The Sisters Brothers (Les frères Sisters, France-Belgium-Spain-Romania-US 2018)

The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).

The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.

The Sisters Brothers

Eli looks after his horse – one of several interesting details of travel in the narrative

One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.

Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.

Herrmann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenaal)

The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).

We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.

Peter Chandley, 1953 to 2018


Even if you never met Peter, if you are a film fan living in or near Leeds, then you owe him a heartfelt thank you. Peter was one of the trio of filmgoers who, in the early 1980s, founded The Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House.

“I have been involved with the cinema for many years, as I have been going there since 1975 and along with Xavier and Bob I am a founder member of the Friends . . .”

Xavier Chevillard was for many years the treasurer for the Friends. Bob Geoghegan was a member of the Friends’ Committee for years.

It was the friends who were instrumental in saving the cinema when the owners, the Robbins, decided to close. They campaigned successfully for the Leeds Council to rescue this local landmark and cultural venue and it subsequently became part of the Grand Theatre Trust.

It was the Friends, as part of the activities to support the Picture House, who persuaded Leeds Leisure Services, Yorkshire Arts and Yorkshire Television to support a Film Festival in Leeds, The first festival was organised by Bob Geoghegan together with a BBC colleague Janice Cambell. The Festival has continued and has become Leeds International Film Festival, held in November each year, and a notable event in the British Film calendar.

For many years Peter was secretary of the Friends; then in 2008 he took over as Chairperson, a post he retained until he died. He chaired all the meeting, including the Annual General Meeting held at the Picture House, in his own imitable style. From small beginnings the Friends developed alongside the cinema. When the Friends was formally constituted in 1986 it had about a 100 members. Now the membership runs at over 500. The Friends have also become a registered charity in order to improve their ability to support and fund-raise for the Picture House.

Over the years the Friends have supported and helped the Picture House develops its facilities and its programme. In the early 1980s they assisted when the current stage was added to the proscenium. In recent times they have provided funds to add to the digital technology used in projection. And the Friends also provided the pump-priming funding for the project, now funded by the Heritage Lottery Funds, to redevelop the Picture House. This will lead to a second screen in the old basement; proper facilities for the audiences: and (after years of such suggestions) the addition of a cafe/bar alongside the front of the Picture House.

The Friends’ membership have been active in other ways. For years they published a regular newsletter, ‘Hyde & Seek’. And they also commissioned and published a history of the Picture House; if you are interested there are, I believe, a few remaining copies. There have (intermittently) been social events, discussions on cinema and films, and extra screenings at the Picture House. An early event in the 1980s was a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918 and starring both Dorothy and Lillian Gish) with a musical accompaniment as part of a World War I commemoration. Another memorable event was Derek Malcom from The Guardian interviewing Peter Ustinov. And, of course, there was also a ‘Laurel and Hardy evening’. For a period there was a monthly film club with fine examples of popular, art and independent cinemas. Included in the programme was the ever-popular The Apartment (1960), a film that has returned several times to the Picture House. There was also the classic British noir Brighton Rock (1948). Among the foreign language titles was the final film in Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy The World of Apu / Apu Sansar (1959). Now there are regular Friends screening; in June (to accompany the AGM), on Yorkshire Day on August 1st, and in the Christmas season. And they have a set of webpages for information, reports and film reviews.

Peter was an ardent cineaste; his favourite genres being horror, fantasy and super-heroes. He was a regular attendee at the now-defunct Horror/Fantasy weekends at Bradford’s Media Museum. He was also a fan of traditional cinemas. He had in earlier days been a viewer at the Lyric and Lounge Cinemas, both now gone. In recent years he patronised the Cottage Road Cinema, The Hebden Bridge Picture House and the Rex, Elland (near Halifax). As well as offering the charms and pleasures of traditional auditoriums all these cinemas still have and still use 35mm projection .

Peter will not be here to enjoy the facilities of the new developments of the Picture House, likely to be ready by the start of 2021. It is though, in a way, appropriate in that the as-it-is-now Picture House and Peter will pass on close to each other. The Friends intend to mark Peter’s contribution to the ‘new’ Picture House with a sponsored seat in the auditorium, in the place where Peter himself had a favourite spot. Before that the screening following this year’s AGM will feature a title from his favourite genre, ‘Let the Right One In’, (the original Swedish version not the unnecessary Hollywood remake). Gone but not forgotten.

Peter will be cremated at Cottingley Hall Crematorium on Thursday April 18th and there will be a celebration of his life at Christ Church in Armley, Leeds on the 18th at 12.15 p.m.

Soni (India 2018)

Film_Companion_Soni_Ivan-Ayr_lead_26th-Oct

Cops on the street

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.

¡Viva! 25 #10: Pajaros de verano (Birds of Passage Colombia-Mexico-Denmark 2018)

Birds of Passage Cannes

The ritual dance that begins the tragedy of the Wayuu with Rapayet (José Acosta) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes)

This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.

There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:

For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.

Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:

It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.

The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:

The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.

The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.

Peregrino and Rapayet. The straw hat that Rapayet wears is said to be iconic in Colombia

I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.

In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.

Birds of Passage

Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) is a formidable leader of her clan.

The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all  professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.

The fantasy/dream images and premonitions of death

I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.

I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.

Rahm (Mercy, Pakistan-UK 2016)

Rahm film poster

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

Rahm (Mercy) is an impressive independent British-Pakistani film that was well received by the few critics who gave it attention, but it did not perform well at the box office, probably due to problems with distribution and publicity. It was the producers’ first film to be released in Pakistan and has been on wider release – notably in Britain and France – but deserves a much wider audience. It’s a clever, compelling adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but I want to stress that you neither need to know the play nor be a Shakespeare lover to enjoy it. It tells the story of a wise but overly lenient Duke who falls ill and puts his zealous, puritanical deputy in temporary charge. The young deputy imposes new draconian punishments for immorality and condemns a man to death for fornication, to be spared only if his devout sister submits to him sexually. The tale has been transposed to an imaginary modern-day Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, ruled by a governor who has allowed vice in the form of brothels and corruption to run riot. The central characters are impressively played by accomplished Pakistani actors. Sajid Hasan brings the right degree of kindly gravitas to the role of governor (Duke), Sunil Shanker captures the sinister charisma of Qazi (Angelo), Rohail Pirzada the human weakness of the condemned brother Qasim (Claudio) and Sanam Saeed the pious passion and dignified self-control of his sister Sameena (Isabella).

Sanam Saeed as Sameena

It’s a play I’m very familiar with, having studied and taught it at college level. Though fascinating in terms of themes and characters, it is categorised in Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a ‘problem play’. It is rarely staged these days, because of its mix of tones and genre elements that are hard for a contemporary western audience to take. But I found it actually worked far better in a Pakistani Islamic setting, because of the close parallels with the Elizabethan world of Puritan hypocrisy, corruption of power and sexual honour. Perhaps its most powerful theme is the struggle between mercy and justice: in the film governor and deputy perfectly embody the tension between homegrown Sufi traditions of tolerance and compassion, and the increasing infiltration into Pakistan of an extreme punitive Saudi Islamic ideology.

A key problem for western audiences has traditionally been sympathising with the pious sister (a nun in the original play) determined to preserve her chastity, even at the cost of her brother’s life. The recent London Donmar Warehouse stage production succeeded by putting her story into the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement of women standing up to the abuse of power by males. In the film, her stance is even more credible not just because she’s defending her honour as a Muslim woman, but also like many younger, educated Muslim women these days, asserting a new knowledge of her rights within Islam. I was intrigued by the very closing shots, which created a subtler and less problematic ending for her than in the play, and gave me much food for thought. The play’s plot, though gripping, can also seem implausible at times and strains credibility in the second half with the infamous ‘bed trick’. In the film though, it’s far more convincing and easier to suspend our disbelief because the women’s faces are veiled. The few changes to the original made complete sense to me – for example, rather than couples being engaged, here they are Islamically married but missing documentary proof. And inevitably, to get past Pakistani censors, the script had to ignore many of the ‘low life’ characters’ obscure, obscene jokes from the original, which barely translate well even into modern English, the humour usually being lost on a modern audience. However, veteran Pakistani TV actor Nayyar Ejaz, as Qasim’s dissipated friend (Lucio in the play) still manages to capture his character’s comic irreverence and he gets his come-uppance through a visually entertaining gag. What’s more, replacing the play’s clownish pimp Pompey with the scene-stealing hijra (transsexual) character Gulzar provides more interesting, subversive comic relief.

Sunil Shanker

Sunil Shanker as Qazi

I saw the film at Square Chapel, Halifax, as part of a short festival of independent Pakistani film. We were lucky enough to have a Q&A afterwards with the creators, British-based producer Ahmed Jamal and his brother director/writer Mahmood Jamal. They are devotees of both Shakespeare and Sufi culture, and the film is clearly a labour of love: it took 8 years to make, was shot on a very limited budget in just 27 days, and it was a tough fight to get distribution in Pakistan, through HKC Entertainment. Thankfully, their dedication paid off eventually and the film is also due to be screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD. Mahmood, a poet who has written and translated a great deal of Urdu poetry into English, stated that he wanted to keep his English-subtitled Urdu script faithful to the poetry and spirit of the original. And he succeeds admirably, with many echoes, paraphrases and even direct translations of Shakespeare’s lines that work remarkably well in Urdu. Not surprising then that Rahm won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 London Film Festival, as well as other Pakistani awards.

Sajid Hasan as the Governor

Sajid Hasan as the Governor

Some online reviews have complained of a lack of depth to the characters. I understand why they would say that, but in my view, the script portrays their essential qualities economically. And as with other new Pakistani independent films, the roles are played convincingly by quality performers, many from their highly acclaimed TV dramas. A few other reviews have suggested Rahm is more of a TV than a cinema film. True, it’s not cinematically adventurous, and there are a few clichéd shots (one in the trailer below, unfortunately), but the new wave of independent Pakistani directors are still struggling with tiny budgets and access to technical expertise. Above all though, the Jamal brothers have wisely focused on clear, intelligent storytelling. Like Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Josh (2011) – the other film in the Halifax season – Rahm’s central character is a strong heroine fighting for justice against abusive, powerful men, but the film style is more restrained. The focus on story makes for gripping viewing, and the film works for those who know the play well or those new to it. The audience I saw it with was about 50-50 white/Asian – all levels of Shakespearean knowledge and none – and judging from the spontaneous ringing applause at the end, everyone seemed to love it. In fact, it was all the better for the brothers’ decision not to go down the arthouse route, but instead to create a quality commercial film with dual international/Indian subcontinental appeal.

Anyone who enjoyed the 21st century Indian film adaptations of Shakespeare such as Omkara (Othello), Haider (Hamlet) and Maqbool (Macbeth) should definitely check out Rahm. I’ve seen them all and this is far superior: not only is it much more faithful but it avoids their masala elements, instead weaving in more authentic Sufi qawwali music and traditional dance of Lahore courtesans. Ahmed Jamal is clearly familiar with the shady charm of old Lahore, its winding streets, colonial and Moghul architecture and the red light area of Hira Mandi – all beautifully shot by cinematographer Jono Smith. Jamal celebrates the old city in Rahm almost as a character in its own right, revisiting places he first captured on screen in his 1991 TV documentary The Dancing Girls of Lahore. I enjoyed watching it many years ago, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover he had shot
that too.

Mahmood Jamal calls the film a ‘plea for tolerance from the heart of the Muslim world’, and one that should have much wider resonance in a world where some societies are increasingly drifting towards authoritarianism. Rahm makes a significant contribution to the recent Pakistani/diaspora film revival, but also works as a compelling human drama that anyone can enjoy.

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

¡Viva! 25 #9: Alinas (Argentina 2017)

Alanis (Sofía Gala) with her son Danton

Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.

Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.

A typical framing of Alanis as she tries to work out what to do. Note the divided frame and the soft focus background, both emphasising the isolation of Alanis.

There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.

Brothels like this one in the film are illegal in Argentina

The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.

The director Anahí Berneri with Sofía Gala – and an unknown crew member?

I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri  and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.

Mandy (UK 1952)

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Mandy at Hammersmith bridge in bomb-torn London

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick’s only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.

Agnès Varda, 1928 to 2019

So, finally, one of the most impressive and distinctive European film-makers has departed this terrestrial cinema. One imagines she has gone to another great auditorium where cancer is long gone, where abortions are unnecessary, everyone is a good Samaritan, no-one gleans either in the streets or in the fields and sun-drenched beaches stretch as far as the eye can see whilst cats purr in undisturbed contentment. She will leave an obvious void on all the screens in discriminating cinemas.

I have yet to see everything that she authored but I enjoyed regular treats at the cinema over the years. My first look at a Varda film was of a 16mm print of Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) at the local film society. The programme was regularly enlivened by the films of the several European new waves, but this was still a distinctive voice. It was only intermittently that I encountered the documentary shorts that followed.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante l’autre pas, 1977) clearly engaged with actual political struggles in France. And Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985) confronted a deeply downbeat world with real humanity. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) had a rich sense both of the 1930s and of Varda’s fellow film-maker, Jacques Demy.

With The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) one found the combined sympathy and empathy for ordinary people that runs through her career. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) was rich in the playfulness that seemed an increasing mood in her recent films. Faces Places (Visages villages, 2017), a journey with photographer J.R., reminds one of her early art work as a photographer, then in theatre rather than as here in rural France.

Varda created a real impression in her early work. Her reputation then fluctuated up and down but in recent years she has acquired a magisterial status. This was fortunate in that, with foreign language films increasingly difficult to seek out, her titles did receive national [if limited] distribution in Britain.

Her final film, Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès – Causerie, 2019) was produced as a TV series but is available as a theatrical title. Revisiting her career and her films it provides a worthy testament to the fifty years and fifty odd films she has left us.