This year marks Flatpack Film Festival’s tenth birthday. At the historic Birmingham Gas Hall hub, a timeline of Flatpack’s first decade shows the impressive volume of films it has screened and the variety of filmmakers it has fostered. The festival’s distinctive personality comes from its commitment to bridging the divide between the very latest independent cinema and rarely screened historic films. A current exhibition mourns the lost art of the projectionist, another celebrates the bygone technology of the slide projector. Yet, what continues to unite Flatpack’s eclectic film selection is imagination: bold and creative filmmakers seeking to inspire and invigorate. Our first foray into the 2016 festival – a documentary about little-known visual effects specialist, Karel Zeman, and the latest in surrealist sci-fi romance, Crumbs – underline Flatpack’s irresistible split personality.
Karel Zeman: Film Adventurer
While Ray Harryhausen was creating his famous stop motion effects for Jason And The Argonauts (1963), Karel Zeman was performing his own marvels of live-action animation across the Atlantic in Czechoslovakia. Zeman’s Invention For Destruction aka The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne (1958) played in 96 New York cinemas rivaling Hollywood’s own Jules Verne movie Around The World In Eighty Days, one of the most expensive films in Hollywood at the time. Fascinated by the engravings accompanying the Jules Verne novels, Zeman created entire sets and costumes painted with a stripy rubber roller to give the impression of engravings come alive. While Harryhausen produced special effects for other filmmakers, Karel Zeman was a true auteur, writing and directing his own creations. In this documentary of his life and films, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam both cite Zeman as a significant influence upon their work.
Karel Zeman: Film Adventurer, opens on a group of students tasked with recreating three of Zeman’s famous scenes without the aid of modern technology. The first, a scene from A Journey To The Beginning Of Time (1955), in which four boys travel back to the age of the dinosaurs, involves a rowing boat, mountains and a wooly mammoth. Sixty years on, the original cast, now in their late seventies, reprise their roles. It’s understated and genuinely moving.
Amidst the students’ experimenting, Zeman’s former colleagues explain his technical methods, including split screens – live action and animated scenes filmed independently on the bottom and top half of the film stock – the softening of lines between matte-paintings, 2D painted sets and real-life props. This propensity for innovation runs right through his body of work; from short animations, such as Inspiration (1949), a stop-motion film that used fragile blown glass figures, to his final live-action feature, On A Comet (1970). They all come across as staggering works of art.
Film Adventurer also carefully considers the effect of Czechoslovakia’s changing politics and film culture on this creativity. Zeman experienced the nationalisation of the film industry, the first communist coup and the greater cultural freedom of the 1960s, which coincided with a more relaxed period in his work defined by The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1962).
Zeman’s personal dedication, from teaching himself how to animate by examining film of Felix The Cat through a magnifying glass, to his realistic acceptance that authorial freedom in the 1970s no longer lay in live-action but in traditional animation, makes the finale of Film Adventurer both celebratory and heavy-hearted.
Three days into Flatpack and a sold-out theatre of enthusiastic film fans gathered to devour the latest in international filmmaking: an Ethiopian sci-fi romance from director Miguel Llansó. Crumbs is a genre patchwork, a surrealist, post-apocalyptic feature with a charming tragic hero.
The opening sequence is reminiscent of Eraserhead, all bubbling rocks, inhospitable landscapes, scrap metal and discordant sounds. From the dusty, hostile terrain emerges a second-generation neo-Nazi, a familiar motif seen in Llansó’s earlier short Chigger Ale co-directed with Israel Seoane and also screening at the festival.
Llansó’s solo offering is a friendlier take on surrealism. Innocent characters and a relatively simple plot – a journey through the wilderness – guide us through the jarring post-war setting and a series of freakish events. Candy (Daniel Tadesse) lives by the wreck of a bowling alley with his love, Birdy (Selam Tesfaye). Their garden – a miscellany of rusting playground rides redolent of Chernobyl – is their utopia. A shrine to Michael Jordan offers hope. Birdy prays to him with desperation as Candy sets out on a quest to find Santa Claus. He’s equipped with a copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous and a plastic sword. The bowling machine has started working on its own. Perhaps the space ship hanging in the sky is trying to speak to them?
Not far beneath the surface of Crumbs’ weirdness is a dissection of celebrity culture and materialism. Candy’s journey is punctuated by the discovery of various toys, a reminder of the childishness of capitalism. These objects end up in the hands of an eager shopkeeper (Mengistu Berhanu) who ascribes them mythic pre-apocalypse identities. Berhanu has perfect comic timing and Llansó’s eye for the sarcastic and ironic make Crumbs an upbeat and joyful experience that doesn’t feel at all heavy.
The heart of Crumbs though is within its wandering adventurer, Candy, and Daniel Tadesse’s portrayal of him emanates warmth and overflows with tenderness for his beloved Birdy. A mellow dreamer who yearns to escape the desolate planet, Candy has family in his heart. Too often surrealists grab their audience and drag them kicking and screaming over the threshold and into their world, Llansó’s Crumbs just puts its arm around you and welcomes you in.
Flatpack 2016 is runs from April 19 to 24 in Birmingham. See our preview for more info.