Balthazar and the violinist – GIFF35 (part 3)

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Part 1 is here, part 2 here.

A big part of the fun of the Gothenburg International Film Festival is getting to see films you would probably never otherwise see. Sometimes you find yourself choosing a film to see simply on the basis of its title. Or sometimes because the one you wanted to see is sold out. Sometimes you choose a film because it is from an interesting part of the world that seldom produces films. Africa in my case, I always try to see Festival films from sub-Saharan Africa.

The festival tram

Another part of the fun is logistical. The constant uncertainty of whether you’re going to get in time to the place where the film is being shown. Over the whole Festival I think there were at least three major delays on the No. 6 tram line, the one the Festival and Gothenburg Public Transport bill as the “Festival Tram”.

On the morning of 1st February I found myself on my way to the Haga Cinema on Linnégatan. I was going to see Grey Matter, a film from Rwanda. As there was a backup of trams from my part of Gothenburg – a breakdown somewhere – the tram was very crowded: full of teens late for school and having a riot. Then when the tram stopped at Nordstan it was stormed by hoards of kindergarten kids. Standing room only. Fortunately I had a seat, but I also had two kindergarteners looking curiously over my shoulder as I tweeted on my mobile phone.

Balthazar and the violinist: still from Chicken with Plumbs
Still from Chicken with Plumbs

“What are you DOING?” Asks one.
“I’m Tweeting.”
“What’s your name?”
“John – what’s yours?”
“Alma! Ebba!” I see a teacher hovering nervously, separated from us by the sardine packed hordes. I smile at her in what I hope will seem a reassuring manner, but it only seems to make her more nervous. What a world we do live in.

Logistical concerns

At Prinsgatan I managed to eel off the tram and took myself into the Haga Cinema. Lots people but no queues. Anarchy, but a much lower level anarchy than on the tram. I found the theatre where Grey Matter was to be shown and joined the crowd milling around outside. While we were waiting, I counted 12 people coming out. Now, I was waiting for the first showing of the day so why were people coming out of the theatre? Perhaps there’d been a private showing earlier, or perhaps they’d been camping out on the floor. (For some reason I prefer to believe the latter.)

Despite the apparent anarchy, once the doors opened everyone hanging around outside was able to get a seat. Including me, though I found myself seated rather a long way from the door. From being nervous about whether I would manage to get in to see this film, I started to wonder if I’d be able to get out of the cinema in time to get across town to my second film of the day. Oh, the worries one has!

Balthazar and the violinist: Still from Chicken with Plumbs
Another still from Chicken with Plumbs

Balthazar and Cockroaches

Matière Grise (Grey Matter) was a very moving film, and in places rather disturbing. As you would expect from the first feature length film to come out of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide. The film is a bit disjointed in that it’s composed of three independent stories. They do intertwine with one another, but jarringly I thought.

Balthazar thinking about the film he wants to make
Balthazar thinking about the film he wants to make

The first story is about a filmmaker called Balthazar (perhaps a representation of Kivu Ruhorahoza, the writer and director of Grey Matter) and his struggles to finance the film is trying to make. His government contacts complained that his film is backward looking. Why can’t he make an upbeat, educational film about, for example, the fight against AIDS? The second story is a Kafkaesque fantasy about a man locked in a prison and reliving his role in the genocide of the “cockroaches”. (Literally – this story involves real cockroaches.) The third and longest part of Grey Matter is taken up with a young man’s struggle for sanity and his sister’s struggle to help him and hold the two of them together in a family. They are survivors of the genocide; their parents and the rest of their family have been brutally murdered.

Parallel pretensions

Coming out of Grey Matter I found myself drawing parallels with the Korean film Characters that I saw the day before. (See Part 2.) Both films use bracketing stories about the making of a film. And in both the bracketing story blends with the film’s “true” story. I found Characters more than a bit pretentious, but I did not have that feeling about Grey Matter. At least, not nearly to the same extent. Yes, the pretensions were there. Especially in the first section when the filmmaker is discussing his cinematographic antecedents and references. But they were nowhere near as intrusive as in Characters, a film which really didn’t have anything much to say. The story in Grey Matter was so powerful, and the characters, especially in the second and third sections, so much more believable, that the pretensions did not assume the significance they did in Characters.

Grey Matter was one of the films this Festival that I found myself continuing to think about for long after. If I get the opportunity to see it again I will certainly do so.

Chickens, plumbs and a suicidal violinist

My second film of the day was the French language Iranian film Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plumbs). A – mostly – live action film by Marjane Satrapi, the author of the charming, funny, touching animated autobiography Persepolis.

Chicken with Plumbs must also be based on a graphic novel. It’s obvious in much of the live action cinematography. There is a quality of tableau vivant over a number of scenes in the film. Also, the film breaks into Satrapi’s characteristic black and white animation in at least one place.

The violinist gets married
The violinist gets married

Chicken with Plumbs tells the story of world-famous violinist Nasser Ali Khan and how he goes about committing suicide. First he fails humorously, but finally he tragically succeeds. Why does he decide to kill himself? Is it the row with his wife? Is it his broken violin which he is unable to replace? It turns out to be … woops, I nearly posted a spoiler!

In good Thousand and One Nights style the film contains many small stories that appear to be incidental, but that all contribute to the whole, and make for a very satisfactory completeness in the film. As I left the cinema I found myself tweeting that “Chicken with Plumbs is the best film I’ve seen so far this #GIFF”.


With a certain amount of perspective now – and having seen a few more films at the Festival – I want to revise that statement. Chicken with Plumbs was certainly one of the most complete and satisfactory stories that I saw in a feature film. Visually it was also very satisfactory. Beautifully made, with wonderful sets, very good acting, funny and sad.

But it was also very sentimental. It was a more rounded story than the one in Persepolis, but not nearly as edgy. True there were a few references to the history and politics of Iran, but Chicken with Plumbs is a fantasy. It would work perfectly well without any of those references and could very easily have been transposed to another country than Iran.

I enjoyed it, I recommend it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it a second time. (The trailer is fine though… 🙂 )

That was my last film of the day as I had some translation work to do in the afternoon, so I shall break off my account here. Continued in Part 4!

But there was no Part 4.

Here are the other parts though: Part 1; Part 2.

And here’s the GIFF35 promotional video as promised in Part 2.

Unless otherwise stated, all the illustrations come from stills taken from promotional trailers.

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