Manchester Film Festival: MM’s top picks from a true cinema celebration

Film fever reached its height last weekend with the Oscars while Manchester had its own cinema celebration too.

The fourth annual Manchester Film Festival was packed with an array of colourful and inspiring independent pictures from around the world.

Damascus Cover went home as the big winner after the feature film was awarded Best English Feature, Best Production Design and Best Editing.

Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers also won best actor for his role in the spy thriller.

Meanwhile, two US films, Forty-Five: The Search For Soul and Bernard and Huey, were awarded Best Documentary Short and Best Screenplay respectively.

Here MM reporters Helen Parkinson, Joseph Timan and Helena Vesty provide a selection of the best work screened at the festival.

Damascus Cover – Narrative Feature

If you’re suffering from James Bond withdrawal symptoms in the post-Spectre lull, Damascus Cover should be top of your to-watch list.

Adapted from Howard Kaplan’s eponymous 1977 novel, the film follows Israeli spy Ari Ben-Sion (Rhys Meyers) on an undercover mission to smuggle a chemical weapons scientist out of Syria, with bloody consequences.

If his delicate portrayal of Ben-Sion is anything to go by, Rhys Meyers deserves to be in the Bond casting director’s radar.

Despite his well-publicised personal issues around the time of filming, he pulls off the role of the tortured intelligence officer with charm.

John Hurt, in what was sadly his last big-screen role, intrigues as Ben-Sion’s boss, while flimsy love interest Kim is deservedly given more depth by Anne Hathaway-esque Olivia Thirlby.

Accents may be all over the place at times, but this is easily forgiven thanks to an action-filled adventure that’ll end with you sighing: “Is it over already?”


Forty-Five: The Search For Soul – Short Documentary 

Forty-Five: The Search for Soul – OFFICIAL TRAILER from Anthony Ladesich on Vimeo.

Collecting vinyl is by no means a rare or remarkable hobby, but in the case of DJ and crate-digger-extraordinaire Johnny Starke, it’s a passion that’s worth documenting.

Kansas City filmmaker Anthony Ladesich beautifully captures the ritual of “cultural archeology” as his long-time friend obsessively sifts through junk shops around the city and beyond looking for that perfectly unknown 45rpm soul single.

For 45-year-old Ladesich, it’s about re-contextualising a forgotten track back into its intended context: the dancefloor.

A record collector himself, Ladesich is authentic in his approach, having spent three years on the film just so that he’s there when the needle drops on Starke’s chosen record for the first time.

Despite Ladesich’s disappointment over the source of that chosen record, this short documentary proves that vinyl has a place in the 21st century and illustrates the appeal which explains why the analogue format is making a comeback.

A must see for vinyl record collectors and soul music lovers, Forty Five communicates the multisensory experience of the hunt, the thrill of the catch and the ultimate joy on the dancefloor.


Bernard and Huey – Narrative Feature

From the pages of a cult American newspaper comes a dark comedy that will remind you of your own friendships and how they have changed over the years.

When childhood friends Bernard (Jim Rash) and Huey (David Koechner) reunite as 40-somethings, it seems there’s been a role reversal: Huey is no longer the ladies’ man he once was, whereas Bernard may as well have a sign on his forehead saying ‘chick magnet’.

Things get even worse for Huey when Bernard starts dating his 25-year-old daughter.

Director Dan Mirvish was able to bring the 30-year-old script to life thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, raising over $27,000 for the cinematic cause.

Rash’s excellent performance as an unlikely romantic lead justifies the crowdfunders’ investments, with Koechner’s Huey providing Bernard with a perfect foil.

If you are a Koechner fan, don’t go expecting the belly-laughs of Anchorman or Saturday Night Live because you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re a fan of subtle buddy comedies, this film is a worthy new addition to their ranks.


The Music Stops Here – Short Documentary

Manchester’s ‘last truly independent’ music venue, the Star and Garter, has quite literally been caught up in the middle of the city’s redevelopment plans.

Adam Farkas and Alec Herron follow the Star’s hopeless battle with Network Rail and the city council who have left the Fairfield Street pub in limbo for over three years as the ‘Northern Hub’ expansion of Piccadilly station, which would force the venue’s closure, has remained indefinitely on hold.

For those who aren’t acquainted with the Star and Garter, this documentary effectively translates the deep love that Manchester’s punk, metal and indie scenes have for the ‘un-intimidating’ venue that welcomes all.

Photographer Iris Cartia captures the heavenly bliss on punters’ faces at the legendary Smiths disco and local band nights.

And pub landlord, Andy Martin, a quintessentially Mancunian music-lover, shares his struggle over the plans that would leave him in tonnes of debt and Manchester, the birthplace of the Smiths, Oasis and Factory Records, without a venue for local bands to come through.

This documentary won’t save the Star, but it poignantly highlights the importance of these disappearing venues to the culture of a city.


Hippopotamus – Narrative Feature 

HIPPOPOTAMUS – Official Trailer from Ed Palmer on Vimeo.

It’s another boy meets girl story, except girl is trapped in a basement with two broken legs and boy is her kidnapper.

Twisted Tom (Stuart Mortimer) tells Ruby (Ingvild Deila) that she will only make it out of his clutches alive if she falls in love with him. But what has he got planned for her if she doesn’t?

Young filmmaker Edward A. Palmer shows directorial flair beyond his years in this genre-hopping feature, which darts from disturbing horror to uncomfortable romance. 

Deila, who you might recognise as a young Princess Leia from Rogue One, will have you rooting for Ruby’s escape, but a subtly powerful performance from Mortimer might leave you with your own case of Stockholm Syndrome.

The only elephant in the room is, well, the titular hippopotamus. Even as the closing credits rolled, it was still confusing about what it referred to: Palmer leaves it open to personal interpretation.

Despite the absence of a certain African animal, however, Hippopotamus is surely the start of great things for Palmer and his cast and crew.


Two Balloons – Animated Short 

Two Balloons (2017) Trailer from Mark Smith on Vimeo.

Anything is possible in the world of animation, so a tale of two lemurs with a taste for adventure travelling through the clouds in airships shouldn’t be a surprise.

Created by a team in Oregon headed up by writer and director Mark Smith, this stop-motion treat will delight lovers of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox.  


Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration – Short Documentary 

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration (Trailer) from Lonnie Edwards on Vimeo.

Lonnie Edwards’ documentary short focused on the millions of African-Americans who moved across the U.S. throughout early to mid-20th Century, to escape extreme racial discrimination of the American South.

In just 12 minutes, the black and white film used three iconic elements of Black culture during the Great Migration.

The audience is introduced to skilful and rousing examples of Jazz and Blues music, poetry, and tap dancing (‘hoofing’ as it was formerly known) born out of the experiences of mass exodus.  

The film includes footage of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. discussing the identity of African-Americans and their place in society, which mimics the sense of conflict so characteristic of the era. This enthralling collection of clips shows how the chosen artists expressed not only the challenges, but also the victories of those pushing both creative and political boundaries.

The historic scenes are then interspersed with contemporary counterparts, demonstrating the striking relevance of the Migration for people today.

A rap artist sets his verses to the beats of a jazz band, while a dancer riffs away in customised Nike Jordans with taps on the soles.

The film even opens with a rendition of ‘Father I Stretch My Hands’ – a gospel song which has made the jump into popular culture, now perhaps better known for being sampled in Kanye West’s most recent album.

Edwards’ collage of narration, movement, music, and written word paints a revealing picture of African-American society today.

At their core, the struggles of empowerment and freedom being told by the artists who migrated all those years ago, are the very same ones being articulated by a new generation.


#TAKEMEANYWHERE – Short Documentary

#TAKEMEANYWHERE from LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner on Vimeo.

#TAKEMEANYWHERE by the art collective, LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner, was their experiment in hitchhiking the internet for a month, caught on film.

Sending out their coordinates on Twitter, the trio await to be collected by whoever happened to be looking at their phones or computers, to embark on a trek across the United States.

While just looking for some long talks in the back of a van, what the directors have actually created is something like car therapy. No judgement and no expectation, the group and their drivers exchange stories, beliefs, feelings.

From Gods to guns, to tattoos and jail-time, the group and their drivers open up in an incredibly pure and honest way. They even get so close to their participants that they are welcomed to stay with their hosts’ families, often giving them insight into a completely different culture.

The film tracks the highs and the lows: the beautiful sunsets atop mountains in some of the U.S.A’s grand National Parks, to the soundtrack of whatever was on the car radio, as well as more raw scenes where the sense of tension seems to climb after weeks of cabin (or car) fever.

But perhaps what the documentary does best is create an intimate window into the lives of real people, and find the truly extraordinary in the everyday.


Touching Sound – Feature Documentary 

Touching Sound Trailer 2017 from Eric Tortora Pato on Vimeo.

The game DJMax Technika has certainly gone under a lot of people’s radars, and it’s really no surprise.

This arcade machine for the modern gamer, appearing mostly in Asia and the U.S. in 2008, was fairly short-lived and extremely limited in scope.

However, for the few years and even fewer places in which it existed, this simple music game brought forth a cult following which has far outlived its inspiration.

Touching Sound documents this seemingly small game, which just so happened to have a life-changing impact on a lucky few.

Of course, not everyone will be familiar with the specific game in question, but what was special about Nick Dobkin’s piece is that it simply did not matter.

Even if you’re a complete novice in the gaming world, the deeply personal stories behind Technika are compelling enough in themselves.

Fellow players, now interviewees, would cross countries to share their passion, creating close friendships and even relationships right there in the arcades they would begin calling home.

This film might not spark an arcade renaissance across the globe, but every member of an audience can relate to the feeling of connecting with another fan, however obscure the topic might be. And that is exactly the beauty of Touching Sound – the magic of this documentary lies in its humanity.


Main image courtesy of Shawn Wright, with thanks.

Related Articles