Film Scouts Diaries

2008 Festroia International Film Festival Diaries
Diary #3: More Kids

by Henri Béhar

Setubal, Portugal, June 9 -- "Once upon a time, a girl named Alisa lived by the sea…" Thus begins Azerbaijan-born Anna Melikyan's Mermaid (in competition). The offspring of a chance encounter by the sea of a (way overweight) young woman and a passing sailor, Alisa dreams of becoming a ballerina (ever tried stuffing your slippers with soda-bottle caps to dance on points? Don't.), sings in a children's choir and goes to a school for the mentally challenged. As she grows up, she discovers she has the unusual gift of making wishes come true.

At the age of 17 – for some reason or other, the film is divided in chapters titled 'Alisa, age 16 years, 2 months and 4 days"—she saves a man who has just thrown himself over a Moscow bridge. She falls in love; he, a young executive-slash-scam artist (he sells building lots on the visible side of the moon) won't give her the time of day. Until, once she's died her hair green, he discovers she is the ideal "Moon Girl" for his next campaign.

Shown at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival as well as at this year's Berlinale, Mermaid was, upon its release in Moscow late last year, instantly nicknamed Russia's answer to Amelie Poulain. A misappropriation, to put it mildly. For this viewer at least. Rather than being a Russian tale à la Amélie Poulain (as good a marketing tagline as any), Mermaid, despite a few visually arresting ideas, squarely belongs to the 'Look at me, Ma, I'm directing" school of filmmaking.

The starry-eyed child in Jaime Marques's Thieves (Spain, First Works competition) works with his mother. They are pickpockets and the make an almost perfect team. Until she gets arrested and vanishes from his life – or so he thinks. Years later, coming out of the orphanage, Alex gets a job, tries to walk the straight and narrow – and nearly succeeds, until he meets Sara, a college student coming from a well-off family who occasionally commits petty thefts in supermarkets or what have you. He falls in love, she is intrigued. She comes up with a cdrazy proposition – lets steal together and split the proceeds – he begins to teach her the tricks of the trade – while still trying to locate his long-gone mother. The tale is tautly told (remake rights, anyone?), the direction compact and efficient, and the cast particularly appealing – in different ways: As Alex, Juan Jose Ballesta is a star in the early Guy-Pearce mold, Maria Valverde (Sara)) grows on you, and stays with you.

The boy in Threes Anna's The Bird Can't Fly (Netherlands-South Africa-Northern Ireland, in competition) is of the feral kind. A tough, angry ten-year-old left on his own in the midst of a remote South-African village half drowned by sand dunes (a constant threat), he runs his gang of pre-teens with an iron fist. Although he shows up one third into the film, it is the rapport between his and the grand-mother he didn't know he had (played by a still stunning Barbara Hershey) that is the heart of this very unusual film.

Flashback. A successful chef in the UK, Melody (Barbara Hershey).drops everything and returns home to Fairlands to attend the funeral of her estranged daughter, June. Much to her surprise, the village is now practically swallowed by the ever-encroaching desert. To her greater surprise, she discovers she has a ten-year-old grandson named River that she knew nothing of.. The boy's father, Scope, a crippled musician who doubles up as the village postman, want Melody to leave (might he have been instrumental in the mother-daughter estrangement?). River refuses to follow Melody back to "civilisation". He has this ambitious plan, you see, to breed the ostriches that he and his mother used to feed.

A series of confrontations culminates in the last third of the film, when a sandstorm compels Melody and River to take shelter in a cave, right by a nest filled with ostrich eggs. Stuck together with no way out, forced to face their respective anger (as well as some painful facts from their past), they ultimately come to terms with each other, in the strangest, most lyrical manner. Let me put it this way: who hasn't seen Barbara Hershey putting on all the clothes of the women in the village then sitting down on ostrich eggs to hatch them doesn't know what he's missing – and I am not kidding.

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