The first film I saw when attending the Festival itself this year, was Corn Island (2014), which promised unique scenery and deliberate drama. The buzz from the first screening was strong, leaving expectations relatively high for this one.
Corn Island tells the story of an old man working a seasonal island on a river in a disputed region of Europe. He works this island in the hope of being able to grow enough corn to feed him and his family for the rest of the year. On the tiny island he is joined by his granddaughter, who helps him to work the plot of land. The film works best as a piece of agrarian portraiture. There is something scenic and intensely interesting about seeing them work. The scenes of the two of them slowly building a shack to live in, sowing the corn and tending to the crop that is so important to them are the most beautiful and effective of the entire film. Occasionally director George Ovashvili shows the entire island in a wide shot. It is tiny really and these shots reinforce the fragility of this tiny piece of land and its importance to this man.
The second, less successful, strand of the story focuses on the blossoming of the man’s granddaughter into womanhood. The writing is far less assured here, clumsily establishing the innocence of the girl by having her carry a doll a girl her age would have long ago discarded (and one which predictably gets discarded later on in the film in a piece of overblown symbolism). The script then proceeds to foreshadow what is in store with her character, especially the way she is shot on occasions, the symbolism of the doll and how her dress changes especially a headscarf she dumps early on. But then after this somewhat clumsy setup, Ovashvili rushes through the actual meat of the situation to render it meaningless really. The film is almost dialogue free, but the dialogue that does eventuate is not particularly good. Some characters are sketched well in this human side of the story – the boorishness of the young soldiers is spot on for example. But it is any time that Ovashvili tries to go much deeper, such as the over protectiveness of the grandfather and the discussions they attempt to have regarding her ‘blossoming’, that he loses the material.
One of the first ways in which Corn Island establishes the confined world it is set in is through the naturalistic sound design. As the old man ferries supplies across to the island, birds chirp loudly, the paddle sweeps through the water and we hear his footprints marking his temporary home. It sets up the idyllic, quiet nature of the place where the man is free to work. It’s an idyll that is very effectively broken later in the film by the buzz of a military outboard motor. Despite the film feeling almost portrait like, it is not shot in an at all stagnant style, with noticeable edits and varying shot lengths bringing attention to the man’s weather-beaten face, the scale of his work or the specific task he is undertaking. By making the film slightly more dynamic than he could have, Ovashvili makes the slower scenes much more easy to absorb and therefore effective. Perhaps the best moment of the human side of the story comes at the conclusion, when the understated agrarian elements of the story culminate in a heartbreaking sequence as the old man’s island and crop are literally washed away. But once again, there is a misstep as the film ends on a contrived note, with overbearing music soaring a little too much.
Verdict: As a piece of agrarian portraiture, Corn Island is top class festival fare. Unfortunately the writing and execution of the human side of the story is a major let-down, making for a good, but far from great overall experience. Stubby of Reschs