Mug #CIFF19

Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska has described her film Twarz/Mug (2018) as a ‘fairy tale for adults’, a provocatively beguiling definition of the Jury Grand Prix winner at Berlin this year. Irrespective of whether the audience might agree with that description of the film they watched, it was apposite on the closing night of the 2019 iteration of Chester’s International Film Festival on 20 March in the city’s charming Storyhouse, which commenced with the audience awarding the Best Animation prize to Tatiana Kublitskaya’s Pilipka (2012), a delightful fairy tale from Belarus.

The main feature presented a stark contrast, recounting the story of Jacek, a young heavy metalhead construction worker living in a remote Polish community riddled with narrow-minded attitudes towards outsiders, a tendency towards bawdy, expletive-filled, politically incorrect jokes and internecine squabbling over inheritances. Jacek dotes on his girlfriend, Dagmara, and dreams of relocating to London, despite the fact, as his brother-in-law bluntly points out, that the UK no longer wants any more foreigners, a view he fully endorses.

The protagonist is helping to construct a monumental statue of Christ, which the local Catholic priest is delighted will surpass the equivalent in Rio de Janiero, but after he suffers a serious accident Jacek’s life turns about face, literally. For Jacek becomes Poland’s first recipient of a face transplant, leaving him hideously disfigured and unable to speak properly. The once impish, good-looking young man is shunned by the community, treated as an outsider, a monster, including by Dagmara. His sister is the only person to stand by him.

The human body is something of a leitmotif through Szumowska’s oeuvre. Here the possible metaphorical interpretations of the face are left as open to the audience as the ending, when Jacek finally leaves, gazing up at the statue’s face, which appears to be averted from the village over which it towers. Ashamed by the prejudices of the village? Or the hubris of the Catholic Church?

The film’s relevance to a Europe troubled by a rise in xenophobia is axiomatic. Nonetheless, the film’s wickedly infectious vein of dark, absurdist humour, another feature of Szumowska’s work, lifts what might otherwise have been a rather downbeat, maudlin tale. The film opens with a hilariously surreal Black Friday-style event where the shoppers have to fight for goods in their underwear, and the variegated tone is thus set for more laughter than one might expect in such a disturbing tale. Mateusz Kosciukiewicz excels in the lead role, heart-rending at one moment, irreverent the next, making Jacek sympathetic, but not without his flaws.

Mug is the type of film that provokes reactions, and divides opinions; and that’s as it should be…

Prof Owen Evans is Professor in Film at Edge Hill University.


The Chester International Film Festival
09-20 March 2019, at Storyhouse, Chester
Curated by the I4P Director, Prof Jo Crotty, the annual Chester International Film Festival offers a remarkable selection of films that share stories and experiences from around the world. Three of this year’s films will be introduced by EHU academics, Prof Owen Evans (Mug), Prof Claire Parkinson (Dogman) and Dr Andrea Wright (Waru). #CIFF19


DOGMAN #CIFF19

It was a wet and blustery afternoon in Chester on Sunday. Despite the weather, a good crowd made their way to the fantastic Storyhouse in the town centre for a screening of Dogman (2018). Included as part of the Chester International Film Festival screening programme, I was delighted to be invited by the festival curator, Professor Jo Crotty, to introduce the film in such a splendid cinema space.

Directed by Matteo Garrone, Dogman is the story of a man who is a dog groomer by day and a drug dealer by night. Set against the decaying backdrop of a desolate Southern Italian seaside resort, Dogman portrays the brutality of macho hierarchies reimagined as pack mentality. This is a film about men and dogs. Characters bark, bite, and scurry away with their metaphoric tails between their legs.

The setting is so harsh and crumbling, inside and out, that the idea of a dog grooming business succeeding at times seems bizarre. To prop up his income, Marcello deals coke and, in his spare time, attends shows where he preens and prepares poodles for exhibition.

Dogs feature prominently within this film although it is only the main protagonist Marcello, who we see having any kind of meaningful interaction with the canine cast of this film. These relationships between Marcello and the dogs function as metaphors for his relationships with humans. We are early in the film led to understand the degree and extent of Marcello’s compassion through his interactions with the canines. In his moments of care for the smaller dogs, we find the parallels with the relationship between Marcello and his daughter, Alida.

The core relationship of masculine submission and domination is between Marcello and Simone, a violent tough-guy. These scenes replay emotionally and visually Marcello’s attempts to control, cajole and tame the dogs he grooms and cares for.

Some of the most harrowing and disturbing scenes in this film take place away from the sight of other humans but we are made aware at every turn that the dogs, and we the viewers, are watching the scenes of humanity and inhumanity that unfold on-screen. Indeed, the close-up shots that open and close this film ask us to contemplate on the murky boundary where humanity and animality begin and end.

Prof Claire Parkinson Professor of Film, TV and Digital Media and Co-Director Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS)
at Edge Hill University.


The Chester International Film Festival
09-20 March 2019, at Storyhouse, Chester
Curated by the I4P Director, Prof Jo Crotty, the annual Chester International Film Festival offers a remarkable selection of films that share stories and experiences from around the world. Three of this year’s films will be introduced by EHU academics, Prof Owen Evans (Mug), Prof Claire Parkinson (Dogman) and Dr Andrea Wright (Waru). #CIFF19


Waru #CIFF19

It was a pleasure to be invited to speak at the 2019 Chester International Film Festival hosted at the impressive Storyhouse arts venue, and it was a particular honour to be able to introduce important examples of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand cinema.

The opening film was the imaginative and beautifully animated short Trap. It focuses on a young, adopted, girl struggling to adapt to her new home, and captures the sense of entrapment felt by all the characters. A nice little twist offers them all a release.

The main feature, Waru, a realist portmanteau drama directed by eight women, takes the death of the titular child, Waru (Maori for eight), as its central subject. According to the producers, Kerry Warkia and Keil McNaughton, they also issued an additional challenge to their filmmakers: each segment must have a female Maori lead and had to be shot in one, single 10-minute take.

The result is powerful, thought-provoking and uncompromising. The intimacy of the single-shot segments as they follow eight different women in the aftermath of the tragedy draws the audience into a very private world of grief, anger, culpability, hopelessness and pain. Each of the stories takes a different perspective, but all have a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach that does not shy away from the drama of real life and the impact of bereavement.

I was particularly struck by two of the stories. Casey Kaa’s segment feature’s Waru’s teacher, Anahera (Roimata Fox), and is skilfully infused with tension and an overwhelming sense of guilt. It opens with a poignant conversation between the teacher and some of the young pupils as one of them tries to reserve a seat for Waru. Anahera, grappling with her own accountability, is overcome by the situation and leaves the classroom. Her life is further complicated by an affair she is having with one of the other staff. A fumbled encounter in a small bathroom signals that she is seeking some physical relief but cannot escape her shame for having done nothing to save the child.

Chelsea Cohen’s section jolts the viewer from the realist domestic settings and the tangi (funeral) to a bright, modern television studio. It highlights the challenges faced by presenter, Kiritapu (Maria Walker), who is confronted by casual racism from the make-up department who don’t have an appropriate foundation for her skin tone, to overt discrimination from the obnoxious ‘star’ anchor-man, Mike (Jonny Brugh). Kiritapu‘s on-air outburst against Mike’s dismissal of the child’s death a ‘Maori problem’, is an unambiguous challenge to everyone to take responsibility. The safety of children is all our responsibility and is not something that belongs to one community.

The film does not provide a neat and coherent narrative, but the fragmented style adds to its impact. We are left wanting to know ‘what happens next?’. Producer Warkia has noted that it was a project “born out of heartache, love and passion to protect our children”, but, significantly, “it was created with a desire to challenge perceptions and to start conversations.” It certainly succeeds.

Dr Andrea Wright, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and Senior SOLSTICE Fellowship Lead at Edge Hill University.


The Chester International Film Festival
09-20 March 2019, at Storyhouse, Chester
Curated by the I4P Director, Prof Jo Crotty, the annual Chester International Film Festival offers a remarkable selection of films that share stories and experiences from around the world. Three of this year’s films will be introduced by EHU academics, Prof Owen Evans (Mug), Prof Claire Parkinson (Dogman) and Dr Andrea Wright (Waru). #CIFF19