EIFF 2017: 3 highlights with Scottish connections
We take a quixotic tour of three eye-catching films with a Scottish connection in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival
Donkeyote, Spanish director Chico Pereira's feature made with the Scottish Documentary Institute, centres on an eccentric septuagenarian who embarks on a gruelling walk through the United States, accompanied by his faithful donkey
Feed The Straight Story and Au Hasard Balthazar into a documentary-making machine and it might look something like Donkeyote. The protagonist of Chico Pereira’s new non-fiction film is 78-year-old Manolo, who has an urge to embark on an odyssey on foot following The Trail of Tears, the 2200-mile route tens of thousands of Native Americans were forced to walk during their forced removal from their ancestral homelands. Despite his advanced years, Manolo is spry and raring to go. We sense his silent companion on the journey, donkey Gorrión, who looks to have even more miles on the clock than his master, is more reluctant.
Pereira’s filmmaking is wonderfully expressive. He’s constantly finding interesting angles and comic compositions to capture Manolo's journey. We’ll find ourselves following the pair from behind through a scrum of sheep being herded or from Gorrión’s vantage point as he resiliently plods forward. It's a style that exploits narrative, performance and humour, and this means sometimes Pereira makes small narrative interventions into his protagonist’s journey. “Ultimately, the crucial aspects for me are ethical,” he says, “such as not to turn the characters into what they are not, or putting them merely at the service of a film.”
The title is clearly a sly nod to Cervantes' tale of an ageing wanderer and his more down to earth companion. Initially it was a joke, and a small homage to Pereira’s home of La Mancha, but as the shoot continued, clear thematic connections between Don Quixote and Manolo appeared. First of all, both men are unable to recognise that times have changed. “Don Quixote wants to be part of a world of cavalry that is long gone,” says Pereira. “Some aspects of Manolo’s lifestyle also resonate with this. Manolo still remembers and wants to walk through a countryside without fences and gates, something which is no longer possible in Spain.”
We see this in action when Manolo literally rips down a fence to get to where he and Gorrion are going. “The disappearance of public paths, which have been overrun by highways and roads, and most commonly fenced-off by landlords, makes his desire to roam freely near impossible.”
They share another connection: they’re both dreamers and storytellers. “Manolo, like the character of the novel, goes out in search of adventures and creates stories about them. Ultimately it is the desire for adventure, more than the adventures themselves, that drive both Manolo and Don Quixote.” 22 Jun, 6pm; 24 Jun, 8.40pm
Scottish filmmaker Peter Mackie Burns, who’s been celebrated for his short films, directs his debut feature Daphne, a London-set drama centred on an extraordinary performance from Emily Beecham
Peter Mackie Burns’ first film, Daphne, has been described as “a romantic comedy with all of the bullshit taken out.” Its title character is a sybaritic 31-year-old Londoner (played by Emily Beecham), who’s going through something of a crisis after witnessing a random act of violence. “We wanted to make a female character based on a contemporary story and Daphne came about as part of that process,” says Burns. Working with writer Nico Mensinga and producers Valentina Brazzini and Tristan Goligher, their aim was to create a character who was both complex and funny.
“[Daphne had to be] someone smart and relatable, for whom life is pretty difficult and who can't abide bullshit. Especially her own. The character is unapologetically hedonistic yet feels dissatisfied with life. She has fantastic potential but doesn't quite know how best to realise it yet. We also wanted her to be foul-mouthed and funny.” The comparisons the film has received to Lena Dunham's Girls suggest they succeeded.
This may be Burns' debut feature-length film, but the 49-year-old director is something of a stalwart on the short film scene. Burns first made waves back in 2005, when the Berlin Film Festival awarded his short Milk the Golden Bear prize. Has working in the short form been good preparation for making his first feature? “I was very fortunate that a number of wonderful festivals liked my short films and they were generally well received,” he says. “Working in the short film format is a great preparation for making a feature film as it allows the director to develop their style and type of stories they want to tell.”
How would he describe that style? “Perhaps that is for other people to decide – but I certainly love movies with complex characters that mix tragedy and humour, which I suppose is how I think about life.”
Daphne premiered at Rotterdam Film Festival, where critics were knocked out by rising British star Emily Beecham's performance in the title role. “She’s a wonderful actor,” says Burns of his lead. “She inhabits Daphne in a way that makes audiences forget they are watching a performance.” The pair worked together previously on Burns’ short film Happy Birthday to Me, which acted as a kind of dress rehearsal for Daphne.
“We knew immediately that we would write the feature for Emily,” says Burns, who points to Beecham’s attention to detail as being her greatest strength as an actor. “Emily's performance is so detailed, funny and true that people might believe that she is the character. She reminds me of Gena Rowlands, and for me there is no higher compliment one can pay an actor.” 23 Jun, 8.55pm; 26 Jun, 8.55pm
Grant McPhee follows up his post-punk film Big Gold Dream with Teenage Superstars, about the bands who emerged on the Scottish indie scene in the mid-80s, including The Vaselines, The Pastels and Primal Scream
Two years ago, Grant McPhee’s Big Gold Dream, a vivid documentary about Scotland’s post-punk scene went down a storm at Edinburgh International Film Festival. McPhee is back at EIFF this year with Teenage Superstars, which explores Scotland’s indie scene from the mid-80s to the early 90s. A good chunk of both docs was shot concurrently, but McPhee sees Teenage Superstars as its own standalone film rather than a sequel.
“Big Gold Dream was about a group of people taking on an industry and trying to break in,” explains McPhee. “Teenage Superstars is about a group of people ideologically opposed to a system and making their own alternative one. They could easily have been set in two completely different cities or countries, it just happens to be Scotland.” There are similarities, though: “you can view them both as having a kind of anti-establishment flag waving message, or you can equally view them as two films which are full of great characters, anecdotes and fantastic music. Or ideally both.”
This second point is key. Even if you had no particular interest in the machinations of Scottish music or the post-punk era, you’d have still fallen head over heels for Big Gold Dream, such is the enthusiasm and wit with which the story is told; put the likes of Davy Henderson of The Fire Engines or Robert King of the Scars on screen and you’re likely to strike gold with a mischievous anecdote.
“Boring people generally don't make great music, that's pretty clear from making these films,” says McPhee. “Musicians are not regular nine-to-five folk, so before music is even mentioned we have an amazing cast of differing personalities and characters.” Part of what McPhee finds most fascinating is getting to the heart of what makes these musicians tick. “We try and find a good balance of musicianly detail and a little insight into who these people are without it turning into The Fog of War. Because really it's the people we're interested in. I think a lot of 'indie' documentaries are very po-faced and worthy – even some of the music is – but that's not what everyone behind the music is like and that's what we wanted to show.”
Teenage Superstar spans the mid-80s to the early 90s, and features the likes of The Pastels, BMX Bandits and The Vaselines. We wonder if there's also a Chemikal Underground-era film in the works? “There is a very, very rough framework for a third film and a few interviews have been conducted. But unless there's some funding it probably won't go further.” This may sound defeatist, but McPhee's clear passion for this material suggests to us he'll find a way: “I do feel very duty bound to make people aware of individuals and bands who seem to have been unfairly ignored by the mainstream; creative people who really deserve to be recognised for what they have contributed to a culture – and there are many in the mid-90s scene who deserve to be known better. So who knows.” 22 Jun, 9pm; 1 Jul, 3.25pm