'Fogo': Film Review | Cannes 2012

Directors Fortnight Fogo Still - H 2012

Directors Fortnight Fogo Still - H 2012

Portrait of a desolately beautiful Canadian island unsatisfactorily straddles documentary and fiction.

Yulene Olaizola's docu-fiction hybrid spotlights the Newfoundland/Labrador island.

A superb calling-card for the skills of cinematographer Diego García, hour-long docu-fiction hybrid Fogo is otherwise austere high-art cinema of the most exquisitely patience-sapping kind. A Canadian-Mexican co-production about the Newfoundland/Labrador island which provides its title, this third picture by Yulene Olaizola will enjoy a measure of festival exposure thanks to the success of her widely-screened 2008 debut Intimacies of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. TV channels favorable to experimental ethnography may also want to take a look -- likewise any producers seeking a DP especially skilled at outdoor landscape work.

Working with his Mexican compatriot Olaizola -- both turn 30 next year -- García here confirms the ample promise he displayed in his sole previous credit, Mark Jackson's outstanding psychological drama Without. Shooting on a wind-swept, heavily-forested island in the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with Jessica Dimmock, García worked wonders on a minimal budget with high-definition digital cameras. Here similar equipment crisply renders the starkly bleak beauty of Fogo, its frozen lakes and mossy stonecrops, so powerfully that audiences may find themselves shivering in their seats. As Herman Melville famously said of his masterpiece Moby-Dick - "a Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

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The big-sky vistas crafted by García and Olaizola are so alluring it's no surprise to discover that the film was part-funded by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, whose website describes it as "a contemporary arts experiment [which] takes a leading role in regenerating the islands [using] arts and creativity as powerful means of stimulating and enhancing a resilient social ecosystem." But bizarrely, in the light of this remit, Olaizola's sparsely-worded screenplay -- co-written with García and Rubén Imaz -- presents Fogo as a benighted, near-abandoned, almost post-apocalyptically harsh wilderness, one whose few remaining die-hard residents are, in the opening scene, offered one last chance to evacuate out back to "civilization."

One would certainly never guess from the movie that Fogo's population stands at well over 2,000 people. In between the striking landscape-dominated exterior sequences, there's a handful of dialogue-exchanges among locals - evidently non-professionals from the area, somewhat stiffly playing themselves - who ruminate on the harshness of fate. "I never thought we were comin' to this," one sighs over his home-brewed hooch. "How are we gonna survive?" ponders his drinking-chum glumly, the pair hunched in a dimly-lit, near-empty kitchen that could have been interior-designed by Samuel Beckett. As in Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky's The Turin Horse, meanwhile, potatoes are silently munched in stoic resignation as the wind blows on and on (and on) beyond the walls.

Admirers of such nature-focused, challengingly oblique recent festival hits like C.W. Winter and Anders Edström's The Anchorage and Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea may respond to Olaizola's ostentatiously dour approach here. And there's much to like about Pauline Oliveros's score, with its keening harmonica and accordion stylings - not to mention the brisk running-time. But for all the elemental grandeur of the locations, Fogo lands with a hefty bump whenever it switches into fictional mode -- indicating that Olaizola would be better off returning to the kind of relatively "straight" documentary which kicked off her career so promisingly.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production company: Malacosa Cine
Cast: Norman Foley, Ron Broders, 'Little Joe'
Director: Yulene Olaizola
Screenwriters: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz, Diego García
Producers: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz
Director of photography: Diego García
Music: Pauline Oliveros
Editor: Rubén Imaz
Sales Agent: Pascale Ramonda, Paris
No rating, 61 minutes.