Gent 2023 Review: 2 X 25
This Film Festival Gent's 50th anniversary treat is one of many flavors.
Film Festival Gent is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and celebrating it in style. One part of the festival is catered to cinematic music and film scores, so to celebrate an often under-appreciated part of the art form, the people at Film Festival Gent made an anthology film about film music.
The general idea behind the project 2 x 25 is that 25 film composers, from well known names to up and coming ones, were connected to filmmakers, also veering between newer talents and well-established auteurs. The composers recorded and wrote the music before any footage was shot, which is the other way around from how things usually go when it comes to film. The directors then got a few soundtracks to choose from and had to pick one. After they selected their track, only then was the name of the composer revealed. This means you get very interesting duo's, in which a big name like Howard Shore can be connected to an up and coming Belgian filmmaking duo consisting of Anthony Nti and Chingiz Karibekov.
The 25 films will all be shown on the big screen before the film selections of this year's festival in october, but 24 of them can already be watched on the Film Festival Gent website, and on youtube. At the time of writing the only one missing is the collaboration between Daniel Pemberton and Paul Schrader, which wasn't yet finished by the time this review was being written.
As in every anthology the results are a decidedly mixed bag, but there are some interesting entries. For better or worse, the most memorable films are the ones that really stretch the form of what a short film can do, and even kind of break the rules of the prompt. For instance, Laura Citeralla, an up and coming Argentinian filmmaker was asked to make a film for a track by Japanese composer Eiko Ishibashi, best known for her collaborations with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Instead of making a small four minute short in which the music is front and center, like every other short in the program, Citeralla makes an eleven minute whopper called Trenque Lauquen, in which she plays herself sitting on a terrace while the première of her sophomore film, also called Trenque Lauquen is premièring in the city of... Trenque Lauquen. Ishibashi's piece only shows up at the 7 minute mark of the piece, making it a different affair structurally and pacing wise. It's one of the more interesting pieces in there, for how it dares to push the boundaries of the prompt.
On the other hand, Radu Jude severely messes up his short by stretching the prompt, doing Shigeru Umebayashi's stunning music a disservice. Umebayashi, most known for his music for In The Mood For Love, writes a beautifully melancholy piece, and Radu Jude, known for his droll humor and his adventurous sense of structuring, decides to let the music play in front of a black screen, to not 'soil the music with his imagery' (paraphrasing what he says). Problem is, he decides to do exactly that half way through watching the black screen, making a joke about the audience impatience watching a black screen by referencing a french painting with a racist name. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Your mileage may vary on what director Alexandre Koberidze (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?) does with the composition of Bela Tarr's regular composer Mihály Vig. The name of the short is The More I Zoom in on the Image of These Dogs, The Clearer it Becomes That They Are Related to the Stars, and consists of Koberidze zooming in on an image of two dogs on a balcony, making the blown up footage look very much like a pixelated milky way. It might test the patience of the audience, and reads as very absurdist at times, but it also hits on something slightly off-kilter and profound. It stretches what cinema can be to a breaking point, and for that it deserves to be lauded.
Most of the soundtracks are swelling and melancholy, but several composers take a different route. Alex Heffes (The Last King of Scotland), for instance makes a track full of circusy pomp and circumstance, which documentary director Alexandre O. Philippe (Lynch/Oz) sets to zoetrope images and drawings of Gent. He is one of very few directors who tie their short to it's origin as a festival backed short. Another very propulsive soundtrack is the one made by Colin Stetson, which sounds like something from a horror film. Director Ildikó Enyedi, who is most famously known for her On Body and Soul, plays around with the tropes of horror, to make a film about the fear of dogs, but ends on a light note, all in all. It's an interesting approach, where the music and film strengthen each other instead of cancelling each other out.
Some of the up and coming talent when it comes to the directorial side also understood the assignment. Wannes Vanspauwen and Pol de Plecker, two Belgian directors of shorts, made a surrealist short for the music of David Lowery's regular composer Daniel Hart. It is one of the more memorable pieces, in which a character struggles with an umbrella during the soaking rain. Juanita Onzaga, who also only directed shorts before, makes a short accompanying music by Kenneth Brannagh-collaborator Patrick Doyle. Doyle, whose music can be kitsch and pompous in the wrong hands, is sort of negated by Onzaga's very impressionistic 8mm visuals. Onzaga narrates the short with a poem about memory and trauma, that overrules some of the more operatic passages of Doyle's music. It is by far my favorite short in the program, in that the unlikely combination of director and composer culminates in a short that feels more than the sum of its parts. Doyle's worst tendencies are reigned in by Onzaga, and the pitfalls of making a short that feels fully cerebral are undercut by Doyle's strong sense of emotion.
Other stand-outs are the films by Belgian musician Tsar B and Jessica Woodworth (King of the Belgians), which shows young ski-jumpers in training in an almost heavenly approach; Arnaud Rebotini (composer of 180 BPM) and Helena Wittmann (Drift)'s cerebral desert-set slow cinema piece; and Evgueni Galperine (Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless) and Bi Gan's (Long Day's Journey Into Night) beautiful lovers tryst filmed with heat cameras. But next to Onzaga's short, the two very best were made by heavy hitters in the arthouse genre. Gabriel Yared, most known for his soundtracks for Betty Blue and The English Patient made a slightly whimsical sounding score, for which João Pedro Rodrigues made a short that is very emblematic of his own style. Like O Fantasma, The Ornithologist or Will-o'-the-wisp it's a queer piece that plays with the iconography of genre films, but that in its erratic structure hits on a cinematic grammar all of its own. It's the most exciting piece in the program.
Jia Zhangke also makes something that is very much his, accompanied by the music of Teresa Barrozo, who most often worked with Brillante Mendoza (who himself made one of the weaker shorts). Zhangke explores his usual themes of the changing of the times and the effects capitalism and technological development have on the landscape and human interactions. In only five minutes he hints at such a larger story that I could easily have watched a full film with this story, that could have been a spiritual sequel to Mountains May Depart.
All in all, 2x25 is a project with more highs than lows, some clunkers, but also some must see pieces. If you are close to Gent between the 10th and 21th of October, don't miss your chance to see them on the big screen. Otherwise, go to the festival's site or watch this playlist on YouTube.