You have to admire the chutzpah of BIFF programmers Tom Vincent and Neil Young in starting their festival with Michael Winterbottom and finishing it with Mira Nair. They are two of my favourite directors but both are almost guaranteed to cause controversy or to produce films that critics write about negatively (which is important for the success of specialised films). I wasn’t keen on the Winterbottom this time but the Mira Nair, though seriously flawed in some ways, was very interesting. The more negative reviews I read, especially from the US, the more I like it. To be fair though, the most sensible article on the film I’ve seen so far came from the New York Times.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid published in 2007. The script is by William Wheeler and Ami Boghani with some input by Hamid. I haven’t read the novel but I understand that it has been ‘opened out’ for the film – or perhaps changed in terms of genre. The protagonist identified in the title is Changez Khan, son of a Punjabi poet in Lahore who gets to Princeton and from there wins a job with a major US financial consultancy, becoming a ‘lord of the universe’ and rewarding investors while ruining the lives of workers around the world. Changez moves up the associates ladder at a rapid rate but is halted by the after effects of 9/11 and also by a relationship with the niece of his employer. He turns against his mentor, returns to Pakistan and becomes an academic. This story is told to an American journalist in Lahore in the context of the kidnapping of an American professor from the same university. We are asked to consider if the journalist is a CIA agent and if Changez has become a mujahid.
A number of reviews and comments I have read which are very negative have come from Americans who don’t seem to recognise that the narrative is from the POV of Changez, so the film works differently to those Hollywood thrillers about ‘terrorists’. Other negative reviews (including from the UK) criticise the film for lecturing/moralising or peddling clichéed liberal views and using characters as symbols for ‘big ideas’ etc. I have to admit that there are also reviews like this one in Slant magazine in which it is a South Asian in North America leading the attack. I don’t really go with any of these, though I can understand some of them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens in the UK in May and despite my misgivings, it’s definitely worth seeing. Riz Ahmed is excellent and so too is Kiefer Sutherland as his US boss. Many of the people I talked to after the BIFF screening liked the film.
The major problem in the film for me was the romance. Kate Hudson has been seen by many as being miscast. I’m a bit uncomfortable about this. She isn’t, in this role, anything like a Hollywood female star and I should applaud that. To put it bluntly, she isn’t a stick insect and she seems much older than Riz Ahmed as Changez. I should applaud the casting – and her playing – but it didn’t work for me and I just didn’t believe in her as the character she played. In many ways, the romance got in the way of the main story – but it was necessary to bring the issue of family into play. The importance of the family in Lahore is emphasised several times and for me the key scenes are in Istanbul. Changez and his boss are there to close down an Istanbul publisher which is losing money. Changez reveals some of his background and the publisher says he should be ashamed as the son of a poet. Later the publisher tells him about the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire – Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period. This seems to me a neat way of critiquing Changez’ position and I think that to criticise it as heavy-handed is ridiculous. Hollywood tries hard to normalise its promotion of Western capitalist values. Here Asian and Muslim values are being promoted by a character. What’s the problem?
This is another film which uses the horror of 9/11 as a key event in the narrative structure. There have been many such films from the West but relatively few that are seen from the perspective of a Pakistani character. The only other one that comes to mind is Yasmin (UK/Germany 2004). Because the event appears in the film, it seems to inevitably push the rest of the narrative into a security-based CIA thriller. I don’t think that this is in the novel and for me it spoils the film. I think what is interesting and enjoyable about the film is the struggle that Changez faces over competing ideologies and competing social environments. As he grows up he realises that he can be successful in the cut-throat world of international capitalism. He has the skills and the drive, but he attempts to combine that with a commitment to family that is threatened by the same actions. I think that narrative is compelling without the “is he a terrorist?” sub-plot which I found just made me angry. What would be interesting in terms of ‘reading’ the film would be to compare it with Indian films that similarly bring back successful migrants to the US and see what happens to them in a South Asian context. For example, Swades (India 2004) sees Shahrukh Khan return from his job as a successful space scientist to search for his childhood nanny in rural India.
Mira Nair is both an Indian and a North American director who moves between bases in the US, Uganda (where her husband teaches) and India. This gives her a different perspective on issues than if she remained in only one location. She is arguably a prime example of a ‘transnational filmmaker’. Unfortunately this also means that she can be claimed or rejected by cultural critics in each territory. In one of her best films, The Namesake (India/US 2006) she explored the two cultures narrative through two generations of a family that moved from Calcutta to New York. That film was based on a story by Jhumpa Lahiri and my feeling is that if she had stayed closer to the story by Mohsin Hamid for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her Pakistani melodrama might have worked better. I’m not here promoting “the book is better than the film”, but I am suggesting that the added genre element of the CIA in Lahore weakens the narrative. However, shooting a story set in Pakistan presents a whole range of problems re funding and the logistics of the production. Most of the scenes in Lahore were shot in India (in Delhi) and the film has a significant Indian crew and cast. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play the parents of Changez (played by the British-Pakistani Riz Ahmed) and the film is edited by Shimit Amin, known in India as a director. Meesha Shafi who plays Changez’ sister Bina is Pakistani. She also contributes to the soundtrack. The other heads of department in the crew are mainly American and British. Disappointingly there have been mutterings about representations of Pakistan from India but it would not have been possible to shoot this film on the streets of Lahore. Mira Nair also makes the point that her family roots are in Lahore and in the context of the film’s central narrative it’s important to remember that the values that Changez has to consider are South Asian rather than solely Pakistani. The different paths for economy and society in India and Pakistan since 1947 were to a large extent determined by the imperial decisions of UK governments in the 1930s and 1940s and the development of US foreign policy since the 1950s. Mira Nair is reported as saying that she hoped that her film would “start a conversation”. I hope that it does and that it swiftly moves on from the problems of the romance and the CIA surveillance of Lahore to consider the issues about Anglo-American capitalism, alienation and the South Asian family.
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:
This Mexican feature, like the earlier LFF film Memories Look at Me, is placed somewhere between fiction and documentary. It’s a deceptive neo-realist story that forgoes a strong central narrative in order to present events in the life of a Mexican family in separate episodes over a few years. In the section titled ‘The Return’ at the beginning of the film, Pedro, a would-be dance band musician returns from his latest trip ‘over there’ (i.e. to New York) bringing with him an electric piano he’s bought in the hope of starting a new band. He’s welcomed back by his wife and two young daughters, the older one, Lorena already a rather moody adolescent. In the next few months Pedro finds that earning money from the band will not be easy. He works in the fields picking corn cobs and later on building sites, but it is hard to make progress.
The film’s setting is the province of Guerrero, specifically Copanatoyac, a small town in the mountains. The presentation is calm and slow-paced. Individual shots are often held in beautiful long shot compositions for 30 seconds or more. On the other hand, there is plenty of diegetic music (all written and performed by the musician Pedro De los Santos, playing himself) with rehearsals and impromptu performances. There is a strong sense of place and we get to know the characters well. There are moments when it looks as if the film might move into realist melodrama – especially when Teresa, Pedro’s wife, has a problem pregnancy and Pedro must find money for drugs and for blood transfusions in the hospital of the nearest major town. At this point, I was concerned that Pedro, in desperation, would turn to stealing the money as the hospital offered to accept money instead of blood. But seemingly deliberately, the director withdraws from the possibility of dramatic scenes and this particular crisis is averted. By underplaying these scenes, writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza allows the overall narrative effect to perhaps be stronger. He was brought up in Madrid and trained in New York, having also lived in Mexico according to his bio in the beautifully-produced Press Pack on the official website. It has taken him five years to realise this project in which Pedro and Teresa play versions of themselves. The whole cast is non-professional but the film is very well put together.
It’s a hard life in the hills and there are many problems to be overcome with stoicism and the occasional dance. One scene typifies the philosophical position of an elderly woman who announces that when she dies she doesn’t want to be carried in her coffin in a procession to church. She doesn’t want a fuss – she has already been to Mass and she wants to go straight to her grave.
Here and There received support from the Sundance Festival and it screened at Cannes in the Critics’ Week strand. It has been highly praised by critics but I have seen some reviews which clearly don’t appreciate the power of quiet, contemplative cinema. I agree with the consensus which recognises that the unique approach of the film in tackling the other side of the migration issue – what happens to the people and communities left behind? They suffer in different ways – children who don’t see their fathers, young women who lose their boyfriends, wives their husbands, friends their social contacts. I was disturbed to read that Guerrero is now the Mexican province with the highest murder rate (presumably around Acapulco) but just as tragic is the slow death of communities from loss of migrants to ‘over there’. Aquí y Allá deserves to be distributed widely.
Here’s a trailer indicative of ‘feel’ and pacing:
Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, Monsieur Lazhar lost out to A Separation in February this year. No contest, you might think – but I wouldn’t have liked to choose between them. A Separation was the film shown in the UK last year and I don’t begrudge it any prizes. But Monsieur Lazhar is my film of this year so far. We had a quartet of star films from Cannes 2011 that opened here a few months ago, but they all signalled their qualities from afar. Monsieur Lazhar seemingly promises little – a new teacher takes over a class in a Montreal primary school after the sudden death of a popular classroom teacher in rather unfortunate circumstances. Against all the odds, the new teacher will triumph with his class and all will be well. Not quite. From the same producers who brought us last year’s Canadian triumph Incendies, this shows that Quebec cinema is on a hot run at the moment.
The triumph of this film is that it attempts a great deal with two strong central narratives – one about the school and one about the new teacher’s own story – which it succeeds in bringing together through a tight discipline of constraint. The script utilises five familiar types for the individuated pupils in the classroom but in the hands of director Philippe Falardeau the child actors (all excellent) are allowed to perform in an unrestricted way. The point about social types is that we recognise them for a good reason – we do commonly find them in society. Who can’t remember in their childhood the overweight klutz who is the butt of jokes, the kid who is always suffering from nosebleeds, the very bright one with obnoxious pushy parents? Occasionally Falardeau teases us with the possibility that the typical character will complete the typical behaviour and we will groan with the inevitability of it all – but each time he just stops as if the punchline is the restraint itself and then moves on to something else.
The school community itself is extremely well observed and the teachers are well cast, especially Danielle Proulx as the Principal. My viewing partner, with long experience of primary classrooms, said she would have loved to work in this school – a perfectly ordinary inner-city school with a nice mix of children from different backgrounds. For UK audiences caught up in the nightmare of the current government’s assault on the education system it’s fascinating to be offered a view of education seemingly from another time. It was only afterwards that we realised that here was a school in which there were classrooms with conventional desks, no sign of children with mobile phones – and no computers! The new teacher finds a laptop on his desk and immediately tries to put it into his desk drawer (it doesn’t fit). I’m not sure if the school is meant to be representative of the Quebecois school system, but we haven’t seen classrooms like this for many years in the UK. But this doesn’t mean that the classroom issues aren’t still relevant – the layout of the desks, the appropriateness of reading material, discipline and most important of all the policy that doesn’t allow teachers to touch children in any way whatsoever.
I should explain that the reason why these all become issues is that the replacement teacher is Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian migrant who appears in the principal’s office like an angel when she is convinced that a replacement teacher is not going to be found immediately. Bachir tells her that he is a permanent resident in Canada and that he has many years of teaching experience. Unfortunately neither statement is true. But he is clearly a decent man with an engaging personality and he gets down to work without any fuss.
The sudden death has upset the children in the class, especially Alice and Simon. Bachir finds himself at odds with the school in how they should deal with the trauma experienced by the children and with the children themselves over his very traditional ideas about classroom activities. What he decides to do is in some ways pedagogically conservative and he finds himself needing to adapt for a group of contemporary young Canadians. He sets them a dictation exercise reading from Balzac – perhaps a reference to Truffaut and the classroom in 400 Blows? On the other hand, his ideas about discussion of his predecessor’s death (which is still clearly an issue for the children) seems quite progressive compared to the strict use of sessions with a psychologist for the children at which he is not present. You may disagree, but this is the point, Bachir Lazhar is only like an angel in his ability to materialise when needed. Like everybody else in the school he has some ideas that work and others that don’t. This is carried through to the film’s resolution, which seemed fine to me – there is no feelgood Hollywood moment.
Monsieur Lazhar has a backstory that I won’t reveal but it means that his interactions with the other staff are sometimes a little difficult – i.e. there are other issues as well as his unfamiliarity with aspects of Quebecois culture. In her otherwise supportive review in Sight and Sound (June 2012), Hannah McGill suggests that the script is clumsy in the way some of these moments are handled and she implies that the plot needs contrivances to enable certain themes to develop. I disagree. I don’t mind plot contrivances – if the events themselves are believable and they all felt very recognisable for me.
The film is conventional and possibly ‘literary’. It’s based on a play written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, who has a small part in the film as Alice’s mother. The origins are evident in the limited locations used (mainly in the school or the homes of a limited number of characters). As I’ve indicated, the school itself may be a little anachronistic, but otherwise this is a straight realist drama. There was just one moment when I thought the film deliberately moved into fantasy (I’m probably remembering it wrongly, but I don’t think it matters). M. Lazhar is marking books at his desk in the school. It is evening and a general hubbub of voices, laughter and music is coming from a school party. M. Lazhar gets up, stretches and with his back to camera starts to dance. At this point, non-diegetic Algerian music comes on the soundtrack and his dancing becomes more sure in its movements. Pure magic! See the film if you can.
Here’s the official trailer (pretty good – doesn’t spoil the film):