Montgolfière d’or:
A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral (Chand Kilo Khorma Baraye Marassem-e Tadfin)
(Iran, directed by Saman Salour)

For 28 years the annual film festival of Nantes – city of the ballooning Montgolfier brothers, Jules Verne and film-maker Jacques Demy – has proudly followed its theme as “Festival des Trois Continents”, spotlighting the film art of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  This year, however the programme was virtually reduced to two continents:  2005-6 was a barren year for African cinema, and the selectors failed to find a single film for the competition.  The lacuna provoked some protest – but no titles.

The Nantes programme is always interesting in its variety, but this year’s jury were left struggling to find a worthy candidate for Nantes’ main prize - the Montgolfière d’or - until the final show of the festival, when 30-year-old Saman Salour’s A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral (Iran)  emerged as a clear winner. The film also won the audience award.  With its raw, contrasty black-and-white camerawork, dry narrative style, wry comedy and elements of necrophilia and the surreal, the film has nothing in common with what we know as the contemporary, post-Kiarostami Iranian cinema.  In deepest winter, two men survive isolated in a petrol station which has been by-passed by the highway and whose pump doesn’t work, even if anyone should ever ask for gas.  Their yearnings for sex are turned in different strange ways, though the romantic’s passionate correspondence with his loved one is subverted by a perfidious postman.  Their only occasional caller is the local undertaker. Here is a rarity – a truly original and fascinating film.

The best actor prize went to the teenage (but already seasoned professional) Nahuel Perez Biscayart for his role in Alexis Dos Santos’ immensely likeable Glue  (Argentina) - which also won the Youth Jury Prize, as it had earlier done at the Rotterdam festival.  Biscayart plays Lucas, a 14-year-old growing up in a somnolent township in Patagonia, hanging out and enthusiastically making music, at the same time as he is excited and confused by the changes in his body (which he studies with daily curiosity). His anxious sexual desires take in both his best friend Nacho and their serious, bespectacled girl friend Andrea. The film has all the energy and faults of the first film of a truly talented film maker.  It is a shade overlong and the visuals often betray their shoe-string video and super-8 origins; but such defects are more than compensated by Dos Santos’ honesty, his clearly autobiographical observation, his feeling for place and atmosphere and his ability to capture his characters’ alternation of anguish and foolery.  Dos Santos in person is a diminutive figure like a vagrant elf, permanently draped in knapsacks of varied shapes and hues.

Argentina was in strong form: Diego Lerman’s MIENTRAS TANTO (MEANWHILE) is a kind of Short Cuts of poor working class Buenos Aires, A number of characters and small stories interweave. One couple are in process of  breaking up; another resort to every possible means to overcome a severe case of infertility. A meek maid is driven to violent revolution by her horrid middle-class employers and their defecating dog. A monster mother battles to keep her middle-aged son from love and marriage.  Funny and sad, it is a good follow-up to Lerman’s  2003 Locarno prize-winner Suddenly.

Another entry from Iran, Asghar Fahadi’s FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY, fresh from winning the Gold Hugo at October’s Chicago International Film Festival, has the ready narrative vitality of soap opera, along with nice psycho-social observation. A girl from the country takes a job as maid in a middle-class professional household, rent by the wife’s neuroses and jealousies.  Between times having trouble, alike in town and country, with her chador, the maid (winningly played by Taraneh Alidoosti) becomes an unwilling participant in the domestic drama.

A surprise from mainland China was Yang Heng’s independent, DVcam, shoestring feature BING LANG (BETEL NUTS).  Determinedly minimalist, mostly filmed in long shot, its cool objectivity and dry wit are nevertheless surprisingly winning.  The killing boredom of life in a small township is reflected through the mildly delinquent foolery of two friends, each in clumsy pursuit of a female quarry.  With a photography diploma from the Beijing Academy of Film, Yang Heng combines a strikingly original visual style with a quirky sense of humour.  The film was awarded a new  Nantes award for “New Vision”.

Two general observations on the Nantes programme: (1) there seems an optimum age for film-makers: the maker of every film worth attention was within a couple of years of 30.  (2) Not one of the 13 films in competition – a majority from politically tense areas of the world – dealt with broader socio-political issues; all were narrowly focussed on strictly personal stories.