N: The Madness of Reason is a beautifully poetic exporation of the life and work of the French entomologist Raymond Borremans, from when he moved to the Ivory Coast in 1929 to his death, and in fact beyond, as his presence is felt as a restless spirit haunting the years since his death.
Borremans career in Ivory Coast started as a street musician, then he set up a mobile cinema then collected and studied butterflies and wrote the first half of the Encyclopedia of the Ivory Coast, the later volumes if which remained unwritten at his death.
The poetic text of the film was written by Ben Okri which is perfectly complemented by the music composed by Walter Hus and sung by Fatoumata Diowara.
The early parts of the film concentrate on the lush natural beauty of Ivory Coast, the clear seas and the extensive forests and a stunning sequence showing egrets in a flooded woodland. A tortoise is shown tied up in a yard but then breaks free and symbolically appears throughout the film, connected with some Ivory Coast sayings about the intelligence of tortoises.
Part way through the tone becomes darker as the film concentrates on the destruction of nature and culture in the name of development and the tragedy of ethnic conflicts, where people are killed purely for belonging to the wrong group.
Throughout the film meditates on the benefits and drawbacks of classifications and definitions. By eing obsessed with a need to define everything are we failing to see life as it truly is? Is the pursuit of scientific classifications causing needless death to scores of beautiful butterflies? How does it help us to classify humans in terms of race, ethnicity, tribal identity or religion if that only leads us to kill each other?
The film also considers the nature of legacy, Borremans died thinking his legacy amounted to nothing because his encyclopedia was incomplete. The institute built in his name in the Ivory Coast now lies empty and in ruins, colonised by palm trees.
Legacy is very much part of A House in Berlin, a fictional documentary about Stella, a woman from Glasgow who inherits a house in Berlin (thoue house in question being what we in Scotland would call a tenement building, made up of several flats, rented out to different households). She travels to Berlin to look at the house, and starts investigating the building's history and getting to know some of it's residents. Her investigations uncover details of the history of the building going back to the Nazi period when it was confiscated from its Jewish owner (Stella's great uncle) and then take her into the complicated area of German restitution law and then into land rights in Palestine. The story in the film is fictional but all the information about German property law and the history of buildings in Berlin is true. The mock documentary style of the film distanced the viewer from the characters, particularly when conversations were reported in the voice-over rather than actually been shown. For this reason I didn't find it at all engaging, though it was very interesting.
On the other hand, director Michel Gondry states he chose animation for the next film up for review, partly because he felt it would distance the viewer from the topic and help them to see things objectively. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a hand-drawn animation set to a series of conversations between the Director Michel Gondry and philosopher/linguist Noam Chomsky. The wide ranging film looks at the history of science (linguistically locating the emergence of modern science with the time when scientists began to be puzzled by the seemingly obvious aspects of life (such as gravity); linguistics and language development, human rights and Chomsky's own life. Gondry's first language isn't English and in the film he admits to sometimes being confused by some of the concepts being discussed, animation being away of clarifying this confusion perhaps.
These three films are showing as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival
N: The Madness of Reason is showing 1805, 20 June and 1750, 27 June both in Cineworld.
A House in Berlin is showing at 2000, 20 June and 1545, 22 June both at Filmhouse.
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? is showing 1810, 20 June, Filmhouse and 2030, 2030, 27 June at Odeon.
Disclaimer: I have a press pass for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
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