Edinburgh Film Festival: The other side of the screen

Gaza, Baghdad, neo-Nazis, conjoined rock-star brothers, a Kubrick impersonator... the Edinburgh Film Festival reaches parts the multiplex cannot.
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The Independent Culture

I love film festivals because, in a world of watered-down movies made by corporate Hollywood, they serve up full-strength celluloid caffeine. They parade before you all the original, brave movies you will never see at the multiplex. You see movies made by film-makers who have not yet been absorbed by the amorphous blob of the Hollywood studio system, and the Edinburgh Film Festival - now skipping and dancing into its 60th anniversary - is one of the best.

The freakish, fantastic mockumentary Brothers of the Head is a perfect example of the film festival movie. Its plot is simple. A pair of conjoined twins, Tom and Barry, are in effect sold by their father to a record company, which turns them into a cult punk band in 1970s Britain.

It sounds like the premise for a bad-taste slice of American Pie, but it is a pitch-black, pitch-perfect character study told with a straight face and a broken heart. Tom and Barry are hosed down and beaten up by their new bosses, and fed on by a parasitical entourage who are being interviewed decades later about the dead pair, who have long since joined what Kurt Cobain's mother called "that stupid club" of martyred rock stars.

The hideous intimacy between the brothers is teased out in raw, bitter performances by Harry and Luke Treadaway. They descend into furious rages where they attack each other with knives, but they cannot bear the thought of separation. By taking a hellish gothic story and embedding it in the total naturalism of documentary, the directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton have produced something genuinely intense - and intensely horrific.

Of course, the price of experimentation is that you see some movies that belly-flop into the cinema and leave only some splashed water and an embarrassed silence. I saw two disappointments in Edinburgh this year. Neo Ned has a fantastic concept: a neo-Nazi imprisoned for "stomping a nigger to death" falls in love with a black woman who believes she is Adolf Hitler. For the first half-hour, the writer Tim Bough runs with it. "Maybe we can keep in contact after the revolution," the Nazi tells his love after making her a slew of swastikas in art class, only for her to say, "Let me get this clear. You want to have a war to divide whites from blacks, and then sneak across the barbed wire fence for coffee?"

But it's as if Bough is frightened of the brilliance of his own concept and runs away from it. He quickly establishes that the Nazi isn't really a Nazi, and didn't really stomp a black guy to death. He's just a nice regular romantic lead. The woman doesn't really believe she's Hitler; it was all a ploy. They go from being mental patients to being sunny Middle Americans, and the film degenerates into a flabby romcom-by-numbers.

All the staples of 1990s American indie cinema are rolled out to lubricate the film - a soft rock soundtrack, flashbacks to suburban anomie, long road journeys, check, check, check. Neo Ned could have been something great, but it's like biting down on a cyanide capsule and finding it is made of marshmallow.

Colour Me Kubrick is another terrific idea that bleeds away into mediocrity. In the 1990s, an alcoholic confidence trickster called Alan Conway fell upon the idea of passing himself off as the famously reclusive film director Stanley Kubrick. He wandered across Europe hoovering up the money and hospitality of the gullible, even attending film festivals in Kubrick's name.

The ambiguities of this story should spill from the screen. Did Conway coat himself in lies to protect himself from his own self-hate? Did his victims suspect, but dismiss their suspicions because they wanted desperately to believe that the great Kubrick was interested in them?

But all this is dismissed in favour of a crude Carry On Kubrick comedy, reduced to making its characters fart and wear pink shell-suits to get a laugh. It's the cinematic equivalent of gurning. The film treats Conway's victims with the same casual contempt as Conway himself, presenting them as imbeciles. It's a jumble of caricatures and cardboard cut-outs who inflict cardboard pain on each other.

John Malkovich tries to invest the role of Conway with moments of poignancy, but the script constantly undercuts him by putting Frankie Howerd jokes in his mouth ("I want to make sure nobody handles you but me, Rupert"). There is a sadder, truer film to be made about Conway.

After these disappointments came two bomb-blast documentaries from a burning Middle East. Israeli director Yoav Shamir's 5 Days follows a pack of fanatical Israeli settlers living on stolen Palestinian land in the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli soldiers sent to remove them last summer with the support of most of the country's citizens. "All the weirdos of Israel have gathered here," a soldier notes as he stares at the flocks of hard-right settlers who claim a biblical right to the land.

As they scream and wail about being forced from their homes, a black irony hangs over the movie. The settlers are decrying being driven from their "homeland" - exactly the fate they inflict on the Palestinians without a fleck of empathy. Even when the comparison is most blatant, the thought does not cross their minds; theocratic thinking provides a total inoculation against self-awareness.

There is another, yet uglier irony about this film. Shamir is known in Israel as a left-wing film-maker and a passionate defender of Palestinian rights. It's hard to watch this film without being revolted by the settlers, or seeing the difference between the kid gloves used by the Israeli army to handle Jews and the casual violence used against the Palestinians. When these make a cameo, throwing rocks, the soldiers ask whether they should fire in the air or "at their legs" - an option not even considered in response to settler violence.

Yet supposedly left-wing campaigners from the Stop the War Coalition campaigned to prevent this film from being screened in Britain. Some of its members even threatened to vandalise the film festival's website if they insisted on screening a (boo! hiss!) Israeli film. It doesn't matter how left-wing and pro-Palestinian an Israeli is, it seems; to them, they are all to be shunned.

But the documentary of the festival is My Country, My Country. Last year, the American film-maker Laura Poitras did something very brave, and very foolish. Without a bullet-proof vest, without a security team, without even a translator, she wandered the streets of Baghdad - far beyond the Emerald City of the Green Zone - looking for the human stories beneath the bombs. Iraq is now a subject so burnt up in polemic that it is like cool, clear water to step inside Iraqi homes and hear ordinary Iraqis talking about their post-traumatic stress society.

The Kurds talk with bashful gratitude about "removing a threat to the whole world", yet fear that Saddam remade Iraq in his own image: "He taught them to cut out tongues. Such a mentality is something you can't get rid of."

The horrors of the Anglo-American occupation are burnt on to almost every frame too. In Abu Ghraib prison, Poitras met Dr Ahmed, a dignified Sunni determined to stand for election to the Governing Council. Poitras follows him as he tries to coax his fellow Sunnis into the democratic process, only for him to be labelled "dangerous" by the occupying forces for criticising the massive violence (including chemical weapons) used by the Americans against the Sunni civilian-packed city of Fallujah. Dr Ahmed's liberal optimism about Iraq is slowly burnt away until finally he declares: "We are a suicidal people, it is our destiny," and begins to talk about the End of Days.

But the most fascinating figures in the film are Dr Ahmed's wife Samera and his daughters. They are bolshie, smart and ignored, snapping at the men who lecture them about the importance of religion and defending secularism in private arguments. Yet at the end of the film they still vote for the Sunni theocratic political parties; tribe trumps values. I wondered wistfully about the kind of Iraq the country's women would build, if only they could be heard.

As she watches the people who visit the Ahmed family home, Poitras captures some startling images. A friend enters in a sweaty panic because his son has been taken for a $15,000 ransom. The kidnappers call; he arranges a pick-up but then tells the Ahmeds that he has informed the American soldiers and they are being very helpful. Then - a stopped heart - he realises he did not hang up his phone. He holds it to his ear, and the kidnappers are still on the line. "My son is dead," he says. "I am going to be killed."

After years of being desensitised by the dead hand of Superman Returns and its clones, these are films to remind you that movies are an art-form that can smack you around - and leave bruises.

Edinburgh International Film Festival, to 27 August (0131-228 4051; www.edfilmfest.org.uk)