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Best of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival

Chris Campbell

In anticipation of a film festival you create impressions of films based on the past work of the directors and actors and don't know what to expect. When the films are first announced there are things that you have heard of and things you haven't and as you dig in to the details things emerge and the excitement builds. It's a challenge for a festival to secure a range of films that appeal to all audiences and this year at the 35th Atlantic Film Festival they did a great job. Now with a few days to reflect on a busy week here are the films that are sticking with me.

There were some great looking films. The development of digital imaging technology and the experience and development of techniques to use it is bearing some gorgeous fruit. When you combine better cameras and sensors with colour correction you have a wider palette of possibilities for the look and approach that you take with a film and that was clearly on display this year. Viewing a film on a large screen with an audience is a privilege and joy and that's always a highlight of any festival.


The film that I anticipated the most was Jacques Audiard's Dheepan which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. As with his other films it's about outsiders and crime and trying to fit in and have some sort of family relationship. With Dheepan and a new cast (including novelist Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, and Claudine Vinasithamby) and a new cinematographer (Éponine Momenceau) he does something that is recognizably Audiard, but feels a bit different. Moving outside of his regular collection of actors and collaborators makes for a film that is more vital and unpredictable.

Cemetery of Splendour

My favourite informal slot at the festival is the weekday afternoon slot with more esoteric foreign films. Last year it was the mesmerizing 3 hour plus Winter Sleep and this year it was Cemetery of Splendour. Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafts meditative and beautiful films combining Thai legends, geography, and people with his own cinematic techniques to create truly unique films. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of my favourite films and in his latest film he makes something similar, but with a distinctive internal logic. The best approach to take with his films is to be present and let the film wash over you. With minimal exposition and repetition the story and themes emerge over time as the film confidently moves forward. It encourages you to look and listen to follow details and see things. It's a transcendent cinematic experience.

The Lobster

I wasn't so sure if Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster would be part of the lineup for 2015 at the festival and was happy to see that it was. Lanthimos is an acquired taste with a deliberately alienating approach and use of violence to show the strange nature of relationships. In Dogtooth and Alps with a small cast and crew he crafted challenging and memorable films that I appreciated more after thinking about them and discussing them. With a bigger budget and bigger stars, The Lobster retains the power and challenge of his earlier films along with a higher profile. Tweaking and adjusting his approach (and improving it in many ways) makes for a film that is simultaneously more accessible and still deeply strange in terms of the mainstream.


Anti-comedy is a challenging thing as there is a meta level to what is going on. The jokes are not funny and that is why they are funny. It's elaborate and easy to misinterpret and shares a common thread with surrealism and the work of Luis Buñuel. I'm a big fan of that type of comedy from the surrealists to Andy Kaufman to Kids in the Hall to Alan Partridge to Garth Merenghi's Dark Place to name a few examples. Entertainment is almost the 2001: A Space Odyssey of anti-comedy with Gregg Turkington as Neil Hamburger, a bad stand-up comic on a tour across the American desert. It's definitely not for everyone as it blends pain and bad jokes with some stunningly beautiful photography to create a cool and depressing portrait of a man who is not happy in his life.

Early Winter

Speaking of unhappy people, one of the films that I didn't know much about at all was a pleasant surprise with Early Winter. With sparse frames, practical lighting, and unbroken takes, it's a story told through the things not said and things not seen. Michael Rowe's film is anchored by an understated performance from Paul Doucet with yet another complex acting turn from Suzanne Clément. It's a story about a marriage that isn't working. It's a voyeuristic film with key information missing and sparse exposition from dialogue. We start to piece things together in increments as time goes by and the spaces in the story start to fill in. It's bold and confident storytelling built around characters.

One Floor Below

Understated style and elliptical storytelling are the key features of the Romanian New Wave films and One Floor Below is a film about a murder that occurs off screen with two of the main characters knowing this from early in the film. We see the man who knows what happened and withholds what he heard from the police and how it eats at him. It's a slow-burn of a film that paints a portrait through the frame of everyday life and complex and idiosyncratic Romanian bureaucratic systems. Building in power as the film progresses, it's a delicate and powerful.

Closet Monster

A sometimes startling and beautiful feature debut from Stephen Dunn, Closet Monster has elements of magic realism in the story of a closeted young Newfoundland man who is coming to terms with who he is and what he wants. The witness to a horrific hate crime while young, this trauma makes him hide his sexuality as he grows up. It's a complicated portrait of a young man growing up shot in a beautiful way with a powerful central character created by Connor Jessup and a delightful voice performance from Isabella Rossellini as his pet hamster, Buffy. The winner of Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Atlantic Director and Best Atlantic Screenwriting at the Atlantic Film Festival, Closet Monster should do well in the coming months.

Ninth Floor

Making some strong artistic choices to illustrate the story, in Mina Shum's debut feature documentary Ninth Floor, she adds visual and audio layers to a important moment in the development of Canadian society with the Sir George Williams Incident. Even if the film was average it would be worth seeing, but it's extraordinary with the approach that she takes. Shum makes the film even more moving as she connects the people and evokes the time vividly through filming locations in Montreal highlighting the distinctive architecture of the 60s as well as locations in the West Indies. Staging the interviews in abandoned rooms with occasional shots of surveillance cameras and tape machines adds a visual flair to the story. Skillfully weaving in music and a dramatic structure creates a memorable and emotional film that is immediate and inspiring.


With Frank Lenny Abrahamson made a film about creativity and depression that blended stories and history together and in adapting Room to the screen he takes a different approach in making a film that is much more subjective. With the heart of the film in the perceptions of the child Jack, born in a garden shed where he and his mother are imprisoned for half a decade, it's challenging, but works remarkably well. The film is immersive and manipulates time and space impressionistically in a way that made the nearly two hours fly by. Ultimately inspiring after a harrowing beginning, it's a film that manages to bridge the gap between the art house and mainstream cinema in a way that is refreshing.

Green Room

With Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier made a revenge drama that had a central character unsuited to the task and in Green Room, he takes a similar approach in a thriller about a punk band fighting neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder. With opening scenes that vividly and confidently establish the band and their milieu, it quickly takes a turn and increases the tension as the band is trapped and they fight for their lives. Subverting the conventions and expectations of the thriller adds a level of uncertainty and menace as things change quickly and unpredictably. Masterful genre filmmaking that pushes and changes the contours of the thriller in exciting ways.


Two strong-willed brothers who live side-by-side in Iceland without speaking to each other for 40 years face the prospect of losing their sheep herds in Rams. With a wry sense of humour and gorgeous cinematography we see the competitive brothers in their solitary environments surrounded by the spectacular Icelandic landscape. A strong character drama that carefully introduces the people before changing things, it becomes more and more engaging as it goes on and things become more complex.


A virtuoso film with no edits, Victoria shows what is possible with a strong ensemble and crew working with a great script. Shot around Berlin before dawn and into the early morning, it's a two hour plus roller coaster of a film that follows a woman (in a marathon performance from Laia Costa) as she meets a man (played by Frederick Lau) and becomes involved in a robbery. Brilliantly paced with a perfect balance between character-driven scenes and action, it's an immerse experience with the technique and cinematography perfectly suited to the story and never becoming a distraction. A singular cinematic achievement.

Day 8 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin in Green Room

In the midst of a cold and with the final day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival before me, I was able to take my time, fortify myself with oatmeal and coffee and drive in to the city a little bit later for more films. With a great documentary in the morning and a thriller to finishing things off with shorts in the middle, it was a fun end to a festival that had many highlights.

Ninth Floor

When I first heard that Mina Shum was making a documentary about the Sir George Williams Event for the NFB and produced by Selwyn Jacob, I was intrigued. Shum makes great character-based dramas and moving into documentary was sure to be something interesting and Ninth Floor was. Carefully setting up the context with archival footage and staging the interviews in a visually interesting way with stylized angles and screens, the film never loses sight that every story is about people. With beautiful shots of Montreal and the subjects of the film exploring the architecture of 1960s Montreal, it's a visually lush film about racism, prejudice, and the struggle for rights. It's powerful, important, and moving and one of my favourite documentaries of the year.

With my focus on feature dramas this year it became obvious on the final day of the festival that if I was going to see more shorts I needed to dive in, so I went for it with two of the Canada and the World programs in the final evening which was a good choice.

Shorts Canada and the World 3

A more experimental and intense program at times with an understated introduction by Greg Jackson and filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest introducing his short The Orchard. From a noisy and ambitious Russian film called The Noise, the enigmatic The Test, the tense crime short The Orchard, the funny Open 24 Hours, the post-apocalyptic Eva, the surreal Unknown Unknown, it was a program a bit more on the edge which was just right for me.

Shorts Canada and the World 4

A program that featured stunning animation and understated drama, the fourth shorts program was introduced by Jessica Murwin who brought up filmmaker Matthew Rankin whose Mynarski Death Plummet was a highlight of the collection of shorts. The stop-motion animation Indigo was a beautiful hand-crafted animation inspired by First Nations stories with a spider constructed out of gears and metal and beautiful, flowing cloth around the heroine. 1000 Plateaus (2004 - 2014) was a stunning, colourful hand-scratched abstract animation created by Steven Woloshen in the front seat of his car over a decade. Partiu followed partying teens in Brazil on a late night filled with tragedy. Crazy House featured another strong performance from Connor Jessup in a stylized look at love and loss. The Québécois dramas Plage de Sable and Chelem featured young women and men dealing with each other in beautifully shot, impressionistic films. Mynarski Death Plummet was a full-screen historical celluloid animation with stylized colourful patterns in an intense recreation of the last minutes of the life of a World War II hero.

Green Room

The final film of the festival and my final film seen was Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room which rescheduled from earlier in the week. The only other film by Saulnier that I'd seen was Blue Ruin which is a mournful and intense revenge drama that constantly subverted expectations. With Green Room he boldly establishes the world of the characters with gorgeous overhead landscape shots and intimate close-up. Shot by Sean Porter (who also was cinematographer of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) and edited with a bold and precise style by Julia Bloch (who cut Blue Ruin as well), it shows the characters before becoming more and more intense. With horrific violence and constantly shifting situations that subvert the expectations of a thriller, it's gripping entertainment done with precision and dark sense of humour.

Feeling good about the films, but in the midst of a cold and sleep deprivation, I skipped the final party to head home. What a great day and a great festival it was, thanks again to the wonderful folks at the Atlantic Film Festival who once again brought the world of cinema to Halifax for us to enjoy.

Day 7 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan

Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan

The penultimate day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival was also the longest day of the film festival for me with an early start and being able to make it to 4 screenings. From a political comedy from Quebec to a Japanese master to a French auteur and a German experimenter, it was another fascinating cinematic day. A festival is complex and large and we're so lucky to have the Atlantic Film Festival which is thanks to a dedicated staff and volunteers who manage the moving parts in rapidly changing situations so we can be transfixed by cinema for 8 days.

My Internship in Canada (Guibord s'en va-t-en guerre)

From the first frame I was enjoying this with a old map of Canada on a wall and a faux-serious disclaimer. The camera glides in, revealing the location of the story in northern Québec helpfully indicated by a finger that moves into the frame and then slowly moves out. This establishes the tone and with skillful visual storytelling Philippe Falardeau introduces the main character, the independent MP for Prescott-Makadew à Rapides-aux-Outardes, a former hockey star and local hero. Our entry to the story is through Souverain, an idealistic Haitian intern who becomes Guibord's assistant. The MP is faced with a deadlocked parliament and a bill before the House of Commons about Canada going to war with Guibord holding the deciding vote. It's a razor-sharp satire with a thread of idealism running through it. Unexpectedly the film has some gorgeous cinematography of northern Quebec as the MP travels around the riding to consult with constituents. Great fun and timely as well.

Our Little Sister

In his introduction, festival programming director Jason Beaudry aptly set up Our Little Sister as a bit like Ozu adapting Little Women, and it was a great comparison. Using Ozu's carefully composed frames with faces in the centre and a slightly lowered camera position, the story of 3 sisters who live together and discover a fourth sister is the type of family melodrama that Koreeda embraces and excels at. Beginning with a funeral for their absent father, the empty space in the frames is filled with the absent characters. Koreeda fascinatingly adds a dynamism to the frames by always having the camera gently moving, not altering the frame, but moving slightly, almost imperceptibly. It's a film filled with memories and food with patterns and repetition as we see the relationships and how the characters relate to each other.


One of France's most confident filmmakers who tells stories of people on the margins of society, with Dheepan, Jacques Audiard reworks elements of his other films into something a bit different and new. As with his other films there is an element of crime in France and people who don't fit into that world. But with Dheepan it's about a family that is a lie with three refugees from Sri Lanka who pretend to be a family in order to escape from their homes where they have lost their families. With nuanced and complex performances from Jesuthasan Antonythasan (in his second film) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan (in her first) as the couple, the use of actors that aren't recognizable adds another level to the film.

Thematically similar (and with a great homage through one shot) to Mathieu Kassovitz's brilliant La Haine (who acted in Audiard's A Self-Made Hero) also set in the housing projects outside of Paris, it's vital and beautiful. Along with the largely unknown cast, Audiard also boldly chose Éponine Momenceau as his cinematographer after seeing a short film she shot. An impressive feature debut for Momenceau, she creates some gorgeous lighting and memorable images for Audiard. Told efficiently and in an impressionistic style, it's visual and beautiful, moving in unexpected ways that are surprising, but inevitable. Audiard is a master stylist and the Palme d'Or that it won this year was well-deserved.

Every Thing Will Be Fine

An interesting exercise in 3D from Wim Wenders that uses locations in Quebec effectively, but hampered by a simplistic script and leaden performances, Every Thing Will Be Fine is an oddity. Without the 3D I'm not sure if it would work on any level, and I don't know what was going on, but there is a deliberate, slow pace to the film that had to have been intentional. But it didn't work for me and while immersed in the physical space of the film, there is never any depth added by the characters or the dialogue.

While I'm tired and had a bit of disappointment with one film, overall it's been a great festival with another day that will be sure to have some more great films as this celebration of stories on screen moves towards the conclusion.

Day 6 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Paul Doucet in Early Winter

Paul Doucet in Early Winter

In the midst of a cold, the soothing balm of great cinema makes everything much better and on day 6 of the festival I was still coasting from the visions of the previous day. Taking it a bit easier I only went to two films, but having a bit more time to sleep and reflect was a good thing to build up energy for the final push with a couple of packed days still to go in the Atlantic Film Festival.

She's Beautiful When She's Angry

A solid documentary with a conventional approach and a vital and important topic, which is the history of the women's movement in America from the late 60s to early 70s. Interviewing key members of the movement and making connections between the other social justice movements at the time, it's a powerful reminder that rights are fought for and that things today may not be as different as it seems. Progress is incremental and hard-fought, and remembering our history is critical so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Early Winter

A small, but engaged audience saw what I believe was the Canadian premiere of Australian director Michael Rowe's Early Winter. The Canadian / Australian coproduction stars Suzanne Clément (who is consistently bold and remarkable as an actor) and Paul Doucet as a couple in a marriage that isn't working. (Clément and Doucet take different comedic roles in the Québec comedy My Internship in Canada also playing in the festival this year). In Early Winter Rowe locks down the camera with long takes that confine the actors to the frame as they are trapped by their lives. Beginning with a relatively explicit sex scene that encapsulates many of the problems in their relationship, it deliberately reveals the details of their lives, relationships, and history through subtle gestures and sparse dialogue. Using natural light and precise framing, there are some fantastic shots where we can see both characters, but they can't see each other and we see the reactions between them with a different perspective. Great drama with a different approach that is powerful and effective in a quiet way.

While watching Early Winter I thought about some of the amazing cinematography that has been on display at the festival this year. Many films are shot in low light and in changing lighting conditions with technology making some incredible images possible. From the lower-budget Fire Song to Early Winter to Into the Forest to Rams to Cemetery of Splendour to Victoria, they're using small amounts of light to push the limits of filmmaking. This is a great time for cinema when artists use technology and tools to expand the world of storytelling.

Day 5 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

The fifth day of the Atlantic Film Festival was a lighter day for me as I am fighting a cold, but it was a day filled with subtle beauty, peace, brutality, violence, and challenging relationships. Those are the worlds and emotions that washed over me Monday with another perfectly programmed day with three international films to fill my day with strange, complex worlds created by three masterful directors.

Cemetery of Splendour

Sometimes we think too much.

The films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul are subtle and beautiful and enigmatic with a sense of play to them. At times they are almost trance-inducing and he takes bold steps in taking a mundane approach to magic realism where you are not sure what is real and what is not. His previous feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, was an amazing journey through the past lives of a man as he was dying. Filled with subtle beauty and an elaborate structure that blended various genres and styles of Thai cinema and culture, it's dense and challenging at times, but rewarding.

His earlier film Tropical Malady is more subtle and tells the love story of two soldiers with a stunning transformation in style and tone in the middle of the film. In his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century he sets the action in a hospital in telling the story of two doctors (based on his parents). With Cemetery of Splendour he has a more accessible film featuring Jenjira Pongpas in the lead (who appeared in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as well as Weerasethakul's earlier features) and the two soldiers from Tropical Malady.

Weerasethakul brings many of his elements together to create a story built around Pongpas as a volunteer in a makeshift hospital in a former school that is also was the site of a cemetery and former palace. Jen went to the school, so she has her memories of the school before it was a hospital. The hospital's patients are soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness where they rarely wake. The spirits from the past are around the area and a local temple providing another set of memories.

The film is meditative with long takes and delicately composed frames and at one point even features some guided meditation. Slowly creating a world and a rhythm, the film is peaceful and beautiful moving into abstraction at times with different colours filling the world as we return to locations and notice small and strange and wonderful things. Transcendent and beautiful cinema from a confident and unique voice.

The Lobster

At the opposite end of the comfort, immediacy, and presence of Cemetery of Splendour is The Lobster. Yorgos Lanthimos brings his idiosyncratic and deeply-disturbing stylized world into the English language with the Lobster featuring an international cast. I suspect that most of the people in the audience at the sold-out screening at the Atlantic Film Festival weren't there to see Lanthimos' film after Alps, but to see Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Olivia Coleman, and Ben Whishaw. The experience reminded me of a similar reaction when I was lucky to see the world premiere of David Lynch's Blue Velvet in Montreal in 1986. People laughed a lot at the beginning, but then as things became more horrifying it got quieter and quieter in the theatre.

Opening with a shocking scene of a woman getting out of a car and shooting a donkey, The Lobster builds a disturbing surreal world through gradually revealed details of the need for individuals to have partners or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. All the elements (and some of the actors) from Lanthimos' two previous films, Alps and Dogtooth are there, but all helpfully surrounded by the frame of more explicitly-explained rules for the world. The stylized dialogue and flat acting style is embraced by the cast, most effectively and surprisingly by Colin Farrel and Rachel Weisz (whose often redundant, ironic voiceover gives another level of distance replacing many of the long, awkward silences of Dogtooth and Alps).

The distance provided by the acting and dialogue are shattered by the shock and immediacy of violence onscreen that is bloody and visceral. It creates a disturbing tension with the possibility violent change always possible. It's a dark drama with surreal comedic elements (at one point I noticed characters walking together always were in lockstep) that highlights the challenges in connecting with people and societal expectations by changing the rules in arbitrary ways. It's bold and brutal cinema from Lanthimos who is creating a strange and complex surreal cinematic world through his past three films.


An Icelandic story of two brothers who have herds of sheep, live next to each other, but haven't spoken for 40 years, Rams is a world of quiet beauty and tragedy. The brothers are played by Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson (who was great in the 2011 Icelandic film Volcano) with a skill that made me wonder if they had found two shepherds since they were remarkably comfortable with the sheep on screen. Directed skillfully and subtly by Grímur Hákonarson and shot by Danish cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who brilliantly shot Victoria) it's visually stunning and quiet. With subtle camera movements and carefully designed frames it's great visual storytelling with a wonderful level of ambiguity.

It was another great day filled with challenging and reassuring visions from around the world.