2012 European Union Film Festival Report Card

Me and my History of Cinema class from Harold Washington College before the European Union Film Festival screening of Sleeping Sickness on March 21st. (We bought half the house!)

Over the past 15 years, the European Union Film Festival has become an increasingly valuable lifeline to Chicago-area cinephiles. This unique festival, hosted each year by the Gene Siskel Film Center, offers a diverse selection of new movies from all 27 E.U. countries, virtually all of which are local premieres. It is the best and in many cases only chance Chicagoans will have to catch many of these films on the big screen before they head to their eventual resting place of DVD/blu-ray/online streaming. (Two of my very favorite films to receive Chicago premieres in 2011, The Strange Case of Angelica and Change Nothing, only played theatrically at the E.U. Film Festival and never returned for a regular week-long run anywhere locally at all.) So this year I decided to buy a festival pass and take in more screenings than ever before, which included taking my History of Cinema class from Harold Washington College on a field trip to one of the movies. Below is my report card for the fest with capsule reviews of all five of the films that I saw.

Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010)
Grade: A- / 8.6

A centuries-old decaying mansion is the metaphor-rich central location of this fascinating experimental film by Spanish director Jose Maria de Orbe. The house is the site of excavations, restorations, break-ins and a field trip for elementary school children. All the while, the elderly caretaker who lives on the premises engages a priest from the church next door in a series of philosophical conversations. Late at night, images of what looks badly decayed nitrate film are projected on the mansion’s interior walls, evoking the notion that this location is a repository for hundreds of years worth of fading, ghostly memories. A profound meditation on history, cinema, life and death, and a reminder in our digital age of the extreme beauty that can still only result from the marriage of 35mm film and natural light.

Sleeping Sickness (Köhler, Germany, 2011)
Grade: A- / 8.0

Ebbo Velten is a white German doctor appointed by the World Health Organization to combat the title disease in Cameroon. After a series of languidly paced, vaguely unsettling scenes, most of which subtly illustrate the doctor’s condescending attitude towards the locals, the film unexpectedly jumps forward three years in time and shifts its narrative focus to Alex Nzila, a French-born doctor of African descent, sent by the W.H.O. to prepare a report on Velten’s clinic. This powerful, naturalistic drama evokes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its portrait of a white man “gone native” but writer/director Ulrich Kohler’s disturbing tale of neocolonialism could have ultimately only been made in the 21st century; the way he masterfully pushes his story in elliptical, consistently surprising directions is likely to make viewers feel as profoundly disoriented as his characters.

The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania, 2011)
Grade: B+ / 7.8

The Siskel Center scored a major coup by hosting the U.S. premiere of this new Romanian film by first time feature director Lucian Georgescu based on a short story by American author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart). The plot details the misadventures of an American professor who travels to Romania to find out information about his father’s mysterious heritage. Along the way he encounters love with a government bureaucrat in a refreshingly sweet, quirky and warm-hearted shaggy dog story that freely mixes the real with the fantastical. This uncommonly assured debut is about a million miles away from the social realism of the so-called “Romanian New Wave” and marks Georgescu as a definite talent to watch.

Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium, 2010)
Grade: B- / 6.5

Writer/director Hilde Van Mieghem is known as the “first lady of Flemish cinema” and, though I was unfamiliar with her work before my wife chose to see this film based on the Siskel Center’s catalog description, I’m now curious to fill in on what I’ve missed. Madly in Love is a contrived but also witty, visually inventive and very female-centric romantic comedy from Belgium about the love lives of four women: the beautiful, middle-aged actress Judith Miller, her two precocious children, Eva and Michelle, and their promiscuous aunt Barbara. The central idea informing each of the stories here is that true love is only possible after a lot of searching and mistake-making, a refreshing rejoinder to the more puritanical rom-coms coming out of Hollywood. This whimsical concoction features winning performances by an attractive cast and makes contemporary Antwerp look like a fun and quirky place to live.

Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece, 2010)
Grade: D / 4.2

Mike Leigh meets Robert Altman in this low-budget digitally-shot Greek indie, although the end result is much less interesting than that description probably makes it sound. Writer/director Nikos Kornilios supposedly based his screenplay on intensive improv workshops conducted with his actors, and it shows in the worst possible sense: the end result is a typical “web of life” plot mostly revolving around the romantic entanglements of young Athenians where it feels as if the actors had the burden of coming up with their own unmemorable dialogue. In this structurally messy scenario, there are just too many characters, none of whom we learn enough about, other than the fact that they’re having sex, or not having sex, and all crying way, way, way too much.

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

27 responses to “2012 European Union Film Festival Report Card

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  • Susan Doll

    Good for you for actually taking the time to arrange for your students to go to these films. Very inspiring. What did you class think of Sleeping Sickness?

    • michaelgloversmith

      I’m not entirely sure what they thought because I dismissed class as soon as the film ended but I’m under the impression that a lot of them found it quite challenging. The story is told in a very elliptical way, which I found mysterious and haunting but it’s the kind of thing that clearly won’t be for all tastes. I plan on opening this Wednesday’s class with a discussion about it.

  • bherz

    Pretty harsh grader there, Mike. That photo is awesome btw. Not _just_ because of the grade, but Sleeping Sickness sounds great.

  • david

    wow,awesome activity,do you have any of your class videos on youtube? I’d like to have a look at them!!

    Do you discuss with your friends after class? Are there any students here reading your blog and commenting?

    There were always lots of unknown art films shown in Beijing,but I just couldn’t raise my interests,maybe because nobody was going with me.

    • michaelgloversmith

      David, for the past three years that I’ve been teaching I have only showed movies via DVD projection in class. Then, this past semester, I decided to start taking my students on field trips to see movies in local theaters. (My main motivation for this is that it seems like less and less people are going to the theater every year. Young people, especially, see almost all of their movies by downloading them.) I would love to think that I could be responsible for making even a small percentage of my students realize that the best way to see a movie is to see it projected in a theater (preferably in 35mm) and perhaps get them into the habit of doing it more often.

      A lot of my students read this blog although there are more “lurkers” than commenters. However, two of my best former students, Zach Olmstead and Omar Pineda, are two of my most faithful commenters. Of course, they don’t need any encouragement to go see movies in the theater!

      The only thing even resembling a class video of mine online is a videotaped introduction to a midnight movie I gave at a local cinematheque a few years ago. This was not for an academic class, just a one night only thing I did for fun. The film I introduced was JANG Jun-hwan’s Save the Green Planet and you can watch it here: Save the Green Planet lecture

      • david

        Mike,you are doing a great thing as a film teacher,theater should be the ultimate place to go to movies.But I think the main reason of downloading is because it’s cheap and you can get almost any films you want.Since many students are not earning their own money,not enough of them can afford blus and cinema tix,it’s the same here in China,people are downloading films madly.

        I’m always surprised at how versatile your film library is,you watch films all over the world,and all kinds of films,I have never heard of the name before but I will check out the video.

      • michaelgloversmith

        You’re right, David. I’m not condemning downloading altogether. I do it myself from time to time and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to see movies that way that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The problem for me is when people do it out of laziness. I have students who will download new Hollywood movies that are still playing in theaters in wide release! If people stop going to see movies in the theater (whether they are projected digitally or on film), then movies will cease to be made for the big screen. And if movies are no longer made for the big screen, then movies will no longer exist. (Movies and television are not and never will be the same thing.)

      • david

        Yes,that leads to terrible consequences,not only that,the image quality of the download version is very pool,that is insult to films!!!

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  • Corrine Strang

    Love the photo & the “Save the Green Planet” lecture!

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