By Hugo Costin-Neilsen
From Iran to Latvia, human foibles and the wits we use to hide or overcome them bear a remarkable similarity. One of the great pleasures of Byron Bay’s Film Festival is the opportunity to gather together to marvel and laugh at the weird and wayward directions that people’s lives can take, wherever they are.
From Turkish producer/ director Stare Yildirim comes a surreal and light-hearted take on difference called My Name is Batlir, not Butler.
Batlir carries a few more than the usual cranial kgs. As a result of his mother’s craving for watermelon during pregnancy, he has inherited an abnormally large head – and a correspondingly capacious intelligence.
But because of his deformity he’s ostracised, lonely, his only friend being the whale in a poster on his wall, with whom he communicates telepathically. When he’s thrown into the savage world of kindergarten he is bullied for his difference, and on top of that his mother passes away, forcing his father into a deep depression.
As time progresses Batlir makes some friends – Sabit, whom he helps escape bullies in the school hallway; Duygu, Sabit’s girlfriend; and Uncle Ayhan, an elderly blind man with whom he plays chess.
Yildirim frames Batlir’s head as a magnet for ridicule but also a receptacle of great power. Batlir finds ways to deter the bullies with scientifically created stink bombs and finds an astounding ability to retain information and solve puzzles. This latter skill sees Batlir, when he has come of age, take a position editing a puzzle magazine.
Batlir and his father hear of an experimental surgery that can return his head to a normal size, but the catch is that the surgery has an 80% mortality rate and a million-lira price tag. Aware of the risks involved, Batlir decides to go ahead with the operation, but he doesn’t have the cash, and calculates that it will take him 100 years to save the necessary funds.
Hope enters in form of a quiz show in which the winning contestant takes home one million lira. Batlir is terrified that showing his head on television will lead to shame and ridicule but his rag-tag group of friends convince him to appear on the show.
My Name is Batlir, not Butler is a film that portrays difference as a strength. Yildirim said he wanted to tell stories and plant seeds of hope and love in people, and with this film he has done just that.
From Iranian director Mani Haghighi comes a surreal whodunnit filled with gallows humour and visual splendour. The film’s action centres around Hasan Kasmai, a narcissistic, renegade director blacklisted by the government and so currently in the middle of directing a pest-spray advertisement.
The climate for filmmaking in Iran is bad. How bad? Well, with the decapitated heads of his filmmaking peers being discovered all over the city, it couldn’t get much worse.
On top of that, his actress wife is being courted by another director and Hasan fears she is having an affair.
On top of THAT, his professional pride is hurt that he hasn’t been killed yet. He reckons his films are far better than those of the other directors who have been targeted, what an insult to not be killed first! His gun-toting mother assures him the killer is saving the best for last, but solace is not easy to find for the babyish, self-centred Hasan.
Pig has shocks and laughs in abundance. Hasan’s attempts to navigate the uncertain world around him take the viewer on a thrilling journey of technicolour visuals and absurdist escape. The film is refreshingly modern, with its inclusion of social media platforms such as Instagram and Youtube. As Pig progresses, these inclusions paint a chilling picture of social media’s hold over us and our perception of others.
The sequences of behind-the-scenes filmmaking, filled with breathtaking costumes and hilarious mishaps, are of particular note, offering an insight into the world of filmmaking. The satire is hilariously tongue-in-cheek, with Hasan’s daughter telling him to “say you find sadness in all things and see everything as unfortunate” in order to appear deep in an interview.
Pig is a real edge-of-your seat delight for fans of cinema. It references the history of film, drawing parallels to the work of Fellini and Hitchcock, yet it feels new and refreshing. If you like icy chills and belly laughs, Pig is the film for you.
There are belly laughs aplenty too in The Foundation of Criminal Excellence.
Larger-than-life characters and half-hatched criminal schemes converge in Latvian director Oskars Rupenheits’ story of wannabe and would-be crims. Set behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s, the film follows the story of Imant, the writer of a successful soap opera adored by housewives across the USSR.
Now Imant has been commissioned by a television studio to turn his pen to a crime drama. Being of the staunch belief that “you write what you know”, he feels it isn’t enough to imagine the world of crime, he must step into it. Imant gets his criminal plans from two bumbling-yet-smart-mouthed underworld characters who sell tapes from a flea market, and enlists his friend, out-of-work actor Harry, to help with their schemes’ execution.
What starts as a dog theft operation to con a small business owner quickly snowballs into McDonalds drive-through scams, fake muggings and eventually, much more than they bargained for.
As the criminal activity progresses, Harry enlists the help of Mr Vintage, who wears his jackets back-to-front and who, much to Imant’s dismay, insists on taking control of the operation. Added to this, the owner of a missing dog is on the look-out for the thief, guns blazing. It isn’t too long before a student at the police academy is asking Imant questions and a casting-director is after their heads.
The Foundation of Criminal Excellence is a quirky crime-comedy in the school of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket and the films of the Coen Brothers with a serving of Tarantino thrown in. The crime scenes are handled with mastery, the suspense is felt viscerally and the comedy is laugh-out-loud funny. When Imant tells an aspiring screenwriter, “not everyone has a life worth writing or making a film about. But I happen to have one”, he speaks the truth!
Byron Bay Film Festival runs from October 12-21.
The full program and tickets for these and other films and events are available online at bbff.com.au
Captions: Quiz show sequence in My Name is Baltir; Hasan Majuni as the cranky film director in Pig; The Foundation of Criminal Excellence.