24 Frames per Second

I spent the last weekend at my third annual l’Abri Film Festival, the glorious 24 Frames per Second. This is basically a village film festival, but one that punches far above its weight, with serious debate of intelligent films in a friendly atmosphere. English l’Abri take over the village hall and invite locals, students and friends from far and wide to watch and discuss seven films over 1½ days. It is a real celebration of all things filmic, and of the value of a thoughtful approach to media and storytelling.

This year was particularly special, as the festival saw the UK ‘premier’ of Jaap van Heusden’s film Win/Win, complete with a Q&A with the director. It’s always a joy to hear a director’s perspective on their work, but even more so here, as Jaap talked on current projects, thoughts on film making and writing, and offered opinion on other films in the programme. Jaap came to this little village film festival instead of the Berlin Film Festival, where he was nominated for, and won, best screenplay. How amazing is that?!

Now, I don’t ordinarily review films, but I want to share a few thoughts on this year’s programme, while it’s still fresh in my mind. So, in the style of Mr Jackson

Win/Win

A light-hearted film about banking? An enjoyable exposition of the (un)realities of trading on futures? You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true…

Belgian émigré Ivan has a talent for numbers and a quirky, almost autistic savant personality. Working somewhere in the bowels of a financial firm he gets himself noticed by the traders by randomly placing tips on Post-It notes around the building. Elevated to the big leagues, Ivan soon becomes the firm’s Golden Boy, as it seems he just can’t lose…

A study of the dislocation and alienation of success and the hyper-unreality of financial trading. The pursuit of the abstract is dehumanising. Ivan’s gradual dislocation from reality brilliantly portrayed through some of the best sound editing I’ve heard in years. A beautifully shot and framed film, colours bleached out as he falls further into isolation. And the persistent questions throughout: what is the cost of success? Is there a value in losing?

Doubt

Accusations of child abuse within a catholic school in 60’s America. Politics, power-plays and varying understandings of what is ‘right’. Wonderful acting by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, but very ‘staged’ – the films roots as a play too obviously on display.

This is a film about contrasting views of righteousness – the conflict between moral regulation and compassion, between right action and right motivation. It’s about the doggedness of conviction and the persistence of praxis in the light of doubt and vanishing belief. The two lead roles have enough ambiguity and conviction to allow your own sympathies to come to the fore. Most people will find either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius a monster, but I wonder if they are not both… Different forms of evil wrapped up in conviction? Or just the impossibility of scrutinising another’s soul?

Anderman

A return to the festival, this short documentary by Jaap van Heusden is ostensibly about a man caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The reality is more about the infectiousness nature of madness, and the impossibility of holding on to reality in the face of another’s disbelief in it. Anderman is a fascinating character – brutally direct, somewhat unhinged, and yet captivated by beauty and finding solace in art. 15 mins is just not enough…

The Return

A man appears at the home of two young brothers, whose mother simply says, “your father is home”. Who is this stranger, and what is his motivation? Where has he been for the last twelve years? Father and sons set out on a camping trip with a mysterious purpose, and as time goes on the sons try to understand this stranger and his place in their lives…

The Return is traumatic film, showing a reality far more brutal than we are used to in the west. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, but thematically it weighs on your soul. The director’s very deliberate use of cryptic religious imagery at the start of the film suggests – on later analysis – that he intends for the Father to be seen as some sort of comment on the nature of God. But what a picture!

This man, a cipher, absent at the beginning and end of the story. An unknowable, confusing and seemingly arbitrary plan of action. Brutal and violently-given instruction, arbitrary and extreme punishment. A stream of criticism and dismissive distancing. The only expression of affection too little, two late… I have to say that this is a picture of god I can identify with. It might not be yours, but it does seem consistent.

The film weighs on you. You search for positives, for resolution, for a sense of ‘plan’ to the man’s actions. The sons do learn from the father, they are changed by their experience. But they are equipped by him for a brutal and harsh life that they must live on their own. The father remains throughout unknown and unknowable, and the children unaware that they are loved.

What message should we take from this?

Lourdes

A mess. This pseudo-documentary does not have the courage of its convictions. Supposedly an ‘open’ approach to satire, creating space for the viewer to decide, it is instead muddy, boring and clichéd. There is no bite for the satire, and no miracle for the faithful. I’m amazed this film won awards, and surprised that it ended up on this programme. One to avoid.

Lars and the Real Girl

An extreme introvert, unable to properly interact with society, uses a ‘fake’ girlfriend – a sex doll bought over the internet – to help him transition into the world. Giving every impression that he sees ‘Bianca’ as real, Lars’ family, church and co-workers are forced to treat her as such. And beautiful things happen as a result.

This film is an absolute delight. By far the highlight of the festival. It is at points profound and side-splittingly hilarious, and throughout remains deeply touching. This is a picture of real community in action – surrounding, accommodating and loving others’ brokenness. It is collective acceptance and healing. The need for help in overcoming our fears and stepping out into the world. It is everything I hope for for the future.

Wonderful.

A Serious Man

A cruel, cruel end to the film festival. Our 7th film was just too strange for us to make sense of  – we were too tired, too over-stimulated. My second encounter with the Cohen Brother’s latest, I found it just as confusing the second time round. It is at points very funny, but just too frustrating, as you cannot make sense of all the pieces.

“Embrac(ing) the mystery” is dissatisfying – even if it is the point of the film – as you identify with the lead character too much.

Jim Paul, the l’Abriite who puts the film festival together, always swears that there is no intended theme. But strong thematic elements flow through the seven films: absent fathers/parents and the consequences of such; the struggle to find your place in the world and to deal with your brokenness; madness in the face of complexity; the inability to find satisfying answers. And most powerful of all, doubt and faith.

All the protagonists have some reason to (come to) doubt the narrative of their tradition. They all struggle with questions of identity in the face of challenging circumstances. Arguably, they all have a different worldview by the end of their stories.

The frustration is, of course, that these stories rarely share a comforting resolution. Worldviews are challenged, but ‘answers’ are not forthcoming. I wonder what it says about me that Win/Win and Lars, the two stories with genuine resolution, are the ones I found satisfying? And The Return and A Serious Man, the films with the least resolution, the most questions, the ones that trouble me and weigh on my mind? Perhaps I just have enough ambiguity in my life as it is right now…

Anyway, this post is now quite long enough. The l’Abri Film Festival is to be heartily recommended. It is fun, intelligent, challenging and moving, in a great setting and with some amazing people. Next year I’d like to get a gang of folks together to go down from London. Anyone interested?

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Celebration

As Steven points out, today it is two years since we walked through the doors of the l’Abri Fellowship in Greatham, Hampshire. Crazy, beautiful, unbelievable. Dear, dear friends, I am so grateful to know you all…

Also, tomorrow I’m 31.

So, to celebrate these momentous occurrences, I wanted to share something I should have shared a long time ago. My good friend, erstwhile best man and almost-longest-acquaintance Andy is, among many other things, the lead guitarist for a fantastic slice of uncharacterisable Brit chamber-pop: Stars of Aviation. These guys produce slightly-melancholic quirky music that makes you smile and delights your soul.

By the Shore - Stars of Aviation

While I was in the States they unveiled their latest EP: By the Shore. It’s great, and (hopefully) a wonderful prelude to the forthcoming album (which I’ve been lucky enough to hear a pre-release version of). So, if you like ironic lyrics, classic Casio keyboard sounds, accordions, trumpets and bassoons – or if you just want something to bring a smile to the corner of your mouth – you should waste absolutely no time in checking them out. iTunes link to the EP here. Spotify link here. Band MySpace page here.

Go on then!

The Wedding of the Year

An impossible to focus camera. A grainy , ISO 800 film. A dark, romantically-lit house. Sneak-shots rapidly taken (between moments of clearing plates and washing up).

All these combine to give you some of the worst photographs I’ve ever taken. But they are indicative (if poor) images of precious memories. Yes, it was Marta and Danny’s wedding…

Enjoy

The Shelter

The Manor House

The Manor House – picture by Andrew Sherman

 

So, I have been away. Away from these pages, away from home, from work, from friends, from family. Life got too hard, too messy, too broken, and I shouted STOP! before I crashed. I quit my job, gave notice on my flat, and walked off into the unknown for a while…

What I found was a place of shelter; a manor house in the Hampshire countryside, the home of a community of broken, questioning people, looking to make sense of the world. l’Abri means ‘The Shelter’, and seeks to be just that. It is a Christian community, opening its doors three times a year to a variety of ‘students’, Christians, atheists, agnostics and none-of-the-above, who come looking for a safe place to find meaning in their lives.

For me, struggling to deal with the fallout of a failed relationship, a life that no longer made sense, and a gradual descent into alcoholism, that shelter was almost exactly what I needed. A one-week visit at the start of the autumn ‘term’ turned into a 7-month, two-term stay, as this fragile, thrown-together bunch of religious misfits became my family, and the draughty, almost-tumbledown manor house became home.

L’Abri is a place of contradictions. It has a free, open, almost structure-less programme, but a full, heavily structured week. It is very openly religious, with an American-Evangelical theology, yet refuses to push even the most basic of ‘Christian’ agendas on those that visit it. It seeks constantly to find answers to the questions of life and the issues of the day, and yet most people leave with more questions than when they arrived. It is a study-centre, but with no set (or even recommended) syllabus.

For me, the daily the structure of life at the manor was just what was needed. By August I was struggling to get out of bed in the mornings, and battling depression and a serious lack of motivation at work. At l’Abri, you get up in the morning, come downstairs and look at the notice board. The meal list tells you when and where you will be eating, and what other events there are in the day, and the work list tells you when you will be working, and what you will be doing. There was no choice, no need for deliberation. It was incredibly freeing.

Work, at the manor, means cooking, or cleaning, or gardening, or some form of maintenance. Simple, practical tasks, each with the minimal necessary supervision; you were shown what to do, and trusted with the responsibility of completing the task. Like I said, very liberating.

The rest of your time is spent ‘studying’, with a smattering of lectures, film discussions, tutorials and lunch discussions thrown in. This creates a heady atmosphere of debate, with many concepts and questions floating around. L’Abri specialises in questions of philosophy, theology and morality, but will freely discuss anything: science, aesthetics, art, ecology, food production, pop music. Whatever you can think of. It is an intense place, and I often found it difficult, but it was nice to be around Christians who were not afraid to think.

It’s a busy place. There were between 30 and 40 ‘students’ at the manor at any one time, many of them young Americans, but others from all over the world. For me, a quiet, introverted Englishman, it was an intense, difficult experience in many ways. But then, any form of community has to be. You live and work with people 24-7, people you like and easily get on with, and people who rub you up the wrong way. There is no escape.

I made some great friends there, some of which I hope to write about here in the coming weeks. L’Abri is a bubble, a world in itself away from the real world. The relationships are intense, but you can’t know how many friendships will endure, once the bubble bursts, and you are thrown back into reality. I really hope that many of the friends I have found there will stay so for the rest of my life, but none of us can know that for sure. We are all trying to build our lives again outside of the shelter, and we have to see where our individual paths will lead, and if they will ever cross again.

I’m realising now that I don’t know how to finish this post. There is so much that I could say about my time away, but for now, this will have to be enough. My time in the shelter was what I needed. I have no idea what comes next, but I know that I am better equipped to deal with it now than I was before. And I know that I have experienced a place, and a group of people, that are truly special, that have been home, that have been family, that have been healing.

I hope to see them all again.

Processing

So, how do you make sense of 7 months of life-changing experience? Or the two years of hardship before that? How do you reflect on life, in a way that allows you to move forward, without losing the value of all you’ve encountered?

This is my dilemma as I come to the end of my 7 month sabbatical. Somehow I need to make sense of all that I have experienced in that time, and work through the questions that I asked myself there, and try to finally come to some answers. Or, if not answers, then at least workable solutions.

My return to these pages is full of questions, as is everything else in my life. I no longer feel the compulsion to write about random tech lustings or who said what in the emerging/Christian field. I’m questioning my prior reticence towards writing about my own life and circumstances. I feel that, now, all I have are my own experiences, but even so I cannot guarantee that they will appear here. I have a million thoughts and impressions and feelings clouding through my mind, and I honestly don’t know how I will condense them, or if I will want post the results here. We shall see.

For now, I want to tell you this: I am tired. I am exhausted. I have worked hard and long in a beautiful, crazy, intense community called l’Abri, and have now said goodbye to the place that became home, to the people who became family. I have cried bucketloads, and have no energy left. Parting is such sorrow, and there is little that is sweet, but the memories.

I should be thinking about work; about the fact that I am homeless and nearly penniless. But all I can feel is weary and sad right now. And glad that I have been where I have been, with the people I have been with.

I want to put more thoughts on these pages; I want to grow in my writing, and to work through the many contradictory thoughts I have in my head. I hope this post will be the first in a new chapter, but there are no guarantees. Only that this time it will be different, because I am not the same person that I was on 6th February 2007. Too much has changed since then. I hope that the result will be of interest to you, but I don’t mind if it is not. I don’t think this is about you any more.