My review of “Imagine” North American Premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival

On Thursday, March 14, 2013 I attended the North American Premiere of Imagine at the SXSW Film Festival. The sold-out screening was held at the intimate Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, Texas. The film was a selection in the Festival Favorites section, having triumphed at festivals including Warsaw and Göteborg.

No two festivals are exactly alike, and this year's SXSW is a perfect example. At past fests over half the films I've seen have been foreign, many subtitled, and often made up a significant percentage of my Top Picks. This year, by chance, I only saw five non-U.S. films -- two documentaries and three narratives, including one from Canada. That leaves only two narrative features from overseas out of the 39 screenings I attended this year.

Those two couldn't have been more different. Of my 24 narrative features, I only "awarded" less than three stars (must avoid) to three films. One of these two foreign films was in that group. But the one other narrative from overseas rated five out of five stars from me and a place on my 2013 SXSW Film Festival Top Picks, the only non-U.S. film that made my list this year.

Written, directed, and co-produced by Andrzej Jakimowski, Imagine is a beautiful story told simply, through the lens of a young filmmaker whose passion for the work is palpable. The Poland/Portugal/France co-production is set in a famous clinic for blind children in Lisbon, Portugal. Drawing students from countries as diverse as England and Germany, the children enter the prestigious school with hopes of discovering new ways to function in a world that caters to the sighted. Edward Hogg plays Ian, the enigmatic teacher who lands the plumb position of guiding these kids after he parted ways with his previous employer under dubious circumstances. His unorthodox methods -- he insists that the children forego the use of canes -- are destined to put his pupils at risk and land him in hot water one too many times. There is a love story here, as well, with the lovely and vulnerable Alexandra Maria Lara playing an older student with her "sights" set on the young man.

One of the many guilty pleasures of Imagine is that its widescreen cinematography showcases the quaint, classic beauty of this port town, which goes unseen by the characters onscreen. But this irony does not escape Director of Photography Adam Bajerski, who primarily relies on narrow handheld closeups and low angle steadicam shots, along with voyeuristic rear tracking sequences, bringing the viewer closer to the field of vision experienced by the actors but teasing the audience with occasional glimpses of this rich landscape. We wish we could see more, mirroring the children's own desires. It's as if the filmmakers decided that we don't need to see what the blind don't see, so we see little of their world as well. Natural lighting is used throughout, with a paucity of interior lights in the students' rooms. After all, why do they need lamps? Guillaume Le Braz and Jacek Hamela's sound design deserves much of the credit for the effectiveness of the narrative, as the children are taught to use the senses they do have -- hearing first and foremost -- where even the gentle sway of tree branches, panting of a hungry dog, or pitter-patter of a cat's feet are used to help the students form a mental picture of their surroundings. To that end, composer Tomasz Gassowski's score is sparse and used gently to punctuate the poignant moments. More than in most films, the soundtrack cannot, and does not, get in the way.

Most of all, though, it's the authentic heartfelt performances from actual visually impaired young actors that makes Imagine so touching. Their story truly holds the viewer's interest to the point where we don't want to leave even as we're visiting a world most wouldn't wish to inhabit.

Jakimowski's script is sensitive to the disabilities depicted here without being exploitative. To Sir, with Love meets The Miracle Worker in Imagine, a sweet little cinematic gem that will leave you with a tear in your eye and a smile on your face.

For its lighthearted yet tender treatment of an often taboo subject, and its bold casting choices, I gave Imagine five stars and a place on my 2013 SXSW Film Festival Top 8 Narratives, the only foreign film to make my list this year.

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NOTE: Imagine was nominated for the Grand Prize and won both the Audience Award for Fiction Feature Films and Best Director at the 2012 Warsaw International Film Festival.

CONNECT: imaginethefilm.org

Imagine - SXSW 2013 Accepted Film from SXSW on Vimeo.



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
  • Posted: March 22, 2013
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