Watching them watching us

Summary

Flanders’ biggest film festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in a programme packed with espionage, American cinema and Martin Scorsese

The Ghent Film Festival takes its cue from daily headlines of spying, hacking and leaks

This year the Ghent Film Festival is riding a wave of public interest in surveillance, secrets and conspiracy. “The festival is about cinema, of course, but I always like it when some films or programmes have a strong link to political or social issues,” says Patrick Duynslaegher, the festival’s artistic director. “It shows the part that cinema is still playing in shaping things and making people aware of what is happening in the world.”

The theme began innocently enough, with the idea that the festival should mark the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination, which falls on 22 November. So there will be a modest cycle of classic films on the theme of presidential assassination, including Oliver Stone’s JFK, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate and Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View.

But as the rest of the festival programme started to take shape, further films touching on conspiracy and American paranoia, past and present, came to the fore. Clearly something was in the air.

The festival opens with The Fifth Estate, an account of how WikiLeaks obtained and made public a vast collection of classified US government documents (pictured above). Directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the organisation’s controversial founder, Julian Assange. “There will be a lot of buzz around the film because of what is happening in the world,” says Duynslaegher, “and now WikiLeaks is protesting against the film again. So other people are doing our publicity for us.”

A more obscure addition to the theme is American director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which explores notions of mind and body control, possibly by shadowy government forces. This complex film has divided critics and audiences with its daring (or pretentious) aesthetic approach.

Cold war paranoia is explored in the series Americans, which screens in the festival’s TV strand, Out of the Box. It tells the story of two KGB officers posing as a married couple in Washington DC during the 1980s. Finally, coming back to Kennedy, there is Parkland, which dramatises events at the hospital where the president was taken after the shooting. This screening will be followed by a panel discussion on American paranoia with journalists and specialists in US affairs.

Quiet celebrations

The festival marks its 40th edition this year, although relatively little fuss is being made. “We mainly just wanted to stage another festival and look to the future,” Duynslaegher explains.

“Martin Scorsese is in spirit an independent voice in American cinema

- Patrick Duynslaegher

The festival’s present to itself relates to its status as an international gathering for composers of film music, with 40 composers each invited to write a minute of music especially for the occasion. Contributors range from Gabriel Yared and Angelo Badalamenti to local talent such as Jef Neve and Wim Mertens. Their miniatures will be woven together by the festival’s music director, Flemish composer Dirk Brossé, into Ghent’s own soundtrack, which will be performed live on 16 October.

In a more oblique way, the festival is marking its anniversary with a focus on director Martin Scorsese, whose breakthrough Mean Streets was made a year before the festival was born. “In a way, his career and the career of the festival run in parallel,” says Duynslaegher. He is also Ghent’s kind of director. “Even if Martin Scorsese has worked for all the major studios, he is still in spirit a kind of independent voice in American cinema.”

On top of that, Scorsese has worked tirelessly to promote film culture through documentaries on American and Italian cinema and by setting up foundations to restore forgotten films.

There will be an exhibition of artefacts and images celebrating Scorsese’s career, which runs at the Caermersklooster until 26 January. This has been compiled by the Deutsche Kinemathek from Scorsese’s private collection, as well as the collections of actor Robert De Niro and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Throughout the exhibition period there will be retrospectives of Scorsese films at venues in Ghent, Antwerp, Kortrijk and Brussels.

During the festival itself new prints of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver will be shown, while the concert Scoring for Scorsese will revisit his collaborations with composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Howard Shore and Peter Gabriel. Meanwhile, the annual competition for young European composers this year sets the task of re-scoring Scorsese’s 1967 short The Big Shave. This was the director’s first film to get international recognition – at the Knokke festival of experimental film. Another local connection.

But will Marty be there in person? “We are still hoping to get Martin Scorsese for the opening of the exhibition,” says Duynslaegher, “but we have no confirmation. And we know that he is a very busy man. But we do have confirmation that Paul Schrader, who was the screenwriter on Taxi DriverRaging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, will be there for our Scorsese tribute.”

Schrader’s new film The Canyons is also due to screen at the festival, along with a host of new American films as part of a special focus on American cinema. Big-star vehicles include sailing drama All Is Lost with Robert Redford and Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, which will close the festival. Actor Joseph-Gordon Levitt (InceptionThe Dark Knight Rises) is the festival’s special guest; he’s presenting his directing debut Don Jon, in which he stars as a sex addict trying to recover for the woman of his dreams.

Other highlights from the independent side of the industry include Carrie, the remake of Brian De Palma’s shocker by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and Go For Sisters, the latest from veteran director John Sayles. Also, don’t miss Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, a touching and stylish coming of age story that is probably the best film you’ve never heard of at the festival.

American films from international directors to watch out for include Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts adrift in space, and crime drama Blood Ties by French director Guillaume Canet, which has a small role for Flanders’ own Matthias Schoenaerts.

In world cinema, there is new work from Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke (Still Life), Polish director Andrzej Wajda (Sweet Rush), Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) and Jafar Panahi of Iran (Offside). And in Out of the Box, look out for David Mamet’s Phil Spector, with Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, and Stephen Frears’ Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Ghent Film Festival, Kinepolis and other venues across Ghent/Flanders, 8-19 October

Flanders gets personal

Last year the Ghent Film Festival opened with a big local splash with The Broken Circle Breakdown, Felix Van Groeningen’s inspired combination bluegrass music and family heartbreak that has just been selected as Belgium’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar. This year another side of the Flemish film industry is on show, with three features from directors relatively new to the big screen. 

“These are films with a personal voice and a personal style,” says Patrick Duynslaegher, the festival’s artistic director. “It’s cinema that is more fragile, that in these days of crisis in art house cinemas has more and more difficulty getting released. But we hope the festival can play a role in giving these films a showcase and finding an audience that responds to them.”

The festival’s official competition includes I’m the Same, I’m an Other, the second feature from Caroline Strubbe. It continues the story begun in 2009’s Lost Persons Area, with the pre-adolescent Tessa fleeing her troubled family home with Szabolcs, a Hungarian engineer who worked for her father. They do their best to disappear, renting a holiday apartment in a run-down English seaside resort. In this enclosed space, they test the limits of their relationship.

In addition to conventional screenings, you can also see the film with a live soundtrack improvised by John Butcher on saxophone, Albert Markos on cello and Sophie Angel on piano.

82 Days in April by Bart Van den Bempt begins with a Flemish couple in their 50s travelling to Turkey, where their son died while backpacking. The father becomes obsessed with following his son’s final journey, while the mother resists.

And Drift is a tale of grief and lost love, in which a man tries to escape a painful reality by disappearing into the landscape (pictured above). The film is a collaboration between artist Dirk Hendrikx and filmmaker Benny Vandendriessche, who have built a story around a recurring figure in Hendrikx’s work, a wanderer who creates private rituals.

In addition to films from Flemish directors, the festival also wants to showcase foreign productions that were made in Belgium. This includes opening film The Fifth Estate, much of which was shot here, and BBC historical drama The White Queen, which was shot in Bruges and Ghent. The series will have a marathon 10-hour screening in the festival’s TV strand.

Watching them watching us

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Film Fest Ghent

Film Fest Ghent is Flanders’ largest international film festival. Each October, the festival draws acclaimed actors, directors and composers from around the world.
Soundtrack - Since 2001, the festival has hosted the World Soundtrack Awards, one of the world’s premier award ceremonies for film scores.
Student - Film Fest Ghent was originally launched as a festival for student films.
Happening - Each year, the festival hosts many side events, including concerts, exhibitions, discussion panels and parties.
1 973

first edition

100

films shown each year

130 000

annual visitors