Now in its third year, the Derby Film Festival has expanded to include twenty-five previews across its ten days. This swelling number of feature films reflects the determination of the festival’s directors, Adam Buss and Adam J. Marsh, to provide greater access to independent cinema for Midland audiences caught in a vacuum between the larger conurbations of Birmingham and Manchester.
A preview of mainstream independent film Florence Foster Jenkins from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) welcomed audiences on opening night. It was a coup for Buss and Marsh who capitalised on the broad appeal of their popular headliner, using it to encourage audiences to dive deeper into the festival’s diverse programme of eccentric and often niche films. The festival’s eclectic selection covered everything from an alternative steam-punk France in the animation April And The Extraordinary World, to a biographical portrait of Jaws actor Robert Shaw in Robert Shaw: Jaws, Deoch & Deora.
The festival’s hub, the much loved Derby QUAD (a cinema, gallery and independent charity promoting creativity in the local area), is no stranger to independent film, promoting the best of independent and foreign language releases on a weekly basis. Its patrons include David Morrissey, Paddy Considine and Derbyshire born actors John Hurt and Jack O’Connell. The concentration of screenings and special events during the festival – this year including conversations with actors Simon Callow and Ben Kingsley – never fails to create a special buzz, evident again this year in the QUAD’s packed café bar during closing weekend. Here at Gorilla it was Academy Award nominee, Mustang, and British sci-fi thriller The Call Up that got us excited.
In Mustang’s opening shots five Turkish sisters play innocently with a group of boys. Their behaviour is misinterpreted by the community and they are confined to the house while their grandmother seeks suitable husbands. The business of oppression starts with medical ‘virginity reports’ and traditional pursuits: cooking, cleaning, sewing. The girls’ lithe bodies are suffocated by brown, shapeless dresses and they’re forbidden to interact with men. As the girls push against the new limits imposed upon them, the community responds in crippling ways they cannot expect.
Given its harrowing forced-marriage subject matter, Mustang is a surprisingly delicate film. First time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven excels at visual storytelling. A series of graceful and arresting images of burgeoning womanhood, vast oceans, beaches and skies wash over Mustang’s audience. Each shot is imbued with its own fragile sense of innocence, hope and freedom. As the liberty of the five sisters is gradually eroded by the parochial guardians expected to nurture them, these images are increasingly hemmed in by walls and bars. The camera traces their upper limits, the sky beyond becoming ever more remote.
Ergüven confronts head-on the dangers facing adolescent girls in the home, subverting conventional wisdom. The degree to which women share responsibility for the girls’ subjugation is shocking, while the hope of rescue hinges upon strangers. Co-writing with rising talent Alice Winocour (Augustine, Disorder), Ergüven weaves beautiful, unforeseen moments of poetic justice into Mustang while the realities of life for young women alone in Istanbul – the liberating city of the girls’ escape fantasies – are addressed in her shrewd closing shots.
The performances from Mustang’s cast of relative newcomers are especially noteworthy, balancing feisty rebellion with a fragility that makes Mustang at once so devastating and uplifting. Ergüven asks us to consider what might constitute empowerment for these young women whose spirits, beaten and coerced, cannot be entirely suppressed.
The Call Up (2016)
Back in 2011, virtual reality thriller The Call Up topped a list of best un-produced British screenplays. Six years later, with its general release date finally scheduled for 20 May 2016, Derby secured an advanced preview as part of the festival’s Fantastiq strand. Dominating the closing weekend, Fantastiq promotes fantasy, sci-fi and horror with special guests and retrospective screenings. Of Fantastiq’s seven feature film previews, The Call Up was amongst the most eagerly anticipated by the audience of twenty-something-year-olds gathered at the festival’s annual poster fair.
The Call Up comes from first time writer-director Charles Baker and sees a group of eight high-scoring gamers gather in an urban tower block to test out a new virtual reality modern warfare game. Starting on the top floor, the gamers have to shoot their way down through twenty-five levels, but the game takes a dark twist when virtual injuries result in real life deaths.
The tower block location and relentless onslaught of assailants is reminiscent of Gareth Evans’ breakthrough Indonesian action-thriller The Raid. Baker exchanges Evans’ magnificently choreographed martial arts for high-powered virtual weaponry and regenerative medi-pens. While Baker fails to match The Raid in terms of adrenaline pumping action, the contrast between The Call Up’s real and virtual landscapes heightens the tension. A dark, decimated terrain impressively sweeps over the real world of brightly lit, clinical office space as visors are pulled down. Their removal offers little escape in the real-world. The game’s victims are physically imprisoned in the high-tech building.
If Baker makes any mistakes here, it’s in trying to shade his characters with backstory. He gives us the rudimentary beginnings of a love story and a swaggering, self-centred villain that distract from The Call Up’s suspense. Even so, the idea at the film’s centre – that the ultimate component of virtual reality is reality itself – is an engaging one. Despite their online gaming credentials, the candidates are ill prepared for modern warfare. They have no idea how to handle gun recoil, turn pale at the sight of blood and face-to-face combat leaves them shaking.
Of course, the idea of getting sucked into a video game isn’t a new one. Tron (1982) sees software engineer Kevin Flynn reconstructed in a digital world and coerced into a series of gladiatorial battles, while a designer tests her video game in an increasingly distorted reality in Existentz (1999). Yet it’s a modest X-Files episode (First Person Shooter) that The Call Up most closely resembles. In this instalment from 2000, a virtual Lara Croft-style assassin murders her testosterone-fuelled rivals in a vast warehouse rendered as a futuristic reality. Where First Person Shooter used this context to skewer a misogynistic video game culture, the message behind The Call Up is less clear. When the game’s creator is eventually revealed, there’s little suggestion of a motive. Baker’s first feature is a promising one – the visuals are impressively realised and the action compelling – but its message is ultimately burdened by the mystery it kindles.
Derby Film Festival 2016 ran from April 29 to May 8. To find out more details visit the Derby Film Festival site.