It’s stopped raining! But now it’s windy. At least the sun is out and the mountains look gorgeous. That’s important for the fifteen minutes’ stroll up and down State Street between screenings. I watched my first Kazakhstani film yesterday, Racketeer. The influence of Scorsese is now all-pervasive, it would seem, though of course he lifted plenty from the Warner’s gangster pics and so forth. It’s apparent here in the first third or so (of 80 minutes) as childhood to a respectable position in the local mob is recounted in montage, vignettes and voiceover by our hero Sayan.

He’s a very nifty boxer who rises naturally to 2IC, a square-jawed handsome young fellow, much more so than the rest of the Kazakh mugs, except of course the young boss, his mentor, played with quiet charisma and an imposing frame. It’s set in some godawful hinterland town where “Ruslan & Co.” runs the casino and commits general extortion and occasional murder, and a deal with a new factory goes south when the Russian mafia gets involved. It’s a thin tale, and not a new one, but there’s a lovely echo of early Fassbinder in the white-backdropped gangster activities of the opening segment, a sudden seriousness when an old friend gets out of jail, and a marvellously unsentimental ending. Shot with competence on some grotty video format, it’s probably quite fitting that it looks cheap and ugly.

My second Kazakh film, on the other hand, was ravishing. Set on the flat barren Steppes, Tulpan is a deeply anthropological film mashed into a surprisingly over-plotted family drama. The life of a shepherd in the wilderness is conveyed in all its dirty, physical detail, right down to birthing sheep, and it seems that the inside of a yurt can be as claustrophobic as the Steppe is massively empty. We’re left in no doubt that these are characters, but the authenticity of the hard lonely peasant lifestyle conjures moments as overwhelming as in Olmi; one only wishes the narrative set-up (young man wants a bride and to learn to be a shepherd; seems at first to fail at both) and the character arcs didn’t feel quite so calculated. The elegant handheld camerawork is an object lesson for all those films shot like the DP’s got the DTs, and it’s up for an Academy Award, which may or may not tell you something.

US independent Follow The Prophet comes off like a movie-of-the-week, given that it concerns a 15 year-old girl escaping daughter-rape, in preparation for secret marriage to the Lord High Mormon; it’s also saddled with a thumping back-story for her father-figure saviour, a possibly unhinged ex-Delta Force Lt-Colonel named Jude (patron saint of lost causes.) The fact that it opens with a majestic slo-mo eagle in flight is sound indication of the inventiveness of the film’s aesthetic. But the power of the material cannot be over-egged and, bristling with righteous anger, it remains truly affecting. This is due in part to a very strong central performance from Annie Burgstede (Days of our Lives!), with excellent support from Diane Venora as the firebrand sheriff, and a brief but supremely unsettling turn from Tom Noonan (even by his standards) as the loathsome Prophet. Also featuring: well-integrated use of various video/surveillance footage, black-trenchcoated Morman goons pouring out of big black cars with assault rifles, and an unnecessarily bleak final moment.

Far and away the best film I’ve seen over the first two and a half days is the Bulgarian Zift. It approaches very close to indescribable, and I am not sure if I can do it justice: it’s a densely constructed nightmare of a film, with cueball-headed Moth getting out of jail at the start and reminiscing about before and during his incarceration, whilst undergoing a night of torture in the basement of the public baths, followed by iridium poisoning (see: DOA). Both the literate script (with much lugubrious voiceover) and the unfussy black and white visual style exhibit a sour world-view, and both are full of poetry. It’s carried by a consistently inventive and totally organic weirdness, and by a marvelously sullen and fearless central performance from Zahary Baharov. Choice elements include: a fantastic array of prison tattoos, a talismanic glass eye, and a Kaurismaki-ly deadpan lounge combo backing a surprising homage. With a fundamental sense of absurdity, lowlife hopelessness and unsentimental physicality, pat comparisons might include Svankmajer making a live-action film noir, or an action-packed Béla Tarr flick. Whichever way you slice it, it’s absolutely thrilling, surprisingly funny, and the title is slang for “shit”.

image: SBIFF