Diamond of the festivals

Edinburgh's film festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Mitchell Miller looks at some of this year's offerings

For its humane, sympathetic spirit and a superb central performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, my pick of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival (August 14-27) would be Laurie Collyer's Sherrybaby.

But as certain explicit scenes would prohibit the average class outing, Sherrybaby must await discovery by discerning but currently underage cineastes at some later date. Until that happy day, this year's festival offered up several fine movies that entertain as they inform, with the Film Festival's 60th anniversary being, in many respects, dedicated to life's victims.

One of these is the subject of Special (directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore), a quirky, edgy American independent starring Michael Rapaport.

Rapaport is a fine character actor, relegated all too often to the bit parts. As Les, he updates that stalwart of classic Hollywood, "the schmoe"

- what Buster Keaton called the slow thinker beloved of audiences. Les is a comic book-obsessed parking meter attendant turned Don Quixote when a clinical trial for a drug ("Special") convinces him he has superpowers.

What follows is a parable of America's obsession with self-help and hero worship that is by turns funny, disturbing and tragic.

Even more disturbing perhaps, is Ashim Ahluwalia's John Jane, a documentary set in a Mumbai call centre. It gives faces to those disembodied Indian voices who comprise the customer service sector in much of America, who undergo accent elimination classes and an almost constant bombardment of consumerist propaganda to make them better at selling.

"Osmond" is an Elvis-obsessed Napoleon bent on wealth and power, "Sydney" a sweet mammy's boy who wants to be a dancer, and "Naomi" a tragic, strangely vulnerable freak of circumstance, who has bleached out her Indianness from every part of herself, from accent to eyelash.

There was a promising crop of British films at the festival, though unfortunately Douglas Mackinnon's The Flying Scotsman was not among them. I suspect that each of the nine producers on this film carved out their own piece of the script and somehow forgot to compare notes; the result is a film so muddled it is difficult to tell whether Jonny Lee Miller's performance as Graeme Obree reflects some personality trait or is simply 100 per cent wooden.

Much better was the debut feature from photographer Rankin in collaboration with seasoned director Chris Cottam. If Special gives us Don Quixote as caped crusader, their Lives of the Saints features a Mr Squeers for the ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) era. In a gritty, pungent fairytale from the seamier corners of London, James Cosmo is electric as the Dickensian, grotesque Mr Karva.

With much fuss being made over the politics of the best picture nominees at this year's Oscars, 2006 has proved a renaissance for political cinema. In the wake of the French riots, French director Eliane de Latour's Birds of Heaven can only be taken as a political statement. The BritishFrench co-production tells the story of two men from the Ivory Coast to the UK.

The anthropologically trained de Latour has a strong eye for local detail and environment, coupled with a firm belief in the self-empowerment of developing countries. The characters Shad and Otho embody, respectively, the two options for those in the developing world - escape to better opportunities, or feather the nest back home. The former becomes a criminal, the latter an African nationalist.

High-profile politicos, pundits and topics dominated the documentary section; Al Franken in Al Franken: God Spoke, Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, censorship in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and Iraq in Laura Poitras's My Country. Rex Bloomstein's KZ was more modest but just as profound. "That's what I mean," says the unnamed tour guide, hands stroking thin air by a museum diaroma, "You feel it? There..."

KZ is an Austrian concentration camp - and a tourist attraction and museum.

Its guides are a strange, obsessive bunch who don't so much relate history as channel it.

"Mauthausen won't let go of me," says the guide, a portly, morose man with a drink problem. "You always feel you have a mirror held up to you, and you're taking it home with you."

KZ is a really a film about the educational process itself; the schoolchildren who pour out of the buses into the camp make a fascinating study in the immediate, visceral effects of the truth. Nervous, giggling, fashionably dressed, their efforts to stay cool are ruthlessly stripped away by the young guide who greets them - who, with his shaved head, gaunt features and serious expression, might be an example of ultimate empathy with his subject, or some strange pastiche of Holocaust iconography.


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