BFI London Film Festival 2016: „The Red Turtle”, a movie like a meditation session

Seeing „The Red Turtle” last week at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival truly reinforced all my mixed feelings on said festival. On one hand, where else in London can you catch so many exciting, hyped-up art-house films and hear their creators speak? The LFF is truly the cinematic event of the year. On the other hand, what is the purpose of art if it only welcomes those of us who can afford to spend £20 or so on a single movie ticket? What’s with the grumpy guards who push you and bark at you at the box-office queue as if you were queuing for free bread during a particularly bitter famine? Why is there tacky leopard print on the chairs at Curzon Leicester Square, and can nobody see that it doesn’t really go with the gilded angels on the walls? Still, at least the general public can get in, unlike snobbish Cannes.

In any case, such dilemmas were quickly banished by the excitement of getting to see what came out of the partnership between Japan’s Studio Ghibli (creators of such wonderful films as „My Neighbour Totoro” and „Spirited Away”) and Dutch auteur Michael Dudok de Wit, winner of an Academy Award for his short film „Father and Daughter”. Michael Dudok de Wit had never worked on a feature before, but, as he explained, when Studio Ghibli contacted him with a collaboration offer, there was only one possible answer.

According to the director, the Japanese studio perceived his previous short films as Japanese in spirit, but that doesn’t mean you should expect „The Red Turtle” to be anything like other Ghibli films. Indeed, the Dutch filmmaker was given free rein to apply his own aesthetic and tell his own story, while Ghibli provided guidance, mainly through Isao Takahata (director of „Grave of the Fireflies”, amongst other things).

„The Red Turtle” is the dialogue-free tale of a castaway on a tropical island, although thematically it is in fact two stories. „Nature vs man” is one of them, a conflict where nature’s key weapon is not hostility but indifference. The island is beautiful, but it’s also a lonely, isolated place full of hidden dangers. The director emphasised that he wanted to show the suffering inherent to being a castaway, and indeed, this unsentimental look at the complexity of nature, with some amusing touches (such as a bunch of funny, cute little crabs causing mischief) does feel very Ghibli.

The other story is almost contradictory, a romantic fantasy that reminded me of the selkie legends portrayed in Cartoon Saloon’s „Song of the Sea”. I suppose I shouldn’t say too much, but it’s sitting in the fairly familiar territory of man=civilisation, woman= mysterious and closer to nature. It’s an elegant, thoughtful treatment of the trope, with many possible metaphorical meanings, but I was still a tad disappointed when I saw where it was going.

Visually, „The Red Turtle” is a lot more like European comics than anime, which makes sense (this is, after all, an „auteur” project for Michael Dudok de Wit), and it makes good use of wide spaces and colour schemes to induce a feeling of inner calm, which goes well with the quietly-paced script. It’s a film that clears your mind, like a session of meditation, despite the occasional tense moments.

I’m sure audience members had many more curiosities about the film and its development, but unfortunately the festival presenter decided to hog the microphone and ask most of the questions himself, until time was up. As it was, though, the most interesting revelation from Michael Dudok De Wit concerned the decision to keep the movie free of dialogue.

The director explained that some lines of dialogue were recorded, but eventually Ghibli advised for them to be dropped. Spoken lines didn’t feel right, and took something valuable away from the film: its universal character. Once the protagonist speaks, he becomes a national of a particular country, from a particular time and social class (to the degree that such things can be told from speech.)  As it is, the castaway from „The Red Turtle” could be a 17th century sailor or a contemporary, and his ambiguous skin colour could belong to any number of ethnicities.

I can only hope Ghibli will do more collaborations with non-Japanese artists; such an experiment can only result in interesting work. Who else would make for a good mix of flavours with Ghibli?