Astoria is journalist Paul Mason’s fictional short film debut and it is as familiar as it is distinct. The most pertinent grabbing thing about this piece, which follows a Syrian female refugee’s quest to find her friend in a Budapest hotel, is its synthesis between its thematic preoccupations and whirlwind exploration of cinematic genre which seems to be a meditation upon how artists’ responses to global crises has changed over the decades.
The opening shot is news footage of the Hungarian police trying to hold back the refugees on its borders. It is recognisable for its modernist cinematic traits with its handheld, documentary style, capturing real time footage (a throw back to Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City may be). On screen the shot is manipulated to look like a domestic or semi professional camera, probably a Canon EOS 50D, most likely held by a journalist or journalist activist. It is clear then that we are in the post modernist film world, where the lines between observer, journalist, filmmaker and activist are blurred. But as the viewer goes with the woman who turns her back on her fellow refugees on the long road to Germany or Croatia and infiltrates Budapest instead, Mason flips the style: there’s a gradual descent, with blurred dreamy lights, and quick montage shots where concept now has the upper hand in editing, into a more romantic, sentimental aesthetic jarred by uncomfortable shots of memorials to the holocaust. I’m right off target when I mention I started thinking about the introduction to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,famed for its nod to nostalgia with its opening montage sequence, yet am I? Midnight in Paris gives us a 21st Century city which also transports us back to the colourful and flamboyant 1920s era. Astoria transports us to WW2, although we stay firmly in the now, and also has a voice over, only here its mystical quality, the essence of which defies explanation (a little bit like the film’s title which is also the name of the hotel) is anti nostalgic.
As the woman meets various characters and penetrates the Astoria Hotel itself, Mason openly manipulates genre even more. The building is haunted by ghosts of WW2’s resistance fighters and German SS torture chambers and the inhabitants of these worlds make appearances in washed out grey, set against the bright colours of now, an inverse, one imagines, of the colour scheme in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Soon we are transported into the hotel’s ballroom and into film noir scenes set in steep stairwells and automatically and stylistically, the worlds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Eventually we arrive back to the present where the woman directly addresses the audience and we are left with an enduring, haunting last image.
This film is only seven minutes, but it packs so much in it feels a lot longer. There’s a clear message, even warning. But it makes references to other ideas: how new architecture can wipe out history or choose to preserve buildings as monuments and reminders. We are asked to reframe Europe’s recent traumatic history within cinematic evolution. Mason begins with a style that is elusive, distanced and yet all too familiar, takes us through the more romanticised film noirs and through to Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychologically illusive, slightly absurdist neorealist style that tries to capture the epistemological meaning of existence. Editing styles follow suit. At times shots are allowed to have their own momentum and internal rhythm (slightly siding with Andrei Tarkovsky, who post Stalin’s era, rejected Eisenstein’s view that concept and narrative drive should dictate shot length) and at times are driven by narrative needs. The question is, what is this exploration of the film genres in conjunction with our responses to these kinds of crises trying to show us? That we need a more edifying artistic response that rejects the distant, faceless, silent observing camera that is now our generally accepted style as well as a new way to see and treat refugees? The answer might well be in the film, and the warnings about what could happen if we don’t effectively answer the latter question might also be there in the last shot.
Astoria is a Young Vic Theatre short film