From Bradford UNESCO City of Film, we write about photography, film and television, and daily life in a national museum.
Local film society Minicine are screening a film they saw at our Bradford International Film Festival in April. They were so taken by it that they had to track it down and present it to their audience. The film will play at their small cinema in Armley Mills on 26th July at 7pm.
Minicine Co-Director Mike McKenny (@DestroyApathy) writes a little about why such a festival-society relationship assists in the exposure of such interesting, but neglected cinema. Then committee member Adam Ryan (@AdamRyan1988) writes in more detail about the film.
We at Minicine couldn’t do what we do without our local film festivals having such strong offerings. We try to bring our audience the freshest cinema from around the world that for whatever reason has not had a fair crack of the distribution whip. We believe that this is the role and duty of film societies. We find these films through several means, but one of the most fruitful is by scouting our marvellous local film festivals.
Both Leeds and Bradford International Film Festivals have a tremendous selection of films, but with such an impressively comprehensive selection over such a short space of time, not every film is as appreciated as they deserve to be by local audiences. This is precisely where we believe film societies should come into the equation.
What we can do is, rather than have a plethora of challenging, interesting, boundary breaking and convention flouting feature films in two-or-so weeks, we can select one to have a whole month’s worth of attention and exposure to itself; not touching the festivals’ scale, but fulfilling a further cinephilic preoccupation with bringing the greatest cinema to those that may not otherwise have had the good fortune to come across it.
After our success over the last year, playing several films seen at BIFF’s fabulous Uncharted States of America strand, we have again managed to secure another BIFF-graduate that neither has UK distribution, nor unfortunately is likely to. Committee member Adam Ryan and I sat through Battle of the Queens in amazement, as Adam goes on to eloquently word below.
If you missed it at BIFF, then make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. If you saw it at BIFF, and you doubtless concur with our admiration for the film, then make everyone you know understand that if they have but a fraction of interest in cinema, they cannot miss this screening.
The film is screening on Thursday July 26th, 7pm at Armley Mills. Tickets are only £6 (£4 for members). Tickets are always pretty hot property as we can only seat 26, but you can buy your ticket right now by clicking here. Or read Adam’s comments below to be convinced. See you there.
Cheers – Mike McKenny (Minicine Co-Director)
Despite having been up against a lot of stiff competition – from both documentaries and features alike – Nicolas Steiner’s Battle of the Queens (2011) was undoubtedly one of the stand-out films from this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. Centred on a cow-fighting event in Switzerland, the film has been lauded almost entirely on the strength of its undeniably beautiful cinematography. Yet to focus on this one aspect is to do the film a severe injustice.
Like many great documentaries, it takes a different approach to documentary as a form, pushing some boundaries, without losing sight of the conventions we all know and love. Do not expect a quirky character piece, or indeed a piece of activist cinema. Similarly don’t expect to see a requiem for local traditions or a scathing attack on global capitalism. Don’t even expect to be offered much in the way of tangible information about cow fighting itself, or even the people who constitute the film’s primary focus. So if these are all the things it isn’t, what exactly is it?
To summarise in one handy turn of phrase is tricky, but essentially Battle of the Queens is a celebration of the here and now, a celebration of a tradition that, while it may have its roots in the past, is very much a facet of the modern world; as contemporary as Facebook and ready meals.
One could justifiably comment on the juxtaposition of old and new (the film’s opening shot, for instance, features men in Lederhosen blowing Alpen Horns underneath an array of banners pasted with all manner of corporate logos), or even the multi-generational subject demographic. Yet because of the primarily non-judgemental stance the film takes, such distinctions become meaningless. Past, present and future co-exist, working within the same parameters and towards the same aims, achieving a unity rarely seen in these progress driven times to which we belong.
This refusal to make the charge of anachronism is one of the great strengths of the documentary, and one that sets it apart immediately from a great deal of filmic laments that document the outdated, outmoded and deceased. As a result, what we are offered is a vibrant, lively documentary, with an infectiously upbeat dynamic that optimistically tips its hat to the positives in life, without falling prey to naiveté or compromising its message.
At the heart of this, and somewhat surprisingly – at least to our bourgeois, post-1960s, Western sensibility- is a lack of any ideological statement with regards to the debatably dubious animal rights issues depicted. On the contrary, the animals, and the battles in which they engage, are the very lifeblood of the film and the community it depicts. As one man points out, the welfare of the cows is in fact the most important consideration.
The awe-inspiring use of slow-motion in one particularly sublime ‘battle’ sequence reflects the reverence these people hold for the cows. The use of music and sound contribute immeasurably: meditative, almost tribal, music lulls us into a trance-like euphoria, while the temporal discrepancy between sound and image elevates them above the realms of the physical world, and, indeed, beyond our everyday, earthly perception of time and space.
Yet an earthly, and ultimately human, space it is. If the cows are the sun in this bovine solar system, then the spectators, handlers and wranglers are it’s planets, the infants, mothers and elderly parents left at home the satellites, all united by a single irresistible force that binds them together. This is a textbook representation of community, yet one that entirely ignores the rulebook.
Without much effort it is easy to figure out in what order the director sourced each of his subjects – and indeed the role he most probably played in bringing a number of them together – but the delicate structure of the film subtly distracts our attention from such manipulation and instead sets our hearts aflame with a portrait of chance encounters, burgeoning friendships and age-old family ties.
On an individual level, Steiner wholeheartedly resists the temptation to explain away the motivations of the people he examines (the marked exception being the adolescent boy chasing Deborah, the attractive young cow girl; his motivations are plain enough to see). By stripping exposition and exposé to their barest bones, he retains the ambiguity of man’s psyche and allows us to experience what he surely experienced in the production process: fleeting encounters with the fears, dreams and passions of other souls, that defy comprehension, yet provoke in us the age-old, unquenchable fascination we hold for our fellow beings.
Within such a context, simple, touching statements, such as
“My cow is doing well, my mum is doing well. I’m good”
take on an almost existential sheen, causing us to reflect on the nature of our own lives and those around us. The ‘wrangler’s tale’ – of a man who never pays for the rounds of drinks he always promises, until one day he is caught out, and forced to pay to the amusement of his friends and acquaintances- would not seem out of place in a Dostoevsky novel.
Arguably one of the vital elements in achieving this mode of expression is the fact that the film crew manages to remain largely invisible, with only the curious eyes of a young child, a cautionary word from a bearded cow-farmer and a brief monologue by an enthusiastic radio presenter any clue that his subjects are aware of the presence of the camera. Such a technique creates a veil of objectivity, minimising the audience’s awareness of any, frankly inevitable, ‘performance’ and thus painting a wholly convincing snapshot of reality in spite of the indulgent – albeit entirely justified – stylisation.
Which, incidentally, brings me neatly onto my final point. Despite my earlier comment, it is indeed very difficult to discuss this film without a closer look at the sterling work of cinematographer Markus Nestroy: never anything less than equal to the world he seeks to depict, he displays a surprising maturity of style for an unknown such as himself. The compositions are bold, the camera movement sensitive and the aforementioned use of slow-motion never contrived or misplaced, although the line he treads is a fine one.
The crystalline black and white is entirely appropriate, accompanied by a confident, deftly employed use of both deep and soft focus, endowing the entire body of the film with an otherworldy – as opposed to ‘olde-worlde’ – ethereal aesthetic that ties in exquisitely with the pace and ambience of the piece as a whole. On top of all this he also appears to have what one might refer to as “balls”, often filming in close proximity to some rather large, unrestrained cows, without so much as a wobble of the camera. Talented and bold? Definitely one to watch for the future.
Unfortunately such a future may be reliant on factors apart from the obvious talent on display here. Battle of the Queens is currently without a distribution deal, a fact that is nothing short of criminal. This is a film that should be enjoyed on a wider platform, not solely within the confines of a select number of Film Festivals scattered throughout Europe. It is films such as this that lay bare some of the major problems in the structure of distribution networks in the present day film industry.
All we can hope is that it can find some form of channel for release (if not theatrical, then at least on DVD), and can therefore achieve its potential by reaching, possibly not the general public, but certainly the attention of the film community in its broadest sense.