a format to other film festivals – if they head to somewhere near you, I would encourage film writers to apply. I particularly enjoyed hearing the different audience responses to the film I had chosen (even if the first «question» at my first Q&A was an audience member telling Félix Dufour-Laperrière that Transatlantique would work better as a short), as well as the reactions to all of the films in ‘our’ section. I’ll be keeping an eye on the future editions of Convergencias because they seem intent on curating a varied selection of innovative cinematic expression, fostering interactions between the critical community and the general audience, and also carving out a space to support originality – the films selected may not be ‘easy’ viewing experiences, but they reward the effort made by both filmmaker and audience.